Sunday, July 3, 2011

Zonal issue, part II

Yesterday I introduced a potential fix to some of the early issues with zone combat that cropped up. I began by describing the three basic design goals that I wanted to make sure weren’t violated. To recap:
  1. Quick to adjudicate. Most of the time, it has to be seamless. It should only slow down play when someone is doing something worth slowing down play for.
  2. Scale across levels. The solution has to easily scale throughout play. If it lets high level characters (or characters who overly focus on movement) move ridiculous distances, then it really isn't a great solution.
  3. Represent a wide range of scenarios and styles of play. The solution has to be adaptable enough that it works for most people and lets GMs customize it to their style of play. This adaptability and customizability must be achievable without introducing additional rules, such that different combats in the same session of play could be run differently.
Quick to adjudicate
The move score (i.e. how many zones you can move without having to roll) is set high enough that most movement won’t cross the line and is simply declared without much fanfare. If a character moves a ton of zones (higher than the move score) or passes through exceedingly difficult terrain (DC high enough that the passive move check will fail), then play slows down with the check. But this is interesting enough action that it probably warrants the check and the extra time.

I also think it will be quick to calculate DCs (highest DC of any zone passed through +2 per additional zone) and, on a fail, easy enough to apply penalties for failure. Since I am planning on avoiding penalties that stop your movement, there shouldn’t be too many scenarios where the move is interrupted and we have to go back and figure out what zone you were stopped in. The two exceptions to this are stuntways (which we treat differently and are not “basic” movement) or if you pass through a zone with a creature that can block/halt movement. Those, again, are interesting enough scenarios that they probably warrant the extra time and attention. I’ll keep an eye on them, though, because they could be problematic if not handled carefully.

Scale across levels
I think the fix hits this one out of the park. Assumedly the movement check will increase by ½ level like any other check, so you basically just increase the DC of the terrain as players increase in level. This increase should correlate to more fantastic terrain, so at a low level they may have to jump 10 feet onto a 2-foot wide log spanning the gorge, but at a high level they rush across the single rope remnant of an old bridge that once spanned the gorge. Or the “clearing” is replaced by a field of razor grass. In some battles, you may not want to make the terrain more fantastic and then the players are just able to move more easily. The move score (# zones before you roll) still puts a general cap, though, because you probably don’t want to risk rolling low and piling on the penalties. The penalties won’t have to change much because a -2 penalty to attack naturally scales across levels.

This also highlights something really, really awesome. Because battlefields can be easily tailored and adjusted by level, they become a useful work product that people can share. Right now, it is pretty hard to get someone else to be excited about the battle you set up with a farmhouse and a grain silo unless you are a professional artist. But with zones, the exciting stuff are the ideas, the placement of stuntways, and the general feel of a battlefield. That is stuff we can actually share with each other and reuse.

Represent a wide range of scenarios and styles of play
This probably should have been split into two ideas. The first is that I didn’t want the fix to tell you how to play your game. The second is that I didn’t want the fix to bias zonal combat towards, say, the simple battlefield over the complex battlefield. I still want the gridded and gridless folks to have interesting tactical options.

On the first idea, the mechanisms are simple enough that a GM that wants a gritty, tactical game could just reduce the move score (# zones before you roll) to make people move less far. Someone who didn’t want to bother could raise the move score. Adjusting the DCs of terrain has a similar relationship and allows a GM to quickly tailor zonal combat to their preferred style without much interruption on the rest of the rules.

One the second idea, most movement will still be declarative (as discussed above). But the problem was that we don’t want someone moving 10 zones, picking up the artifact, and moving back 10 zones. Under my first draft, I envisioned the “large” trait being the mechanism that blocked off too much movement. With this fix, you can put a lynchpin around a particular zone just by giving it a high DC or high penalty for failure. That is equally simple to place in a battlefield of any complexity and equally simple to adjudicate.

Overall, I’m actually pretty satisfied with the fix so far but would appreciate feedback to help me see the stuff I’m missing.


  1. I think this topic is worth a larger more expanded response on EN World (seeking a wider audience to garner attention to both your ideas on "zones" as well as your wonderful blog), but for the moment I'll just clarify a couple of ideas.

    - I set up a system ethos for myself of all the things I would want from an RPG and one of them was: The assumption of miniatures and a battlemap should not be implicit in the ruleset; the rules must also be able to reasonably support those groups who prefer the landscape of the mind.

    I see zones as a way of doing that although initially I was thinking something more along the lines of 3e Warhammer RPG. Reading through your blog and having a look at the Harry Dresden RPG; I am now completely confident that how you have presented zones IS the way to go.

    - However, I think in your enthusiasm you have begun to focus on the details and specifics without completely nailing down the broader picture. Movement between zones while a fundamental aspect of play is not worth fussing about until you know a little bit more about the characters and their abilities and how they plug into it.

    - I have a series of questions which I think might be worth answering.

    • Why use zones over a battlemap/grid/miniatures?
    Some groups simply do not have access to such things and so any formalization or structure that can be applied to combat is going to help the GM/DM. However, groups with full access to miniatures and a battlemap may still wish to use zones because: a) some minor encounters are so small that formerly drawing them up adds little to no benefit and b) a more cinematic encounter is desired where the focus is on the environment and character actions rather than the tactical minutiae of miniatures.
    I think all of this is important in then designing zones to match these circumstances. Zones need to be built around these circumstances; and in fact they fit nicely in the complexity dial that Mearls, yourself and others are talking about. At its simplest you have the basic encounter to be quickly resolved. Next is the more detailed cinematic encounter. And finally is everything else that normally would be done on a battlemap but due to no minis or maps must be done within the minds of the players. Zones must be able to handle all three of these situations.

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  2. Further...

    • Should the players be aware of zones?
    Ideally I think not. Ideally, the players should be thinking about the environment and their characters actions within that environment; not the mechanical framework that the DM/GM uses to resolve those actions. I think explicitly conveyed zones takes away a lot of the benefits of running encounters without a battlemap. There should be a sense of exploration; a sense that there might be more to an encounter and environment than first described; a cascading of further environments and situations rather than just those initially delineated by the DM/GM. This is best done I believe by not making zones as explicit as the grid and "walls" of the battlemap.
    As such, I see zones being a guide for the DM/GM only. A more formalized structure that helps them adjudicate and resolve actions in an encounter. For a group minus minis, it is going to be needed to be dialed up in terms of handling complexity but that should not be the base functioning of the system.

    • Should the basic structure of combat be different to that when using miniatures and a battlemap?
    Again ideally: no! Rounds are rounds, actions are actions and you don't want to go mucking around with the basic structure of an encounter. You don't want a completely different measure of character effort introduced - a move action and a standard action using 3e/4e terminology should still buy you the same thing whether using a battlemap or not. While there is greater abstraction placed upon position, you don't want to dis-harmonize the game further by changing the tempo of what a particular character action buys you as a player. In this way, an encounter can be run either way and the results and events that lead to those results should have a chance of being identical, regardless of whether a battlemap has been used.
    I think this has important applications for characters and in terms of 4e: powers.

    • How do you handle specific character powers when using a battlemap and when using zones?
    I think you need to write up powers/actions so that there is as much harmony as possible between whether the power has been used in zoneplay or with a battlemap. Essentially, a power needs to be of equal worth, whether it is used on the battlemap with miniatures or if it is used in zoneplay. If success in the action gets you an attack plus a rider; that rider needs to be equivalent on or off the battlemap. This has important implications where the "fussy" shifting/pushing/pulling movement of 4e needs to translate to zoneplay with the same momentum and influence. Alternatively, you maybe cutback on the endless variations of this movement and instead focus on a particular effect matching up with some measure of shifting or pushing or pulling. I think this is where you need to build the system from the ground up with this fundamental in mind, rather than working off of a virtual assumption of minis and battlemap.

    • How many zones are we talking about?
    I think this is where perhaps our perspectives might differ. I think it best to have as fewer zones as possible, otherwise you are losing the big benefit you are trying to create by not using a battlemap. If you have the high number of zones and causeways/stuntways that you have in your complex tavern example, such that you need to present it as a concrete map rather than the more abstracted connected circles of your simple forest/clearing/ruins; then I think you have started straying away from the strength of using zones. Such a complex battlefield really fits into the most complex dial category; thus using zones if you don't have minis, or a battlemap if you do.

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  3. And further...

    • What is in a Zone?
    Your definition is perfect: A zone is an area of a battlefield sharing a unifying (trait[I would use a different word for trait here as you are using "trait" differently). Actually, I would use trait here and use the term Zone Features as follows:
    - Each Zone usually has one or more Features. A zone feature describes a particular aspect within the zone that a combatant may take advantage of. For example, a tavern room might have "tables and benches" as a feature. A large set of stairs rather than being a causeway/stuntway may be turned into a zone with two zone features: a section of "busted stairs" (that must be jumped over or that can be jumped down through) and an "overhead rope" connected to and holding up a chandelier in a different zone. A limestone cavern zone might have a "wall of stalagmites" zone feature that can be used for cover or stealthing or something else.

    And this perhaps is the most important thing of a zone feature; it is given in terms of concise descriptive language ("tables and benches", "Busted Stairs", "Wall of Stalagmites") rather than as a functional code ("cover", "large", "rough"). In this way, you are keeping the players in the world of the game, rather than in the mechanical world of resolving actions. It is up to the players to think of ways of utilizing a feature (tables and benches) rather than having it expressed in mechanical and essentially limiting terms (cover). The players may come up with something really clever that you as DM/GM or the designer of the zone did not think of; and in fact this should be encouraged.
    Also, it is up to the players to realize that traipsing through tables and benches is going to be more difficult than running up a hallway.

    While having a number of Zone Features makes for a richer environment, I think you need to be careful of not overloading on them and in fact this is the real trick of designing an encounter and the zones and zone features within it. There really needs to be a high degree of attention to detail otherwise its just going to end up boring and the players are going to look to head back to the battlemap to get their tactical fix.

    An encounter and the zones within it need to tell a story, or in actual fact a number of potential stories. Were the PCs able to get up to the cavern ledge to take out the drow sniper (and discover the unseen secret cave exit up there?) before the sniper decimated the party? Did they get through the lower cavern quickly enough to get to the raised dais altar and stop the dark ceremony being performed there? Were the PCs trapped by the emergency deadfall or did they manage to spot it in time and stop the drow pulling it down?

    All of this stuff is that a zone and a series of zones should be about.

    I have a few other things to comment on but alas time has beat me. I really want to address scale and the size of the encounter and how zones should deal with that and obviously the whole movement through zones thing but another time. For the moment, I am interested in the bigger picture before drilling down and seeing how the characters are going to specifically interact with the zones.

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  4. One of the biggest advantages, at least in my mind of flavorful descriptors being applied to zones (ala DFRPG's Aspects) is that they're ripe for multiple uses along the lines of pg 42 of the DMG.

    Perhaps your game system could provide a range of appropriate effects for different levels of play (with notes for using higher leveled zone effects for lower level encounters and vice versa), and based on player interactions with zone descriptors you pick the effect that best fits the action.

    Let's say you have a kitchen that's described as being "cramped and messy", "crammed with food", and "Full of sharp objects". A player portraying a cunning rogue says "I grab a bag of flour from the counter and throw it into the guard's face, attempting to blind him", you look up the effects for that level to determine just how difficult it will be and let him or her do it. Simple, evocative, and fun.

  5. Herremann,

    Thanks again for another great response. It gave me a ton to think about and I'm actually going to modify my response a bit and post it as an article.

    I plan to post this to ENWorld for discussion eventually, but I want to get a better handle on it first. As you point out, I've been developing terminology as I go and have already introduced inconsistencies. I'd hate to dissuade people from giving it a chance because I'm sloppy.

    You'll see that we differ in answering a few questions (Are players aware of zones? & How many zones?) and I look forward to hearing your reaction to my arguments.

    Also, I'm not sure if I wasn't clear but a few times it seems like you were under the impression that I am advocating for different rules in different scenarios. I am not. The zone rules will always be the zone rules no matter if minis are used or not. I only advocate the use of minis to add the visual medium to the audio medium in helping people understand what is going on. Rules are identical.

    I really appreciated your pulling me back and taking another crack at the big picture. It is too damn easy to just keep on building higher with something you are excited about, but the results are always better when you double check the foundation. My own understanding improved and hopefully I'll be able to better clarify that understanding to others.

    "An encounter and the zones within it need to tell a story, or in actual fact a number of potential stories. Were the PCs able to get up to the cavern ledge to take out the drow sniper (and discover the unseen secret cave exit up there?) before the sniper decimated the party? Did they get through the lower cavern quickly enough to get to the raised dais altar and stop the dark ceremony being performed there? Were the PCs trapped by the emergency deadfall or did they manage to spot it in time and stop the drow pulling it down?"

    I think this captures perfectly the goal I see for zones. Cinematic spaces connected in ways that encourage dynamic movement and different routes to win a battle. I think you're right that creating battlefields with zones will be a real art that takes time to master, but I also think it'll be fun trying to get that mastery, that it will be easy to not make a *bad* battlefield, and that it will be easier for the community to share wisdom about zones with each other than it is to share wisdom about encounter design now.

    All in all, I'm stoked and appreciate the detailed reply.

  6. Veritomancer-

    You and Herremann persuaded me. I think the generic description instead of static descriptors (like "cover") is a better option. Access to cover can be balanced by the action cost to acquire it, not scarcity. This also makes sure that battlefields are less dependent on GM whim and puts more power back in the hands of the players.

    I also plan to do some sort of Table 42 type scenario. I'm slowly pluggin' away on it.