Anyone here into HEMA-tube? Yeah, I bet you are. You fucking denegerates. You love LindyBeige. You probably have some others you watch, too. That part of YouTube is the center of more RPG nerd attention than actual RPG YouTube. You may have even gotten into HEMA yourself!
In the words of my friend Pollux, "every HEMA dude eventually tries to write a system that truly captures the beauty and subtlety of combat, all of which have sucked."
They are correct. And today, I am that HEMA dude.
I mean, not actually. I'm not terribly interested in realism for realism's sake. Combat rules are a loose simulation of real-world violence, and the best combat rules are going to make it a simple and streamlined simulation. You just can't include all the variables which realistically could make a difference. If you ask real-life melee combat experts, they'll tell you that weapon length was a really important factor back in ancient and medieval warfare. Does D&D care? Nah, that's not really accounted for. Some things just have to get left on the cutting room floor, okay? In many ways, what makes one combat ruleset different from another is the variables it chooses to simulate and how.
What I care about is interesting game design, and real life often provides great inspiration for this. It's important to just remember not to get carried away with simulationism. And in this case, I've spent a while thinking about something I see get a lot of focus in HEMA theory that I think is gameable.
In traditional D&D combat, every participant is an isolated, discrete agent who can target all other agents in symmetrical fashion. D&D doesn't even have rules for what direction your facing. But in fencing, two combatants become entangled with one another. They are not trading attacks, taking turns attempting to strike one another. Instead, they engage in a phrase (to borrow the modern fencing term). This is an exchange where both participants are trying to attack and defend simultaneously. Either one could win the exchange. And while dueling, they very much are entangled on the battlefield. If you play enough D&D combat with a grid and minis, at some point it feels like maybe two people in a swordfight should be occupying the same space.
I have an idea for how to reinvent attacking in D&D.
Let's talk about combat maneuvers
RPG designers are always seeking a way for characters to perform indirect attacks in combat. Maneuvers, stunts, gambits, mighty deeds of arms, whatever you want to call them. You've seen tons of rules or house rules for adjudicating these, ranging from simple to absolutely convoluted. "How, in this system, does my character trip, push, grapple, blind, disarm, or feint against an opponent?"
These are often thought of as the answer to "making D&D combat interesting." The most frequently criticized part of D&D combat is when you find yourself just going, "I guess I roll to attack" round after round after round. That's not fun or cool for most people. Maneuvers, on the other hand, are seen as more desirable because they're closer to how we imagine cinematic action. When you picture all the coolest and most memorable fight scenes in movies, they're primarily told as a sequence of stunts. Raiders of the Lost Ark, which has the best action sequences of any movie, is a masterclass in physical storytelling. There is punching and shooting, yes. But there's a lot more grappling, sneaking, leaping, shoving, tricking, swinging, and manipulating the environment. So it stands to reason that you want to see D&D combat look and feel similar to that.
But making the right rules for combat maneuvers is tricky. Each sort of stunt you can think of could be simulated in any number of ways, from specific to vague. The more attention given to this part of a combat system, the more intimidating it is to use. The advantage that a "basic attack to deal damage" enjoys over combat maneuvers is that it's dead simple. And so you occasionally see pushback. Some folks don't understand why you need rules for this at all. What's wrong with rolling an attack and dealing damage? They'll point out that the general attack rules in D&D and most other games at least nominally is meant to represent the kinds of stunts that your house rule is attempting to emulate. That a basic attack roll is already an abstraction of cool tricks and maneuvers. When you roll damage for a sword swing, you should accompany that with a fluff description that includes mentions of a parry, a feint, and an unarmed strike alongside the sword swing. Entertaining this notion will inevitably drag us into the classic "Grit vs Flesh" debate and what HP reduction represents, which nobody wants. But that would be missing the point, anyway.
It's technically true that you could accurately simulate all the cool stunt-driven action that Indiana Jones is doing merely with fluff narration atop basic attack and damage rolls. But that would be deeply unsatisfying to the vast majority of people interested in this design question. What players want is to feel like they're performing a special, meaningful maneuver. It's about the decision they get to make as a player. That there's an actual strategic difference between the choice to stab versus the choice to trip or the choice to feint. By reducing maneuvers to a mere flavoring of attacks, you deprive the player of the chance to use critical thinking during combat to increase their chances of success. Being able to recognize the option of blinding a beholder rather than just hack-n-slashing it as a distinct strategy which would be more effective feels like something that should be tangibly rewarded.
So let's get to the actual design. D&D usually includes rules for combat maneuvers which are pretty usable. In 5E, they're pretty much always just an opposed roll of some kind. So why don't you see them get used very often? Well, because they're typically not nearly as effective as a basic attack. Yes, you can easily disarm your opponent in a sword fight! But what's stopping them from just picking up their sword on their own turn and then stabbing you with it like they originally planned? You would have made more progress towards victory if you had just stabbed them.
Most rules I see for maneuvers make this same mistake. The incentives at play make it unlikely for maneuvers to end up being used, even as everyone playing agrees that combat would be cooler if it featured more maneuvers. Yes, we want our fight to be cinematic and interesting. But during the act of play, when you are actively role-playing, you are trying to win. That doesn't make you a munchkin-y powergamer. That's what you're supposed to do, because it's what your character would do and it makes sense. Choosing the most strategically effective option is not an act of bad-faith play. It's just a basic expectation of a challenge-based game. So as a result, the option that most people agree is the coolest and most satisfying to see used is also suboptimal and even punished.
So what if you made a system that only has maneuvers? What if there simply is no basic attack option?
This is more or less how I ran action scenes in Tricks & Treats for a while. It wasn't exactly a conscious design choice. It just organically resulted from the genre conceits themselves. You're playing as modern-day children in a family-friendly-ish story of investigative horror. So that means there's no HP and therefore no damage rolls in the conventional sense, but also that the PCs wouldn't be able to perform any traditionally recognizable "basic attack" even if there were. They possess neither fighting skills nor weapons, leaving them only with creative stunts and manipulation of the environment and mundane objects.
The results were mostly excellent. Every player I've run this with has keyed into this playstyle immediately. I've never even had to explain "there's no basic attack in this game." Nobody has ever asked to make one. Just by grasping the basic scenario at hand, you immediately understand that your only way of contributing in a fight is by coming up with a clever trick. When the bullies come at you, you pull their pants down, throw a bed sheet over their head like a net, and push them into a little red wagon that you send rolling down the hill. When the living carpet rears up to constrict you like a snake, you each grab one end of it to pull it taut, start hacking away with some scissors, and then you each grab a loose thread and start pulling in different directions to unravel the whole thing. The combats that resulted were really cool and cinematic and exciting.
Until... they weren't. There were a couple that were a bit less fun. That were dragging on a bit. Where the players ran out of ideas for what to do.
There's a limit on what maneuvers alone can accomplish. They're very good at changing the situation, and they can often hinder a bad guy. But rarely can they defeat a bad guy. Maybe by pushing them off of a cliff or luring them into a trap. But it's not uncommon to get stuck in a loop. "We trip the monster, so it stands up. We put a bucket on its head, so it blunders around. We goad it into charging at us and running into the closet, but it breaks back out. When does this end?"
At some point, you just gotta kick Wolfman in the nards.
The Clash Roll
My working name for the solution is a clash. The idea is that every attack roll has the potential to wind up with either participant being the loser and taking damage. It's a two-way exchange. That said, it still fits into the greater action framework in the same way that a classic D&D basic attack would. On your turn, you move up to an enemy and you use your action to clash with them. You initiate the action and it's happening on your turn, but that doesn't mean you have ownership over the event. You are not merely attacking them and they're defending. You're attacking each other. The rules text I've drafted is currently written as follows:
Clash. Two characters engaging in direct violence against one another are clashing. If you are in a clash, you roll a clash test against the enemy’s clash number (CN). On a success, you roll damage. On a failure, the opponent damages you instead. In most situations, clashing is very risky.
Sometimes, one character in a clash cannot damage the other. You still roll a clash test if you’re shooting at a monster from a distance, but you don’t have to worry about taking damage on a failure. But if you’re attacked by an invulnerable monster, then you’re rolling a clash test just to avoid harm.
More often, you’ll probably want to increase your chances of succeeding the clash test. Getting help from allies harassing the enemy or otherwise doing stunts like shoving, grappling, and using the environment can give you a bonus on the clash test.
Now of course, most action is still fiction-first. Stunts primarily do what you expect them to do. The benefit of disarming the warrior or blinding the Medusa is that you keep them from being able to do their attack. The benefit of soaking the fire demon in water is that it cannot light its flame. The benefit of provoking a beholder to zap at reflections of you in a mirror funhouse is that you can cause it to be struck by its own rays. If there is a self-evident benefit that a stunt would have in the fiction, then that remains the primary utility and purpose of doing stunts.
But some stunts are a bit more nebulous. They have no self-evident benefits just by the fiction alone. What is the point of shoving someone backward a few feet? What is the point of knocking someone prone? The rules need to provide a meaning for how that result will tangibly hinder them. That's where the clash roll comes in. Failing any other benefit, performing stunts pretty much always has the general benefit of making it easier to succeed on clash rolls against an opponent.
Another thing I like about this, of course, is that it removes the null result. There's nothing worse in D&D combat than a turn where nothing happens. Into the Odd's solution was to remove the possibility of missing an attack. But Chris McDowall is a kind and soft man. I am cruel.
If you're interested in delving in deeper, there's a follow-up post where I flesh out this mechanic further.