Far West: Combat and Showdowns

For this installment, I figured that I’d show you the changes that we’re making to the core system to more accurately reflect our particular genre mash-up.

Initiative: There are two suggestions in the SOTC core rules about determining who goes first. First is to use the characters static rating in the Alertness skill, with those who have higher scores going first. The second is to just move around the table — if the person next to you went first last time, this time you’re going first, etc. Neither of which was really satisfying to me, especially in a game formed from two genres where combat is a focus. So, here’s what we’re doing:

Characters will ROLL a skill check using their Alertness skill. This will allow variation in results, and also gives the chance for characters to use Aspects and Fate to modify the roll (as well as initiative-based stunts). This will lend more drama to the question of who acts first.

Combat: Combat is run largely as standard for conflicts in the core rules, with a major difference in how wounds are dealt. This alternate system has been used in other FATE-based systems (including an iteration of it in the forthcoming Dresden Files RPG), and I like it quite a bit.

A successful attack inflicts an amount of stress on its target equal to the number of shifts on the attack (the difference between the attacker’s effort, and the defender’s effort). Stress represents non-specific difficulties a character can encounter in a conflict. Every character has two stress tracks. The first is the Health stress track, used for physical stress, such as wounds and fatigue. The second is the Composure stress track, representing the ability to “keep it together” in the face of social and mental injuries. Each track defaults to 5 boxes, but can be increased via some skills (like Endurance, for example).

A character can only take so much stress before being unable to go on, represented by a stress track filling up. Stress can usually be shaken off once a character has some time to gather himself, between scenes. When stress is determined, the character should mark off that box on the appropriate stress track. For instance, if the character takes a three-point physical hit, he should mark off the third box from the left on the Health stress track. If that particular box is already filled, the attack “rolls up” to the next highest available box.

If there ARE no higher boxes (even if there are still lower boxes), the character is Taken Out (knocked out, out of action, or even killed — it depends upon the attacker’s wishes, and judged by the GM). The only way to avoid being Taken Out is to take Consequences.

• A Mild Consequence takes a scene to recover from, and reduces the stress dealt by an attack by 2. (examples: bruising, winded, grazed, etc.)

• A Major Consequence takes several days, possibly an entire session, to recover from, reducing the stress dealt by an attack by 4. (examples: flesh wound, sprain, etc.)

• A Severe Consequence takes several weeks, perhaps more, possibly multiple sessions, to recover from, reducing the stress dealt by an attack by 6. (examples: Broken bones, internal bleeding, etc.)

Characters may take one or more consequences on an attack in order to reduce the size of the hit taken. For example, a character can reduce the stress of an attack by 8 by taking both a mild (-2) and a severe (-6) consequence on the same hit.

Consequences taken are Aspects that are immediately available to be tagged by the character’s opponents. Once placed, a consequence remains in effect until the character gets a chance to recover from it. A character can only “carry” three consequences at any time.

This results in a “deadlier” combat system than the pulpy SOTC — which is good, since that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

Showdowns: The standing duel (a standard of both the Western and the Wuxia genres) is given a separate mechanic, to draw dramatic attention to it. I had been struggling with how to pull it off, and went to the FateRPG Yahoo group with my concerns. After a brief discussion, SOTC designer came up with a solution, which I’m grabbing in its entirety, with due credit and much thanks. These rules are adapted from his original email.

A showdown is comprised of a series of contests that happen *prior* to The Shot.

Basically, there’s a list of preamble maneuvers people can go through; each side of the showdown gets a chance to call for one or more of the contests to occur prior to the shot going off. If only one of the two sides chooses a particular “step”, that doesn’t matter; the step happens. Steps that neither side are interested in get skipped (in other words, each side gets to choose how much tension-dial-twisting they wanna do prior to the shot happening).

This process steps outside of the attack and defend paradigm. When it comes down to The Shot, the loser doesn’t get his shot off. (Or, if he does, it’s after all results, consequences, taken-outs, etc, of the winner’s shot are accounted for; I’ll talk about that below.)

Think of the showdowns in Westerns like Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead or the finale of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Each step is a tight shot on some feature of the preamble: a close shot of the eyes — either of determination or fear; the face of the clock, with each second ticking down, louder than the last; a hand poised over the handle of a gun, fingers flexing, knuckles cracking. Each of those shots is a contest — you’re slowing time down and making it crazy tense.

Here’s how it works:

ONE: The Staredown

The image: Tight focus on the eyes of each opponent.

The questions: Who’s the badass here? Who has the fear, and who doesn’t?

The maneuver: Intimidation vs. Intimidation if both are trying to shake each other’s nerves. Whoever wins the roll gets to place a temporary aspect, e.g., “He’s tougher’n me!” or “Shaken!”, on his opponent.

Options: Something like Resolve may be rolled instead by one side in this maneuver if that side is choosing *not* to “counter-intimidate”, getting the full defense bonus (+2). If the defender in such a case succeeds, he does not get to place a temporary aspect on his opponent, but he may gain Spin if he wins by more than 3, to affect the next roll he makes by +1.

TWO: The Hand-Twitch

The image: Hands poised above guns. Fingers twitching, anticipating the moment.

The questions: Whose hands will move a split second faster than the other’s?

The maneuver: This is about making the most of your reaction speed; it’s like “aiming” to shoot a gun, only you’re “preparing” to draw it instead. This is a maneuver of Guns vs. Guns. Whoever wins the roll places a temporary aspect on his opponent, e.g., “Slow on the draw!” or “Hand cramp!”

Options:Other skills could potentially be brought to bear if someone can make a reasonable case that a different skill is at the root of their efforts to prepare for the draw — if a different weapon (swords, for example) is being used, the Weapon skill would feature, rather than Guns.

THREE: The Tick of the Clock

The image: The second hand ticks closer to high noon, each tick of the clock resounding, louder than the last, echoing, isolated.

The questions: Who will hear the start of the first chime of high noon first?

The maneuver: This is about making sure that your perceptions are more keenly attuned than the other guy’s: Alertness vs. Alertness. The winner of this maneuver places a temporary aspect either on his opponent or himself, e.g., “Can’t hear over the beat of my heart” on an opponent or “I can hear the gears turn in the clock!” on yourself.

FOUR: The Draw

The image: BONG. Reach for those guns and get ’em out!

The questions:: Who got his gun out first?

The maneuver: Guns vs. Guns (or Weapons vs. Weapons), the winner placing a temporary aspect again. Different skills might be used if they’re more indicative of speed of motion. For example, someone might have very fast hands but be a crappy shot, preferring to use their Sleight of Hand skill here.

FIVE: The Shot

The image: A shot rings out — perhaps two. Both duellists jerk back. We can’t tell what happened!

The questions:: Who got hit? Whose shot went wide?

The maneuver: This is Guns vs. Guns, but done as a “simultaneous attack”, where the winner is the one who hits his target, and the loser’s roll treated as a defense, his shot going wide. All the free tags resulting from the previous maneuvers can be used, stacked on top of each other, as much as can be done, to amp up the stress dealt by the winner’s shot as much as possible. Whoever’s roll is highest gets his shot off, hitting the other guy for as much stress as is the margin of success.

Options: If the showdown hasn’t ended conclusively, it reverts to a standard combat at this point. All temporary aspects from previous maneuvers remain in play (but their free tags may be used up at this point), so they might still factor in…

This system can be used for swords as well (think of the scene in Hero where the combatants play out the entire duel in their heads, neither one moving until a single strike….).

There you have it. Next installment, we’ll take a look at some of the Sects in the world of FAR WEST.

Musical Inspirado:

David Schwartz – “Theme from Deadwood.”


Jay Chou – “Dragon Fist.”

12 Replies to “Far West: Combat and Showdowns”

  1. This system can be used for swords as well (think of the scene in Hero where the combatants play out the entire duel in their heads, neither one moving until a single strike….).

    I was totally thinking of the Samurai I, II, and III movies here, as well as whole pages of faceoffs in USagi Yojimbo.

    Good sign.


  2. It’s been sitting in the back of my head, lurking, waiting for a Western-themed or -inspired game to come bubbling out. I’m pretty happy with it.

    Missing are things like Sleight of Hand or Deceit bits where you do something dirty and underhanded to get an edge — catching the light of the sun on your beltbuckle and hitting your opponent in the eyes with it, that sort of thing.

  3. For stuff like that, I’d say have options to throw them in different steps. Like, sun off the belt-buckle? Totally appropriate for the Stare!

  4. Sure. Though part of the design idea here is that you’ve got a ton of optional contests, all of which the two duellists can opt to skip or do, so realy it’s just about ticking the particular items off the laundry-list and having a ball of it, with a fat stack of free tags once The Shot comes around.

  5. For the setting you’re envisioning here, I would recommend dropping the default number of boxes from 5 to three. It would speed up, and would fit the deadlier edge of Far West

  6. I’m going to take a moment of dancing around the room glee here, and say thanks for using my -2/-4/-6 consequences idea. I was hoping that’d get out there in a full design somehow.

  7. I’ll keep it 5, at least for the main characters — heroes and villains — because they’re supposed to be exceptional.

  8. Dude. DUDE! I am so stoked now. I love the way the mechanics bring the convention alive here, especially the way that literally, time slows down to a crawl as you go through the various steps. Fantastic. Kudos to all involved.

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