Down and Dirty: The DFRPG Combat Paradigm

Important Note

In this post, I’m talking about combat: physical conflict, as the rulebook calls it. I’m choosing this focus because it has some of the clearest examples of the things I’m talking about, and is the most readily accessible example of conflict for people new to the FATE system. Everything I say below is also true for mental and social conflicts – keep that in mind as you read.

One of the biggest things to get used to in DFRPG is that combat works very differently than in pretty much any other game I’ve played. In most other roleplaying games, the combat strategy that works best is to hit the target, depleting its hit points (or whatever that system calls it) until it falls down. All other aspects of combat are focused on increasing the opportunities to do damage or the amount of damage done. Teamwork generally means focusing on a single target or working to enhance the damage-dealing ability of one of the primary combatants.

DFRPG combat looks similar on the surface: characters have stress tracks that you’re trying to deplete to put them down. It’s easy to think that the best strategy is just to hack away at the target, wearing down the stress track until you can take the target out. That’s what I thought at first. After all, the character is taken out if it takes a stress hit that goes off the end of its stress track.

Now, this is complicated by consequences: the character being hit can buy off stress by taking consequences of varying degrees. These are the actual damage being done to the character – this is where you get a split lip or a ruptured spleen. But consequences won’t put you down; only stress hits will do that.

The Damage Model

So why is stress different from hit points?

Two reasons that I can see right now: first, it reflects resistance to getting hurt rather than capacity for getting hurt, and second, you can bypass it.

Resistance vs. Capacity

Hit points in D&D (and a lot of other games) measure your ability to continue fighting. As you lose hit points, you become damaged. In early versions of D&D, and in other games like RuneQuest, hit points were a direct measure of how much physical damage can be done to a person before they fall down. In 4E D&D, hit points factor in things like fatigue, morale, skill, and all the other things that keep you on your feet and fighting. But it’s still a value that decreases as damage is applied, and is the main value that you need to preserve to keep on fighting.

Stress in DFRPG (and other FATE games) doesn’t measure how hurt you are – it measures how close you are to becoming hurt. It is, in many ways, more like ablative armour than the D&D idea of hit points. As long as you’re taking stress hits, you’re still good. It’s only when you start taking consequences that you are actually being injured. So taking a hit to one of your stress boxes is… well, it’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s sure better than taking a consequence or being taken out. It’s your padding, and it’s where you want to shift all incoming attacks to.

But it is still a finite resource that you have to husband carefully.

Bypassing Stress

Ideally, to take a character out in one attack, you want to apply a stress hit that goes off the end of their stress track, even after they’ve applied all their available consequences to it. Now, a normal human character has 2 physical stress boxes, plus 4 consequences (minor, moderate, severe, extreme) that can buy off a total of 20 stress – that means that you need a 23-point stress hit to take someone out with one hit. Now, the majority of opponents the players will fight generally won’t fight to the death – they’re effectively taken out at much earlier points, depending on whether they’re nameless, supporting, or main NPCs.  The non-vampire example of Tim the Sniper in the rulebook (p328 of Your Story) can be taken out in a single 11-point stress hit, because he concedes after suffering a moderate consequence.

Consequences

The meat of the damage system, though, is consequences. Consequences are when things really start hurting a character They are wonderfully descriptive injuries, and they also have inherent wound penalties, because they are Aspects and can be tagged for all the regular Aspect fun and games.

By default, each character only has one of each type of consequence – minor, moderate, severe, and extreme. These are shared by physical, mental, and social conflicts: if you’ve taken a moderate physical consequence (Sprained Wrist, say) then you don’t get to also take a moderate mental consequence if you get into a mental conflict. The rationale for this is two-fold: one, it keeps the game balanced a little better, and two, if you’ve got a sprained wrist, the pain is going to make it a little harder to concentrate on the fine points of the Unseelie Accords that you’re debating, for example.

One of the coolest things about consequences is that each player decides when to take them for their character, and gets to pick what the consequence is. Yeah, this means that you get to decide how your character is hurt. You get to weigh how hurt you’re going to be against the buffer that is your stress track, and what you need to do to finish the fight. You get to choose the wording of your consequence – subject to GM negotiation, of course – so you can decide where the bullet hits or the claw slashes.

Husbanding this resource can be a little tricky: minor consequences offset 2 points of stress, moderate ones do 4, severe ones do 6, and extreme ones do 8. You don’t get change back if you don’t need to offset the whole amount of stress the consequence is capable of eliminating. That means that, if you only have to offset a single point of stress, you need to use a minor consequence, and the extra shift of stress that you could have offset is wasted. Seeing as you have a limited number of consequences, it’s wise to spend them carefully.

Despite my focus on consequences as real damage as opposed to the damage buffer of stress, they are just another buffer keeping you from being taken out – though a buffer with a more direct affect on the combat.

Taken Out

This is what the game calls losing the fight. If you take a stress hit that goes off the end of your stress track, and you can’t reduce it by taking consequences, then you’ve lost, and you are taken out. That means that your opponent gets to decide what happens to you, limited only by the scope of the conflict that got you here. For example, in a physical combat, you could be dead, knocked unconscious, paralyzed, whatever. In a mental conflict, you probably couldn’t be killed outright.

This is a bad thing to have happen to you. Very bad. This is pretty much the only way a character can die in DFRPG. Thankfully, you can always avoid this by conceding the combat.

Conceding

If you don’t want to get killed in combat, you can concede. This means you still lose the fight, but you get to choose how. So, instead of your opponent taking you out with his sword and saying, “I decapitate you and toss the head into the river,” you get to say, “You cut me across the throat and I fall into the river, washing up a few miles downstream, cold and mangled, but alive.” You can choose to concede at any point up to when your opponent would take you out.

This is a big deal. What this means is that, if you pay attention to what’s going on in the combat, your character only really risks death if you decide it’s important enough. If the objective of the combat is big enough that your character is willing to fight to the death, well, he may die. If it’s not, he can be defeated and live to fight another day – albeit, he may be living in a more problematic fashion, such as imprisoned by the enemy.

This is also a great way to mine Fate Points. You get a Fate Point for every consequence you’ve taken in the combat up to the time you concede. Why did you think Harry keeps getting the crap kicked out of him? He needs those Fate Points.

Summing Up Damage

So, the important points about the damage system:

  • Stress is a buffer that keeps you from getting damaged.
  • Consequences are damage, and a buffer that keeps you from being taken out.
  • Getting taken out can kill your character.
  • Conceding loses the fight but can save your character.
  • You get to choose what consequences you take and when, and whether or not you want to fight to the death.

Tactics

So, what does that mean in terms of combat tactics? It means, primarily, that it can take a long time to whittle down an opponent if all you’re doing is attacking. To make combats go faster – and, incidentally, to play out more like a good scene in a movie or from one of the books – you need to look at all your tools, and make good use of them.

Attacks

Attacks are good. Attacks are how you hurt the opponent. But attacks alone aren’t going to be enough to carry the day most of the time. Let’s look at the example of Tim the Sniper I made reference to earlier. Sure, you can take him out with a single 11-point stress hit, but the odds on that are pretty small (assuming you have a Superb Guns skill, roll +4, and are using a Weapon:2, you can do it if his defense roll is Mediocre or worse, but that’s a long shot). So, you whittle away at him with a number of smaller hits, depleting his stress and consequences, until he concedes or you take him out. At some point, you’re going to have to attack, but there are things that you can be doing instead of attacking that make it more likely your attacks will be effective. This is especially true if you’re using Evocation in combat, because each time you use it, it causes stress to you, depleting your own stress tracks.

Blocks

Blocks are a good way to keep someone from doing something – either attacking you, or escaping, or using magic, or whatever. While they don’t necessarily do anything to deplete the opponent’s stress or consequences, they keep you in the fight (and him from running) while you set things up to take him out.

Maneuvers

This is should be your go-to action in combat. First off, maneuvers are easier to land (in most cases) than attacks. Second, they can layer Aspects on you or your target to make sure that, when you attack, you can maximize the results.

Each successful maneuver puts an Aspect in place. These can be offensive maneuvers (aiming at your target, tripping him, throwing sand in his eyes, etc.) or defensive maneuvers (diving for cover, grabbing an impromptu shield, jumping to high ground, etc.). Every time you put an Aspect on a target, you get a single free tag of that Aspect. Save them up, and use them on a single attack to make it really count.

For example, let’s say you’re shooting it out with Tim the Sniper. You spend one round using a maneuver on yourself (Discipline: Calm and Focused), then another round using a maneuver on the scene (Athletics: Sniper’s Perch), and a third round using a maneuver on Tim (Alertness: In My Sights). On the fourth round, you pull the trigger. Assuming a Superb Gun skill, a roll of 0, and a Weapon:2, you can tag all three Aspects for free and give you an end result of 13 shifts. That means you take him out if his defense roll is Fair or less. And that’s on an average roll for you: it gets better if you roll well, or if you spend some Fate Points.

Anything you do in combat, anything that can give you an advantage over the opponent, is a maneuver. Sticking him with an Aspect by tricking him or blinding him or aiming at him works. Sticking yourself with an Aspect by moving or dodging or preparing works. Sticking the scene with an Aspect by tipping over a barrel of oil or setting something on fire or crashing a car through a wall works. Look for opportunities to do something cool, think about what you would like to see in a movie, and go for it.

Other Aspects

Aspects placed by maneuvers aren’t the only ones you can use to your advantage. Figuring out Aspects already in place in the scene or on your opponent is just as good. This is where assessments come in – you can use an assessment to try and figure out what sort of Aspect something has. Or you can guess. Guessing’s good, too. Most GMs will give you a bit of a clue as to what types of Aspects are in place in a scene or on a character through description, so pay attention to that. If something is reasonable to expect within the scene, odds are there’s an Aspect representing it: a cluttered warehouse probably has Piles of Crates, while a haunted house probably has Rickety Floors. And, if you guess something really cool, the GM will probably allow it even if he hadn’t thought of that Aspect himself.

And then there’s declarations. Declarations are a kind of maneuver, really, when you use a knowledge skill like Lore or Scholarship to stick something with an Aspect. This is a bit trickier, and the GM can set the difficulty rather arbitrarily high if he thinks the Aspect is a game-breaker, but it’s a good way to show a smart and knowledgeable character using that knowledge to shape the combat.

You’ve got your own Aspects to invoke, as well. That can be a little costly, requiring Fate Points, but they are tailored for you and many should be generally applicable. Don’t be shy if you need them.

And there’s another place Aspects can come from: consequences. While it’s nice to take a target out in a single hit, that’s not always going to be possible. Hitting him enough to put a consequence on him not only makes him easier to take out because of depleted resources, it also makes him easier to take out because you get a free tag on the consequence.

Teamwork

Teamwork can be huge in this game. Consider these scenarios:

  • One character uses Athletics to slip around an enemy, sticking him with the Aspect Flanked, while the other character uses Weapons to press the enemy, sticking him with the Aspect Hard-Pressed. Next round, the character in front of the enemy uses Intimidate to stick him with the Aspect Rattled, and the character behind sticks the shiv in with an extra +6 right off the hop.
  • One character uses an Air Evocation to whip up a windstorm, tagging the scene with a Raging Winds sticky Aspect, while another character uses Might to push down a tree, tagging the scene with a Fallen Tree Aspect. Now, either one can tag one or both Aspects to provide a +2 or +4 defensive bonus against incoming gunfire.
  • One character uses Presence to get a monster’s attention, tagging it with the Focused On Me Aspect, while the other uses Discipline to stick himself with the Focused Power Aspect. Next round, the first character uses Athletics to tag himself with the Nimble Aspect to help dodge an incoming attack that he knows is on the way, while the second character unloads a blast of fire with a +4 bonus from the Focused Power and Focused On Me Aspects.

Look for ways to help each other out in combat, building the kinds of plans and tactics that you like to read about or watch in a movie. Team comic books – X-Men, JLA, Teen Titans, etc. are great sources for ideas.

Summing Up Tactics

So, the important things about tactics are:

  • Don’t focus on filling up the target’s stress track.
  • Stack up positive Aspects using maneuvers, assessments, guesses, declarations, and consequences.
  • Use blocks to keep the target from getting away or hurting you while you’re stacking up Aspects.
  • Unload with an attack, using your stacked Aspects, to take the target out – or at least inflict a consequence.
  • Don’t forget your own Aspects.

Conclusion

This is a very different approach to combat in games like D&D or RuneQuest or World of Darkness or pretty much any other game I’ve played. It’s a new way of thinking about combats. It values more elaborate strategies and more cinematic actions. It leverages teamwork to an amazing degree, as people co-operate to bring down tough opponents. And it puts pretty much all of the most important decisions into the hands of the players. The attack isn’t the be-all and end-all of the combat – it’s just the cherry on top.

That said, don’t sweat it if it doesn’t come together right away. Like any new thing, there’s going to be a learning curve. That’s fine. Relax and go with it. Just keep playing and having fun.

It’ll come.

And you’ll like it when it does.

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13 Responses to Down and Dirty: The DFRPG Combat Paradigm

  1. Rel Fexive says:

    Great rundown. I think I’ll be handing this one out to future players. Cheers 🙂

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  3. Penny says:

    Hi everyone – as a player in Rick’s game (I play Izabela, a White Council wizard), I wanted to jump in with a couple of comments.

    First, my advice to players who plan to play a wizard – consider taking a non-magical fighting skill of some sort. I find myself having to use evocations to fight lower-level mooks – people I could deal with by punching them or hitting them with a sword if only I had a decent fighting skill of some sort. It means that by the time we get to the main fight, my mental stress track is already full and I’m looking at taking consequences far earlier in the big combat than I meant to. We’ve recently hit a significant milestone and I intend to spend it on some sort of mundane fighting skill.

    Second, I count myself as quite a seasoned gamer (though I’ve never been a rules-monkey), but as a player I find that all of the various possibilities for tapping maneuvers and aspects and other tactical options quite bewildering. It’s fascinating, but very different from the other systems I’ve played – so much more to keep track of than just your character’s stats and abilities. Rick has been spoon-feeding us clues and hints about what aspects could be tapped in a given scene and THIS HAS BEEN VERY HELPFUL – it’s helping get us up to speed with the kind of thinking you need to be able to do in order to really have fun with the game. I recommend it for any of you GMs starting a group of new players, even if your players are experienced gamers. We are starting to “get” it, and I imagine (hope) he will need to do less spoon-feeding as we gain experience with the style of game.

    Penny

  4. Stacey says:

    You have done an amazing job of explaining the different rules of this game. I also am going to forward this to my group (we have done city creation and are doing character creation saturday). @penny. Your first advice is good and is something I tried to warn them about, and can only hope they listen. 🙂 Otherwise, it is gonna be a long day for the home team.

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  6. Pingback: What's He On About Now? » Evocation, or How to Blow Stuff Up: Magic in DFRPG, Part Two

  7. Greg says:

    Hi Rick. Thank you for your comment on my new blog. I probably should have asked your permission first before I linked to your DFRPG magic articles… so I’ll do so here: is it okay? I’ll take them down immediately if you wish. I’m still going to direct my players here anyway — but I know it is helpful to me to have them all grouped together, so I thought linking them would be best. Please let me know. Thank you and have a great day.

    PS. This post is my next linking target 🙂

    Greg

  8. Rick Neal says:

    @Greg – You’re more than welcome to link back to anything I’ve posted here. No need to ask for permission – link if it’s useful.

    Good luck with your game! Hope you all enjoy it.

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  10. Sewicked says:

    I’ve played in a couple games of Dresden Files and I’d like to provide an example from my own game play.

    My character is not a heavy hitter (she’s a doctor, of sorts). However, she could still manage to maneuver and kicked a chair at our enemy; giving him the aspect: Tangled Up. That set up our heavy hitter to get a better blow, and she chose to use one of her aspects, something about belaying pins, I think. Another character created an illusion to give the foe an aspect: Distracted. Back to me, I used my Lore skill to make a declaration: There’s His Weak Spot. All that set up our heavy hitter to hit hard and let the GM decide if the foe was going to take a major consequence or not.

    Thank you for posting this. Do you mind if I print it out to take to our next game?

  11. Rick Neal says:

    Those are perfect examples of the things I’m talking about. Thanks for posting them!

    And feel free to print and share the article with whomever you wish.

  12. Daniel says:

    THANKS!!! I have been wanting to start a DFRPG with some friends for a while, and while I have a basic understanding of the rules and concepts as a whole, it’s easier for me because I have read, re-read, and listened to all of the books on multiple occasions, and this helps me to grasp how everything flows together as a whole in the game. My friends are pretty much non-Dresdenites though (mainly because the don’t read half so often as I do) and it would have been a somewhat long and complicated explication to describe all of this. Your posts are a true god-send for me. The elegance and simplicity you use to sum things up is going to help me so much… and has vastly increased my own understanding of things to boot. Much appreciated sir.

  13. Rick Neal says:

    @Daniel:
    I’m glad you’re finding the articles useful. Good luck with your game!

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