Gaming Steampunk TTRPG

Dev diaries – Combat

I’m at the stage of design thinking for my steampunk ttrpg system where I’m considering how I want combat to work.

I don’t want combat encounters to take place on a 5×5 grid or similar, but I do want range to be important.

I also want opponents in combats to be able to be controlled by a GM, or by AI/automata.

I also want combats to be resolved by rolls of a D20, with modifiers from attributes, skills, abilities, spells (‘aether’) and tricks (bonuses derived from poker hands that players are able to lay down before rolling a die).

So where does that leave me? Good question…

My current thinking is along these lines. Playtesting and further refinements will definitely cause this to change, but for now it’s enough to see what works and what doesn’t.

Starting combat and order or turns

My combat encounters will take place over a series of rounds during which everyone involved will get a turn.

To keep this simple, I’ll be using ‘standard’ initiative order rolls here, with all participants rolling against their Dexterity, with the highest roll going first.

Abilities, talents and feats will modify the Dexterity roll once I’ve designed some, but for now I’m keeping this aspect simple.


Taking inspiration from ‘theatre of the mind’ based systems like Genesys and PbtA games, I will have range bands in combat encounters. There will be four of them, and by default a character will be able to move from one to another by declaring a move action during their turn. Weapons will have ranges that they are effective in, and melee combat will only be able to take place in a special range band of engaged.

So, I will have the following range bands:

  • Long range – many weapons won’t support this range
  • Medium range – most ranged weapons will be effective at this range
  • Close range – some ranged weapons will work at this range, other will take a penalty
  • Engaged – a special range band that can only be moved into when a player is already in close range with an opponent

I’m anticipating combats taking place on an abstract ‘map’ depicting range bands and where everyone is placed on them, but that will be refined during playtesting.

The turn

When it is a player’s turn to act, based on their initiative order, I intend to allow them to be able to make an optional move, and a single action. I may also include reactions, but I’ll think about those later.

For their move, a player will be able to move from one range band to another, or to become engaged with an opponent in their same range band.

As an action, they will be able to do the following:

  • Make another move
  • Disengage without provoking a riposte from the opponent
  • Clash with a melee weapon against an opponent they are engaged with
  • Shoot at an opponent with a weapon that is effective at the relevant range
  • Throw a weapon at an opponent who they are in close range with
  • Invoke an aether effect or a scientific gadget that is effective at the relevant range
  • Disarm / trip / grab – special actions that players can take to achieve certain things against engaged opponents
  • Parry / Take cover – defensive actions against melee and ranged attacks respectively

Target numbers

Every opponent in a combat will have a single Target Number (TN), which I intend as an abstraction of how hard they are to hit with a melee or ranged attack.

Characters will also have a TN, which will be a base 10 modded by their Dexterity modifier (and any extra abilities, gear, effects etc). Actions like Parry and Take cover will also increase a character’s TN if successful.

So most combats will involve players rolling a D20 for their character, applying modifiers, and hoping to match or exceed a TN. Enemies will roll to try and do the same.

By default, every successful ‘hit’ will do 1 point of damage. If a character or opponent exceeds the TN by 5, the hit will do 2 points of damage. If a character or opponent exceeds the TN by 10, or rolls a ‘natural 20’, then the hit will do 3 points of damage.

Damage will be applied directly to a character’s harm track, or to their armour if they are protected by any. Armour will likely have a threshold representing the number of times it can protect from damage before it is broken.

Enough already

I’ve not fully designed the poker hand trick mechanic yet, but it’s nearly there. However, the above (fairly basic and standard) framework is enough for a playtest, which will be my next step,

After that, I’ll refine things accordingly, and then introduce tricks into proceedings and see how they fly…

In the meantime, look to the skies, citizen!

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