Saturday, December 8, 2012

Unification of Fiction and Mechanics in Combat

A couple weeks back I picked up the PDF for Dungeon World.  There's been quite a lot of buzz about this game ever since the Kickstarter, and now I know why.  This is not a review article, however (perhaps I'll write one later, but this is one game I'd like to actually play first).  The game's most salient feature is that it not only emphasizes the fiction of the game world over mechanics, but defines the mechanics through the game's fiction.  There is a very simplified list of "moves," and these can only be triggered by events described by the player (namely what a character does, and often the intent of that action as well).  My curiosity is certainly piqued; it seems like play boils down to a conversation between GM and Players, with the rules helping to move that conversation along (giving the GM plenty of tools to do the same).  It really got me thinking.

Well, actually Dungeon World caused thoughts that I was already having to snowball, thoughts inspired by the 4E D&D supplement Combat In Motion (reviewed by me here).  Combat In Motion seeks to solve certain issues in 4E combat where the mechanics don't accurately represent the fiction, or needlessly break up the narrative.  I'll simply quote the book's author here regarding 2 of the new off-turn actions (he was kind enough to provide a lengthy email commentary after reading my review):


This rule was initially developed to address what I call the "Sir Lancelot" problem. 

If you have never seen the comedy film, "Monty Python's Holy Grail" -- see it! There's a strange sequence in the movie where Sir Lancelot can be seen running toward the camera from a great distance. Two sentries at a castle gate watch his approach. He is miles away yet the sentries do nothing. Lancelot keeps running yet never seems to get closer. Still the sentries are unmoved. Suddenly Lancelot is there and decapitates them both. 

How did he do it? 

Lancelot must have been a player of 4E!

As you note, in D&D 4E, a creature can cross a vast distance and the targets of its charge can do absolutely nothing about it. In Enhanced 4E, it's different; a humanoid creature of speed 6 can sprint a maximum of 17 paces before his enemies may flee or move to engage him.

Of course, Outpace can also be used by a group of allies to advance together: An option that is now especially valuable when advancing against an enemy force with ranged weapons. 


This action too was an outgrowth of the Sir Lancelot problem. Now when Lancelot charges the castle, the defenders can riddle him with ranged shots while he remains on open ground. 

In standard 4E, defenders could do this only if they were prescient enough to "ready" a ranged shot---and once they took this shot it was gone. So to hold off a would-be charge, the ranged defenders would have to keep their standard action readied and never actually use it. Moreover, because of the hit point system, the one shot they did get wasn't terribly dangerous to most player characters---so it failed to discourage crazy charges. By making a hit from an interdict slow the progress of a moving creature, it gives ranged defenders the potential to hit multiple times a creature that foolishly allows itself to get caught in open ground."

While I'd already supported the introduction of these 2 actions after reading the book, the author's rationale really made them "click."  These weren't simply rules that were "kinda neat" from the perspective of tactical play.  These were rules that support the fiction of the game!  Ultimately, the draw of a Tabletop RPG is that your character can attempt anything, as opposed to a video game where characters can't interact with certain objects or can't enter certain areas because the designers never coded those possibilities.  A lot of times RPG rules act more like computer code, restricting player options, unless the GM is skilled enough to put the rules aside in certain cases.  Many times players won't even think about it, though (I know I never thought about how absurd it was that 4E creatures could cover such vast distances without fear of a reaction just because combat is designed to be turn-based).  

Admittedly there's no "one true solution" for making game mechanics that fit as seamlessly as possible into the game's fiction.  Dungeon World takes it to a bit of an extreme, and some players will prefer more structure than that system offers.  For example, there are no combat rounds, you simply continue your conversation, triggering "moves" where applicable, and your fellow players are expected to jump in and react to the unfolding story.  Combat In Motion seeks to patch 4E, eliminating the most egregious offenders in terms of rules that contradict the common sense of the fiction.  

To put forward another example from a game that I've been talking and reading a lot about lately, 13th Age uses a turn-based structure for combat but introduces rules for a lot of free-form elements.  One of my favorite new rules from the Escalation Edition ver. 6 is Situational Weapon Use; basically, if the narrative suggests that a dagger would be more useful than a big greataxe (for example, fighting while grabbed or in a confined space) then the damage dice get reversed (daggers would gain a higher die and bigger weapons would deal d4s).  Many classes also gain free-form resources allowing them to improvise elements of the fiction for mechanical gain.  

Obviously game mechanics are necessary to arbitrate outcomes and to somewhat represent the physics of the game world.  Otherwise it's less a game, and more the players simply making up a story as they go along.  But adhering to the rules even when they don't make sense is undesirable, and some rules can do a better job than others at providing the flexibility needed to work around these conflicts.  

Ultimately, humans have an intuitive sense of how the world works by virtue of the fact that we live in it and interact with it every day.  Rigid, complex simulationist rules might seem like a fair way model the game world, but not all corner cases can be covered.  Sometimes simple mechanics that play off of the fiction and appeal to common sense can be more realistic.  As a player and especially as a GM, it pays to scrutinize rules and ask "why does this rule work the way it does?"  "Is this rule doing what I need it to do?"  "What alternative rules might work better?"  Knowing how to answer these questions will go a long way in deciding what system is "right" for your group.


  1. This is Christopher Ash writing, using the Enhanced4E Google account.

    Thanks for the quotation Brian. And I continue to be heartened by the inspiration you have drawn from my work.

    I am in complete agreement here again with your thoughts concerning commonsense and intuition being the highest rule of tabletop RPGs. Game mechanics exist to create a model of an imagined reality. Where the model breaks, the imagined reality must prevail.

    If I may quote from the introduction to Enhanced 4E: Combat in Motion...

    "The purpose of a rule is to model an imagined reality, granted that the model is never more than generally accurate in most circumstances.

    "Occasionally, the application of a rule can actually grossly distort the imagined reality. In such cases, that rule may be ignored or altered on-the-fly by whoever is tasked with running the game. Of course, if the rule is a good one these circumstances should not arise often. However, that these circumstances can arise at all and that the rules may be bent or ignored on occasion---without being discarded---is a valuable feature of tabletop role-playing."

    I go on to briefly outline the circumstances under-which deviation from a rule may be appropriate. These circumstances require an essential understanding of why the rule exists and what it is meant to achieve (this is why my book spends as much time as it does describing the rules in detail).

    What is almost derisively called "flavor text" in 4E is actually (as I advocate) the truest expression of the action taking place. The flavor text describes the reality. The "rule" is only its model.

    I close with these words...

    "Be careful to bend the rules only rarely and when there is a clear mandate to do so. Otherwise players will lose confidence in the predictability of the world in which the game takes place. Rules exist so everyone at the table can be confident of the outcomes to follow each success or failure."

    Though commonsense is the highest rule in tabletop role-playing, it is a humble sort of commonsense, a form of commonsense that respects the stability of the rule system. Nevertheless, commonsense must prevail when needed.

    4E, as described by its designers, too often discourages imaginative, commonsense intervention by the GM. The mechanics are almost sacrosanct. The GM is expected to adjudicate combat as would a computer program---following instructions. One gets the feeling that the designers considered the "art" of running a role-playing game as something dangerous---something to be eliminated in favor of binary logic.

    How limiting.

    I wrote this section of the introduction specifically as a rebuke of this kind of thinking. It may seem ironic that a book of rules begins with an admonition against their strict adherence, but I strongly believe that modern role-players (who have often only been exposed to these concepts via video-game RPGs) fail to realize that the world in which they play is far larger than any game mechanic can express.

    The rules are not masters to be obeyed. The rules are assistants to the true "Dungeon Master."

  2. Well said. I used to spend a lot of time on the Character Optimization boards of the WotC forums. One thing that really annoyed me (and was a factor for why I very rarely visit those boards anymore) was the pervasive attitude of many of the posters there of strict adherence to RAW. Any time I would suggest "well, many GMs would rule it this way because that's what makes sense" I would basically get shot down completely. "but THAT'S NOT RAW!" "We can't objectively rate things if RAW isn't followed to the letter." Etc.

    Sure, it's helpful to know that everyone shares a common ruleset when you're rating things, but it's not worth it at the expense of imagination. That's the whole point of tabletop RPGs (and their biggest strength).

  3. "Ultimately, humans have an intuitive sense of how the world works by virtue of the fact that we live in it and interact with it every day. "

    If they think that the Sir Lancelot problem is a problem, then their intuition is letting them down badly.

    Police officers are weapons-trained that if they are pointing their gun at a man with a knife within about 22', he may be able to approach and stab them *before they can squeeze the trigger* - the D&D equivalent would be that even a Readied action is ineffective against an enemy within 5 squares range!
    Whereas John Boyd's work on the OODA loop indicated that single soldier Observe-Orient-Decide-Act cycle took 3-5 seconds. So if you're in combat and a man charges you, and it takes less than 3 seconds for him to reach you, then if you don't already have an action readied (ie you are already Observing him and have already Decided what to do about it) then there is no way you are going to shoot him first.
    Sir Lancelot with speed 5 can only cover an absolute max 10 squares or 50' on his turn, if he moves then charges you. Time for a Readied action, but definitely not time to go through OODA. So this is definitely not a real problem in simulation terms. If it offends some people's versimilitude, that just demonstrates that they have neither experienced analagous situations IRL nor read the relevant literature.

    1. Thanks for the examples, it's always helpful to have some real-world numbers when discussing whether the game numbers are realistic or not.

      Regarding your police officer example I think it actually lines up with the new off-turn actions pretty well. If it only takes a single move action to get to the target, then the Interdict action won't be triggered. The "Sir Lancelot Problem" has more to do with move + charge issue, when the melee attacker is 50 feet away (and that's a slow-moving speed 5 combatant) and the defender still doesn't get a chance to get a shot in.

      I may be misinterpreting your argument, but I see a contradiction with the following statements:

      "So if you're in combat and a man charges you, and it takes less than 3 seconds for him to reach you, then if you don't already have an action readied ... then there is no way you are going to shoot him first."

      "Sir Lancelot with speed 5 can only cover an absolute max 10 squares or 50' on his turn, if he moves then charges you. Time for a Readied action, but definitely not time to go through OODA."

      I agree that countering a straight-up charge is in the Readied Action territory, and conveniently a single instance of moving your speed can be approximated at around 3 seconds. A move+charge is your entire turn, which is 6 seconds long in 4E. If OODA takes 3-5 seconds, why shouldn't the defender get a ranged attack in even if he didn't ready an action?

    2. Also, while only tangentially related, I figured I'd make a note of this guy:

      Using traditional archery techniques he can shoot 10 arrows in 4.9 seconds. I'm not sure how fast a 9mm pistol of the type that police officers carry can shoot (I don't have time right now for more than a very quick Google search, which didn't come up with anything right away), and while it's probably faster (until you have to reload) the difference probably isn't as great as most people familiar with only modern archery would think.

      Point being, I don't think substituting fantasy archer for soldier or police officer in your examples would drastically impact the arguments.