Berserking rules, defending sucks (usually)

It’s almost Thanksgiving, and one thing I am grateful for is the bounty of SFF games and books within my reach.

Dominions IV continues to engross. I studied up a little bit last week on some of the game’s mechanics, but the manual is 454 pages long. So now I’m mostly just enjoying it as I play. At the moment I’m fighting a two-front war against the Japanesey demon army on land and the Triton kingdom at sea. So far the Tritons are weak sauce; I didn’t even need to summon up any water armies or forge water-breathing equipment to march my legions into the depths. I just recruited a ton of amphibious mermen weanies from one of my shore provinces and told them to take a dive. After getting a foothold, I gained access to some much more scary units. Shark riders are as awesome as they sound.

I’ve finished Sign of the Unicorn and moved on to the fourth Amber book, the Hand of Oberon. So far I’m alternatingly entranced by these books and frustrated with Zelazny’s semi-psychedelic writing. The politics, the cliffhangers, and family dynamics – all excellent. The periodic stream of consciousness, dream-like descriptions of shadow walking and layers of reality – meh.


I’ve also been reading Fred Saberhagen’s first Berserker book. I had heard mixed things about it from the SFF crowd online, but I think the general consensus was that the first book isn’t that great and then series picks up after it. If that’s the case then I’m going to love these stories, because I’m about halfway through the maligned first installment and I’m really digging it.


So far, this is a collection of short stories about Man’s war against a fleet (?) of semi-autonomous, intelligent, world-sized machines that fly around in space trying to exterminate all life. These machines, known as berserkers, are clever, cruel, and unpredictable, and seem to have been unleashed upon the universe by a race of militant conquerors. And humans are the only space-faring race with the nads to put up a fight. Great stuff. So far the stories remind me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation stories, with more action. Each one features a human or humans pitted up against the dreaded berserkers. So far the humans always prevail in some way – by outwitting the machines, defeating them by sheer determination, or perhaps being strategically spared only to kindle a resolve to FIGHT.

While we’re on the topic of fighting, there were a couple of interesting posts last week on defending in games.

Alex at Cirsova encountered a mechanic in a particular game that helped him realize the intended purpose of parrying and similar defensive mechanics:

With an active defense vis a vis Parrying, a Fighter character can potentially lock down a much tougher opponent longer without sustaining damage to give thief classes more opportunities to backstab. As strong as a fighter’s attack is, a Thief’s backstab is ALWAYS better. Depending on the system, you could easily be doing 3-4 times as much damage per hit with a bonus against the enemy’s AC. The high dex parrying skill negates that huge attack advantage monsters tend to have over PCs and classed NPCs so that a fighter can go toe to toe against something that could very well cream him otherwise for an extra round or two. Yeah, he may not get his chance to do 1d8 damage, but the Thief is almost guaranteed to get 4d6 damage. As long as the DM is abiding by proper melee rules, the Fighter can always keep one baddie locked down so as to ensure that the Thief can get his backstab on.

I think the “defense” skills have been very poorly done over the years. In pen-and-paper games they could perhaps at times be used creatively by players to some effect. But such skills largely sucked in their base forms. I remember playing D&D 3.5 and trying to find situations to use actions like “fighting defensively,” but they never seemed particularly useful. -4 to hit for a +2 dodge AC? Meh. Not an even trade!

In most RPGs as far back as I can remember, you usually have some kind of standard “Defend” command in battle. It reduces damage taken if you’re hit, but (1) you usually don’t know who’s going to be targeted and (2) you don’t know how much damage/reduction you’re getting. So you usually wind up wasting a turn. With the ubiquity of “phoenix downs” and other such items, it’s usually worth risking death or else just using a heal. Why defend?

Games that have implemented telegraphed attacks (usually by bosses) have provided more incentive to Defend. Still not really a fun mechanic, but at least not useless. If you can out-damage an enemy with normal attacks but get wrecked by special moves, the game needs to provide you with the means to block those abilities and to know when they’re coming.

Although in this case the right action is to use lightning, not Defend, but…

Really the best use of Defending presents in the form of counter attacks and taunts. One of my favorite classes in the recent iOS game Guild of Dungeoneering was the Bruiser. He had a natural passive ability that would inflict damage upon an enemy whenever its attacks were fully blocked. This works well for this particular game because you can see what attacks are coming and thus you can plan accordingly to use your blocks when you know there’s a certain type of attack on the way. Offense by defending.

Other game genres (or RPG battles that are more actiony and less turn-based) are perhaps better mediums for counter attacking. The MOBA comes to mind for me pretty quickly. The League of Legends “duelist” character, Fiora, possesses a potent counter-attack ability called Riposte. Back when I used to play LoL, this was a lot cheesier, but it still looks pretty effective. Essentially you’ve got an ability that must be timed correctly. When you’re about to take damage (hopefully a lot of damage), you pop it. Not only do you block all that incoming hurt, but you give some to your antagonist.

MMORPGs like World of Warcraft have long been using the “taunt” formula. Tank characters combine damage-reduction talents and abilities with the ability to draw enemies to them, allowing DPS characters like rogues and mages to deal heavy damage unmolested. In these cases, it’s important that there be a party present to synergize with the taunt. Otherwise you’ve just got a warrior doing crap for damage and taking crap for damage. Tedious at best.

That’s also why it’s important to provide “tank classes” like warriors with the ability to do some damage, or to “spec” into such roles. Imagine this – you want to be a badass with a big blade, so you roll up a warrior…only to learn a few hours into your game that you’ll never be as big a threat as the guy with the butter knives or the chick with a stick and dunce hat. Lame. Unless tanking is your jam, I guess. Then you win!





5 thoughts on “Berserking rules, defending sucks (usually)

  1. “The politics, the cliffhangers, and family dynamics – all excellent. The periodic stream of consciousness, dream-like descriptions of shadow walking and layers of reality – meh.”

    Ditto. When I reread the Amber stories, I find myself skipping the dreamy stuff.

    Saberhagen: Liked the Berserker series, and his fantasy/Dracula stories are quite good too. Personally, I never saw what the problem was with that first Berzerker book, but it does have a bit of a reputation.

    Waiting for Cirsova #4 to arrive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I’ll need to check out Saberhagen’s other stuff!

      I’m way behind on Cirsova. I have trouble motivating myself to read newer stuff these days with all this gold I’ve unearthed.


  2. Same here on the dream sequences. I just skipped through ’em. As I remember, they were italicized to make it easier to do that.
    My sister claimed to like them, so I read one once. Remembered him saying something about changing red eyes of pursuing animals to green, to yellow. to gone. Meh.

    Regarding Beserker, I thought the first book was fine. My problem was there are only so many possible variations on a them of defeating the utterly logical killing machines with human spirit. By the third book or so, I didn’t even bother finishing.
    Saberhagen has some good works, though. I really think his best work is the Swords Trilogy, followed by the Book of Lost swords series. Long, but well worth it. Better than Game of Thrones, in that beloved characters do die, and the cast of characters is huge, but it seems less random and less like the author is trolling you because he can. Also, less dark, but not entirely so.

    The only thing is, you kinda have to read The Empire of the East trilogy first, as background. It isn’t entirely necessary, but it helps. But the Empire of the East trilogy is kinda weak. Characters are weak, motivations are weak, the resolution is weak…but it provides some important context that adds significant depth to the Swords series.

    The Swords series is Saberhagen at his best: applying rules for clever twists. Great characterization, really enjoyable plot twists. Highly recommended.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, the twists reminded me of Asimov’s stuff. *Berserker spoiler ahead*

      Like for example the Berserker story where the guy tries to convince the machine that it should defect to the human’s side because of God creating life as the ultimate good. Then the berserker pretends to consider this and accept his argument, but really it’s infected him with a disease to take back to his planet. But then *really* he tricked it into killing his cancer. Good stuff.

      He does scifi well. I’m looking forward to checking out his fantasy, eventually, too. Considering your description, not sure if I’d actually read Empire of the East, but at least with the internet I could do a little research to get the gist. =P


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