Friday, September 25, 2015

Tunnels & Trolls Might Have the Most Perfect Combat System Ever

In my last post, I ranted about the uselessness of tactical combat systems. What I'm referring to are systems in which special moves, feats, and detailed movement rules feature prominently. My main gripes, in a nutshell:

  • Tactics slow down combat, making combat encounters disproportionately long.
  • Games with complicated combat rules encourage a video game mentality: Progression from one hostile encounter to another, succeeding through combat prowess, as opposed assessing situations for risk and avoiding hostility when possible.
  • The more advantages, disadvantages, and special actions in play during combat, the more the overall results resemble those you would see in a system with minimal advantages, disadvantages, and special actions. In other words, fighting skill could be represented by a single number or one hundred numbers; but one hundred numbers could theoretically be reduced to a single number anyway. In fact, the more stats, the less variation in their statistical average; the more customization of a character's combat skills, the less each individual skill matters.

D&D introduced a reasonably simple, effective combat system, and it became the template for most games that followed. In systems like this, you have an armor score representing how resistant you are to damage, a number indicating how much damage you can take before incapacitation, and a number representing bonuses to your to-hit rolls. Combat is resolved by determining an order of initiative, then having each combatant roll versus their opponent's armor score, and calculating damage if a hit is successful.

This system has worked pretty well for decades. It's logical, and allows for the player to take advantage of ways to enhance both the attack and defense ratings of their characters. Systems other than D&D have attempted to introduce novel ways of handling initiative, damage, and other aspects of combat, but usually haven't made any significant improvements on the original model. At worst, they introduce needless complexity.

Although some are just fine with it.

Enter Tunnels & Trolls. I recently picked up a copy of the deluxe edition rules, and I think this might be the best combat system I have ever seen. It is truly innovative, because it doesn't just try to hack the D&D model; it is a complete reimagining of how combat should flow in an RPG.

A Very Brief Introduction to T&T

Tunnels & Trolls is the second published RPG, released just one year after Dungeons & Dragons. Being second to the market and bearing a similarly alliterative name, you might suspect it to be a clone of D&D; but it is truly original. Some of the features of Tunnels & Trolls that differentiate it from D&D the most include the following:
  • Ability scores can be improved by spending Adventure Points, this game's version of experience points.
  • Levels are not gained through AP, but are determined by a character's highest ability score.
  • Magic is based on a point system, making low-level casters more useful.
  • There are only three character classes (and cleric is not one of them).
  • No bestiary -- GM's are encouraged to design monsters to fit each encounter.
  • "Save" rolls are similar to skill checks in Castles & Crusades, making ability scores more relevant.
  • The combat system is unlike any initiative-based combat system I have seen, and it's very elegant.
Let's take a closer look at T&T's combat system...

Combat in T&T

T&T  is very good at making ability scores (or "Prime Attributes") more central to the game. Four of the eight attributes -- Strength, Dexterity, Speed, and Luck -- contribute to a character's "adds," which are bonuses they receive in melee combat. Notice that Speed is one of the factors. This is because initiative does not exists in T&T. Both sides act simultaneously during a round (which is approximately ten seconds), so the impact of a character's speed and dexterity manifests as damage points. Remember what I said about how the more rules there are, the less they matter? In games that use initiative, a character's dexterity (which usually implies speed) will ultimately grant that character more damage done during an average round. So why not save time and forego initiative rolls altogether?

At the beginning of each round, both sides announce their intentions. Those casting magic or firing projectiles get to act first, though the results of their actions are not calculated until the end of the round. Missile attacks are not based on a "to hit" roll; they require a Dexterity check based on the target's size and distance. In some cases, no check is required. I think it's pretty clever -- and realistic -- to handle missile attacks differently than melee attacks. When firing at long-range, you usually aren't distracted by having to maneuver defensively. This makes missile weapons much more advantageous in T&T, but the advantage is balanced out with high DEX requirements for projectile weapons.

Melee actions on both sides take place simultaneously. Combatants choose their weapons, and roll to determine potential hit points of damage. A character's weapon determines how many dice (everything is d6) to roll, and the character's personal adds are added. Any natural sixes are tallied. Each side totals their members' rolls. The side with the highest deals damage to the other side, to be divided as the losing side wishes. Hits of damage are absorbed by armor; it is possible to be on the losing side and receive no damage if the hit total is less than the losing side's armor rating. For each natural six rolled on the losing side, one point of "spite damage" is dealt to their opposition, bypassing armor. This is a reflection of the fact that even a loser in a fight will land a few blows here and there.

Any damage done to a character is deducted from their Constitution score. There are no "hit points." If you want more hit points, spend AP to raise your Constitution. 

Monsters are handled a bit differently from statted PC's and NPC's. Their relative strength is measured with a single number, called their Monster Rating.  MR serves as both hit points and attack bonuses. When a monster attacks, they roll as many dice as their MR divided by ten, rounded down. Their attack bonus is half their MR. When they take damage, points are deducted from their MR. Special attacks or weapons can override this method. You can't get simpler than this.

In this system, it can be pretty easy for players to quickly determined if their party is outmatched. The differential between hits of damage done by each side can often be proportional to the stronger side's advantage. This is similar to real life; you can tell just by sizing up an opponent whether they are going to present a challenge. 

The Beauty of Abstraction

When designing rules for combat, one attempts to strike a balance between realism and abstraction

I have previously spoken of the Realism Gap. Let me describe it with an example: Say I am inventing an RPG, and I want combat to feel hyper-realistic. I introduce mechanics for weapon speeds based on their weight and bulkiness, injury locations and types, each with their specific effects on the body, critical hits and fumbles, fatigue, errant missiles and friendly fire, weapon and armor hit points, and so on. By introducing elements of realism, I have invited the addition of more elements. A highly critical player might review my system and ask, "If you're tracking weapon damage, then wouldn't it make sense to calculate penalties for dullness? What about the possibility of breakage?" If realistic is good, then more realistic is better, right?

Let's instead decide that even RPG's, though character-driven and freeform, are not meant to map exactly onto reality. They are games. All games are abstractions of reality, some more than others. Chess, for example, is highly abstract. There is a plot; you command armies at war. There are even characters -- bishop, knight, etc. But the details of their actions are left undetermined. Perhaps, when a bishop captures a pawn, he does so through sly political trickery, whereas a knight might capture another knight in a siege, or a duel. It's all irrelevant to how the game works. Monopoly is a bit less abstract. You are a real estate investor, and so are your opponents. You spend time inhabiting each others' property, and rack up debt in the process. When you cannot pay your debts, you are out of the game. That isn't hypothetical; it's exactly what happens in the game. But traveling in circles around the "city" in the guise of a wheelbarrow -- that's an abstraction.

Role-playing games exist on the realistic end of the scale of abstraction. For this reason, it might be easy to assume that the closer you can slide a RPG towards the hypothetical infinite realism (as in calculus, approaching zero but never reaching it), the better. But, just as traveling at speeds nearer the speed of light require increasingly ridiculous amounts of energy, the practicality of a role-playing game greatly diminishes as it moves from its "happy zone" of abstraction towards the realism singularity.

Thus, abstraction to at least some degree is necessary. Let go of the impulse to treat role-playing as a model of reality, and focus on what makes RPG's great -- storytelling, character development, heroism, adventure.

I believe Tunnels & Trolls gets it right. Its creators understand that combat should rely on characters' personal strengths, but should also be resolved in a manner that is painless for the players, quickly and smoothly, not bringing the pace of an adventure to a screeching halt, but rather adding high points of action that pass quickly in real life as in the game world.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why I Despise Miniatures

When I was about 10-12 years old, I lived a block away from an office supply store whose back room was reserved for hobby supplies. This being the early 1980's, Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia was pretty much obligatory. Between the hobby shop and the books & games shelf at a ShopKo just another block farther, I was in modules and supplements for ages. But it was the glass cabinet containing Ral Partha pewter miniatures that captured my attention the most.

Dwarf with Battleaxe, one of my first minis.

I love these minis; every few weeks my neighbor friend and I would visit the store to see what was new, and return home with one or two more. But my interest in them was as tiny works of art, not tokens for gaming. I failed to see a need for them in AD&D, which at the time did not rely on location-based tactics anywhere near as much as 3rd edition and beyond.

Fast-forward to the 2000's: After a long hiatus, I returned to gaming through the system most familiar to me: Dungeons and Dragons. And I was ecstatic about the introduction of the d20 game mechanic. For decades prior, I thought the system could benefit from a universal resolution mechanic, without having to consult endless tables. But the introduction of feats and attacks of opportunity soured my overall experience.

Tactical Combat is Baloney

3rd Edtition D&D turned combat encounters into drawn-out affairs, sometimes lasting the entirety of a session. Many players seem okay with this, but I fail to see the appeal. Here are a few reasons why:
  • If you want a game dominated by tactical combat, play a minis game. Wargaming exists for players who enjoy moving tokens on a battlemat. Roleplaying games exist for players who enjoy collaborative storytelling, exploration, and problem-solving. In an RPG, combat should represent action high-points in a story, not the bulk of the adventure.
  • A tactics-heavy combat system breaches the realism gap. Ever hear of the "Uncanny Valley?" It's a principle in computer animation which states that if you get too close to lifelike realism, virtual reality becomes creepy. There is a similar threshold in gaming realism. The more flavor you try to add with special moves, skills, circumstantial bonuses and penalties, etc., the more pressure you put on a system to to completely realistic, which is impossible.
  • The more combat rules you add, the less relevant they become. Fun fact: Adjusted to scale, the Earth is smoother than a cue ball. A cue ball is engineered to be smooth, whereas the Earth possesses an immense variation in its surface. But at the end of the day, they are both smooth from a distance. A highly abstract combat system may seem to rob a player of tactical options, but a rules-heavy combat system serves the same purpose in the end: One character, on average, will be stronger than another in combat. The more details you introduce to the system, the more gratuitous they become.
Since 3rd Edition, D&D has often been played with minis, because in a highly tactical combat system you need to mark each character's position. Let's take an objective look at the pros and cons of miniatures:

Pros and Cons of Miniatures in Tabletop RPG's

First, the pros:
  • You can't run a tactics-heavy game without them. Sure, you could mark graph paper every time someone takes a 5' sidestep, but miniatures are easier for all at the table to see; and being little models of characters, they add flavor to the game.
Now the cons:
  • The Realism Gap is in effect. Tactics aside, if you're hoping to use minis to make the gaming experience more immersive, then what of the fact that they will almost never resemble your characters as you imagine them? 
  • You will never have enough. Assuming you did manage to find a mini that looks pretty much like the character you're playing, what happens when that character perishes? Do you purchase a new mini for every character you play? As a GM, what do you do when you don't have enough 1HD monsters for large encounters? Use pennies for the remainder? 
  • They make your hobby more expensive. We already shell out dozens to hundreds of dollars on rulebooks, which is enough for casual board gamers to scratch their heads at. Add the expense of miniatures, and an outsider's bemusement turns to pity. I love RPG's, but there is a limit on how much I will invest in them, especially when the return on my investment is dubious.
  • Who carries the burden? GM's, do you require that your players purchase their own minis? Or do you take on the expense?
When the only "pro" of using miniatures in a tabletop RPG is that they are required, there is something wrong.

Two Solutions

Because minis are helpful in managing combat encounters in highly tactical games, the first solution to the miniatures problem is to simply avoid playing highly tactical games. If you enjoy playing with minis, consider channeling that interest into a miniatures skirmish game. may be a good place to learn more. The Old School Renaissance has brought a slew of rules-light RPG's. I personally favor Labyrinth Lord and Tunnels and Trolls. Other popular games worth checking out are Dungeon World, Swords & Wizardry, and Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Lest you think I'm completely averse to post-3.0 D&D, I have enjoyed playing in campaigns using 3rd Edition and Pathfinder rules. But when I run said games, I prefer to craft flat tokens representing the PC's. Something like this:
The triangle at the edge of the circle indicates heading. 26 of these, and you have enough tokens to represent any character. If two characters' names begin with the same initial, I only need to create a copy of the token using different colors. You could use a silhouette of a weapon instead of an initial. Less immersive than likenesses of characters? I say no less immersive than minis that do not look like the PCs anyway. As for monsters, the process is easier: Google the name of the monster, and use whatever image you prefer in the images results. You can print the token on heavy stock paper for live games, or screen cap it, crop a perfect square around it, and shrink it to your preferred size for online games.