Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tracking Ammunition

Today's post, while thankfully short, is also going to be a bit more specific than some other topics I've had here. Today I'm curious about the idea of tracking ammunition. The pros of it, the cons of it, and whether or not it may be worth doing for your game. So, without further ado, let's take a look.

Realism vs. Drama
Before we get into the debate in and of itself I want to address this. Most times I've discussed, or read thoughts on, things like this the argument has usually boiled down to realism versus drama. Realistically, and in realistic and gritty games, you should have to track all the minutiae that comes with an RPG character. It matters, and it matters really hard, how many rounds are still in your gun 3 combat rounds later. On the other hand though there is also the argument that RPGs aren't necessarily supposed to be realistic. The GM is perfectly capable of having a dramatically appropriate misfire or empty magazine happen when it is needed, and otherwise you are just bogging down the game with pointless book keeping.

To be honest, the drama side i pointed out above isn't one I agree with, as I can see a use for ammo counting in both a realistic and more cinematic game. I just wanted to point out the two extremes that I've seen first, and hopefully it'll give you an idea of how I ended up where I am.

So, what are the pros to tracking ammunition? They are there, and depending on the type of players you have you'll have more or less of them. One thing I like about tracking ammunition is that it can show a real difference between two characters. The guy who constantly reloads/tops off his ammunition at every opportunity versus the guy who waits for the magazine to run dry. This even became relevant in a game I was running when, at a vital moment, a player ran dry on ammunition. He had lost mental count of where he was in his magazine (I'd been keeping track in my notes) and the reaction was beautiful.

More to the point though, this random happening added drama to the game. The player was stunned, the characters were shocked, and the scene suddenly became more tense as one of the two guns available to the party suddenly had to be reloaded while they were in a dangerous situation. This didn't come down to realism, it was a random - and fair - turn of events that really added to the game play, and it is a major boon and good reason to track ammunition.

Ammo counting can add tension in other ways too. It can be re-assuring for a player to know that they have 24 rounds of firing in their gun before their next reload, but when that player starts to get down to only 5 rounds of shooting, or maybe even as high as 7, than each round becomes more tense. Will their gun hold out long enough? Will they have time to reload? If they're going through ammo that fast is it better to switch to a different weapon or to take the time to reload?

Which also brings up the last thing I want to mention. Tracking ammunition means that running out of ammunition is possible, which - in turn - means that the players may have to switch away from their favorite weapon at some point. That little shift out of a comfort zone is awesome btw. It can be a real blast to watch the guy who usually mows through people with his assault rifle suddenly have to start using his pistol, or for the elven archer to have to pull a short sword and get into melee, because they ran out of ammo.

The cons aren't even real take aways from the drama and tension as much as they are the problems with all bookkeeping. First of all, it has to be done. Second of all, it is easy to lose track of. All it takes is for one super awesome round to happen where the player - possibly in celebration - forgets to mark down the ammo they used. Now if the GM is also tracking ammo you have two different counts, and both could be equally valid. After all, the GM is just as likely to forget to mark down ammo use - especially considering how much they have to do.

The bookkeeping can also slow the game down as it has to be done, and it also brings up other issues such as reload rounds and times for those decisions to be made. Not to mention that the second you start tracking something, the players are going to look for every way they can to always have enough of it handy which can also lead to its own problems for things.

The biggest problem I ahve with it though, and this one is just a bit silly to be honest, is that it can be a real pain when - between sessions - you lose the notes. See, with all the erasing and redoing, people rarely do ammo counting on somewhere that they can't afford to be erasing all the time. Computers and tablets are fixing this, but for a lot of us the issue persists. The problem then comes in when these scraps of paper with vital information go missing in the 6-13 days in between sessions, and suddenly you don't know how much - or what kind - of ammo and stuff the players all have.

Your Thoughts
I'm curious to hear your thoughts on tracking ammo. Do you do it? Why? Why not? Do you find it adds or takes away from the game? Any particular situation where it adds? How about where it detracts?


  1. When running games I do a weird hybrid. I ask my players to keep track of their ammunition, but then I don't worry about it thereafter. I don't check up on them about ammo, other than perhaps reminding them to buy it when they are shopping.

    I leave tracking ammo completely up to the players. In a way it becomes a game they play with themselves. They worry about running out, not me. The tension and drama of running out is dictated by themselves. In fact, I've never called a character for running out of ammo, they do that themselves.

    In reality, I could care less if they track the ammo or not, but I don't tell them that. Thus the players who like doing that sort of thing do it, but those who find it tedious tend to hand-wave it. Its sort a guilty secret that I never call anyone on.

  2. It all depends on the situation and game but generally I do the same as Callin.

    My one significant exception is when I run a survival game of some sort (such as a Zombie d6 game) where the ammunition/first aid/water are all precious supplies that should be used sparingly.

    In those games I've even been known to cut out bullet tokens for players to hand over when they fire a gun.

    The first few get handed over easily, but the last few seem (for obvious reasons) to always be hard to part with... not to mention who is the target of the last bullet.

    So in general I let the players deal with the ammo in most games, but in some I make it a tangible, real item they have to part with.

  3. That is a good way to do it Callin, and something I may do in the future as well.

    As far as survival games go, everything is important in those and worth tracking. I like the idea of doing physical counters, but then again I like the idea of physical counters a lot too. Just makes things feel more real.

  4. To me the very best way of tracking ammo was thought up by the guys over at Intwischa. It's elegant, it's more accurate than having my players track it and it offers a good chance of drama if the rolls are bad.

  5. At Big Ball of No Fun a few days ago (it's in my Links of the Week this week) he suggests getting rid of tracking trivial stuff entirely. He's talking about equipment specifically, but I can see it applying here.

    In this case, unless you are in exceptional circumstances (just been robbed or captured, say), assume you have whatever normal ammunition you normally would. You don't run out of arrows or bullets.

    The normal kind, at least. Special items (such as silver bullets, magic arrows, and so on) are still tracked. The guideline proposed at BBoNF is that if it gives a bonus, or is expensive or otherwise hard for you to get, track it. Otherwise, if it makes sense that you have it with you, you have it with you. Contrariwise, if it makes sense you don't have it ("yes, I know you're a smith, but do you really think you have an 80 pound anvil here?"), you don't have it.

    Overall it sounds pretty workable.

    In the case of the zombie apocalypse, ammunition tends to fall into the 'hard to get' category (unless you're based in an armory) so it gets tracked. If reloading is a significant issue keep track of how many rounds are loaded (and otherwise ignore it between fights).

    With modern gear, including magazines and speedloaders, I'd be inclined to ignore it even then -- just as in melee where you have an exchange of attacks and parries and feints and so on, with modern firearms you might *blam* *blam* *blam* *take cover* *eject mag* *load new mag* in a single round.

    In the end, it depends on the style of the encounter. If you've got Clint Eastwood on your side, you want to count (or make it random -- feelin' lucky, punk?). If you're modeling Die Hard, let it go.