Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Balance Of A Sword: Dueling on the 7th Sea

I'm looking at possibly starting a 7th Sea RPG campaign next month. I'm all excited to try out the new-ish 2nd Edition of the game, but I've noticed in the past that sometimes games by that designer (John Wick, not Keanu Reeves) have some mathematical and mechanical issues. The first edition of 7th Sea had a few bugs (Panache was way too strong, damage calculation slowed combat considerably, Swordsman Schools and Sorcery both probably cost more than they were actually worth during character creation, and Half-blooded Sorcery in particular was a disaster), but was still worth playing because the setting was so cool. I've complained at length about the balance issues and lack of niche-protection in the otherwise conceptually excellent Wilderness of Mirrors by the same author. John Wick writes great settings, and comes up with innovative mechanics, but I feel like sometimes he's doesn't take enough care with play-balance and munchkin-prevention. Or maybe his home playgroup is made up of such high-caliber players that balance issues are tertiary to the story and fun. We should all be so lucky.

With that in mind, I poked around the internet a bit looking to see what flaws my fellow gamers had identified in their 7th Sea 2nd Edition campaigns. The biggest complain I've read (aside from some folks just not taking to the more "story game" approach in the rules, or having been burned because they expected it to be more of a 1.5 edition instead of a completely new core mechanic) is about Duelists.

In short, Duelists are way too powerful. According to this article I read, a properly trained Swordsman from the Duelist Academy can do 3 to 5 times as much damage as a character with identical stats who just didn't take the Duelist Background. That's a problem, and a bad one. It's at least as big of a character creation land mine as the over-importance of Panache in the first edition. 

The problem seems to be mostly in Slashes and Ripostes. Both of these Maneuvers are significantly better than the default attack of any non-Duelist. Most starting PCs will do 1 damage per hit, maybe 3 or 4 damage total in a Round. A starting Duelist is will almost always do 3 damage per hit, and a total of 9 to 12 in a round while also preventing at least one wound to themselves with a well-timed Riposte.  When one character outperforms the rest of the party combined, it's a recipe for unhappy envious players.

The obvious power-level of the Slash and Riposte also have the side-effect of making the other Duelist options seem worthless in comparison. The only other option that compares favorably is the Lunge, but doing a Lunge ends your turn prematurely. Instead of providing interesting options and tactics to spice up duels, the strength of Slashes and Ripostes pretty much render the Duelists choices meaningless. The optimal sequence of plays for every Duelist in a sword fight is to Riposte against the first attack an enemy launches, use a Slash for the actions directly before and after the Riposte, and then a Lunge instead of a Slash for your very last action of each turn. If you're graced with the good luck of having more than 4 Actions to spend in a Round, you might throw in a single Bash, Parry or Feint, but this will be rare and you'll always know that these moves are inferior to every Slash, Riposte and your final turn-ending Lunge. That all feels like a missed opportunity to me.

I'm currently considering the following house-ruled Maneuver set for all Duelists. It reduces the overall bonus for being a Duelist to roughly a 50% increase in combat effectiveness, instead of the 200% to 400% increase that they receive with the default system written in the rulebook. Duelists have the following combat Maneuver options, listed in the same seemingly-random order in which they appear in the rulebook:

Slash: This is a basic attack, the same as any non-duelist can use. It does 1 Wound to the target. You may spend additional Raises to add damage to this attack, the same as a non-duelist can when they land an attack. Slash is the only Maneuver that is exempt from the consecutive-actions limitation on page 235 of the rulebook (you can Slash twice in a row, but cannot use any other Maneuver twice in a row without doing something else in between).
(Duelists will rarely use the basic Slash in this version. Their other options are generally better in one way or another. The only common exception to this is to use a Slash for a killing blow if your enemy starts the round close to defeat. When that happens, it will be worth it to dump a stack of raises into one large Slash early in the round to prevent them from striking back.)

Parry: This prevents a number of Wounds equal to your Ranks in Weaponry. Using Parry takes your action (and 1 Raise) and must be done immediately following the attack by an enemy that caused the Wounds your are preventing.  
(This is functionally identical to the Parry as written on page 235 of the rulebook, nothing has changed about Parry.)

Feint: This does no damage when activated. Instead, it puts the foe in a position that makes them more vulnerable. The next time your target is injured in this same Round, they take +2 extra Wounds. 
(Note that this house rule leaves the Feint at the same power-level it had in the rulebook provided you have another action to follow it up with (or an allied PC available to do the same), but I've made it just a little trickier to use. A Duelist needs good planning or a good roll at the start of the Round to get the bonus damage, and they will have to switch their tactics up from round to round. It's now usually, but not quite always, better than a non-duelists attack or an unraised Slash. Much like the new Lunge listed below, the two actions spent for a Feint+Slash are collectively 50% more damaging than two consecutive Slashes or two attacks from of a non-duelist.)

Lunge: Performing a Lunge requires 2 Raises (exactly). It does damage equal to your Ranks in Weaponry. (Unlike a Slash, this cannot be increased by Raises.)
(Note that there is no longer any restriction about Lunges ending your action. You can open your assault with a Lunge now, but it is no longer possible to spend extra Raises to increase the damage of a Lunge. The Lunge is now the only attack that does damage based on Weaponry Ranks. If your Weaponry Rank is 3 to 5, Lunges are better than Slashes. Most PC Duelists will start with Weaponry 3, so it's generally 50% better than a Slash in the early campaign. If you have enough actions available, a Feint followed by a Lunge can be very powerful.)

Bash: Does 1 Wound to the target. (Unlike a Slash, this cannot be increased by Raises.)  If that wound is not prevented, the next time this Round that target deals Wounds, their damage is reduced by your Ranks in Weaponry.
(If attacked with this version of Bash, if you can Riposte or Parry it's worth doing so to prevent the Bash penalty from effecting you. Note that a Feint preceding a Bash will boost it's damage up to the point where a Riposte cannot stop the Bash from landing and applying its penalty.)

Riposte: This prevents 1 Wound from an attack you just suffered, and does 1 Wound to the attacker in response. Using Riposte takes your action (and 1 Raise) and must be done immediately following the attack by an enemy that caused the Wound your are preventing. 
(Note that there is no longer a limit to how many Ripostes you can do in a turn, I just dramatically reduced the damage each Riposte prevents and does. Against non-duelists, the Riposte is pretty much always better than a Parry, but against a fellow Duelist the best defensive choice will depend quite a bit on what attack Maneuver they threw at you. Riposte effectively stops a basic attack, Bash or unRaised Slash, but is not a full defense against a Lunge or raised Slash or any attacked boosted by a Feint.)

 Hopefully that reigns in the power of Duelists enough to keep things fun for the other players, and also adds enough meaningful decision-making to each Round to keep the Duelist's player entertained and engaged. The idea was to keep the rules elegant, while enhancing the tactical variety from turn to turn.

Those house-ruled Maneuvers will require a few house-rules for specific Duelist Styles, as a few of the existing Style Bonuses give out too much bonus damage or interact weirdly with my revised versions of Riposte or Lunge. In general below, I haven't house-ruled any defensive powers, and have only worked to reign-in damage output. For balance reasons, I believe any particular Dueling Style should only add about +2 damage per Round, and getting even that much of a bonus should require the player to jump through a hoop or two to get it so it's not 100% guaranteed to happen every Round. Damage-prevention powers are less likely to need revision, because any PC willing to sacrifice offensive power and aggressive success to just concentrate on staying alive should be able to do so pretty reliably.

Aldana: Once per Round, when you perform a Feint, instead of adding +2 extra Wounds, it adds extra Wounds equal to your Panache.

Drexel: When the Metzger and Gerbeck stances talk about "additional" or "fewer" Raises, this is referring only to initiative order, and not any other effect. (I feel this is more a clarification than a House-Rule per se, but it's possible the original authors intended it to function differently with the old Lunge rules in a way that's not crystal-clear in the rules as written. Regardless of that intent, in my revised Maneuver system, it only affects initiative.)

Eisenfaust: Your Ripostes prevent up to 2 Wounds (instead of just 1), and inflict 2 Wounds on the attacker (instead of just 1).

Sabat: When you apply bonus Wounds from your own Feint to your own Lunge, instead of the usual +2 extra Wounds, you can apply +3 extra Wounds.

Those effects are intended to entirely replace the Style Bonus for the effected Dueling Styles, so the boosted Riposte mentioned for Eisenfaust completely replaces the "Iron Reply" text/ability, and the like. No other House Rules should be necessary to make any of the Duelist Styles in the core book play nicely with my revised Maneuvers.

On page 174 of the Pirate Nations book:

Lakedaimon Agoge: Your Lunges require 3 Raises to perform, but they do damage equal to your Weaponry Ranks +2. (This replaces the "Agoge Thrust" alternative-to-Lunge Maneuver rule, but does NOT replace the other effects mentioned for weapon type -- the benefits that you would gain a second of if you took the "Agoge Weapon Mastery" Advantage on page 150 of this book. On that note, I'm not convinced Agoge Weapon Mastery is worth the investment, even in the default rules system, but that's perhaps beside the point here.)

On page 195 of the Nations of Theah Volume 1:

Hallbjorn:  Your Feints are replaced with Slams. Slams do 1 immediate damage in addition to the normal Feint effect of setting up your target to take +2 extra Wounds the next time they take Wounds this Round.

None of the other Dueling Styles in the core 7th Sea 2nd Edition book, Pirate Nations or Nations of Theah volume 1 seem like they would need any house-ruling to work with these rules. I haven't read any of the other books, so I'm not sure if any of them have Duelist Academies or Swordsman Schools that need further modifying.

Hey, speaking of Nations of Theah, Volume 1... I couldn't help but notice that the page that mentions the Rossini Style (page 79) fails to actually provide a Style Bonus for Rossini. I'm not sure if that's a publishing error, if it got intentionally cut, or if it's lurking on some other page and I've just missed it. Here's a proposed house-rule for the Rossini special move if you also can't find it in your copy of that book:

Rossini: You may perform the Parry or Riposte Maneuvers in response to another character nearby being dealt Wounds, instead of just when you take Wounds. It still costs your Action and a Raise as normal, but it prevents Wounds to the person you are defending instead of to yourself.

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