How much is speed, book keeping and ease of use stopping us from looking in new directions when it comes to designing combat mechanisms? Are we tossing out good ideas because our prototypes are not up to standard?
My recent work on the combat mechanics for Era has got me thinking about the aesthetics and priorities when designing it. I have come to see speed, ease of use and book keeping in mechanics as a hindrance to their design. Not because speed, ease of use and less paperwork are not important when designing a combat mechanism, they are, but I've come to see them as obstacles rather than requirements. I don't want to hear that it will take too long or that's too much math, paperwork or die rolling.
Thinking on the implementation of an idea too early on I may lock out aesthetic requirements and concepts from the creative process that would otherwise improve the game. More so, working with an idea that may be too slow or hard to use is a great step ground it and get valuable insight. The idea may be too slow to implement right now, but actually working on it may lead to new ways of solving the problem, and quite possibly viable solution.
That said I believe combat should appeal to the player's interests. It should focus on narrative, expression, fantasy, challenge, fellowship and discovery. It should above all create a story worth telling. It should promote narrative so the combat conforms to the story and not the story to the combat. Break away from the round to round and initiative rolls that pause the narration of combat and thus break story into small elements called combat rounds. Make the story continuous.
Allow players to express themselves through their characters. Make each feature in the player's choice of weapons, armor and combat style relevant to the encounter. It's fun to make a character like you dreamt it, but it is even more fun to see the character take a life of its own in combat when the combat mechanics helps him stand out.
For example you can have a rogue walk around with a short composite bow. You imagine him well, sneaking over roof tops or walking silently through the forest. Silently raining death on his opponents with a bow that does 1d6 per attack, two attacks per round. It's cool, you feel it, you taste it, heck you can even feel the cold winter wind freezing your cheeks as you stand silent high above the plaza. Wouldn't it be better though, that the bow was custom built to your height and arm span? With a draw weight that matches your strength and that is great at that killing distance you always get to, and have it provide more attacks per round and a bit more damage because it was built just for your attributes. See that's what I'm talking about expression. Enable the mechanics to be an extension of the character's expression so the weapon and character are unique.
Combat has to be fantastic and challenging. Swing, twist, dodge, run and jump. Do all those activities as you dreamt them. Don't limit combat to one or two actions per round that make all characters equal (see expression above). Make combat a fantastic event worth retelling (see narrative above), and make it challenging. I'm want dodges and parries all over the place because it adds to the emotion. I'm taking away high hit points because I want each round to be a challenge. I don't want a bloodbath, I want heroic kills. Death will come swiftly and hopefully to the monsters. No more chewing through tens if not hundreds of hit points. More movement, more skill and less hit point walls.
Combat should also provide a sense of fellowship. That feel that players are working together. Not only by all attacking at once, but allowing for group tactics and mechanics that promote team work. Imagine shield walls, close formations, coordinated attacks that break morale and a rarity among many games : monsters that are actually afraid of dying. Leaders and brave fighters in the group that hold the line against incredible odds. I want the strength of the party to be greater than the sum of its parts.
To make all this possible it is important to dream it first and worry about its implementation later. If concern for speed, usability and book keeping come first then combat will always be crippled. Concern for speed, usability and book keeping close off passages in that dungeon of discovery that can bring new ideas and thus new fast, usable and light solutions to the game.
The solution is out there.