Thursday, June 5, 2008

Abstract Combat

I've been thinking a little about the combat mechanics of OD&D and AD&D and the way that those rules have developed over the years, particularly in the most recent editions of the game. Two of the pillars on which D&D combat rests are Armor Class and Hit Points. Both of these are abstractions, representing not a single "real world" thing but rather a concatenation of factors that, if separated and tracked separately, would slow combat to a crawl. Consider too that both OD&D and AD&D assume a one-minute combat round (as opposed to the 10-second one first introduced in the Holmes Basic Set and used in Moldvay, Mentzer, and 3e). One minute is a very long time in melee combat. During that timeframe, even the slowest, most encumbered person could likely launch a melee attack more than once. And yet OD&D and AD&D both allow only a single 1D20 attack roll during that time period.

D&D
combat is thus extremely abstract; it's not intended to model individual thrusts and parries. Instead, it's the game mechanical equivalent of panels in a comic book, each attack roll being a distillation of many little offensive and defensive actions that occur over the span of a minute. The problem over the years is that referees and designers alike often forget these facts. Beginning with Supplement I in 1975, there's long been a tendency to want to "zoom in" on certain aspects of the melee round and treat them less abstractly. So you get rules for weapons vs. AC tables, hit location tables, combat maneuvers, feats, etc. -- all well-intentioned attempts to make D&D combat more "realistic," "fun," or "interesting."

Now, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with the desire to get beyond the monotony of roll-to-hit-roll-for-damage combats. But the reality is that, if you're keeping Hit Points, Armor Class, and many other staples of D&D's original abstract combat system, many, if not most, "tactical" additions make no sense whatsoever. At the very least, these additions draw attention to the fundamentally "unrealistic" nature of the system, resulting in something that, in my opinion, is far less coherent. As I said already, this is not a blow-by-blow simulation of medieval melee combat, but most tweaks to the system treat it as if it were.

Given that, it seems to me that there are two possible approaches. The first is simply to embrace the abstraction and enjoy it for what it is. There's room for alterations and augmentations, of course, but they need to operate on the same level of abstraction or else the house of cards comes tumbling down. The second approach would be to revamp the combat system from the ground up, but that requires eliminating Hit Points, AC, and many other elements people associate with D&D combat. I think it could be done; whether result would be something anyone would recognize is another matter.

In short, I'm always amused when people speak of D&D as having a tactical combat system, because it doesn't. As originally conceived, the system was far too abstract for tactics to matter in the way most people use that term. But then I'm increasingly convinced that the strongest "philosophical" connection D&D carried over from its wargame roots was not in the realm of tactics but in strategy. It's this conviction that partly fuels my belief that OD&D was misread by a lot of the non-wargamers who picked up the game later. You can see the results of that misreading in late 2e, if not before, and it's in full flower in 3e (and almost certainly 4e as well).

24 comments:

  1. Totally on target. Sadly most people don´t care shit about strategy.

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  2. Here is some food for thought... in my opinion the one minute combat round has nothing to do with abstracting combat and everything to do with wargaming and what we don't know about ancient/medieval battles.

    The problem is that these are often related to us as having taken hours to fight. Consequently, wargames tended to make turns last minutes, rather thans econds, in an attempt to simulate the time frames described in historical documents.

    Academically, we still don't understand what happened during the time frames described. The most current theories are 'long periods of inactivity, punctuated by swift and deadly moments of actual combat.

    D&D inherited this problem, but actual combat rounds do not play out in the manner described above (nor in fact do the wargames from which it was derived). D&D combat rounds play like Conan, it doesn't take a minute to kill a Goblin in the imagination, so people typically ignore the timeframes involved. In fact, I suspect that even the originators of the game ignored the time frames when imagining or relating combat to the players.

    Just my thoughts.

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  3. In fact, I suspect that even the originators of the game ignored the time frames when imagining or relating combat to the players.

    It's possible, but I'm not sure. OD&D combat doesn't make sense to me if I conceive of it as happening in "real time."

    Fortunately, we can ask them about this. I'm sorely tempted to seek out one of those Q&A threads and see what they have to say on the matter.

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  4. Reading your post, I realized, that when discussing d&d combat, this strategy and tactics difference comes up often, and I don't even know the exect meanings and the diffenences between the terms. So I typed into google "strategy vs tactics". At the first link I found this:

    "Strategy is immutable; it is a Big Picture look at a problem that focuses upon the entire forest and not individual trees. Military concepts such as objective, offensive, simplicity, unity of command, mass, economy of force, maneuver, surprise, and security represent the timeless principles of strategy. Why do you think Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been a best seller for thousands of years and translated into every imaginable language? Because it teaches strategy and the lessons of strategy are timeless. They are bound to our very nature as humans.

    Tactics vary with circumstances and, especially, technology. If I were to teach you how to be a soldier during the American Revolution, you would learn how to form and maneuver in lines, perform the 27 steps in loading and firing a musket, and how to ride and tend to a horse. Naturally, yesterday’s tactics won’t win today’s wars – but yesterday’s strategies still win today’s wars… and will win them tomorrow and into the future."

    Then I finally understood why I always felt, that the original version of d&d combat was right to me. I didn't feel silly while trying to play it. I didn't have to use my nonexistent medieval fighting tactics skills, it was enough to use timeless strategy knowledge.

    Although I liked cyberpunk2020 for a while, it was truly great to roll damage for a few dozen bullets of an assault rifle autofire... :-)

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  5. I'm not up on the latest research, but I suspect that combats lasting for minutes or hours would be very plausible when you're talking about an armored knight. It's important to keep in mind that people wore that stuff because it worked.

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  6. Bard, good point on distinguishing between strategy and tactics. I tend to use the not really right definition that tactics are short term and strategy is long term.

    But it's worth pointing out that anything that has decisions to be made does have tactics. There are tactics for OD&D, tactics for Monopoly, and tactics for D&D 3.x.

    But when I point out that D&D has always had a tactical element, part of what I mean is that use of miniatures and positioning has always been a part of D&D (even if many people have played without such).

    But the point still stands, D&D's hit points and armor class are abstractions. D&D combat is an abstraction. So putting too much detail in will break things from a realism perspective. On the other hand, it's totally possible to have detail that works within the abstract model. D&D 3.x combat does work, and is a fun game. But so is the much less detailed combat of my OD&D/AD&D days.

    Frank

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  7. When I first read the OD&D rules, the combat round duration pleasantly caught me by surprise. In my mind, it explained everything about the D&D combat system (of later editions) that usually confuses new players (that like to ask questions).

    Dexterity becomes less of a factor when waiting for an opportunity (luck of the roll) in a one minute exchange.

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  8. Fortunately, we can ask them about this. I'm sorely tempted to seek out one of those Q&A threads and see what they have to say on the matter.

    Sounds like a good idea. The sort of things I had in mind were the combat examples in the AD&D 1e DMG (p. 71) and the game play example (pp. 97-100), as well as the combat example in the AD&D 1e PHB (p. 105).

    I'm not up on the latest research, but I suspect that combats lasting for minutes or hours would be very plausible when you're talking about an armored knight. It's important to keep in mind that people wore that stuff because it worked.

    Well, presumably they wore it because it worked, but the debate as to how effective armour is versus a given weapon is a subject of great and varied discourse. However, what is rarely in dispute is the effect of wearing heavy armour and engaging in rigorous activity for prolonged periods. Continuous combat could perhaps be sustained for minutes, but not hours. AD&D recognises this in the stipulation that 1 in every 6 turns must be spent in rest.

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  9. I am guilty of this, and unrepentant about it. I do enjoy the combat systems, but I'm a story teller, and I'll always be a story teller. I also like to get players to take off their armor, use different weapons, and encourage combat that is more then the "I hit him with my +2 sword."

    The only thing that I really use the 1 minute round, is because that is what is easy for time-keeping in regards to spells and other time-based events.

    Speed is a big factor in the game, not weapon speed, but how fast and smooth the combat is within the game, but I do like to mix it up with having more to do then just roll the dice and count up your damage.

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  10. I'm really enthusiastic about the abstract combat in older editions of D&D - but I think an abstract combat round that lasts a minute or even just 10 seconds doesn't lend itself well to using miniatures. Unless you have units fighting in formation, skirmishers (which is what most characters in D&D are) will move around a room quite a bit. Watch some footage on YouTube of any sort of medieval battle re-enactments. Keep an eye on how much movement takes place.

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  11. Stuart said:...I think an abstract combat round that lasts a minute or even just 10 seconds doesn't lend itself well to using miniatures.

    Yeah, a long round doesn't mesh well with minis. Some of the (often overlooked or ignored) elements of AD&D combat work well, though. For example, the "Who Attacks Whom" rule (i.e. random melee targets), AD&D's notion of engaged/not-engaged, closing to engage vs. charging, et cetera.

    Even AD&D's diagrams for flanking and rear attacks (which are often mistakenly cited as examples of how AD&D is designed as a tactical minis game), are really more about the total number of foes which could attack a single combatant in an abstract melee, and how many of them would get flanking or rear attack bonuses (see the captions). That's not to say that you can't use those modifiers when precise positions are known for a given attack (on the contrary -- you should), but rather that the system is designed to handle abstract combat with a long round.

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  12. Regardless of how you feel about 4th edition it has embraced the abstract combat of long round with a vengeance. Many of 4th edition "powers" only make sense if you consider the round abstractly.

    As for people understanding of how D&D combat works for any edition. Just read to their reactions to some of what 4th edition does.

    For example Reaping Strike is where a fighter just wades in attacking as fast and furious as he can. If he makes his attack roll he hits for damage and a bonus but if he misses he still does a minimal 3 points of damage.

    A lot of people have issues with this and their arguments nearly boils down to a failed roll is a miss with the weapons. They miss that when you roll you are not rolling for individual swings or thrust but the result of a X seconds of combat.

    I will say that in all my years of playing RPGs very few ever grasped or bought the idea that D&D is abstract. It is by far easier to consider one roll a single swing or thrust with a weapon. It hangs better with the idea of spellcasting and other actions you perform in combat.

    But as 4th edition show the opposite extreme of abstraction also works. So DM so just relax and pick whatever level of abstraction they feel comfortable with.

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  13. I might be something of a heretic on this (or maybe an agnostic would be a better metaphor).

    Both as a player and a GM what I am mostly interested in is a combat system that takes as little time as possible in-real-life to resolve.

    No matter how abstract, realistic, simulationistic or storytelly-ist combat is, it always comes down to rolling the right dice results.

    All the strategy and tactics in the planet won't save you from a streak on natural ones. And while your character might be a veteran warrior of many battles, at 2 AM when your brain is crying for rest you might do a fair share of tactical blunders around the battlemat. The odds of that happening increase exponentially if you are playing a tactical beast like D&D 3.x

    We began using miniatures on my EPT game but because two players have a bucketload (literally) of’em and they help track of who's where in battles involving many people.

    There's no AoP's, Bull Rushes, weapon vs. armour mods, flanking or any of that cluttering stuff on our gaming table. They just hit people that go down and I have fun describing it.

    Why bother complicating things? It all comes down to that dice roll…

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  14. edsan: if a single roll resolved the status of at least a single enemy, I might agree why complicate things, but given the roll-to-hit, roll-to-damage, rinse and repeat until dead nature, I think there needs to be room some some maneuvering. Without maneuvering or other significant choices, the game comes close to resembling those kiddie "race" games (the ones where you roll dice to move your pawn and there are no player choices).

    That being said, I don't think the choices need to amount to the tactical manual that makes up D&D 3.x. But D&D has always had at least a little room. For one thing, there are multiple combatants on each side usually (which allows for some tactics in who fights who). Then spell casters have options, and probably many PCs have at least potions if not other magic items that might or might not be employed. Then add in occasional interesting surroundings that the combatants can take advantage of and it the decisionless nature starts to fall away.

    Frank

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  15. I apologise for the brackets but I don't know how to italicise quotes on this.

    [if a single roll resolved the status of at least a single enemy, I might agree why complicate things]

    Funnily enough that usually the way it goes in my EPT game, given that combat is so deadly and many times you would roll more dice for damage than the foe has Hit Points anyway.

    [but given the roll-to-hit, roll-to-damage, rinse and repeat until dead nature, I think there needs to be room some manoeuvring.]

    Of course, meaning you just act as normal people would in those situations and the GM makes rulings.

    [Without maneuvering or other significant choices, the game comes close to resembling those kiddie "race" games.]

    My players may manoeuvre all they want in the game, but they wont find a huge pre-made list of "Combat Options" or somesuch at their disposal. I give bonuses and penalties at my own discretion and no, they don't necessarily know why, when or what their value is.

    [That being said, I don't think the choices need to amount to the tactical manual that makes up D&D 3.x."]

    Amen.

    [But D&D has always had at least a little room.]

    I'd say previous editions have a whole ballroom full of options and almost limitless opportunities :)

    [For one thing, there are multiple combatants on each side...potions...magic items...interesting surroundings]

    I might have confused what our good colleague JM was attempting to say but I interpreted what he was defending you should not try to fit square pegs in round holes. D&D combat is abstract (hell, *all* combat in RPGs is ultimately abstract, OD&D is just very much so) we all agree. I think JM was making the point that there is a limit to the amount of "realism" (a.k.a. complexity) that you can or should add to it before it becomes something else entirely.

    In my humble opinion, D&D3.x combat with all its dizzyingly array of pre-made, by-the-book combat rules, modifiers and manoeuvres that encourage players and GM alike to construct "tactics" that are little more than a sequence of actions designed to maximise a bonus to a roll; becomes nothing more than a kiddie "race" game. Just an overly complex and unfunny one in this case. Or to be nicer, we might say it is something akin to glorified, multiplayer chess with an element of randomness thrown in.

    Like I said, it all comes down to the dice at the end. I believe the level of added complexity should be tuned more towards "1" than "11", and I believe JM might agree with me.

    In defence of my attitude towards abstract combat and its complication or lack of it, I can only present the exasperation and despair I have seen on D&D3.x player's faces when after gruelling minutes of planning and manoeuvring at the expense of fast combat resolution and immersion, have their meticulous planning dashed by uncaring polyhedrals and the boredom in their eyes when a simple tavern brawl forces them to commit an hour and a half of their lives.

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  16. Personally, I never liked the 1-minute combat round (pro'lly why I'm a fan of RC/BECMI now). But HP and AC never really got in the way of it; I kept that in it's nice comfortable corner of abstractness, but pad in details around it. In fact it's the abstractness that lets me freely move details around, something that I find much more difficult to do in games such as Rolemaster.

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  17. The sort of things I had in mind were the combat examples in the AD&D 1e DMG (p. 71) and the game play example (pp. 97-100), as well as the combat example in the AD&D 1e PHB (p. 105).

    Take a look at my entry here:

    http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2008/05/it-would-be-no-great-task-to-devise.html

    It's another quote from the DMG where Gygax addresses some pertinent points.

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  18. but I think an abstract combat round that lasts a minute or even just 10 seconds doesn't lend itself well to using miniatures.

    That's quite likely. I'm not a big minis fan myself and I think it's been pretty well established that Gary never used miniatures when playing, so this isn't much of an issue for me personally.

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  19. Like I said, it all comes down to the dice at the end. I believe the level of added complexity should be tuned more towards "1" than "11", and I believe JM might agree with me.

    Most definitely.

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  20. Take a look at my entry here:

    http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2008/05/it-would-be-no-great-task-to-devise.html

    It's another quote from the DMG where Gygax addresses some pertinent points.


    Sure, I am very familiar with that passage. I am not disputing the theory or that Gygax often defended it and deployed interesting arguments, but I do dispute that his actual combat examples read like 1 minute combat rounds.

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  21. Personally, I've come to using the term "subtactical" for a system like--for example--GURPS 3/e advanced combat. (I only specify 3/e because it's the edition I'm familiar with.)

    Wizard's "third edition" D&D combat I'd also class--at least partially--as subtactical.

    The oD&D and oAD&D combat systems I would call "tactical". Although, it really is--or at least borders on--skirmish level.

    Yeah, that's right. Go back to your wargames and check out the scale terms used. Even oD&D and oAD&D would count as finer a scale than "tactical". The terminology has been thrown all out of whack. Maybe I should start saying "subskirmish" rather than "subtactical".

    But once we get past the terminology, I fully agree. For me, combat is so much more fun when you think at a higher level rather than getting overly bogged down in the details. Not to mention more accessible to more gamers. When players no longer have to master intricate rules for their characters to be effective in combat, more players at the table get more involved when combat does happen, and everyone has more fun.

    Plus, when you compare oD&D to many other games, it becomes clear that oD&D isn't emphasizing combat, even if it does say "wargame" on the front of the box. Combat is an important element of the game, but it's abstract nature puts it in a different context amongst the other elements of the game--exploration, puzzle solving, role-playing, treasure-hunting, etc.

    But then, the people who ridicule early D&D as "little more than wargame" probably don't understand that even "war" consists lots of elements besides combat. Or the notion of scales (strategic, operation, tactical).

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  22. Didn't the one minute round make a lot less sense when you included missile combat (other than spells)? After all, if the roll to hit with my bow and arrow or my sling is an abstraction of my actions over a whole minute, why am I only down one arrow or one sling bullet on my ammunition?

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  23. Didn't the one minute round make a lot less sense when you included missile combat (other than spells)? After all, if the roll to hit with my bow and arrow or my sling is an abstraction of my actions over a whole minute, why am I only down one arrow or one sling bullet on my ammunition?

    A very good question :) Mind you, I never kept track of arrows or sling bullets, but that was more out of laziness than principle.

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  24. Having played a fair amount of the old Avalon Hill games (Third Reich, Russian Campaign, and Panzer Leader in particular...until I stumbled across D&D on a fateful trip to a comic book store with my cousin in 1977 or so), I have learned that abstraction and scale are intimately related as game design factors. Combat in Panzer Leader was at the company and platoon level with time being accounted for by minutes or hours. This level of abstraction is just one level removed from accounting for individual combatants and vehicles--a very "realistic" and tactical level game. One completed game covered, at most, a few days worth of combat for a handful of villages. The scale was such that the players could use either direct or indirect fire artillery, depending on the weapon type, target and terrain. That’s a high degree of tactical detail!
    Third Reich, on the other hand, was very abstract, with ground units at the army level. Air and sea combat was particularly abstract (it was a very much an exercise in stats). The time frame per turn was a three month season. Each game was fun to play, but very different.
    No one game is going to be all things to all people (one of my issues with 3.X is that it tries to be exactly that). Some players will want to have tactical control over each step, swing, block and punch—something well represented by miniatures and a map grid. Others would rather roll a single die, have all the factors and most of the tactics abstracted. Some people enjoy either one. My single biggest issue with 3.X is the weird mix of very abstract and very concrete. This doesn't mean that it can't be fun to play (and to me that is ultimately the bottom line) because the fun of an RPG is dependent upon a lot of non-system factors (good friends, good beer, cool dice, good friends with good beer, etc). The 3.X is, however, cumbersome, to say the least, and also reflects game design by accretion as opposed to by intention.
    In the end, it really depends on what you want to play. We just started a Castles & Crusades campaign. For our group, the simple retroclone combat system is just right (the simple AD&D system of initiative, attack and damage using the core 3E AC/to hit approach--I think an improvement on the THAC0). Abstraction is inherent in any RPG system (unless you actually have access to roomful of real orcs, full plate armor, magic and gold pieces) and it is mostly a matter of personal preference and a certain measure of consistency in game design. In the end, the game should be playable and fun for the players playing it.
    Digression 1: Keeping track of arrows is right up there with encumbrance, food, water, oil and torches.
    Digression 2: Holy crap! I guess I need my own blog. Sorry for clogging up the comments. It’s a slow day at work.

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