Michael Sullivan sent this essay to the Amber Mailing List in 2018. It is reprinted here with his permission.
I’ve been tinkering around with combat systems for the last couple of years, trying to find games that play a little less “roll to hit, roll to damage” than is the norm. Recently, I came across kind of a frame of thinking that I feel may be useful to Amber GMs that are trying to make combat a little less scalar or arbitrary than the default system provides.
(By that I mean: in Amber, you generally have little mechanical ability to differentiate combat characters. Probably most combat comes down to “compare Warfares, plus non-mechanical discussion/negotiation/ruling.” With maybe a little side role for Strength and Endurance and maybe artifacts or something. So this technique that I’m going to describe would be useful for people who want to see a little more of a scenario in which Albert is better than Beatrice in some situations, but worse in other situations, mechanically.)
The technique that we’re talking about here is separating the offensive part of combat into a two-stage process: GENERATING opportunities versus EXPLOITING opportunities. Think here of a feint. There’s one skill where you’re good at selling the feint. Where you convince your opponent to parry where your sword is not. There’s a different skill at then taking advantage of that opening. When your opponent parries where your sword is not, do you run him through, killing him? Or maybe you just wound him. Perhaps just a light scratch. Maybe you don’t manage to make contact with him at all, but you put him on the back foot, forcing him into a more defensive posture.
The ability to generate opportunities is, more or less, the ability to win a combat. If you’re generating opportunities consistently, and your opponent is not, then even if it takes you a while to capitalize on your opportunities, you’ll win. Meanwhile, if you have lots of ability to exploit opportunities, but no ability to generate them, well… you can’t exploit what’s not there.
However, the ability to exploit opportunities is the ability to win a combat QUICKLY. Which also means that it’s the ability to handle lots of lesser opponents successfully. Corwin was able to generate opportunities in his duel with Eric in the beginning of Nine Princes, but before he could turn that potential into an actual win, he was interrupted. And if you’re fighting ten guys, you just don’t get a chance to put one of those guys into a more and more compromised position before you’re finally able to take him out — you’ll get interrupted by a sword to the back.
If you’re mechanically inclined, think of it this way: Suppose that you have three stats for combat: generate, exploit, and defense. Each “round” or time that the GM gives you an opportunity to discuss your actions or whatever, you get a certain amount of “opportunity,” which is an intermediate stage of damage. Depending on the difference between your generate and your opponent’s defense. But you have to build up a certain amount of opportunity, depending on your exploit score, before that “damage” actually turns into real DAMAGE. And if you don’t get to continue to press your opponent, if you have to turn your attention to something else, that opportunity “damage” vanishes into nothing.
This has some knock-on effects. If Albert has generate 5, exploit 8, defense 5, and Beatrice has generate 7, exploit 3, defense 7, then Beatrice probably generally wrecks Albert (assuming like a 1-10 scale and a 2 point difference being significant). But if Beatrice is compromised in some way, maybe already wounded or set up in a bad situation, then Albert is a “give him an inch, he’ll take a mile” guy. If Beatrice is on her game, she wins. But as soon as she’s a little compromised, Albert’s ability to rapidly take an edge and turn it into a win looms large.
In Amber, you might think of Strength’s role as being largely one of Exploit. Strength is no good if your opponent can keep you from every making much contact. But if you CAN get an opportunity, Strength makes it easy to turn that opportunity into a brutal game-winning advantage. Exploit is, don’t get me wrong, generally worse than Generate in one-on-one fights. But if you think of it this way, you can more clearly see opportunities to turn that around.
This also gives you a mode to think about how Endurance plays into combat. Endurance again mitigates the advantage of Generate. If you need to fight for a long time to get the win, that obviously plays into whether we should look at your Endurance versus your opponents’.
You can use this frame formally in the game, giving people actual scores (whether primary attributes or as derived values) in generate/exploit, or just as one of several modes to think about a given fight in. Hopefully it lets you imagine and communicate more interesting fights than you otherwise would.