The Gospel According to Bloodsong: Combat Meters

(all typos in the following post are NOT typos, but bad handwriting. and sometimes dicey interpretation of my scribble by Rite Pen. i swear, one sentance it translated into some elven word…!)

Combat Meters: What Does & Doesn’t Belong on One

I am a sensitive person. I admit that a lot of things offend my sensibilities; things that ordinary people do not even notice. Even things ordinary people actually enjoy! Like full-nuclear-meltdown glow on all their clothes. And titlers. Flashing, colour-changing paragraph long titlers. (With open listeners!)

Floating text annoys me, and combat meters are the worst offenders. I was at an RP event on a lovely fantasy sim, where there was a gypsy performance. Gorgeous costumes, great sets, graceful dancing, detailed props — all drowned out in a sea of floating green text. Bright, full-strength, acid green text.

Not only is it ugly, and anti-conducive to enjoyable role-playing, it is also unhelpful in doing actual combat. Yes, I have dabbled in SL combat systems. I don’t care much for them. (Actually, you cannot convince me they are anything more than a bunch of button-mashing. No, you cant, as Ive seen a lot of tournaments. One was won by someone spinning around in tight circles, constantly hitting the attack keys. Call that skill and strategy, cuz I don’t.) I did some training with SpellFire and DCS. I will be the fist to admit I’m not the greatest combatant, but the combat meters were no help.

A typical combat meter will display something like this over your head:

>>SuperCombatSystem V. 2.24.3<<
Half-Elf of Moon Realm

Some may have shorter names, some may have a longer string of numbers. All are in full-strength bright colours. They also come with a HUD. And that is what I would like to discuss today– not that combat meters are bad in any way, or that combat styles are good or bad, or that any stats and scripting are wrong. I dont have any say on these things, as they have been meticulously designed and rigorously tested by the creators. I have every respect for the folks that worked so hard on these things. all Im gonna rant about now is:
What Should and Should Not be Displayed on Combat Meters.

First: the combat system name (and version number). No. This goes on the HUD. Yes, you need to have both combatants using the same system and compatible versions. But this should be set up and checked before any RP or fighting takes place. I dont expect people just run up on anyone wearing a combat meter and start hammering on them. (Though sometimes I’d like to, when folks wear them to other venues. Do you believe, I often ask people to take those off at classes or other crowded events, and they say, “Oh, I forgot I had that on.”? You forgot you had it on!? People, how can you possibly miss the big, bright paragraph of text in the middle of your screen!?! *I* noticed it, and I’m way off on the side of your screen. See, it’s that sensitivity thing I have.)
Sorting out combat meters is an OOC thing. So when a combat problem occurs, or when the tourney ref wants to check what players are using, they click the title bar on the HUD, and it spits out: “So-and-so is using Blah blah version blah-blah.” Now you know; there’s no reason for it to sit on the screen all day.

Second: race. No. Come on, guys, this is RP. Which… despite being fantasy, strives for some sort of reality. We have customizable avatars, so you might expect to be able to recognize your garden-variety fantasy races. If you see a real short, broad guy with a beard- that’s a dwarf. Willowy dude with pointy ears? Elf. Same thing, but charcoal black? Drow. Big guy with a bull head? That’s a Minotaur.
Okay, but what about people who all look like normal humans? Is he human, or half elf? Is he a big barbarian or a half orc? Is that guy a sickly, whimpy, pasty mage, or is he a super-strong vampire? Well, “realistically” how the dip would you know? Do fantasy characters all run around with signs over their heads, proclaiming their pedigree? Didn’t you read Dragonlance, when Tanis grows a beard and covers his ears to try to pass as a human? How’s that going to work when you’ve got the words “half elf” stuck over your head?
Same thing for allegiances. How do you know someone is on your side? Well, if you don’t know everyone on sight, uniforms help. People have been recognizing each other by wearing symbols or colours for thousands of years. It’s not that hard to throw on a cape. Especially if it’s just a quick team match. And all those RP spies will be much happier.

Now we get down to numbers. This is the meat of combat- the true heart of the matter. I have 100 health, if it goes to 0, I’m dead. I have 20 strength to hit you with. Etc.
So what should be displayed over your head and not just on your HUD? Your strength? How is anybody supposed to know this magic number? A minotaur is stronger than a halfling. That pretty much covers how fine you can perceive that. You know your own strength – put it on the HUD.
Mana? Just how DO you sense how much magic power someone has? Does he glow? His eyes spark? Does the wind start blowing his hair like in the Japanese anime? Or is it possibly some innate thing that you know nothing about until in see the size of the fireball whipping at your head? How many times does this happen in the books?

Mage: “Do you dare question me? I could smite thee and thy castle walls to the ground!”
Enemy Guard: “No you can’t. I can clearly see the big ‘2’ over your head. That means you can barely smite a chipmunk.”

And so on and so forth for the other numbers. Stamina: can you see how tired someone is? Armor: Can’t you SEE if he’s wearing full plate or just a leather loincloth? Health: can you see if someone is about to drop dead?
Well, yeah, actually you can. You can see if someone is bruised up, scraped, bleeding all over, etc. And you can’t really show that very easily with props and such in world. So how many numbers would I put on my combat meter?
Ya, well — NONE. Look, I have been in melee, and it is flippin HARD to read any text while you and your opponent are jumping around like a couple of mad monkeys. And I kinda like the NWN system. Instead of a number floating over a creature’s head, NWN has a quick, 5-level health ladder, represented by colours and words:

Green — Uninjured.
Lt. Green — Mildly injured.
Yellow — Injured.
Lt. Red — Seriously injured.
Red — Near death.

Now, I’m not saying to put all these WORDS up all over my screen! But what is wrong with a little health bar made up of say, 5 dots? Okay dots are real small, how about asterisks? So I got 5 green asterisks, I’m good. I bust you down to one red one, I’m even better.
Okay, you want people who can see mana? Add a row of blue asterisks. Bright blue to blue-black. Armor (can’t show cuts and dents so good) — add a line for that. Stamina without having to do huffing and puffing animations? No, hang on, this is too much.
Why not ONE asterisk for each stat you NEED your opponent to see? Change it from bright to dark as it gets weaker. Honestly, I think one red star is faster and easier to grasp than “H:23.”

Everything else belongs on the HUD. Sure, after I’m done running away from the dragon stepping on me, (or after I’ve killed all the battle slugs, whatever), then I can stop and take a look at: gee, do I have 25 whole health points or only 23? And that can be off on the side, out of my way until I need it. I’m a great proponent of Kai Krause’s design style: where things fade out of sight until you focus on them. Although… I perhaps tend to make designs TOO subtle. But subtle is better than a sea of floating green text!