Which PbtA game has the best combat positioning rules?

edited July 2014 in Story Games
I like when the spatial positioning of the characters in the fiction matters. "Now that you're standing on the monster's head, you have a shot to stab it in its unarmored eye and inflict a grievous wound! Well planned, well executed, bravely risked!"

I don't like when such relevance must be enforced by measuring the fiction in terms of game stats. "Standing on the monster's head gives you +2 for high ground, +2 for opponent's awkward defense, the eye socket is a -8 target, but the fact that it's a giant creature makes that -4, hmm, now that I've flipped through all these pages is there anything else I've missed?"

But I also don't like it when the group can't agree on how character positioning matters. Presumably, what all that statistical measurement avoids is this: "What?! I'm on top of the monster's head and I still can't stab it in the eye?!"

Of course, there are very simple social ways to solve this:

Player: "I'd like to climb onto the monster. Is that possible? Once I did, how hard would it be to stab it in the eye? And would that be a big deal?"

GM: "Not easy, but definitely possible! If you get up, the stab wouldn't be hard, but not guaranteed either. And yeah, a sword through the eye seems like a big deal."

But, if we were all awesome at that all the time, we'd probably all be playing freeform. So I'd like to talk about rules.

It strikes me that Apocalypse World-style outcomes have something to contribute here -- "you take definite hold of it" (e.g.) doesn't require looking up any modifiers or thinking in system numerical terms, but it's still a step above "see if the GM thinks it matters". (Probably. Right?)

So! What moves and other rules from AW-powered games do you like for this kind of stuff?


  • Defy Danger is a great catch-all for this that AW's Act Under Fire doesn't necessarily cover. Is there a possible danger that arises from your action? You're Defying Danger!

    But I think that this does require trust, fairness, and good sportsmanship from the GM and the players in order to work well.
  • Can you provide an example to show me what Defy Danger contributes? I don't know that one -- I've only played AW, Monsterhearts, and one con slot of Dungeon World that I don't remember well.
  • I think the absence of modifiers and difficulty in AW and DW (along with the rest of the rules) leads the group towards taking into consideration the fictional positioning. You either trigger a move or not, and that means: if you have it so easy to hit somebody (attacking from behind, surprise, he's on the floor), just deal your damage. If you don't have it so easy, you need to try something else or change context so that you can hit it (attack a skeleton with a hammer instead of arrows).

    Tags in AW and DW objects are also really useful: objects let you activate or avoid moves instead of giving you a +1 to sth.

    I remember some secrets in The Shadow of Yesterday and Lady Blackbird that weren't mechanical: "you can destroy stuff like walls or metals with your bare hands", or "you can leap 30' without a lot of effort".
  • What @Khimus said. But if you're interested in a house rule/hack, FUDGE mods actually can work quite well for PbtA probability curves, as long as you're very stringent about handing them out. The main problem, of course, being that the curve of 2d6 just isn't that big. So mods of +/-2 should be used sparingly, and mods of +/-3 should be only in very rare circumstances.

    +3 for Superb Positioning
    +2 for Great Positioning
    +1 for Good Positioning
    +0 for Fair Positioning
    –1 for Mediocre Positioning
    –2 for Poor Positioning
    –3 for Terrible Positioning
  • The system that is the absolute best at this, IMHO, is Fate. Create Advantage covers all of this in a neat, sufficiently-rigorous yet not boring way. And thinking of Defy Danger as the equivalent of Create Advantage has just blown my mind... nice idea.
  • I'm most familiar with Monster of the Week. For this situation, climbing on the back would clearly be Act Under Pressure (which is pretty much the same as AW's Act Under Fire). I've never done this before, but for the 10+ result, I think it'd be reasonable to grant +1 forward -- the move as written says "you do what you set out to", and in this case the character set out to get an advantage.

    If the monster's a giant Gila Monster and can't attack something on its back, I'd call for another Act Under Pressure to stab it in the eye. On 10+ success of that one, I'd declare a large amount of damage ("inflict harm as established"); on a 6- fail, the monster would probably shake off the character, who would take damage and/or land in the worst possible place; on a mixed 7-9 result, something... mixed.

    But if it's a were-squid that has no problem attacking its own back, the stab is just Kick Some Ass and the character is going to take damage even on success... which I think is pretty reasonable if someone had the bright idea of jumping on the back of something that could attack someone there.
  • This is a great question, Dave. Let me think on it!

    I suppose the first thing that comes to mind is the origin of AW's "moves": Otherkind dice. That kind of mechanic lets you very cleanly strip away certain concerns by putting them on the table ("Ok, you can jump on top of the monster's head, but the danger is that the beast will be able to crush you against the ceiling as it passes through the tunnel...").

    Also, John Harper's "The Regiment" (a military warfare hack of AW) might be worth looking at.
  • edited July 2014
    if you have it so easy to hit somebody (attacking from behind, surprise, he's on the floor), just deal your damage
    Yup, that's a freeform technique. Solved. But I think rules-based approaches are interesting too, and I'd like to see if there are any good ones out there that I don't already know.
    Tags in AW and DW objects are also really useful: objects let you activate or avoid moves
    "As long as you have this object, then X" can be great, depending on how easily X meshes with the fiction. Any good examples come to mind?

    I wonder if there would be any virtue in treating positions (Behind Them, First to Act, With a Distraction, etc.) like objects...

    @AsIf, have you ever done something like jump on a monster's head in hopes of a Superb Positioning bonus? If so, how'd that work out? I feel like the negotiation required for that to go smoothly is not that different than my OP "social solution" example.

    @Millsy, I love Create Advantage (and the Marvel HRP version, Create Asset) in terms of the fictional flow and the fact that positioning is concretely tracked. However, both systems render the bottom line in terms of numbers that originate from the system rather than the fiction. I dunno if that's inherently a problem, but I do know that my experience has felt a little too close to "roll to earn a +2" for my taste. I'd prefer it if the magnitude of the advantage depended more on the fictional particulars.
    for the 10+ result, I think it'd be reasonable to grant +1 forward -- the move as written says "you do what you set out to", and in this case the character set out to get an advantage.
    This seems appealing to me. The broader category -- "what you set out to do" -- leaves room for interpretation without being totally freeform. Not sure about the +1 forward, though. How easy is it to derive that outcome? How much is rules ("you get this on a 10+") vs fictional causality ("seems like an advantage, but a small one") vs random GM whim ("I'm used to handing out +1s")?

    (I dunno if these questions I'm asking all deserve answers, but hopefully they clarify what I'm looking for.)
  • edited July 2014
    A single +1 is huge in AW and I wouldn't consider more, so it was very easy to derive. I ended up editing this out of my previous entry: I've never done this (declared a +1 forward as a result of Act Under Pressure) before; it just occurred to me now. So I'd also be pretty OK with +0 -- in the Gila Monster case the manuver just granted the opportunity to stab the eye with another Act Under Pressure. And I wouldn't consider the +1 in the were-squid case where it was a bad idea to imagine it'd offer an advantage.
  • @AsIf, have you ever done something like jump on a monster's head in hopes of a Superb Positioning bonus? If so, how'd that work out? I feel like the negotiation required for that to go smoothly is not that different than my OP "social solution" example.
    I haven't, because I use the system straight. But I do use a similar approach in DayTrippers.

    Granted, there's a little bit of play in my suggestion, but I think the FUDGE mods are a little better than the purely social solution because after you use them for a while, the group starts to gel on their idea of what "Good" vs "Great" means. It's certainly easier than a Rolemaster-like solution (which is likewise descriptive but includes ten categories of difficulty), and less complex than flipping through five different tables looking for relevant mods. Judgment call.

    It should not be about the players jockeying for a +2 vs a +1. This is a OSR kind of solution: it's the GM's call. In use, I'd make the difficulty call ("your positioning is GOOD so +1"), see if any player seriously disagrees with my ruling, if so, listen to their reasoning, change it if I think they're right, then roll the dice.
  • Dave, how do you feel about Sorcerer's solution?

    (Essentially, we have to agree that you potentially have an advantage, and then you make a roll to see how mechanically significant the advantage is. I've always thought that was pretty slick.)
  • I feel like the biggest narcissist saying this, but you should take a peek at my hack Avatar World. One of the basic moves is Move With Intention, which is essentially "Obtain Beneficial Fictional Positioning." It allows for you to take forward or easily place Tags on a foe or the environment - Tags that are binding to the fiction. While making moves that take advantage of a Tag doesn't passively grant a bonus, you can spend a point of Chi (a dual-purpose resource and xp) to instantly bump up that roll to the next sucess bracket (6- to 7-9, 7-9 to 10+).

    To show how that would work with the head-jump eye-stab, Tokkar runs at the grizzly-toad and jump up onto its head. He Moves With Intention to do so, and for simplicity here he rolls a 10+, choosing to take +1 forward and put the tag Under Tokkar's Feet on the grizzly-toad. When he stabs it in the eye with his knife, he Commits Open Violence (another basic move). He rolls a 6, made into a 7 by the +1 forward (passive benefit of fictional positioning regulated by rules). Being alone a grizzly-toad sucks though, so he spends a point of Chi to take advantage of the tag and bump his 7 to a 10. Resolving the move, he gives the beast the tag Blinded and is not in imminent fear of direct counterattack.

    Tags go away when they logically don't matter anymore. Move With Intention can be used socially if you're a bit creative.

    The fictional positioning thing was something I puzzleed on a lot. How does this stack up to what you want from fictional positioning in a PbtA game? It's a bit fiddly, but I've found it pretty smooth in play.
  • @horn_head_o - Oh that's you!
    I read your early AW APs long ago, and I really liked em.
  • The Regiment. The game is about tightly exploiting fictional positioning so that your enemies get shot, your mission gets accomplished, and you never have to be in a high volume of fire.
  • I agree, the Regiment.

  • Can anyone hook me up with some Regiment links? Rules or relevant AP? Anecdotes also welcome.

    @Paul_T, that Sorcerer rule sounds nicely efficient, but I dunno about bang for my fictional positioning buck.

    @horn_head_o, that actually reminds me a lot of FATE advantages and Marvel assets. I'll have to mull the differences.

    @AsIf, yeah, I've also found that it's possible to wire a group's common sense into what "good"/"great"/"superb" mean. I'm just not sure how much that alone gets me when I'm jumping onto the monster and wondering how the system's going to make that matter. Sometimes "seems Great, so +2" is fine, but other times less so.

    All three of those suggestions use numerical bonuses, though, which I feel is pretty well explored. Instead, I'm looking harder at states like "you take definite hold of it" which aim to be reliably relevant without any numbers at all. Seize By Force assumes that two agents both really want a thing, and it follows naturally that it matters which one of them gets their way. Are there good analogs for crouching and climbing and whatnot in battle? Dictate Range in melee, for example?
  • Oh, and Storming the Wizard's Tower is definitely worth checking out. Each round of combat, opponents compare various rolled results against each other to see who maintains advantage, loses position, or gains tactical bonuses. It's a bit "gamey" (I say this because I know your tastes), but it's very neat.
  • edited July 2014
    The Regiment's various drafts are at mightyatom.blogspot.com/search/label/regiment
  • Rolling a move for +1 forward and nothing else is a sucker's bet, from a pure game mechanics point of view. If you miss either one, you're getting hit by a hard move, and there's a chance you'll get hit with two hard moves. In my own hack, my combat moves avoid this by having good combat positioning be an added result of 10+ rolls in addition to being successful at whatever.

    The optional battle moves from AW are worth a close look: they mostly act to mitigate the results of bad rolls and structure a building narrative of combat, which works pretty well for firefights.

    MonsterHearts actually has a great structure of moves that set up other moves later, but those are about emotional positioning in a high school rather than physical positioning in a battle--there's some cool stuff there that doesn't work quite as well when it's all crammed into a single scene.
  • edited July 2014
    A lot has gone past, but...

    @David_Berg: Defy Danger works like this..."When you're going to do something, despite an imminent threat, roll +Something." When you do something, and something could go wrong, you Defy Danger. If you succeed, you get into position or whatever. If not, then things go a bit wrong. I totally use it for stuff like "I climb up onto the troll to get a clear shot."

    It's the ultimate catch-all move, really. In fact, it's so useful that John Harper hacked Dungeon World into a game where the only move was Defy Danger. :-)
  • Here's a spectacular series of writeups of the Regiment in play. Scroll down to Market Garden.

  • This seems relevant: using the D&D 5E roll two, take the higher/lower advantage rules in Dungeon World: http://walkingmind.evilhat.com/2014/07/13/deep-dive-into-dw-gming/

    Basically replaces +1/-1 with roll 3d6 and take the higher/lower two dice.
  • edited July 2014
    Rolling a move for +1 forward and nothing else is a sucker's bet, from a pure game mechanics point of view.
    I agree. But rolling a move to achieve, on success, positioning that offers an opportunity to make a second move that has the potential to be far more consequential than it could have been without the first move is a different story.
    and there's a chance you'll get hit with two hard moves.
    I don't see how. If the first move resulted in failure and a hard move, you wouldn't be in a position to make the second move.
  • Definitely following this thread because I feel like Dave's agenda sounds like it matches mine, yet I can't stomach AW or DW RAW enough to run it (I would be willing to play, though).

    I've been trying to design a game for years to capture this (years only because I'm still in the wilderness discovering what kind of setting best fits my agenda and capabilities as a GM; I'm actually been ready to play-test the rules for quite some time).
  • Bump!
    How is the state of the art two years later? :D
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