Effort as Damage Reduction: Checkless ICRPG Combat



Recently on Discord I was involved in a conversation in which someone was seeking a way for warriors to feel more dangerous against magic-users, magic-users were more dangerous against archers, archers were more dangerous against warriors - a sort of fantasy RPG rock-paper-scissors. As part of the discussion, I suggested that using a PC’s EFFORT bonus as damage reduction against that same type of damage might facilitate that idea, even if it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for. Since then, this idea has taken root in my head, along with the heads of a few others, and so I’m writing it out here to share with all of you in as much detail as it currently has.

The System:

  • No Attack Rolls: attacks automatically hit; proceed to rolling the appropriate EFFORT category for the attack.
  • EFFORT dice explode, meaning whenever you roll the highest number of the die type, you roll it again, and add it to your total. This is how attacks “crit”.
  • EASY and HARD when applied to attacks are +2/-2 effort respectively.
  • DEF bonus acts as damage reduction. I recommend lowering the DEF bonus of all the armors by 1, so clothes of any kind provide no bonus, light armor is 1, medium is 2, heavy is 3, and a shield gives +1.
  • The EFFORT bonus if the one being attacked acts as additional damage reduction, based on the category of the attack; ergo, a WEAPON attack against a PC is reduced by that PC’s WEAPON effort bonus. This means PCs can either have very narrow but strong attacks and defenses in one category, or relatively weak attacks and defenses in multiple categories.
  • If the DR from the opponent drops the damage done to >0 the attack will be treated like a fumble.
  • Spells are no longer roll to cast, but are roll to store. I have devised 2 forms of magic: Blood Magic - the PC starts with a number of free spell casts equal to their MAGIC bonus. They may gain more casts by spending an action to make a check for their associated casting STAT, and upon success, they gain another cast. PCs may also burn HP for additional casts.
    Component Magic - the PC has a usage die starting at D6 for a Mage or Priest type which is rolled upon every cast. If the die is a 1, it is reduced by one step to the next lowest die type. Once a 1 is rolled on the D4, the mage is out of prepared magical reagents, and must prepare more. Scrolls, wands, and other spell-storing loot items have their own usage dice associated with them. Usage dice can be recovered/increased with stat checks doing hearts of effort.
  • There is an argument to be made for MAGIC bypassing armor-based DR. I think we’d need to test this before landing on an answer. At this point, do whatever feels right to you.
  • ULTIMATE effort should be achievable through specific circumstance. This means consider giving PCs ways of making their attacks ULTIMATE; if one PC is pinning an enemy, let the other PC’s attack do ULTIMATE (but don’t give the bonus from another category; siloing those categories is important in these rules); if the PCs are set to shoot the guard through the sliding peephole in the tavern door when he opens it, let that attack do ULTIMATE since it’s going in his face. Anyone suffering ULTIMATE damage is only applying their bonus to ULTIMATE as DR, not whatever would normally apply to the kind of attack.

That’s basically what I have so far, but this is an ongoing and evolving conversation. Chime in below with your reactions and insights.

No-Attack Combat ICRPG Playtest!
Minimum Damage on Missed Attacks
No-Attack Combat ICRPG Playtest: Last Flight of the Red Sword

So while I’m not a fan of attempts (pun intended) to cut the d20 roll from ICRPG, this looks pretty interesting. If you’re gonna go this direction I’d like to see you go way further and completely rethink the resolution mechanic.

With that said, I think it’s a cool system, cool idea, and it seems like fun. I’m interested in playtesting it if you can find the time.

If you would like more in depth thoughts and grumpy ranting about the kids today trying to change good ol’ ICRPG, I’d be happy to try and sort through my thoughts and post them.


I’m running a little solo test in ICVTT right now just to see how it plays. haven’t gotten very far, yet. I’m really interested to see how character design changes when stats are basically disconnected from attack rolls. Also, I’m not certain what roll CON plays,

Maybe we can try and schedule something. I enjoy attack rolls, too, but I’m curious about this as a design. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


you could run a play test or 2 via play by post or short oneshots


Can I ask why they wanted those specific weaknesses? As someone who played a lot of RuneScape back in the day, they had a combat triangle of:
Warrior beats Archer (metal armor resistant to arrows)
Archer beats Wizard (arrows pierce light armor easily, an archers leather armor was resistant to magic)
Wizard beats Warrior (metal armor ‘conducts’ magic or something like that)

Anyhow, RuneScapes rock-paper-scissors game made sense to me. How your friend wants to make it work doesn’t quite make sense for me.


Don’t know; I could be misremembering the specifics, but that’s not really the point.


Lol, I know. I was just curious.


Maybe some one shots of classic ICRPG modules: Flight of the Red Sword, Orvald’s Tower, Greyhill Inferno - even Doomvault.


You might get more “bang for your buck” by hand picking encounters. Like if you run Mirror Lake from Doomvault. The final battle from Red Fang could be interesting. Aras has a lot of effects that negate hits, so it might be more interesting in a system with no “to hit” roll. It would be much more clear that the reason you can’t hit him is because of a feature of the character, not just from the die rolls. For Orvalds Tower I’d look at the flame kin battle, and the avenger battle at the end.

I stand by my opinion that Halls of Lord Ashthorn would be a great playtest for this. It’s got lots of combat, but it’s also got other things to interact with so you should get a feel for how Checkless Combat meshes with stat rolls.


I also think the best “ICRPG style” encounters are the ones where combat is an annoyance or a distraction. The real challenge is almost always something else. That’s why the monsters are so deadly and the time crunch is so brutal.


Great idea! We’ll do this a la cart style! :sunglasses:


I’ve made an equipment list. I’d love the extra eyeballs on these to see if something seems out of whack, or grossly uneven. Thanks as always.


Straight to Effort

I think we’re looking at two distinct system changes:

  • Cutting ATTACK rolls
  • EFFORT Based DR.

I’m not looking for either of these things. However, I’ll do my best to focus on specifics of what potential problems I see, and if there’s anything I can think of that might make it work toward your end goal.

As far as cutting Attack rolls…

  • I do think it’s a good idea to eliminate “wasted” turns. It’s my contention that TIMERS already achieve that. A miss isn’t a miss, it’s one step closer to DOOM.
  • Are you eliminating Fumbles or are you going to replace them?
  • Overall I think you could just eliminate the Attack Roll and be totally fine (different, but fine).
  • How would it strike you to roll the d20 as normal, but only factor in special effects(ie. 15+), Nat 1s, and Nat 20s?

Regarding Effort Based DR…

  • It’s cool to specialize characters a bit. ICRPG characters can tend to wind up very similar because of the random nature of Loot acquisition and a lack of class restrictions.
  • DEF stacking with different modifiers by damage type feels like a BIG problem for me. I think I have at least 1 player in both of my regular groups that would need constant reminders of which column to check.
  • I think a clear Target is better than a unique Target

What would I do?

  • Rip off Crown & Skull.
  • PC’s roll straight damage against a Monster’s DEF (DR)
  • When targeted, PC’s roll DEFENSE (d20+Bonus)
  • No STAT bonus to DEF, Loot=DEF Bonus.
  • Cut Armor Bonuses as you described, characters will get hit more often, as the maximum starting armor is something like +5 (with Heavy Plate, Mixed Armor Garb, and a Basic Shield, DEF is +4. Average roll of 14.5, Nat 7 or lower is a Failure vs TN 12)
  • Applicable Effort Bonus is DR.
  • No matter how high you set the Room Target, combat will move forward. PC’s will hit even at TN20. However, they won’t make their DEX checks against the savage winds, and

My biggest complaint with this endeavor is that I believe it will EMPHASIZE combat by adding complexity to the system.

My biggest question is, what is the real design goal here?

Even if you don’t wind up using this as an ICRPG hack, I’d be interested to see you follow this train of thought as far as it goes. Maybe you can push these ideas far enough to work out a wildly different system altogether.


Thank you for all your thoughts! I’m not certain I’ve understood your position on some of your points, so I want to follow up with some clarifying questions:

You mean, always hit, except on a 1, crit on a 20, weapon effects on +15? If so, this is an interesting idea, and may be worth experimenting with as a separate line of inquiry. It would be a way to keep the fumble, but you could also treat any attack which is reduced by DR below 0 like a fumble also. I just thought of that. :grin:

I think this is easily called out by the GM. “The goblins have blunderbusses! Apply GUN to DR!” I have players who need to ask each time which category to use on their attacks, so I don’t see any difference. Still, mileage may vary; your concerns are noted.

What is the complexity you see added? You included effort based DR in what you would do, and that I feel like is the only mechanical addition. What am I missing?

I’m curious to see if the intensity and danger of combat can be maintained while eliminated the D20 roll, and if so, what are the other design implications? The goal is to learn by building, and by contrasting this difference against a known entity.


Hopefully this answers some questions! I want to stress that these critiques are just my thoughts, take what’s useful and ignore the rest.

  • Calling a Fumble an Attack that deals 0 damage because of DR will probably make them a lot more common. Also, they’ll be less common if you have a nice Effort Bonus. So a +3 WEAPON fighter will Fumble in Melee less than a +0 WEAPON Wizard. Seems like that really fits the vibe of this system!
  • It still feels like a lot of steps. This is why I’m curious to playtest. To me it sounds like we’ve replaced “Roll to Hit>Add Bonus>Roll Damage>Add Bonus” with “Add GUN to DR>Roll Damage>Add Bonus>Subtract DR from Damage Total”. This could just be me, but subtraction slows me down. It’s not complex math, but my brain needs to switch gears.
  • The added complexity is a whole new resolution system for combat rolls. The proposed system doesn’t really eliminate Attack Rolls, it rolls them into Effort Rolls. There’s a new system for Crit/Fumble, a new meaning for EASY/HARD, and a variable DEF value depending upon the Effort Type being blocked.
  • “What I Would Do” should have been, “How I would implement Effort Based DR with no Attack Rolls if someone asked me to do that.” Even in Crown & Skull, there’s some fussiness with ATK/DEFENSE that I don’t want in my ICRPG game.
  • Learning by building is a noble goal. What are you building though? And why are you building it? I think the more clearly you can define your intent the better feedback you can get, and the better you can judge whether you’ve built something stable.

To answer my own question…

My design goal is usually removing roadblocks to player engagement. To me, that means:

  • Clear Target Numbers
  • Minimize math in gameplay (not in prep, character creation, Ability/Milestone design, or encounter and creature design)
  • Keep mechanics distinct

For example, a problem I’ve had with player facing DEF rolls, is that it can feel a little flat rolling to-hit and to-dodge against the same TN.

I would define this problem as: How do you account for the unique abilities and traits of the Player Character AND the Monster?

Crown and Skull addresses the problem with DEFENSE and ATK. DEFENSE is the PCs ability to defend. ATK is the Monster’s ability to wound. Players add a Monster’s ATK stat to their DEFENSE rolls (or subtract the ATK from their DEFENSE Stat). I don’t love this solution. It means you’re tracking different ATK for different monsters, and the ATK messes with your DEFENSE stat. So you’re doing math during combat. I’d prefer to see a system similar to The Black Hack (I believe?) Where you would need to roll OVER the Monsters ATK, but UNDER your Stat. This would mess with the Crit on a Nat 1 rule though…

After trying a bunch of things that all felt clunky, I pretty much decided that I don’t care about that level of detail. My players can use STRESS or push gear if they want to hit a high TN, and if they can tank a million little “hits” from monsters at low TN’s, that’s badass.

So my answer to the above question is: Player Characters can customize their attack and defense bonuses in a variety of ways. My monsters will be defined by a single Target Number the represents their base combat ability. If I need further texture, I’ll use the EASY/HARD tags.

On top of that… Monsters can ignore DEF, they can damage armor, (they can even hit with no Attempt roll, and no DEF save), they can “gang up” and get a +1 to TN per Monster, and they can do hardcore damage when they DO make a hit. “These Skeletons are so slow and weak that they can only damage you if you Critically Fail. However, if you do take a hit, the necrotic curse in their ancient blades will drop you to 0 HP. Don’t roll a 1!”

Another solution I’ve thought about is having two TNs on the table. The Room Target, and the Boss Target. More complicated, yes, but no extra math during the game.

All that to say, we probably have different design goals. If I’m complaining about a proposed mechanic change, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, it just means I don’t see it working for my games. I tend to play with people who have attention problems or who are doing everything they can just to put themselves into an RP headspace. I don’t want to hit them with a bunch of mechanics that won’t directly add to their experience. EZD6 with ICRPG dice is kinda what I’m looking for :laughing:


Ah yes! EZD20 is something I’ve considered - super easy to hack, since it’s just approximating the stats from the d6 to the d20. I think it’s interesting you brought up EZD6, which basically did the reverse - rather than take away the attack roll, it took away the damage roll.

I think you added a step there; it’s just “roll damage>add effort>subtract DR” which is one more step than a traditional miss, and one fewer steps (and one fewer rolls) for a traditional hit. I expect that subtraction would be less of a hang-up with a bit of practice.

It seems like the added complexity is not so much a more complex system, but the cognitive load of learning something new - which is very real! That said, I don’t see how it makes the game more focused on combat, which was your contention. Maybe it felt that way because we’re talking about a combat system, and having it be distinct from the other resolution system in ICRPG.

I’m just putting things in the pot to see what kind of soup it makes. other games have cut out the attack roll, so I know it’s a thing that can be done without ruining a game, but applying to a system I already know facilitates contracting a comparing the experiences, and thus better understanding what the change does. With this knowledge, I can better decide when designing a game whether or not to include the attack roll.

I really want to think you for contributing your thoughts to this little endeavor. I’m excited to test it some more, and analyze the results.


It could be cognitive dissonance(edit, cognitive LOAD, lol) but I do think that for my players it would be consistent tension. I could do it, I like thinking about this stuff 24/7.

I still think you might want to specify what type of soup you’re hoping to cook up. You’re not gonna “ruin” the game, but it’ll be hard to tell if you’re improving anything if you don’t have a target to aim for. Differentiating characters is a decent goal for instance. And, maybe it’s worth slowing down combat a bit of it allows characters to work on more interesting and unique ways. If you want to speed up combat, that’s a different goal, and you might need to de-emphasize character individuality in order to hit that goal.

Regardless, I think you understand my critiques, so I hope to meet you on the field of rolling dice and seeing what happens!


First playtest ran really well last night. Included some damage transfer last night, which was fun without being “the tactic”. The party was a high DR warrior, a bard, and a hunter. They were very capable without feeling like they steamrolled the opposition. Another session tonight with some spellcasters to see how that changes the equation.


How did your playtests with the effort only system ultimately go?


The couple playtests I did went well. I still want to modify the Alfheim adventure slightly and run it again, and try out Warp Shell.

The system can make PCs quite tanky against particular kinds of attacks, which means if you keep sending in enemies to attack who can’t really pose a threat to the PCs, combat can devolve into a slog if the GM doesn’t think about other things those enemies can do to pose a threat. That said, as long as things remain dynamic, it can feel really cool to be nearly immune to your foes only then to encounter a threat that blasts through your defenses.