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.

15 comments:

  1. I usually tell players: you are at 30 seconds or 3 rounds from the isle/place you are going. Meassuring distance directly in time can be handly. Yep, it is nos so much a simulation, but why not? Were they in that situation they would have no idea of metters.

    I am not saying there is no reason to be realistic, but i do preffer to model after the feeling rather the simulation. When both can be achieved the better.

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    1. This is indeed one of those time you have to ask what you model.

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  2. in 4e (and probably would work in 3e) I would make it more like a trap encounter. the encounter is not a bunch of individual monsters but more like a skill challenge/trap

    If a player attacks and succeeds they reduce the number of attacks that can occur that round (they killed a baby dragon or caused a dragon to veer away because of the damage) they can use skills to help "move them closer to safety" etc.

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  3. I think Savage Worlds would have still handled it a bit better simply because of the ability to keep track of damage via up, down, or off the table rather than HP..

    We actually really like the efficiency of the Chase mechanics. The PCs would make a single Boating roll and get as many cards as success and raises and the Red Dragon babies would get as many cards as success and raises on their Flying skill. And any turn in which the PCs have a higher card, the red dragon babies can't attack them. After 5-10 rounds of chasing the PCs get away, making it to the island. The PCs might not have Boating for a D4-2 but the Red Dragon babies might have a D4-2 or D4 Flying skill, so not too much better, and at least the PCs would have a wild die on their Boating roll.

    The GM could have also added in Vigor/Con rolls for the participants. A failed Vigor/Con roll means the character would need to rest from rowing or needs to run away and land to rest in the case of the red dragons, causing some to veer off every turn from fatigue.

    4e could have also worked better. Each red dragon baby could have been a minion with 1 HP, a single hit takes them out. A rule that could easily have been swiped for a 3e game. So any successful hit takes one of the dragon down without any need for bookkeeping.

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    1. Yeah, you find allies in unlikely places. The suggestion above about 4e was unexpected and cool!

      Maybe you have to use the SW chase rules a few times to get used to them. They didn't feel that smooth to me.

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  4. I have handled boat chases like this by using a cut-out for the boat and giving the boat a discrete turn in the initiative were it and everyone on get moved. Have to be careful to not know over minis but it works.

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  5. I'd have probably had the dragons as a swarm to avoid the need to track individual dragons. That has some pros and cons fiction wise, but is probably the easiest on the DM.

    Per d20SRD.com, a rowboat moves 15 miles a day which puts it at about 20' per round. There's no hard data on tiny red dragons (red dragon wyrmlings are medium-sized), but I'd probably eye-ball it at 60' per round. I'd pick their flying maneuverabiilty based on how you want the swarm to behave. If you want it to stick with the boat, go with good or perfect. If you want the swarm to attack in a series of passes, make the maneuverability average or worse.

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    1. So there was some data after all.
      I think just making something up at once would have worked as well, though...

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  6. Sorry, I missed most of that. I read "a hundred or so tiny red dragons...they started to swoop...Picture this in your mind," and then I just sat there picturing it, with a big goofy grin on my face. Squee! :)

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    1. Seriously though, do a 4e-style skill challenge. Those'll work just fine in 3rd ed. And/or make the red dragons a swarm. An adorable, bitey, flamey swarm.

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    2. ...oh, and yes now when it has been mentioned more than once I'm really liking that take on it. 4e is not my friend, but 4e had solutions for this situation, apparently!

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  7. 100 figures is just too much for most RPG combat systems to handle well - especially relatively heavy systems like later-day D&Ds. A figure scale other than 1:1, or at least an abstracting kludge like swarms makes this much more manageable.

    This would actually be pretty easy to run with Chainmail + 0e, which has explicit and fairly clear rules for 10:1 figure scale, naval combat, and aerial combat, especially as far as the maneuvering goes. Something like Delta's Book of War would work very well.

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  8. Counters can be numbered, so can the bases of miniatures. A numbered list with numbered tokens/miniatures/counters solves that minor portion of the situation.

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