Meaningful Choice In Combat

The most basic game structure in a traditional roleplaying game is combat.

Although individual mechanics may vary, virtually all roleplaying games use a basic game structure for combat derived from D&D: Combat is divided into rounds in which everyone gets to take an action (or actions). Usually combat is further defined by an initiative system of some sort, so that you can easily answer the question, “Who goes next?”

The Alexandrian, Game Structures, Part 4 Combat

Originally, combat was a micro-level game structure within the scenario-level structure of the dungeoncrawl. Taken together, I think The Alexandrian is correct in attributing much of the success of Dungeons & Dragons to these basic game structures. This is because they provide a solid and reliable answer to the two most important questions in a roleplaying game:

  1. What do the characters do?
  2. How do the players do it?

Recently, however, I have been revisiting the fundamentals of playing and running roleplaying adventures. I have become curious about a couple of aspects of combat which I noticed are more important to me than I previously realised. In short, it boils down to the sorts of meaningful choices I get to make in a fight.

UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 01: Two Young English Boys Practice Sword-Fighting On Play Street In London Around 1947. 2 Years After The End Of The War, They Enjoy A Newfound Insouciance. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Let’s revisit that summary of the combat game structure from The Alexandrian:

“Combat is divided into rounds in which everyone gets to take an action (or actions).“

This is further atomised as follows:

Derived from tabletop wargames, the average RPG combat system supplies clear-cut answers to the questions of, “What do I do?” and “How do I do it?”
Or, to break it down in a fashion similar to the dungeoncrawl:
Default Goal: Kill (or incapacitate) your opponents.
Default Action: Hit them.
Easy to Prep: Grab a bunch of monsters from the Monster Manual.
Easy to Run: The combat system breaks the action down into a specific sequence and usually provides a fairly comprehensive method of how each action should be resolved.

The Alexandrian, Game Structures, Part 4 Combat

Thus, in a recent solo game, I found my character got into a fight with goblins. It’s easy for me to respond to the goblins’ aggression with the default action. Of course the wonder of roleplaying games is that the default action isn’t the only action available to me – I could, for example, choose to flee or try to negotiate. But we all know what do to when all else fails.

This might explain why when, in a recent game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the party was surrounded by soldiers and told to surrender, my first instinct was to hit one of the guards. Being threatened by armed soldiers looked like the set up for a combat scene and so my gaming reflex was to try to kill or incapacitate them.

But here’s where I always found Dungeons & Dragons plus many other roleplaying games lacking: beyond making the choice to hit something, there isn’t much meaningful choice about how I choose to do that.

Because of the hit points mechanism, D&D is a game of attrition: you hit the monster, deduct some hit points, and try to get the other guy to zero hit points before they do the same to you. I find this pretty dull in practice.

GM: ‘What do you do?’
Player: ‘I stab the goblin with my sword.’
GM: ‘Roll to hit.’
Player rolls 1d20 and, if they are being efficient at the table, their damage dice at the same time.
Player: ‘I hit for 2 points of damage.’
GM: ‘You stab at the goblin and the blade scratches across his belly, drawing blood.’
The worse bit is when you miss. And miss. And miss again. Turn after turn of roll 1d20 and miss is my default outcome.

My preference has always been for games in which the combat game offers some further mechanical weight to a meaningful question: ‘How do you attack the goblin?’

Admittedly, this is not necessary – D&D has got away very well without it for 50 years – and if you are happy with rolling to hit and counting down hit points, that’s great. Seriously, knock yourself out.

I prefer to know what happens when I choose to stab the goblin in the face as opposed to stabbing it in the gut. What if I slice at her arm? Does it matter if I try to trip her up and throw her down to the ground instead of slicing at the goblin’s throat?

And so some roleplaying games began to add Hit Locations to the arsenal of mechanisms. I first encountered this with RuneQuest in the early 1980s and I instantly loved it! A new layer of meaningful decisionmaking was added to my combat game structure. Ever since, games without it have felt lacklustre.

What does this mechanism add to the combat game? I think it helps the player to better imagine the scene as it unfolds and I believe it helps the GM to adjudicate it.

I agree with the Angry GM when he says that:

“When a player declares an action, you, as the DM, are looking for two things. WHAT is the player trying to accomplish and HOW is the character trying to accomplish it? I call these things the Intention and the Approach. Sometimes, figuring them out is easy. Sometimes, it isn’t. But you have to figure them out. Do not try to adjudicate the action unless you can state clearly in your head an Intention and an Approach.”

The Angry GM, Adjudicate Actions like a Boss

He goes on to say:

“The Approach is as vital as the Intention. In fact, the two work things work together. The Intention tells you, the DM, what success and failure look like. The Approach helps you determine if the action is possible and helps you determine what mechanical rules to use. But, more importantly, the Approach is the part of the action where all of the role-playing lives. I kid you not. This one little thing is actually the glue that binds the mechanical gamey parts of the game to the role-playing parts of the game…”

Thus, bringing this back to the combat game structure, focusing on the Approach when you declare your strike enriches the fight in a way we often under-estimate.

GM: ‘What do you do?’
Player: ‘I stab the goblin with my sword.’
GM: ‘How do you use the sword?’
Player: ‘I try to get past the shield and stab it in the face.’

At this point, the GM’s going to adjudicate the strike. If I am playing with GURPS, for example, then targeting the Face is different to a regular strike to the Torso because there is a -5 penalty to the attacker’s roll to hit. There is also a major benefit if you succeed: “Many helmets have an open face, allowing this attack to ignore armor DR!” (GURPS Basic Set, page 399).

GM: ‘Roll to hit.’
Player rolls 3d6 and, if they are being efficient at the table, their damage dice at the same time. The GM rolls for the Block Defense of the goblin using the shield.
Player: ‘I am on target for 2 points of damage.’
GM notes the goblin failed the shield block.
GM: ‘You stab at the goblin, easily knocking aside the shield with your body as you ram the blade into its face.’
GM notes the strike ignores the helmet armour and applies the impaling damage modifier to the goblin’s hit points, doubling the 2 points to 4 points.

Yes, this is added complexity but in practice it takes only a few seconds longer to adjudicate in return for far less effort on the part of the GM.

Admittedly, many games don’t allow this level of specific choice for the player. RuneQuest 2e, for example, simply added a random roll for location to the attack roll resolution – thus, you rolled d100 for the attack and d20 for the location – to help the GM adjudicate the outcome.

The benefit here is that the GM’s description of the attack is still immediately enriched by the mechanism:

GM: ‘What do you do?’
Player: ‘I stab the goblin with my sword.’
GM: ‘Roll to hit.’
Player rolls 1d100 to hit, 1d20 for location, and their damage dice at the same time.
Player: ‘I hit the left leg for 2 points of damage.’
GM: ‘You stab at the goblin and the blade scratches across his leg, drawing blood. She yelps with the suddenness of the pain.’

With this approach, I no longer have to think about where the blade goes and can take the time to add to the description with a reaction from the goblin. It therefore feels richer at the level of the imagined outcome.

Of course, we still have the problem of misses and getting bored when my dice inevitably roll poorly. That said, games with the added mechanical elements that allow the Approach to be meaningful offer many more tactical options.

For example, if I can’t get through the goblin’s armour, I can target it’s open face and bypass that problem. The trade off is that I need to find a way to get a bonus on my attack roll. In GURPS, maybe I take time to string together a Feint (to lower her defence with the shield) and a risky Determined All-Out Attack to gain +4 to hit.

Whether or not there is a mechanical benefit to making your Approach explicit, I still think the game is better when you do it anyway. As the Angry GM says:

“This one little thing is actually the glue that binds the mechanical gamey parts of the game to the role-playing parts of the game…”

What I believe this refers to is the descriptive value of connecting the action your character took, through the adjudication, and out to the description of the result.

When the player declares the attack with the sword (intention) and going for a stab the face (approach), you can still adjudicate that based on the standard roll to hit or miss. What’s helpful is to then leverage the Approach in your description. If they hit, you can describe the 2 hit point result as scratching their cheek and drawing blood; if it’s a miss, you can describe how the blade flicked towards the goblin’s face but was easily deflected by their shield. In my experience, this is less stressful and cognitively intensive for me at the table.

In conclusion, I have realised two things:

  1. I truly enjoy the combat game structure and want to make it richer at the table;
  2. Combat is enriched by using game rules that allow for specifically targeted strikes against different areas of the foe’s body.

The ability to choose a meaningful and specific target is worth the extra mechanical complexity. It’s worth it because it offers the player an extra meaningful choice on their turn. It’s also worth it for the GM because it makes describing the outcome of each strike much easier.

This leveraging of the Approach enriches the description of the game overall and, for me, it leads to deeper immersion into the Otherworld.

Game on!


  1. This relates to something I find odd about how Mythras works.
    U role to hit, can declare ur intentions, but then depending on ur level of success, u may end up choosing a set of special effects that didn’t match ur intention at all.
    This could be deemed as adapting to an opening, but keeps me off balance w a last second decision every time.
    It still provides a descriptive template but not as simple as ur examples, despite the detail it provides.
    Rolling for location again suggests the character finding an opening n striking rather than waiting for, or forcing a chance to strike at a particular body part/area.
    But as the SE comes after the attack roll, the how the attack is intended/dealt has to wait.

    I’d be interested to hear how that affects u as a GM or even other players.


  2. Working backwards here. This is a great article, one that deserves close reading several times to extract the useful bit.

    The quote from the AngryGM is *fundamental* – I can’t think of any TSR publication from back in the day that makes that connexion. That’s the route to better immersion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The problem here (for me, I know many people just don’t care) it’s very difficult to reconcile HP with detailed descriptions of wounds and hit locations in any meaningful way.

    Taking your example: if I successfully thrust you in the face with a sword, you’re very probably dead or incapacitated. A mere 2HP loss just doesn’t match the fiction, unless we substantially change what “successfully” means.

    HPs work decently well if they’re thought as abstract “stamina” or “capacity to avoid serious wounds”, but that’s at odds with detailed action-by-action descriptions (and with other rules, but that’s a different issue).

    Liked by 2 people

    • I take your point but, for me, I think 2 HP is first of all relative – 2 out of what? In GURPS, 2 out of the average character’s 10 HP gives me a degree of success and wounding. Of course, with an impaling weapon that just got doubled to 4, so I can easily narrate the outcome as a nasty cut across the cheek. But, as with all thing, your mileage may vary.

      Liked by 1 person

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