Cover to Cover: RuneQuest 6th Edition - Combat!
The part of the game that everyone is most interested in (perhaps after character creation) is how it handles that most human of endeavors - killing one another. Interestingly, for a system that is remarkably deadly, it also provides a significant number of ways to end a fight with something other than death. Let's dive in.
The signature element of combat in RQ6 has to be the notion of Combat Styles. This is a combination of the skills associated with fighting, intended to encompass the whole process of a particular type of fighting. It starts with a list of weapons that are associated with the style - maybe spear, hoplite shield and javelin to depict a militia infantry style, while auxiliaries might have a style that includes sling, shortsword and peltast shield. This level of detail is the assumed default, though the rules are explicit that you can be very specific, with each style representing one weapon or weapon combination (net and trident, for example) or go in the other direction and have the styles be very broad (melee combat and ranged combat, for example) depending upon the nature of the game. In honesty, I prefer the finer granularity, and might even go so far as to undo the change from the original source and make each combat style reflective of a single weapon (one handed sword) if not all the way to separating out attack and parry skills.
This skill is, again, all encompassing. It includes the ability to attack with weapons, but also to defend with them, and when one parries using these skills it even includes dodging of the sort associated with smart footwork, bobbing and weaving and the like. It's a level of abstraction that comes back to bite the designers later, as it leaves a bit of a hole in representing the results of combat. More on that later.
In addition to the actual skills in using the weapons, a combat style can also include a Trait - a specific rule that only applies to someone using the associated combat style. These include specifics about how the weapons are used, mostly. Assassination gives one access to the Kill Silently special effect, while Intimidating Scream makes any resistance rolls of a psychological nature one level harder for opponents, to reflect the unnerving way that you bellow at them while you're fighting. These are where a lot of the style comes from in these styles, as opposed to just being a lump of weapon skills under a single name.
All together, these are decisions that have to be made by the GM in advance of play. Leaving this to the players is going to lead to many opportunities for abuse, and it makes much more sense for a combat style to be associated with a particular culture and group than for them to be made up on the fly by the players to best suit their min-maxing ways. Include it as part of your world creation instead.
Actual combat starts by determining initiative, which is 1d10 plus your Strike Rank (based on INT + DEX, to reflect both physical speed and quick thinking) - and which doesn't change from round to round without specific causes. It is also penalized by the level of armor that you're wearing. Interestingly, this doesn't appear to be impacted at all by your STR or SIZ - just by the total ENC value of your armor (divided by 5, rounded up) so even the smallest and weakest of individuals is only slowed down by the same margin as the burliest and strongest fighter, assuming their armor is identical in type. One starts at the highest Initiative and works down until everyone has had a chance to use an Action Point in a proactive way - that is, if you use an Action Point in a reactive fashion, you still get your turn.
Proactive actions mostly involve attacks, but can also include bracing for a charge, casing spells, closing or opening the range with your opponent, delaying your action, mounting or dismounting from a mount, moving outside of engaged combat, outmaneuvering one or more opponents, readying a weapon, standing up from a prone position, or struggling against a grapple, pinned weapon or other special effect currently bothering you.
Reactive actions are things like countering a spell, parrying a blow, using your delayed action or evading (which is more than just a dodge - more like a dive for cover).
Each action, whether it be proactive or reactive uses up a single Action Point from the handful that you're allowed (usually no more than 3 in a normal character unaffected by magic), and make up the bulk of the Action Point economy. This is a sticky area because the granularity is so coarse (most fighters have 2 or 3 APs), a slight difference in ability level turns into a potential game-changer in an actual fight. Slower fighters are therefore almost required to use Special Effects (see below) that cost their opponent APs to help to even the playing field in that regard. Without that, you may find yourself out of APs before your opponent is, and unable to actively defend yourself against one or more incoming attacks.
One last concept before we get into the actual mechanics of how attacking works. Each weapon (including shields) is assigned two values - Size and Reach. These are obvious in real terms, but how they work in play adds another dynamic to things. Size of a weapon determines how well it can be used to protect one when parrying a blow, and conversely how likely one is to bypass, entirely or in part, an opponent's parry. Reach determines whether or not a character can attack, or must be forced to attempt to close or open range, or to attack your weapon instead. Both will get more coverage as we proceed.
The attack process is very simple. Roll percentile dice against your skill to see if you hit - and either leave the dice on the table, or note your result in writing. You'll potentially be referring back to that information in terms of comparing results. This costs you one AP. If you hit, your opponent may choose to parry with a weapon or shield (interesting side note for game system buffs - in RQ6, everything's a parry, no matter what you use. In GURPS, weapons parry and shields block. In Hero System, everything's a block, no matter what you use.) To do so, you roll against your own combat style skill and note the result. This costs you one AP as well. Now, compare your results as per a Differential Roll - the actual number is not important, but the quality of your result is.
Here's where things start to get tricky. You have to have a success level with your parry equal to the attack roll's success level or better to reduce damage from the attack. If your result with the parry is better than the attack (a critical success parry vs a normal attack) not only do you block some or all of the damage, you get a special effect against your attacker. If the roles are reversed (critical attack vs successful parry), you still managed to parry the blow and potentially reduce the damage caused, but the attacker gets a special effect on the defender. As noted - the special effects, caused by differentials in the quality of the attack and parry rolls, are independent of whether or not any damage is inflicted.
Now, what's all this talk about some or all damage being parried? Well, you then compare the size of the attacking weapon to the defending one. If the attacking weapon is the same size or smaller, all damage is stopped. If the attacker is using a weapon one size larger, only half of the damage is stopped, and if the attacker's weapon is two or more sizes larger, none of the damage is stopped. Daggers can not reduce the damage from an incoming great axe blow in RQ6, and only stop half the damage from a longsword.
So, because of the two rolls, you know whether or not you landed your blow, and what percentage of damage gets through to be stopped next by armor. Also, based on the difference in success levels, we know whether or not either attacker or defender scored any special effects on his opponent (on a particularly bad throw, up to three SEs can be incurred - a critical success attack versus a fumbled parry is especially bad news for the defender) and certain special effects can only be had if a critical was involved.
It's very intricate. Did I mention that it's intricate? And yet, once you get it, and get into play, it goes very smoothly. New players may well dither over what special effect they want, or insist upon taking "Choose Location" to hit the head every time, but there are suggestions on how to avoid these issues in the sidebars of the rules. Mostly they boil down to you, as the GM, showing off how cool and devastating other options like Disarm and Trip are when used against them.
Anyway - Special Effects. That's where this system really comes into it's own. This is where you go beyond "3 points of damage to your right arm" and into "ha! a critical success. I choose 'circumvent parry' and bypass your shield!" and "well, I get two SEs, so let's take Trip Opponent and since you fumbled, Force Failure so you automatically fail the roll to stay on your feet." - Most of the options full of great flavor, and some mechanically quite useful - maximize damage of course being popular, but impale also being a fan favorite. Note that not every option is available to every weapon or in every situation. You can't impale with your mace, and you can't force an Accidential Injury unless the attacker fumbles. But the options are very thorough, from inducing bleeding or temporarily blinding your opponent to taking his weapon from him or pinning it against him, to the very specific ones like Kill Silently for assassins and Compel Surrender for use on opponents who are already at a significant disadvantage.
There are additional rules for close combat, for charges, and for many of the other situations one finds oneself in during a fight. There are very specific rules for changing the range with your opponent that can lead to interesting tactical decision on the part of attacker and defender as well that don't have one option that is always the best.
Where the system falls down is pretty much entirely my own opinion only - it's a very popular system with those who have tried it - are in two areas that overlap, and they involve defending one's self from attacks.
The first is the omission of a "dodge" skill. Evade is there, but it automatically lands you prone after you're done evading, success or failure. So if you're facing a guy with an axe and you're unarmed or all you have is a dagger, your only real option is to a) hope he misses, b) dive for cover and fall over or c) parry as best you can, hoping to at least get a decent result and prevent a special effect on yourself.
Associated with that is the notion that your parry attempt includes some limited dodging, fast footwork, whatever. But that isn't reflected in the fact that your light weapon is unable to fully protect you from medium or heavy ones. The only result that models "I got out of the way of his swing" is when the attacker misses entirely, which is of course not impacted in any way by the ability of the defender.
It's a strange weak spot in what I think is otherwise an outstanding system.
Once you've figured out the results, you can adjudicated damage. As in all good game systems there is a hit location chart - one that hasn't changed since the late '70s - with seven locations: head, chest, abdomen and four limbs. Each location has it's own total hit points, and the level of damage relative to those HP determines the nature of the wound. Minor wounds are any attack that leaves the location at positive HP. There are no immediate effects from them, except to make you more susceptible to more serious wounds later. Serious wounds happen when a location is reduced to 0 HP or less, but not yet below -1xHP; these call for an Endurance roll (versus the attack roll!) or the limb becomes useless until healed up. Head, abdomen or chest and you make the same roll, but the result of a failure is unconsciousness (1 minute per point of damage of the blow that reduced the location to 0 or less). Major wounds occur when the location has taken more than twice original HP in damage. If that happens, you're immediately incapacitated, may be unconscious, likely bleeding to death, and if the location is the head, chest or abdomen, maybe immediately and gratuitously dead.
I did say it was a deadly system, didn't I? Your average warrior has something like 6 or 8 HP in his chest, for example, and less everywhere else. The game assumes you're only going to get into fights when you absolutely have to. It also relies heavily on the fact that PCs and notable NPCs have Luck Points to save their bacon when they make a terrible roll. And finally, there are so many ways to quickly end a fight - trips, disarms, pins and the like - that don't require you to kill anyone that you may not ever get to the point of rolling endurance rolls to keep a character alive.
Now, coming from GURPS combats, notorious for their detail, how does RQ6 feel? With two or three actions in a five second combat turn, I think it almost feels more likely than GURPS does, with no real concern about lulls, as they seem to happen naturally. Other than my concern about the weak point in defending one's self, it feels like most possibilities are covered in terms of modeling actual things that happen in a fight (not surprising given that both Whitaker and Nash have experience with such things). I wish that it was more tightly integrated with a minis and grid system instead of having that as an optional rule in the back of the book. But RQ6 remains one of the other compelling systems in my collection that brings me back time and again.