Legend of Zelda Adventure System: Notes on Combat

Concept art for the original Legend of Zelda, by Katsuya Terada. Link fights a warrior swinging a heavy flail.
Concept art for the original Legend of Zelda, by Katsuya Terada.

I would like for the LOZAS system to be a paradigm example of simplicity in motion. Combat in gameplay should move  quickly, because combat in the source material moves quickly. Hacking and slashing your way through a room full of enemies is part of a Zelda-style adventure, but it rarely takes center stage. When it does take center stage, it can be an intense experience, but rarely a long one. My goal, then, is to build a simple and easy to run combat system which can still model complex tactics. Combat should be fast, but that doesn’t mean it should be easy.

In approaching this aspect of the game’s design, my thinking is to start simple. First, figure out how the bare bones of combat will be handled, then add in the core mechanics I want to use for the game. Once those two elements are in place, I’ll call it done until playtesting shows me that something more is needed. And if that happens, my first question for myself will be “Was the GM able to handle it?” If so, are additional rules really needed?

A basic attack roll will be handled by rolling 1d20 against a target number. Since I’m trying to create a numerically simple game without too many bonuses or penalties for players to keep track of, the maximum armor class will be pretty low. Likely somewhere between 18 and 24. If the player rolls a 20 on their attack roll, it is an automatic hit. If a 20 would have hit anyway, then it is a critical hit as well. Upon a critical hit, the player doubles the number of dice they roll for damage. GMs are also encouraged to make critical hits–both for and against the players–memorable. Not through painful attempts at florid prose, but by having the hit affect the battle in a more significant way than simply causing extra damage. A broken weapon or bone, a scar, losing a finger; any of these would be appropriate.

Called shots will be a central mechanic in the game. I discussed this in detail not too long ago so I won’t re-tread that ground here. Essentially speaking, the players are encouraged to declare that they are attacking a specific part of the creature, such as an arm, or an eye. The GM makes a ruling on the spot regarding the difficutly of this maneuver, and tells the player that it will be Easy, Moderate, Difficult, or Nearly Impossible. Only after hearing how difficult the attack will be does the player decide whether or not they’d like to attempt the attack. If they do, standard critical hit rules apply. Some creatures may be particularly strong or weak on different parts of their bodies.

Concept art for the original Legend of Zelda, by Katsuya Terada. Link fights a knight in full plate. Armos?
Concept art for the original Legend of Zelda, by Katsuya Terada.

Battle Maneuvers cover a large range of different things. If a player would like to trip their foe, or attempt to break their opponent’s weapon, or try to blind their opponent by throwing dust in their eyes, then both the attacker and the target make opposed battle maneuver checks. This is a 1d20 roll, with the individual’s battle maneuver score added to it.

The battle maneuver score is calculated by taking both a character’s body and agility score. For each score, 11 counts as 0, while any number higher than 11 adds +1, and any number lower than 11 adds -1. So a body score of 14 would grant a +3, while a body score of 9 would confer a -2. Once both body and agility have been calculated in this manner, add the two numbers together, and this is the character’s battle maneuver score.

Anything a player wants to do within combat is either an action, or a non-action. Things such as talking, dropping an item or drawing weapons are non-actions. They do not require a significant amount of time or attention, and so they do not use up a player’s turn. Whereas things such as moving, swinging a weapon, throwing an item, using a special ability, attempting a battle maneuver or casting a spell, all count as actions. Each player is allowed to make 2 actions during their turn. So on a single turn, a soldier could move their full speed twice, or they could move their speed once and attack, or they could attack twice.

Regarding movement, I see no reason to handle it differently than the way Pathfinder did. Hylians (the game’s only playable race) move at a default speed of 30ft per action, and each square on a battle grid will represent 5ft. I like the system and it works well enough. However, it’s important that the game can be run without a battle mat as well. Grids are useful for tactical battles, but for games played over the internet (which are increasingly popular) they can be more of an inconvenience than they are worth. Running a game without the mat is usually just as simple as choosing not to use a mat, but I would like to create a subset of rules which allow players to benefit from their character’s speed even when a mat is unavailable.

On that note, I’ve always felt as though Pathfinder was missing an opportunity by keeping movement speed largely static. The ability to move an extra 5 ft represents an interesting tactical advantage in combat, and the reverse is an interesting disadvantage. Different movement speeds will play a more pronounced role in this game than I’ve personally seen in other games.

Concept art for the original Legend of Zelda, by Katsuya Terada. Link stands ready to fight a red-skinned horse man.
Concept art for the original Legend of Zelda, by Katsuya Terada.

Initiative will be handled in an OD&D style, because as I’ve mentioned, I quite like it. A ‘designated initiative roller’ will roll 1d6 for the party, while the GM will roll 1d6 for the monsters involved in the combat. Whoever wins the roll will go first as a group, followed by the group who failed the roll, after which initiative will be re-determined. GMs are encouraged to offer minor initiative bonuses or penalties to groups who put themselves in a particularly good bad position at the end of the round.

GM rulings and on-the-fly modifiers are very important to the LOZAS combat system. Game masters are encouraged to allow characters to make extra actions, give penalties or bonuses to any type of roll, or otherwise modify the rules during play. This is not a subversion of the game’s rules, or a type of haphazard house-ruling, it is an essential part of making the system work correctly. The mechanics above provide combat with structure. The die rolls inject the simulated battle with chaos. The rulings of the GM provide the final piece, by rewarding or punishing the player’s tactics.

For example, there are no attacks of opportunity written into these rules. None the less, there may be times when a player or an NPC will leave themselves vulnerable to an attack. If a player is engaged in a duel and chooses to turn tail and run in the opposite direction, their foe should be given an opportunity to attack them as they flee. No rule covers this eventuality, but GMs are encouraged to take advantage if they feel it is appropriate.

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13 thoughts on “Legend of Zelda Adventure System: Notes on Combat”

  1. How are ability scores determined? You could expand on why you are using the score directly, rather than a derived modifier as D&D usually does. (Using a score directly will make having high ability scores really, really potent).

    You could also have movement dice rather than a static number. Extra rolling, but might be fun, especially if the grid is only used for “boss” fights.

    I would vote for max AC = 20. Nice, round, elegant number. But you know I’m biased towards smaller numbers.

    1. I’ll describe this in detail next week, but essentially the uses 2d10 to determine ability scores, and then the player gets 2 points which they can distribute between their scores. So the max roll able score is 20, but players could have one score of 22, or two scores of 21 (assuming they rolled twenties).

      I’m not actually using ability scores directly, but there are no derived modifiers either. (save when calculating the Battle Maneuver score)

      The idea of movement dice is interesting, but it seems like it would mostly annoy players. “Fuck, I rolled a 1. Guess I can only take one step this round, for some reason.”

      My current theory with calculating max AC is to fiddle with all the numbers until I have them in a place where I like them, then figure out what the max possible attack and max possible ACs are. If I don’t like either of them, or don’t like how they relate to each other, I’ll go back and fiddle more until they’re in a place where I want them.

      All attack and defense modifiers will be “hard-coded” into the game, though. No magic items or whatnot screwing with things.

  2. I like the idea you are running with here, it is very interesting. Unlike your first post on this system, the combat system does not really feel Zelda-ish at all. It seems much more like DnD with a few house rules and different numbers.

    In Zelda, items and positioning are extremely important. Using the environment itself is also important. Though I am not much of a 4e type, but I think that 4e’s style is much more Zelda than most RPG rules. (perhaps because WoW devs took inspiration from Zelda, and then 4e took inspiration from WoW).

    Slower, tactical, predictable, attrition based combat would capture the feel better than a realistic/simulationist approach. In Zelda, combat is a puzzle, with the bosses being the true tests. The fodder exists to teach/reinforce certain tactics (typically which will be useful in the up coming boss fight), as well as challenge the players thinking.

    Resources can be important, but can be restored realatively quickly within the dungeon itself for the most part, but some groups of fights can wear down a players resources to the point where the player is trying to find the next pot to smash hoping it contains a heart. Though please do not add in that annoying alarm for being low on health. I hate to say it again, but this is also something 4e does well.

    Now tactical does not mean you necessarily have to use a battlemat, there could be some sort of manuever roll available to gain a more favorable position or advantage. I remember many a zelda game trying to stay safe in a room full of nasty enemies, waiting for the right time to dash in for an attack. To just go in sword swinging was almost always a recipie for death. That aspect, as well as having a lot of useful items to use is a key part of the Zelda experience.

    1. This is fantastic, and constructive, criticism. Thank you!

      The combat system is heavily inspired by D&D, which is where I have a lot of my experience.

      My hope is to make combat fast-paced by keeping enemy health low, and keep it “puzzle-ish” by making it so most monsters need to be defeated in certain ways.

      Still, I’m very much open to input and this is some really valuable input.

    2. I also didn’t really feel “this sounds like Zelda” when reading the combat system. I think you should apply the “what is my goal” principle and start from your basic considerations (you mention that called shots should be central, for instance; also the above comments about items/environment/positioning). Try building from there somehow rather than using the d20 foundation!

      The d20 combat system is based around the two basic rolls of “hit or miss” and “how many hp of damage”, but neither of these matter if the target only takes damage from being struck in the eye with a fire attack, and you’re just generically stabbing at it with your sword. I feel like considerations such as the latter should be more fundamental than to-hit (heck, personally I might not even bother having much of a to-hit mechanic at all unless it matters for the monster type’s “gimmick”.

      1. First, thanks for all of your comments on these old posts. I wish I had more time now to respond to them, but I’ll try to get back to you over the next few days.

        While I might disagree that the LOZAS combat system was using the d20 combat system as a foundation, I do quite like your idea of eliminating (or at least marginalizing) the to-hit roll. Perhaps make it entirely a question of of how the characters positioning, target, and weaponry relate to one another.

        Your overall point about this combat system not “sounding” like Zelda is well taken however. I, myself, reached similar conclusions. I really liked the mechanics I had put together, but the more I worked on the system the less those mechanics seemed to match the style and feel of LttP. When I considered the changes which would need to be made to bring the game more in line with a Zelda feel, I found that direction unappealing.

        LOZAS in this form has largely been scrapped at this point. I still love many of these mechanics and will probably use them at some point in the future. I also still love the idea of an LttP tabletop game.

        For the time being I’ve set all of this aside so I can continue to learn and grow as a game designer through other projects. I hope to come back to this when I’ve got a little more experience, and see if I can’t do it properly.

        1. Yes, I did go back into old posts a bit I guess. I got linked in from somewhere else and started clicking on links. I have about two dozen tabs of your posts open “to read later” :-)

          I don’t know if you *started* from a d20 foundation, but the system as described in the post sounded very D&D-ish (roll d20 versus AC etc).

          If I ever get some Zelda game stuff figured out I will link you to it. I am hoping I can successfully create puzzles in tabletop form. If so it may make sense to base combat off that, as per the combat-as-puzzle observation.

          The only time I ever found “did I hit the monster” to even be a question in Zelda is when trying to shoot down those friggin’ Keese! :-)

  3. What do ability scores DO if they are neither used directly nor have derived bonuses?

    (Also – where did you get all that artwork from? Is there a Zelda specific artbook on the market?)

    1. This is what they do:

      For each score, 11 counts as 0, while any number higher than 11 adds +1, and any number lower than 11 adds -1. So a body score of 14 would grant a +3, while a body score of 9 would confer a -2.

      I suppose you could count that as a derivation, but it is a point to point mapping.

      1. To clarify: that method is only used in calculating the battle maneuver score.

        It’s clunky and inelegant. I’m not a huge fan of creating an entirely new way us utilizing the ability scores *solely* for one mechanic.

        I may change it in the future, but for now it functions adequately.

    2. Ability scores do a lot in this game, actually. Explaining how it all works would require me to write an entire post–which I’m not yet prepared to do with this element of the game.

      A simple explanation would include:

      -Ability checks, very important in this game.
      -Starting bonuses or penalties to health, dodge, and magical abilities
      -Additional bonuses or penalties, selected by the player or rolled randomly.

  4. You lost me at “Hylians (the game’s only playable race)”.

    I’m sorry.
    I understand that racial differences can be difficult to balance.
    I also understand that your system focuses on the pre-N64 games.
    However, I cannot in good conscience condone any Zelda RPG that doesn’t allow me to play as a Goron, smashing faces in with my giant hammer and/or fists.


    (Only partially kidding)

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