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House Rules Evolved: Better Battle Tactics

With a new campaign in the works, I am kicking my house rules update into high gear. Combine that with a big change coming up in the next week and I am getting a ton of things done.
The Original Rule:
What started as a noble drive to make combat more interesting, dynamic, and fun ended with a sputter. The fighting mechanics, I believe, are solid but would be better suited to game focused on dueling and moment to moment tactics. In short, Better Battle Tactics was strangled by its own red-tape.
The momentum behind my attempt at this rule remains. I want combat to offer more sound options than the usual bash-them-to-death. Sure, those rules are in the game, but you have to give up an attack, something that is hardly worth it in a world where the action economy is king.
The problems:
-Too many choices. It is overwhelming to pick from all the options available. Players have to learn this new fiddly subsystem and I have to track it for the hordes of monsters I toss out. This results in decision delay at best and analysis paralysis at worst. The new mechanic cannot have too many options, moving parts, and choices. Research shows smaller numbers of choices to be ideal (links?).
-Not often used. Most of the time, even with the only minor attack and damage penalties listed, it made more sense to just make a normal attack. Intuitively, this makes sense. Alternative attacks and tactics are going to be useful only in the outside cases. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to create an overarching, complex mechanic just for a few outside cases. Another point for simplicity and a point for a general mechanic that can handle wildly disparate cases.
-Too limiting. Even when used, the ideas of players often went outside the 13 actions listed in the Better Battle Tactics. If I had to ad-hoc a ruling to resolve outside cases, then my rules were not generic enough to really promote a wide variety of tactics. If I want to really meet my underlying goals, I’ve got to be able to handle every case.
-Not realistic. A simple penalty to attack and damage was too abstract to really give any weight to the decision on whether or not to use it. It basically traded one type of damage for another. It boiled down to putting a different story on what happens when a monster drops to 0 hit points. I want the choices to mean something, even when they aren’t successful. Better Battle Tactics should apply throughout the whole battle and not just change the ending.


The Changes:
My explicit goal is to accommodate every combat choice without requiring players to get left behind in the action economy. This has to be simple, without being overly abstract, and should be interesting regardless of the outcome.


A player wants to add some new aspect or action to their attack. They make their attack twice. If both attacks would hit, they make their attack and the action happens. If only one attack would hit, the attack either misses or it hits but the player has to choose a downside. If both miss, the attack misses and the DM chooses the downside.


This mechanic keeps it simple, as the players already know how to make attack rolls and can certainly count to two. What about those downsides? We should keep that list short so it is easy to read and can be meaningfully remembered. We also do not want to railroad the object of the action, so their should probably be a save on their part to resist its damaging effects. Also, complex things should still require the appropriate skill check to be resolved so players can’t skirt around difficult DC’s.


Standard DC is 5+attacker’s attack bonus.


This DC is low enough that enemies can realistically resist but it will scale with attacker skill. This might include things like a morale check, dodging out of the way of a toppled statue, avoiding being disarmed, and more.


MY PETARD! IT IS HOISTED! The penalty happens to you (unless you make the save).
IT WAS AN ACCIDENT I SWEAR. The penalty happens to an ally within reach (unless they make the save).
WIDE OPEN. One of the targets gets a free attack on you.
LIVE DANGEROUS. You cut things a little too close, take damage equal to your attack bonus.
KARMA. DM gets one d20 they can give before you roll to give you disadvantage on that roll.
PUSH IT TO THE LIMIT. Equipment wear and tear or mental wear and tear, depending on the THING.


The downsides are where things get really interesting. As players try more of these alternative tactics, they risk exposing themselves and their allies to the dangers they were foisting on their opponents. I kept the list short to be easy to remember but long enough to provide suitable penalties for all attempts. If you don’t have any sort of wear/tear or insanity system, the last option could be worked out as broken equipment, penalties to all rolls, or other long-lasting penalties.


While this new system will require some interaction between DM and player to resolve, I feel that it gives mechanical backing to a whole host of options. No longer are players required to give up their attacks to attempt something with a decent likelihood of failure. Now, they can take on some extra risk for a chance at cleverly punishing their foes.


It isn’t perfect. It has the quantized effect of something like intimidate having no effect until suddenly the monster flees from failing a save. It doesn’t mechanically take into account other factors like how worn down a monster is like the previous system. A DM can always insert situational modifiers to saves, if and when this becomes important. Overall, I am excited about the overhaul. Stay tuned for action reports from the field.
So go forth and have some sweet battles!

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