System Hack: Cyberpunk Chimera Combat

The one subsystem that all traditional RPGs bolt onto their core resolution mechanics is a conflict system and, like it or not, the most popular iteration of a conflict system is one for physical combat. Cyberpunk 2020 had a combat system designed with realism in mind, and, thanks to a statistical basis in actual criminal activity using guns, did very well in terms of combat verisimilitude. This did mean that some of the “imbalance” in the system, namely the overwhelming power of a high initiative roll and the destabilizing impact of armor, were based on reality. Quirks aside, what made ‘realistic’ fun was that the system played quickly and had enough detail to mean that player choices in terms of tactics and weapons mattered. The issue with Cyberpunk’s conflict systems, really, is that combat is much more ‘baked’ than the other conflict system, netrunning, and the only semblance of a social conflict system is the ‘facedown’ mechanic, which is one die roll for one specific situation. 

Now, in this Cyberpunk Chimera, we’re going to want to give more love to both of these situations, and probably move closer to a system like Genesys where social, physical, and digital conflicts all get more equal treatment in the mechanics. The unified system in Genesys, though, isn’t going to be the best choice for the feel of Cyberpunk 2020. There are two things needed to break up the primacy of combat in a role-playing game. One is to provide more options with an equal amount of mechanical depth, something I will attempt to do in later installments. The other is to design a combat system which imparts a fair and realistic amount of risk. Cyberpunk 2020 succeeded in this respect, though not without its own weirdness. In order to evaluate combat for the Cyberpunk Chimera, we’ll take a look at how structured combat time works, how actions work, and how damage works. In each case, the goals for what the game should feel like as well as the work already done on the skill mechanics will inform how we go forward.

Structured Time

Turn-taking has been, since D&D was new, a compromise between simulation and gameplay. In D&D, especially later editions, it’s fairly clear that turn structure is one of the elements that compounds the ‘bag of hit points’ problem with combat, and only Fourth Edition, where movement and maneuvers are abstracted equally, really solves that in any satisfactory way. This is a Cyberpunk game, though, and grids and maneuvers aren’t going to give us the feel we want. Friday Night Firefight alleviated the issues with turn taking in two ways: First, characters in combat were taken out of combat very quickly. Second, initiative was rerolled every turn, which made it more difficult for parties to plan actions more than one turn ahead.

So this is all fine and good; Friday Night Firefight remains one of my favorite combat systems, years after I first played it. That said, it suffers from an obvious flaw that probably wasn’t even considered a flaw when it was new: combat is designed like a wargame, where one side wins by defeating the other side. This is an oversimplification which, among other things, encourages the use of violence as a problem-solving tool.

Saying we don’t want wargame-style combat is a pretty dramatic design departure from Cyberpunk 2020, so why do it? Well, there are a lot of other design decisions and authorial emphases in 2020 that make it clear that players are supposed to give more thought to missions in 2020 than treating them as a series of combats. Non-mechanical statements made throughout Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads, to give one blunt example, are all pointing towards the fact that players should be very conscious of how they present themselves and what sorts of tension they create. The game can only be helped, then, by mechanizing this broader tension.

Conflicts, especially physical conflicts, are about energy levels. There is an initial explosion of violence, and then things decay into entropy. Some, possibly even most, conflicts end after that first burst of energy. Others have an ebb and flow. And of course, the longer combat goes on, the more likely that someone on your side is going down.

So let’s go back to that whole ‘realistic’ thing. Realistically speaking, people don’t want to stay around in a place where they think they’re going to get shot (or stabbed, or punched). You see iterations of this in pretty much any sort of armed conflict. Police shoot perpetrators before they bring weapons to bear as a self-preservation tactic. Military units use surprise and stealth to maintain their safety in the field. And gang members, when shooting enemies, will shoot and run, either by foot or as part of a drive-by. No one’s standing out there at the “end of their turn”.

So let’s figure out how to mechanize this energy level. One game which has done this is EABA, by both making combat turns get steadily longer as well as by capping the number of turns a combat can last. Both are interesting ideas, and both are supported by EABA as a heavier, more simulation-driven ruleset. Expanding turns reduces the length (in real-time) of combats and therefore reduces bookkeeping, but combat at its core is the same basic wargame. We want to distill combat into its most interesting decision points, and timekeeping isn’t necessarily something that restricts us.

So let’s assume we’re in a combat encounter. It starts when both sides draw weapons, and both sides want to kill the other side. In real life this is a very narrow slice of armed conflicts; ambushes and asymmetrical fights are more common because outside of martial arts combatants are far more concerned with winning than with fairness. Nonetheless, this is the default for role-playing games. Both sides draw weapons, and both sides start shooting. What happens next? Well, barring bloodlust or PCP, most people are more concerned with not getting shot than with making sure their shots hit. Except for highly disciplined soldiers, people generally can’t make tactical decisions while getting shot at. So there’s a start point: end each “turn” either in cover, concealed, or fleeing. If you’re in the open and the shooting’s stopped, you have a choice. 

The key to this scenario is that there are key points of action, but also a whole lot of reaction. It should be much more important to decide when and where to start a fight than the minutiae of the fight itself. Plans of action can be changed at those lull moments, rather than every 6 seconds or every 3 seconds or however long a turn is. So let’s look at two possible scenarios from the combat start above. In one, both sides brought their weapons to bear, started taking shots, and then availed themselves of cover. In the other, the combat was more asymmetrical, and a disciplined merc team is standing in the open while their enemies have scattered behind cover. In neither case has a side disengaged, so the combat is ongoing. In both cases, the two sides both have a chance to change their course of action now. In the first case, both sides will stay behind cover until one side acts to break the stalemate. The number of possible actions is endless, we haven’t defined the scenario enough to determine limits. In the second case, the merc team who is in the open may be vulnerable, but they also will be able to react better to threats. So who gets to go first?

What I’d want to employ here is a similar initiative system to that used in the game Reign. In Reign, there are two separate phases of each combat turn. First, actions are declared slowest character first. This way, the faster, more perceptive characters are able to see more of what’s going to happen before they must act, and can declare actions which react to what they know is going to happen so far. Next, the actions are executed fastest character first, though there should be additional rules which pertain to how long actions actually take. Although EABA tracks time and this system doesn’t, the goals of the two mechanics are the same: play the beats of combat rather than each individual second or groups of seconds. Use Reign Initiative to declare actions, execute actions, see where the dust settles.

Initiative in this system, like in Cyberpunk, would be very important. For these rules to work we’d need the field of combatants to spread out across an initiative order so that determining who goes first is easy. Unfortunately if initiative is based on a skill (and based on the previous article pretty much everything will be based on a skill), there’s only going to be 5 to 8 points and they’re going to be along a roughly normal distribution…having everyone with a 2 or 3 in initiative means that ties will be common. So let’s pull initiative out and give it a bit more detail, since it is so important to Cyberpunk-style combat. First, we’re going to assume that in this system initiative is perception-driven, it’s about being able to see what’s going on and reacting quickly. So, assuming we have a perception skill (it didn’t come out specifically in the Attributes and Skills article but it makes sense), let’s say that initiative is that skill rating times ten. So you’d have base initiatives of (most likely) 20, 30, or 40. So these ratings are going to be modified, both circumstantially and by things like cyberware. A big modifier is cover. Most useful cover in an urban setting is made of things like concrete and steel, neither of which you can easily see through. Having no sight line would give you, say, a -10 to initiative (the exact numbers will be determined later), while having a partial sight line might be -5. You could also envision a +5 for a character who has high ground and can see the whole field, as another example. This encourages jockeying for position. Multiples of 5 are only going to somewhat reduce the possibility of ties, so we can cap it off with an initiative roll where each combatant gets a bonus equal to the number of successes they earn.

Initiative can also be impacted in batches. You could foresee an ambush where the surprised party must put down their reactions first. You could imagine a ‘mark’ or a ‘wait’ maneuver where the character could potentially go much later (declaring later is better) in the order but only if certain conditions are met. The point here is that having the upper hand is critical in Cyberpunk combat, and the rules on timing and initiative need to be robust enough to reflect that. It also ensures that overwhelming tactical advantage isn’t necessarily wiped out by a powerful character ability, as Combat Sense had the potential to do in Cyberpunk 2020.

There is also the slightly different scenario of single combat where both opponents are completely aware of each other. Covering things like sword fights, fistfights, and duels, these situations would be the exception rather than the rule in a cyberpunk setting but we should probably have rules for them. Here, where the playing field is level and the advantage to going first is variable, blind actions would likely work best. A system like this is employed in games from Torchbearer to the Street Fighter RPG, and it works well for dialing up tension. As far as tactics are concerned it may be a little simplistic, but it would only have to work in these limited and symmetrical one-on-one situations.

Combat Actions

Combat actions don’t require much elaboration at this early stage. There will be attacks, and it’ll probably be necessary to elaborate out autofire, suppressing fire, and other maneuvers. For now, let’s talk about how maneuvers are defined. As mentioned above, initiative is mostly perception-driven; it’s about seeing and reacting to what’s going on. As also mentioned above, there is a strong human desire to not get killed; on the PC side we can state that some actions, like staying in the open during a gunfight, require a Cool check. But then how do we define the speed of actions? We’re not defining turn length so strictly, and characters are acting simultaneously so going and finishing first are both important. Since we already know who’s going to react first thanks to initiative, for quick actions we don’t need to trigger anything else. Let’s say that we’re defining how long actions take with a Speed Rating, and let’s call these default, reflexive actions, like shooting a weapon or diving behind cover, Speed 0. More deliberate but still discrete actions, like readying a holstered weapon or aiming a weapon might be Speed 1. We can imagine that one could even chain actions, so long as the actions are part of one fluid outcome (so running to a new position, aiming, and taking a shot might be Speed 2). 

Here’s how this would go down. Everyone declares actions in initiative, noting the Speed rating of the action they want to take. Once everyone has declared, actions are resolved in batches, from Speed 0 to Speed 5 (whatever the maximum is). There’s another possible way to do this that both makes it more dependent on character skill and more risky to perform complex actions. If we envision the Speed rating as described above, it now becomes a difficulty for a Mobility check (we defined Mobility as a skill in the last article). Each character rolls Mobility, and then actions are executed in order of margin of success. This is a bit more rolling, but now action order is a factor of both awareness and reaction (a mental skill) and speed (a physical skill). This system also both rewards tactical thinking and opens up the possibility for some really interesting and potent cybernetics.

Now, the actual actions would be resolved by one last die roll. Fighting would happen with a Fight roll, while other actions would use their appropriate skills (possibly with an appropriately high Speed rating, depending on what the action is). With so much love given to the action economy and initiative, there should be plenty of opportunities for interrupts and positioning; in addition to the ‘mark’ maneuver described above there could be a ‘cover’ maneuver, where a character doesn’t make an action but gets a reaction to anyone shooting at their protectee, or a ‘suppressive fire’ maneuver where automatic gunfire forces anyone coming out of cover in the affected area to either drop their action or risk being shot.

So we’ve hypothesized a system that defines maneuvering and timing, that in theory should reward positioning, cover, and tactics. But what makes the risk/reward calculus complete? Well, figuring out how bad it is when someone gets shot.

Damage and Armor

The damage system in Cyberpunk is fairly well tuned, and we’re going to want to preserve that. In Cyberpunk, there is a fixed damage track with 10 blocks of four hit points each. The first block is ‘light’, the second block is ‘serious’, the third block is ‘critical’, and then blocks 4-10 are ‘mortal’, rated 0 through 6. Damage is moderated somewhat by the Body Type Modifier (BTM), a derived penalty to any damage coming to the character based on their Body score. That said, the BTM tops out at 4 for unaugmented characters while a humble 9mm pistol does 2d6+1 damage (an average of 8 points), so no one is stopping bullets with their pecs. Armor does play an important role, though full coverage armor slows you down (at least in theory) and is conspicuous (though there are no mechanics for this). We can play around with encumbrance (the speed rules above give us some nice possibilities), but let’s make sure that we do damage right.

Below is an examination of a couple weapons in Cyberpunk, our humble 9mm pistol and a 5.56mm assault rifle. We’re taking a look at damage totals for an average character (BTM of -2) who is wearing armor and not wearing armor.

Weapon 9mm Pistol (2d6+1 damage) 5.56mm Assault Rifle (5d6 damage)
Average damage after BTM (type) 6 (Serious) 16 (Mortal 1)
% chance of stun failure for average damage 60% 90%
% chance of mortal 0% 78%
Average damage with light armor jacket (SP14) 0 2 (Light)
% chance of stun failure for average damage 0% 50%
% chance of mortal 0% 0.1%

So…ok. As written, a 9mm bullet to the chest cannot kill an average person. Huh. For gameplay purposes this isn’t as wonky as you’d think, because you’re still quite likely to fail your stun/shock save, and you’re going to take some penalties for that bullet wound that start at -2 to Reflex and end at Reflex, Cool, and Intelligence all halved (if you get into Mortal territory they’re down to a third of their value). Also, there are the limb rules. If you do more than eight points of damage to a limb, not only do you lose the limb but you have to make a death save. If you do more than eight points of damage to the head, it’s auto-death, no save. So if you want to kill with a 9mm, headshots.

So how do we want to translate this? The lethality straight-up seems about right, if downscaled for game purposes. I might want to write some mechanics for lingering wounds, but that’s just due to the inherent strangeness of a 9mm bullet not being able to kill on its own. Still, in terms of effects, it seems about where we’d want it. Armor presents a bit of an issue. Light armor reduces the damage on an assault rifle to a minor flesh wound, which seems off. If you want to see where Cyberpunk’s arms race starts it’s likely right here, because getting bigger guns is the only way to counteract more armor. When you consider that MetalGear, the strongest armor in the core book, reduces the chance of an assault rifle dealing any damage at all to around 1.6%, it’s no wonder Cyberpunk characters seem hard to kill with conventional weapons.

So here’s the problem: having armored characters wade through gunfire is cool, if not exactly realistic. We want to keep the potential for those sorts of ‘crowning moments of awesome’ (as well as make some hostile solo teams downright terrifying) while making it at least a little difficult to achieve. So let’s look at military and law enforcement armor standards. A military armor system consists of a kevlar armor vest with plate carriers; the solid metal plates are rated to stop armor piercing 30-06 rounds (30-06 isn’t consistent in the Cyberpunk core book, but it should be near 7.62mm damage, so let’s say 6d6), which would put the SP rating of the metal trauma plates plus vest in Cyberpunk parlance around 45 (!!). The main thing about trauma plates is they’re ablative; even military grade plates are rated to stop bullets that powerful somewhere between 1 and 3 times. Also, the armor system is very heavy, and the military doesn’t issue full-body protection to most soldiers, excepting those in positions where they don’t need to move very much, like turret gunners (see the door gunner’s vest from 2020 and you get the idea). So here’s where we stand against realism in Cyberpunk: Cyberpunk armor is actually *less* effective than its real-world counterpart, but much, much more durable. That said, heavy armor without solid plates is still science fiction: the SP 20 jacket with a similar level of protection to a military plate carrier (albeit less the plates) would have to be some sort of shear-thickening liquid or other as-of-yet undeveloped armor in order to be wearable around the arms.

Let’s do what we’ve done in the past and halve the tiers. Below I’m listing weapon tiers; each one increments up by either two d6s or one d10 of damage from the old 2020 system.

Weapon Damage Armor SP Weapon Description Armor Description
1d6-2d6 4-10 Small pistols and submachineguns, knives, fists Motorcycle armor, heavy leather, concealable kevlar
3d6-4d6 14-20 Large pistols and submachineguns, carbines, shotguns, swords Military kevlar (no plates), shear-thickening armor jackets
5d6-6d6 25-30 Assault rifles, hunting rifles Military kevlar (with plates)
7d6-8d6 (4d10) 35-40 .50 rifles, grenades Light Powered Armor
9d6+ / 4d10+ 45+ Heavy weapons Assistive Powered Armor (ACPA)

This lines up with what we had for skills: five tiers, with the possibility for tiers six, seven, and eight which are really beyond the pale for most cases. Nicely, a theoretical “tier 8” based on this scale would put you near the top end of both weapons and armor available for powered armor in the “Maximum Metal” supplement. I have made a few small changes: first, I codified the technology which makes the “heavy armor jacket” even possible, and I’ve modified Metal Gear a bit. Metal Gear is described as essentially modern plate mail, but given the weight of even the most advanced ceramic armor available, it would not be practical for a human to wear without assistance. I’ve therefore renamed Metal Gear into “Light Powered Armor”, armor packages which use linear frame type exoskeletons to allow a human to wear them, but don’t offer any assistive boosts like ACPA does as described in Maximum Metal. This has the benefit of a) offering some neat potential weak spots for this level of armor, which is otherwise big trouble on the street, and b) rationalizing items from Cyberpunk 2020 splatbooks like the “Pit Viper” and “Hooded Viper” light powered armor suits which didn’t fit nicely into either straight armor or ACPA categorizations.

OK, so we know what we’re going to write around. There are some interesting issues here: First, there are more damage options at the low end. That first category covers from 9mm pistols at the high end to punches at the low end, and a punch from an average person does 1d6/2 damage resulting in an average value of 1.75. Eesh. Now that may seem like an issue, but we should define in more detail what it means when you compare your weapon tier to your armor tier. If the armor tier is higher than the weapon tier, the weapon shouldn’t penetrate, unless there’s something special going on (and we can go into armor piercing later). If the weapon tier is higher than the armor tier, then armor reduces damage but doesn’t eliminate it. If the weapon and armor tier are equal, then we have some adjudication potential. First, there’s the notion of blunt trauma. A rule from GURPS and a houserule used for Cyberpunk 2020 in many places, blunt trauma mechanics basically state that for hits that don’t go through armor, a certain amount of damage passes through because you’re still absorbing the kinetic energy of the hit. Given this tier system, I’d be inclined to say that blunt trauma could be passed through for weapons of equal tier to the armor, as well as one tier below. Given our understanding of the tiers, it might now be time to take a hard look at how damage is actually applied.

Cyberpunk 2020’s damage system is a track-based system. Instead of having a pool of hit points, you pass thresholds of damage which make it more difficult to stay in the fight and, eventually, more difficult to stay alive. The damage track of Cyberpunk is one of several mechanical innovations which tried to move away from hit points, another one being a ‘wounds’ type system where each wound has a (usually cumulative) effect. Where we want to go with this damage system is a matter of granularity. As it stands now, based on what we saw with the damage levels for the 9mm pistol and assault rifle, there are only three tiers of wounds, maybe four if you put one in for blunt trauma in tier one armor. This does kind of work, we go right back to ‘light’, ‘serious’, ‘critical’, and ‘mortal’ just like in 2020. Given this schema, a solid punch, a stab, or a wound from a small pistol would be ‘serious’ to an unarmored character, a shot from a larger pistol would be ‘critical’, and any shot from a long gun would be ‘mortal’. Seems fair and consistent, though we’d want a mechanic to ensure that upgrading the damage tier by one is possible to reflect the damage range from 2020. We’d also include mechanics that reflect the limb and head rules: limbs are rendered useless from serious or higher wounds, and head wounds which are serious or higher result in automatic death. Wear your helmets, kids.

So what do these wounds do? As mentioned above, there are characteristic penalties associated with each wound level in Cyberpunk 2020, but these are less significant than the Stun/Shock and Mortal saves made each time a character is hit. These saves are accomplished by rolling under the Body stat, statistically sensible but oddly unique in the rules. Still, this means that an average character would have a 50% chance of making a Stun/Shock Save for a light wound and a 50% chance of making a Mortal save from a Mortal 0 wound. This gives us our starting point, thanks to the earlier determined dice system. So a Stun save from a light wound should require two successes, and a death save from a Tier 3 mortal wound should require two successes. If each tier goes up by 1, this makes characters more fragile than their Cyberpunk equivalents, but also greatly increases the importance of the Strength skill. This may make it prudent to have Stun and Death saves key off different skills to spread around the usefulness.

One thing that’s been overlooked so far is the consequences of taking multiple hits, something that happens quite often in Cyberpunk 2020. Taking one wound is often quite lethal, but it is possible to take multiple wounds and keep going. First, in terms of penalties and stun/death rolls, only the most severe wound counts. If you take another wound of the same tier of your most serious wound, you upgrade to the next tier up. Light wounds should be an exception here, let’s say you can take three light wounds before they upgrade instead of two. To cut down on bookkeeping, if you receive a wound of a lower tier than the most severe wound you’ve already received, you need not record it, but you do need to make another Stun (and if applicable Death) save.

The final question here is healing. While the mechanics of healing don’t need to be developed now, we should now how damage recovery works broadly, and how it doesn’t work. Light wounds should go away on their own, maybe moderated by how many you’ve received. Pretty much everything else requires medical attention prior to recovery, and may even get worse if left untreated. The timing of healing will vary just like in 2020, with critical and mortal wounds taking months to recover with mere bedrest but just a few days with a full suite of enhanced healing technologies. The details of this timing can be written up later, but it’s important to note that the time element will be maintained.

The system outlined here has wandered away from Cyberpunk 2020, but it maintains the important details: combat is fast, combat is deadly, and combat requires every advantage you can get. As I wrote at the beginning of this, really getting the needed feel will require that the other conflict systems in the game get the same attention as this one. That said, I think I’ve succeeded in making combat dangerous, and more tweaking will ensure that it feels right.

Want to check out more Cyberpunk Chimera? We’ve got all the articles tagged and easy to find.

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