Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Combat in The One Ring

There was a thread on the Cubicle 7 forums that highlights the advantages of the abstract, grid-less stance system very well.  This was in response to a post inquiring why Parry rating doesn't increase with experience, and the general consensus is that the game assumes characters will tend toward the Defensive stance more and the Forward stance less, since that base TN of 12 will be easier to hit as your weapon skills increase.  In other words, a starting character will tend to favor Forward stance because that's the only way he can reliably hit things.  Defensive stance for him is almost like going "full defensive," and this character is doing everything in his power to protect himself even if that means giving up hitting.  Meanwhile, as the character gains more experience he doesn't need the reckless Forward stance; he can manage both an effective offense and defense.  Assuming you want consistent offensive output, favoring more defensive stances as you gain weapon skill ranks is effectively like increasing your Parry (but you still have the option of taking a more risky stance to practically eliminate your chances of missing altogether).  Thus, higher level characters become better at combat overall since they can protect themselves without sacrificing much offense.

I'm not sure if this will mean that stances mean less at higher experience levels (in the one session I've run the beginning players were pretty much all over the map in terms of which stance they were in), but even if this is true I'd wager that variety probably increases nevertheless thanks to a tendency to have a greater array of virtues and rewards.  It would also mean that offensive output can be equalized between characters that prioritize weapon skill increases and those that prioritize Wisdom and/or Valour; even characters that don't cheese out their weapon skills can always assume more aggressive stances.  The widest array of options is actually available to such characters, since stances will be more meaningful with their lower weapon ranks and they'll have more virtues/rewards. 

Practical mechanical considerations aside, the combat system also affects how a player conceptualizes the action, as highlighted by Throrsgold in that same thread:

"An example of how I explain it is this, "Stances are NOT locations on the battlefield, , but an ATTITUDE your hero has about fighting ... he's in Open Stance, he's more aggressive ... putting himself out there, so to speak. He's in Defensive Stance, he's being cautious ... watching for safer ways to engage his opponent. You want a combat advantage over that Enemy? Use one of your extra dice the company got with the Battle rolls at the start of the combat, describe to me HOW you're using it, and we'll go from there." My player who still has trouble understanding always wants terrain effects implemented, flanking bonuses, or to employ dirty tricks (yes, he's a D&D/Pathfinder player) ... but won't get off of Hope or use the extra Battle-roll dice to actually implement ANYTHING. IMO, I should not be handing out freebie bonuses, when he already has the tools to make those bonuses happen.

VERY simple and elegant. AND, it has the added benefit of giving the players much more control over events as they are capable of ACTING rather than REACTING during combats than is available with other game systems (D&D, Pathfinder, GURPS, etc.). That is, they tell ME more about the battlefield that I have already described and interact with it. They do NOT see a battle mat/board laid out with a grid, move their miniatures about within the grid, using the terrain that is printed out and acting according to what is there and immutable ... can't quite move far enough to get that flanking bonus? Too bad. IMO, that's REACTING. Instead, they "see" a terrain I have described and interject additional terrain features ... describe maneuvering so that they get an opponent between two allies, providing a needed distraction to take 'em down. All accomplished by utilizing extra dice from Battle rolls and Hope. IMO, that's ACTING. So far, I have seen no need to house-rule a thing.

I'd also like to point out that TN modifiers of -2 or -4 are discussed in the LMG for general circumstances when the attacker or defender is in unfavorable circumstances.  For example, if a hero is fighting an orc that's waist-deep in water, that orc will suffer a +2 modifier to TN when attacking (the hero is harder to hit), whereas the hero will probably get a -2 modifier when he attacks the orc (since the defending orc is hindered).   This is another way in which the flexible (abstract) system can accommodate a wide degree of variation in a very simple way if the players and LM take advantage of it.

I especially like Throrsgold's point about acting vs. reacting, and it's notable that a character's ability to act (i.e. take advantage of terrain effects and the like) will increase with level provided they buy ranks in Battle.  Of course the combination of simple mechanics is ultimately dependent on 1 thing - the imagination of the players.  In a highly tactical game like D&D 4E where everything is laid out very clearly it's easy to adjudicate results, but it's also tougher to go nuts with creative description.  A TOR player can use an extra die from Battle, or a point of Hope, to narrate that he pushes a foe backward to cause it to trip over a tree root and fall to the ground; in 4E D&D such maneuvers are available if you have a push + prone power, but they're also only situationally useful.  In other words, you're pulling these stunts off to gain a tactical advantage, whereas in TOR you're describing events in this way to justify your open-ended numerical bonus.  One system rewards a player for understanding the tactical nuances of the grid, positioning, movement, powers, and synergies between the various elements, while the other facilitates building an exciting combat scene in your mind through flexible mechanics that facilitate artistic license.  4E rewards tactical thinking but removes you from creative, narrative thinking (since your mind is elsewhere and combat is long as it is), and TOR rewards imagination but doesn't offer the tactical options of 4E.  I won't claim one is superior over the other, but I'm making the comparison simply to illustrate the differences.

I guess the catalyst for this whole line of thinking was that during my TOR session, players more often than not declared "I hit him with my sword" (or, in jest at the system for invoking traits "I eagerly/swiftly/etc. hit him with my sword").  Perhaps not surprising due to months of playing D&D, but it doesn't take advantage of the system's strengths.  Of course I was still getting the hang of the system as LM, in addition to teach it to everyone else, so perhaps this will get better as everyone gets more comfortable with it.  At the very least I'm going to make a point of requiring a narrative explanation for using extra Battle dice or spending Hope, and hopefully it'll catch on in general.

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