Friday, June 24, 2011

Tactical movement

I need some help.

One of the design goals that I discussed in my big list of elements I want in the game is that it should be less grid reliant. Battle grids are really powerful tools but as soon as you presume their presence they become really powerful crutches. A lot of game design presumes their presence and I think the game is the worse for it. A good example is that difficult terrain is two-squares of movement instead of one. It is a simple, quick rule that has an interesting impact on the game. It also destroys imagination because each square, now, is really, really important. If someone wades though a muddy bog, the bog probably has to conform to square dimensions because it matters whether or not that square costs two or one. It is also challenging for a GM, assuming no grid, to have an idea how many squares of difficult terrain a character passes through and almost impossible for a player to be expected to know from a description. Just not a good situation.

So I am trying to distill movement in combat down to its fundamental elements and then build it back up, making sure not to embed the need for a grid with each step. Today all I want to do is figure out what are the most basic movements characters take. I think I got it down to four:
  1. Tactical approach. From outside of a threatened zone, you approach and engage an enemy.
  2. Tactical withdraw. From within a threatened zone, you move away from an enemy.
  3. Tactical move. From outside a threatened zone, you move.
  4. Tactical maneuver. From within a threatened zone, you move and end within the threatened zone.

For each of them, I also took a snapshot of how it changes if the threatened range expands. I merely expanded it to two squares, but the principles would be the same even if it were expanded to three or five or whatever. My idea is to develop simple principles for each type of move that are reliable enough that a grid wouldn't be required to adjudicate. The hope is that by focusing on basic statuses (i.e. adjacent) instead of ranges (i.e. within 2 squares) you can have a lot of the same functionality with a lot less rules. It also makes it more natural to how grid-less combat is played with people focusing on whether someone is adjacent, within range, etc.

To that same end, I plan on making OA relatively rare. Nothing is more annoying than having a player try and take back an action because it is too detrimental, nothing slows the game down more than adding in more attacks, and nothing imbalances combat quicker than adding more attacks. So all in all, they detract a lot. They are neat in that they balance various maneuvers, but there are a lot of ways to add balance.

What I need help with is two fold:
  1. What did I miss? What other types of movement are fundamental to the game and combat?
  2. How many little levers and tools do you think you need? That is, are OAs a good tool? Is reach a good mechanic? Anything similar?


  1. One of the things grids do really really well is let you know about various ranges when there are more than two people in the battle. It's easy to have one hero and one enemy and say "I'm in close range, and I'm backing out to medium range". But as soon as you add the third body you need a way to adjudicate how that first movement interacts with the new person's zones of control. This gets exponentially more difficult with each new addition on the battlefield.

    A battlemap is restrictive in some ways, but it's probably the most powerful tool there is for any kind of 2D tactical combat scenario because it perfectly captures every interaction between positions of everyone on the battlefield. There are ways to improve on the way that 3.5 uses it, but getting rid of it is a bad idea unless your plan for combat boils down to 'make it up'.

    On another note, what are your thoughts on 3D combat, when flight is introduced into the game? Because the rules right now are, politely, a clusterfuck.

  2. I absolutely agree as to the power of the tool. My opposition is two fold.

    First, many people don't want to use it and they are not wrong for doing so. The game ought to support many styles of play and gridless combat is one such style. I also think that gridless gamers are a good litmus test for gridded gamers. If they can't use the rule, it probably interrupts the imagination and that is a bad thing.

    Second, as I discuss above, grids let you introduce complex things cheaply. It is easy to write up a rule that "difficult terrain costs two squares" and it is reasonable to think that it will play out. But the ramifications of that rules are actually really profound and crappy.

    Once you introduce that rule, a player cannot declare their move unless they know the contents of every square. That is a huge amount of information that the GM has to dump onto the battlemat to complete play.

    3D combat (and the flight maneuverability in general) are one of the many things in D&D that it feels like someone just decided were needed and tacked on as an after thought. There are a lot of things in D&D where the rule was designed such that it will never be fun.

    I'm not necessarily saying I'll make a more realistic rule, or a fairer rule, but I damn well think we can make a better and more fun rule.

  3. It's hard to have a system that can work equally well with and without a battlemat. For gridless combat it's very near to impossible to gauge the benefit of an ability that lets you move 10 feet in the middle of combat. Gridless combat basically always boils down to "tell the GM what you want to do and he'll tell you if you can do it or not". There's no player empowerment, there's not even any consistency from ruling to ruling because what happens next in the battle depends 100% on how the GM is feeling that day. And that's the real value of the battlemat. It lets players point to the board and say, "the rules say I can do this".

    I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with playing without a map, and in some games that's great. But I don't think you're going to be able to come up with a ruleset that satisfies both possible game types without one or both of them being pretty upset about the result. Abstract locations are possible, but they're very hard to conceptualize and as I mentioned before become much more complicated when more than two people are involved in the fight.

    One solution I saw once that was pretty neat was having a bunch of 'zones' that people could be in that represented various locations in the game. For a castle fight, one zone might be 'the drawbridge', and another might be 'the throne room' and so on. And you literally represented it by drawing circles on a piece of paper with numbers or names in them and putting your token in them. And the GM can set up special rules for the fight that connect various locations, and players have options for stuff to do in their zone or to interact with zones outside of their own. You can even have a fun minigame based on claiming territory, which gives you a tactical advantage over the enemy and lets you press the assault.

    Not saying you should go that route, but it's a neat idea.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of creating "zones" of combat, which characters can move through in various ways. When I first saw it used in the Dresden Files RPG I was struck by how simple and elegant the solution was, allowing for some manner of tactical movement without running into the problem of requiring a grid (or causing "pixel bitching" amongst players and DMs).

    Likewise, there are a lot of mechanics you could add on to zones, with character's actions giving allies in a given zone bonuses or enemies penalties. A successful inspiring social skill use could give all allies in a zone a bonus to attack rolls, or could strike fear into enemies in the zone. Characters could elect to block certain ways of entering a zone, forcing enemies to move through other less ideal paths...there's a lot of design space there, particularly with the trades system that you've got going on.

    I can see fighters especially as being "living roadblocks" that can effectively shut down entrances to zones unless enemies pay the toll of letting the fighter get a free hit in.

  5. CJ and Veritomancer:
    I am interested in this idea of zones. Unfortunately I don't own Dresden Files RPG, so I haven't seen it in detail.

    I don't want to hijack Runeward's discussion, but I think it would be on topic to hear more about how it solves the problems with grids, especially if he can use it in his system. :-)

    First, how does it get around the exponential problem CJ described? The way I picture it is overlapping circles with zone names.
    Presumably with 2 circles, C1 and C2, you would have 3 effective tactical positions: C1, C2, and C1 overlapping C2.
    With 3 circles, you would have 7 positions: C1, C2, C3, C1 overlapping C2, C2 overlapping C3, C3 overlapping C1, and all three overlapping. (Sort of like this image of colour addition at )
    Wouldn't it boat unmanageably by the time you have even 4 zones?

    I agree that grids are powerful but have significant costs. I want to add my experiences to help illustrate why.

    Rules about different tiles having different movement costs are rubbish. In all of the D&D games I have played, the GM has (rightly) decided that he has more important things to worry about than enforcing terrain penalties. The result is that all battles, in the middle of a forest or on a rocky mountain path, end up happening on a perfectly level, unremarkable surface. This seems like a wasted opportunity.

    I also agree that not everyone wants to have to use a grid for every battle. I am one of those people! Grids imply a bunch of distinct miniatures and some sort of reusable or pre-printed grid sheet on a large table.
    It means you have to spend a lot of time, money and effort getting the necessary materials to play the game. It also constrains where you can comfortably play the game. I have played various games (Warhammer 40k: Dark Heresy, Chill, Call of Cthulu in the Gumshoe system, Sorcerer, maybe others) from the same armchair without sufficient room to roll a single die comfortably. It was annoying but manageable. Good luck setting up a stable battle grid with miniatures in that environment!

    I won't say there aren't benefits to grids, but the costs are hard to ignore. Would zones help avoid these problems?


  6. Re your question on the exponential problems, there are a few routes you can go. Overlapping circles doesn't model a battlefield very well and is hard to work with. The main ways I've seen proposed before are as follows:

    • You can give someone a range away that they can threaten/strike/whatever, and since each zone in the battle can be connected to various other zones in various ways depending on how the GM sets up the terrain they can reach people in other zones just by virtue of standing there.

    • Alternatively, one solution involving REALLY abstract terrain that I saw consisted of claiming territory for your team by occupying a zone. Claiming territory allowed you to advance on enemy zones and target into adjacent ones.

    Basically the way your abstract positioning system works depends on how you want your combats to run. Do you want it to be a tactical strategy game like Risk, or do you want it to be a grindfest like WoW, or something in between? Once you know how you want an encounter to unfold you can make rules governing it. But if you plan to be able to have deep and meaningful combats without a grid you're probably going to want to look into some method of abstract positioning.

    Just as a note, I haven't read the Dresden Files RPG, and don't really know how they run combat. Good books though.

  7. >Good books though
    Agreed. :-)

    I will work on the assumption that a "zone" is just a fairly small area defined by the GM that is adjacent to one or more other zones. e.g. A pub might have "the bar", "the dancefloor", and "the tables", with the dancefloor separating the other two zones.

    Runeward, when I look at your distillation I see a similar thing. Just consider the grey (threatened) area in your diagrams to be "the dancefloor" and the white (unthreatened) area to be "the bar".

    I will assume that a single unit of movement is from one zone to any adjacent zone, and that all opponents in the same zone are considered "in range" for melee attack.

    I think you have lumped together two very different situations under "Tactical Move". I will call movement from unthreatened to unthreatened "Tactical Move", and put movement from unthreatened to threatened in the "Tactical Approach" category.

    We can then say:
    - Tactical Approach is from a zone with NO opponents to a zone with opponents.
    - Tactical Retreat is from a zone with opponents to a zone with NO opponents.
    - Tactical Move is from a zone with NO opponents to another zone with NO opponents.
    - Tactical Maneuver is from a zone with opponents to another zone with opponents.

    The D&D grid automatically allows for the following important things that don't arise automatically from this idea of zones:
    1. Flanking, which is very important in D&D for backstab rogue characters
    2. Ranged weapons;
    2.1. You are unlikely to ever get an enemy in a zone without an ally in it too, leading to friendly fire questions
    2.2. How many variable sized zones can various projectile weapons shoot across? In a pub you would expect the range to be "everywhere", but not so in a massive cavern or a forest.
    3. Reach, which may not fit well with large zones where the exact position of combatants is glossed over.
    4. "meat shield" fighters standing in between weak allies and the enemy. This is important in D&D for protecting spellcasters or NPCs on escort quests.

    But hey, no grid. :-)

    Is this the sort of path you might want to go down, Runeward?

  8. Just off the top of my head, here are some ways that you could do zones while still retaining some elements of tactical combat:

    1. Flanking: Replace it with a generic "advantage" condition which can be applied with an action against a creature in the same zone. Perhaps allowing characters to gain advantage automatically by spending the equivalent of a move action, or gaining it with a successful check against a target as a minor? This would allow for many different descriptions as to how to gain advantage (flanking, distracting attacks, feinting, flour in the eyes, insulting their mother), as well as introduce feats and trades for optimizing advantage (increasing bonuses gained, improving aciton economy etc). Zones could also have particular rules for how easy it is to gain advantage, and characters might be able to negate advantage against them by taking various actions (such as using a move action to move out of a flank, or making a successful bluff check against a foe to "get over" an insult).

    2. Ranged weapons could be handled like in the DFRPG, with each weapon having a number of zones that it shoot across. Certain zones could have a keyword "Covered" or some such that would make them require an additional action to shoot through, representing aiming for someone through a window or what not.

    2.2 As far as the range for individual ranged weapons, I'd expect it to be kept fairly abstract. Say "2 zones" or "4 zones" for a particular weapon and be done with it, spliting areas into anywhere between 2-6 zones depending on size.

    3. Reach can be handled as bonuses to attack or defense that go to the creature with the greatest reach. This is actually probably a better representation of reach than how D&D currently does it, and would be simple to implement.

    4. Fighters could have an ability to interfere with creatures within the same zone as them, and an increased ability to block off "entrances" to zones unless the creature lets the fighter get a free hit in. A sample of how that might look:

    Guardian (Fighter Trade)
    "You sons of bitches aren't getting at my friends!"
    Immediate Interrupt
    Trigger: A creature attacks an ally in the same zone as you.
    Effect: The ally gains a +2 bonus to defenses against the creature's attacks, and you may make a melee or ranged basic attack against the attacking creature.

    Shield Bearer
    "My life for my friends"
    Immediate Interrupt
    Trigger: An ally in the same zone as you is attacked.
    Effect: You beome the target of that attack, and gain a +2 bonus to your defenses against that attack.

    Other characters wouldn't be as good at protecting the squishies as fighters, but could still ready actions to attack characters that attack their companions, or use abilities to inflict conditions on their foes that make attacking creatures not as much of a threat.

    Just some ideas-and you wouldn't have to worry about a grid!

  9. I might add
    "5. Back-to-back fighting, where you are next to an ally to make yourselves harder to flank"
    as one of the things that the grid automatically gives you.

    As you say, it does make sense to be able to use a move action to move within a zone for tactical benefit.
    Rules would need to cover the conflict between Back-to-back fighting and Flanking, for example.

    With the grid, it's based on whose turn it is to act. Every turn, each fighter moves out of harms way into a position where they can fight fairly or with their own advantage. You get in flanking position with your move, they move out of being flanked position when their turn comes; they fight back to back with their move, you and your ally move to the sides with your moves. I believe it's called "the rogue dance of death" in D&D. :-)

    This could be translated to zones as "You may use a move action to move within a zone, removing any Positional Advantage against you (and?/or?) gaining Positional Advantage against an opponent in the same zone.".

  10. Wow--awesome discussion in here, it'll take me a bit to get caught up on everything as I went on a mini-vacation.

    I absolutely welcome divergent ideas because there are a lot of great RPG design ideas out there and I'm familiar with only a tiny subset. This type of discussion is useful for me (and hopefully all of you, too).

  11. I was also thinking that zones could have keywords, such as "covered" as Veritomancer mentioned. Another could be "Difficult Terrain". A complete list would not need to be created, I think a list of the most common effects would suffice and GMs could then make up their own.
    "Hmm, the party is fighting on the back of the Terrasque - it has the keyword 'Unstable', requiring balance checks when using a move action".

  12. I kind of feel like we have two concepts of "zones" going on in this discussion. The first is a finite area that may or may not have certain traits (like requiring Balance checks to move) but the tactical component involves the entrance to and movement between zones. The second is a more general idea of a zone having traits.

    The second concept of a zone is very akin to what exists currently in 3e/4e, just with more vocabulary to help define things. It would still require additional rules in order to be "tactical."

    The first concept of a zone takes a different approach to tactics in movement by changing it from a relationship between the character and other creatures to a relationship between the character and the locale. Class powers, then, change "the locale" and that is how tactics is introduced.

    I think the first concept is really interesting and I'd like to explore it more, but it is also a huge change from what most people have ever experienced and so I'm a bit worried that I couldn't make it interestingly complex and still communicable.

    The second concept is basically 3e/4e (which I also find interesting) and think could be improved upon to satisfy my goals.

    Both are neat options.