Designing a Soulslike Action Economy

The greatest design problem I face with my soulslike tabletop RPG, Exhumed, is getting the feel right for the action economy—that is, the rules for how frequently each character can act, and what they can use those actions to do. When I showed readers online the initial approach, the most common reaction was doubt that it would work, and I very much shared that doubt. When I got it to the table, I was shocked at how well received it was, but it became clear in time that it wouldn’t always work that well.

To finish designing this game, I need to do a close review of what’s working, what isn’t, and what my options might be going forward. This post, then, is part dev diary, part think-aloud design review, and part crowdsourcing invitation. Please feel free to leave comments on other ideas I ought to consider!

Design Objectives

My goal is to allow some tactical depth to combat via light resource management and flexible, creative actions, but still allow for quick, decisive exchanges. In other words, I want it to capture some of the feeling from tense and exciting video game action RPGs like Dark Souls, Dragon’s Dogma, Nioh, and others of that ilk. Video games, of course, keep play feeling quick by tracking the details so you don’t have to. If I want to emulate that feeling, I have to keep the rules as tight and economical as possible. Elements to consider include systems for tracking stamina (for actions and/or stunts), varied attack techniques (so there’s some incentive to not just “button mash,” or in this case, just say “I attack with my sword” over and over), and possibly equip load (so heavy, powerful gear and light, nimble gear each have their own benefits and limitations).

Approach to Date

I started by studying a lot of different games’ action economies and resource management systems, and sketching out many different approaches to see what matched the feel I had in mind. Ultimately, I ended up with a combination of a few systems. The base of the combat system would be built on Into the Odd, which sees characters skip the “to-hit” roll common to D&D-inspired fantasy RPGs, instead going directly to rolling damage (minus a target’s passive defense score). I chose this because (a) it’s extremely quick in play, which leaves some room for some additional rules to encourage tactical depth, (b) it highlights that every fight you get into is almost certainly going to hurt, which makes hit points a limited resource you choose to spend whenever you get into combat, and (c) it makes fights scary as hell.

The fiddlier bits would be inspired by Sine Nomine Publishing’s (Godbound, Stars Without Number) “Effort” rules and/or Mechanisms for Tabletop Roleplaying: Second Set‘s “Breath” rules. Effectively, these systems describe a pool of points you can spend to perform spells, special abilities, or improvised stunts, and also commit longer-term as needed to shoulder ongoing burdens, like carrying heavy equipment, maintaining a spell effect, or clinging to the side of a wall. I ended up calling this resource “action points” (AP) for playtesting, and in addition to allowing AP to be spent on improvised stunts and magic spells, I expanded its use in an admittedly questionable direction: Every action you perform requires you to spend 1 AP, so more AP means acting more frequently. You can even spend AP to react on other characters’ turns, countering their actions.

Because I was already borrowing from Into the Odd, I decided to borrow its simple set of three ability scores, and made each score comparably important in what it governed: Strength increases carrying capacity and hit points, Willpower increases spell casting capabilities and limits your total number of deaths, and Dexterity determines your total number of action points, and any of these can be increased each level.

The most recent draft saw characters regain 1 spent AP every round, or all their AP if they skipped their turn (representing a tactical decision to pause and take a breath).

Issues to Address

To my surprise, this action system has been very well received by playtesters so far. A few problems have cropped up, though:

Acting first usually leads to victory. Because you can choose to use all your AP up front to attack repeatedly, players have pretty consistently wiped out their opposition—often relatively unscathed—as long as they act first. And they often do act first, thanks to generous initiative rules and careful planning on their part.

AP inflation will slow things down. I’ve only run the game with relatively low-level characters, all ranging from 2–4 AP, but it’s become apparent that once anybody raises their DEX enough to reach 5–6 AP, those first-round wins will become even more common, or combat rules that prevent that approach will just get cumbersome with players taking so many actions in a round.

Action order isn’t always clear. Players have sometimes seemed hesitant to speak up and act even when they have AP left to spend, and sometimes have spent AP to act out of turn when they weren’t technically allowed to. I need to be clearer about when you can spend AP, and I should consider the possibility that AP serves so many different purposes that it’s hard to keep all the different uses straight.

AP refresh might be too slow. Players in one session noted that regaining only 1 AP per round feels unsatisfying, and nobody ever wants to skip their turn to regain more. It certainly made the fight drag on longer than it would’ve if they’d gotten to squeeze in more attacks, so that may be worth considering. This is lower on my list of concerns to figure out, but a solution to the above problems might tie into this somehow.

Potential Solutions

I’ve tried addressing the above problems a few different ways so far, and have a few more in mind:

Remember enemy reactions. This isn’t a rule change, but GMing best practices that I have to continually remind myself (and make clear in the rules text). Just like player characters, GM characters can spend their AP to react to incoming attacks—including with counterattacks that automatically deal damage of their own. Players still tend to win the extremely fast fights that result, but at least they don’t escape unscathed as often. It’s a good partial solution to one issue, but not enough on its own.

Make AP upgrades less frequent. My original approach was to make AP require more points in DEX to increase than the upgrades you get through STR or WIL. The result was that basically nobody bothered to put points in DEX, even when they picked the Thief background and initially planned to play a DEX-focused character. I’d like the upgrades from DEX to keep pace with the upgrades from other abilities, so I’m scrapping this solution.

Disallow repeated actions. For one session, I tried a rule that stated every AP must be spent on a different action. This definitely had the intended effect of demanding a more varied and creative range of AP uses, but I decided to scrap the rule, at least for the time being, for a few reasons. First, it slowed down play while players had to think harder about what they were doing. And second, it elicited a negative comment from a reader on my last playtest review that it would hurt their “immersion” if they can’t attack repeatedly. I’m not sure I understand that entirely, but it has got me thinking on things that bug me about this rule. I get the idea in principle that too many seemingly arbitrary rules can make an RPG feel too abstract and game-like, and I can also imagine that video game players who want to reproduce quick “combo” moves in this game might be bummed out by no clear way to model that at the table.

AP is only for “extra” actions. At my last session, we experimented with giving players a “free” action on their turn each round. Functionally, it was no different from before, but (in theory) encouraged players to think about AP as an “extra” thing with multiple uses, rather than just as the actions you have available to spend. It worked for one player, but no so much for others, who just found it harder to keep track of how many actions they had left to spend.

Offer more ways to continually invest AP. One of the systems that inspired this one (“Breath” from Mechanisms) sees points not just spent on stunts and spells, but committed toward equipping powerful gear. A knight in plate armor and a massive hammer might have to commit a point to each, representing being burdened under their combined weight. This offers players a choice in how to differentiate characters, between the “straightforward and tough” approach and the “light-footed and tricky” approach. And, technically, there’s a rule along these lines in the latest rules draft already. I’m putting a big red X through it here, though, because it’s not really a solution in itself to the problem of AP inflation. Sure, “roughish” characters could invest some AP into gear, which would help keep their ballooning AP totals under control—but there’s nothing preventing them from eschewing that option to just get as many actions as possible.

Looking back at these rejected options, it’s obvious that as long as 1 AP means 1 action, without restriction or qualification, I will bump into certain problems. So let’s consider a few ways to either restrict the number of AP characters can collect, restrict the number of AP characters can spend at once, or get away from the “1 AP = 1 action” paradigm entirely.

Decouple AP from Dexterity. I know the game works well with characters who have around 3 AP. Why not just let characters have 3 AP, or give AP its own separate stat to better constrain AP ranges? I may return to this option later, and have had some viable suggestions from playtesters along these lines. For instance, if you had an ability score for Endurance that determined total AP, and Dexterity instead determined something else (like AP refresh rate, or max AP expenditure per round), it would effectively double the cost of gaining extra actions, which in turn severely restrict how many actions characters could accumulate. I have some serious concerns with such approaches, though, which is why I’m crossing it off the immediate list of things to try for the time being. First, it really discourages making a DEX-focused character compared to higher return on investment in other abilities. Second, it potentially introduces a fourth ability score that feels redundant with Strength (in terms when you’d roll for it). And third—and most importantly to me—I worry that varied AP refresh rates or varied action expenditure limits would be a pain to keep track of at the table.

Make action points separate from stunt points. Everybody gets 3 AP—that is, 3 actions per round—but higher DEX grants you more stunt points to spend on enhancing attacks and whatnot. I think two currencies (counting hit points) is already enough to keep track of during combat, though, especially with characters potentially taking multiple actions at once, so I’d really rather avoid this solution.

Replace action points with stunt points. You no longer spend AP for every action—you just get a turn with time to move and take a brief action, like most traditional RPGs. You also, however, get a pool of stunt points (or breath, effort, focus, etc.) based on your Dexterity score, each of which can be spent to either (a) achieve an additional effect on an action, (b) cast a spell, (c) skip ahead in initiative order, or (d) react to an action that directly affects you. Examples of “an extra effect on an action” include a heavy warhammer attack also knocking the target down, a long greatsword attacking everyone in reach, or a light dagger quickly making an extra attack on your turn. As this illustrates, extra actions are possible with the right setup or circumstances, but not necessarily available by default. And of all potential solutions described here, this might be the only one that addresses the issue of action order being confusing sometimes.

Restrict how many AP can be spent on your turn. This is effectively the same thing as the above solution (since nearly everything noted above is already possible in explicitly possible in the latest draft rules), but (a) it doesn’t highlight as effectively what AP can be used for besides actions, (b) it makes it possible to bank an extra AP for reactions if you want to skip your turn, and (c) I’m not sure yet how I’d restrict how many AP you can spend on your turn, or whether it’d be tied to equipment as above. I guess I could have one of those little “load limit” vs. “speed” infographics on the character sheet, like you see on the Breakers character sheet—say, up to 3 actions if only carrying light items, up to 2 if carrying a heavy item, or only 1 if carrying multiple heavy items. I kind of like the sound of that, but as noted above, varying how many actions people can take per turn may be more fiddly than I want. Plus, it might be confusing to say “congrats, you can spend up to 3 AP on your turn!” to someone who only has 2 AP total. (Of course, that’s not an issue if everyone starts with 3.) Well, either this approach or the one right before it is likely for my next playtest.

Refresh all AP each round (maybe with a “but”). This may be necessary if AP continue to be your entire pool of actions, but might not be needed if AP are replaced with stunt points. If I feel it’s crucial to work in some incentive to keep some AP in reserve and “catch your breath,” instead of requiring you to skip your turn, I could say that you regain all AP as long as you have any left at the end of the round, but only regain 1 (or half) if you spend all your AP. I may experiment with this, too.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve also considered a few other, completely different approaches to AP, but the game has felt so close to what I want that I’m hesitant to throw out what’s working. If I do decide the action/stunt point approach will never be quite where I want it to be, though, I could see some value in attempting something else. Other solutions I’ve considered include a stamina die/dice that can be risked for stunts (inspired by the Black Hack usage die), having all combatants bid stamina simultaneously to see who gets to deal damage (as inspired by Undying), or randomly drawing AP tokens from a bag to determine who acts when, with more tokens in the bag meaning greater likelihood to act next (as in Troika). In other words, I’d consider an approach where having more AP benefits you, but not as predictably as having more actions.

As I said, though, I imagine there are other angles I have yet to consider. If anybody out there has any feedback, I’d be grateful to hear it. Whatever the case, I’ll be sure to come back here to report on how the playtest goes.

3 thoughts on “Designing a Soulslike Action Economy

  1. My working plan for my next playtest is to have new ability milestones at 10, 15, and 20, but also make each ability score point over 10 give an immediate benefit. I could see handling that either of two ways….

    (A) +1 AP for every point of DEX over 10, but limits to how many actions you can take at a time—2 at 10 DEX, 3 at 15 DEX, or 4 at 20 DEX.

    Or….

    (B) Milestones determine total AP, for much smaller totals (1 at under 10 DEX, up to 4 at 20 DEX), and every point of DEX over 10 gives +1 to something related to some other design conundrum I have yet to address—e.g., +1 to defense when dodging in clothing or light armor (as I’m not happy with how active defense works yet), or +1 to items you can have “on hand” without digging through your stuff (as I’m not happy with how inventory management works yet).

  2. I tried a different combination of potential solutions last weekend, and it worked decently! I still have a few things to figure out, though. What we did:

    (1) Ability scores were effectively halved (starting at 4-6), and you get half your DEX in AP.

    (2) You can only attack twice in a row if you roll the maximum on your attack, or hold a weapon in each hand.

    A thing to consider addressing: We broke up turns so players would attack, react to enemy turns, then attack again at the end of the round to use up unused AP before getting them back next round. Technically that’s against the rules, but it could be better than the rules. The tricky thing is that enemies weren’t following the same AP rules, so it was confusing for me, and very lopsided in the pkayers’ favor even against a group of foes more than double their size, each with more HP than even the strongest player. If we’re going to allow using AP to attack outside your turn, it might only make sense in a case when AP doesn’t fully refresh between rounds, or enemy rules are altered to adjust for this.

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