Combat Turn Design Decisions

Combat Turn Design Decisions

Before I get into the meat of this post, I first wanted to point out that the Ganjifa Kickstarter was an amazing success, and that the Beta 3 of Against the Dark Yogi is now publicly available for download. That's important stuff, but that's already been covered on the TabBlog and will likely be covered again in a couple weeks as part of next quarter's Tab Update.

Anyway, what I wanted to talk about in this post was to muse about the length of combat rounds. That is: Most RPGs break down a combat into rounds, and depending on the system, these rounds allow some set of actions and represent some fixed amount of time in the game world. But when you dig down into it there are a lot of trade-offs involved in the game design of how this works.

So talking purely from a game design perspective for a moment, there are two strains of thought I often hear bantered around about the amount of actions that can be fit in a combat round:

  1. One strain of thought is that a combat turn is basically a prompt for a player to act. And as such it should always be long enough that a player can do something cool or something significant. Otherwise the turn is basically wasted.
  2. The other strain of thought goes that if a round takes too long to resolve, players will begin to lose interest and lose focus as they wait for their turn to come around again. As such, combat round should be short enough that they can be resolved quickly and the wait between turns can be minimized.

These two strains of thought are often at odds. Let's look at an example. There's a combat just beginning, and a PC wants to draw her weapon, jump over a ravine to move into melee range with an opponent and then attack.

Those advocating Strain of Thought #1 would argue that all this should be accomplishable in a single turn. After all, the real significant action is the attack. And in play this might mean saying "I draw my weapon," counting/measuring and deciding on movement on a grid, making a roll to jump across the ravine and then making another roll to make the attack. And this might take a while to resolve.

On the other hand, those advocating Strain of Thought #2 would argue that doing all of this ought to require multiple turns. Perhaps drawing a weapon is a turn, making the movement is a turn and attacking is a turn. But since individually these take a lot less time to resolve than all at once, it comes to be the player's turn more frequently and she gets to thus act more frequently and this is less likely to lose focus.

Different systems strike a balance between these two views in different ways. On one hand there's D&D 4e, where every character gets a Standard, Move, Minor and Reaction each round--any of which might require a roll. On the other hand there's GURPS, which has 1-second rounds and it sometimes takes multiple turns to accomplish things. And there are numerous variations in between.

I'm a firm believer that this is something whose best solution varies largely with play style. If there were an optional solution to combat turns I think you'd see a gradual convergent evolution of RPGs towards that solution. But you don't. That's not to say, however, that there isn't insight to be gained from thinking about the issue.

First, I think it's important to realize that both strains of thought essentially deal with meta-game concerns. That is, verisimilitude and game-world time are basically separate from the issue. What we're concerned about here is managing player fun and player attention. That said, I believe that each of these strains of thought is attempting to optimize the combat turn to solve a different issue.

  1. Strain 1 is attempting to optimize for player agency. That is, when it's my turn I want to do something that matters. And this might be a tactical concern (doing something tactically useful in the battle) or it might be a narrative concern (doing something that moves the narrative of the battle forward) depending on the play style in question. But ultimately it optimizes for each player doing something.
  2. Strain 2 is attempting to optimize for player attention. That is, waiting a long time is boring. Waiting a long time also leads to losing focus on the game and focusing on other things, which means even more overhead between turns as each player has to regain a sense of what's happening in the game. When my turn is over don't want to have a wait a long time until my next one.

Your milage may vary, depending on how much you care about tactical agency and how long your attention span is, etc.

Now that I've dissected down what I see as the core of the issue, let's talk about possible solutions. As hinted at earlier, I don't have some optimal solution to suggest. But what I do have is a radically different design of combat rounds that might address two concerns for some playstyles. It's really more of a thought experiment than something I'm advocating. But here's the idea:

Imagine a game where I'm trying to make sure that all players have the change of doing something significant each round, and where I'm trying to make sure that rounds resolve quickly enough that all players don't have long waits between being involved. I'm going to try to ensure this by:

  1. Separating out decision-making (agency) from resolution in a combat round.
  2. Putting a real-world time limit on decision-making to make sure that rounds go quickly.

In this hypothetical combat system all players get 3 actions and 1 reaction. Each action is something like "draw a sword," "move from A to B" or "Attack enemy A." All three actions are decided at the beginning of the round, and then all actions are resolved. Reactions can be used to modify actions during resolution. This means that every round consists of two phases:

  1. Decide your three actions in order ahead of time. Write it down. This phase is a time, say, 2 minutes. Decide what you're going to do and jot it down. Everyone does this simultaneously.
  2. Resolve all actions in some initiative order, starting with everyone's first action, then second action, etc.

Three actions ought to be enough for everyone to do something significant (if not, then maybe it should be 4 or 5 actions… but the ideal number could be determined in playtest). The decision-making is timed, so that should go quickly. Resolution should also go quickly, since all the decisions have already been made and all that's left is to roll and apply damage. Plus everyone gets to resolve an action three different times.

A possible downside here is that planning three actions ahead may lead to planned actions going awry after the first action, and then #2 and #3 no longer making sense. Some players may love that, some may not. Just like some gamers like "Space Alert" or "Robo Rally" and some may not.

That's where reactions come in. If, at the beginning of resolving your action, you no longer want to do that action, you may spend your reaction to do something else. This new action either replaces the action you'd declared for that slot, or it's inserted between the two actions, and the last action's bumped off the list. Player's choice.

Example: I've declared that I want to do A, B, C. But when I'm about to resolve B I decide I really want to do D. I can use my reaction to either replace B (leading to A, D, C) or I can insert it between A and B (leading to A, D, B, and bumping C off the list).

Having reactions may slow down resolution slightly, but one decision per 3 resolved actions is still much less than many combat systems. Anyway, that's the idea.

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