Thursday, 12 June 2008

Duelling Whist (I)

Let's talk about duels.

I've been thinking about this in re: my Sir Gawain and the Green Knight game (see posts here and here). One of the best and most interesting aspects of the kind of storytelling I want to base the thing around is the Duel - whether it be two knights jousting, an extended sword-fight as in that between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood, or a battle of wills as with Nimue's tricking of Merlin. What I want is a mechanic that deals with such one-on-one struggles in a simple and intuitive way, and which will work whether it's two people with quarterstaffs trying to knock each other off a log bridge, or a woman trying to seduce a chaste knight in order to steal his secrets.

For some reason, my mind keeps going back to a game we used to play for 20p pieces back in school, which we called knock-out whist. Knock-out whist is deceptively simple. Seven cards are dealt out to each player. Then the deck is cut to decide which suit is the 'trump'. After that, the player on the dealer's left plays a card and the other players put a card down in turn; players must follow suit if they can, but if they can't they can play any card. The highest 'trump' card wins the trick - or if there isn't a trump card played, the highest card of the suit which led. The player who wins the trick then leads the next.

Once seven tricks have been played and nobody has any cards left, the cards are re-dealt - but this time only six are given to each player. The one who won the most tricks in the previous round chooses the trump suit. The process continues until seven rounds have been played, with the number of cards in a hand reducing each time down to one.

If any player fails to win any tricks in a given hand, he is knocked out of the game.

I feel like something can be done with this. Knock-out whist has the back-and-forth, unpredictable nature of a duel; it is possible for a player to survive by the skin of his teeth for six rounds and then win the seventh and the game, purely by luck of the draw - but it also incorporates a fair amount of skill and strategy when it comes to choosing which cards to play (it is rather like the game Hearts in that respect).

There are problems, though. Knock-out whist can be played by two people, but it works better with four or more. Also, success comes down purely to two things - luck and player skill. It wouldn't be a test of character skill if it was used as a mechanic to determine success in a duel in a role playing game. Finally, some 'Duels' are more serious than others; is it really appropriate to use the same method to work out who wins an arm wrestling match and who wins a life-or-death fight by hitting each other in the face with axes? How best to get around these problems? It strikes me that there are two ways:

  1. The length of the whist-game can be altered, so that a minor, unimportant struggle would use three or even two hands, whereas an epic sword fight like the Robin Hood/Guy of Gisborne one could be nine or ten hands long.
  2. Bonuses could be given to the stronger of the two characters in the given skill being tested by allowing them to start off by choosing the trump, giving them a one-trick head-start, or something else.

Let's try out an example to see if what I'm talking about makes sense:

Bert the Turnipeater and Fred Hogfatbreath are going to have a competition to see who can draw their sword fast enough, with the loser having to drink a pitcher of ale from the dregs of the barrel. The DM judges that this is a very minor incident, and it relies on speed, so it will only be one hand of three tricks in length. Bert is a trained swordsman, but Fred is an upstart journeyman, so the DM lets Bert decide on the trump. Then he deals out three cards:

Bert gets an Ace of Hearts, a Six of Clubs, and a Four of Clubs. He chooses clubs as the trump.
Fred gets a King of Diamonds, a Seven of Clubs, and an Ace of Spades.

Thinking strategically, Bert plays his Four of Clubs first, in order to 'flush out' any Clubs his opponent might have. Fred has to follow suit and plays his Seven of Clubs. He wins the trick. The DM says, "Fred gets his hand to his sword hilt a fraction earlier and begins to draw..."

Fred won the last trick so he leads. He has no trumps left so he decides he might as well play his Ace of Spades. Bert doesn't have a Spade so he can play either of his cards; seizing his chance he plays his remaining trump, the Six of Clubs, and wins the trick. The DM says, "Bert has a better grip on his sword hilt, allowing him to draw more quickly and match Fred's speed..."

The final hand. Bert won the last trick so he leads and plays his Ace of Hearts. All Fred can play is his King of Diamonds, so he loses. The DM says, "Bert swings his sword from his scabbard a fraction earlier than Fred. He wins." Fred has to drink the flat ale, while Bert wins the affection of the barmaid.

I think I'm going to go and play through a few scenarios and see how the whole thing works. More tomorrow, maybe; any advice appreciated.


  1. Neat idea, and I don't know that I have any substantial advice to give.

    I am curious though: will the game not have any combat mechanics? And if it will, why would a duel with weapons not be handled by this instead of getting lumped in with other, non-combat, tests? (I do see the logic of it since they are all, in a sense, duels, each relying on different skill sets, but it does seem a bit odd to me that a specifcally combat-related test would not use combat mechanics to resolve it.)

    That said I love playing with cards and adding them (whether it's a stanndard set or one designed specifically for the game in question) to an RPG is generally a good thing IMHO.

  2. It's a tough one. The reason why I wanted to separate duels from combat (even if the duel is combat-related) was that RPG fights one-on-one are generally either pretty dull (you hit him, he misses you, you miss him, he hits you) or else insanely complicated (you aim for his left leg and he aims for your kidneys...) Group combat is fun, but two knights slogging it out is hard to make interesting purely by rolling dice.

    But now that you mention it, it does seem somewhat artificial to have one set of mechanics to govern a sword-fight between Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne, and another to govern a regular fight between a gang of adventurers and a mob of bandits.

    Hmm. Food for thought.

  3. That's definitely true. You either seem to get the more abstract combat mechanics of an OD&D (which would be pretty unsatisfying from a play perspective for a personal duel in which the details are everything), or the incredibly complex 'simulationist' combat mechanics of other systems that could drive you crazy trying to make it work smoothly and keep track of everything.

    I'm no mechanics wizard, so I don't know what the solution would be. Perhaps you could expand the card deck as resolution mechanic idea to include combat in some way and treat other duel types as a subset of the mechanic?

  4. But now that you mention it, it does seem somewhat artificial to have one set of mechanics to govern a sword-fight between Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne, and another to govern a regular fight between a gang of adventurers and a mob of bandits.

    Artificial, mayhap, but keep in mind your theme. From a "real world" perspective, there's really no difference betwen Robin Hood fighting some Norman tough, and Robin hood crossing swords with Guy of Gisborne. But in terms of mood and theme, there are worlds of difference! Sir Gawain battling trolls is not the same as Sir Gawain jousting Lancelot over the honor of the Queen. And yet, that joust's importance does make it akin to Gawain's emotional duel with his host's seductive wife in the days before he's to meet the Green Knight. Or maybe that's going too far?

    My point is, don't let issues such as "artificiality" stand between you and your theme. If it fits to make "duels" work differently than "regular" fights, wallow in it!

    If you want to avoid too sharp a divide, however, you can add special rules to the normal mechanics of combat to reflect the importance of a duel. D&D 4.0 kinda does this with their daily powers. Once people start whipping out those once-per-day abilities, you know something important is going down. (Unless it just means that everyone knows this is the last fight before turning in for the night. ;) )

    - Brian

  5. Terry: I considered the idea of using the card-deck-as-resolution mechanic for everything, but the problem is that at the moment it only works adversarially - i.e. all the participants compete against each other. So it wouldn't work for a fight between a group of PCs and the DM's minions, for example.

    Brian: That was my original thinking behind the idea. There's just something about having different mechanics for different things that I don't like. Although I can definitely see the attraction in being able to say, "Okay, this is getting serious, crack out the deck of cards."