Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How to have a moving combat

A while ago we had a game session in our irregular D&D game, and it made me realize that as mechanics went, it was a very clunky game session. I wondered at the time if there was a better way to model what was happening in the fiction, and how the rules might steer you away from something that makes sense in the fiction, but would not be fun or work well in the game mechanics you're using.

We were travelling in a boat, with one PC rowing like crazy since his STR is way better than the rest of the characters. The rest were tasked with protecting a NPC also in the boat, and we were all trying to reach the middle of this lake as fast as possible. That was the easy part. Don't let that fool you, it became a stumbling block for game mechanics as well. More on that later. Now for the dramatic part.

As we sat in that boat, a hundred or so of tiny red dragons circled ahead, and they started to swoop down and attack us. Picture this in your mind.

Picture now in your mind a battle mat, minis on the table for the characters. Now you have to place, and move, all those critters attacking us. Yes. Picture that.

So how on earth do you handle the fact that the boat and its passengers are moving constantly and thus leave the flying creatures behind and new ones come swooping in and you have to keep track of which one is which, and who has gotten 4 hits, 2 hits or maybe is under the influence of a Slow spell? Our DM was kind enough to limit our attackers to just 20, but it was still quite a circus. Also, it was slow moving and it felt quite clunky.

Of course, you could decide that the error here was to bring out the minis and the battle mat in the first place. But, would you do better by trying to just describe all that in vague terms? It would probably be even harder to remember which dragon was hit, and for how much. Maybe the relative movement could have been easier that way, but I'm not sure.

I guess you can tell that 3rd ed D&D was not a great match for this. If I had been the DM, I probably would have tried to figure out a way to change the narrative instead of the rules. But, the setting were set up and I liked the fact that the cool part of what was happening in the setting did happen, regardless of the rules. Thinking about it, I wondered what kind of rules set would handle this.

I pondered some rules I know, and some which people usually grasp for to model wild and woolly action scenes with. Doing a chase in Savage Worlds sounds like it could work quite nice, especially with the new chase rules in SW Deluxe. But, having used those rules I feel they are only slightly less painful than the alternative, not pleasant. Picking another favourite in the gaming scene online, Fate, don't solve it either. You could use Zones and maybe abstractly make the movement easier to handle that way, but the damage tracking would still be there. Frankly I'm not sure the chase would not have been a bit bland in Fate, really. I have not checked the Toolkit book for any rules about chases, though. BRP would probably be just as cumbersome as D&D.

So no great and simple solution readily available, eh?

What was it I wrote about the rowing? Yeah, you know what? There are no numbers in the book about how fast you move in a boat. Seriously? No data? Sailing? Rowing? Nothing. You have to make it up, and guess if that turned into a show stopper as well... While I felt the DM handled the scene as well as could be expected when the action finally started, I really wanted to scream when people slowly and politely discussed how fast beasts and boat should be able to move.

The session left me with the question of how to better model this, and I've still to find the answer.
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