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You Wanna Fight?

Heat of the Moment

by Bryan Jonker
Sep 09,2002


Heat of the Moment


Let's start this out with a basic assumption: combat in tabletop role-playing games do not match combat in real life. This is nothing against the validity of the rules, or the realism of the setting. Instead, it's us as players, in the comfort of our living room, kitchen, or (for those lucky folks) gaming room, pretending to be swordsmen on the field. If my character dies, I've lost a few hours of time and perhaps a bit of prestige. If I were fighting in real life, I'd lose much more.

LARP games come closer to the real-world experience. At least you are immersed in the environment, as opposed to attempting to imagine it. Plus, the real-world distractions are present. It's easy to say "I search every room." It's harder to have the thoroughness to actually search every room. But even then, there's a difference. Again, LARP games are (or at least should be) safe (occasionally, the line between game and reality becomes blurred, as these people found out). Real-life combat, by definition, isn't.

This column explores that difference, and attempts to give guidelines on how to minimize those differences, or at least use them to your advantage.

How Long is a Round?

Of course, different game systems have different rounds. Because this is a good cross-section of games (and because I'm familiar with them), I'm looking at GURPS, old AD&D, and the Amber diceless game.

AD&D has a standard round of one minute. The theory behind this is in one minute of normal combat, there's going to be a lot of shuffling around and minor exchanges, so only one blow that could actually cause damage will get through. Or, to quote from the DMG, "the system assumes much activity during the course of each round...many attacks are made, but some are mere feints, while some are blocked or parried." In theory, this works, but there were a few problems.

Let me break the train of thought for a moment. Cognitive psychology states that we learn new material by associating it with things we already know. That's how the learning power of metaphor comes into play: the metaphor explicitly ties two objects together. The steering wheel of a car is like your actual body: turning it to the left means you turn left. However, the map is not the territory, and sometimes the metaphor doesn't fit. Even worse, sometimes the metaphor is misleading. For example, picture a computer program that plays music, and it's designed like a VCR. However, the play key closed the program, while the stop key plays the music. To a lesser degree, AD&D suffered from this same type of metaphor mismatch. A prime example is the THAC0 number (to hit armor class 0) because the armor class represented actual armor, it really wasn't the chance to hit, but the chance to deal out damage. I can thwack someone wearing plate mail fairly easily with a quarterstaff, but I may not do any actual damage to the person.

The term "attacks per round" is another example of imprecise terminology. It should be called "number of effective attacks per round". That's why fighters can increase their attacks so much as they increase levels it doesn't mean they are superhumanly quick, it just means that their knowledge of different techniques makes their attack more effective.

So, what does this mean? When the players and GM visualize the fight, they shouldn't think of an attack as one attack. It's a give-and-take, where one person touches another. The GM also has to organize the "combat versus non-combat" action, and make those snap calls (a person can behead an unconscious opponent immediately it doesn't take 10 seconds to do so). It's also not conductive to more science-fiction weapons. It can be tricky, but it's doable.

GURPS attempts to change this issue (and, for the record, the new d20 moves toward this idea with a 6 second round). Each turn is 6 seconds, and each person can attack once a turn. The main advantage of this is the rules mesh with the action a swing is a swing is a swing. Plus, since every action is accounted for, you don't have to worry about weird circumstances where a round would be shorter than normal. Finally, GURPS does somewhat better with modern weapons that fire several rounds per second.

But, GURPS has its own problems. By focusing on each and every movement, GURPS battle can get tedious. Plus, it's over quickly, unless both opponents are either very good or very bad. Finally, real battle isn't as quick as a typical GURPS battle. Everyone isn't swinging every second. GURPS has rules about the lengthening the battle, but they're optional and vague, and thus not used much.

Finally, there's Amber. There are no rounds, and people just describe what they're doing. The GM takes into account the PCs, the NPCs, and the situation, and describes what's occurring. It's the most flexible, and the players visualize what is going on. In some ways, it's the most realistic. I bring this up because most games are centered around splitting up time into distinct amounts, probably a holdover from the RPG-as-wargame mentality. And, there are advantages to having rounds, segments, etc. etc. But, you don't have to have them.

Shellshock and Gun Shy

In many games, a level is a level, and skills are skills. A 5th level fighter will fight with the same effectiveness in practice as she will on the field. Skill in Archery is the same whether the target is a bull's-eye, a deer, or an enemy archer.

In real life, this isn't the case. When faced with the threat of death or dismemberment, some people freeze up. Others are able to act, but they flinch at the last moment, afraid of getting hit. You can tell a beginning fencer to aim at the enemy, not at the enemy's sword, but in the chaos of the fight, sometimes those words are forgotten. Other people flinch at the last minute not because of pain they may receive, but pain they may inflict. It's one thing to aim for a target and another thing to kill another living being. Finally, battle is stressful. Some people fold under that stress.

What does this mean in the game? The easy way out is to assume that all the PCs in the campaign are battle-hardened troops, assuming that the game's mechanics (whether it be levels or skills) take all these issues into account in the typical "to-hit" rolls. However, not only is this unrealistic in lower-level campaigns, it is also depriving the players of a good role-playing situation. A cruel GM could give penalties for "real-life battle" if the troops are green, but players used to dungeon crawls may not understand. In short, it depends on the group.

Coordinated Attacks

In my campaigns during battle, I would go around the room, asking people what they would do. I'd alternate going from left to right or right to left, usually giving the more experienced players first crack and their decision, and novice players more time to think. While they were making their decision, I mentally figured out what the NPCs would do. After everyone made their decision, then people would roll the dice and I'd describe what happened.

This is how most games suggest how to run games, either rolling initiative for order of play, or by using some Speed statistic. Some systems have attacks happen all at once, while others have attacks happen in order. The problem with this is everything is so orderly. When person C declares her attack, she knows what person A and person B are going to do, if not what the results of their attacks. Real life doesn't work that way. In combat, there are a hundred things going on, and it can be difficult to be aware of everything.

The other issue is time I give players a minute or two to figure out what to do. Even if I give the characters 5 seconds to come up with a plan and another 15 seconds to articulate it to me, the last person in the group still has a good few minutes of extra think time. While there is such a thing as separating in-character knowledge and out-of-character knowledge, it's difficult to not think of what to do while other people are making plans, or not listen to them.

One option is the Combat Card (it's designed for GURPS, but it can be adapted for other games). It's an idea someone else had, but it's worked out fairly well. They are available for download here for MS Word 6 or here in dual PDF/RTF format. The GM prints out one set of cards for each person, customizing them as necessary (as you can see, spaces are available for skills, damage, etc.). New cards can be generated if the PC has spells, techniques, or powers. When battle starts, each player takes a few seconds to think, and draws a card, placing it face down. New players or characters accustomed to battle have some more time to think. At this point, the players have fixed their action, and the GM can go down the line and determine what the characters do. It adds the excitement of collectible card games, and adds a bit of uncertainty to battle.

GM's Responsibility

If the players struggle to stay in-character, not using out-of-character knowledge to help them, the GM has an even harder struggle. Not only does he have more people to keep track of (instead of a 5-6 person party, there could be a numerous troops), but he also has knowledge of outside events the weather, the players' plans, other NPCs, etc. The GM is also usually playing a greater range of enemies from flunkies and green troops to battle-hardened warriors. If the PCs aren't out-and-out fighters, they are usually at least familiar with the dangers of battle. Some NPCs, of course, aren't.

I realize that as I'm writing this, I have a rather adversarial view of gaming it's the players versus the GM. The players are trying to win, and the GM is trying to stop the players. Of course, this isn't usually the case there are a dozen generic "how to GM" articles on RPG.net, and almost all of them have the "this isn't a contest" reminder. And although each group is different, there is one fairly constant fact the GM usually has a less adversarial view of the game than the players. The players are trying to win, while the GM is trying to be a good referee and storyteller. This statement is true if only because if the GM is trying to win, he has a lot more forces in his disposal to do so. "Oh, so you took out the red dragon?" he says with a sneer. "Well, here comes his father to take revenge, and he summoned Tiamat and her guardians for good measure." Those games tend to end quickly.

So, the point of this aside is the GM shouldn't be afraid to dumb down the NPCs, make them less effective. He doesn't have much to lose. One of the cliches in martial-arts movies is "everyone is a skilled fighter, from the local neighborhood grocer to the kid down the street." In some campaigns (like those based off of martial-arts movies), this is justified. In a more realistic campaign, it isn't.

Blunders of War Strategic Issues

I've been talking about tactical mistakes panic, gun-shy behavior, and miscommunication within a battle. These issues can be expanded on the strategic level. Those who play computer games like Civilization and board games like Risk or Axis and Allies are used to this global view, being able to watch all the forces on the board and make balanced decisions. The real world is seldom like that. I'm citing Barbara Tuchman's books The First Salute and The March of Folly. In the Yorktown campaign in the American Revolution, Cornwallis noticed troops "landing at his doorstep" but did not stop them. Quoting Karl Gustaf Tornquist, one of the lieutenants in the rebel army, "It was a pleasant surprise for our troops on landing that Cornwallis did not move in the least to hinder them, since indeed a single cannon could have caused much damage in the narrow and in may places winding river. Instead he was content to draw nearer to York, destroying everything which lay in his way, not sparing defenceless (sp) women and children." Other commanders in the English army and navy suffered the same lethargy, produced by a combination of overconfidence and fear, not of the colonists, but of court-martials in England.

Similarly, the Vietnam War had American policy makers making decisions that were not in the best interest of America. Again, quoting Barbara Tuchman: "As far as the record shows, they [the President and administration] help no session devoted to re-examination of the engagement they had inherited in Vietnam, nor did they ask themselves to what extent the United States was comminuted or what the degree of national interest involved. Nor, so far as appears in the mountains of memoranda, discussions and options flowing over the desks, was any long-range look taken at long-range strategy. Rather, policy developed in ad hoc spurts from month to month." Time after time, questions were brought up on both the utility and futility of the Vietnam war. These questions remained unanswered.

Finally, I'll bring up another strategic blunder: the World War II bombing of Pearl Harbor. At the time, the United States was isolationistic, and nothing short of, well, bombing Pearl Harbor could have brought the country into the War wholeheartedly. Japan could have advanced on Asia, placating the United States through diplomacy. Instead, Japan attacked. This may have been a miscalculation on American culture Japan was expecting America to enter the War immediately and hoped to destroy the nation's spirit. Instead, Japan enacted a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Why do I bring up these strategic blunders? Just to bring up a point: the GM is usually the one controlling the armies and nations of the world. We expect them to act rationally. Sometimes they do. But, often as not, generals and heads of state act on impulse and emotion, using public policy and reputation to act against their own good.


Like all these articles, these issues are here to explore some ideas and make the game better. One can argue that yes, we know it's just a game, and we want to use those limitations of the game to make it more fun. We don't want to deal with not knowing where the bad guys are, we don't want to deal with the doubt of killing people. But, just like a movie where the plot holes don't quite close, sometimes a role-playing game just doesn't seem right. By addressing the issue of non-rational wars, the GM can close some of these holes and make war more realistic.

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Wanna Fight by Bryan Jonker