Making a Game: The Basics of Battle

Hoo boy it’s time. This article got a bit delayed because of GDC. My apologies. If it is any consolation, I had a great time, and I will be posting another article later this week. So, we’ve spent about two weeks laying out the basic ground rules for the game. We have some overall thematic, conceptual ideas that we want the game to use, and we have a set of more concrete rules that we would like our dice rolling mechanic to follow. Let’s take just a moment to lay them out here.

General Guidelines

  1. Make an Action Game

  2. Make a ROLE Playing Game

  3. No Combat Swoosh

  4. Active and Reactive Combat and Conflict

  5. Freeform Magic

  6. Simple and Quick Dice Rolls

  7. Strong Lore Framework

Remember these from article one? These general guidelines are just that: general. They are thematic ideas to keep in mind while I work. Obviously definitions of an Action Game might differ, or I might create Lore that some people don’t like. That’s okay. These guidelines are not hard and fast rules. This is some Pirate’s Code business: more like guidelines than rules. I will keep these ideas in mind so that as I work on the game, I can check back in with my guidelines to see if my decisions are falling in line.

As an aside, I just noticed that my second rule might cause some confusion. The role playing community likes to use the slogan, “role play, don’t roll play”, which means that the players should play their characters, not the dice. It is a bit vague, and absolutely not what I mean. Players must use the numbers they have and an understanding of the probability of the dice in order to make decisions. These are the laws of the universe in a tabletop game. Just like I would decide if it was safe to jump over a gap based on my understanding of my physical strength and the laws of physics, so too can a DnD player decide based on their character’s Acrobatics skill and the DC of the check. Refer to [this Angry GM article] if you want a better breakdown of why it is important for players to have an understanding of their chances. What I mean by ROLE play is that I want players to play their character, and only their character. I do not want them to have to make poor decisions based on character quirks or to decide things about the scenery and the game world. That is the GM’s job. Players play their characters, the GM manages the game world and presents situations. I want the GM to have plenty of hooks to give players hard decisions, but I do not want a FATE style compel mechanic to make players act outside the interests of their character. Got it? Good.

Dice Rules

  1. The Valkyrie Must Be Able to Pass Dice to Empower Rolls

  2. Binary Success and Failure On Most Rolls

  3. Only One Dice Mechanic

  4. Encourage Diversity of Strategy

  5. Enough Dice to Power Runic Magic

And these rules are from the last article. These are more specific, and lay out some concrete things that I want to be able to do with my dice. Checking in with these will be a bit easier. If my dice system is not Binary success or failure, I can tell that right away. Easy. So I will be keeping these rules in mind when making the game. I might even make a separate post to hold all of these rules as we go through the project.

Learning from History Part Uno

Hold up. I thought we were talking about battle systems today. Well, we are! But first I need to get a bit historical on you. I know, I know. This is a fantasy game about a mythologized Scandinavia, but how can I properly build a mythological world without some grounding in reality? Besides, history is cool. All my best ideas come from history. So, while I have been writing these articles, I have begun doing research. Nothing too crazy. Right now I am just listening to a podcast on the history of the viking age. It’s called The Viking Age Podcast, conveniently enough, and it is definitely worth checking out. In twenty or thirty minute episodes, Lee runs through all of the history leading up to the viking age, why it might have happened, and how it influenced both Scandinavia and the greater European continent. It rules. I studied mostly Japanese, Wild West American, and Jewish history in college, so it is great to get some exposure to a culture I spent little time reading about. And, I have already learned something that will be hugely important for our project: not all of the Norse were Vikings.

I know! It’s crazy right? Okay, maybe that doesn’t seem crazy to you, but it felt like big news to me. Here was this word that I used so very wrong for my whole life. It’s not a slur or anything, it is actually a word used to describe the people who went to raid outside of Scandinavia. Vikingar: the people that went Viking. This may not seem like a huge deal. After all, it is just a terminology change, but facts like these can paint our project in a whole new light. I do not intend to be authentic every step of the way. Again, we are talking about a world in which Ragnarok has happened and the Valkyries are left to run the show. But, the best fantasy takes inspiration from reality. Knowing that the Vikings referred to a specific group of raiders changes how I might write this world. Why not, if I can, use a more authentic representation of Scandinavian culture during the viking age in order to create a world that is both more authentic and more unique.

So, what does this new information do for our battle system? Well, not a lot if I’m being honest. I know that this is the battle article, but I started listening to this podcast while writing the last one, and got excited about some of the new information I was learning. So, this kind of aside might become more of a regular thing. Every now and again, if I have learned something particularly cool, I might pop up at the beginning of an article to share it. And, while this information might not pertain to the topic of the article, I can promise you that learning about this period of history will get my wheels turning for other aspects of the game. Finally, you never know when inspiration will come to you. I talked in the first article about inspiration as a seed, something that you must tend to for it to grow into something usable. Well, I am going to need a lot of inspiration for a project like this, and historical facts are going to be the manure for my inspiration field. Yes, sometimes it will be kind of gross, and sometimes it will be tedious to get all that manure spread, but at the end of the day, the inspiration planted there will grow all the stronger. See, I brought that metaphor around.

Now Can We Talk About Fighting?

No! Actually, I’m just messing with you. Yes. Now we can talk about fighting. I have thought a lot about the combat system in Vikings and Valkyries. I have planned whole imaginary fights in my head, detailed mechanic after mechanic, and worn a hole in my apartment floor pacing back and forth for so long thinking about it all. This article is my chance to codify some of those ideas. I need to make the basics of this combat system material so that I can stop jumbling it around in my head. It’s picked up some good ideas in there, but the system needs to get some fresh air. A lot of things need to get decided in this article, and when I went through the fist draft it got really long, so I am shortening it down to just regular long by making these sections a bit more efficient. That might mean that some of the decisions I make are not as well explained as others, and that is okay. I am going to be testing this game as soon as possible, and it is entirely possible that the quick ideas I have here will get revisited. So, if I seem a touch cavalier about this combat system, that is because I am.

Here there be Dragons. And Over Here are Some Kobolds.

The first thing any combat system needs to know is will it use maps and minis, or be a “theater of the mind” kind of affair. How the players are expected to visualize a fight will affect how complex and deep things like positioning and terrain can be. First off, the combat in VnV will not be “theater of the mind” by default. I voiced my complaints about those systems in the first article, and I stand by those issues. I can create a much better tactical combat experience if I have some kind of battle map. What does that battle map need to look like though? Dungeons and Dragons uses a set of 1 inch by 1 inch squares that each represent 5 feet of space. Savage Worlds throws the mat away altogether and just tells you to use a ruler. Most characters can move about 6 inches on a turn, and 1 inch is equal to 1 meter of distance. FATE even has a battle mat. Instead of granular inches or squares, FATE uses Zones. Zones are kind of cool. When laying out a conflict area, the GM (called the Judge in FATE, which is kind of dope) writes the zones on a handful of index cards or post its or something. Then, the GM lays them out to create a simple map. Characters can move from one Zone to another on their turn. Some Zones might have a tricky challenge in the way to cross them, others might provide cover, others might have some hazard that makes fighting in them perilous. I kind of like Zones, they are a neat way to abstract out the tactical movement of combat and create compelling maps quickly.

Too bad we aren’t going to use Zones in VnV. They might be quick and easy and elegant, but they abstract combat too much for my tastes. It works fine in a game like FATE where combat is not the main driving factor, but combat will be important in VnV, so we are going to want a more granular system. That granularity will add some complexity to the game. After all, we talked about not having too tight a distinction between combat and non-combat conflict in VnV, but now GMs will have to break out a battle map and pens in order to transition to combat encounters. What gives? Well, what gives is that despite wanting to avoid the combat swoosh, I want deep tactical combat more. Movement and positioning is incredibly important for that kind of combat. Games like FATE and Edge of the Empire do a solid job of creating a semblance of that depth, but the systems they use to replace maps feel just as complicated. This is a bad trade in my opinion. I want players and GMs to be able to see exactly what is going on in a battle so that they can make the best tactical decisions possible. I do not want to limit them to simple imagined scenes. Say what you will about the complexity required in setting up a map, it allows GMs to create much more engaging encounter spaces. Trying to run complex encounters with multiple moving parts in a game like EotE takes way too much brain power, and leads to arguments about where characters and objects are positioned more often that not. I want my players to be able to know right away where things are.

As for what type of battle map, I am going to go with a standard mat. The squares will be 1 inch by 1 inch, and players can use either the square side or the hex side. My reason? Well I want granularity, as I said above, and I don’t feel any need to reinvent the wheel on this one. Most tabletop players will have access to a battlemat for DnD, and so I am going to go with that format. Measuring things with a ruler and finding terrain is kind of a pain in the butt. Usually when I play Savage Worlds I would end up using the hex grid side of my battlemat anyways. So, 1 inch squares it will be. For now, I don’t feel any need to define the distances on the squares. DnD calls them 5 feet by 5 feet, and that seems pretty reasonable. I have some ideas about weapon ranges that we will get to in a later article, and that might necessitate smaller distances on the squares. For now though, it does not matter. I will define ranges and player movement in squares, and leave the distances until later.

Taking Turns

Now that we know we want a mat, let’s talk about initiative. This, I promise, will be a bit different than the standard initiative of DnD and Savage Worlds. The reason for this? Reactions. See, I want players to be able to make decisions both on and off turn. When attacked, I want the players to be able to decide if and how to defend themselves. This means that the concept of a player turn is a bit more nebulous. For a great example of this kind of nebulous Initiative, look at Dungeon World and other Apocalypse Engine games. The Apocalypse Engine has no concept of structured combat time. Instead, the GM presents scenarios to the players, and the players decide how to react. Now, in a DnD game, this would be massively unfair. See, DnD runs on what I call an Opportunity Action Economy. Basically, the players get a finite amount of opportunities to do stuff during structured time. If I am playing DnD and attack a goblin, the only thing that I am risking is my turn. If I fail, I simply deal no damage, losing my opportunity to act. Apocalypse Engine games run on a Risk Action Economy. If I attack a goblin in Dungeon World, I will make what is called a Hack and Slash roll. In a Hack and Slash roll, I might damage the goblin, but the goblin may also damage me. I am taking a risk by taking the action. This also applies when the goblin is the one directing the pace of the scene. In DnD, I would simply hope the goblin would miss me. In Dungeon World, if a goblin attacks, I can decide to try and avoid all damage, which would lead to a Defy Danger roll where I have no chance of hurting the goblin and less chance of being hurt myself, or I could fight back for a risky Hack and Slash roll. This means that structured time is less important in Dungeon World, because any time my character is acted upon, I get to make a choice about how to act and might gain the upper hand because of the risks associated with rolling.

In VnV, Reactions will not be equivalent to Actions, but the fact that the player will be able to make decisions and take unique actions when it is not their turn changes the power of Initiative. Going later in a round might be beneficial for players who are opting for a more defensive strategy. So, what does that mean for our Initiative system? Well, it means that Initiative is going to be a choice. Reactions are not like armor class in DnD. The player will not just be picking which defensive option they have the highest numbers in. Reactions are going to be strategic moves, moves that can only be done off turn, and that will have their own value depending on the character’s strengths, and on the situation at hand. So, I want my players to be able to influence when in the turn they will be able to act. Maybe they cannot decide it exactly, but it must be a decision. How will that work, you ask? Well, first I need to find my dice system, so for now we are just going to say that Initiative will be influenced by player choice combined with a roll of the dice, and figure out the specifics when we have our dice.

Still with the Dice System?

I know I warned you about this, but I want to reiterate: the goal of this article is to design the pieces of the combat system separately from the dice system, so that I can change the dice if need be down the road without having to rebuild the game from scratch. That means that I will need to make ambiguous statements about the specifics of mechanics until that dice system gets nailed down. The good news though, is that by working on the initiative system for this article, I have started to see the dice system in my head. It isn’t fully ready yet, and I don’t want to distract too much from the combat right now, but know that by thinking about initiative as a decision, and about the mechanics of Actions and Reactions, a dice system idea is coalescing. This was my idea all along, if you can believe it. I mentioned that I wanted to be able to go back and change the dice if need be, but I also needed an idea in the first place. I knew what I wanted some of the systems to feel like, but had no idea how to resolve those systems with dice. That is partially why I started working, so that the systems could show me the dice that I needed. Now, I can push forward through the rest of this article, and get the rest of my systems down. Who knows, maybe I will get some more good ideas.

He Does this, So I do That

Reactions are going to be moves that the characters can perform when attacked. The first thing I want to do is to figure out what kind of reactions I might want to have in the game. In a sword fight, the defender has myriad options when deciding how not to get hit, but we want some more limited options to present our players. For inspiration on this, I am going to look to the Infinity Tabletop Miniatures Game. Infinity is the game I mentioned in an earlier article that inspired the idea of Actions and Reactions. When a unit is fired upon in Infinity, its controlling player can decide to Counterattack or Dodge. Counterattacking is risky, but if the unit succeeds, it can damage the attacker. Dodging is less risky, and allows the unit to move a bit, but does not allow the unit to do anything else. There are some other options for reaction in Infinity, but let’s focus on these two for now.

Counterattacking is an aggressive defense, or not really a defense at all. A unit that decides to counterattack opens itself up for damage in the hopes that it can damage the attacking unit. I like the idea of exchanging safety for damage as a reaction. So, in VnV, a counterattack is a reaction where the defending character sacrifices all defense for the chance to hit the opponent. To accomplish this, the players involved in the attack-counterattack exchange must roll off or compare scores in some way. The winner will hit first, resolving all damage, and if the loser of the roll is still alive, they will hit. On a tie, damage is resolved at the same time. Notice that this means guaranteed damage for both sides so long as the first attack does not kill. This will be a high risk high reward move where the counterattacker is hoping that the attacker will die from one hit.

Dodging seems like a move we will want to have in the game as well. When attacked, a defender can decide to dodge. The attacker and defender roll off, and if the defender wins, they move out of the way of the attack. They can then decide to take a follow up action by spending some resources. Notice how this reaction still allows the player to do something to advance their cause, but at the cost of more resources. While a counterattack allows the player to hit back right away at the possible cost of health, a Dodge will allow the player to follow up by spending some other kind of resource. Again, right now we don’t know what that resource is. It might be action dice, stamina, magic, whatever. All we care about is that resources will be spent. I also want characters to be able to use their weapons or shields to parry. After all, that is a huge part of sword fighting. So, what if Dodging and Parrying are basically equivalent, but require different stats and allow for different follow up actions? Both of these defensive moves will be less risky than a counterattack, but will require extra resources to be followed up on. So, to update the rule above: When attacked, a defender can decide to dodge or parry. The attacker and defender roll off, and if the defender wins, they move out of the way of the attack or deflect it with a held weapon. They can then decide to take a follow up action by spending some resources.

Now, this seems like a solid reaction system. All we need to do now is decide on the actions a player can take after a Dodge or a Parry, right? Wrong, me! I want to include one extra type of defensive option. See, both counterattacking and the parry/dodge actions allow the defender to take a follow up action with some risk involved. What if a player does not want to follow up, but instead wants to hunker down completely in order to avoid damage at all costs? This is partially inspired by the video games For Honor, and Dark Souls as well as my time spent fencing. In those games, parrying and dodging are risky actions that allow for follow ups, but the player can also simply block incoming attacks, or dodge away from them, disengaging from the fight. So, let’s add a Full Defense option. Full Defense allows the player to block or avoid incoming attacks. If the player does a Full Block, they stay in place, but ward off damage. If the player does a Full Dodge, they disengage from the fight. These actions cannot be followed up. These moves will be less risky than a Parry or Dodge, but provide less reward. Also, the Full Defense options still have some risk associated with them. The player can still be hit if they lose the roll. This is just the best way to avoid damage entirely.

Notice that this format has created a divide between blocking an attack, and moving out of the way of the attack. This is useful to note because we can use it to help create focused character builds and strategies in the game. Some characters might be better at dodging, others at blocking. Maybe different weapons will be easier to dodge or block. We won’t be getting to character creation until after the first playtest, but for now, keep that idea in mind.


So what can a character do after a successful Parry or Dodge? After a Parry a character can: Riposte: the character makes an immediate attack roll against the attacker, Cast a Spell: do that, Shove: the character can make an opposed check to push or pull the attacker into another square, Disarm: the character can make an opposed check to knock the attacker’s weapon out of his hands. Sunder: the character can attempt to damage or destroy the weapon used to attack her. Let’s call that good for now. Some of these actions might require specific abilities to use, but for now let’s say that all characters can do this.

After a Dodge, a character can Riposte: see above, Cast a Spell: also above, Adjust: the character can move up to half her movement (rounded down) in any direction without invoking another attack from the attacker, Sweep: the character can attempt to trip her attacker. And that will be all for Dodging for now. Notice that Riposte and Cast a Spell can be done from both a Parry and a Dodge. Also, Dodging has one less action, that is honestly because I cannot think of another good one. If anyone has ideas, let me know. Otherwise, Adjusting seems pretty powerful, and that might be good enough.


Now we know what characters can do when it is not their turn, but what can they do on their turn? Well, this is going to be a bit more standard. As much as I like the idea of shaking things up with the action economy in a tabletop, some things just work, and are worth sticking to. On a player’s turn, they can take 1 Action, and as many Free Actions as they like. Free actions will include moving up to that character’s move speed, talking, dropping something, taking something from a willing target, and giving something to a willing target. I might add more later, but those are it for now. In terms of how far characters can move, I am leaning towards 5 squares. It works for DnD, and I don’t see a reason to shake it up until a playtest tells me otherwise. So, 5 squares. As for talking, most games limit talking to a short sentence on the player’s turn. I like a little in combat banter, and I want players to be able to move a conflict out of combat dynamically, so I am going to be more lenient than that. If a player wants to talk to another character, that character can respond with one sentence of their own. If all participants in the combat stop to talk, move out of structured time until hostilities resume.

Now, as for the Actions a player can take: attacking with a weapon, throwing something, running more distance than the character’s movement speed, drawing a weapon, sheathing a weapon, casting a spell. These are all going to fall into pretty standard tabletop territory, so I won’t spend any time on each action.


Getting hit by a sword will probably kill you. I hate to break it to you, realism buffs, but if we want to go full realistic, characters would most likely die in one hit and that sucks. Most games include some kind of system to mitigate damage coming in or to allow characters to survive some hits with little or no consequence. After all, no matter how well our players play the tactical game, whether they get hit or not comes down to a roll of the dice, and a single die roll killing your character isn’t any fun. So we want to have a resource that can be spent to keep characters alive. Savage Worlds uses the Shaken state and Wounds, and while that is my preferred system most of the time, for this game we are going to use Hit Points.

Now, a lot of you might be lamenting right now. Hit Points lead to drawn out fights! Hit Points don’t make any narrative sense! Hit Points ate my parents! Is that last one just me? Okay. As much maligned as they are on the internet, Hit Points serve a useful purpose: they provide a consequence free damage mitigation resource. In Savage Worlds, the Shaken state prevents players from acting until they make a roll to remove the state. Wounds are even more devastating, causing a bane to all rolls and movement distance. Hit Points don’t have that problem. Hit Points provide a small amount of consequence free damage for each character. Notice the phrase “small amount”. While DnD HP increases work well for a game about characters gaining massive leaps in strength, this is going to be a lower powered game. The protagonists will be skilled, but ultimately human warriors.

What happens after a character loses all of his HP? Does he just die? Well, in other games, that might be fine, but this is a game about Vikings, and what are Vikings known for? Berserking. Well, not every Viking is known for that, but toughing it out through grievous injuries is a huge part of the Viking narrative. So when Hit Points are reduced to 0, the character will receive 1 wound, and make some kind of endurance roll to see if they can fight through the pain. If they succeed, do not roll on the wound chart. Instead, simply mark down the existence of the wound, and continue fighting. If they fail, roll on the chart adding up extra wounds as a modifier, and lay the character prone until combat ends. After combat ends, roll on the wound chart for any character that has 1 or more wound and is still standing. Right now, I am figuring wounds will be rolled on a chart, and cause long term effects. For inspiration, I am looking at the EotE wound chart. This chart does something brilliant, which is it increases the severity of the wounds the more wounds that a character already has. A character cannot be killed the first time they get reduced below 0 hit points. The worst that can happen is that they start to bleed out. I want to copy that idea. Characters will not be in risk of dying right away, instead, they will be able to decide how far they want to push themselves in order to prove their Viking strength. Dropping out of a fight early will help ensure that they do not die, but might cause the party to lose, and lose confidence in their ally’s bravery.


After stealing liberally from EotE in the last section, I am going to do it again now. I want to avoid having a damage roll in this game. In EotE, there is no damage roll. Instead, each weapon has a fixed amount of damage, that is improved based on how well the player rolls on the attack. I like this idea, and now I am going to steal it. All weapons in the game will have a fixed damage number that is improved based on how well the attacker succeeds. Notice, that this does break the Binary Success and Failure rule. Also notice that when I established that rule, I said I might break it at some point. Here it is. I have broken it. For now, I am going to have variable damage. Why? Mainly because it is fun. Hitting an opponent well and taking them out early feels good, and rolling low and plinking an enemy, while it feels bad, can add drama to the fight. Besides, if I balance the numbers out well, I could always go back to fixed damage and not have the balance change much at all. If I use the average damage dealt by each weapon as its fixed damage, then it will be roughly the same as if the damage varied.

To go along with my damage rule: Armor will grant Damage Reduction to any hit that strikes the armor. So much of the combat in VnV is about using tactics to avoid damage, and taking risks where applicable. I want armor to provide some DR so that heavier armored characters can take more risks, potentially at the cost of movement speed, but I don’t want it to add to a character’s chance to avoid a hit like in DnD. Honestly, it just makes the concept of hitting and missing confusing when the armor would need to be struck to help, but if you don’t hit hard enough it is called a miss and yes this is incredibly nit picky, but it’s my game so there. Besides, acting as DR means that it will act as a second layer to avoiding damage. If the character wears heavy enough armor, they have a chance to avoid damage against weak hits entirely.

In terms of hits that strike the armor, I do need to make an aside here about Called Shots. These are a huge problem in a lot of tabletop games, because sometimes the designers do not seem to consider them. Called Shots are when players pick a specific target on an enemy to attack. Usually, rules make the attack roll harder, but allow for secondary effects or increased damage. Savage Worlds has a great Called Shot system, where it is assumed that all attacks are aimed at the torso and will be hitting the torso armor unless otherwise specified. I am going to take that rule. If players want to make a Called Shot, they can reduce their chance to hit, in exchange for striking a specific body part. Otherwise, all hits hit the torso. I do not want to bother with complicated hit location rules unless I think it will be very funny. The only other stipulation I have for my gear system is that gear will be of varying quality, and better weapons and armor might do or absorb more damage, along with having other effects. I like finding new and exciting weapons. This does not mean every sword will need to be enchanted, instead, think of it like a classic JRPG where you can buy better made swords in each town. Sometimes the players will find a haul of well made steel weapons that can outperform their current equipment.

In Conclusion

You are probably exhausted by now, and I do not blame you. That was a very long article to read through and not get all the specifics of the system. The great thing is, this document can now provide the basis of any combat decisions going forward. Unless my playtest goes disastrously, I now have a combat system that I can adapt to any numbers that I need. Join us later this week for a hopefully much briefer article on viking raids and how they will helo structure the game.