Watch this video. You can start at the 1 minute mark and only need to watch a minute or so.
Did you notice anything strange about the beginning of the fight? The first 20 seconds or so? Nobody actually throws a single blow. That’s 3 rounds in D&D and most tactical mini RPG’s. 3 rounds of just movement and positioning. Not a thing I’m used to seeing in my games and I doubt you are either. Fighting in Poland this past week that was one of the things I noticed and I’m trying to work on mechanics that can help model and encourage that.
Now maybe that’s a good thing. Many games focus on the visceral enjoyment of a high action combat and 3 rounds of tense movement waiting to see which side makes the first mistake may not seem that fun. However I can think of at least 3 other “themes” to highlight in combat that benefit. And if I can come up with a mechanic that abstracts it out a bit so it’s not actually just 3 turns of movement, otherwise know as pre-battle chess, I might even be able to highlight that first one.
Combat in RPG’s is sometimes about action escapism fun, but also about Realism, Story, and Strategy. The desire to attempt to faithfully recreate an actual fight. The feel of the drama and emotions that happen when life is on the line. The satisfaction that comes from successfully beating a puzzle. These three elements are all present in a movement mechanic. Realism is obvious, I just showed it happening in real life. Story is there as well, that early feeling out stage sets up the emotions of the fight, builds the tension for the crescendo of violence. Lastly Strategy is a key element to positioning oneself on the field to get a crucial advantage that often means the difference between victory and defeat.
So first lets look at the real world and think about why that happens. The slow build of an advance as opposed to the fury of a charge. The tension of trying to outflank your opponent without exposing yourself. These exists because the fighters know that that first collision of violent aggression often decides who wins the battle and could easily lead to their removal from the battle, which in real life could mean death. Every moment moving out of range is an attempt to get an advantage but doing it outside of range keeps you safe from any immediate action the opponent will take. It’s possible to win a battle before ever swinging a sword simply by positioning yourself right to give a significant enough of an advantage.
If we break this down into more concrete terms we have a few elements to look at.
-Range Control, the ability to stay outside of your opponents striking distance(which usually means weapon plus arm length plus 2 steps) while still moving where you want to be.
-Positioning, The goal is to achieve a superior position. This means a place where you can strike better than them. This could mean outnumbering them at point of contact, out powering them by placing a stronger tougher fighter against a smaller weaker one at outset, a position where you can strike faster or more effectively(Long poles vs sword and shield at distance, short axe verus spear when trapped in tight space), or a position where you can strike them unprepared(like from the flank or back).
-Timing, The ability to know that you’ve got the optimal position and it’s time to press the advantage or know that you’ve lost the position and if you don’t push know you’ll be out maneuvered to the point of defeat before the battle begins.
Alright now that we have these elements lets try and make a mechanic with them. My first thought is that the maneuvering portion of the combat looked entirely different from the rest of the chaos of combat. So I think it should be done as a separate phase. The timing element seems like it’s hard to abstract and fit towards to quantitative values so instead we’ll leave it in the players hand. So we’ll leave a phase where players can maneuver without attacking and we’ll let any player(including GM) to attempt to end the phase as an attack.
The first bit, about range control seems like it can be handled with both numbered mechanics and a more vague tactical approach placed in the players hand. We want to let the players handle where the movement is done, so some form of map and measurement will likely be helpful, lets say we place a grid map down, with standard marking and standard movement. Range control is about staying out of threat range so it should be some form of test when a player wants to break this phase and start the regular battle. Range control isn’t just staying out of striking range. It’s about staying far enough out that you can move they get to within striking and land a blow or that you can make a move and land a strike before they can move. So it’s a reaction test, probably a Ref save in D&D for the defender, modified by the distance you are from your enemy. Adjacent will apply a large negative penalty, lets say -5 on a D20, 5 feet away a smaller penalty, a -2, 10 feet even, 15 feet +2, 20 feet +5. This will be opposed by an attack that uses your initiative or speed modifier instead of whatever attribute usually affects attacking. That first attack isn’t about how a good a strike it’s about your ability to start it when your opponent isn’t ready and land it before they can react.
So now we have an outline, a movement phase that can be ended with an attack vs reaction test. How do we add the details? One of the crucial parts I think is that both groups are moving simultaneously. They react to what happened a second ago and try to move in response to that. Having one group make a full move than the other group make a full move really doesn’t give the same feel. So instead each group decides movement and reveals them simultaneously. In order to keep it quick and still tactical, I’d say cut a standard D&D round in half. Players can select movement by placing directional cards face down in order they want the move to happen. Write on the card the number of feet moved in that direction. Flip over the stacks and just move pieces. Players can also place an attack card instead of a movement card, if they think they’re in a good position to attack at that point.
should go relatively quickly, add a small element of tactics, and a large dose of realism. I probably won’t try it in my upcoming D&D games, but I’ll likely add some similar element in any one shot I run or if I ever get around to building that combat system I keep wanting too.