Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 18, 2012
 
Tactical vs. Roleplaying

This weekend I watched several videos on YouTube about Tactical vs. Roleplaying, a subject apparently currently being a hot topic in the D&D YouTube community. First of all I have to say that I found the format cumbersome. Video clearly is not my medium. I much prefer the written word and comments as form of discussion than everybody putting his opinion video on YouTube, leaving the watcher to figure out the order in which the discussion took place.

On the subject itself, I'm clearly on the side favoring tactical combat over a "fast" style of combat which plays "in the theater of the mind". The reason for that is very simple: Tactical combat rules avoid conflict between players and Dungeon Master. Roleplaying, as done by little children naturally, often involves sequences of "Bang, bang, you're dead!" - "No, I'm not!". Having only simple combat rules provides you for rules to determine whether you are dead, but still leaves a lot of things open. The example that was (badly) discussed in the YouTube videos was the players believing themselves in bowshot range of their enemy, while the DM believed otherwise. The exchange "I shoot the enemy with my bow." - "You are out of range!" isn't actually much more intelligent than what the roleplaying children did. If you have miniatures on a battle-grid, the situation is easily resolved by counting the number of squares between shooter and target, and comparing it with the range of the weapon. In the theater of the mind it is perfectly possible that the players *believe* to be in range, while the DM *believes* they are not. That always leads to some sort of conflict or resentment, even if the players ultimately have to accept the DMs word on it.

What I was somewhat surprised about was how often in comparison between 4th edition and previous editions (or D&D Next in the current playtest version) it is said that the length of combat in 4E is a disadvantage. Sure, it is true that I can do two or three D&D Next fights in the time it takes for one 4th edition combat encounter. So what? The D&D Next sample adventure has 60 combat encounters and a typical 4E published adventure has 20. The total amount of time spent in combat is the same. Only in 4E you get to spend the time in tactical combat, making tactical decisions, while in D&D Next the combat is faster because it is much more simplistic and has a lot less options.

Compared to computer games, a 4E combat is like combat in a tactical roleplaying game like Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics. D&D Next is more like Diablo. There is nothing wrong with either. But the rules system by itself does not address the far more fundamental question of which percentage of time should be spent doing combat, and which percentage doing other activities like exploration or dialogue. If you just put in more fights, having a faster combat system does not imply having more time for roleplaying. And, while it isn't typical for published adventures, you could perfectly well make a 4th edition adventure in which combat only takes up 10% of the overall time for the adventure.

The clear disadvantage of fast combat, expressed in the language of a MMORPG players, is that it leads to fighting lots of trash mobs. It is *because* each combat encounter in 4th edition is longer, far more complex, and more tactical, that each fight feels more like a boss fight, and is more memorable. And if once in a while you want a fast fight, you can always use mobs with very simple powers, and minions, to create that trash mob feeling if it is necessary for the story.

In the end you need to know what you and your players want. There are lots of people who like tactical miniature combat, and 4th edition is a great game to provide it. If you find combat not interesting in general, and are mostly concerned about evolving the story through roleplaying dialogue, you might do well with a system that has short combat. But then you need a different sort of adventure than the one WotC is offering, because there really is no point of having faster combat just to have more of them, each one more forgettable than the previous. If you're hoping that great roleplaying will evolve if only you throw yet another bunch of kobolds on your party, you're in for a disappointment.

Comments:
I'm unsure why this is posited as a"4e vs. the world" sort of thing. Pathfinder/3.5 is every bit as grid oriented and Not Vague as 4e.
 
I haven't played pen & paper roleplaying in over 15 years and I'm 40 but it seems AD&D has changed a lot since then.

When I used to play AD&D (ver.1 maybe?) a lot of stuff was at the whim of the DM. It was the DMs job to create and maintain an imaginary but believable world for the players, with the help of the module. As long as we had a good DM that seemed to work well for me, after all the game is about imagination, right?

The way you are describing it now, with playing boards and models and rules for every eventuality, it may be less contentious for sure, but it doesn't seem to leave as much room for imagination either.

So you fire an arrow and it falls short because you are out of range. That's possible, right? I mean, can you gauge long distances by sight? I bet not, I'm sure even if you were an experienced archer you'd get it wrong from time to time.

So I'd be happy for the DM to make a judgement call on this type of thing, as long as it seemed objective, realistic and fair. Isn't this about trust between DM and players?

If I make a decision because my char model is 10 squares away from the mob model and I know my bow can only shoot 9 squares then you have removed the element of unpredictability, realism and ultimately imagination.

It sounds a bit like board game WOW and less like the richly imaginative game I remember. If they are trying to turn back to the old way of doing things, then I guess I can understand why.
 
I haven't played PnP is a long time, but I think this may have been why my favorite adventure set for AD&D was SpellJammer. It was much more of tactical combat game, and me, and my group at the time really enjoyed it.
 
Great points Maniac -

Also, in old-school gaming, DMs often make rulings based on a character's ability scores.

So, for example, the archer -believes- the goblin is 9 squares away even though I know, as a DM, that he is not. But because that archer has a high intelligence, I make it work simply because this archer is one smart dude and has got it figured out mathematically better than I do as a DM.

This is how ability scores were brought into play in the old-school. You often adjudicated situations positively or negatively based on the a related ability score. No dice were needed. Often, characters overruled reality simply because they should be smarter (or dumber) than their player.
 
See, in old-school gaming (sandbox) worlds, I like to think of the DM as not the author or producer, but the publisher of the setting. You see, as a DM, I am merely relaying, to the best of my ability, how that world appears to my players.

Many old fantasy writers composed their works in this way. Tolkien wrote LotR as if it was a real place, Burroughs wrote the same way, as did others.

I see heavy-handed tactical games like 4E as a detriment to that relationship. By confining maps to such fine detail, they are telling us that DMs are no longer the publishers, but the authors of such fantasy realms. At that point, we lose much of the magic, mystery, and unpredictability that such written material the game was modeled after.

Sometimes I get that world wrong. When my player does something that goes against the laws that I believe should exist, and that something matches up with their character's place in that world, it means that I have interpreted the world wrong.

Obviously, you don't want things to get completely out of hand. No blatantly defying laws of gravity or anything like that. But when it's "close enough" and the character *should* be able to figure that out better than their player, I give them the benefit of the doubt.

Likewise a player who is trying too hard to exceed his or her character abilities should not be allowed to. Player skill, not character skill is prevalent in the old-school, but not to the point where ability scores become meaningless.

Half-Orc: "...and that, Mr Guard, is why we should be allowed to pass out of this jail cell unscathed and liberated."

DM: "I'm sorry, but even though that bribery monologue may have sounded eloquent to you, it simply came out as verbal diarrhea to the guard. He's laughing at you right now. A charisma score of 5 is simply too much to overcome in this situation."
 
By the way, it's not like positioning didn't exist at all in old-school gaming. Most people drew up or placed minis on a battle mat temporarily during a combat situation, and Gygax specifically mentions that minis could be used to keep track of party order. The difference is that these were aids to the game when needed, not the game itself.
 
As a veteran of D&D 2nd, 3rd and 4th Editions, I can certainly say that Tobold's description of how the Theatre of the Mind worked out was fairly accurate in my groups. The problem with using imagination inevitably comes along when the player's view is different from the GM's. And considering the stubborness of some of my players at the time, it usually ended poorly when it came about. Sure you can argue that perhaps your GM should be better, or tha tyour players shouldn't be douchebags, but those aren't always options.

@Maniac

Firing an arrow and it falls short is still a possibility in 4th Edition. Player thinks it's in range, says they'll attack, rolls a 3 on their d20, for a total of 17 versus AC, and the DM says, "The ranger fires her bow, but unfortunately mis-read the distance. The goblin snarls as the arrow buries itself in the dirt 5 feet short."

@CF

In 4th Ed you still can make rulings based on a character's ability scores. The skill system is pretty much ability mod + half level + 5 if you're trained. If something doesn't fall under a skill, pick the appropriate ability score. If something does fall under a skill, would someone untrained be able to reasonably do it? If so, let them try anyhow. Heck, if they can't, still let them try.
 
I suppose that is my problem with 4th ed. I play pen and paper RPG for roleplaying. If I want to fight stuff I play a MMO. The computer does the numbers faster and the fight looks and sounds better.

I can't really see the point of having a combat heavy RPG myself. Even a board game (e.g. Stratego?) seems a better medium for 'doing combat' than a RPG.

Gobble gobble.
 
"In the end you need to know what you and your players want" ... and if you don't agree then it will never work smoothly.

@CF, the point on using minis in old rpgs is so true, well said. We are no more crippled or enabled by tactical mechanics than any other time.
Play what you enjoy.
 
"In 4th Ed you still can make rulings based on a character's ability scores. The skill system is pretty much ability mod + half level + 5 if you're trained. If something doesn't fall under a skill, pick the appropriate ability score. If something does fall under a skill, would someone untrained be able to reasonably do it? If so, let them try anyhow. Heck, if they can't, still let them try."

Yeah, I understand that, but I think in modern D20 systems like you are describing, you're trying to do something that it wasn't really designed for. You're supposed to find an appropriate ability and always roll a D20 + Ability Modifier vs DC. That's just how the cookie crumbles in modern D20 games. DMs making rulings in these type of games, instead of using the mechanics as given, are going to receive some blank stares from their players.

To those that tell me, "well you can do that in modern D&D too", I say, "I don't need to, classic D&D already does it, and does it better".
 
Why is short range and bow mutually exclusive. It'd just depend on factors. Didn't Legolas hit a cave troll with his bow from short range?

@ CF, aside from publisher (or author) a GM also seems to be a referee.
 
The real question for me is "why play 5th edition?" 4th edition has a very specific thing that it does very well, provide a solid miniatures skirmish game / RPG. But if we want Theater of the Mind style roleplaying, there are tons of games that support that very, very well. What, if anything, will 5th edition bring to the table that isn't very solidly covered by HeroQuest, or Dogs in the Vineyard, or Storyteller?

Providing solid, well playtested game mechanics for a tactical game takes a good QA team, playtesting, lots of effort. WotC can do this, tiny one man efforts can't, at least not as well. But a one man outfit can do a "theater of the mind" game just as well.

I struggle to see what is compelling about 5e.
 
The middle ground my group found is to place tokens on gridless map, but to use narrative-based action desriptions instead of rules-based ones. This approach, of course, severely limits game-mechanical choices (and is useless for tactical combat systems), but it at least allows the game to retain tactical decisions, and that's a good thing for sometimes a little too ephemeral narrative rpgs.
 
How is the large scale combat, the mass combat, handled in the Next, or 4th edition for that matter?
 
It's not. They plan to release a rules module for mass combat in Next eventually, but seeing as they've only released the core playtest so far, its not out yet.
 
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