C-Series • #3
Having already reviewed various rules on how we measure a character’s health, let’s turn our attention to the wide variety of approaches to keeping that health. Defending against attacks is a big part of combat but, rather than getting into the deeper theories of using position and cover, I instead will focus on how the rules approach avoiding taking damage. This generally can be divided into two components: first, avoiding being struck; and second reducing or avoiding the damage once a strike is made.
Avoiding damage is common throughout most rule system. The attacker has some sort of difficulty score they must overcome in order to score a hit on an opponent. Usually the attacker has some sort of skill or ability they develop to increase their chances to hit. The defensive side is when an opponent can use skills or equipment to avoid the strike. In Dungeons and Dragons and derivatives of that rule set, like Pathfinder, DCC and others, the defender uses armor and natural speed or Dexterity and potentially some abilities, skills or feats to establish a difficulty factor or Armor Class. The attacker must defeat this defensive score by using their own attack roll modified by whatever skill-based and level-adjusted bonuses they possess. Savage Worlds uses different factors to determine a successful attack depending on if you are using a ranged attack or fighting in melee. Other systems, like Palladium’s Rifts, White Wolf’s Storyteller System, or West End Games’ d6 system as examples, use a contested roll. The attacker makes an attack roll and the defender makes some sort of defense roll to avoid the attack. Here, defense is a skill developed much like attack skills in order to prevent attacks from succeeding. In all of these cases, regardless of rule approach, if the attack roll is equal to or higher than the opponents Armor Class or difficulty factor or other defense score, the attacker lands a blow. Sometimes, a better attack roll may result in a “critical” strike which does more damage or even special damage depending on the system. Savage Worlds, for example, has a feature where a Raise (an attack that succeeds by a specific number) adds dice to the attackers damage roll.
Once a strike succeeds, we then move on to determining how much damage is done. Some systems, like D&D, do not provide for many ways to avoid this damage while other systems have a damage avoidance method built into the combat sequence. Going back to the D&D rule set, the defender generally does not get to modify damage without some special magical aid, skill or feats. A successful hit allows the attacker to roll for damage from the weapon or spell effect and that is what the defending character takes. Other systems, such as the previously referenced WEG d6 System and the Storyteller System, use a contested roll between the attacking weapon’s damage and the defender’s damage absorption roll. This usually is based on a character’s natural abilities or acquired skills and it can offset the potential damage either partially or even in total. Generally, in these systems, armor or defensive equipment modifies the defender’s roll to avoid damage. The results of both rolls are compared and determine the total amount of damage taken. In the fantasy-based Runequest system, armor has an automatic absorption point value that reduces damage from physical attacks. In that system, wearing armor does not make it harder for an attack to succeed but it does make it more difficult for a successful attack to damage the defender.
The discussion so far has been focused on physical damage from weapons, be they arrows, swords or energy weapons like blasters and lasers. Other sources of damage in a combat setting can be magical or special force weapons. These attacks may require attack rolls although often they do not. As above, defense can include skills or natural abilities like Dexterity or Agility that make it harder for the attacker to succeed in landing the attack on the target character. Often these types of attacks are defending by a Saving Throw or Resistance score or ability. How those scores are determined vary widely and in some cases they are determined strictly by character level. There are some systems that allow you to develop skills in order to better resist specific types of damage. Character abilities, either from progressive class features or selected feats, also might aid in the defense against magically-powered attacks.
As with other aspects of role playing game rule systems, the mechanics for attack and damage are a compromise between detail and simplicity. Having an attacks success determined by a difficulty number tends to be a simple means. Including additional factors to reduce damage and increase the dynamics of combat obviously is more detailed. When the character has an ability that allows for avoiding the attack by using a contested role, it gives defenders more flexibility in developing defensive capability. Requiring two rolls for each attack success and for each damage infliction can add more tactical decisions, and more realism, to the game but they also slow down the game’s pace. The question of what style of combat mechanics you like is the same compromise of simplicity, flexibility, and pace of the game that other rule aspects present. It is a matter of trying them and seeing what works and feels right for your table group.