Fast Play and Slow Combat

Some recent posts by me and others have touched on combat pacing.

On the one hand, we have a situation where the frantic pace of blows given and received strikes some as unreasonable for certain situations. It doesn’t properly match some one-on-one combats, and even when it does, one has to invoke pretty extreme rules (like The Last Gasp) to force people to back off after a few seconds.

So, thoughts about combat openings and ‘closures’ came into play, with a neat way of generating these online developed by +Christian Blouin. Still, that has the potential to not just slow down combat, but to make play drag.

Is there any way to basically be able to rip around the table, and down the NPC action sheet (should one exist) and if you have six players and ten NPCs (for example), you can resolve all sixteen potential actions in only a few moments, with no real perceived penalty to fun by saying “Evaluate!” each turn?

Why do I even care? One of the features, I think, of the current GURPS battlefield (discussed here) is that it can be relatively immobile. A few seconds of time between blows means that friends and neighbors can reposition to be mutually supportive, that building up a spell doesn’t feel like a drag, etc.

But with the default (and likely proper) thing in most combats being “do something violent and effective” more often than not, I’m not sure if it’s really reconcilable with the current rules.

So, what would I feel like I need – or, as I continually remind my 3yo, needs are for survival, wants are for everything else – so what would I want in order to get this done?

1. I would want something like Christian’s combat openings application.

Ideally, I’d have an app that when you hit “go” it gives you a list of openings (one or two) and closures (one to four) for the target. These would exist whether or not the attacker uses some sort of mechanic to see them.

I’d want the app to highlight, say, in green the body parts that are more open, and red the ones that are more denied, so that a player (or the GM) can immediately assimilate that information without studying a wall of detailed text.

I’d probably love to have a built in list of combatants, that could be placed and cycled through in initiative order. Drop-down or click-boxes would allow certain options to be set, such as maneuver selection and maybe an optional focused defense selection.

I’d want the ability to designate a “victim” or defender and maybe associate it with the attacker, but perhaps that’s not critical.

2. I’d probably rework certain rules

With respect to the focused defense option, I can see instead of the usual “fencing weapons get +3 to retreat, but regular gets only +1” thing, that you be able to select a “defensive stance” option that gives the extra +2 to defenses, and have that be available and stack with maneuver selection.

You might not even be able to attack if someone retreats out of weapon range, which would force a lot of “two-step” committed attacks be required to close the distance. that feels right to me. By and large, backing off like that is very effective, if tiring, and the primary reasons you don’t do it is when you can’t. That the reason they have rings for matches – and why being in a press of battle is so scary. You can’t back up.

What it means
If you can choose a focused defensive stance, a high/low guard (not mentioned yet, but it’s a logical extension, and GURPS Martial Arts: Gladiators already has a focused defense option in there), and go all-out on the defensive, you can probably make it really hard to land a random GURPS attack without huge amounts of deceptive attack, or exploiting an opening. You’d need to do a lot more Evaluates and Feints (or Setup Attacks) in order to force a hole in your foes defenses. The opening that eventually appears would be a rare and hopefully fun thing.

Downsides are potentially legion. You’d want to ensure that each person can be resolved in only a few seconds. Going once around the table every three minutes or so wouldn’t be awful (ten seconds per person), and would ensure that people stay engaged.

But if there’s a lot more jockeying for position, some of the emergent behavior would be very interesting. Archers and spellcasters that have to take a few seconds to reload would be more compelling. Gang tactics to force holes in defenses or pin a foe down, preventing him from just scampering away, would be much more important. Overall mobility would increase, as with more time between effective action, I think people (or teams of people) would feel they can reposition and move around without missing the fun.

And frantic battle lines would be pretty scary. I think even scarier than usual.

But I think that you’d really, really want to use that application to drive it. Otherwise, too many rolls, too many lookups, and too much non-decision time.

I think it’d be fun to try a game like this, with properly integrated tools. It would definitely have to be playtested though!

13 thoughts on “Fast Play and Slow Combat

  1. I think one of two main options need to be implemented:

    1) Give PCs reasons to pause. They can either be bonuses like Evaluate (which might need to be sweetened up a little) or penalized, by either APs or increasing the amount of Fatigue expended.

    2) Make rounds take 2 or even 3 seconds long where a little more than just one thing occurs. This option has the most rules adjustments, but not insurmountable.

    I personally think increasing Fatigue loss is a great option. Something as simple as every three seconds lose one fatigue or you must pause. Only limited actions could be used to not lose this fatigue, Evaluate, Aim, etc. For me the issue is to slow down Melee combat to have the same play flow as Ranged Combat. The point being, either everyone gets to do something cool every round or everyone gets moments where they have to pause (no nothing in the mind of a player).

    Anyhoo, those are my thoughts. Now back to work.

  2. My group is looking forward to try our app as is for the moment. I agree with Jeromy here that not all action in melee should be taking 1 second. However, Peter Dell'Orto yesterday mention on my blog that he doesn't think that his player would try the Evaluate option if there is a small probability that it leads to "Do Nothing" for 1 second. I argued that either waiting three seconds to get +3 or get >>0.333 chance of getting a total of three shifts either in bonus or penalty is actually a better bang for the buck. But the perception remains: players hate to waste a turn!

    The other aspect that Peter mention is that he isn't conformable with an app-based rule. It is an app because making up more tables to look up was a no go in my opinion. And since a CPU will do the resolution, then you can do so much more in a single click (or so). A formal description of the process can be written when the system is tested and seems to work satisfactorily.

    This got me wondering about how much players and GMs value the physical act of rolling dice. I would love to have a NPC and initiative manager next, and it wouldn't be very hard to implement. The question is: are RPGers ready to shift towards a software assisted resolution (assuming a transparent resolution process)? If the RPG pioneers started their work in 2013, would the hobby have evolved into a table-lookup and dice anyhow?

    BTW, the idea of closure is good. But I want to see what openings alone can do before outputting more information to the screen.

    1. Speaking purely for myself, I use computers in pretty much everything else I do, including game preparation. I really don't like to rely on them at the table as well. When I'm running a game over VoIP or otherwise on-line, fair enough.

    2. I've been using the hit locator that we wrote in my Face-to-Face game. It works well enough on the iPad because it doesn't feel like I need to pause to go on the computer. But, yeah, it's got to be as fast as rolling dice and looking up table to be worth it.

      Getting all the sublocation sorted out, and only the right information for a given location is probably enough of a tradeoff.

  3. ** My group is looking forward to try our app as is for the moment.

    Definitely. I was mostly listing my own wish-list, rather than suggesting that testing stop.

    ** Peter Dell'Orto yesterday mention on my blog that he doesn't think that his player would try the Evaluate option if there is a small probability that it leads to "Do Nothing" for 1 second.

    What I would suggest is that you simply shift the roll for combat openings to be immediately following an Evaluate maneuver. If you do an Evaluate and Attack Rapid Strike, you're at -6 to the Per-based skill roll.

    The only other thing I might suggest is to perhaps combine Evaluate with All-Out Defense, or give a mild bonus (Evaluate and Defend) for a +1 to any defense instead of +2.

    Back to the first suggestion: people are somewhat comfortable with the theory of a +1 to attack the turn after you Evaluate. The risk/reward tradeoff isnt there (because people don't usually do it) perhaps, but by shifting the die roll to the beginning of the next turn, I think that helps with some amount of cognitive dissonance there.

    ** This got me wondering about how much players and GMs value the physical act of rolling dice.

    I only play these days on MapTool and Roll20, online. So this is really just "how I play" and whether your app is an add-in or macro to one of these packages or a separate thing doesn't matter, and all are good.

    ** BTW, the idea of closure is good. But I want to see what openings alone can do before outputting more information to the screen.

    Seems reasonable. The emergent behavior I was going for is something like "between stance, evaluation, guard, and closures, my foe is so well protected at the moment that any attack I make will likely lead him to Riposte me, opening me up while denying a likely chance to hit." That will lead to held attacks and more pauses (and Recovery Actions come naturally if you use Action points), but still Fast Play, since each person can make the determination to chill out in only a few seconds time.

    At least in theory.

    1. I'm definitely taking note of your suggestions: the app isn't really forcing a mechanic other than it needs a skill contest to compute a MoS to convert into combat "utilities": a bonus to attack and a penalty to defend. Trying a version with the benefit in the coming second is testable as is.

      Let me get your closure idea straight: correct me if I get it wrong. The combination of closures and openings sortof draw a landscape with hills and valleys through which there are a limited number of paths of least resistance.

      How would you reconcile the idea of opening/closure with hits that are randomly determined? A bonus/penalty on active defense for the opponent? Riposte would be a key option in this context.

    2. Closures: Yeah, basically if there's an opening, there's probably an area that's better defended too.

      that makes me think about a related point from Peter: Why would my having a really high Perception make me more able to actually strike you? Perhaps what we do is say that penalties to defense can only be brought about by failing that combat skill roll, while bonuses to either hit or cancel penalties come from the Per roll?

      In terms of random stuff, what I'd wind up doing is rolling an openings roll every time the guy is attacked. Then figure the random hit location, and if the area is easier or harder to hit, so be it.

  4. This sounds a lot like what I've been trying to accomplish with my homebrew system. I'm managing follow most of your discussion despite never having played GURPS. But one thing confuses me. How do you hit a random location? Do you close your eyes before swinging? I know some systems are designed with random hit locations on purpose to represent your character taking whatever opening presents itself. But GURPS strikes me as a detailed enough system that allowing random hit locations seems rather odd. Especially when you've designed rules to tell you exactly where your opponent's openings are. Maybe you just need to ditch the random hit option. What benefit do you get out of it, anyway?

    1. In standard GURPS, you have three options: strike for the torso (default), accept a random location, or aim for a specific location. The benefit of random location is that you may hit somewhere more interesting, without having to take the to-hit penalty — but it's at the cost of an extra die roll, which slows things down. I very rarely see players take this option; in fact, the only time I tend to use it these days is when rolling shrapnel damage.

  5. I was going to comment on this right under the post about openings, but first my response grew over a day to a post on itself just to fall apart an hour later because of noticed rules inconsistencies. So this time I'll try to stay short and generic in words.
    I think that there are 3 aspects of combat systems: 'detailed,' 'playable' and 'results in realistically long fight.' And the thing is, you can't have all of them. They are corners of a triangle, and the closer you are to one, the further away you are from the others.
    It holds true even for computer games, where much of the details are resolved by CPU. Most fighting games I know balance between 'playable' and 'long encounter.' Even if there are different hit locations, you only have low kick and high kick – not a full table of targets to choose from each second.
    GURPS combat is already detailed – even if you drop hit locations, you still have 1-second resolution. With a starting point like that I see no way to make fights both long and enjoyable (unless one likes Toribash, but I'm not talking about niches). I think that to make fights last longer, one cannot avoid making combat more abstract – in essence make longer turns.

    ** The only other thing I might suggest is to perhaps combine Evaluate with All-Out Defense, or give a mild bonus (Evaluate and Defend) for a +1 to any defense instead of +2.

    I've thought about it already and my (uneducated and yet untested) idea was to add to Evaluate +1 to all defenses but only against the target of evaluation – being very useful yet not rendering All Out Defense completely useless (hopefully).

    1. I also have been pondering raising defenses by a bit on the average, so that you need to work Feints and Evaluates in order to force your foe to make an opening.

      I'm very sensitive (and agree) to Peter's observation that a Per-based skill roll by the attacker can result in "poof, look, an opening!" based on a contest of skill. If anything, the ideal result here is that of a Regular Contest, where your foe must fail his roll and you must succeed in order to have an opening and see it.

      The key to fast, detailed, playable in this particular context is to be able to blaze through the "nope, no opening" really fast and have that be a normal thing, or to have the combatants be able to make a more risky move to force an opening – something like the Setup Attacks I created in the latest Pyramid Low Tech issue ("Delayed Gratification.")

      I think having that happen will require a few things, some of which are very near an edition change in the rules.

      Defenses that are high enough that two more-or-less equal combatants will look at the odds of a one-turn forcing of an opening to be a bad deal, and that the default assumption is that you need to open them up. A Beat, Ruse, Setup, or tricksy footwork/pacing thing that can be represented as a Feint.

      With an app similar to Christian's, I think moving through the initiative sequence in a spritely fashion should be possible. As many have pointed out, this is the sort of thing that is enough of a change to normal GURPS gameplay that extensive testing and documentation would be required!

    2. I wonder if reducing ST-based damage compared to armor DR would help. As it is, GURPS errs on the side of heroic fiction with respect to an average human's ability to penetrate armor. If armor is more protective, it would require things like All-Out Attack (Strong) or targeting less protected locations or Gaps / Chinks to overcome, and thus depend on achieving a good opening (ie, a high chance of defeating the target's defenses without the benefit of Deceptive Attack, or a defender who is off-balance and can't immediately retaliate). Of course, it may just reduce melee combat to fighters forgoing defenses entirely to batter each other with AoA…

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