Exhumed design diary: Action-packed minutiae

I’m still sorting through the trickiest design issues in Exhumed, my soulslike tabletop RPG: how frequently characters act, and the options available to them when they do act, as I wrote awhile back. I got to try some ideas in my last playtest, and have been approaching various problems with different kinds of actions atomically, tweaking rules here and there to come up with a number of custom solutions for each. Stepping back, though, I realize that these issues might be more connected than I’ve realized: What if the problem is actually that the entire action economy just isn’t doing what I need it to do? Just how deep does this issue go, and how much will I need to rethink my model for actions before it feels right?

Exhumed’s combat rules were intended to model the feel of video games with exacting, decisive, tactically interesting combat, featuring eminently customizable characters—in particular, the Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls/Bloodborne series, Dragon’s Dogma, and—though they may seem out of place in this list—the more recent Fallout and Elder Scrolls games. These games differ in significant ways, but they also all demand a balance between quick thinking and careful resource management. You can’t just keep mashing the “attack” button if you want to prevail; you only have a limited amount of energy, so choosing whether to attack, defend, or attempt a tricky maneuver at any given moment is always a calculated risk.

I considered several approaches of how to model this dynamic at the table, but gravitated toward ones that seemed to most closely reflect the underlying formal mechanism common to these games: a pool of points you spend when exerting yourself. Any time you attack, defend, cast a spell, or move more than a few steps, you spend an action point (or 2 AP, if you want to propose extra fancy effects, like sweeping a Zweihänder at multiple enemies, or knocking someone down with an attack). I expected players at the table to have to make some tough but interesting calls from turn to turn. Do you go all-out on offense, trying to incapacitate the enemy as effectively as possible in a single burst of energy, even though it leaves you open to counterattack? Do you devote some of that energy instead to positioning yourself more advantageously, hoping that delaying your attack might pay off even better? Do you save some resources in case you need to react to something unexpected?

These questions didn’t really come up in play as much as I’d like. Usually, the most effective strategy was to front-load as many AP into generic “I attack with my sword/bow/wand” actions as you could, and hope you killed the enemy before it gets a chance to act. Saving points to defend wasn’t usually necessary and didn’t feel as rewarding, and spending points to creatively reposition yourself or enhance attacks didn’t seem as consistently effective as just hitting as much as possible. Unique, custom-designed enemies with special resistances and gimmicks did demand some creative thinking, but I wanted that fun tension and variety baked into even practically any conflict.

I approached the problems I saw with the action economy atomically, trying to come up with a solution specific to each problem, like tuning each string of a guitar one by one in the hopes of getting the perfect chord. I came up with several different rules to restrict how often you could attack, and several more to improve the effectiveness of defending. Some tweaking is probably necessary, but I think I started falling into the trap of creating a bunch of unintuitive rules exceptions. And meanwhile, thinking about how to improve creative stunts and maneuvers forced me to reflect on how my system lacked nuance that made my sources of inspiration work as well as they did.

Dragon’s Dogma and modern Elder Scrolls games don’t deplete your energy for every single action you take; special resources are only required for situationally useful maneuvers (e.g., winding up for an extra-strong attack that’s trickier to hit with, or casting a spell that some enemies might resist). Dark Souls III does charge you stamina for every swing of your sword, but also draws from a pool of focus points for those situationally-useful maneuvers and spells. And, of course, all of these games have computers tracking pool totals for you, so they can get away with charging different amounts of energy for different actions depending on the weight of the weapon you’re swinging or the power of the spell you’re slinging.

In contrast, every action in Exhumed costs an action point—but it turns out that not all AP expenditures are equally valuable. This simplified approach to currency was meant to keep things simple at the table, and I still think that’s a worthwhile goal. After all, you’re already tracking health points, so I’d really rather not add too many additional other frequently-changing resources. But when one of the uses of AP is “take an action,” or even just “attack”—the one thing that everybody at the table is eagerly waiting to do, which directly chips away at the single gauge measuring how long a fight will take—it’s hard to make a case for spending AP on anything else.

The other two main uses for action points were supposed to be holding back reserves for defense, and modifying actions with creative, situationally useful stunts. I’d hoped to encourage players to come up with unexpected, contextually-relevant uses for action points occasionally—that is, to think creatively and tactically, proposing their own stunts and being smart about adopting a defensive stance as needed—so as to keep things more interesting than just repeatedly saying “I attack with my sword” over and over. Unfortunately, the only way I was able to get anybody to spend points on defending was to make defending really easy and effective, and make it very hard to attack multiple times in a row. Setting up clever stunts, meanwhile, rarely really felt nearly as effective as just doing that same thing over and over again. In combination, these turned combat into something of a predictable back-and-forth where players weren’t really choosing how to spend points so much as required to take extra steps to move tokens around at the appropriate time.

I don’t think it’s really fair to players (or fun for anyone) to try to tweak the most effective combat techniques out of the game, making combat a rote exercise in remembering what you’re allowed to do from turn to turn. Rather, I think it’s my job to figure out how to make the kind of play I want to see more of at least as fun and effective as the repetitive “I attack with my sword” approach. The system as I last ran it doesn’t encourage the kind of play I want, and I’m not sure if it can do that at all as long as AP represent both every action you take as well as fancy stuff you only do occasionally.

So what would transform the game I have into the game I want to run? There’s an argument to be made in favor of keeping AP to manage actions, so my first few ideas here will try to do just that. Playtesters have really enjoyed how the AP rules allow them to react dynamically to events in combat, and I already have a rule my playtesters have really liked that’s supposed to account for players’ ability to spam actions. That is, enemies can technically react, even counterattack, and potentially strike first if they have greater reach, making attack spamming potentially risky. I haven’t used that rule much, however, because it’s a pain to track AP for groups of enemies. Even if I were to keep the AP rules, though, I’d want to encourage fancy stunts some other way, and I’d probably still have to come up with new, asymmetrical rules for GMing (but that’s a topic for another post).

Of course, there’s also an argument to be made that I should replace the rules entirely—that maybe it has always been more complex than it needs to be. I wonder if it only “works” as well as it seems to because I’m the one running it, and I know how I want it to feel, so I wave my hands over the fuzzy parts and hope nobody notices. If that’s the case, there are a couple other ways I could see doing this, more in line with my original vision for this game, before I introduced the AP system.

Anyway, here are several ways I could consider proceeding from here:

1. Introduce another currency

The most obvious approach is to take a lesson from the video games inspiring me, and use some other resource for stunts and magic. In fact, I’ve got another, unfinished game in my backlog—a diceless game called Gauge—which is all about carefully apportioning meager resources. (And ideas from that game have certainly influenced Exhumed, whether I like it or not.) But I suspect Gauge may only work (if it even does) because it’s a diceless game that doesn’t require you to do much calculation, roll for results, or make other players wait while you take extra actions—you just spend from your pools and hope that time will prove that you spent wisely.

Having multiple, spendable currencies starts to take the game into Numenera territory, a system I already found more fiddly than I like, and that was without my additionally complicated action rules. I feel like I should table this option for the time being.

2. Handle stunts with other rules

Another option to keep the action rules as they are would be to dissociate stunt costs from AP. Old school D&D-style games aren’t lacking for good stunt systems I could borrow.

In Knave, for instance, if you have a situational advantage that would give you a bonus to roll, you can forego that bonus in exchange for the ability to deal damage and perform a stunt (like hitting someone so hard you knock them down). In Raising the Stakes, you can propose a risk consummate with the stunt you want to pull off, subject to the GM’s approval or counter-proposal; if you don’t roll well enough, the risk comes true. Along similar lines, Into the Odd has some “Oddular Mechanics” suggestions for “dilemmas” and additional weapon effects that I could see adapting. Maybe you could propose a bonus effect on an attack, but if you don’t roll well enough, then you find yourself in a spot or down on some resource—out of breath, overextended and vulnerable, running out of arrows, or even losing an AP you’d hoped to keep in reserve.

Of all the changes I’m considering, this is the one that would require the least tinkering with the rules. I worry that it also puts the most burden on players, but given that this is supposed to be for only those “situationally useful” things you try from time to time, maybe it would add texture without slowing down play too much.

3. Rethink action progression

The way I’ve been running things so far has been pretty free-wheeling, leading to some comments by playtesters that they’re not sure when rounds actually begin or end. That’s largely because I lose track myself of my own rules, and end up running things using rules I didn’t mean to introduce. I wonder if it might help to more concretely structure action order based on when you get back AP, and/or rethinking what a “round” means in this setup. This isn’t mutually exclusive with other ideas above—I’d still need to do something to make stunts and active defense feel more worth it—but it might help me address some of the existing issues with the action economy.

Since I started playtests with the AP rules, the end of a “round” has been defined as “when nobody wants or is able to spend any more AP,” and that’s when everybody regains some AP. It used to be 1 AP, but that just made the first round in a playtest pretty exciting, and every subsequent round feel plodding in comparison. I tried changing it to regaining all your AP, but that just made PCs’ actions overwhelm enemy actions. I also forgot that you weren’t supposed to be able to take a turn, have enemies take their turns, and then take another turn again before enemies refresh their AP, so that probably has something to do with that. Even if I had remembered, though, I think players would’ve just been disappointed to have had so many extra AP unspent at end of round.

I wonder if it might make more sense, then, to think of a round as a moment in time in which everybody in the fight acts more or less simultaneously—and in that moment, your decision to act right away or to hesitate governs whether you regain AP or claim some advantage for decisiveness. Everybody at the table indicates their intent for momentary clash. Those who declare an action spend an AP and get to apply their damage before a target would apply their damage, potentially restricting or nullifying the target’s actions. (You can’t counterattack if the attack against you kills you, and some actions might not be possible if the attack against you knocks you down.) Those who declare that they hold back, take a breath, and wait to see what others do regain 1 AP, then get a chance to react after the more decisive characters, and if they don’t react to what another character does, then they regain another AP. Then you go back and ask everybody who survived whether they act or wait for another clash. You don’t ever regain all your AP at once, but instead have to decide each round whether you can afford to press your luck or be more cautious.

It’s hard for me to explain in writing. I probably need to simulate an example for myself, possibly with another person’s help. Even so, I suspect that this idea requires the second-to-least amount of work to implement in playtesting. I may try to combine it with the previous point, pulling stunts out of the AP rules.

4. Replace action points with stunt points

Exhumed’s combat (as it’s run now) was inspired by a few sources, with attacks and defense most closely resembling Into the Odd. One of the earliest inspirations for the AP system, meanwhile, was Levi Kornelsen’s “breath” rules, which provide points that can be used to creatively enhance athletic/acrobatic actions, activate limited-use powers, or invest in bulkier equipment. Crucially, however, these points do not represent an action economy, but a layer on top of it: Presumably, they are meant to be played in a game where you get one or two actions on your turn, and your breath points just give you some additional options to spice things up. It occurs to me that I might want to try running that system as it was originally designed, rather than combining the action economy with stunt resources.

Depending on what those points can be spent to do, this change could potentially dramatically alter the cadence of combat and the feel of the game. I’m wary, too, about getting too complex with defining what breath can do, or how it work. Maybe I could have a few standard uses, like devoting extra energy into moving, making an attack, or reacting to an incoming attack, each of which represented by some kind of mechanical advantage for spending the point—bonus damage or damage resistance, extra space moved, etc. On top of that, I could have a bunch of item-specific uses to help differentiate weapons and armor.

Perhaps you shouldn’t be able to use points to make extra attacks on your turn with every weapon, for instance, but it could be an option with nimble weapons like daggers and rapiers. Heavy weapons like hammers and clubs might be able to knock targets down, or bash through armor. Long weapons like Zweihänders and halberds might sweep through multiple enemies in an arc, or penalize an enemy who tries to get too close.

This approach would create more work on my end as I design the weapon list, and more work on the GM’s end when they want to create custom weapons, but I must confess that the relatively generic item list has felt not quite true to the game’s influences. The real bummer to me would be losing a clear option for players to creatively suggest stunts, but maybe I can still encourage that somehow. Maybe it’s as simple as saying that you can propose your own stunts, as long as that stunt isn’t “attack again,” as that’s the most problematic option rules-wise.

5. Reinvent it as aKnave hack

Part of me is tempted to just scrap it all and start over with a more proven and extensively playtested system that resembles my earlier efforts with this game—namely, Ben Milton’s Knave. I discovered Knave partway through the process of working on Exhumed, and was struck by a number of ways in which it would suit soulslike games:

  • Characters defined not by class abilities, but by equipment choices
  • Spells that anybody can cast
  • Ability scores that each have uses, so it’s hard to identify a “dump stat”
  • Rules for equipment damage and degradation
  • Relatively fragile characters who can grow powerful in due time

And as a bonus, it’s highly compatible with other old school D&D descendants, and even has optional rules making it possible for players to do all the rolling, freeing up the GM to focus on other things.

By the time I discovered Knave, I had already implemented the AP action economy in Exhumed, and so I dismissed it as an option I could adapt: With players taking multiple, flexibly arranged actions, handling attacks as separate to-hit rolls and damage rolls risks feeling very clunky and time consuming at the table. But as I noted above, I’m already considering ditching that action economy. It might even make sense to adapt the aforementioned breath rules to Knave, instead of (or in addition to) its built-in stunt system.

This option would be the most radical departure, requiring the most work. And I have to admit that it would pain me to not be able to put to use so much of what I’ve already worked on—but the sunk cost fallacy is not a good reason to dismiss an idea.

Next steps

There are likely other good solutions I’m overlooking. If you happened to read me thinking aloud all the way to the end, I welcome your input!

For now, at least, I think my working plan is to try writing out rules for the least radical departures—rethinking how to perform stunts, and clarifying the order of actions—as that seems like the least jarring shift to throw at my playtest group.

Meanwhile, I’ll see if I can get some Knave on my gaming calendar, with rules unmodified, just to see how it feels. If it seems more like what I’ve always wanted for Exhumed, maybe I can cobble together something parallel to the rules I’ve been working on, and try that variant out after I finish the playtest campaign I’m running already.

I might also try to write out some “example gameplay” text, like you sometimes see in RPG manuals. I’m hoping that will help me imagine how the different approaches might work in play.

Perhaps that’s a lot of homework. When I can only run playtests every month or so, though, it feels important to find practical ways to engage with the rules in the stretches in between, just so I stay interested and committed in getting this thing out into the world. Wish me luck.

4 responses to “Exhumed design diary: Action-packed minutiae”

  1. Definitely play it out, even if it’s just dumb mindless dice rolling. If you’re forgetting rules when it’s just you and the mechanics, it’s going to be easy to forget those rules later on when dealing with action descriptions and table talk.

    I know what you mean about Knave, though – I’m hitting a similar wall as I realize what I want for my current project sits somewhere between Mutant Year Zero and Cortex Prime, and maybe I can avoid a lot more work if I can just bend this existing thing faaaarrrr ennnouuugh…

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