The Philosophy of Ex3 Combat by Holden Shearer

Posted: May 15, 2013 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Exalted, Roleplaying Games

A few days back, Holden Shearer posted an article in the White Wolf forums talking about the philosophy of Exalted 3rd Edition combat. I’ve reposted it here for convenience:

Exalted 1 and Exalted 2 both used what I think of an ‘action model’ combat engines– that is to say, when you rolled your dice pool, that represented a discrete action. This dice roll is an attack, for example, and it tells me how good the attack is.

This is a good model in that it feels very textured and involved– “my roll represents my attack, and because I’m a ferociously skilled swordsman, I get to roll a lot of dice.” That’s visceral, and good.

The problem of the system was that what Exalted wanted to emulate, when two of its larger-than-life heroes battled, was the martial clashes of cinema (whether this meant Errol Flynn, Chinese wuxia, or Jedi lightsaber battles was largely up to the tastes of the group playing). And Exalted did a fairly faithful job of recreating this! Unfortunately, an action-by-action recitation of such a battle usually looks like this: *whiff* *whiff* *whiff* *whiff* *whiff* *whiff* *whiff* *whiff* *whiff* *dead*

That’s faithful to the source material, but we felt that it had problems as a gameplay model– as a player, it was frustrating. It felt like you were getting nowhere, until very suddenly you won or lost. But in the epics, and in cinema (again, this is true whether you’re talking Shaw Brothers kung fu, Lu Bu vs the Brotherhood of the Peach Orchard, or Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader), most of the storytelling of the fight is contained in that “dead zone” where every swing is getting blocked or dodged or only banging the enemy around and otherwise generally not accomplishing its main goal of killing or defeating the other guy. It’s not just whiff-whiff-whiff– we can look at that fight and see how the momentum of the battle is running, we can tell who’s winning and losing, and we can tell when someone has just pulled a marvelous reversal and is mounting a comeback. When Luke and Vader fight in Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader only strikes a single blow that really injures Luke– the last one that cuts off his hand– but we can see that Vader is clearly dominating the fight before that. Luke makes a desperate strike near the end, but only manages to graze Vader’s arm and goad him on finish things by battering Luke to the end of the bridge and ending the fight with a decisive blow. That’s good storytelling, that’s an exciting fight scene– much more than just the sum of “whiff whiff whiff whiff over.”

That’s what EX3 aims to capture, by turning the ‘dead zone’ into something compelling.

In Exalted Third Edition, the majority of attacks heroes launch at one another don’t damage the opponent’s health track*. Instead, these attacks are used to build momentum, gain the upper hand, and place the character in an advantageous position relative to his opponent(s!). They are also calculated to stymie the enemy’s attempts to do the same, to disrupt his tempo, and to confound his efforts to harm you. If an attack of this sort succeeds, then it might force the opponent back, batter down his defenses, push him into disadvantageous position, or even land a blow that rattles him but inflicts no telling injury.

Once you feel you’ve garnered sufficient advantage, your character can attempt to launch an attack which can damage the enemy’s Health Track– and if you’ve fought well enough, picked your moment well, and the dice are with you, you might even slay your opponent in a single well-aimed blow, striking off his head or running him through! However, attempting to strike such a blow with undue haste can be quite risky– it might even create an opportunity for the opponent to turn the tables completely, and seize control of the fight!

This is the battle dynamics philosophy of EX3, and is the result its combat engine has been designed to realize.

*Note: This is a mechanical abstraction intended to represent the ebb and flow of cinematic combat, not an actual thing that exists in the setting. When a Solar and an Abyssal are swinging daiklaves at one another, they very much are trying to cut and kill their enemy with each blow– even if we, the players, know that all the attacks this round are able to do is to win them advantage.

The focus on making combat focus on the momentum of the fight is an interesting one in my book. I don’t fancy myself as a big mechanics person, but the idea of combat simulating momentum is novel and I am certainly looking forward to hearing more about how it works in practice. Add the fact that it will impact a great number of Charms and I can imagine the amount of rework that EX3 has gone through. Overall, I can’t really say more about it than this as there’s precious little to go on. The intent of the design team is made clear, but we can’t tell if they’ve achieved their goals until we’ve seen the mechanics.

  1. hm, there goes a design philosophy that’s also very close to mine 🙂

  2. morrisonmp says:

    I’ve actually been working on a combat system that also mirrors this same thought process… it even included the words “advantage” and “combat momentum.” The problem I’ve consistently run into is that this actually seems to exacerbate the “rounds that mean nothing” problem rather than improving it…

    Of course, I’m also working with a diceless system – so it might be different with dice pools involved. I hope they pull it off really well though. I love me some Exalted but I’ve always hated the combat in the game. Improve that and maybe I can go back to playing it instead of just reading it…

  3. yamasaki says:

    … or just play any edition of DnD…

  4. […] even as I’ve been pondering my game that I’m trying to create I was blown away to see this (from another kickstarter as it happens…) and the short version is, Exalted 3 combat is going […]

  5. liangcai says:

    This reminds me a lot of the Mouseguard system where the players are trying to reduce the opponents Disposition before dealing damage to him/her. And each action they play can increase or decrease their own Disposition, representing the eb and flow of combat. Whatever it is, it would be interesting to see how it pans out.

    I think what really stopped me from running Exalted was the sheer number of dice one has to roll at the end of it:)

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