Dueling Gameplay

By Shamus Posted Friday Mar 31, 2006

Filed under: Game Design 108 comments

In KOTOR, bringing down Darth Malak with a lightsaber is like felling a tree with a herring.

A few weeks ago, I talked about how the d20 system (You know: Hit points, damage rolls, and health potions) was great for tabletop games but terrible for video gaming. I suggested that developers would do well to come up with a new system for dealing with deadly combat rather than using the d20 system when it doesn’t really suit.

The entire system collapses into nonsense when the player finds themselves fighting other large foes armed with deadly weapons. I find it difficult to imagine how a ten-foot ogre could hit you with an axe in such a way that it did not kill you, much less allow you to continue fighting. You get away with this when a DM is narrating the game, but when you see it happen on the computer screen it just looks silly.

The worst abuse of this system happens in the various Star Wars games where you engage in lightsaber combat. In all the games I’ve played, what you end up with is two champions standing toe-to-toe, hacking away at each other with lightsabers. They stab each other and the player downs the occasional health pack, and this continues until one of them finally accumulates enough lightsaber wounds to die. It looks utterly ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even feel like a swordfight. We need a new gameplay mechanic that allows for one-on-one duels. Here are some requirements:

  • We need a system that allows two characters to do battle with things like lightsabers, which deal lethal or near-lethal damage in a single blow.
  • We don’t want to re-create the mechanics of ACTUAL swordplay, where the two combatants fight a long stalemate while waiting for their foe to make a single mistake that can be exploited. We never want the player to just hammer away at the attack button, waiting for the random number generator to give them a break and let them strike down their enemy. That would be tedious and frustrating.
  • Like the system of hit points, we need a system of PROGRESS, where steady effort can be used to bring down your foe.
  • The battle should have strategy. In movie swordfights, the characters move all over the scene, using the environment to try and gain some advantage. In video games, there is no reason to move around, so the fighters just stand there and trade blows. Yawn. We need to keep the fight mobile.
  • The system needs to make sense and be intuitive. While my explanation might be long, my goal is to create something that can be understood in a few minutes or less. Ideally, the system should be obvious and require only minimal explanation for the newbie.
The Controls

Let’s start simple. We assume that we have a game with one-on-one combat using deadly weapons. From here on I’ll mostly discuss the system in terms of lightsaber fights, although all of this can apply to everything from rapiers to battleaxes. Let’s also assume we are dealing with player vs. computer combat here, and not player vs. player.

Aside from the attack button, you can press forward to move closer to your enemy, and back to step away from them. Right and left will cause you to circle them, slowly. (No FPS-style circle-strafing here.)

Right now we don’t need any high attack / low attack buttons, or a block button, a duck button, or anything else. A lot of these functions will be superfluous, and others will be emergent.

The Focus Meter

The first step is to throw away the hit point bar. We don’t need it. If someone gets hit, they die. Instead of hit points, we have “Focus”. You can call this whatever you like: Balance, focus, concentration, defense, ki, zen, or whatever label you think best conveys to the player “this is your ability to defend yourself”. When your foe takes a swing at you, your character will deflect the blow with their weapon, and you will lose a bit of Focus. If your Focus runs out, you will fail to stop their attack and they will fatally run you through.

With this small change we now have a system that works just like the old hit-point system, except the game will no longer show the combatants hacking away at each others’ midsections until one of them falls over. The gameplay will work the same, but look a lot more reasonable.

But we can do even better…

The Stamina Meter

Boxing games have this. Every time you take a swing, your stamina goes down a bit. You can take between five and ten swings before this meter is empty. At that point you need to stop and recover for a few seconds, and your foe will have the opportunity to strike back. If you continue to attack, your exhaustion will cause your swings to be slow and clumsy. Your foe will be able to fend off your blows easily, and you will not damage their Focus.

Furthermore, pressing the attack when you are drained will damage your stamina, meaning your meter will either fill more slowly or not fill all the way, thus reducing the number of useful attacks you can make in the future. This is a gradual thing: Occasionally taking an extra swing is no big deal, but relentlessly abusing your arm will seriously weaken you and put you at a great disadvantage.

Fighting for position

Let’s get our fighters moving:

If you are above your foe (on a ramp or steps) then your attacks will be stronger (take away more of his Focus) and his attacks will drain more of his stamina (thus limiting the number of attacks he can usefully deliver). So, the high ground is something to strive for. You want to press your advantage when on the high ground, and give way when your foe does. There are other situations that also create a disadvantage:

  • Having your back to a wall.
  • Being blanced on a narrow ledge, beam, or tightrope.
  • Having your back to an abyss, dangerous machinery, flames, or other area where you cannot retreat.
  • Standing on unstable ground, like crumbling rock or a swinging rope bridge.

When you are attacked, you will be slowly pushed back. Much like a real duel, every odd blow will force you to take a small backward step as you defend yourself. Meanwhile, your opponent will be chipping away at your Focus. You can choose to back away from your foe while he attacks. This will cause you to give up ground more quickly, but also gives you a defensive advantage that will reduce the Focus damage you will take. You can also do the reverse, and push forward (against your foe) as he attacks. This will cause you to hold your ground at the cost of taking more Focus damage. Note that fighters can always walk forward faster than they can retreat, so it’s no good trying to run away.

As an attacker, you can choose to press forward as you attack, which will lessen the focus damage you inflict but allow you to push them back faster. This combines with whatever they are doing. So, if you are pressing forward while they are retreating, then they are going to give up ground very quickly, but you will be doing almost no damage. A smart attacker will use this to his advantage, and maneuver their retreating foe into a tough spot.

You can circle your foe much faster when attacking and much slower when defending. This means the attacker has the most control over where the fight is headed, and can steer an overly-defensive opponent into a corner. To put it another way, whoever spends the most time attacking will have the most control over where the fight is headed.


In the lightsaber games I’ve played, every once in a while the combatants will randomly lock blades for a few seconds. This is done for visual effect, and usually has no real bearing on the battle itself. But now we have a system where saberlock is an emergent part of the system. If the attacker is pressing forward and the defender is refusing to give up ground, then they lock blades and start pushing. Their stamina bars begin to drain. (Note that you cannot see your foes’ stamina bar.) You can release the controller and allow yourself to be shoved back, or you can keep pressing forward into your foe. Now it’s a game of chicken. Whoever runs out of stamina first will lose and get pushed back. The longer the saberlock lasts, the bigger the fall the loser is going to take. If it lasts only for a moment, the loser will move back a few steps. If the contest lasts a long time, the loser is going to get knocked off their feet and tossed onto their butt.

Adding depth and strategy

What I’ve outlined so far will make for a far more interesting swordfighting system than what we have now. Battles will look like real battles, with the combatants moving all over the area, vying for position, and looking for tactical advantages to exploit. Swordplay is no longer a button-mashing stab-fest where the player downs a healthpack or potion every few rounds. Boss battles can be long and varied without simply pitting the player against a guy with eleventy billion hit points. Battles should be exciting and look “real”. (Real as in: how it looks in the movies.)

But we can add some more depth to the game if we like. The following are a number of ideas to give the game even more interesting properties. Note that some of them won’t work well together.

  • Each successive hit you deliver to your foe will be a little stronger (take away more of his Focus) than the previous, as long as your stamina meter isn’t empty. So, to maximize your efficiency you will want to get as many consecutive hits as possible, without going over. Lots of quick one-and-two hits in a row will do almost nothing to your foe. Too many “extra” swings will weaken you later in the fight.
  • It costs extra stamina to attack when your enemy is in the middle of a chain of attacks. Generally you’ll only want to interrupt a chain of attacks if it’s really important, like your focus is nearly gone or you’re about to get backed into a bad spot.
  • The power behind a swing should be both seen and heard. Potent swings should produce increasingly more high-pitched impacts and sparks, while weak attacks produce more muffled or subdued impacts.
  • If you’re out of stamina and you attack, your character should give a very broad and heavy-handed swing. Instead of deflecting it with their weapon, your foe will lean or duck out of the way (basically they will dodge without giving up ground). This gives the player a visual clue that they need to stop swinging without needing to look at the stamina meter.
  • All of this would go very well with a system of self-balancing gameplay. If you make Stamina, attack power, and Focus into stats that the player can improve over time, then you’ll have a very flexible system that can entertain gamers of all skill levels.
  • This system works for fighting multiple enemies as well. Just like in the movies, your character can swing their weapon to intercept attacks coming from behind, even if they really shouldn’t know those attacks are coming. Heroes in the movies do this all the time and we accept it. Lesser foes would have very little focus and would require only a few swings to dispatch. Doing so can refill some of your lost focus, thus removing the need for healthpacks altogether.
  • If you want more “twitch” in your game (you want to aim the game at hyperactive 13-year-olds with awesome reflexes) then you can go that route as well. You can add special combo moves and counter-moves and complex button sequences that will unleash devastating attacks. I won’t play such a game, but lots of gamers really enjoy this sort of thing.
  • A more mild twitch idea: tapping the attack button in the right rhythm will give attacks more power. Just hammering away on the attack button as fast as you can will cause you to burn stamina more quickly. Hitting the button more slowly gives your foe the chance to counterattack and end your chain of attacks before you really get going.
  • Add a taunt button. If you knock your foe away for a second you can hit this button and attempt to anger them. Doing so may enrage them, causing them to over-attack and abuse their stamina. Suddenly the dialog has real strategic value in the battle! The reverse could be fun as well, with the computer-driven enemy goading the player with taunts. If the writers are good and have crafted an interesting and believeable villian, then the player is going to be tempted to hammer away at the attack button carelessly.

I’m convinced there is money in this idea, but I lack the resources to do anything with it. Maybe someone will find themselves in a position to put these ideas to use. I really think someone needs to get ahold of the team behind the next Lucasarts Nerf-Lightsaber game and get them to read this thing over.


From The Archives:

108 thoughts on “Dueling Gameplay

  1. EvilOtto says:

    It’s not a role-playing game, but have you played “Jedi Academy?” Although the game has quite a few flaws, lightsaber combat is DEADLY. Your character has a screen that can absorb some damage, but I’ve been lightsabered in half with a single lucky swing by an enemy. Saber lock is a bitch, because if you lose the lock you are very vulnerable to your opponent’s swing and can bite it easily.

    Of course, the typical combat tactic ends up being “use force speed and run around your opponent attacking as quickly as possible,” but at least it avoids the typical KOTOR fight.

  2. Shamus says:

    I played the most recent Jedi Knight game (the one with Kyle Katarn) and I assumed jedi Academy was the same gameplay style, but with a more open-ended approach.

    Assuming the lightsaber combat is the same, then like you said: it doesn’t look a lot like a real battle. Force speed in and hack away. Now exactly an epic duel, there.

    I’ve sort of been meaning to check it out, anyway. Despite all my moaning, I really do love Star Wars and lightsaber fights.

    1. Taliesin says:

      Try the game online. The lightsaber combats THERE are something quite different.

    2. Feanor says:

      Way of the Samurai on the PS2 (AFAIK from the creators of Bushido Blade) has similar “block and push/retreat/dodge” guesswork mechanics to the ones described. I liked it but it can’t be a core battle mechanic of a game since it grows old pretty fast.

      The above (the main post) sounds great but it also looks like something I’d expect to read on the back of a bad game’s box. You used most of the popular PR speech marketing forces use to make a really bad game sound really good – you jumped to conclusions that this system would be great with nothing solid backing it up. When I try to actually imagine fighting this way it seems awfully boring for an action gamer and unnecessary hands-on from an RPG player’s perspective. It would sure look more realistic at a first glance, but if you used the “longer combo = more damage” rule, wouldn’t players just take turns comboing to get the most out of their stamina?
      There’s an old action-adventure game with very realistic swordplay called “Die by the Sword”. I’m not sure if I’d recommend it to anyone since I couldn’t really get into it myself, but it’s worth mentioning in this context.

      I’m an RPG gamer as well as an action game veteran and I don’t think this idea would make for engaging and interesting combat. My main issue with it is that an RPG gamer just wants to click on his target and forget the details (or rather imagine the details for himself) and an action gamer wants a lot more control over what is happening. Parts of your design were already used in various games with mediocre results at best. The “Focus” gimmick would go a long way into making battles look realistic and it’s the only part I like, but there’s a significant drawback to it – by making battles a one-hit KO encounters you take away feedback delivered by the fact the player scores a hit. Without it the player won’t know when his strategy pays off unless you show him the enemy’s focus bar and that’s not exactly a step towards authenticity.

      IMHO the best lightsaber duels by far were in Jedi Outcast/Jedi Academy and every time I hear about a new SW game I dream it might be an action-RPG with combat lifted from those games. The gameplay consists of baiting the enemy and waiting for his mistake to punish(like in the best fighting games) but it remains unpredictable and interesting with the addition of force powers. If there will ever be a better system (or perhaps just more fitting for consoles) I imagine it’d be akin to Ninja Gaiden 2 (Sigma 2 in my case) with slight changes: more responsive block, two attacks at the same time & high/low zone blocking each other, and of course one-hit kills once the Power/Force/Focus drains. NG2 has life partly regenerating after each battle, so a Jedi who emerges without a hit from a tough duel won’t fall prey to a cheap shot later on, while he still will be tired and more likely to lose the next encounter.

      P.S. It’s my first time commenting here, but I’ve been reading your posts/articles before. It’s just that this is the first idea of yours I so strongly disagree with. You might say it’s a good thing I found it bad. ;)

  3. . says:

    Try playing Bushido Blade. I think it does a pretty good job of capturing the sheer deadliness of swordfighting without being too difficult. You’ve got some basic controls — Different weapons, weapon stances, attack, block, run, jump/climb, and a few alternate moves. Generally speaking the game comes across as a serious strategic showdown where one wrong move means death. It’s not quite as mechanically developed as your idea, but then again it is a fighting game, not an RPGish fight simulation system.

    If possible I recommend you check it out — Also I would advise staying away from Bushido Blade 2 — It dumbed down the blocking system, removed the ability to cripple an opponent’s legs, and added in some ridiculous gimmicks (throwing a wakizashi at the start of the match often results in an instant kill, a tactic that is pure cheese given the gamestyle and unrealistic to boot).

    1. Shawn Erlewine says:

      I will second Bushido Blade. Back in college my roommate and I would play that until the sun came up (and then decide if we could skip our first class)! We would select our character and weapon and then fight “first to 100”. After winning… select new characters and weapons and do it all again.

      It really did present the best sword fighting mechanics of any game then… and even today. The more time spent learning the weapons and your human opponent the more strategic and tense the battles became.

      Memorable moments:
      -A move that allows you to strike an opponent’s weapon in an attempt to move it out of the way and then lunge at the exposed torso.
      -The double-kill. Each fighter lands a fatal strike at the same time.
      -Opponents with leg injuries seemed difficult to kill… and more dangerous than they should have been. I would count that as more of a flaw… though it did add a certain excitement and changed the flow of the fight.

      The graphics are pretty dated by today’s standard, but if I found someone like my roommate I’m sure I could get sucked into the game again.

  4. EvilOtto says:

    You’re right that Jedi Academy is the same style, but there are a lot more combat moves, different styles, and different sabers (you can dual wield or use a two-blade saber). For example, a doublesaber user can use force kicks, while a single blade user (or dual wielder) can throw and force-guide the blade. There are combat moves that allow you to run up walls, kick opponents on both sides of you, or (coolest of all) knock an opponent down and pounce on him, driving your saber though him into the ground, usually resulting in an instant kill.

    The *problem* with all this is that is that using most of these moves effectively requires the reflexes of a ten-year-old with pure Mountain Dew flowing through his veins. The response time required do use the double-kick, for example, is just ridiculous. By the time my brain has processed the information that 1) there’s opponents on both sides, 2) the double kick would be an effective way of dealing with them, 3) OK, the double-kick is done by pressing this combination of buttons… the combat has moved on and the DK is no longer useful. It’s OK when you’re fighting Stormtroopers and the like, and you can spend a little more time concentrating on using the cool attacks, but then again, you don’t NEED them to kill stormtroopers. One swing of a saber does it. Against competent saber-users, you don’t have the *time* to use the attacks and so just end up with the old “force-speed and run around” style.

    I’ve just about given up on ever seeing a good lightsaber-fighting game. I just end up playing KOTOR 1 & 2 because they have such great storylines, and try to forget that by the end of the games your character is pretty much an undefeatable god.

    (By the way, if Malak is hard to slice apart, Traya in KOTOR 2 is even worse… in the final battle, as she tossed out three lightsabers and was force controlling them, once they were dealt with it took dozens of slashes of my saber to cut down a defenseless old woman! Ridiculous.)

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hey you do know your problem can easily be fixed just by making the animation different and using the same rules? I.E. the lightsaber battle has oh.. 30? different scripted “determining” animations, then when one fighter kills the other, bam, one of 30? scripted “finishing” animations. Done.

  6. 10Kan says:

    Anonymous, if you did that then you’d have to explain why a character is able to emerge from a tough lightsaber battle without having been hit, yet is teetering on the brink of death. It’s the same problem, reversed.

    1. WJS says:

      What needs explaining? If you reinterpret HP as Stamina, then if you come out of a fight with your bar nearly empty, it means it was such a close fight your character is exhausted and isn’t in any shape to fight another battle until he’s rested. What’s the problem with that?

  7. Simon_Jester says:

    I really like this idea. I, too, am tired of seeing Anakin Skywalker and Count Dooku whale on each other with nerfsabers.

    On a few detail notes:
    Higher ground might not be that big an advantage in a swordfight. Guarding your legs isn’t necessarily easier than guarding your head. However, the principle is sound, even if it might need to be reversed.

    Attacks from behind should consume considerably more focus; this would discourage people from letting the lesser mooks circle behind them in a fight.

    Another idea is that you might set up some kind of variable that controls the ‘lethality’ of an attack. A given attack technique has some percent chance of actually killing an opponent who runs out of focus. This need not be the same as the amount of focus damage it causes. For instance, a big horizontal sweep is easy to counter and therefore drains little focus from a focused opponent. However, it’s almost guaranteed to kill or mission-kill an opponent who has no focus and can’t block the strike. Conversely, an attack pattern whose main effect is to get the opponent’s weapon knocked out of line might do lots of focus damage but have a relatively low kill probability.

    I don’t know how realistic that would make it, but it would probably be more interesting.

  8. Shamus says:

    Simon: I really like that.

  9. Harlequin says:

    As a fencer for almost 20 years, and the head fencing coach at a major university of the past 8, I heartily endorse this system. It has elements of what actually occurs in a swordfight (and arguably, I’ve been in hundreds, maybe even thousands of them).

    Swordfighting (or fencing, anyway) oddly enough is much more difficult for BOTH combatants when one person is on significantly higher ground. It’s almost tougher to fence down for the person in the “superior” position, though classic miliatry strategy generally says the person with the high ground is in a better position.

    Oh, and I second the reference to Bushdio Blade, which is previously what I consider closest to the actual do-or-die of what combatants in the past must have faced. And yes, B.B. II really is worse.

  10. Deniz Altin says:

    Actually, one can have some decent lightsaber duelling in Jedi Outcast single player. You just need the following:
    – Some saber sound replacement mod (with the original sounds, it’s really no fun at all)
    – A decent map (I’m using dotf 2.0 or the reactor room within the Dark Alliance mod, which has cool saber sounds built in BTW).
    – An NPC with maxed up stats (I’m using the Reborn Maul from Dark Alliance, expect that I’m giving him 100 HP). Just don’t give him force speed.
    – No speed (IMO speed is only good for dispatching large numbers of non-saber oppenents; it ruins saber duels, so just don’t use it – period).
    – Start with 100 HP or 50 HP, depending on how lethal you want your opponent to be.
    – No shields.
    – Dismemberment settings like that:
    ui_iscensored “0”
    g_dismemberProbabilities “1”
    g_dismemberment “3”
    g_saberRealisticCombat “0” (true, turning this on promises to make the lightsaber more lethal, and some people acually like it, but in my experience it just makes your saber dismember with every little hit, which get’s pretty repetitive. With the suggested dismemberment settings one has to time and place one’s strikes exactly to dismember.)

    With these settings, a well placed saber strike or strike combo can kill immediately (applies to the opponent AND the player), especially if it dismembers.
    True, the problem with the HPs remains, but since you don’t see the HPs of your opponent, it is not a great problem. Think of any hit that doesn’t kill to be merely grazing. As mentioned, if you hit your opponent square (or the other way round), it will be lethal – believe me!

    One final thing you’ll need is, well, practice. To make the fights look good, you
    – shouldn’t jump around to fiercley
    – shouldn’t run around all the time (use the walk key)
    – have to find the right choice of stances (I’m using mainly medium plus the right horizontal swing of red – especially at the end of a jump; blue is ugly IMO, excpet for the lunge and backstab).

    Once you get the knack of it, you can have some amazing duels (I’ve been playing the same duel over and over again for more than one year now, it still is such an amazing feeling – you truly think you’re in a lightsaber fight).
    Especially the finishing moves are really great. You have to try the following:
    – Cut your opponent in half after winning a saberlock (easy with medium stance).
    – Hit your opponent square – or cut him in half – when he’s near a ledge. This will send him flying, screaming.
    – And, of courese, decapitating (hard – at least with my dismemberment settings)

    If anyone’s interested, I can send a save file which can be used with the Dark Alliance mod installed and activated. Just drop me a mail at [email protected].

  11. Russ the "correct" says:

    You could also add to your system a “feint” option that would change the “correct” timing for attacks and cause the opponent to lose more stamina while you lose power… “Taunt” might accomplish the same thing, and avoid letting smart players just ignore the whole effect (“Yeah, he taunted me; big deal. I’ll just keep using the same rhythm and beat him down just the same…”)

  12. Bizarre says:

    In the new Star Wars Saga Edition d20 game, HP is used more as an arbitrary measurement of a character’s ability to survive. Jedi aren’t necessarily as physically robust as Soldiers but they’re given an equal amount of HP to reflect that they’re trained for combat and survival. A character can be at half maximum HP and not necessarily have a scratch on them, but they’re so worn out from dodging lightsabres and blaster bolts that they just can’t make as much of an effort to keep dodging. So lightsabre duels can sap HP without the character even necessarily getting hit.

    Also, in KotOR2 (and maybe even 1) lightsabre vs. lightsabre fights were duels of sabre locks. The combatants lost HP with each clash without actually getting hit, until they finally hit 0 and the other character dealt a killing blow.

  13. General Karthos says:

    This is actually a problem I have with the d20 system in table-top games. Jedi and Sith at high levels will rarely miss each other, and it seems like the average lightsaber duel lasts only twelve to twenty-four seconds (two to four rounds) at the most. If either combatant stops to heal himself, he or she forfeits as many as four additional attacks in that round, to heal damage equivalent to approximately two average damage attacks from his opponent when every given attack will hit 95% of the time. The d20 system for combat is broken, and I’ve never found a good way to fix it without increasing the length of each round to at least a minute.

    However, there is another system; second edition Star Wars, that with a few creative modifications from a GM can make lightsaber duels into the epic fights they’re supposed to be. The game is a d6 system, where lightsabers for any relatively skilled Jedi will deal damage so insanely massive that any blow that doesn’t kill is pretty much certain to at least knock the enemy unconscious, if not kill them. The system as it is written however, doesn’t allow for anything between hit and miss.

    So replace the “hit or miss” system with a scale. In the game I was playing, the system we used was as follows. An attacker makes an attack roll. In 2E Star Wars the defender makes a defense roll, each using the Lightsaber skill plus their Sense skill level. If the attacker exceeds the defender’s roll, then the following happens according to the number by which it was exceeded:

    0 – 5: No damage. Cool moves, lots of crossed blades.
    6 – 10: Hit with a part of the body instead of the
    lightsaber. A punch or kick, so strength-based physical damage is rolled.
    11 – 15: Slight hit with the lightsaber blade. A nick
    to the arm or leg. Lightsaber damage isn’t rolled, but
    loser is classed as stunned (suffering a minor penalty) next round.
    16 or more: Hit with lightsaber as normal.

    When the two combatants are of approximately equal level, the lightsaber combats lasted on average ten times longer than they would have in normal. Note that the system allows both attack and defense in the same round, so that the defender doesn’t always have to defend and the attacker doesn’t always have to attack, though concentrating solely on attack makes the attack more likely to hit, and concentrating solely on defense makes the attack less likely to hit.

    When a character is struck by a lightsaber, he or she will have somewhere between two and four dice to roll to resist the damage, whereas a skilled opponent will likely have somewhere between seven and fourteen dice to roll for damage. If we assume an average roll from both of them on average skill level, (3D to resist, 10D to hit) the guy resisting damage will roll 10 or 11, against 35 damage. If the damage exceeds the resistance by 16 or more, the defender is killed.

    As you can see, a single solid strike, exceeding the defense number by 16 or more results in near certain death. I used this system once online, and actually have the whole thing still saved as it was written out. The fight moves from inside a hotel lobby to outside onto the rainslicked side of a building, the top of a hover-truck, a walkway that collapses underneath the two combatants as they are fighting on it, into a power generation room, and finally into a foundry before it’s over.

    EVERY fight I’ve run with these rules has been thrilling, exciting, and full of spectacular cinematic moves. Maybe someone smarter than me (and more familiar with the third edition system) could convert these rules so that they work in the d20 system. I’ll stick with my second edition for now.

  14. Brickman says:

    This sounds like an interesting idea. One suggestion I’d make is making high ground, instead of just causing extra “damage”, do a tiny bit of extra damage but cause you to push your opponent back a lot faster for free. And you need to make sure there’s a lot of places that give you a large strategic (dis)advantage, because otherwise all the attention put into the movement part of this is wasted because it won’t make a difference (since they can just move back to the attack and strafe out of the tight spot). Since it’ll be inherently hard to ever get or keep someone in a defensively bad position, I’d probably say successfully doing so should come very close to instantly killing them (like, it’ll multiply damage x5 or something), while making it hard to simply reverse the thing by circling around the opponent, leading to two strategies–press forward and try to lead your opponent into a trap before their full damage beats your partial damage, or put all your effort into damage and try to avoid a trap until you beat them in the number game. ((“Damage” of course meaning damage to the focus bar; it’s just easier to say)).

    THAT’d be an interesting system, and take full advantage of the computer’s abilities involving where things are positioned and how/how fast they’re moving much more quickly and freely than a bunch of people with figurines, diagrams or just verbal descriptions (and it’s ability to do that without slowing down the combat–a computer could crunch the numbers on a ten minute combat in half a second if it wanted to, it’s already got time to spare on movement details).

  15. Afromonkey says:

    I’LL DO IT

    I’ve been using a program called game maker, and I recon i’m good enough at it now to have a stab at making this game. No pun intended.
    Obviously the graphics will suck, it might not even be 3d, but it will test the game mechanics, which to me sound perfectly workable.
    Though if I were you I wouldn’t have a ‘if you get hit, you die’ system, but about three kinds of wound

    1. You die
    2. You are injured and cannot fight, but will live if you get medical care. Your opponent can choose to kill you or not. (maybe people who kill their helpless foes move to the dark side?)
    3. You are injured a little (flesh wound, lost a finger, etc) and continue to fight but with stamina and focus much lower and steadily falling. This allows you to finish off an opponent if it is a close battle, or keep fighting long enough for a friend to back you up, etc.

  16. Afromonkey says:

    Also, if you behave like a complete nutter with the light sabre, you should be able to accidentally cut of your own limbs. This is known in GURPS as critical fail, or on the internet as EPIC FAIL.

  17. gordon says:

    i have to say all in all your plan is not practical
    take a look at the KOTOR gameplay
    you fight countless numbers of enemies of all kinds
    if every fight was a duel as u have described the game would become incredibly long
    in a game with an epic and very deep storyline much would be lost in order to plan out all these duels considering pretty much EVERY weapon is fatal
    this deuling one on one style game simply draws out the length of encounters in a game where u are the last jei
    these are games of one against millions
    and that many duels would simply leave no time for anything else
    in this matter i find that sacrificing the “realism” is worth the gain of such an amazing game
    all in all the gameplay style is lots of fun
    yes it doesnt make sense that they actually get hit with a lightsaber and dont die, but in all honesty the game is so much fun
    it is deisgned with a system where u canutilize all kinds of different powers at your leisure. the level up system is wonderful and gives u a wide variety of options
    and the story is incredibly detailed and has some amazing options
    in all honesty the comparison to a BOXING game is ENTIRELY useless
    a boxing game is ONE ON ONE
    u cant use a one on one fighting system in a universe expanding game
    so plz if u want to create a new realistic game like that and then have a crap storyline because all u have is a series of one on one battles, feel free, but dont redesign an amazing game with a system that doesnt fit it

    1. Lame Brain says:

      I think you miss the point.
      Games like KOTOR have massive amounts of enemies that you hack thru becasue they NEED massive amounts of enemeies to hack through.

      How often does this happen in movies? Or in books? Generally speaking, a single combantant does not engage massive amounts of foes and come out unscathed, even if they are a jedi.

      I have often found myself being broken from the immersion in RPGs when I stop to realize that my character has mowed down literally thousands of sentient beings. This is not realistic, or dramatic.

  18. Haku says:

    A game with a great story doesn’t *have* to have multitudes of enemies. This type of action-oriented gameplay in fights just calls for a different type of story-telling through gameplay than “Big boss bad guy is at the end of this dungeon, between you and him are 15,000 goblins”. If you really wanted a compromise you could only include this type level of gameplay in boss battles.

    Anyway, it’s clearly, as you say, not substitutable for the stat-based gameplay mechanic in just any RPG, a game really needs to be built around this system from the ground up for it to work.

  19. Yonder says:

    Gordon: A lot of that would take care of itself with the strength of it’s enemies. Stormtroopers, for example, would have very little focus, as they don’t have a gun. Once you closed distance chopping them up would be quick and easy, just like you would expect them to be. This would only turn into an epically long fight if the person you were fighting was close to your own level of fighting skill, or there were numerous opponents of a mediocre level (not quick KOs) even there the length of the time would mostly come down to strategy. If you let them own the fight, out maneuvering you, then you would have to wear them all down in a war of attrition. On the other hand, if you made sure that you were in control, you would be able to concentrate power on small numbers of enemies until they were dead, then keep working through them.

    In the event that fights [i]were[/i] becoming extremely long, that would be easy to fix. Make less of them! You are assuming that you would take an existing game, substantially change one mechanic, and then toss it out the door without testing through the ramifications of your actions. With fights that are longer, more satisfying, and more memorable you would be able to have fewer of them and still have a better game. Especially since it is those bland, “filler” fights that are the most tiresome.

  20. Corsair says:

    Also, against something like Stormtroopers, blasters would be effective. So you’re only breaking out your lightsaber for fights with Sith Lords. Or you could do what Haku and Yonder suggested, that also works.

  21. Brian says:

    I like this idea a lot. One point I would add: Though you may not be able to see your opponent’s stamina and/or focus bar, there should be visual and auditory cues, like in real life. An opponent with little focus may have his sword drooping from its normal guard position, or one with little stamina may breathe heavily and swing erratically. Conversely, an enemy with high stamina may yell battlecries while attacking, and one with high focus will seem alert and quick to deflect attacks. This would preserve some of the reality that most people in barfights don’t have little red meters above their heads, while leaving an element of strategy for, say, saberlocks. “He’s breathing heavily and sweating…I can push through this chump.”

    Of course, if you want to get really complex, you may have some foes who will try to fake you out by giving incorrect cues, trying to trick you into overextending yourself. A feint within a feint…

  22. Corsair says:

    And then there are the guys who actually are worn out, and make it look like they’re worn out to make you think that they’re actually tough and robust but just trying to fool you.

  23. Grue says:

    Awesome idea! Reading this makes me feel stupid for not realizing how ridiculous the current system is and how easy it would be to improve it. (Since no one else has thought of it it’s apparently only easy in hindsight.)

  24. Brendan says:

    Afromonkey, you CANNOT make this game on game maker. I have used this program alot, and the most complex game you can get out of it is DOOM. There is no viable option for 3rd person, which is what this game requires. the closest you can get to 3d is 2.5d cardboard cutouts.

  25. Chris says:

    What happens when you bring a crossbow into a swordfight? (Or a blaster against lightsabers, which is a whole different problem.)

    It would be interesting if there were other tactical “options” in a fight where you can yank out a crossbow and shoot a guy who refuses to lock swords, thereby piercing straight through his “focus” thereby severely hurting the foe’s ability to fight. You could force the bowman to aim in first-person while remaining still while he’s “sighting down the rails” thereby making defense a trickier proposition.

    As a tradeoff the crossbow/musket would take lengthy amounts of time to load and provide virtually no defense or “focus” against a person right there in face of the bowman.

    Would be particularly interesting if multiple opponents suddenly concentrated fire on a lone swordsman. Or if a bowman got the drop on a swordsman.

    By a similar tack, “longbows” could drain more “stamina” for a superior rate-of-fire while “crossbows” are fire-and-forget weapons.

  26. kamagurka says:

    I want this game now.

  27. Kell says:

    This article is both inspired and inspiring. I’d love to try this system out too, both as a player and a modder ( like you, I lack the resources to actually pursue it :/ )

    The additional suggestion regarding taunts would, of course, be mandatory…

    “You cannot win, Ramirez, I am the strongest!”
    “My cut has improved your voice.”

    The last line:

    I really think someone needs to get ahold of the team behind the next Lucasarts Nerf-Lightsaber game and get them to read this thing over.

    leads me to ask: did anything resembling this system appear in The Force Unleashed?

  28. Simon Brooke says:

    Firstly: excellent article, man are you so right about most current sword fighting in games. Someone who is hit one solid aimed blow with an ordinary mark one viking age broadsword is out of the fight; the old vikings used to reckon that only one person in six survived their first real battle, but that by the time you’d been in six battles you were virtually unkillable.

    A sword is also heavy: not very heavy, surprisingly light in fact, but nevertheless it’s not easy to carry that weight at full extension of your arm for any length of time. If you read contemporary accounts of real sword battles you’ll see that people actually stopped for rests in the middle of deadly battles.

    Of course, if you’re wearing good enough armour the first serious blow – unless from a heavy battle axe – is probably not going to put you out of the battle. But any sort of serious armour is MUCH heavier than a sword, and tires you correspondingly faster.

    So there are a couple of issues for me: one is, an unarmoured character must successfully parry every attack from his opponent; if he fails to parry just one attack – curtains. An armoured character can let a few blows through, but every blow will weaken (but not lighten) his armour. The second is, of course, vitality (or stamina if you prefer).

    I find the sword play in Sid Meier’s Pirates interesting. It’s not, obviously, a serious RPG, and it’s all very simple, but there is a good basic mechanic: you can attack high, mid, or low (7, 4, 1 keys on the numeric pad); you can defend high (by ducking – 9 key) or low (by jumping – 3 key); or you can taunt (6 key). If the opponent attacks high and you fail to duck, you’re forced back two places; similarly if he attacks low and you fail to jump. If you attack mid and the opponent fails to attack mid, he’s forced back one place. Some opponents are markedly quicker than others and the difficulty is all in the speed.

    This makes for an exceedingly effective sword fighting mechanic in what is essentially a two-and-a-half-D game.

    To translate that into 3D I think you need to be able to attack high, middle, low on both sides, as well as thrust; and equally parry high, middle and low both sides as well as thrust. On a joystick-based controller (or on a Wii controller) this is fairly straightforward – push the joystick left with the fire button depressed to launch an attack from the left, push the joystick left with the fire button released to parry to the left. Pressing the fire button with the joystick centred is a thrust; centering the joystick with the fire button released is en garde.

    A successful attack results in you stepping forward and slightly to the side from which you attacked; a successful defence results in you stepping back and to the side away from the attack. Obviously the speed of the attack or defence depends on the physics of the situation – the stamina or vitality of the character, the strength of the character, and the combined weight of sword and armour. The heavier it is, the more strength it needs and the more vitality it drains.

    A defence may be unsuccessful because the character simply failed to make the appropriate move, or it may be unsuccessful because the move was too slow (e.g. because vitality is too low).

    A related point is chaining. If you have been attacked low to the left and have parried left you’re in a good position for a thrust or for an attack from the left, so the time cost for an attack from the left following a parry to the left should be lower then if the parry had been to the right.

  29. Julian says:

    I would add a swinging system like the one found in EA’s Fight Night games: TPC, Total Punch Control. Basically, you right analog stick represents the back of your boxer. If you move the stick diagonally up and right, you’ll take a right jab. If you move it to the left, then move it in a clockwise circle, you’ll do a left cross. So, your stick represents how your boxer’s arms move. To attack quickly, you alternate left and right swins, and to attack low, you hold L1 while you do it. From the very first moment I saw it, I thought it’d be perfect for a swordfighting game. Up-then-down being a overhead slash, R3 being a stab, etc. Also, in Fight Night, while holding R1 (the block button), you’d do nothing. If you move the right analog stick up while blocking, you protect your face, move it down to protect your stomach. Now it gets interesting: Any position OTHER than up or down will protect only that specific area of your body. Moving it upwards and to the left will protect the left side of your face only. So what’s the catch? If you succesfully defend a blow aimed at one of these specific parts, you’ll deflect it instead of blocking. I’ll explain: If I defend my entire face and get hit in the face, I take minimal damage. If I defend the left part of my face and get hit in the left part of my face, I’ll automatically deflect my opponent’s punch, giving me ample time to counterattack.
    One more thing about that game I liked was that after getting up from a knockdown or after countering a blow (see above) with a very powerful punch, you’d get “adrenaline”. Basically this meant that all my punches were “free” for five seconds. Free in the sense that they cost NO stamina at all, whether the short-term kind or the long-term stamina.

  30. B.J. says:

    A few years ago a friend and I talked about a combat system idea a lot like this (specifically, the idea of an auto-block meter and hits being lethal). Rise of the Argonauts claimed it would have such a system, but if it does it sure doesn’t seem like it. Assassin’s Creed feels closer to this idea, but relies mostly on unblockable counters. Still, this leads me to think that if anyone will try a system like this it will be Ubisoft.

  31. mc says:

    I think Rune, the MMO, had a system where a strike to the neck could kill someone regardless of their level. I can’t find where I read that originally though.

  32. Steve says:

    Your system is original, but flawed.

    Your idea of “Focus” doesn’t address the issue, all it does it rename your HP. You can call it whatever you like, but if you have a bar that gets chipped away when your opponent attacks, and you die when it runs out, that’s your health bar.

    As for Stamina, also a good idea, but in a fast-paced action game, this can make it very tedious to most players and give it a turn-based feel. If it was implemented similar to the AP system in Fallout 3, I could see it being useful. Using the AP increases accuracy, but doesn’t make it impossible for you to attack should you run out, you just have to manually aim, and usually sacrifice a lot of accuracy.

    Your Sabrelock and tactical advantage situations I couldn’t agree with more, well put together thoughts.

    I think a game you should check out is the new Prince of Persia. All of the fights in the game are duels, and I felt it was very well done. Your character can only take a couple hits, and should you fall, the enemy regains health. However, there are ways to instant-kill your opponent, such as knocking them off a ledge or pinning them against a wall and driving your sword through them. It has its’ flaws, as all systems do, but I felt it was a very good step in the right direction.

  33. Anonymoose says:

    The thing is though, with a health bar, it’s “You are this close to dying.” With focus, it’s “You are this focused. You are this able to block. You are this combat-ready.”

    As a side note, I think that it shouldn’t just be an instant block if you have any focus at all. I think that at full focus, a skilled character should have 100% chance of blocking. At half focus, maybe lower it to 80-90%. Still impressive odds, but no matter how focused you are, you can still make mistakes. Even at 0 focus, you should have maybe 5% chance of successful blocking. Maybe that’s too high of a change, but there should be some chance.

    It could also lead to insane come-from-behind kind of lucky breaks. You’re at 0 focus and 0 stamina. You pull off an insane, lucky block, and follow up with a 1 in 400 second move of a lethal blow to a nearly 100% foe.

  34. anonymous says:

    Main problem I see with having lightsabers that do lethal or near-lethal damage is having to do a crap load of work, then suddenly be struck down in one cheap blow, sending you back to your last save. If you want to see a game that does this quite often, try the persona series. You will come to hate hama/mudo.

  35. anon says:

    Absolutely love it. A game like Age of Conan or Oblivion would benefit greatly if a system like this one was implemented.

  36. cjlr says:

    Anyone played Mount & Blade?

    Brilliant combat engine in that one. Real time, high damage, dynamic attacks and blocking (abstracted as four directions: left, right, high, low). All it takes is one good hit and you’re down, even when you’re riding about in full plate armour on an armoured charger. Put in any serious amount of time and you’ll be cursing crossbows as viciously as historical knights ever did; that’s gotta count for something in terms of realism, right?

    Not without some flaws, though. Blocking damages shields (until they break and are useless) but doesn’t damage weapons, so you can stop a greatsword with a wooden staff; indefinitely, if your reflexes are good enough… There’s no abstracted ‘focus’ system, but who needs one? You as a player certainly aren’t going to perfectly block everything forever!

    The worst thing about it, in a sense, is that since you’re so vulnerable, and so is everyone else, the player character feels like just another soldier. That’s fine when you’re representing some schmoe in the middle ages with a pointy stick and five minutes of training, but if you’re supposed to be a great Jedi then there would need to be some mechanics to reflect the fact that you’d, realistically, be a way better fighter than most of the nameless grunts you might end up facing.

    1. Andrew says:

      I found that playing the game at higher difficulties only served to make archery a more attractive option. You could simply pick off their elite units, preventing any real chance of significant casualties, then charge the mooks with your lance until they died. The only place archery occasionally struggled was defending against sieges, since you couldn’t access your chest to refill your quiver.

  37. cjlr says:

    Oh, and if you’re insanely lucky, (or skilled, I suppose), you can block arrows with your sword. If pulling that off doesn’t make you feel like a complete badass, I don’t know what would.

  38. Knaight says:

    This could work with multiple opponents as well. That said, feints are what would be needed to really bring this into its own, and more importantly, feinting into stances. I fence frequently, and if you are able to subtly move into a position from which you can attack well, even once, you have an advantage. If you see someone doing that, and press the attack, you have an advantage. Etc.

    An example of a game which works well on multiple opponents, while still working for a duel(no weapons) is Lugaru. Its a simple, intuitive system, a knife, staff, or sword is going to screw you up, and it looks fluid. Toribash works well for duels, but it is extremely slow, and has a steep learning curve. Still, if one were to take its basic mechanics, allow for a few set abilities that the player creates, as well as defaults, and then throw in weapons, you would have a functional game that is fast in combat, but can slow down in duels.

  39. Dennis Brennan says:

    Another refinement: make it matter which hand the sword is held in. If you are right-handed, then your right hand is closer to your opponent (so that your sword can defend your body). This means that it should be easier to strafe to the “left” (the direction that your body is facing) than to your “right” (behind your body).

    1. WJS says:

      Except that this isn’t the case at all. Saying something like that simply demonstrates that you’ve never fenced.

  40. Andrew says:

    Actually I think DnD system works pretty well in video games. I absolutely loved Neverwinter Nights and NWN2. It’s true that the combat isn’t realistic, but man, it surely is fun :)

    That aside, I do see your point. The fights should be more like “parry, parry, parry, parry, small hit, parry, big hit, end” instead of “hit, hit, hit, hit hit… your HP runs out, end”. However, I really don’t see how you can make the controls good enough for actual sword combat aside from using something like Wii, or those systems at the arcades where you actually wave your sword around. Plus for online play and system like this, latency would be a big problem.

  41. PaperStab says:

    Very cool article. If Force abilities could be implemented somehow it could become a lot deeper and Star Wars-like. It could also lend itself to another saberlock mechanic. Such as in Episode 3 when Vader and Obi-Wan both use Force Push simultaneously and try to battle for control.

  42. Drew says:

    Personally I got very tired of d20 style combat as well, even in pnp.

    You should *really* check out The Riddle of Steel pnp system. It has an incredibly detailed and realistic combat system that is ARMA approved. It is thrilling because it is realistic and lethal, and embodies many of the ideas you mentioned above. Naturally your system is probably much better suited to video games, but I thought it interesting that you were reaching the same points and I thought maybe looking it over would inspire you further! Too bad it’s out of print now (I think), but there are some quickstart rules, an article by an ARMA director, and other bits and bobs on the site still.


  43. Jon says:

    Your post reminded me of the game “die by the sword”. One of the control modes in that let you control your sword (or other weapon) or shield arm (selectively) entirely with the mouse, and your opponent (in 2 player) could control theirs too, so you had to actually parry and strike etc., and the harder you swished the mouse across the pad the harder your player slashed and the more likely you would get a limb off. If you were dexterous enough to get your slash at head height (for varying floor/ceiling heights, crouch or not, and different enemy and player models) you could kill your opponent in one go. Similarly, an ogre wielding a tree just needed to hit you basically, it didn’t matter where.

  44. mark says:

    D20 system is very bad. There are other roleplaying systems with more realistic rules.

    Anyway, what you propose here is cool BUT it sounds horribly difficult to implement.

    I doubt this can be easily done.

  45. OmnipotentGodKing says:

    You are 12 years too late.

    Bushido Blade.

  46. Francis says:

    Rather than having the ‘mild twitch’ option as a repetetive tapping, I think that a well-timed hit makes more sense. So as a battle proceeds, a target would pop up, turning from red to yellow to green based on the ideal time to swing at the enemy. The closer to the ideal timing that the button is pressed, the more the attack on the enemy is accurate and efficient. Kind of like a guitar-hero style play. This is already used in lots of arcade gun-games, but I haven’t seen it used in melee-fighting games. Obviously it’d be best if the targeting/timing reticules weren’t bright circles that overwhelm everything else, as they usually are in the arcade shooter games.

  47. Justin W says:

    One of the best game design articles I’ve read in years! I’m glad that no one has fully implemented this yet – I’d never get anything done!

    One interesting possibility to note is that an “entropy metric” based on the player’s moves fighting a specific enemy could be used to punish repetition (the enemy “learns” the player’s style and becomes more adept at stopping blows, and thus loses less focus). Also, I think it might be a little more interesting if failure was “soft” rather than “hard” at low focus levels. The chance of being mortally struck becomes greater (but not 100%). Combined with the ability to take small amounts of damage from glancing blows (this is more probable at smaller focus levels, or in certain combat configurations), I think it’d add a lot of realism to the game.

    Just pounding away at your enemy for a few minutes isn’t that exciting, but wearing them down first and *then* pounding them until they crack, that could be very, very satisfying.

  48. Cyberqat says:

    No offense, but i don’t see much that’s new here.

    Call it hit points or call it defense points and its the same difference. The only real difference is that you’ve changed the animation a bit. Which is window dressing, not system.

    Try Age of Conan. It pretty much does all you outlined and more. And what it doesn’t do, the martial arts fighting games have done for a long time.

  49. Aiden R. says:

    One system that might address some of the “this would make my game take forever” concerns would be:

    First, expose the core of the game (e.g. the “rock-paper-scissors” aspect) directly. Give the starting player two or three basic attacks and defenses so she can acclimatize to the system. Expand the set of options very slowly and ideally mostly through improved outcomes of combinations of moves. This gives the player the largest number of choices with the fewest number of inputs. Let’s call the attacks A, B, and C; the defenses X, Y, and Z. Maybe A beats X, B beats Y, Z beats C, and other pairings work out to a draw. (Oversimplified for discussion.)

    Next, make fights as easy as they are in the movies by deriving enemy combat strategies come from a unit training doctrine. For instance if all of the stormtroopers trained in the same camp then they should engage their different abilities in roughly the same order. Once the player discovers a combination that defeats the enemy, it can become very fast to move through many of them.

    Next, to overcome the perception of “stupid AI”, each unit should modify its strategy based on observation of like units. So if the player does pattern A-B-A to defeat one guard, the next guard would assume the player is about to do A-B-A and defend like Z-Z-Z (or really anything but X-Y-X). This way, encountering a group of two guards is a steady but diminishing challenge that is greater than two encounters with one guard each.

    Optionally, an overlooked but surprisingly easy coding mechanism for the enemy units is to write their attack dictionary into a long string like “AAABABBAACAABCCBBCAC”, assuming that all the internal pairs are relatively sensible. This way, the enemy has long combos available, but can randomly jump to a new segment if the player appears to have figured out the current pattern.

    And finally, individual units (leaders, named NPCs, etc) can be designed to include combos from the generic type they represent so that they have a basic consistency, but then important variations can be made to surprise and push back the player. So Stormtroopers have a simple pattern. Stormtrooper Squad Leaders know those patterns plus more. Imperial Guards know many more and have better outcomes per move due to higher focus and stamina.

  50. Matt says:

    Reminds me of this foreign video game called Demon’s Souls. It is medieval fantasy and is suppose to have pretty deadly, unforgiving combat.

  51. I think this is very cool and I’m assuming that want you want to do with this system is to emulate movie sword fighting (which is exciting) and not real life sword fighting which is much more boring.

    I think it could be made even simpler by making movement into combat. If you are close enough to an enemy and you move towards them, then that is an attack. The strategy comes not from how you attack them but where you choose to attack them from.

    Here are the three scenarios I think would be interesting:

    1. A large number for low skilled troops. Each troop you can kill with only a single blow or two and you get the visceral satisfaction of scything through them but even a couple of them can easily dispatch you if you let them surround you. Tactics for defeating them involve taking them by surprise, making sure you are only taking on a few of them at a time or causing them to “panic” and interfere with their team mates.

    2. 2 – 5 mid level enemies, each of which you could easily dispatch individually but they would overwhelm you as a group. In this case, the main challenge is making sure they can’t gang up on you. You have to lead them on chases and jump around obstacles so that you can take them by surprise. In some cases, it might even be that killing them is unreasonable difficult and all you need to do is get past them and then block their path so they can’t follow you.

    3. 1 person of similar ability to you which you want to engage in a full fledge duel.

  52. Ken says:

    Dennis: That’s called your “open side”. Not a bad idea, but note that with a 2-handed sword (like a katana or, presumably, a Lightsaber), either side can be your open side, depending on your feet.

  53. Hayate says:

    Just reading up to the controls section, this has been done, Its called Ninja Gaiden.

  54. Jaba Adams says:

    Looks like I’ll have to try Bushido Blade…

    You might want to look at Mark of Kri on the PS2.
    Also, for pen-and-paper, GURPS has a combat system that (in detailed mode) gets rid of a lot of the HP insanity that other games inherited from DnD.

    Here’s a page that has several example combats, played out according to the GURPS rules, with commentary: http://www.themook.net/rpg/examples/

  55. Chris says:

    Bring back Monkey Island insult sword fighting! I’d love to see this in a modern game. Each insult is paired up with a correct response, each correct response is like “stabbing” the other player until after about 5(?) correct responses there is a winner. Perhaps something like that but decided by feet placement, sword placement (ie. you have to pick the correct side, angle of attack, defence or offence) etc.

  56. Joe B says:

    The one problem with that system is someone on high ground. If someone else has a ton of advantages and you’re somewhere where you could just run away and choose a better for you, you would. That would lead to a ton of stalemates though, with no one attacking at all. Still, if that exact system that you described was in a game, I would buy it.

  57. SlothfulCobra says:

    Some of the later things you described about vying for position sounded a lot like the sword duels in Sid Meier’s Pirates!, only more complex.

  58. Andrew says:

    I actually like this system. The game mechanics would be hard to implement, yes, but only because you’re covering relatively new ground; there aren’t many other systems out there to use as a framework (just an FYI to some of the above posters, those insanely hard Japanese hack’n slashes aren’t quite the same as Shamus’s idea). I can see a system like this having considerably more potential depth than the typical ones used by swordfighting games.

  59. Korthan says:

    Wanted to second the Mount & Blade suggestion. Without a doubt, the most enjoyable game combat system I’ve ever played. Very realistic-feeling while also very enjoyable.

    Combat is deadly – you can get killed by a mook even when you are very powerful, if you aren’t careful. At the same time, when you get on a horse with a lance and good armor, you are dang near unstoppable – as long as you keep your momentum going and hit enemies correctly. If you let yourself get bogged down, you’ll die very quick.

    And yes, archers/crossbowmen such when you are playing as a mounted knight. They are the biggest threat on the battlefield…

    Very satifying system.

  60. Joe says:

    This system does seem like it makes a lot more sense. Although KoTOR does try to do this with animations, it still doesn’t quite come through. My challenge, however, would be to adapt this to compensate for ranged weapons. After all, Carth’s blasters aren’t exactly going to be blazing away at defense from another blaster-wielder. This is great for swordplay, but I think an adaptation for gunfights and combined combat would really sell it to me, especially for an RPG.

    To answer some of my own question, I guess you could say that one blaster hit = instant death, and have focus determine dodge/stay-in-cover-you-moron/battlefield awareness. As enemy shots strike around you, you get more tired, exhausted, panicked, whatever, and so you become less able to “avoid” the next shot. call it a suppressive fire game mechanic. Your stamina determines accuracy. your first shot is easy enough, but the gun kicks back, your hand gets tired, and your next one is a little more off the mark. In gunfights, the stamina mechanic would have to be much less important than the focus one, just to ensure that you don’t get into unwinable situations where your stamina is to low to actually hit anything and your stuck in suppressive fire. What you end up with is a system where you can have some very cinematic rpg gunfights.

    Also, blaster vs. saber could use a deflection mechanic, where the enemy jedi can, with very low accuracy, deflect your shots back in your general direction. You could incorporate grenades…

    the focus/stamina approach seems to me (and my total lack of professional experience) to be a very good way to handle instant kill weapons in games in general.

  61. Have you ever played the game Mount and Blade?

    It has some of the best combat mechanics in a game I’ve seen. Still has some of the problems you mention, the whole hitting each other repeatedly bit, but to a far lesser degree, and some mods exist to tune that back a bit. Mostly when you’re hitting people a lot, it’s because they’re wearing armor, and you’re using a slashing weapon, so you really shouldn’t be hurting them much anyways,

  62. Robyrt says:

    Assassin’s Creed has about half of these mechanics:

    1. The health meter is really a focus meter as you described, with enemies visually blocking, being knocked back, and finally being run through.

    2. Totally ineffective attacks have a special, showy animation: they’ll catch your arm and throw you backwards, with a one-line taunt. It is immediately obvious when you need to stop assassinating and pull out the sword.

    3. Properly timed sword strikes are more powerful, while badly timed strikes are less powerful.

    4. You have an additional “Grab and Push” attack to topple an opponent over a nearby wall.

  63. Blanko2 says:

    side meyer’s pirates was mentioned twice and that’s because the system you described is actually very similar to what is implemented there. hmm.
    but i believe you didn’t mention how focus would be restored.
    is focus restored while you are attacking your foe and not defending?

    also i think that you shouldn’t always have to block, perhaps if you gave the player a chance to press the strafe key at the right time to be able to dodge the attack, to one side, or back or something, and doing so would also restore some of the player’s focus meter. maybe even drain his stamina while allowing him to counter-attack
    there are several great ideas you posted. hopefully a game will implement them some day.

  64. Steve says:

    I’ve always wanted a more interesting gameplay mechanic then press one button as fast as you can YOU WIN!.

    Your dueling system along with some of Simons idea sounds fun :D. Mortal Kombat knocking people off an abyss into a huge piece of firey mechanical doom sounds cool too…Maybe some jetpacks could be introduced later so we can fly around the battle too…

  65. wtrmute says:

    I have lots of things to say about the details of the system you propose, but I’ll refrain from doing so for now. I’ll instead point you to the series of articles you wrote on FPS learning curve and how hard it is for newbies to learn the ropes in those games and ask: Do you want to bring that experience to màªlée fighters, as well? It would surely be more realistic and perhaps more exciting, but it would bring a large level of complexity to the controls and cause newbies to be wiped out quite quickly (and repeatedly) a few games down the line…

    So: Perhaps appropriate for a fighting game, not so much for an RPG or Adventure game…

    1. Andrew says:

      And I, in turn, would like to point you to his article on the benefits of RPG game mechanics, and how they allow even relatively unskilled players to learn and progress through the game at their own pace.

  66. JoshR says:

    perhaps focus could be restored by the add-on exercise bike?

  67. Flux says:

    So I’ve stumbled upon this page from reddit.com. I’m surprised I haven’t read this yet.

    I’m currently developing, with a very talented team of veteran modders, a third-person duel-only multiplayer sword fighting game. We’ve been developing this game for over three years now. It would be interesting to hear your take on our game. If you’re interested, please email me.

    I have to say I started the project after playing with Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and found a lot of depth in its duel gameplay but an unfortunate lack of support from its developers and designers: the game was never made for that in mind. So I set out to make my own game thats got a solid sword-fighting core at heart.

    It’s interesting to see the ideas you came up with — they were more or less similar to what we thought when we first started. After having tried many many of these, I want to share to you our lessons.

    A “focus” meter. We called it “Momentum”. Our system afforded six momentum points for each player. Heavy attacks would use three momentum, Balanced would use two, and Light attacks would use one momentum. Blocking also took away the blocker’s momentum.

    We tried a few different variations, with the attacker absorbing momentum if he gets blocked.

    What we found was that the system just wasn’t “fun” even though it strived to be more realistic by placing the constraints on the player. It forced players to carefully choose their moves, but it seemed like all engagements ended really quickly and there was no breathing room for back and forth. We tried increasing the momentum count, but the combat ends in a lot of spam. It was also a really difficult system to explain to beginners, especially having momentum either recharge or re-absorbed on a blocked hit.

    Getting knocked down is also a really bad gameplay element, even though it seemed realistic. In the JK2 dueling community we always turned off this feature because it was just plain cheese: being unable to do anything, and totally helpless as your opponent descends on you is just not fun.

    Saber locks involving button mashing is also not fun. Players would bind the “attack” button to multiple keys and gain an advantage.

    Circle strafing gets really weird in a duel situation. What happens when both players circle strafe in the same direction? Opposite direction? Are their aim/camera locked to each other or free?

    We were once proposing an auto-circle-strafe system (back when we had camera/aim soft-lockon) and it turns out that if both players circle the same way, the forward motion needs to cancel out and both players are strafing parallel against each other, maintaining distance. If both players are circling in the opposite directions, then they would circle about a shared mid-point relative to each other. This creates both cinematic situations where fighters are circling each other, and chasing each other down (a’la ninja scroll through the bamboo forest style).

    We ultimately took out any sort of camera/aim lock on because our fighting game is much swifter and fluid than that allows. When we took out the lock, the game instantly improved, you’re free to do any attack at any direction and that allowed players to experiment with some really interesting techniques.

    We actually took out jumping because the game was already so complex. Forward, back, left, and right already gave enough variety and dimensionality. Having add the z up/down layer further complicates the design without adding much.

    Having elevation is not fun in a third-person 1on1 fighting game (although this depends on a lot of things, like jumping). Third person camera becomes a problem if your opponent is below you, since your character covers up your opponent more often than not, making reading their pose and animation a huge factor. Not knowing if your attack is going to hit or miss because of some minor elevation delta was also extremely annoying to players. This is one of those things that seem like it works well in real life which doesn’t translate into a game at all.

    Positioning is a very important factor in our game, but environment is less important. Things like chairs and tables only serve to get in the way. Like in good JK2 duel maps, all of them are essentially boxing rings where the playable surface is a large-ish rectangle enough for the players to maneuver but not big enough to run away. Any element that blocks a player’s access to the other player (a column, a vase, etc) just disrupts the flow of the game. Especially the trolls who tend to hide behind columns and circle around constantly, and if your hit detection is poor then some sword strikes go through the columns which break the illusion of a well simulated sword system.

    Having your back to the wall SUCKS. The third person camera is not allowed to pass through walls, yet your player character can get his back to a wall. This is when the game really breaks – you can barely see yourself (bad!! can’t see your own poses, no feedback whatsover) and your own model covers up your view of the action almost completely (worse!!!). This situation is almost always better avoided.

    In general, having your environment dictate the outcome of your duel really sucks. What ends up happening is that players feel they either won or lost not because of their skill, but because of either luck or unfortunate circumstance (even if they got themselves into that situation!). It’s really “less is more” when it comes to this.

    Taunting is a lot of fun. Bowing is almost better — an emergent gameplay in JK2 was bowing. There was no bow animation so players crouched and looked down, then up. The ironic thing is that if you looked down, someone could hit you while you without you seeing them – so you either had to have extreme faith in your opponent, or extreme faith in your own skills. Or both. Great duelists in JK2 always bowed, and it’s what separates a noob from a veteran.

    Our game is duel-only, so we never have a third player interrupt. This is ESSENTIAL to making it work, because any more than two players things really begin to break down. Attacks become more spam and luck, and everything favors the strategy of attacking as fast as possible. I can see 2on1 fights (see JK:A’s Power Duels) where one bad-ass veteran player can take down two lesser players. This could be made to work, if only as an optional game mode.

    Our main lesson: LESS IS MORE. Also — it needs to be FUN, since it’s a game. The VERNACULAR needs to be cleanly and clearly established — each animation and sound needs to mean something as part of some game mechanic.

    1. Paul says:


    2. HouseStark says:

      Found this while searching for ‘most realistic swordplay game’
      Brilliant article and very interesting replies/ideas.
      I will check out Mount and Blade, looks like exactly what I was after, thanks for the recommendation.

      I don’t know as much about games/developing as you guys but this is just input from a designer/artist fantasy/sci-fi fan.

      HAHAHA FLUX Laughed when I read that you took out jumping. I totally agree. You have to first decide how realistic to go. I mean, who jumps straight up in any sort of combat. I did Taekwondo for many years and that is actually best known for its flying kicks which are great as an initial attack or display but once engaged you pretty much want to keep your feet on the ground. (well, at least one foot!)

      My perfect game would be an Age of Empires III/Mount and Blade mash up with all these suggestions applied. You would be able to click on any random soldier from AOE birds eye view and would zoom in to fight as that player on the ground. That would also solve the issue of mortality. As a beginner you will get killed a lot but eventually you may stick with a character that becomes a bit of a hero.

      One other point is speed. Any oldies here remember Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior on the Commodore 64 back in the day 1987. It would obviously seem ludicrous to todays young gamers with almost superhuman reflexes but I loved the way that you could see a swing of the sword coming and had to block with a specific move.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lstQRuIZ1pU&feature=related for a giggle! and see what we thought was brilliant at the time.

      Boring button mashing and mensa style combo configs were why I stopped having fun playing computer games. Then Infinity Blade for the iPhone came along…Now that’s what I’m talking about!

  68. Ben says:

    Have a look at the CyberPunk 2020 rules – that was a deadly pen and paper RPG.

  69. Paul says:

    Well done, but I agree with Steve March 10, 2009 at 8:44 pm about the focus bar being pretty much the same thing as the health bar.

  70. kjell says:

    I have been saying this for a long time. this does not just apply to d20 games, in any game you play it takes away when you are shot/ hit with something that would normally kill you. First person shooters have given this a bit more of a sensation with regeneration and smaller health pools, but in any other game that involves combat you are always getting hit and hit alot which takes away from the game. These however are rectified with skill, you can dodge and not be hit adding to the epicness factor.

    but you are extreamly on point with your idea about stamina and progress. in a turn based game such as any ff game or d20 game. what is the point of you character going back and forth with something like a small animal. you should never get hit my any of these things, but if they are persistant and land an attack on you then you should die.

    Just have the character dodge and instead of the bar being health it is called stamina and every time you dodge it gets taken away. It never made sense why this never occured to anyone before when they were making games.

    how was cloud epic in ff7 fucking cactusis constantly hit him all the time.

    at least in mario rpg you could block it adding to some of the “mario is not a bitch and gets hit, he blocks it like a fucking man”

    anyway good show. we should be game developers.

  71. baharbar says:

    Fools! Play Mount&Blade, that is swordfighting. You’re too slow.

  72. James says:

    Age of Conan would of benefited from this greatly! great post, happy I stumbled across it! Great comments added too!

  73. Aldowyn says:

    This looks like it would be a MUCH more enjoyable combat system! Some really good ideas, more dynamic, fluid combat. It sounds like the animation would be difficult, but it would be appropriate if we got an animation engine that looks like the movies at the same time as we’re achieving hyper-realistic graphics.

    You’d have to make some changes in it for things like armor and shields, though. This could get very, very interesting!

  74. A.R. says:

    Ever played the old Star Wars game in the arcade?
    The lightsaber battles were sort of like this. You got an indicator of where to move to block, and an indicator of where to move to attack, but only at certain times.
    It was, honestly, the best implementation of lightsaber combat I’d seen to that point. The force called out to you when to block, and when to attack; it was a matter of if you could listen fast enough.
    Yes, it was ‘fly-by-wire’, as most of the rest of the game was, but at least it felt proper for deadly lightsaber combat. If I remember correct, you also battled Boba Fett, or some other enemy with a blaster, and could take 1 or 2 hits, assuming you were doing that particular battle early in the game.

    1. A.R. says:

      I linked to the wrong game. :P
      Star Wars Trilogy is what I meant :P

  75. gnomebard says:

    I would love to play this game! your attention to detail is impressive. if I had a game compony I would buy this draft from you.

  76. Vidiot says:

    Where’d you get my notebook?! Seriously though, I’d been hashing out a very similar system over the past few months, and my ultimate goal after graduation from Game Design program has been to make an indie game based on my version of those mechanics
    (I originally wanted to make the fights look like the sword fights in Advent Children)

  77. Sir Kemper says:

    Good god…

    As EvilOtto mentioned the fight with Traya in Kotor 2 was ridiculous. I recall I had to use the lamest of tactics in order to survive, specifically, running around the chamber using one of my ranged attacks to kill this frail, one handed woman. Epic Duel Indeed, but really, considering how the fight goes when you attempt to go toe-to-toe, it seemed almost necessary to use cheap tactics. Which is odd, because pretty much every fight up to that point involved simply wailing on the enemy until they fell down.

    Anyway, It would be interesting to see a new sort of dueling style of game play for lightsaber combat. Still, I do wonder how said new system would be received by the gaming public?

  78. darth boodle says:

    Like Afromonkey, I too have an implementation in hand. I am glad to have found these posts because I was looking for alternate designs to test against. My thanks to all who have contributed.

  79. This is a genius idea. I think you should have more options to attacking though, rather than one attack button. Make it so you can have different styles of fighting, so there’s not just one way to win. Then it’d be perfect.

  80. MintyNinja says:

    There should be a “Mutilate” mechanic. Somehow hamstring your opponent? The finishing blow should look all the more grandiose. And if it gets made into a game where character personality is a factor, then you’d have different types of Finishers, from the “throat slash”, to the the subtle “heart poke”. Could even have a morality system depending on the pain you inflict in those final moments. Ok, I’ll stop now.

  81. Tom says:

    While not as impressive as the above examples the “Sid Meirs Pirates!” remake has a fencing system where you push enemys back until they fall of the ship or catch fire on a random burning cannon. It’s got none of the features Shamus mentions really but at least you aren’t just whittling down a health bar.

    1. Tom says:

      Just reading over Shamus’ list again reminds me, there is a taunt button but it doesn’t make the enemy attack you more carelessly. Instead it pushes the “advantage” bar in your favour. This bar makes it easier or harder for your pirates to overcome the enemies pirates. So to win either you defeat the captain in your duel or your pirates defeat all his pirates.

  82. Brian says:

    Your system concept sounds great…IN THEORY. However, there are two key problems with it:

    1) You want to make swordfights more realistic, while at the same time making them look more cinematic? Nuh-uh, not happening. See, I take swordfighting classes; one of the first key lessons my instructor taught me was: “If Zorro was a real swordsman, he would be dead within seconds.” All the flourishing and acrobatics you see in movies are just for show; try that in a real swordfight and you’ll be lucky to come away with just an amputated limb or two. Real swordfights take only moments when fought in actual battle, which wouldn’t seem all too impressive for boss fights and the ilk.

    2) The whole 1-on-1 duel concept is a decent idea (though it’s been used by just about every fighting game out there), but it wouldn’t work in any other game type other than tournaments. I mean, what villainous armada (or heroic one, depending on the protagonist) would sit still and send one soldier after another instead of just impaling your character with a hundred or so blades? Then you have the classic “bring a knife to a gunfight” scenario, where no real swordsman could possibly delfect volley after volley of shots fired by those he cannot reach? In order to play these games (which make up pretty much the entire action/shooter/strategy market) you need Hit Points, though this could be represented as armor integrity or something similar so that even when your armor is gone you can still fight up-close.

    Instead, why not use a body-damage system? For example, if your left leg gets sliced your movement and agility plummet while getting your arm sliced into either loses attack power and dexterity (two-handed) or forbids you from using that weapon. Either that, or make a seamless shift from melee to guns so that you can fight at either range.

  83. Craig says:

    Try Demon Souls…I think a lot of your ideas were captured in this game in terms of dying right away if you get hit and having to manage stamina.

  84. Skye says:

    I actually find this annoying even in tabletop games. Hence why me and my friends tend to start at level one, and play until around maybe level five, then start thinking about starting over. A few times we’ve even houseruled the hit dice system, usually saying that as long as your con modifier is positive, you gain your con modifier each level. Sometimes we’ve gotten rid of any HP gain at all.

    Commoner has around 4 hp. first level barbarian can have 15 hp. Thing is, that barbarian has the possibility of doubling his ability to survive at level two. What, taking seven wounds that would kill an ordinary person? The only problem with this system was the whole unarmed damage- most people could be killed by a single well placed punch.

  85. Geothermal says:

    I came to this site from the Stolen Pixels comic, and slowly made my way here. I know this is an old topic, but it got me thinking and so I’d like to share an idea I came up with that might work using this system, if I may be allowed to do so.

  86. Name says:

    I have one idea that I would like to contribute; you talked about how strings of attacks could be made to become more and more powerful, and that small 1 or 2 hit combos would do less, but I think that that system could be tailored to fit certain character types. It seems to me that some types of characters might benefit from darting in and out, landing 1 or 2 hits and backing off. I feel like that kind of thing could be customized, if a system like this was made, to fit the style of the people playing and/or that of their characters.

  87. Dev Null says:

    Just tripped over this post today when I saw your Best Posts link. How did I not comment on this at the time? Pretty sure that I was following you already at that point… anyways:

    A couple of things from actual swordplay would I think go nicely in with the system you outline here. (Which I say as an exception rather than a rule – no one really wants an accurate swordplay model in their game, they want a fun game that looks cool.)

    You talk about circling your opponent; perfect. You talk about getting defensive advantages for retreating, and offensive advantages for advancing. Also perfect. But these things are usually relative in a “real” sword fight (this – and everything else I say about swordplay – coming with the caveat that I’m not very good, and I’ve only worked with a few styles of rapier and smallsword, and some German greatsword.) Generally, you’re at a defensive disadvantage while in motion or attacking yourself, and an offensive and defensive advantage if you can circle to the side such that you’re pointing at your opponent while he’s no longer pointing at you. You can parry attacks from the side of course, but it takes more effort.

    So to put this into your game: Attacking or moving-not-away (moving away should still increase defense, both gameplay-wise and because it gives you more time to block) causes you to take more Focus damage. So attacking and advancing is a strong attack, but also makes you vulnerable – and if you attack into an opponent’s attack, you are _both_ going to get hit hard. Attacks when you’re not directly facing your opponent should do increasingly less damage the further offline you are – you don’t have to line up perfectly, but the closer the better. And you want to keep some concept of the maximum range of a weapon.

    Add all that together with what you had, and when someone attacks you, you can choose:

    1) Counter-attack, but you’ll both get hit hard.
    2) Backpedal. You’ll get better defense, but if he doesn’t chase you, any counter is going to automatically miss by being out of range. If he does chase you, you can try to hit him while hes moving in for a bonus.
    3) Wait for the (automatic Focus-driven) parry and then counter-attack. You won’t get lose as much Focus, and you might be able to catch him moving with your counter.
    4) Side-step. If he stays aimed at you, hes going to hit you harder, because you’re moving. But if he doesn’t, you get hit less hard because hes offline, and if he stays offline long enough you can counter-attack at an advantage.

    I think this would encourage a strategic approach and movement – certainly spamming attack and charging would get you mauled. You’d have to judge the weightings properly to keep it from becoming a chess game instead of a swordfight, but I don’t think that would be hard to arrange.

  88. purplearcanist says:

    I am thinking of doing this in a few weeks!

    This system sounds like a really great idea for a roguelike. I feel it is more suited to this genre, as roguelikes have a bigger focus on tactical decisions, where failure can be really significant, and less of a focus on button mashing.

    One problem with roguelikes is that melee combats boil into a game of “bump into the opponent doing hp damage until they die”. There are a few movement based tactics that are interesting, such as fighting in corridors to only face one opponent, having the opponent make a move towards you before you attack (getting the first attack gives you an advantage) or hiding behind walls to prevent ranged opponents from firing upon you. However, the tactics usually come down to equipment selection/item usage/special ability usage.

    With the creation of the seven day roguelike DDRogue, movement is used to activate special abilities. While fun, it feels like just another way to implement special abilities.

    In thinking up a movement-based system, I thought these ideas were an excellent way to add a more tactical dimension to movement and terrain, if translated to a hex-grid style. I would like to speak to Shamus about this idea, to get more input on how to translate this.

  89. Steve says:

    I know you wrote this post a billion years ago, but after trying several times to flesh this system out, and finding that it doesn’t really seem to work in practice, I wonder if all game designers who had to solve this problem didn’t start out with a similar idea?

  90. JC says:

    I like this idea alot. I skipped alot of the comments but did note that one commentor didn’t like the idea thinking that you would have to show their focus bar in order to get an idea of what strategies are working.
    Wherher table-top or video game thats done by telegraphing. You don’t have to show the focus bar. If telegraphing and “barking at your players” is done correctly it would actually add to the authenticity.
    I agree that not every fight should be a 1-hit KO, but that depends on the weapons involved and the level of fantasy involved in your situation.

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