Hoo boy, this took some time. Not just to read through and understand, but also to reflect on. The reflection has mostly been about genre, what games like this do to emulate genre, what the rules tell you about the sort of play experience you should expect, and the stories you will tell. What prompted this reflection is my love for combat in Coriolis, which I have raved about before. It was the combat rules, when I read that game, which totally converted me to the system. It seemed to strike a perfect balance between speed and nuance, with dramatic extra effects like disarm earned though getting extra successes on your roll. But this system has disarm as a separate action. It seems more complex overall, and … whats this? There are advanced rules for making it even more complex?
I think the answer lies in genre. Coriolis tends towards the the space opera genre, with a healthy dash of horror. Its not military hard science fiction, and combat is not its raison d’etre. Combat does not need to be as complex because the fiction it emulates is not a fiction of detailed brawling, or mathematically precise space combat. Neither is it the science fantasy of Star Wars, so the combat should be deadly yes, and painful too. Firefly of course is a great example of the tone, Captain Mal often gets the crap kicked out of him, and yet sometimes manages to kick the bad guy into the engine too. Combat in Coriolis just about manages that tone.
The more complex, slightly gritter rules of Forbidden Lands aim for a different feel. This is the fiction of the sort of brawls and fights described in the First Law books. So much of what I read in these rules points me in their direction. Were it not the for fantasy kin, I would almost argue that the residents of Ravenland stand in for the Northmen in that world. Fights here are short, injury comes quickly and death will follow soon after if your wounds are not treated. The dirty fighter, who gets his strike in first is the most likely to win. There’s no dishonor in escaping a fight, by whatever means. After all you are “still alive…”
Lets kick off by looking at your “hit points”. There are three things to note about hit points: they are few; you don’t get any more with experience; and each one represents a significant proportion of your ability to fight. Actually there’s a fourth or maybe first thing to note: there are no hit points. You take damage – it comes off your strength (in most cases). A young adventurer gets fighter points to spread among four attributes – that means you are likely to have three, maybe four points in strength. That’s your hit points. A two-handed axe deals three, which means it could break the average adventurer with one blow. And that’s before your opponent spends any extra successes they got on more damage. A professional fighter might have five strength, so yay! It might take two blows to break them, but and old fighter might not have enough points to allocate five to strength. Remember, you can’t spend experience points on increasing attributes. Your strength never goes up, you never get tougher.
But lets say you are wielding that axe. You have a strength of four, so that’s four base dice to add you your one skill die in melee (you never wanted to be a soldier), plus two dice gear bonus. You roll seven dice. This time… But after you were hit and took two damage, your strength is now only two, half your stregnth has gone, you are rolling five dice, and considerably less likely to hit your opponent. This is what is known as a “death spiral”.
There are two things to take away from this:
- Don’t get hit!
- Wear armour
This is not your father’s D&D.
Let’s talk about armour while we are at it. It doesn’t make you harder to hit, like in D&D, all t reduces damage, and can get worn by damage. After damage has been totalled against you, you roll gear dice equal to your armour rating. Each six reduces the damage by one point. If you don’t manage to reduce all the damage, the any ones you rolled also reduce your armour rating. So remember,
- Don’t get hit!
Now let me reassure you, when you have been broken with one blow of a two-handed there is a very good chance you are not dead. You take a critical hit when you are broken (reach zero strength). You roll two d6, counting one as tens (d66) and only on a 65 or 66 are you properly dead. Of course, anything above a 42 means you are likely to die later…
So if this is a game wherein hitting first is a distinct advantage, what is the initiative system like? You draw cards, 1 to 10. Forbidden Lands cards are available but any will do. If there are more than ten combatants, group them. The key thing here is there can be no simultaneous attacks. If you are deemed to have surprised your opponent, you get to draw two cards, and choose which one you want, before shuffling the other back into the pack. I feared when i read this, that getting to choose two cards was all you got for a successful ambush, but later on the rules detail sneak attacks and ambushes, which on a successful sneak roll, give you a free action before initiative is drawn. A feint enables you to swap cards with your enemy, or you can swap cards with another player on your side, at the start of a round, if both characters are able to speak to each other, but otherwise the initiative order stays the same for the whole fight.
There is a slightly heavy section of zones and ranges which, I think, is to enable effective gritty use of terrain detail in the theater of the mind style play. Ranges are sort of fixed, arms length, a few steps away, 25 metres, 100 metres, and distant (as far as the eye can see) but zone can change size according to the environment and terrain – a room in a dungeon or about 25 metres in more open ground, a run action take you from one zone to the next, whatever the size of the zone (so you can’t run though two 10 metre rooms in the same time as it takes you to run 20 metres. There is a page on how all this works when running away, which I think is going to required reading for all players.
Every round you get one fast action and one slow action, or two fast actions if you prefer. You can react to another’s attack with Dodge or Parry, when its not your turn, but they cost one fast action. If you have spent both of yours earlier in the round, you can’t do either. If you parry a blow before your turn, you’ll only get one action on your turn, parry two, and that’s all your actions used.
Slow actions are: Slash, Stab (which as a fencer I slightly disagree with), Punch, Kick, Bite, or Grapple. Fast actions include, among others: Feint (yay), Disarm, Shove, and Swing Weapon (see above re being a fencer, but I sort of see what they are trying to do). So we are really talking about committed actions rather than slow ones, and opportunistic actions rather than fast. Slow and fast are easier to read and cost lest to print though.
You’ll see Disarm in that quick action list. Unlike Coriolis this isn’t something you get when things go unexpectedly well but something you have to plan to do. That the extra level of detail, try to shove your opponent off balance before you strike him, or try twice, if necessary, to disarm him? The choice is yours, and this the stakes so high, you had better make the right one.
Already more complex than Coriolis, there is an optional advanced combat option. Looking at it, and half-recalling the alpha version, think this may have gone though a number of revisions, leaving us with the husk of what the designer originally intended. Now, it isn’t a system for the whole fight, but rather for one round.
The choice of whether to use hidden combinations is not made for an entire combat – it’s made for each close combat attack. The GM has final say.
With hidden combinations, the defender doesn’t just get to react, they can if they so choose so both their actions. But both parties must commit to their actions before they know exactly what their opponent has chosen. Assuming the attacker hasn’t already lost an action, they chose two cards and lay them face down. I think that an early version of this mechanic had a card for every fast or slow action defined by the rules. Now however, each card represents a group of actions. A Strike card allows you to chose Slash, Stab, Punch or Grapple for example, and Manoeuvre let’s you Feint or Retreat. The Await card is available to the defender if they prefer to reserve an action for their own place in the initiative order, or of they have used an action reacting to an earlier attack. If they have already used both, there’s no point in using hidden combinations. And so we realise the whole point of hidden combinations, if the attacker doesn’t want their attack to be stymied by a parry, they can use the cards onto properly “feint” rather than simply use the term to swap initiative cards. I will wait hand see how often the option is used.
Ranged combat is much simpler. It’s also good to see social conflict in the combat chapter. Slightly more odd to find here is the page on riding animals. Though I guess they get damaged too.
We’ve talked a lot about damage to your strength attribute, but the other stats can take damage too. Monster have fear attacks that can reduce your wits attribute. And as we covered in chapter three, pushing a roll can result in damage to any attribute you are using. Rest or sleep can help you recover attributes, as long as you are not hungry, thirsty or cold. An opponent made helpless with zero strength or agility can be killed, if you fail an empathy roll, spend a willpower point, and drop a point of empathy. You might decide it better to let them live, or bleed out after all. Just thank your lucky stars you remembered the First Law:
- Don’t get hit!