Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Granularity in Turns

Assumption: Player turns should cycle in a simple fashion. I frown greatly on written orders (as in Chainmail sequence B, Wooden Ships & Iron Men, or OD&D Aerial & Naval combat rules) or otherwise having declarations split up from action resolution (as in the Star Frontiers Advanced rules). I dislike having move cycles split up into separate, asymmetrical pieces (as in Chainmail sequence A, or Swords & Spells). I don't like extensive "interrupt" rules (as in Chainmail's "charge if charged" rules, 3E's attacks-of-opportunity, etc.). And I think the "Perrin Conventions" for D&D manage to violate all of these criteria simultaneously, and more (right?).

Now, a lot of these smelly rules complications seem to arise from a desire to iron out some irritating unrealism in one's game system (for example: how come those guys get to charge across the battlefield before we can move or fire?). However, this is not a sign that you should start introducing some interrupt-like rules. I think that's a bad, flawed game design instinct (and invites an infinite regress of interrupts-to-interrupts, interrupts-to-the-interrupt-interrupts, etc.)

What it is a sign of is this: You should shorten your turn granularity. (i.e.: Make it less coarse.) Just cut the time (movement) in half or something, and usually this solves the problem in an elegant way. Consider computer games: In the game engine itself (running on one CPU), only one character can be moved at a time, but you don't notice it as a problem, because the time-slices are cut so small. Same principle here; there will be some "small enough" turn scale that makes these problems effectively unnoticeable.

Chainmail (sequence A) and Swords & Spells are almost there; lightly-armored men don't really move 12" at once, their move is split into two 6" phases. However, they don't cycle symmetrically, waiting for two half-moves before running several rounds of combat at once. It would be so much simpler and better if the moves were just universally cut in half, with one round of combat after each, in a simple back-and-forth player cycle. In fact, this is just what I did in my Book of War miniatures game. New players pick up on it immediately, because it matches their intuition from any other boardgame.

Case study: It turned out that for the naval action in my Corsairs of Medero game, this turn sequence was still unsatisfying (what with OD&D ship movement being historically accurate with 25" or 35" moves and whatnot, zipping across my whole table in one move). So, my solution was to just cut the turns in half, with all movement, attacks, and spells happening at half-normal-rate. This solved the problem nicely and without any player complaints (in fact, no one even noticed it).

Fortunately, this principle can be applied to any game and scaled to any taste, without any really novel new rules being added to a system (i.e., avoiding complications like interrupts and such). In fact, I include this as an optional Book of War rule for those seeking greater fidelity in the simulation (allowing either half-turns or one-third-turns, etc.)

(For posts on similar themes, see also: Granularity in checks; Granularity in encumbrance [bullet #5].)

19 comments:

  1. There is some interaction with non-tactical events to account for. For example, by cutting your time scale in half, you make combats take half as long in the game world. So events such as checking for wandering monsters, expiration of potions, consumption of lantern oil, and what not, will no longer have the same relationship to combat.

    Taking wandering monsters, they will interrupt combats half as often, because the combats will last half as long. Or if the Priest of Evil Chaos summons some Skeletons, they will have to travel the corridors at a movement rate that has not doubled, while the Evil Priest is taking damage at a rate that *has* doubled.

    Just to say that while you can make combats go twice as fast, you likely wouldn't double movement rates or make spell durations half as long, so there definitely will be some campaign specific wrinkles.

    This reminds me of the unexpected effect overclocking used to have on certain games on older computers.

    ReplyDelete
  2. rainswept: "Taking wandering monsters, they will interrupt combats half as often, because the combats will last half as long."

    No, that's incorrect. Read again: "So, my solution was to just cut the turns in half, with all movement, attacks, and spells happening at half-normal-rate."

    Movement, attacks, spells, everything is all equally cut in half. Total in-game time for combat is exactly the same. In-game time for potion and spell expiration is exactly the same.

    Not that I've ever seen anyone roll for wandering monsters mid-combat.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A well timed post (to me personally at least). In writing up some house rules related to combat sequence, I found it getting very comple and arrived at about the same conclusion.

    Every combat participant gets one action per turn, some examples:

    -Move (30 feet for an unencumbered man)
    -Attack (melee or ranged)
    -Charge (combine a move with a melee or thrown attack)
    -Cast
    -Use Item
    -Reload (for crossbows)

    This certainly shows that attacks and spell casting happen at a higher rate than normal, but it keeps everything quite simple and is something I am good with.

    There is just one "interrupt" that does not quite fit so cleanly, which is allowing longer weapons a chance to strike first against a charging opponent. Currently just keeping it as a singular special case, but curious if you have given any thought to removing this specific interrupt.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Harvicus: "There is just one 'interrupt' that does not quite fit so cleanly, which is allowing longer weapons a chance to strike first against a charging opponent. Currently just keeping it as a singular special case, but curious if you have given any thought to removing this specific interrupt."

    Great comment. That is exactly and precisely the one single interrupt that I had to keep in my mass-warfare game.

    The only alternative option I could think of was like, "Movement ends immediately in contact with a reach weapon," which would then allow the reach-wielder to attack on their next turn cycle, before the charger could. But that would break up the move-attack-resolution in a way that felt sour to me. The shock operation really should happen in the same zero-time-slice with movement.

    So, I agree with you on that score.

    ReplyDelete
  5. What you're really looking for is a sweet spot.

    On end of the spectrum you have: "That guy is able to do way too much before I get another turn." A non-RPG example of this is Munchkin Quest (as described and fixed with houserules here.

    On the other end of the spectrum you have, "I'm not able to do anything interesting this turn."

    (You can also create some fairly serious balance issues. There's a huge difference in the power of ranged weapons if you double the number of attacks they can make in the time it takes for a melee opponent to close with them.)

    The reason interrupts are used is to widen the tolerance of the sweet spot: It allows you to design turns long/large enough to maximize the potential for "I can do something fun with my turn", while preventing "why can't I do anything to stop him from that long sequence of actions" problem.

    Another solution to consider: Give everyone a single interrupt per round. But don't bother defining "trigger conditions" for those interrupts. People can use their interrupt action whenever they want to and can use it to do whatever they want to.

    That way you don't have to try to keep track of triggering conditions (or avoiding them). But people still have the flexibility to respond to actions on the battlefield as they choose.

    The number of interrupts a character has could also vary. For example, a haste might simply grant a character an extra interrupt action. Readying an action might just give you +1 interrupt actions for the round without actually changing your initiative.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Justin: "Another solution to consider: Give everyone a single interrupt per round. But don't bother defining 'trigger conditions' for those interrupts. People can use their interrupt action whenever they want to and can use it to do whatever they want to."

    I'd have to stick with the position in the post that that's 100% the opposite of what I think is a good idea.

    ReplyDelete
  7. @Justin: Love your articles, especially the one on Dissociative Mechanics. As you point out, with a single action per round, those closing with ranged attackers will suffer twice the number of attacks as normal. Personally I had already gone the route of 2 attacks/round with bows as per ADnD and the Perrin Conventions so this particular issue worked out just fine in my case.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Oh man I can just see you at a gaming table, people are doing their written orders, and you're too polite to rain on their parade. But you're just frowning like crazy, like it's going out of style!

    :P

    Love your stuff, in general. This was my OSR gateway blog back in the day!

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is one of my favorite subjects (and granularity in general). For RPGs I think single-action is a good way to go; WHFRP was this way. A measure of a jerk DM though is if he makes your character spend a whole action drawing a sword when another guy seems to be able to do a lot more.

    So in your Corsairs of Madero game, can you not attack two turns in a row? Do you then have to track what was done on previous rounds? You can do this with miniatures easily but I think it gets less feasible without.

    I don't think interrupts are necessarily bad in a less codified system, but that might not be what you're talking about.

    The case of the dagger-wielder charging a spearman really boils down to what the spearman did on his previous action. If he attacked some monster behind him, does he really get a chance to "interrupt" a charge from the other direction? Or does he really need to have a turn where he does nothing, implicitly 'readying' a spear attack?

    Similarly, if a character with a loaded crossbow says he's going to fire when a door opens, it's more narratively exciting (and simulative) to make it happen when the door opens. Consider the case where goblin A opens the door and goblin B wants to rush through. I say the bolt flies when goblin B is in the threshold.

    But of course it's one thing to allow twitch interrupt reactions in a loose action resolution system, and another to codify them in rules to be gamed by the gamer-types. I don't know about the latter but I can attest that the former works and is good fun.

    Also note that Attack of Opportunities arose not out of the problem of wanting to interrupt long actions at will, but out of a desire to have zones of control which still don't really fall naturally out of making actions more atomic. I think the problem of the "free attack" interrupt still lingers. What do you think?

    ReplyDelete
  10. So, say a spell takes 1 round to cast BTB. Would you now require it to take two rounds? That would seem to impact most spell effects...

    Likewise, if normally one can make one melee attack every round, under the 1/2 system would it take two rounds to complete a successful attack? What happens if the situation changes at the end of round one but before round two? For example, perhaps the target is slain by some other character at the end of round one.

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Vedron, I cannot speak for Delta, but the way I run it, spell casting and attacks cost a single action. Yes, this means they happen twice as often in relation to movement. For myself, this is a tradeoff I am willing to make.

    It works out the same in regards to ranged attacks if you use a ruleset that normally allows bows to fire twice in a round (reducing it to one bow shot per action, and enforcing that crossbows require an action to reload). I think this solves the basic balance problem, as it keeps the number of attacks as you close on a target consistant.

    I do not think the rate of melee attacks in relation to movement is as much of an issue, as characters in melee are still exchanging blows at a consistant rate. Spell casting very well may be problematic, but is typically a limited resource anyways.

    The tradeoff is a much speedier combat resolution with much quicker response time from the players. The more abstract you run your combat, the better this trade off becomes.

    I mentioned above that the one interrupt I still have is allowing reach weapons to strike first against a charging opponent. I realized I could simplify this quite a bit, instead of it allowing the character with the reach weapon to take their turn out of order, they simply get a free bonus attack before the charger strikes (and can attack again with their normal action on their next turn). The free attack replaces the double damage set vs charge typically allows (i.e. two attacks at normal damage instead of one attack at double damage).

    ReplyDelete
  12. I thought of a few other "fixes" as well...

    You could keep the rate of attacks the same and lower the average damage (by lowering the to hit or damage or both). You could also use a random determination; for example, if you wanted to cut the attack rate to 1/2, then you could have folks roll a D6. On any odd result they get to attack, on any even result they do not.

    I think both such solutions would be preferable to requiring two rounds per action.

    The trouble I see with Delta's solution here is that there is an inherent tension between increasing the scale and decreasing the turn duration. In general, we increase the scale (more individuals per figure, larger hexes, longer turns) in order to gain the benefits of abstracting out a large encounter or battle. But if you make the turns very short to avoid "if then" rules then you lose many of the benefits of a larger scale.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I mentioned above that the one interrupt I still have is allowing reach weapons to strike first against a charging opponent.

    How do you handle withdrawing from combat, trying to rush past a defender, and spell casting in melee?

    ReplyDelete
  14. @K. Bailey

    Spell Casting in Melee: no interrupt or chance to spoil, it is magic and these are professional casters. I think of melee as very fluid with several blows exchanged, I assume casters choose the best time, and that spells are not so fragile as to be lost. If one wants to prevent casting, they should grab the caster and hold them down, or take other such actions.

    Rushing Past a Defender: Assuming the defender does not wish to let anyone by and is capable of stopping them, the attacker requires an Overrun type action to move by, otherwise, they cannot move by.

    Fleeing from Melee: You are right, this is an additional interrupt. I guess because it happens so infrequently, and usually signifys the end of the battle I did not consider it. A sane combatant disengages carefully with a fighting withdrawal, which is only a half move, but does not allow a free attack against you. Fleeing (which does draw the free attack) has always been something only done when morale breaks, and should the fleeing survive the free attacks against them, it becomes a chase.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Movement, attacks, spells, everything is all equally cut in half. Total in-game time for combat is exactly the same. In-game time for potion and spell expiration is exactly the same.

    OIC. Doesn't this make combat take twice as long at the table?

    I always roll for WM during combat.

    ReplyDelete
  16. K. Bailey: Reasonable observations.

    "So in your Corsairs of Madero game, can you not attack two turns in a row? Do you then have to track what was done on previous rounds?"

    Speaking of m normal mass-warfare game, every 10 infantry can make 1 attack roll/turn; motionless archers attack 2/turn; and spells are cast 2/turn. So when we go in half-time for naval action, you get 1 attack per turn for each 20 infantry or 10 men; and 1 spell/turn. No need to track previous rounds.

    "The case of the dagger-wielder charging a spearman... does he really need to have a turn where he does nothing, implicitly 'readying' a spear attack?"

    This is something that is definitely problematic in AD&D or 3E; if it costs an action to "ready" it's not tactically worth it. What I do in my mass-warfare game, which I'd use as an example, is to assess it by what direction the spearman is facing (free attack from front, not from rear).

    "Also note that Attack of Opportunities arose not out of the problem of wanting to interrupt long actions at will, but out of a desire to have zones of control which still don't really fall naturally out of making actions more atomic. I think the problem of the 'free attack' interrupt still lingers. What do you think?"

    I think the zones of control generating free attacks are more trouble than they're worth. For example, AD&D has the free "rear attack" when someone flees; for me, I just enforce (a) move, (b) attack in order each round, and that solves the same problem automatically. The one thing I do is stop movement when you contact an enemy; so I suppose in some sense that's a "move interrupt", but it requires no dice-rolling or resolution time to be taken.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Vedron: "So, say a spell takes 1 round to cast BTB. Would you now require it to take two rounds?"

    Yes, but the places I'm applying it in practice are more like this: Normal mass combat, each 10 infantry make 1 attack roll per turn. When time is halved, each 20 infantry get an attack/turn. When time is third-ed, each 30 infantry attack/turn. Which is to say, "more individuals per figure" give you more options in this regard.

    If you cut it that fine in man-to-man combat, you'd have to create "pulling back the axe the round" actions, which I believe GURPS does. Admittedly that would be not be great. Your d6 roll fix might be preferable.

    ReplyDelete
  18. "How do you handle withdrawing from combat, trying to rush past a defender, and spell casting in melee?"

    I mostly agree with Harvicus' answers, but for comparison sake I'll answer in the same format:

    (a) Spell-casting in Melee: No interrupts. Like Harvicus, wizards are professionals and magic is dangerous. Fighters should fear getting in a fight with them; and wizards are frail enough already. Interrupts aren't in OD&D (what I play), they were an addition in AD&D, and I think they're ill-advised.

    (b) Rushing past a Defender: No interrupts. If you contact an active defender, move ends. They'll get an attack when their turn comes up.

    (c) Fleeing from Melee: No interrupts. Since I enforce an (a) move, (b) attack, action order, if you're going to flee, the last thing that just happened was that the enemy got an attack on you anyway. So the same effect happens without extra rules or interrupts, at the proper granularity.

    ReplyDelete
  19. rainswept: "OIC. Doesn't this make combat take twice as long at the table?"

    Yes, but it's being used as a fix to fights that were happening too fast. (Case study: OD&D ships cruising across the whole table in one round.)

    ReplyDelete