Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Combat vs. The Real World

On Monday we talked a bit about encumberance, how it worked in reality, and how it works in most RPGs. Today I want to bring that discussion to combat. RPGs and the gamers who play them are funny creatures. We tend to get hung up on realism, meanwhile we're comfortable with a turn based combat system - as much out of necessity as anything - and all the things that that system allows to happen. The distinctions between what happens in the rudimentary simulation a table top RPG provides, and say literature or reality, is also important to understand as both a player and a GM, if only to manage expectations.

Wait Your Turn
The biggest difference between table top and "the real world" is that in table top you have to wait your turn to go. This has benefits and hindrances, but ultimately it means that combats in RPGs are more tactical than most fights you'd see in real life with more consideration going into moves. This happens because in RPGs there is detachment (you're not actually in the fight) and because while a combat round may be 6 seconds in game time, you'd be hard pressed to resolve a single attack in 6 seconds in real life.

Because of this, Joe gets to see what Sarah, Linda, Carl, and Mike all did - and how it worked out - before deciding what to do with his turn. He doesn't waste time or movement going towards an enemy that was standing when the turn began but was felled by an ally. He doesn't pause to see if he should go back and help Toby who fell last round because Mike is already on it. He just does what the player feels is the tactically optimal move (or most in character move) and does it.

This is important to consider as a GM because it means it can be next to impossible to mentally overwhelm your players with things needing to happen, because there is plenty of time to parse it all out. It also makes a losing fight feel terrible because there's nothing you can do but watch as the enemy goes through his 5 attacks, even though the first one already dropped someone.

Who Cares About Reach?
In the real world reach is one of the most potent things to consider when selecting a weapon. There is a reason swords were seen as more of a last resort weapon by most cultures that used them. To use a sword (unless it's a great sword) you have to get really close to your opponent, and that means your opponent is really close to you, and that's bad. Instead, most cultures used weapons with reach. There were weapons like bows and crossbows (more on them later), but also spears, pole axes, and other polearms.

With a spear in hand you could keep the enemy more than six feet away, poking at them and never letting them near you. You were safe at one end of your stick, and they were in danger at the other end. Entire chunks of military strategy are based on this fact, and it's why the front lines, and main forces, of armies were often units with spears. They let you keep your people alive while killing the other.

In RPGs this isn't so much the case though. The advantages of reach are usually that you can attack a square earlier on the battle mat - or over an ally. D&D 3 and 3.5 had attacks of opportunity for when you moved out of any threatened square, and so a spear could poke you for free just for engaging. However, this didn't really stop the person from closing in (unless you killed them) it just was some free damage. Still, better than nothing.

Bows, crossbows, and guns also have problems. Game balance usually keeps the melee guys in the fight. Engagement ranges are rarely in the realm of "truly long range." And so what happens? You're 60' away shooting with your bow, and that's great until the enemy is able to move 60' and hit you. Now, if they can't do it in one round yo can fall back to keep your advantage, but if they can? That 60' means very little. Why? Because turn based actions means it doesn't matter that the guy is running down 60' in the open, it's not your turn so you can't shoot him unless you specifically declared a held action to do something like that.

For your game, you need to understand that this changes viable strategies. Archers and ranged characters will be engaged in melee combat unless there is an actual terrain feature (elevation, a pit, etc) that keeps them safe, or characters who keep the bad guys off of them. It's just a fact of life. It also means that certain basic strategies won't work outside of narrative moments or with GM ruling help. That line of pike men isn't going to keep someone with a lower reach weapon from hitting them. At best some of the pikes will get a free attack, but that's hardly the same thing as just flat out denying someone gets into the space.

Injury vs. Hit Points vs. Debilitation
Generally speaking in a real fight if you get tagged once you're going to lose. Maybe the shot kills you. Maybe it just takes you out of the fight. Even if it doesn't, the way your body is likely to react to being injured is going to leave you open to getting hit again and again. Simply put, the more they hit you, the more they will continue to hit you.

Pain, fear of injury, and our own mortality are great assets to keeping fights under "control." the fact there is no second life is why in firefights people don't break cover. And why other people keep their heads down when a weapon not in their control is firing.

In RPGs this isn't the case. First, the player - the one making the choice - has nothing to fear except maybe losing a character. Second, they will feel none of the pain or injury their character may experience. Three, unless the system has wound penalties, taking injuries won't even slow them down and with wound penalties it just makes things harder as opposed to impossible.

Combine this with the limitations of turn based combat, and it is not unusual to see decisions and actions that would never work in the real world but are perfectly viable, if not optimal in games. This includes running down a 30' hallway at a gunman because you can clear the distance in one round and they did a targeted attack instead of suppression fire last round. Real world that guy gets shot and killed. In a game? they close the gap and unload with their melee attacks before the gunner can react.

In Short
In short, you need to understand the realities of how your game works when planning out the combats. Especially when you want a flare of realism or a touch of narrative to enter things. Games don't handle those well. The rules the world works on are too different. So be aware of it. Make special rules if you have to. Just don't be caught by surprise if it happens in your game.


  1. Halberd, the world's most underrated weapon. It's a pointy stick, an axe, a club and a pike all in one. It's epic, and the swiss army knife version of a weapon. Very difficult to fight against if the wielder can use it properly. Especially when you have a large army who uses them.

    But yeah, even with players who are all for realism... it usually gets thrown out of the window when it comes to combat. Which is why I love making my players stop and think for a bit before they enter a combat situation. Sure you can fire arrows... but do you really think they're effective against a horde of skeletons who don't have fleshy bits for the arrows to stick into? That's a really nice big two-handed legendary sword you got there, how do you propose to swing it in this cramped alley? And my favorite, the fighter deciding to stick her sword into the gelatinous cube while she could already see several weapons floating inside it. Impressive that the player decided to go through with it instead of backpedaling though, and she went without a sword for a couple of sessions.

    So yeah, my players have adopted the strategy of owning several weapons and carrying those they deem useful in the current situation. The same way the most elite warrior-types and armies were trained and equipped with several weapons: a main weapon (melee/ranged), a sidearm and an ohshit!weapon (backup).

    However, there's a pretty big difference between a D&D party and an army, and that's size. Reach weapons are much less effective when you're on your own as opposed to a group of pikemen, with the cover of shieldbearers in front of you and bowmen behind you. A lone fighter with a halberd simply won't be as effective despite the awesomeness of the weapon. Not to mention the fact that the most effective use of non-swords tends to be not as heroic. Swords are so iconic because you go up in someone's face and defeat them. Hit-and-run, flanking, guerilla-style combat simply isn't as heroic no matter how effective.

    Same goes for long-distance sniping tactics. And that's another factor worth considering: magic. A bomb can be used to destroy a large group of people with devastating effect. Now imagine the same effect applied to a mage who can create fireballs. To be honest, why snipers aren't used all the time in Fantasy settings to take out these squishy mages is beyond me. But it's back to the same reason: it's just not heroic.

    1. Very true. And sometimes they are. Elven Archers are often shown making the heroic long distance shots, as well as serving the purpose of an arrow-based gatling gun.

      I'd argue that while pikes lose some efficacy when not in groups, the standard D&D adventurer is more likely to end up in a 1 on 1 situation where the pike should still be effective at holding a person back (or even 2-3 people back provided the wielder is willing to walk backwards while doing it) without getting attacked in return.

      Heroism is a big part of it though. And also too true on the multiple weapons. There's a reason the fighter in 5th ed comes with a small arsenal of gear by default.