Friday, July 1, 2011

Zonal combat

I took a stab at creating a zone system for combat. I wanted to make sure that there were simple mechanisms to dial up or down the tactical complexity from combat to combat. This way, a quick random encounter can be easily handled and resolved while a more important battle could be arrayed out on a battlemap and really delved into. I think this achieves that while still presenting tactically interesting opportunities for movement throughout combat.

Check it out here.

I'm not 100% convinced this is the way I want to go, but it actually does have a lot of strengths and would probably provide a more cinematic experience with less reliance on "pixel bitching" (as Veritomancer so aptly put it). The idea of bull rushing someone into a different zone, especially if that zone is a cliff, seems pretty awesome. Thanks in advance to all the commenters in the tactical movement thread--I hadn't really conceived of zones before your introduction and most of your recommendations got incorporated into this initial look at zonal combat.

I'll try and answer any questions in the comments below.


  1. I couldn't find a copy of Dresden Files RPG online to check out so I'm not sure how they do their zones. Could someone familiar with it let me know what tips and tricks they use for zones? It would even be great if there was an online source that my google-fu just didn't pick up.

  2. Before I start, you were worried in the other thread about people not being familiar with zones. I'd say don't worry about that. There was a time when they weren't familiar with the grid and 5ft steps either.
    I think they will quickly adapt if it is a rule that 1) works well, 2) fits well with how they imagine the action in their head, and 3) doesn't take away important tactical options.

    I'm going to call you out on number 2. :-)

    Your idea of "any zone to any zone" works because a round doesn't have to be a set length, so granularity of zones and size of entire arena doesn't matter. But what if you have a really long, windy cave area with rough terrain and dozens of zones of consistent size?
    Character A decides to run the length of it, grab Situational Magic Item X that he left on his saddlebag, and run back. Character B decides to shift into an occupied zone and flank someone.
    Two movement actions for each, right? Two rounds long enough to run the entire cave complex, and all the other guy has time to do is run up next to someone close enough to throw a dagger at?
    My gaming group would call BS on that. :-)
    This is going to come up on every large map where the GM has made a bunch of small zones rather than one big one.

    To keep the conversation constructive; what made you decide to use anywhere-to-anywhere movement and abandon fixed-length rounds in the first place? Maybe we can suggest alternatives that are a little easier on the suspension of disbelief.

    Also, I contend that the medium and long ranges seem to be effectively the same thing. How about "short, medium, long" instead of "near, short, medium aka long"?

    I had an objection to inventing stuntways rather than just causeways with and without checks, but it grew on me quickly. Requiring a check seems like a punishment for a causeway, but more like the admission fee for funland if it is a stuntway.
    The moment I saw your diagram of a complex battlefield I wanted to rappel from the window of an upstairs room and swing in through the downstairs window with a crash, or jump off the balcony (maybe swinging from a chandelier). :-)
    Have you considered giving a small benefit to those who sucessfully go across a stuntway instead of choosing the boring causeway? It would make it more of a meaningful choice, rather than a means of transport with a chance of failure.


  3. I didn't mention my favourite part, the zone traits. For example, from your complex battlefield example, everyone is going to be trying to move the fight to a zone that suits them:
    - the outnumbered fighter is going to want to run into the tables zone, just to multiply the chances for his opponents to trip and fall trying to maneuver into flanking position; but can he risk falling over himself on the way in?
    - the dagger stabbing rogue takes one look at the angry bandit with a halberd and goes straight for the kitchen; but good luck finding a flanker when the fighter is off wading through toppled chairs and prone attackers
    - the ranged character is going to want to be behind the bar, sniping; but drat, everyone else has run off to different rooms!

  4. John,

    Thanks for the quick commentary--I'll try and hit all your points (in, it turns out, two posts because this is long and rambly)…

    The movement is the touchy part for me too (hence the sidebar explicitly addressing the fact that it seems odd that characters can move to any zone). I went with the "move to any zone" model because I saw two main alternatives. You could have a movement (i.e. elves move 6 zones, dwarves move 5) or have a move action get you one zone over. A move speed has the same problem if the zones are long as my "move anywhere" and moving a single zone stretches credulity the other way (i.e. people would call BS that walking from a bar to a table is a move).

    Just letting people move anywhere and setting the round at an ambiguous length seemed a decent compromise--it kept the action fast paced and hand waived a bunch of stuff. There is tons in RPGs to call BS on, so you might as well have people calling BS on the fact that they can do awesome stuff.

    A second reason to abandon the fixed round length is that it actually doesn't do much good. Having a spell last 10 rounds (one minute) doesn't do the story any more good than having a spell last 10 rounds (thirteen and a half minutes). More often, people are incredulous of the fact that epic battles against a dragon are resolved in 30 seconds than upset that rounds aren't a set length.

    I tried to limit movement, though, by introducing the "large" descriptor. Effectively you can shut down long movements just by having one or more large zones. It isn't perfect, but it stops absurdities.

    Another method to limit movement is by zone traits. If you move, you have to satisfy the requirements of all zones you move through. Because they aggregate, it becomes harder and harder to pass the check (I'm not 100% settled on how I want to handle this just yet, but it'll follow that motif). That means the crazy guy who sprints across 8 zones is basically in for one hell of a check. To simulate different movement rates, I figured I'd give different races bonuses or penalties on these checks. So dwarves might be -2 and elves +2.

    Finally, I imagine a lot of powers/creatures/traits will just flat out block routes and not let you move past. So the single staircase leading up the dais to the king will be blocked by his man-at-arms who halts movement through that causeway.

    All in all, I think there will be a lot of different mechanisms in play to keep things sane. If none of those things are in play, then I guess I really don't have an issue with someone moving 100' and then running back in a turn. Going 100' in six-second is about 25 mph which won't let you place in the Olympics.

  5. Part two of rambly comment:

    On ranges:
    The different between medium and long really only shows up with a large zone. I sort of imagine most battles with have a large central zone, but it certainly isn't required. I think I'd prefer to keep all four ranges and then just more consistently figure a way to have zones be more than one move away. In other words, better reconcile your concerns about (2) with my efforts to satisfy (2).

    On stuntways:
    I like the distinction between stuntways and causeways for two reasons. One, it treats them independently, like stunts, instead of blending them into the overall movement. The penalty for failing stuntways will (hypothetically, since I just created this today) probably stop movement. Trying to climb up to a balcony and failing will have a harsher penalty than those that accompany causeways.

    I'm also a fan of clear vocabulary because words are the real currency of RPGs. Stuntways are neat enough that they deserve their own word so that people can discuss them cleanly and with less ambiguity.

    I actually think stuntways provide a decent benefit in having the entry to the zone not provoke. I think this is particularly good because agile characters (like rangers and rogues) are less likely to use shields and less likely to want to sacrifice minor actions to benefit from cover. So your rangers and rogues pop into a zone via a stuntway while the sword-and-board fighter walks up.

    Beyond that, they also provide shortcuts to zones or access to zones that are hard to get to. I envision things like precariously placed boulders accessible only through a stuntway that can then be pushed onto zones below.

    Finally--I'm stoked that the complex diagram motivated you that way. This morning I sketched out a bar on paper and started trying to develop notation that would help explain what things are. Within a few seconds, I realized I had made a pretty awesome battlefield. Zones, it turns out, are a really quick and powerful way to communicate complex and exciting battle maps.

    They basically take the abstraction of combat from the square to the "space." As a result, things quickly feel more epic because you easily can get up onto a balcony and fire down on foes or leap over a bar. The more time I spend with zones, the more fun they seem to be.

    My main concern is still that they'll *feel* so different that folks are scared off. Hopefully you're right, because I think they have a ton of potential. This might not be their best form, but it is a workable start that makes me fairly confident something pretty amazing could evolve out of it.

  6. On squabbing for zones:

    I agree--that should be awesome. My favorite realization was that if the fighter has powers to make it hard for people to leave a zone, there might actually be benefit to bull rushing someone into an undesirable zone and then pinning them in it.

  7. I am a little worried about melee types locking down ranged types by entering their zone and having them provoke on all attacks. They could move from the zone, but any adjacent zones may also contain opponents.

    I understand that provoking only gives a bonus to the next attack against the provoking character. When moving through several zones, the zones you left would have opponents wit a bonus, but no target. They would then have to chase the provoker down in order to spend their bonus before it expires?

  8. A definite risk. Here is how I see it playing out.

    Combat starts and ranged guy can fire into other zones with impunity. Someone moves into ranged guy's zone and he has several options: move (recall that exiting a zone doesn't provoke), use active cover (a move action; zone must provide cover), have some class power that makes him not provoke, or provoke.

    If he provokes, it provides a benefit to all targets he provokes against that expires at the end of their next turn and can only be used against him. The idea here is that all events are resolved "simultaneously" but we just order them for ease of play, so it is really them immediately lashing out.

    If he flees and leaves a trail of provoked folk behind him, they would indeed have to move after him to use the benefit. I'm not thrilled with that but I don't want to make OA the standard because they take up time and make people want to change their mind after they realize they'll get attacked a bunch. This aspect probably needs some refining and input is appreciated.

    To a large extent this presents the tactical aspect of zonal combat. Instead of trying to figure out which square isn't threatened or which foe is the best to take the OA from, you try and figure out which zone isn't threatened or which foes you can provoke because they are the least likely to come after you. Moreover, I imagine ranged characters will be more agile, which means they are more likely to take a stuntway which the big brute won't/can't follow. I also foresee most battlefields having a "cover" zone (edge of a forest, flipped tables, fallen ruins, etc) so there will probably be a safe spot for ranged folk if they just want to hunker down and not be bothered.

  9. I agree that the ranged character has several options available and it is hard to tell if this is an issue until the system is playtested. I could see a situation where the ranged character wants to move to another zone, but in order not to provoke from this, he is only able to move to an adjacent zone, which could also contain an opponent (especially in some encounters where there are only a few zones or a zone only connects to one other zone).
    I guess my thoughts are on balance. In my mind (and yours too I'm sure), the zone combat would be balanced no matter if you are a ranged or melee character, without having to resort to fixing that balance in another part of the system (siloing, as you've mentioned).

    If I recall correctly, the rules specified that all characters in a zone gain a bonus from a provoke, yes? So two ranged characters battling in the same zone will keep provoking each other?

  10. I posted before I read the last section of your comment.

    "Moreover, I imagine ranged characters will be more agile". This may be true, but I'd also like to warn that this can be a dangerous assumption. I can think of several situations where this may not be the case. A new class or simply someones Fighter losing their melee weapon and having to use a bow. Perhaps the Fighter should be at a disadvantage, but as long as you have considered it, I am happy. :)

    Also, the zones is very much based on the will of the DM. So even if you see most combats having cover, perhaps a DM that wants loose and simple battlefields (or simply improvises the battle maps as they are needed) does not think to include them? This may just be a matter of giving out some guidelines however.

    One option would be to make a option for melee characters to provide cover to ranged characters? This would also reinforce the "Defender" role.

  11. I think you are correct that developing zones will need guidelines. They become an important part of encounter design, just like picking the actual monsters.

    Defenders providing cover is an awesome idea and I feel like sort of a jackass I didn't think of it earlier. It would be a great maneuver (spend a move, give an ally in the zone cover) that forces the fighter to tradeoff in terms of tactical positioning to either gain flank or protect an ally. Excellent recommendation.

    I'm working on provoking in general as I'm not sure happy with it just yet but like the general direction (that direction being that it should use less game time and be a smaller criterion in decision making than in 3e/4e). Right now, ranged characters wouldn't threaten so they wouldn't benefit from provoking actions. As a result, two ranged characters in the same square would *not* provoke each other.