Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Identifying Combat Bloat

Monday I talked about slogging through combat. In a comment one of our readers mentioned trying to streamline combat slog in a game he or she is designing. I like the idea. I also agree that about 10 minutes for a combat round is ideal, but not one that is easily reached even with experienced players. Before we can make solutions though, we need to understand the problem. So, let's break down combat and find where it slogs.

Phase 1: Initiative
Almost every game system starts here, with initiative, and for a good reason. Initiative tells us what order people act in. Who goes first. Who goes last. It's the structure to combat that makes it possible to even resolve things. It determines who is fastest on the draw. However, it has two questions to answer and that is where slog often comes into play. Those two questions:

  • What is everyone that is slower than me doing? (i.e. how much do we reward a high initiative.)
  • What is going on when it is my turn?
Some games and systems don't reward going first with anything but the right to resolve your action first. The ability to hit first, and possibly kill without reprisal, is it's own reward. Other games want to give more. They want that person to have an idea of what everyone is trying to do so they can make the best decision to go forward, after all they are the ones who have initiative, right? If you ignore knowing what is going on, then people just act in order and things go smoothly - but you occasionally get hiccups where something happens that a player with high initiative would have tried to stop if only they'd known. In effect, sometimes you get punished for going first.

However, when you empower that person, you risk slowing things down. First, everyone needs to declare up the initiative tree. Meaning starting fromt he slowest person and working to the fastest everyone needs to say what they intend to do. The higher your initiative the more information you get. Then, when you resolve back down, you need to know what happens to actions that become impossible. For example, if Mary at 12 wants to tackle Bob at 17 she declares it. But Bob then closes and locks a door between him and Mary on 17, she now can't tackle Bob. What happens to her turn? Is it stymied? Does she not get to act?

This also leads into the second question. Players need to know what is going on on their turn, and even with a battlemap they don't alwys have the best sense. You need to be able to resolve this quickly. In my experience, keeping people up to date on the situation is one of the biggest killers of time in combat - and the more dynamic or bigger you make your combats, the longer it can take and the more reasonable it is for players to get lost.

Phase 2: Resolving Attacks
This could be resolving actions, but attacks is such a common action and honestly where most games lose the most time. Let's look at D&D, and we're looking here as it is very much a baseline for RPGs being one of the very first. In D&D to resolve an attack you need to: 
  • Declare your action
  • Roll a D20
  • Add your modifiers to the roll
  • Compare total roll vs. AC of target
  • Figure out damage dice
  • Roll damage dice
  • Add modifier to damage dice
  • Apply reduction/resistances/vulnerabilities to damage
  • Reduce damage from hitpoints
  • Check if target is still able to fight or not.
That's just one attack. At level 5 in 5th edition D&D primary fighting classes each get 2 attacks. That means in a 6 player party (assuming: warrior, rogue, mage, cleric, warrior, mage) you're doing this at least 8 times a round. Mages may reduce rolling with spells, but they add time too by having to check the rules for how the spell works, compare ranges, roll saves, etc.

This also doesn't take into account things like reaction spells/actions, movement, attacks of opportunity, critical hits, or other things.

Some games try to reduce this by cutting out rolls. You know if you have hit or not when you resolve the attack without extra checking. Damage is based off the amount you succeeded by + some base value. Things like that. Still, every dice roll, every stat add, every math problem, it all adds up. And the less well your players know the system (and it's unfair to expect everyone to be experts at things without checking) the slower it goes.

Phae 3: Resolution
After you've gone through all the turns in initiative, you have your resolution. This can be fast or slow depending on the GM. Some like to sum up the round. Some like to change the scene. Some just like to go "ok, top of the order" and move on. The good thing is - barring needing to do extra rolls to resist effects and such - this phase is always fast.

Where Is the Bloat?
So where does bloat come in? Bloat comes in in two places:
  • Dice rolls
  • Decisions
Everytime a dice has to be rolled bloat comes in as players (including the GM) break from the game, find the dice, roll the dice, do math, report match, and make other paperwork changes. That this is jarring enough to knock some people out of the scene can also cause problems, because then they need to be reminded what is going on around them.

Decisions are the other culprit. Decisive players simply make things go faster. But everytime a player has to choose what they are doing (and this includes the GM) the game slows down. There are ways to help solve this, but that's the topic for another post. For now, just remember that if your players (or you) have to stop and think you are slowing the game down. Slow down too much and not only do you lose the drama, you lose the fun, and you risk losing the attention of your players - which is just going to slow things down.

How 7th Sea Solves This
I know I said today wasn't for solutions, but before I directly compared to 7th Sea, and so I want to bring up the things 7th Sea does to stream line combat.

  • You Roll Once Per Long Time - you determine your approach at the beginning of the sequence (what you want to be doing) and roll once. This one roll then carries you through several actions which cuts down on dice rolling and things that break you out of the system.
  • Initiative and Resolution happen at the same time - in 7th Sea initiative and resolution are the same thing. You roll for points. The person with the most points goes first. They spend a number of their points towards a desired direction. Then the next person with the highest points goes. Out of points? You're out of actions. Have the highest points 3 times in a row? Go 3 times in a row. 
  • You decide what to do then roll, not roll then figure out what happens.
The second one is the biggest deal here I think. It solves a lot of problems. The person going first gets to set the stage with their action. They can accomplsih almost anything since they have the right to spend their points first, or they can hold onto points in case someone does something they want to stop. People know what is going on around them though because you don't have to stop after saying you want to stab Sarah to see if you can, you just spend your points and stab Sarah.

The third part is why the second part (and even first part) works. You don't declare then resolve with dice. You figure out HOW you want to act, then roll, then spend your points to dictate what you accomplish during that turn of combat. The lack of rolling, and freedom to declare keeps things moving fast. You seldom have to ask "can I do this" if it is anyway reasonable, you just do it and spend your points.

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