Monday, July 4, 2011

Zones, a reintroduction

Following on the great comments in the last post, I sought to reintroduce zones and answer some general questions. Tomorrow I'll post a more specific discussion that delves a bit deeper into the various parts of zone combat. The goal is to get a basic understanding of zones and hopefully have ya'll catch/critique any issues before I keep building. Hence, as always, feedback is appreciated and please fire away.

Why use zones?
Zones change the level of abstraction of combat from a micro- to a more macro-level. Instead of occupying a 5’x5’ piece of dirt, characters occupy cinematic zones like the ruined tower. That change in focus is naturally more cinematic and exciting. More importantly, zones provide a different mechanism to understand the relationships between creatures in combat such that knowing the precise placement of any one creature is not important. This allows a combat to be played abstractly (without a battle map or miniatures) while still presenting interesting and diverse tactical challenges.

The overall complexity of combat can be increased, though, by adding more zones or zones with greater complexity. This increase in complexity uses the same rules as simpler versions and the change is driven purely by changing the specific zones. In this way, a single session can contain quick, simple battlefields and more elaborate battlefields all while using the same rules and powers.

As the tactical complexity increases, the reintroduction of a battle map and miniatures will likely facilitate understanding. Even with such accessories, combat should still be quicker because the greater level of abstraction allows miniatures to simply be moved instead of counting squares, ranges, and area of effects.

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 to a forest without any hard lines and each is a separate zone.

The unifying trait of a zone is reported as a concise description such as a kitchen being “cramped, messy, and full of sharp objects.” Characters can then build upon those descriptions to try and interact with the zone. For instance, a character in a tavern zone described as “cluttered with tables and benches” could spend a minor action to flip a table and take active cover behind it.

Sometimes the zone will have additional rules and the description is a clue to what those rules might be. For instance, a zone between two platforms in the treetops might be described as a “rickety rope bridge” and require a Dexterity check any turn that you begin in the zone or fall. Players should have a good indication of what they’re in for, but not necessarily know DCs or the specific consequences. In essence, a player has a good idea what their character is in for if they run up and attack the ogre, but they don’t specifically know his defense or what he can do when he attacks back. The same relationship is true for zones.

Are players aware of zones?
Yes. Ideally the battlefield would present a dynamic environment that characters move through completing heroic actions, but this places unfair expectations on players. In the struggle between trying to satisfy characters and players, players have to win. The reason is that if zones are not explicitly delineated, players cannot be sure if a target is in range, if they are likely to be able to move that far, and so on.

Their characters, though, would have that information. The only reason the player doesn’t have that information is that they are forced to view the world through the lens of the GM’s words. By making zones explicit, players have a better understanding of the world their character inhabits and can better play that character. Bringing zones “behind the screen” also forces the “Mother-may-I?” mentality of older editions that many players (rightfully, in my opinion) are no longer willing to accept. The player declares, the GM adjudicates, the dice resolve. Making zones explicit is the most efficient way to maintain that trinity of relationships.

Do zones differ when you break out the battle map?
No. The rules don’t change and you can run combat identically. Once the battle map is out, though, it is easier to communicate greater complexity because of the additional medium. In that sense, play may become more tactical, but only because you are choosing to twist the dial up to 11. To reiterate—no rules change but how many rules you choose to use may increase. (In one of my previous posts I mentioned that I was happy the rules would be easy to house rule to further hone in on tactical complexity. I did not mean to imply that the rules would *have* to change to effectuate this change. Tactical complexity is really, really easy to dial up or down using the same rules. Despite that, I am still happy that this looks like it’d be much easier to house rule than D&D).

Do powers differ when you break out the battle map?
No. Powers operate identically whether or not a battle map is used. A basic attack allows you to target any creature in your zone whether that zone is in your imagination or on the table. The tactical options are identical at any level of complexity. The only change is that at a higher level of complexity, you may have more tactical options merely because there are more zones, causeways, stuntways or other mechanics added in. The rules remain identical.

How do you create battlefields?
Zones are an important part of encounter design and, just like picking the right mix of monsters, the mix of zones can make or break a combat. Fortunately, it seems unlikely that a bad mix of zones will “break” a combat so long as a few simple criteria are met. As zones see more play testing (i.e. any play testing), these criteria can be refined and explored to fully unlock the strengths of zones.

Ultimately, the combat should justify the battlefield. A quick random encounter with a pack of wolves might need only two or three zones linked by causeways with a smattering of other elements. A crucial fight through the castle and its many secret passages might warrant dozens of zones laid out with special rules on how each secret passage is accessed and opened.

When in doubt, defer to simple and build on player suggestions during play. Any room with a window technically has a stuntway even if it wasn’t stated out. Any tree can be climbed even if that zone didn’t include a note that the trees can be climbed. One of the strengths of zones is that the higher level of abstraction allows the GM and players to ignore the little things while preserving tactical options. Imagination should always be a tactic.  


  1. Hello Again,

    I think you raise some good questions here.

    - Zones: Levels of Explicitness
    I agree that the "Mother-May-I" mentality is not preferable with everything having to pass through a dozen obscure DM/GM filters. However, at the other end of the spectrum is the collective player group mentality of explicitly structuring their tactics to optimize their powers and actions such that they are using mechanical terminology (zones, targets, etc.) as if it were a boardgame instead of the descriptions given (underground cavern, cluttered bookcases, etc.).

    I think the trick is finding a good middle-ground so that players are empowered to know that what they are trying to do will be "legal", clear to all at the table and will be granted a particular advantage if necessary (such as turning over a bench for cover and being granted a known bonus) without needing to be parsed by the DM/GM. However, the aim is for the players to also be empowered to stay in character during this process rather than needing to resort to mechanical language to explain what their character is doing. ["I run up the stairs and guard the closed balcony door" rather than "I move into that zone and ready to attack if anyone closes with my guy"]

    For this to happen, I think a battlefield (a group of zones) needs to be kept tight with a minimum of zones and clutter. There needs to be enough "hooks" so that the players have direction as to how best to achieve their goal(s) but not so much incidental stuff that the clarity becomes muddied and the differentiation between one option and another is lost.

    - Mini-less versus Battlemap Play
    I think my thinking here was out of kilter with yours. I was under the idea that there would be a duality to the system. A simple mode where minis were not required (and even not preferable) and zones used and a complex mode where minis and a battlemap were preferred and would play similarly to 3e/4e mini-centric D&D. A character "power" would have that same duality self-contained; the simple power presented and applicable to all forms and a complex extra that was only applicable to grid-play and allowed the tactical nuance of 4e but all within the single power. This is how I envisioned dialing it up and down using zones for what they are most suited to and using the battlemap for what it is most suited to; rather than having a zone mechanic used for all and where "dialing it up" potentially meant overburdening the system. I think I'd have to dig into the details a little bit further; but I think taking away what 3e/4e players have come to expect and replacing it (albeit with a seemingly strong and robust zone mechanic) might not be ideal. I'll keep an open mind either way though.

    [An interesting side effect of this aside from allowing a group to trend towards their preferred playstyle, would be that in designing a zoned "battlefield encounter"; they are making a better more directed battlemap encounter. I think designing a good zoned encounter really requires some good design chops - something I'll try and get into the nitty gritty of in a further post.]

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  2. Herremann-

    With regards to your discussion in Zones: Levels of Explicitness, what is there in the zone proposal so far that you feel goes against what you wrote? I agree with everything you said except I think zones do that so far. Maybe that means we are pretty close in opinion and just leaning in different directions, but maybe it means we misunderstand each other.

    I absolutely can see where you'd be nervous about the complexity becoming over burdensome if someone dialed it up to 11, but it seems like a GM that tended towards the simpler battlefields would absolutely meet your expectations (at least under my reading). I think a useful analogy can be drawn to designing combats with monsters. A GM could potentially use only minions and throw dozens of monsters at his party which would be tactical chaos or a GM could focus on solos which would make positioning less important. It seems you tend towards preferring the equivalent of solo-combats but I can absolutely imagine a group that would relish the minion mobs.

    On your second point, how did you envision the duality existing in a single power? Can you toss out an example? How would you balance the twin uses to ensure that a power wouldn't be (being hyperbolic here) useless in gridless combat but very potent once the battle mat came out?

  3. - Explicitness
    In terms levels of explicitness, not much different I think - I just wanted to clarify a few details and where on the spectrum of explicitness I think zones would want to aim at. So yeah, I think we are on the same page there.

    - Complexity
    In terms of minions... I hate them :D

    But I don't mind the idea of mobs in a zone context. In fact the idea of mobs that accomplish some darn interesting things until they are "dispersed" might be a fun thing to play with. Playing the 1hp minion game though so that characters can feel useful is just not my cup of tea. It is false, lacking in achievement and yeah... just not my cup of tea.

    [As an aside: I have separated hit points from physical damage where most creatures have some measure of hit points as well as damage limit before they are incapacitated or deceased. A minion for me is a creature that does not have hit points but that can take only so much damage before they are dead. A commander of those minions would have the same damage limit but have a buffer of hit points. And so it is not the concept of the minion I hate; it is just the 1hp application of it that drives me batty.]

    In terms of an enemy battlefield preference; I like a group of combatants that stick to their roles and act how I believe they would act. I like to roleplay the enemies not only through their communication with the PCs but specifically through their actions. In particular, I do not have enemy combatants optimize their actions except for the most cunning of combatants. It then becomes a game for the PCs to work out who the combatant is that's holding the enemies together and who the weak links are. I generally don't play combatants bravely unless they are mindless or just plain dumb. Solo combatants to me are far more difficult to convey a story with.

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  4. - Duality
    This is a little hard to do until certain things have been nailed down. Until the breadth of zones has been worked out and what is or is not effective, it is hard to directly translate a traditional 4e power to being a "zone" power and in fact I think that is the wrong way how to go about it.

    I think the best way to do it is to focus on the concept and the narrative. What is the combatant trying to achieve? From there, you try to mechanically mesh an effect using zone mechanics that approximates this and likewise a battlemap mechanic approximating the effect. With experience of the zone mechanics, you can work out whether the power sits nicely within the two possible battlefield theatres, or whether there is too much dissonance between the two.

    I think this highlights an important thing though. Designing the system and rules is one thing. Fleshing it out with specifics is entirely another and like a spiral, one process will inform the other back and forth several times until the two meet somewhere in the middle.

    At this point, I think some zone specifics need to be nutted out. In this respect I think you need to start with a very simple model - a single zone. What variety of features can that zone have? I don't mean things like "clutterings of corpses" or "busted stairs" as all of these borrow the fate system's "aspect" mechanic. I mean what other things can vary in a zone such as size. For example I think it best to assume that zones are of a standard size (such that a move action will let you move from one zone to an adjacent zone). But then you might have a zone that is oversized or small compared to that standard and this might be something that different zone powers can respond to - a defender can literally rule a small zone while their defender powers in an oversized zone are not as effective.

    So what properties can a zone have?

    [Once that is nailed down the next thing to do is to connect two zones together and look at all the different ways the zones can be connected and how different zone properties may effect that connection.]

    Anyway thanks for all the wonderful ideas, you've really got me thinking.

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  5. Hey there,

    I love your blog! Very interested to see more of your game and your design ideas.

    Do you know this game ?
    It uses zones (called arenas) with simple descriptors that modify attacks with different weapons. The combat rules may give you some more ideas for actions/powers in your system.

    Thank you for sharing your ideas

  6. I hate Old School Hack and by 'hate' I mean I hate that I didn't come up with it first. It has a clear vision and is probably the most elegant design to fulfill that vision possible. I think most gamers like a bit more complexity and a bit more customizability than OSH offers, but then that wasn't OSH's intent.

    In re-checking it out (it had been a while) I was surprised at how similar zones and arenas are. I take it as a good sign. I also recalled that I like two more things about it that I'm trying to emulate as well--
    (1) OSH categorizes things into a few well thought out categories and then uses a few well designed symbols to clearly communicate how things operate. It is simple, evocative, and actually pretty powerful.

    An example of my efforts at this is in provoking. In D&D, they just identified the actions they wanted to provoke and made a list. You then memorize the list or reference it during play. Something as simple as adding a Provoke descriptor makes it so that when the action is referenced on the character sheet, you are immediately reminded and no list is needed. It is little and easy, but it completely changes the nature of the player's relationship to the rules.

    (2) OSH transfers a lot of the game to accessories like action cards that also have the minutiae of rules printed on them. The result is that you don't have to memorize rules because, when you need them, they are in front of you without having to crack a book. The cards also help with promoting the style of the game (Think about the Move action card that ends with "No adjacent arena? Try suggesting one!" it acknowledges a weakness of the arena system and turns it into a strength of RP).

    The efficient parceling of rules like this also dramatically lowers the barrier to entry for new players because they don't have to digest an entire book, but just rules as they arise with a mechanism to ensure they arise in the proper order. It is pretty great design and I think it will speed up combat a lot.