“I Swing My Sword at The Goblin…”

Jaybird mentioned Combat the other day, and it’s a topic that is near and dear to my heart, so I’m going to write about it.

Simulated combat is something that takes place both in tabletop RPGs and in video games. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to avoid talking too much about tabletop RPGs except via reference, but if you want the nutshell version of the tabletop post which I’ll write some day, there are three types of combat in tabletop RPGs -> combat-as-story-break, combat-as-story-mixer-or-mover, and combat-as-the-players-like-to-beat-up-stuff. To expound a very little bit: you have combat either because listening to a GM drone on for hours is both boring for the players and bad for the GM’s vocal cords; combat as a way to change a story arc to add dramatic tension or introduce a side plot; and combat as in… well, the players like to beat stuff up occasionally.

Now, when you’re talking video games, combat is virtually *always* of the last variety. Boss fights can qualify as the second category (and in certain types of horror games combat can be the first category), but basically video game combat in games where combat is significant… is about beating stuff up. It’s a long and storied tradition: one of the first video games isn’t the first sports game… it’s the first fighting game with 20 life points and a single attack maneuver.

Simulated combat of any sort is pretty simple in principle. You have competing agents, each with a point total. Each agent is tasked with the goal of removing points from their opponent, while protecting their own. Each agent has a finite number of offensive and defensive maneuvers to accomplish this goal. Combat is nearly always zero-sum, when one agent is out of points, they lose.

In very simple simulated combat systems, you have a very small finite number of attack maneuvers, and you typically have exactly one defense maneuver (dodge). Early video games (Space Invaders) had exactly one attack maneuver (shoot the bad guys) and one defense maneuver (dodge). Pong had one maneuver that was both attack and defense: (send the ball at your opponent) which was also (block). Games started to get more complicated almost immediately, of course… in Defender, for example, you have one regular attack (shoot), but you also have an enhanced attack (smart bomb, which destroys everything on screen). This is where you start to see the beginnings of video game combat tactics: should I try to shoot these guys, or should I focus on dodging them until I get a bunch of them on the screen, and then nuke them all at once?

We’re eventually going to tie this conversation back into Jaybird’s question: How can you make combat more interesting in the particular genre of a video game RPG? So, let’s focus the conversation on “people-combat” in video games for the nonce (we can talk about RTS and the like some other day).

In Karate Champ, you had a nice selection of attack maneuvers, and the damage that you could score was dependent upon the class of maneuver you selected (most maneuvers were a half-point, some maneuvers that took longer to execute were worth a full point). Karate Champ also had four defensive maneuvers, the crouch, the block, the basic dodge (step back), and the complicated dodge (flip), which is the first time I can recall that positioning tactics started to show up in video games – if you flipped over your opponent, you could easily execute a back kick and it’s likely that your target would either fail to defend, or defend incorrectly (as their brain was still wired for “move back” for the dodge, which doesn’t help much when your attacker is behind you).

Fighting games, I’ll argue, didn’t progress much between Karate Champ in 1984 and Street Fighter, which came out in 1987. In fact, I can’t really think of a fighting game that introduced anything new prior to Street Fighter, which introduced combos, albeit a limited selection. Now the player had a new tactical option: a simple attack, or a button combination that enabled them to land multiple blows. Mortal Combat, which came out in 1992, introduced “finishing moves”, but otherwise is notable more for the stylized violence and the use of realistic digitized characters; from a gameplay perspective this makes Mortal Combat much less interesting than…

Virtua Fighter. Virtua Fighter is the first really good mano-a-mano combat simulator. There is an interesting serendipity that Virtua Fighter came out the same year that Rorion Gracie and John Milius had the first 8-man single elimination mixed martial arts competition that eventually became the UFC.

Side note: Royce Gracie totally would have lost that tournament if he’d had to go up against Teila. How convenient it was for Royce that Teila was in the upper bracket with Gordeau, Rosier, and Frazier… all the strike fighters that had a chance against the Sumo.

Sorry, I digress. I’m kind of a martial arts nerd. Virtua Fighter had the hallmarks of every fighting game thereafter. Each fighter had a style, which gave them a raft of moves in multiple ranges, including close fighting moves (uppercuts, hooks, head butts, elbows, grapples, knee strikes), mid range moves (jabs, cross, coup de pied bas, snap kicks, hook kicks, side kicks), and distance moves (flying side kick, Akira’s zhen jiao), as well as combinations and multiple defenses including defensive moves that included a counter strike. The sequels, Virtua Fighter 2 & 3, introduced true three-space movement, first with maneuvers that included Z-plane space changes, and then with actual Z-plane movement, side steps and whatnot.

So, back to Jaybird’s question: the answer is, “it depends”. If you’ve played table-top RPGs you’ll note the earlier categories of “combat-as-story-break, combat-as-story-mixer-or-mover, and combat-as-the-players-like-to-beat-up-stuff”. Each early tabletop gaming system, whether you’re talking about first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, Villains and Vigilantes, Champions, the Palladium RPG system, whatever… they all have combat systems that sort of spread the gamut of functionality. Villains and Vigilantes and Champions have combat systems that encourage massive collateral damage, which are suitable for campaigns when you have a Hulk and “Hulk SMASH!” is an enjoyable part of the story, itself. GURPS began as a gladiatorial combat simulation game (minus the roll-playing part), and the GURPS Martial Arts supplement in particular has a very detailed combat system (that can lag a game session if your players really aren’t in the “combat-as-the-players-like-to-beat-up-stuff” category). Palladium’s game system (as operationalized in Ninjas and Superspies and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG) was likewise very detailed, also down to the “individual maneuver” list.

The problem with these, of course, is that the more specific you get in your combat system, the longer a combat session takes. The more rules-adherent you are, as a Game Master, the farther away combat gets from being able to be anything other than “players-like-to-beat-up-stuff”, since every combat session requires more detail to be munged to resolve anything (although, the flexible GM can ignore or enforce rules based upon how (s)he wants the particular bit of combat to be digested).

Video game RPGs typically aren’t developed as fighting games in the sense that Virtua Fighter is a fighting game. The emphasis is on the character development at a different layer of abstraction: usually, you’re spending your skill points buying “lockpicking” or “enchant an item” skills… or if you’re buying combat skills you’re buying “longsword” or “spear” skills, not “elbow strike” vs. “backfist”.

Even the “longsword” skill is generally “I have a better chance to hit with this weapon”, not “I’ve unlocked Flèche or Arrêt à bon temps with the Épée! Kick ass!”

Ah, but there’s no reason it has to be that way. The computer is our friend. The computer can handle a *lot* more detail a lot faster than a player and a game master with dice and pencils and paper and a few miniatures and a nice large hex map.

The first option the RPG developer could take would be to make a combat system as detailed as, say, Virtua Fighter. This means that the player has a full gamut of moves potentially available to them, combos, various attack and defense maneuvers, whatever, based upon a particular base skill – their main form. As the player advances in the game, additional combos or maneuvers can become unlocked. When a player enters combat, they pull up their combat menu and decide what base skill (their martial arts form, if they know more than one) they want to use, which affects their stance and what buttons correspond to which maneuvers. Certain types of weapons would be available with certain martial arts forms – anybody who knows anything about martial arts knows that the only real difference between a stick and a short sword is the edge and the point – all the striking moves are basically the same as they’re both balanced items about 2.5′ in length. The advantage of this idea? Well, it would be freaking awesome if you like fighting games *and* you like RPGs. The disadvantages? Well, it makes combat almost necessarily “combat-as-the-players-like-to-beat-up-stuff” thing, which changes the flavor of the game irrevocably, which might be bad in a broader appeal RPG. We’ve made combat more complex, but the work (the choice) is being done by the player. Oh, and anybody who doesn’t have a console-style game controller is going to have a hard time executing ten-hit combos with a keyboard, very likely, which will really irritate the PC market. I’d love this, but unless you were playing a “Ninja Warrior” RPG, it would probably be annoying to a lot of the people who would play it.

The next option, and a better one for most RPGs, would be to take the idea of a complex combat system but move up a layer of abstraction, which keeps the complexity from falling on the player, changing their game play too much. Make the computer do the work. Here, you give the player a fighting style, and as the player gets better (as they spend skill points), you unlock new maneuvers and whatnot, but you let the game engine do most of the work. The player gets a collection of easy commands (maybe six buttons, for “attack high hand”, “attack low hand”, “attack high foot”, “attack low foot”, “defend high”, “defend low”), but the game engine picks which attack you actually execute out of the ones that you currently have unlocked and what type of damage they do, perhaps based upon things like your available stamina and health, or your setting of “aggressive” vs “defensive”, or some combination thereof. This removes the difficulty of the player choosing between too many specific actions (which non-fans of fighting games would abhor), but allows variability in outcomes on the screen.

So I don’t have to decide whether to hit “left-arrow-A-button, right-arrow-B-button” to block a high punch and throw a backfist… instead I hit “defend, attack high hand” and the game sometimes has me throw a backfist and (if I’ve unlocked it and if my stamina is currently over 60% and I’ve chosen “aggressive”) I throw a tight uppercut or a nice hook to the noggin. If I’ve chosen “defensive” and my stamina is currently over 60% I get an entry grapple, perhaps. The advantage of this idea? Well, it would also be freaking awesome, and it would give you immediate-in-game visual payoff for increasing your base Gung-Fu skill… “Whoa, did you see that? I totally uppercut that dude and knocked him right out!”… or, “Holy cow, I got that orc in a headlock and choked him out!” Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of having game mechanics where player effort is rewarded by additional visual content, and this utilizes this feedback mechanism much better than Elder Scrolls: Morrowind did with “Longsword – 100”. That wasn’t any different from “Longsword – 15” except for the fact that you hit more often.

This, I think, hits the sweet spot between making combat more interesting and complex, as it is consumed by the game player as game content… and making combat more interesting and complicated, as it must be executed by the game player as game content.


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.


  1. Ever played thief? I’m not sure you wanna call it an RPG, but one thing it did well is it made the style of fighting you used have consequences…

    Put simply — combat is another puzzle.

    Contrast this with Fate/Stay Night, if you want. (does that count as an RPG? I unno?)

    The poison to the RPG is the idea of low-level combats that occur a lot, that require resource allocation. They’re tiresome, and solely there to give you an opportunity to level up some more.

    • Also, Nine keys plus two mouse buttons, and 0-9 for specials. A keyboard makes a better input device nearly by default.

        • and this is why you use a mouse and the arrow keys. strafing’s a cinch once you get used to it!

    • And then there’s the king of “combat is another puzzle” games: Monkey Island.

      I’ve said before that Secret of Monkey Island has the best combat system in any video game ever. It fits both the theme of the game (swasbuckling adventure parody) and the genre (point-and-click adventure). The system can be quickly grasped by the beginner, but has non-obvious strategic elements.

      The game explains that any fool can wave around a sword with a bit of training, but that real mastery of swashbuckling swordfightery is more about the dialogue. Nobody cares whether you’re actually a better swordsman–It’s the clever quips and stunning turns of phrase that make you a master.

      So after providing your character with the requisite bit of training, it leaves you to develop your sharp wit. Combat is handled with a series of insults and counter-insults. At first your character knows two or three insults and only one counter-insult, but as you encounter the island’s various roaming pirates, you’ll be targeted by new insults (which will be added to your repertoire), and the pirates will respond to your insults with counter-insults (which are likewise added to your repertoire).

      Once you’ve gained sufficient skill, you can go up against the Swordmaster. The swordmaster draws from a different set of insults than the player and the roaming pirates. But each of her unique insults can be countered by one of the standard counters that the player has hopefully learned–in order to defeat the swordmaster, the player has to have fought enough roaming pirates to have learned the counters, and must also be clever enough to match the counters to the Swordmaster’s new insults.

        • Thing is, while the specific version of insult fighting is obviously something that only really works for Monkey Island, a system of strikes and counter-strikes that are learned through observation can be skinned and tweaked in ways that would make it a good fit for a very different style of game.

          The real take-away from monkey island though, is that a combat system works best when tailored to fit the game, in terms of genre, setting, and style.

  2. A long time ago, a friend of mine had an ice hockey game where, if the referee’s back was turned, you could freely clobber the other player with your stick. Best combat game ever.

  3. “Side note: Royce Gracie totally would have lost that tournament if he’d had to go up against Teila. How convenient it was for Royce that Teila was in the upper bracket with Gordeau, Rosier, and Frazier… all the strike fighters that had a chance against the Sumo.”

    I want to subscribe to your martial arts newsletter.

      • 100% serious. Write more (or show me where you have already written more) and I will read it.

        • Oh! Okay, I read that like this.


          Oddly enough, even back on my own blog I didn’t write about martial arts. I’m a martial art nerd in the same way I’m a gun nerd: I know a lot about the theory, practice, etc… but my own stint in actually punching/shooting stuff remains very brief.

          But I’ll totally write about martial arts if people like reading the armchair martial artist pontificating.

          • Ah yes, sorry. I meant it in the “flip side” sense as described on the linked site. Like “I am in the market for martial arts nerdery.”

          • *snort* you should see the Rolemaster Martial Arts companion. That thing is really, extremely well researched.

            (to the point of when I was watching Big Trouble in Little China I was able to partially identify the styles of the two martial-arts Dragons)

          • Kim, thanks for the tip. I have…acquired that book and it looks fantastic. Great random tables for master’s background, martial weakness, and “nerve strikes critical strike.”

  4. “This removes the difficulty of the player choosing between too many specific actions (which non-fans of fighting games would abhor), but allows variability in outcomes on the screen.”

    This conversation started with Jaybird’s review of the Skyrim combat system, and it seems like Skyrim is trying to do this, though I’m not sure how effective I’d say it is after only playing the game for less than 10 hours.

    At certain times when finishing an opponent–and I don’t know if it’s completely at random, or on a “critical hit” that’s likely to increase with character (as opposed to player) skill–the camera switches to third person and you get a nice little animation of your dude kicking the opponent’s feet out from under him and ramming the sword through his heart, or skewering the wolf through the throat or whatever. You don’t have to change up what you are doing (spamming the attack button, most likely), but you get a little cookie sometimes.

    • This seems more like the Mortal Combat “finishing move”: eye candy entirely for the sake of eye candy.

      It’s the same basic idea, but far over to one end of the continuum.

      Which is kind of annoying (to me); can you turn this off? It would be a pain in the butt to have to watch flourishing finishing moves against every Random Encounter out there.

      • Yeah, that’s what I figured–it’s a sign that your character is kicking butt with more authority.

        And, Patrick, I could see where someone would find it annoying, but doesn’t happen every time. For the time being, I like it as kind of an acknowledgement that “yeah, your first-person experience is just pressing the attack button over and over again, but look at how awesome you really are.” Infamous 2 does something similar when you finish someone with a melee attack. I welcome it as a little “ahhh, I beat that guy” moment.

  5. Wonderful site you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics discussed in this article? I’d really love to be a part of community where I can get feedback from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thank you!

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