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A token take on tactical combat

A prototype for Tom O'Halloren's Witches' Sabbath (Art by Tom O'Halloren)

Another game I got to check out at Metatopia this year was Witches’ Sabbath, a tactical skirmish game by Tom O’Halloren of Noirtoony Games, who I met in 2015 when I first attended Metatopia.

The thing I really like about the game is that it takes an abstract approach to character placement in combat.

Normally, when character placement is important in a game, the battlefield is usually represented on a grid with all cover, terrain, entrances and exits drawn out and the characters represented by tokens on the board. It’s a great visual representation in games like Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer 40k, but it is also very consuming of table space and requires a lot of time to set up.

Witches’ Sabbath is able to work around this by limiting the terrain to tokens that go on a character sheet.

Witches’ Sabbath is still in development, but the mechanic of the terrain circuit seems like it will likely stay around to the final version. Players take on the role of witches in a swamp fighting to the death using magic spells.

Where they are in the swamp and what is around them is represented by tokens that fill in three slots on their character sheet: one for their current location, and two for what is around them. Tokens consist of things like water, stumps, ground, branches, etc.

From a character sheet prototype for Witches' Sabbath. The circuit represents what terrain the character is currently on and surrounds them. The center space represents the terrain where the character is currently located, while the left and right spaces represent what terrain are adjacent to. The terrain is represented by tokens that can be moved around by using action points. (Art by Tom O'Halloren)

The spells and abilities that characters use in combat are dependent on what tokens fill up their circuit and what fills up their target’s circuit. For example, a witch stood on the ground a used her magic to control a tree. This allowed them to control the branches of that tree and grab a target witch out of the air, throwing them to the ground. Mechanically, this is represented as the witch on a ground token and next to a tree token, they can target a witch who is next to a branches token to do damage to them and move them immediately to a ground token.

Currently, the players are encouraged to move around the environment/change tokens in their circuit so they can power their abilities and gather ingredients, which are cards pulled from a deck for each environment, to be used for even more spells.

I really appreciate how the circuits and tokens can be used to inspire players’ imaginations for how the combat is playing out. When I changed tokens I imagined racing through the environment, desperately searching for ingredients to power my abilities, seeking advantageous ground, or being flung from safety by another witch’s spell.

I think that this kind of system could be applied to similar skirmish settings as well. I had long thought about how one could replicate the complex firefights of a game like Halo or Call of Duty in tabletop in a way that similarly matched those games’ frantic speed and tactical options in a unique way.

I can imagine this system being applied to a role playing game, with skirmishes set in predetermined environments with a limited number of terrain tokens based on the setting. An open desert is going to have less cover tokens and more open field tokens, while a construction site will have very little open ground tokens, an abundance of cover tokens and a few tokens for representing higher vantage points.

At the same time, a character’s placement still has impact on what abilities they can use. For example: say this is a military shooter setting, if a character is standing in open ground and their target is in cover, they can use a rocket launcher to force the target to abandon cover or take damage

I’m really excited to see where this system goes, and can’t wait to try it again!

If you want to try out Tom’s other published game, check out Sugarplum Chronicles. It’s a pseudo dungeon-crawler set in a candy themed universe choc-full of sweet puns! If you want to see more of Tom's art, check out his Instagram.

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