Just as warfare is an extension of diplomacy, a nicely roleplayed conversation will occasionally end with somebody getting punched in the face. We will also feature what we call “heists”: occasions where, as a group of criminals or corporate operatives, you go somewhere you shouldn’t be and take something that isn’t yours. You will have to account for the fact that people will want to stop you, and plan to either avoid combat entirely or make sure the odds are in your favor.
Indeed, engaging in combat at all will often be something of a failstate. If you find yourself in a pitched battle, likely to catch a bullet at any moment, then things have probably not gone according to plan. Even if you’re victorious, you probably won’t escape such a situation unscathed, and your character will be dealing with the aftermath for days, weeks, or forever. Needless to say, this will lend some extra weight to many of your character’s decisions.
For these reasons, we’ve given Signal Nine a thorough and full-featured combat system. Let’s talk more about what all this really means and how we arrived at these decisions.
Like much of Signal Nine, combat doesn’t involve many numbers. You don’t have hit points and weapons don’t deal numerical damage. Instead, a successful attack is conceptualized as a set of possible injuries. Some injuries are worse than others, and weapon effectiveness varies with the worst injury it can possibly inflict and its range of possible injuries.
An injury is a combination of any or all of the following: Loss of function of the affected body part; bleeding inflicted; pain inflicted; penetration to nerves, tendons, arteries, or internal organs; likelihood of infection; and treatment options and how difficult it is to perform them. If an attack hits you, you’ll gain an injury, anything from a mild bruise to a penetrating attack that cuts a tendon, nicks an artery, and leaves a limb useless and spurting blood.
Generally, any serious fight involves firearms, so things like range, line of sight, and cover affect the outcome. There are also melee weapons, and while they’re a little more difficult to use effectively once bullets are flying, if you can get somebody in range of your monowhip, then their life is about to change for the worse.
Attack success and the wounds that result are not entirely a random roll. While it may be fun to headshot your opponent one second into a firefight, it probably isn’t much fun at all for them, so we allow for a tradeoff here between fun and realism. Like a cinematic action scene, a fight will generally be an escalating situation where injuries are slight at first while the opponents get the measure of each other before turning deadly by the end. If things start to tilt out of your favor, it is time to run if you can.
Types of Weapons
In terms of game architecture, a weapon object simply contains a reference to an attack type as described above. This creates a modular system that means other things can easily refer to attack types as well: cyberware, your fist, and other things down the road, like the result of being hit by a car. Improvised weapons like bricks, bottles, chairs, or basically anything else you can pick up are also very easy to implement with this system.
Most of the weapons available are firearms. A wide range of these are available, made by fictional manufacturers, though many are based on real weapons. Choose from everything from high-end sniper rifles to non-reloadable, disposable handguns from a vending machine. Ammunition is also a consideration. Are you going to load up on hollow-points to maximize your damage to vulnerable flesh, or will you expect to face professional opposition and choose armor-piercing rounds instead?
Close-range weapons like nightsticks and knives also exist. You can even be a real street samurai and carry a katana, which will win you points for style, but not necessarily be all that practical. Still, if you do manage to get in close, many melee weapons can inflict devastating injuries.
And then, of course, there are cyberweapons. Razors embedded under the fingernails are an old favorite, or you can go big with the BoneScythe, a long blade anchored to your armbones. Even ranged weapons are available. A firearm that suddenly pops out of your forearm will ruin someone’s day, or you can surprise them with the classic skullgun. Careful of the recoil.
Essentially, we want a wide range of options available to allow players to maximize their effectiveness in a specific situation if they wish to. A player who isn’t that into guns can pick up any old handgun or rifle and do okay, but a player who wants to optimize their equipment and ammunition for their playstyle has the opportunity to do so.
An attack is, initially, a skillcheck. The attacker’s skill with their weapon is checked against a difficulty factor, which considers things like the target’s distance compared to the range the weapon is suited for, whether they are in cover, whether the attack is a carefully aimed shot, and so on. The attack will result in a wound if the skillcheck is successful. The exact wound to be inflicted is rolled separately, and depends on the type of attack. There is also a semi-random element, particularly early on in a fight, where chance events will tend to reduce the deadliness of the fight. With permadeath as a factor, we are reluctant to see a character snuffed out in an instant with one bad roll.
To perform an attack requires action points. Your character is constantly generating action points up to a certain maximum level, and performing actions expends them. If you do not have enough action points for an action you want to take, then it is queued, and will occur once enough action points have been generated. If you already have enough action points, then you can execute the action immediately. This is a replacement for the “roundtime” system we’ve used in our other games, and it will tend to be more flexible, tracking different types of actions and allowing you to queue and cancel them, while still allowing you to sometimes do other things at the same time.
Actions like reloading can also require a substantial number of action points. Keeping spare magazines and weapons in your character’s pocket space rather than deep within a bag will help to ensure that you are not helpless for too long.
As mentioned above, aimed shots are also available. An aimed shot is essentially a “held” action, a manually queued action, and action points your character generates while the action is held are applied toward a skillcheck bonus when you decide to eventually execute the attack. This is something like an overwatch ability, and will be very effective in ambushes. Additionally, aimed shots can in fact be aimed at a particularly body part, letting you deliberately injure the target’s leg or perhaps go straight for the head. This is more difficult to achieve, but holding the action for longer will help to compensate for it, and you are not much less likely to hit the enemy even if you don’t hit exactly what you were aiming for.
This is not the sort of game where you can use a consumable item and instantly fix up your character. Injuries are very bad news and quickly become extremely brutal, and if your character is getting hurt, you will probably want to exit that situation as soon as possible. This section will get a little gruesome, so you may want to skip it if you don’t like reading about serious injuries!
All injuries have body part function loss, bleeding, and pain in some combination, and may have additional effects. Blood loss and pain will both contribute toward putting your character into shock, a debilitating condition that can lead to unconsciousness. Function loss is a measure of damage that physically prevents a body part from working as it should. For example, if you take a shotgun blast to the left hand, it will simply become too damaged to hold onto things anymore.
Secondary effects can be even more devastating. Some attacks can penetrate deep into a limb, and damage to a tendon or major nerve will drastically affect body part function. If an artery is cut, the bleeding that results may incapacitate you by itself — you will want to find cover and quickly improvise a tourniquet. Some attacks have a higher chance of fracturing bones, a painful condition that affects limb function tremendously. Worst of all is an open fracture, which will create a secondary wound as the bone punches through the skin.
Some attacks can even amputate a body part outright, especially the dangerous monomolecular knives and whips. Losing an entire arm or leg in an instant is unlikely, though certainly not impossible. Losing a finger, though, is imminently likely. The stump left behind will bleed until it is treated.
Once you’ve taken a wound, you’ll want it treated after the fighting is over, and there are a few reasons for this. First of all, sealing a wound stops the bleeding, though bandages can also accomplish this. Untreated wounds are quite likely to become infected, which can lead to death. And, finally, treating a wound reduces its tendency to leave a scar. Scars will mostly just earn you bragging rights, but severe injuries can leave you with permanently reduced limb function.
Severe shock or blood loss will lead to cardiac arrest, which will in turn lead to brain death, which is what actually kills your character. Even in the midst of cardiac arrest, there is a chance for your character to survive with quick thinking and good treatment from your allies. Our goal with this entire system is to strike a balance: Combat should be taken seriously with serious consequences, and not be entered into lightly, but at the same time, we want it to be a situation that escalates gradually enough for you to be able to turn things around or make an escape before you see the abrupt end of your character.
The first step for first aid is to examine the wound. In the same way that we avoid directly using numbers, we’re careful not to give anyone magic knowledge about others, or even themselves. If you’re using a pain suppressor and covered in heavy armor, you may not even be aware you’ve been shot until you go and look! You have to be able to see the body part, feel pain, or feel the blood running down your skin to know you’ve been hurt, and only a close examination will tell you exactly what type of wound it is.
After that, you have a few options for treatment. You can use wound sealant, which is very effective on clean cuts and minimizes scarring, but is difficult to perform on large or irregular wounds. Then there is the old standby of cauterizing with heat. This creates a secondary burn wound, significantly adding to pain, but it stops the bleeding swiftly and makes infection much less likely. Or there is the middle-of-the-road option of using sutures, which are generally fairly effective, though the wound should be sterilized to avoid infection. After that, it is a matter of waiting for the wound to heal, which simply takes time. If an infection does appear despite your best efforts, it’ll be revealed as the patient begins feeling weak and runs a temperature. It can be treated with antibiotics.
Of course, you can also do things to address your wounds in the middle of combat, much faster than performing first aid. Bandaging a wound will slow and soon stop the bleeding. For serious bleeds, applying a tourniquet will slow the bleeding drastically, but will not make the injury any more survivable without further treatment. Pain medication and stimulants can help keep you going in battle and prevent you from slipping into shock. These only help you in the short term, though, and you will still want your wounds treated once it’s safe.
Why All This?
Some might wonder why we’ve made a system with such detail when hit points and damage numbers serve quite well in other games, including most of our own. The fact is, for a roleplay intensive game, we feel that using numbers is mostly a hindrance. When adrenaline is high, it’s easy to slip a bit out of character and start saying things like, “He’s three rooms to the north and just needs 12 more damage to die!” In urgent situations, players are rarely going to take the time to add their own roleplay flavor to the situation, and when they do, it may differ from how other players do it and create confusion.
Our goal isn’t “realism” as such — at no point do we wish to overcomplicate things. Our goal is to create systems with just enough complexity that when players discuss them, they tend to sound like good roleplaying without any further abstraction. Above all, we want to help players tell stories, and we believe that having the game present itself as a narrative instead of a bunch of numbers does a lot to help that along.
That applies to much more than the combat system, of course! And while we’ve touched on the medical system here, there is much more to say about that as well, particularly about surgical operations and cybersurgery. It may well deserve its own dev diary, but we’ll probably discuss something else completely next time. See you then!