What Makes a Good Combat Option

Many games offer optional actions in combat that differ from a standard attack, like throwing sand in someone’s eyes to temporarily blind them. These options can allow a player to accomplish things that they couldn’t do with an ordinary attack or give them choices to make combat more interesting than just saying “I attack them” again and again. As I’ve addressed in columns about specific mechanics, the problem is that many game designers just don’t seem to get what it takes to make a decent combat option. This is a summation of my rants about what a combat option should be like.

Using the option should be a meaningful choice: If choosing the option, or not, is effectively irrelevant then there is no point to its existence. In general any option meeting the next two principles will pretty much meet this one but it is an important consideration.

Sometimes better than a regular attack: This is a fairly common problem. Seriously, if the option is always, or almost always, going to give worse results than a regular attack why would anyone bother writing or learning the rules for it? Only people that don’t know it isn’t any good will ever use it.

It should be noted that this doesn’t mean that an option can’t always be mechanically worse than a regular attack. The option would just have to provide a way to do something desirable that a regular attack can’t. The classic example would be knocking an opponent out rather than killing them. Even if doing so was always more difficult than just killing them there can be important game reasons why the characters need the target alive. Under these circumstances the result is superior to that of a normal attack.

Sometimes worse than a regular attack: Another incredibly common problem. If the option is always, or almost always, better than a regular attack then everyone who can use it will. The inclusion of such an option begs the question, why isn’t the option the normal attack?

This can also be a measure of personal preference. An attack that gives more damage but a lower chance to hit might not be mathematically better or worse than the regular attack but would provide a player a choice for how much randomness they want in their results. It’s better or worse based on player esthetics rather than mechanically.

It should do what it is described as doing: Whatever the option is described as doing should be what the mechanics actually do. If throwing sand in someone’s eyes is supposed to be an option for a sneaky fighter to gain an advantage, it should actually be a way that a sneaky fighter can gain an advantage. If called shots are supposed to help deal with tough, armored opponents, then they should be good against tough, armored opponents. The players shouldn’t have to run all the numbers to be able to tell what the option actually does.

Violating this can cause frustration and annoyance. Since the option doesn’t do what it is supposed to, those using it for that purpose are likely to become very frustrated. After all, it doesn’t actually do what they are trying to do. On the other hand, power gamers who have figured out an effective use for the option will be at an advantage and that can annoy other players.

Conclusion

When designing combat options game developers should keep these principles in mind. Make sure that the option provides a real choice for the players. Expand their options in combat rather than have rules that everyone will ignore or use all the time. Make sure that the option truly works the way it supposed to work. Finally, accurately describe to the players what the option does so that people beyond power gamers can use it effectively.

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