Friday, May 17, 2013

Combat Systems -- Build-Based Systems

I love combat in RPGs -- hard, crunchy, tactical, futzy combat with lots of variables and moving parts. Often, when I talk about this aspect of RPGs, people assume I like various versions of D&D and/or Pathfinder because they have very involved combat systems. I generally reply that, though I don't mind Pathfinder, I much prefer positional combat systems as opposed to build-based ones.

And then I get a slightly strange look, which I always take to mean that I have taken the conversation to a level of geekiness to which my conversation partner is unwilling to go...

So, let's talk about combat systems and their various flavors:

First, you have Build-Based combat systems. In a build-based system, the way you construct your character is the most important factor in how well you fare in combat. I put 3rd Edition D&D, Champions, and Pathfinder firmly in this camp, along with most MMOs (though we will limit our discussion to table top rpgs, a lot of these concepts apply to video games).

 In these games, your powers, feats and stats are the key to combat. Position on the field of battle might be good for a modifier or two, but ultimately, the combatant with the better build will win the day. Builds are often elaborate, complex, and might take lots of work, or even lots of sessions of play (and experience points) to come to fruition. There is a lot of character differentiation, even among characters of the same type/class, because every character has a build that performs differently in combat.

What is great about build-based systems is... well... builds. It is awesome to see all the different character builds that players invent, and to see how they stack up against the opposition. You know that each of the builds will perform differently in combat. Each PC's build interacts with every other PC's build, and that of the enemies to create a cool, tactical experience.

In addition, as characters gain experience, the players tweak their builds, reacting to the needs of the campaign, and perfecting their ultimate combat machine. For most players, this is great fun and can lead to lots of off-table battle recaps and discussions about different combinations of powers, skills and feats.

One way build systems get into trouble is the "One-Trick Pony" syndrome. If, in your game, builds are specific and take a lot of resources to construct, then players will tend to go down a path and pick all of the powers and skills which allow them to best execute that one path. In Pathfinder, you may see someone create a Trip Build, or a Disarm Build, or a Two-Weapon Fighting Build.

These builds might take all of a character's feat selections for many levels -- meaning there isn't much room to branch out. So, you build to optimize this one trick, and you spend most of your character's resources doing that. When players optimize for a single trick, the combats become exercises in making sure they can perform that one trick over and over and over. As a GM, if you don't counter this, combats become somewhat boring as you watch the PCs do the same maneuvers every round. If you do counter it, then you are negating powers that the PCs have spent a great deal of time and resources on... depending on how often you make their one trick useless, this could be a jerk GM move.

That's all I have for now. Next post, we will talk about positional systems...


  1. Analogous to this is the difference between deck construction and play in a game like Magic. The best combat system would give players interesting decisions to make in both the game and the metagame.

  2. Good analogy. It is important to note that most games are hybrids of some sort, having build, positional, and even narrative elements to combat. Pathfinder indeed has positional elements to compliment its builds and I have added strong build elements to Runebearer in the past few years.