Problem-Solving Combat: Breaking the Cage of "Roll Initiative"

I don't want to take the stance that this is an objectively better way to do things, but there's something in the water (maybe hydrogen, maybe oxygen?) that makes humans write toward that stance. I could go edit through everything and make sure I'm not, but that is a recipe for not actually publishing any blog posts. So take this as a blanket disclaimer: This is what I've found works for me, to evoke the kind of engagement I want with and from my players, compared to how I've seen and played other game systems run by other GMs. If it sounds good to you too, cool, see how you can integrate it into your games, and look forward to the indeterminate future when I release some public form of Cunning Knave.

The Cage of "Roll Initiative"

D&D-like combat rules are a black hole for what I find fun about OSR style gameplay. 

Yes, we all plan ambushes when we can, and try to out-think enemies.

But when we do Roll Initiative, a cage comes down over each player, trapping you in a very well-defined set of options - to the death.

Having default types of actions within combat discourages creativity. And If a player spends too much time thinking of a clever plan (which is harder than it should be since it's restricted within the framework of the combat rules), they're pressured into taking one of the default actions.

Strict turn order discourages teamwork. If one PC calls for the retreat, the enemies will likely act before the rest of the PCs can, which in the majority of cases means there's a good chance that one or more won't be able to get away. This fact pre-emptively discourages fleeing, along with plans involving more than one PC, across the board.

Yes, there are things like 5E's Help action, but that's almost worse - it converts a good idea (how are you helping?) into a mere modifier for a future action someone else is able to take, instead of, like, actually doing something interesting.

"But making combat deadly and standardized - even boring - helps push players to avoid it altogether, a central tenet of OSR play! And it's easier to ensure it's deadly by making rules that ensure it's deadly." This proposition isn't incompatible with combat being a Bad Idea. It's just that when we inevitably do end up in combat, I don't want to leave the "OSR style challenge" mindspace and shift into a Roll Off.

Of course all of this probably sounds familiar to anyone who groks Powered by the Apocalypse games. It's something I've always found that PbtA and OSR games have in common; an emphasis on presenting qualitative, rather than quantitative problems, in an unrestricted solution space. This is certainly true of OSR gameplay in general, but when it comes to combat, the vast majority of OSR rulesets seem to hew very closely to the wargame-rooted systems of the original games.

Wat do?

I think, if nothing else, Problem-Solving Combat can be distilled into a handful of guiding principles that can apply to most any RPG, and that's probably all you need.

  • Don't Roll Initiative - Just describe the situation and ask "What do you do?"
  • Don't Enforce an Order - Let everyone discuss a plan, team up on actions or establish a group tactic, then call for the rolls that make sense, in an order that makes sense.
  • Don't Just Attack - Use enemies to do interesting things that threaten the PCs.
  • Don't Stay Still - Present new challenges as every round evolves the situation.
  • Don't Stay Abstract - Concrete details are opportunities to seize.

It's tempting to say "well, if you want to treat combat the same as you do non-combat stuff, just don't distinguish it. Use the rules from non-combat stuff for combat stuff." I think, at least for me, this is a trap. Having a discrete mode signals to the players that their lives are at stake. And it is still nice to have some kind of framework for arbitration, rather than leaving it completely freeform. A procedure, for guidance, something to keep hold of as you navigate the dizzying tactical infinity.

On the other end of the scale, while permitting an open solution space, even the Move systems of PbtA games is too rigid a framework for my taste (for OSR style gameplay).

There are also systems that present combat as an open-ended challenge, but reduce them to a single roll. But Combat is such a rich source of interesting problems to solve that this seems like a loss.

So, like I do, I wrote a hack. Here is an excerpt of the WIP, which I'm calling Cunning Knave.

Combat in Cunning Knave

[For context, "Resolve" is essentially both Level and HP (Monsters' Resolve is their HD), and PCs begin with 1 Resolve. You can assume the system is otherwise very similar to Knave, for current purposes.]

If violence has become inevitable, a round of Combat begins.

The referee will describe the situation and what the enemies appear to be doing. The players are then free to discuss and plan any course of action, with the referee clarifying feasibility and likely consequences of failure, but not exact difficulty or potential complications.

Once the plan is clear, the referee will then call for any Rolls that are necessary for each PC’s actions in an order makes sense, applying advantage or disadvantage where relevant. Players may clarify details before rolling to attempt to gain advantage or negate disadvantage.

Just like outside of combat, very good plans or straightforward actions don’t require Rolls. And any intent can be attempted; disarming or capturing, driving off by intimidation, de-escalating to parley, retreating, and any approach can be utilized, not just attacking with weapons but utilizing other items or aspects of the environment, perhaps gaining advantage.

Once all the effects of the current course of action have been resolved, a new round begins; the referee will describe how the situation has changed, and the players may discuss their next actions.

Each round of combat should result in significant changes to the situation; combat is chaotic and quick and should not last more than a few rounds, often resulting in surrender or retreat after two or three. Try to avoid a straightforward exchange of blows, instead presenting a challenge unique to the type of enemy, their equipment, and the environment that might not be resolved by simply attacking or defending.


A physical attack requires an Opposed Roll against their Armor Target. A success reduces the enemy’s Resolve, usually by 1, but potentially more with particularly effective plans. An enemy at 0 Resolve is at the PC’s mercy, possibly dying.


Failing a Roll to attack, or taking particular risks in a hostile encounter may result in the PC being attacked. If a PC is attacked, they make an Armor Roll. A failure causes damage, depleting their current Resolve, usually by 1.

Traps and other types of incidental harm may also be considered an attack, and in certain dire circumstances, a PC may take damage directly with no chance to resist with a roll.

Attacks are usually physical, but could be mental or even emotional. These would trigger an Ability Roll other than Armor, such as Charisma or even Resolve itself.

At 0 Resolve, the PC is out of action until they can be safely attended to.


Wicked foes, traps, or other environmental hazards may outright kill a PC while they are out of action or otherwise helpless, if their companions cannot prevent it. If there is some chance that they could avoid certain death, the referee may call for a Resolve Roll to survive. If this is successful, the PC survives, but also takes a Dire Wound, which fills an Item Slot and reduces Resolve by 1, permanently.

Attacking foes directly is very dangerous. Look for safer ways to exploit the particulars of your enemies, equipment, and environment. 

I'll be following this post up with a concrete example of combat from a playtest with further commentary, and possibly a third with some more procedural advice on how to turn combat into a series of interesting challenges.

Related Resources

As with a lot of RPG blogging in this day and age, none of this is revelatory or original; I've just felt compelled to assemble a particular combination and reinterpretation of stuff I've ingested over the years. Among those influences:

I encourage you to comment below, rather than elsewhere. I even welcome "But this one system here does this one thing like you want!"

Long live the Blogosphere!