Sunday, May 10, 2020

Game Design Notes - Crunch Time!

Time for some crunch. The blog has been dedicated to a lot of things, but I haven’t discussed rules very much. However, I have spent some time perfecting my combat system and I am going to work through formalizing it here.
I am planning on releasing a complete setting with rules, monsters, spells and such in the fall, for the setting I won’t be discussing justifications, I’ll just be explaining the rules. Here on the blog I’m going to dive into the design rationale for each of the changes I have made to give a window on the game design process.
AD&D Combat Revised
When I fired up my home game 7 years ago I had been thinking a lot about combat in AD&D. Combat makes up about 30% of my game, so when it happens I want it to be deadly and exciting. Various aspects of AD&D can get in the way though. Initiative is confusing, HP scaling allows PCs to survive ridiculous things; the need to represent complex combat can lead to grinding granularity or confusing abstraction.
Add to this that many people strip away the complexities of combat to streamline it and keep combat from “taking too long”. The enemy of combat mechanics isn’t crunch, or complexity, it’s boredom. Combat is boring if you have too few options, the options aren’t understood or there isn’t any risk. Streamlining takes away options, PCs often don’t understand how the mechanics work well enough to use them tactically, and risk has most often come in the form of sheer numbers or the power of your opponents.
This is a recipe for “combat is boring”.
To make it exciting, you need a bitches brew of three components: risk, options, awareness.
The PCs have to be at risk, the PCs have to have combat options, and they have to be aware of them. If they are aware of the options they will have a sense of agency, and can start to learn tactics.
Risk is a motivator, it compels action, my crew knows that combat can turn on a dime and be deadly, so they try to be decisive or get out of Dodge. They coordinate attacks and talk through things because if they don’t they die. But risk is also an important component in the excitement of combat, knowing the risks are real makes each dice roll momentus.

Choice is important, and often misunderstood. “Too much” choice is bad, but that’s not really the issue. It’s when those choices are made and how complex they are. People make too much of rules complexity because they forget how fast we normalize rules. I have played in games with different weapons rules, initiative rules, magic rules, you name it. After a few sessions of all of them it was like second nature.
So more choice is not the issue, it’s more redundant choice.
So for example, having a choice between a longer, faster, heavier, more damaging, more accurate weapon is meaningful as reach, speed, encumbrance, damage and accuracy are different things. There will be times when reach is more important, times when accuracy matters more, etc, even though all are important.
Redundant choice is an issue. If I have 3 spells that all damage but in slightly different ways, I will have to make decisions on the spot that take time.
So my general rule here is that combat rules complexity is acceptable if:
It can generally be normalized within a session or two of play (it’s understandable)
It doesn’t have too much redundant choice
That’s why I don’t like systems with tons of feats or options where there are a base group and then endless sub-variants.
Tactical Opacity
I once ran and AD&D session at a game store, it was loud and exciting. Right next to us at the table was a pair of players running a Warhammer game. The had troops laid out all over the table, and they were making measurements with rulers and calculating a lot of stuff.
It looked fascinating, but the first thing that struck me was just how much information was being gathered and used. Wargames have a tendency to want to specify everything, so you can make calculations and plans based on the data. That’s great, but it also can bleed the excitement out of smaller scale combat.
Another example might help to clarify things. I ran 1e psionics recently, and I made a few small changes. In the system as it is written in the DMG and PHB, you know the attack your opponent is making and you automatically mount the best defense against that attack from your defense options. It makes psionic combat simpler, and faster, but also deadly dull, as it removes all the choice and agency from your actions. So I made a small change, that you don’t know what attack your opponent will be using, so you have to guess.
This one small change made psionic combat exciting again, because there was some uncertainty to the process. It wasn’t automatic, it was tactically opaque because you couldn’t exactly predict what was going to happen.
Tactical opacity is a key component of making in-game combat more engaging, as it requires the PCs to do some thinking and make some choices while fighting.

From the Ground Up
With all of these ideas in mind, risk, choice, understanding and tactical opacity, I rebuilt the 1e AD&D combat engine to deliver a smoother, more straightforward, more exciting system at the table. I’ve playtested this for 7 years now so I know it works.
Combat rounds last a minute and are divided into ten segments, each 6 seconds long. Melee range is 10’.
By the Gods of Greyhawk, initiative is such a challenge. You want to sequence attacks in combat, but granular systems can take too long, and simpler systems can be dry as dust boring or worse still repetitive. There is nothing that bleeds the excitement out of combat for me faster than every round being the same as the last.
I’ve tried a few different systems, different base dice, different mechanics, chits from a bag, sequence in order of seating, rolling once per session, hand off systems, there are a lot of options. However, I have had a few unique challenges in my gaming history, and one of those is group size. I have always had larger groups. 8 PCs has been the regular, and for those who use henchmen parties of 14-18 PCs have been normal.
For large groups like this, if you do group initiative or any simpler form of initiative then you can have the entire party attack first, which in larger parties is pretty comical. If you have just one attack per round from the monster, and one from each PC, for one of my larger parties you can have a monster exposed to 18 attacks before they get one using group or simpler forms of initiative.
I call that “swingy”.

So for me individual initiative is the way to go, it ensures that every round produces different results, and keeps the flow of combat going. It also adds to choice, as you aren’t locked in to a fixed sequencing order.
I have used this system with groups as large as 8 players with two PCs each, so 16 party members to sort out, and it works seamlessly. Now, on to the objections! Individual initiative for large groups, YOU MUST BE MAD!

Here is why I’m not! What takes up time in your initiative system is the players making up their minds, and giving them group initiative doesn’t solve that problem! They may now have one number to refer to, but they still have to make up their minds about action. So using individual initiative does not impact things as much as you think.
What are the advantages to this? Each round is different. The random factor keeps any one opponent from dominating completely, you get complete mobility so you get to change up what you can do in real time, and all it requires is some simple math
Next, I want an action economy for my combat, e.g. choices have costs, and you can make tactical decisions based on your information. For me that means weapon speeds and casting times. Using a heavier weapon or a hard to align weapon takes more time. Using more powerful spells takes more time.
The good news is that AD&D has casting times for all spells, and weapon speeds for all weapons. Thing is they are weighted such that the spells are almost always faster than the weapons. That’s not what I want, so I halved all listed weapon speeds in the PHB.
The key to this system working is that it puts a cost to using any method of attack, so choosing  a weapon speed 2 weapon versus a weapon speed 4 weapon is in part a tactical decision. It means magic-users and illusionists are faster in combat than clerics and druids, as their casting times are on the whole lower
It is simple, once you know your spells and weapons well enough the casting time modifiers are easy and intuitive. And it handles large groups well as it sequences them, a lot of time in combat is taken up trying to determine who’s acting next.
Next, I want initiative to have a random factor, it isn’t just based on dexterity, or intelligence, or whatever. But the random factor shouldn’t be too large, or combat has no structure and skill doesn’t matter at all.
You want to strike a balance.

So I settled on a d6, when for comparison a longsword has a weapon speed of 3.
Initiative Score: Base d6 roll with modifiers. Lowest initiative score goes first, ties are simultaneous. Your initiative score is the segment of the round when your action happens, e.g. the sword strikes (or misses), the spell zaps (or misses).
This is important, in 1e combat is abstracted, the one minute round has you stalking your opponent, ducking and weaving, bolting past, parrying, deflecting blows harmlessly, that sort of thing. So your initiative score is the segment of the round when you have the best opportunity for a “telling blow”, a blow that can land and do damage, or a spell effect. You don’t get a lot of opportunities for this sort of attack in a round. Other than fighters with multiple attacks per round.
As opposed to standard 1e initiative, which is a bit fuzzy on this, in my system it is made clear, you can do anything you want for the rest of the round, but your opportunity for a telling blow or the casting of your spell happens once per round. You build everything else around that.
So everyone rolls a d6, and adds their modifiers for weapon speed or casting time. There are two caveats.
1. Magical Weapon “+” = every “+” of a magical weapon negates one point of weapon speed. It cannot reduce the dice roll.
2. Dexterity RAA = every point of RAA negates one point of weapon speed or one segment of casting time. It cannot reduce the dice roll.
Simultaneous Attacks
Any actions that culminate on the same segment are simultaneous, if a spell caster is struck on the segment when her spell culminates, it still goes off. Otherwise if they are struck before the spell goes off it is disrupted.
Missile Fire: All missile fire from multiple shot per round weapons happens simultaneously on the same segment (roll + weapon speed modifier), and if you charge a missile firing opponent they get to fire at you until you close the distance, at normal rates of fire. A missed shot in a melee randomly selects anyone else in the target’s melee range. The new target is attacked with a “to hit” roll equal to the inverse of the failed hit roll, e.g. if the first to hit missed with a 3, the alternate target is checked for a hit with a 17, if the first to hit missed with a 14, the alternate target is checked for a hit with a 6, etc.
Natural Attacks: all natural attack routines (e.g. claw/claw/bite) happen on the same segment (roll + natural attack speed modifier).  All natural attacks have a speed factor of 1. This makes animals and monsters quite fast and deadly.
Multiple Attacks Per Round: Fighters and their subclasses can get multiple attacks per round, unlike missile fire or natural attacks from monsters or animals, fighter’s multiple attacks per round can happen all of the same initiative score segment or distributed over the round in any segment from the initiative score segment to the end of the round.
Movement: You can move in any segment of the round except that of your initiative score. If you move out of melee range from someone you were engaged with, by doing so you allow an attack of opportunity from that opponent (+4 to hit against you), and your opponents can move as well. If you have moved out of range of your opponent when your initiative score segment comes up your attack is forfeited or held. If you choose to move away during the segment when an attack culminates against you allow an attack of opportunity against you. Charging with a long weapon means you strike first on arrival against shorter melee weapons. During combat it is assumed that all combatants are moving at twice regular exploration movement rates, e.g. someone with a movement rate of 12” moves 24’ per segment.
Altering Actions: You can hold your action if your initiative score segment occurs too early, or change your action in response to what has happened before your initiative score segment. Drawing a weapon or changing an action can incur a 1 segment penalty on the DM’s discretion.
Everyone decides on and declares actions for the round.
Everyone rolls a d6 and adds modifiers for dexterity, weapon speed or casting time.
The ref starts at segment 1, anyone who has an action in that segment executes it (e.g. rolls to hit), anyone who wishes to move in that segment can do so. Anyone who wants to hold an action can do so.
The process is repeated for each segment of the round, executing actions from those who had that initiative score, and allowing movement for any of the combatants. Participants may react to what has happened before, for example if someone dies then you can switch your opponent, but only if you can be in range when your initiative score segment comes up.
Example of Play
Boxx the Bold is a third lv thief with a +1 longsword, he rolls a d6+2 for initiative with his sword (weapon speed 3 sword, -1 for the magical weapon “+”) and a d6+3 for initiative with his sling (weapon speed 3 sling)
Torum the Terrible is a 2nd lv fighter with a battle axe, weapon speed 3, he charges at a speed of 18”, so covers 18 feet per segment when charging
Rizzomar the Red is a 3rd lv magic-user who has magic missile (casting time 1) and lightning bolt (casting time 3) and shield (casting time 1) memorized
They enter into a clearing in the forest and are confronted by 6 bandits, armed with crossbows (weapon speed 4) and broadswords (weapon speed 3). Bandit #6 has a high dex so his weapon speeds are reduced by 1.
The parties are separated by 60 feet.
There is no surprise.

Boxx decides to use his sling, Torum charges and Rizzomar casts magic missile. All of the bandits choose to shoot their crossbows.
Boxx rolls a 4+3 = 7, Torum charges and will close the distance of 60 feet in segment 4, Rizzomar rolls a 1 + 1 (casting time for magic missile) for a total of 2.
The bandit’s roll 1,3,4,5,6,6, for initiative scores of 5,7,8,9,10 and 9

Proceed by segment, indicating the segment of the participant’s initiative score:
Segment 1 - X
Segment 2 - Rizzomar
Segment 3 - X
Segment 4 - Torum
Segment 5 - Bandit 1
Segment 6 - X 
Segment 7 - Bandit 2 / Boxx
Segment 8 - Bandit 3
Segment 9 - Bandit 4 and 6
Segment 10 - Bandit 5
So again, this is a list of the initiative score segments when actions culminate, these are the segments in combat when the various combatants see an opportunity for a telling blow or a spell effect against their opponents.
Then we go through the order and see if anyone moves around or changes actions.
Segment 1 - X

Segment 2 - Rizzomar’s spell fires three magic missiles, the first strikes at bandit 2 (chosen by Rizzomar) and does 3 damage, slaying the bandit. The second strikes bandit 1, doing 2 points of damage, and the third is also directed to bandit 1, doing 3 points of damage, now slaying him
Segment 3 - Bandit 3, seeing Torum closing drops his crossbow and draws his short sword, stepping forward. Switching weapons takes one segment.

Segment 4 - Torum arrives on segment 4, he gets two attacks per round against 0-level opponents, and swings his axe twice at the bandit who stepped forward, he rolls a 15 to hit and a 13 to hit, and does a total of 5 damage, slaying the bandit.
Segment 5 - Bandit 1 fires his crossbow at Torum, he misses with a 4, since Torun is in melee range of others, the shot is randomized, picking out Bandit 4, and the “to hit” roll is the inverse, so a 16, this is sufficient to hit and does does 4 points of damage, killing his ally.
Segment 6 - Torum moves 18’ away from the bandits to avoid being shot by Boxx, provoking an attack of opportunity against him, it can be made by bandit 5 or 6, both are close enough, I randomly roll and bandit 5 will make the attack. This will be in place of his listed attack in segment 10 as he only gets one attack per round, he goes early as Torum has provided the attack of opportunity. He shoots his crossbow and misses.
Segment 7 - Bandit 2 is dead so his action is forfeited. Boxx’s sling fires off and tags bandit 5, the hit does 3 hp of damage, wounding bandit 5.
Segment 8 - Bandit 3 is dead, so his action is forfeited.
Segment 9 - Bandit 4 is dead so his action is forfeited, bandit 6 fires crossbow and tags Boxx, 4 hp of damage.
Segment 10 - Torum moves back into melee range with bandit 5.
At this point I roll for morale as the  bandits have lost over ½ their men, and they maintain morale.
Round 2
Torum attacks bandit 5 with his axe, Rizzomar casts shield on himself and Boxx fires his sling again.
Bandit 5 takes out his short sword and so does bandit 6.
Torum rolls a 2+3 = 5 for his axe attacks, Rizzomar rolls a 6+1 = 7 for shield and Boxx rolls a 3+3 = 6 for his sling.
Bandit 5 rolls a 5+3 = 8 and bandit 6 rolls a 1+2 = 3
Seg 1 - X
Seg 2 - X
Seg 3 - Bandit 6
Seg 4 - X
Seg 5 - Torum
Seg 6 - Boxx
Seg 7 - Rizzomar
Seg 8 - Bandit 5
Seg 9 - X 
Seg 10 - X
Boxx decides to get some cover before shooting, and moves behind a tree that is 30 feet away, at a movement rate of 24”, he will reach the tree in segment 2
Bandit 5 and Bandit 6 are in front of Torum, Bandit 5 moves in segment 1 to get behind Torum, provoking an attack of opportunity from the fighter. Torum can take the attack and forgo moving himself, or move in response. He chooses to move. The bandit can move 24”, so 24’ per segment, more than enough to get around the fighter. Torum decides he will also move his 18” in segment 1 to try and get repositioned, because bandit 5 moves 6’ further than Torum in a segment, by the end of segment 1 Bandit 5 is behind Torum, bandit 6 is in front of him.
In segment 2 Boxx arrives behind his tree, he now has partial cover and his AC drops by 4 points. Torum tries to move again so he can get out from between the two bandits. This provokes an attack of opportunity from one or the other (whomever is behind him when he bolts) as both are in melee range. Since Bandit 5 is behind him he gets the attack when Torum bolts. He rolls a 5 and misses.
In segment 3 Bandit 6 attacks, he swings his sword and gets a 16, hitting Torun and wounding him for 5 HP damage. Torum is now hurt.
In segment 4 Bandit 5 decides to run towards Rizzomar, and spends this segment closing 24’ of the 60’ between them. Bandit 6 holds his ground.
In segment 5 Torum uses his first of two attacks to swing his axe at Bandit 6. He rolls a 17 and hits, doing 5 points of damage, and slaying the bandit. Bandit 5 is now 48’ away and 12’ from Rizzomar.

In Segment 6 Bandit 5 arrives at Rizzomar, but Boxx also gets to fire his sling, he chooses Bandit 5 as his target. He shoots the sling bullet and rolls a 12, missing. However, Rizzomar is in range of the sling stone, so you invert the roll for an 8 and see if it hits. It does not.
In segment 7 Rizzomar’s Shield spell activates.
In segment 8 Bandit 5 attacks Rizzomar but the shield spell protects him.
Since there are no further actions in the round it ends there and the next round’s initiative is rolled.
The last bandit knows the jig is up and surrenders.

I’ll stop there for now. Next entry will be on Theatre of the Mind and maps.

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