Spell Targeting – Margin of Error (5e, GURPS, others)

Wodensday Wonderings is a new feature where I will discuss and comment on things that have sparked my interest of late. Sometimes (like today) it’ll be an animated discussion over mapped vs. mapless combat. Sometimes it might be a game design discussion. Or thoughts about why and why not of firearms and the like in fantasy gaming (to pick on a heated topic I saw on Facebook). More food for thought than “folks should do this,” this is my weekly free association column, so to speak. With that:

I was reading a Google+ post about using mapless/gridless combat, and the poster and commenters were musing about what was basically the tendency of players to precisely place their area effect spells for maximum effect. I’ve seen this too in GURPS games with both spells and grenades.

A quick fix – Random Location

It adds a die roll or three, but there’s an easy way to handle it. Assign scatter to every area effect spell. You can use either d6s or d8s.

Hex Grid

Roll a d8. Yes, a d8. Or 2d6 if you must.

Die Roll Scatter
1 Short
2 Short-Left
3 Short-Right
4 Long
5 Long-Left
6 Long-Right
7 On Target
8 Roll Twice More
Double d6 Die 1 Die 2
1 Short Short
2 Short-Left Long-Right
3 Short-Right Long-Left
4 Long Short
5 Long-Left Short-Right
6 Long-Right Short-Left

The precise directions of each number aren’t that important, since the entire point is to make it fairly pointless to try and get the placement of a blast exactly right. Magic is fickle, after all. This works for grenades too, due to bounce.

But roll a die or dice. If you roll 2d6, the table is supposed to work out that if you roll doubles, you’re on target. Otherwise, walk the impact point based on the numbers. Again, it doesn’t matter what order.

In GURPS, this will mean that you can be off by 2 yards. With the “roll twice” result, you can be off by considerably more, so at some point you might need to make a fiat call for bad bounces. In 5e or other 5′ square games with magic, having your fireball screech off in a weird direction might just add to the fun.

Square Grid

On a square grid, also roll 2d6, but treat both die rolls as the same scale:

Double d6 Scatter
1 Short
2 Left
3 Long
4 Left
5 On Target
6 Roll Twice

This has slightly different chances of winding up on target, but really, the key bit is uncertainty.

Parting Shot

There are all sorts of reasons not to do this. It adds rolls, it can spoil a spell slot that is a valuable resource. It slows the game down and could anger the players.

It might also cut down on the occasionally long discussion of “where, exactly . . . no, exactly is the best place to throw this spell?” discussion that slows the game down even more, and takes a long step away from the frantic nature of lethal combat that is so hard to fake.

Peter Dell’Orto has a gaming philosophy that while not always for me, has a lot to recommend it: he’d rather make a slightly non-optimal tactical decision immediately when his turn comes up than slow down the game and make the “perfect” decision after some degree of thought. For one thing, “perfect” is mutable as the situation changes. Secondly, a lot of the mulling and pondering over “perfect” decisions rely on the fact that the player can see the map-board and have total situational awareness, which basically never happens.

The more tactical and less abstract the rules are, the more that perfect awareness cannot be subsumed into hits and misses. If an old-school DnD turn is a minute long, you can sweep a lot of looking around, probes, missed opportunities, feints, movement, and other whatnot under that rug. On a one-second or six-second time scale, not so much.

Is this a long way to go to solve a non-problem? Probably. Still, if the expectations is “I’m going to dump that fireball more or less there,” rather than precision targeting, it would subtly change how they’re employed, perhaps for the better. The same sort of thing could be done with lightning bolts, too, where the final impact point can wander several squares/hexes left or right. You might adjudicate things differently – I’d probably have such a bolt capable of jumping a hex or a square left/right to a target, and then continue from that target to the terminal point – so that the “what do you mean I missed the guy right in front of me?!” factor is lessened. But one could also have a shorter range spell that had multiple branches to it, and let a miss be a miss.

One of the issues  with magic in games (other than GURPS Divine Favor’s general prayer mechanic, whose effects are delightfully vague) is that the need to specify the cost, effect, duration, and other game mechanical effects robs magic of its mystery, and treats it like making a cell phone call, firing a rifle, or similar uses of technology. Oh, sure, you can only make four 1st-level cell phone calls to Thor per day (hell of a calling plan there, Aesir Telephone and Telegraph), but they absolutely work those four times.

This isn’t a total fix to this, and any increase in uncertainty of result will probably lead to a need to increase the power of the eventual effect for play balance (or maybe not), but still – that which makes magic mysterious, uncertain, and a wee bit unpredictable and dangerous is that which is good.

Precis – If your game bogs down as the players (or the GM!) decide exactly…exactly…where to drop that 30′ radius spell, toss in a bit of random to where it goes off. Keeps magic mysterious, cuts down on metagame time loss, but introduces issues of its own.

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