Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Zones, the reintroduction continues

As pretty much each post about zones has begun, I’m sort of flying from the seat of my pants and posting as I develop; chalk it up to excitement. This has lead to about three different sets of vocabulary being presented and a relatively incoherent vision set forth. I’m going to try and clean all that up in this post so we can (hopefully) all be on a more similar page. This post also introduces new ideas, but it is an up to date summary of zones so far.

I also apologize for the length. I’ve been working to get my post lengths down and convert more of the ideas into pictures and diagram because I know I shut down when I see a block of text like this.

The broadest strokes
In D&D, tactical positioning is resolved through the relationship between squares. Characters and monsters occupy these squares and use the relationships of the squares to inform how their character interacts with others. In zone combat, the zone replaces the square as the basic element through which relationships are defined. Just as a battle in normal D&D is made up of many squares, a battlefield with zone combat is made up of many zones. Characters and monsters occupy zones, and that occupancy informs how they relate to other creatures in the battlefield. Unlike D&D, multiple characters often occupy the same zone.

What is a zone?
A zone is an area of a battlefield sharing a unifying trait. A zone could be a forest clearing, a narrow hallway, a cluttered kitchen, or a portion of a gladiatorial arena littered with enough corpses to make it difficult to maneuver through. Zones can be any shape or size and do not necessarily have discrete borders; a forest clearing can gradually give way a forest without any hard lines and each is a separate zone.

How are zones connected?
Zones are connected to other zones by causeways and stuntways.
  • Causeways. Causeways are basic connections between two zones and are often not discrete. The forest clearing that gradually returns to forest has a causeway connecting the zones. Causeways may, however, be discrete like a doorway or the first step onto a staircase. The important thing about causeways is that they are not exceptional and so all movement through causeways is aggregated into a single check. Mounts can move through causeways.
  • Stuntways. A stuntway is a non-standard connection between two zones like jumping through a window, scaling a wall, or jumping onto a catapult to launch over a wall. When a character takes a stuntway, they are undertaking exceptional movement. Because they are exceptional, stuntways are handled separately from other movement (although they may be *part* of a longer move action). Mounts cannot normally move through stuntways.
How does movement work in zone combat?
Characters spend move actions to move in zone combat just like in D&D. The difference is that positioning is more abstracted. Creatures don’t fight to occupy a 5x5 square of dirt, they fight to occupy “the bridge.” The way movement works differs if you are using the move action to move between zones or using a move action to gain positioning within a zone you already occupy.

Moving between zones
Moving between zones requires an, aptly named, move check. A move check is a Dexterity check (aka Agility, I’ve used both terms at various times) that can be modified by racial features, class powers, and so on. The DC of a move check is equal to 2x the number of zones entered plus the highest modifier of any zone entered.
Example. A character beginning in a jungle zone enters a clearing (+0), a ridiculous lava flow (+3), another clearing (+0), a rickety bridge (+2), and a ruins (+0). The move DC is 13 (2x five zones +3 from the ridiculous lava flow). Note, this sample the map from this post, but the rules differ from the samples provided in this link. The change is cosmetic but makes calculating move DCs a bit faster.
Creatures may use a passive move check (i.e. take-10) if they don’t enter too many zones in a single move. This limit of zones is known as a movement class (MC) which is based on race and modified by powers, feats, and so on. If you enter a number of zones in a single move greater than your MC, you must roll.

Many zones, but not all, have a penalty that is incurred if you fail a move check. The penalty relates to the trait of the zone, so a zone that requires some measure of balance might impart the off-balance condition and a zone filled with razor grass might deal 5 damage. As a result, the longer the move, the more likely you are to fail the move check and the more punitive failure becomes. However, MCs are set high enough (currently 3-5 starting) that only ambitious moves will have to roll.

The penalties from zones should not be things that halt movement. The ambiguity of non-exceptional movement is not “if you’ll get there,” but “what condition will you be in when you do.” This allows play to proceed faster because actions are declared and resolved instead of requiring players to ask if they are able to achieve certain ends. Although the penalties should not halt movement, severely failing a check can halt subsequent movement (or worse). This ensures that creatures don’t move absurd distance and decide to accept the penalty for failure with the belief that they’ll be far enough from harm that penalties don’t matter.

If a move between zones includes a stuntway, all of the above equally applies and is aggregated into the single move check. The difference is that a stuntway pauses the move and a check is immediately resolved for the stuntway. Stuntways often have penalties for failure that can halt movement (i.e. on fail, you fall in the 100 foot gorge). In this case, the move ends and the move check is calculated for the movement that was completed. In any instance, the move check is only rolled once the destination zone is determined. This makes it possible that a scenario would arise wherein a stuntway is successfully passed and then, later, the move check is failed, resulting in a penalty that would have made the stuntway check fail had it been in force at the time the stuntway check was made. This is regrettable but is the cost of abstraction.

Movement between zones provokes. The provocation occurs when you enter the zone and all threatening creatures are provoked. A threatening creature is one able to attack (i.e. wielding a melee weapon) that is hostile (i.e. you don’t provoke your allies). Unlike D&D, provoking doesn’t generically allow a creature to make an attack, but gives them a resource (“a provoke”) that expires at the end of the creatures next turn. The generic power of a provoke is that it provides a bonus to an attack against the provoking creature. Because creatures move through many zones, many creatures will elect to allow the provoke to expire rather than chase after the provoking creature just to gain the bonus. This is intentional, the provocation aspect of combat is intended to be less time consuming than in D&D.

In addition, different classes or powers may allow a provoke to be used immediately. Some classes or weapons allow a character to spend a provoke immediately to make an attack, other class powers might allow a character to immediately learn the weaknesses/powers of a provoking monster, refresh a second wind, or anything.

A character can only have one provoke at a time, but it can be used against any creature that provoked them. For example, if five goblins enter your zone and you have no way to immediately use a provoke, you can gain a single bonus to attack against any of the goblins. If, on the other hand, you have the ability to immediately use a provoke to attack, you could gain and use a provoke on each of the goblins’ turns.

There are also a number of ways to make movement not provoke. Entering a zone via a stuntway, wielding a heavy shield, actively using cover, and class powers (i.e. tumble) all make the basic tactical move not provoke. In addition, there is a tactical shift move that allows you to move a single zone without provoking.

Moving within zones
Characters will often enter a zone and not leave. Move actions remain an important resource within a zone as they fuel maneuvers. Many basic maneuvers are available to all characters. (As you read the following, keep in mind that I plan for most benefits to terminate at the end of a character’s turn so these maneuvers would have to be reactivated each turn). A sampling include:
  • Active cover. You benefit from available cover in the zone and your actions do not provoke.
  • Against the wall. You are immune to flank. The zone must have a wall or other barrier.
  • Back-to-back. You and one ally (who doesn’t have to spend a move action) are immune to flank. You must have an ally in the zone to use back-to-back.
  • Behind me!. Create cover for one ally. That ally benefits from cover without having to spend an action. You must have an ally in the zone to use behind me!.
  • Combat trick. Interact with the environment (i.e. grab and toss a fist of flour) to gain a +2 edge (i.e. bonus) to attack against a target in your zone. You must pass a heroic level appropriate check. You cannot use the same combat trick more than once in the same battle.
  • Flank. Gain a +2 edge (i.e. bonus) to attack against a target in your zone. You must have an ally in the zone to use flank.
There are many ways to gain access to new maneuvers. For instance, a mount (if the rider is properly trained) may grant access to a Trample maneuver which gives your successful strikes a chance to knock targets prone. The knight’s “Rally on me” power gives all allies in the zone access to a maneuver that increases their defense. Even a zone itself might provide access to a new maneuver.

How does attacking work?
Characters can attack any creature in range. There are three ranges that describe a weapon’s maximum distance; you may always target something closer. The max range of a weapon is the max, there are no range increments.

All ranges require line of sight. Because creatures are constantly moving in a zone, line of sight is presumed unless it is clear that it is not possible. Line of sight is presumed through a thick forest (although a miss chance could still apply) but is not presumed through a wall.
  • Near range (possibly revert to just call it melee range. My concern is that melee range implies too strongly it is just for melee weapons). You may target any creature in the same zone. This is the range for most melee weapons and strikes.
  • Short range. You may target any creature in an adjacent zone. A zone is adjacent if it is connected by a causeway or stuntway.
  • Long range. You may target any creature in any zone.
After this, attacks are resolved similarly to D&D; pick an attack, roll high, compare against defense. The main exception is that because any creature in the zone is in range, the targeting rules for things like area of effect have to be written differently. I actually anticipate this to open up more interesting design space than it closes.


  1. And now for something to bend your mind... just a little.

    Zones seem deeply rich with possibility and design space. Collectively they are a condensing and distilling of a battlefield into its most important elements; the true skeleton of a battlefield and the potential stories that can be wrought from it. Importantly, there is none of the "clutter and confusion" of a regular map; or more to the point, because it has been stripped of its concrete aesthetic appeal, it is left with nothing but the barest bones of information that must make sense or not. There are no fancy features for a designer to hide behind.

    Now this is for combat encounters but lets pull back a little once more and look at an even bigger picture. Let's say that we want to use zones for... all encounters. Including social encounters! Rather than a skill challenge where so many successes must be garnered before so many failures; imagine a small network of zones representing social situations.
    - For example, let's say a group of PCs needs to go to a different seaside town to rescue a foreign lady who has been imprisoned by the local lord for an unknown "heinous" crime. At the very least they need to dig up the truth and attempt to speak with her; even if they cannot change the lord's mind and her impending hanging. Could the "skill challenge" represented here be done instead with a slightly different imagining of zones (think of the circles joined by causeways/stuntways) and the possible paths to reaching their goal and the variety of possible outcomes (good, poor or terrible) that they may find themselves in. [and what do causeways and stuntways now represent?]

    Firstly, might this be a more nuanced way of handling skill challenges so that the complexities of the challenge can be represented by the zone system in a clear, elegant diagram?

    Secondly, if zones can be used in this way, does this inform in some way how zones may be more dynamically used in other encounter-types.

    My answer is that I have absolutely no idea except for the sparking of mental possibility. I thought I'd throw it out there anyway.

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  2. A little extra again as I think I just thought of something. Zones (encounters be they combat or social/exploration) from a design perspective are representative of goals. A zone represents a particular goal that a PC is striving for at that moment and thus the goal a zone represents may even change across an encounter. So yeah.. zones as goals as much as regions of space.

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  3. Herreman,
    A zone does not represent a particular PC goal. They are conceptually different; one is part of the setting and represents a physical location with a unifying trait, the other is part of the character and represents their motivation or plans. There is nothing tying a particular goal to a particular zone.

    e.g.1 If your goal is to catch a fleeing villain or kill an evil necromancer, it doesn't matter which zone you are in to do it. Your goal is independent of zones.

    e.g.2 If you are a starving pickpocket at the bar in a pub and you are sitting between a full purse to your left and a potential employer you intend to start a conversation with on your right, you have 2 goals in the same zone.

    I suggest keeping the two very separate concepts separate.


  4. I think I generally agree with John that the basic presentation of zones should be a space in which a character occupies and not an abstraction of some other goal or event. However, I can absolutely see it being stretched to accommodate the later as an innovation (but not a core purpose--I think that asks too much of the system).

    It is a really neat approach, though, and I think it could be valuable for skill challenges that more similarly fit the mold. For instance, a skill challenge revolving around a race naturally lends itself to zones.

    When one of my players from my old group saw zones, one of the first things he brought up was their potential usefulness in 3D combat. It struck me as a mini-revelation that zones would help alleviate a lot of the awkwardness of flight since specific positioning is no longer important.

    Both (3d combat and abstract zones) are neat design spaces that I'd love to hear more comments about--please, toss out any and all ideas for discussion.

  5. Hello John,

    I think perhaps I did not explain my point well as I was rushed with that last comment (I'm typing this at work during the cracks of time I have to do such things ;)

    By goal, I perhaps mean more motivation. Imagine if you will that you have three zones on a battlefield. One is grass. Another is dirt. And the last is grass... and dirt. In other words there is nothing to distinguish them aside from that they are separate regions as we have all discussed. Who then would care which region one is in as they are all the same. This means then that the only dynamic factor is who is in which zone. As such, the combat is going to be more about the powers and actions and events with the actual zones adding almost nothing to the situation.

    However, if the zones provide motivation (or a goal or reason) for a particular PC or combatant to either be in that zone, NOT be in that zone, to get to that zone first, stop enemies from accessing that zone, or forcing enemies into that zone, and so on; then you have a much more dynamic combat with a "story" to be told.

    For example, you may have a cavern split by a deep chasm, with a ledge high up the cavern wall that joins one end of the cavern to the other. This can be divided into three zones (Outer Cavern, Inner Cavern and Ledge) with the Chasm acting more as a stuntway. You would also have a stuntway from the Outer Cavern to the Ledge while because the cavern sweeps upward, the Inner Cavern zone is linked to the ledge by a simple causeway.

    Now think of all the things you can do with this arrangement in terms of goals. Again by this, the "goal" or design motivation is that the PCs are going to want to control that ledge zone. Imagine the stuntway across the chasm is a stone bridge that has crumbled away in the centre.

    By having the PCs enter in a particular zone (the outer cavern) you then can produce a very different combat by placing the enemy combatants in each of the zones. To gain control, you have guided the terrain to provide benefits and challenges meaning that the PCs will be most advantaged getting into a particular zone (or out of one) depending upon further features in each of these zones.

    My point is that this kind of thinking is what takes advantage of zones and makes them interesting for the players to play in. If there is no goal to be in a particular zone or not; then in my opinion you have a fairly flat and boring combat. As such for me, zones should represent some sort of motivation or goal for the combatants what ever the flavour.

    Hello Runeward,

    What happened was that I had a flash of insight. If you expand the concept of zones, you have this elegant, mechanic that can be applied to almost all the in-game interaction between the GM and the players. In truth, I think we are only scratching the surface of their potential. Zones have the flexibility and I am sure that work in one encounter field (be it combat, exploration or social) may shine interesting light and perspectives on the others. There is so much potential here; so much design space it's crazy.

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  6. I was going to comment and ask if ranged characters could attack all zones in a building (like the one you drew), but you mentioned that walls (obviously) blocks ranged attacks. Now I wonder how you would relay the information about walls? Especially if the map is just a quick sketch.

    Are there any rules to observe when attacking through several rooms? For example, on your "complex" map (the tavern), can I attack from the Tables room and hit an opponent in Kitchen?

    This may be a dynamic of the game (a feature and not a bug), but I was just thinking that it seems like that when in an open area, ranged characters will do a lot better than when in a building or dungeon where they will be severely limited (most targets will be in melee)?

    In regards to the naming of the ranges, you could class "near range" for "close range" instead? Still doesn't roll off the tongue that well. You mentioned not liking "melee range", however for some it also carries the image of provoking if you attack while in melee range.

  7. Relaying information about zones will be important because the relationships between zones are tactically important. I've been trying to develop a standardized notation but since stuff keeps changing, so too does the notation.

    At one point I used double line for causeway and single line for stuntway. In another map I just used circles with a C or an S. I think similar conventions like solid line (wall) vs. dashed line (open) will be developed.

    The notation could be as complex as we want (or however complex proves useful). For instance, maybe all that is needed is notation that something is a causeway.
    OR that the causeway is a door.
    OR that the causeway is a closed door.
    OR that the causeway is a locked closed door.
    OR that the causeway is a locked closed door with the unlocking mechanism on side X.

    With regards to ranged characters, I want them to face some hardships from time to time. Ranged attacks have historically been pretty powerful and I don't want to further exacerbate that. I just, even more than that, don't want to have to draw lines from corners of squares.

  8. I like "close." Probably better than "near." Close, Short, Long range all feel like they are the same caliber of word, so that works pretty well.

    [Oh, with regards to the progression of notation above--I'm not saying I think we need all that specificity in doors just yet. I'm saying maybe we'll find out it is useful and easy enough to produce and it is *possible* to have it. If it net improves clarity without bogging the game down in complexity, I'm all for it.]

  9. Runeward,
    It seems to me that you have a workable plan for how to use zones, and some equally-good options to choose between. I'm not trying to stifle discussion, but you may find there isn't much more you can do without playtesting to see how it "feels".

    Are you playtesting with your gaming group as you decide on rules you want to use? If not, I am happy to join in any focussed playtest-by-post sessions to give your rules a trial by fire. It's up to you, of course.


  10. I think there will be a lot of development that can only be achieved through play testing because, you're right, at this point it comes down to "Does it play well?"

    I'd love for play testers (and love for you to be one). The problem is that, as of yet, there are no classes to go with zones. I'm working towards it, but there are a lot of little odds and ends I need to settle on before I can actually start producing classes.

    Hence, the only way zones can begin play testing is if someone adapts them onto an existing game. I don't think this would be all that hard because zones pretty much just replace the move action with a new set of move actions, but you would have to figure out things for targeting. Many powers transfer easily (i.e. "melee: one target" is identical). Others are a bit trickier (i.e. melee, all foes in range).

    I think there is enough indicia of the intent of a power that conversions would be easy enough, but it would take a lot of time. If you're willing to put that time in to a conversion, I'd love to hear feedback (and even post it if you wanted). Otherwise, when classes are done, you'll be at the top of the list.