Thoughts of a dead simple designer

One of the problems with modern RPGs is the widespread dependence upon a square or hexagon grid surface upon which to carry out any action. In many cases this reduces it to a tactical boardgame with some talking in between scenes.  The funny thing is that by doing so you slow down the action, create all sorts of frankly daft and complex rules such as D&D 3.5’s “attacks of opportunity”, and also give the players far more information than they should rightly know.

I shall expand on that last point. Imagine you are in a dimly lit cavern deep beneath the earth and you have come across half a dozen goblins. Unless you packed that laser rangefinder attachment for your throwing axe you cannot be sure if they are in effective range or not, but wait, the floor is laid out with five foot square flagstones, how convenient!

I frequently hear the more tactically minded members of adventuring parties discussing complex movement patterns that allow their characters to dance, unharmed, into perfect flanking patterns around their foes. Hardly a desperate fight to the death in the dark eh?

Combat should be desperate, and glorious, and frightening and full of heroic moments of pure adrenaline-fuelled action. Playing 3D chess is not.

In a game like D&D 3.5 it can take hours to complete a large combat scene, even if you do have a good grasp of the rules. I have seen whole evenings go by doing this. I reckon I’d have had more fun wargaming, but hey, this is supposed to be roleplaying right?

So how could we change this? Here are some ideas.

1. Abandon the grid

Simple as that, no longer use a gridded surface of any description.

Ok, I can hear the cogs in your heads cogitating furiously, so what do we use? Rulers, Tape measures, pieces of string?

Well being a radical sort of chap I have two possible solutions:

a. 20mm bases/disks

With this idea get a number of 20mm bases/disks. Each one represents about 5′ of movement. So starting at the edge of their figure’s base get them to layout the route they want to take with the 20mm bases/disks. Each base/disk must touch the edge of the previous one, and once laid down cannot be changed. The last step of their route they use their figure’s base. They cannot go through any gap that is narrower than the base/disk. This brings in a certain amount of distance uncertainty and allows you to use far more interesting terrain.

Missile ranges should only be measured after the figure commits to the shot, then use a ruler, measuring from base edge to base edge. This also ensures that missiles can only travel in straight lines.

b. Good judgement

Most RPG combats take place in a small area. All the combatants are hyped up on aggression, fear and adrenaline. So let players move their figures where they wish on the tabletop within reason. A player tells the DM where she’d like to get to and how, and the DM says if she can do it in one round/action or more. You could, if you wish, rate figures as being slow, normal or quick, and make decisions based on that. For example, Dwarves are slow, Humans are normal and Elves are quick (unless they are wearing heavy armour etc.).

2. No more rounds

The round or turn is definitely a hangover from wargames and boardgames. It has served the RPG community from the beginning, but is it really fit for purpose?

As a system it is both mechanistic and restrictive. It does not allow for a cinematic flow of actions based on a character’s abilities. Although we measure time in set units we do not actually act in those units. Combat should be wild and unpredictable, a continuous series of attacks, movement and other actions.

It is all about flow, people, flow. So how about this…

Rate figures on how quick they are, how fast they can act and react, how tired and injured they are. If you have ever watched a film that showed medieval hand to hand combat as it actually is, then you have seen how a fight starts all hyped up with flashing blades and glorious charges, but soon slows down as the combatants tire. Those lightly armoured quick lads soon find themselves at the mercy of the tougher guys with the greater endurance who just keep on going.

Create a track maybe thirty steps long. This is the action track. Each character and enemy has a counter, and there should be one representing ‘the present moment’.

Depending upon one of their dexterity/agility/quickness style attributes place their counter at the point they can first act and put the present moment counter on the first step of the track. As it advances step by step it will reach counters and those characters and their enemies can then act.

As soon as they have acted place their counter further down the track a distance determined by a recovery-type attribute. That is when they can act again. If they are injured the recovery period increases. If they take a potion of something like Red Bull then the period reduces.

Once they get to the end of the track move their counter back to the beginning, maintaining the same distance. So, if your recovery period is four steps and you were on step twenty-eight of a thirty step track you move your counter to step two. However, as you move to the beginning of the track fatigue begins to kick in and your recovery period increases by one. This happens each time you move your counter to the beginning of the track.

So there you have it a system by which there are no longer any rounds just a continuous flow. This will, of course, have a knock on effect on things like spell durations, however, if you say that a thirty-step track is about twelve or fifteen seconds long, you can soon work out such things.

3. Action & Reaction

In many systems it doesn’t matter what your opponent does you must stand there like a big lemon and wait your turn. In some systems they have created complex systems to allow your character to react to the movement and actions of opponents in carefully defined circumstances. The classic is the D&D 3.5 ‘attack of opportunity’. Mastering this is seen by some as a rite of passage for a new player. I’ve been playing D&D since 1976 and it took me the best part of four years of weekly games to get a handle on it.

So how can we simplify this? We need to devise and adopt a simple set of rules for reactions.

First though we must accept something that is considered heresy in many circles, especially those with vested interests in selling rule books; you cannot possibly write a rule for every possible situation. Indeed, I shall go further. You should not write more rules than it takes a player to memorise in a single session.

So what reactions do we enshrine in the rules? Here are some suggestions:

  1. You can defend yourself against any attack (therefore you get your shield and dexterity etc.), unless the attack is a complete surprise (DM’s decision).
  2. If an enemy wishes to withdraw from combat you get a single strike against them as they do. If more than one withdraws at the same time you still only get a single strike, you are not Zorro (unless you are Zorro).
  3. If an enemy fumbles their attack (using whatever fumble rules you choose to use), you get an immediate counter-attack (single strike again).
  4. If an enemy tries to move through the space defined by your figure’s base. You can either block them (automatic effect) or take a single strike at them. If you miss they get through.

Much more than that is frankly unnecessary.

If you adopt a system like the action track listed above you are not really going to take off your backpack and rummage around for a potion while in base contact with an enemy if this is your only action before he attacks you. Besides a professional adventurer would have their potion vials hanging from their belt or somewhere else they can grab them with their off hand, and if they don’t then that is their problem.

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About Craig

For those who need to know these things: - I'll never see 50 again. - I'm tall enough to see well in crowds and fat enough to leave a wake. - I'm well married to a woman with twice my smarts, three delightful and challenging children (er-hem), and one cat overlord. - I am Welsh. - I have to work for a living, but do nothing that makes me perspire.
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