December 17, 2014

Guest Post: Author/historian Shawn Fisher comments on rules-lawyering

Shawn Fisher, co-author of GURPS High-Tech and GURPS WW2: Hand of Steel (among other published works) posted a comment to the thread on rules-lawyering that somehow bounced from Blogger. He contacted me offline with the comment, which was fairly extensive - too extensive to be buried in the comments!

So here's more fuel on the fire. I anticipate restrained and level discussion.

The very point of rules is to help narrate an adventure game. No GURPS writer will ever be able to write rules that are perfect: That's an impossible standard. In addition, GURPS authors aren't trying to do that anyway. GURPS has an official play style that is very important. 

December 15, 2014

Musings on "33 Things I want from Combat as a player" Part 3 (23-33)

+Lowell Francis over at Age of Ravens threw down a mighty post: "33 Things I Want From Combat As a Player." I read them, and had thoughts. I will share them, because that's what I do on this blog.

This is the final part of a three-part response. You can find my comments on the first 11 of his wish list here, while the second third (aroo?) is here.

My comments are in black, while his are in color. The original post was huge as it was, so I'm hiding most of the responses behind a page break!

So here we go, for the home stretch . . .

23. If a combat is narratively unwinnable-- which I can accept for storyline purposes-- the GM should send those signals clearly.
I think this is good advice to establish as part of the game assumptions and expectations, too. I think +Peter V. Dell'Orto, for example, has either stated explicitly or his players have found by chance that he makes no attempt to balance his encounters. If you walk into the Frost Giant's barracks, and there are 100 of them and five of you, and your surname isn't Odinsson, you are courting disaster. "Every fight is one that can be won somehow" is a valid basis for a game, but not every game is like that.
Not to mention that having honest to goodness recon to do lets those sneaky scouty types shine. "Had we proceeded a mile farther, we'd have come upon a large body of the enemy; retreat would have been uphill through a swamp. We'd have been slaughtered" is a great victory for a scouty type.
24. I should feel like I'm fighting in a story, not playing a tactical game against the GM. I also shouldn't feel like the GM is changing the situation to get me.
Strong agreement with the second one, but my experience has been a bit interesting.
More often I've seen the GM adjust things to avoid a TPK than the other way. +Nathan Joy, on the other hand, simply kept ramping up the encounters against our DF party because he was having trouble providing us with a real challenge (GURPS can be hard that way). The very last one, documented in part 1 and part 2, was a very near thing, and we had to pull some pretty blatant rules exploits (mostly perfect situational awareness) to tip the scales.
That being said, Alien Menace started as more or less a series of tactical challenges, largely because I was silly and didn't provide a pool of points for non-combat activities for my players. That can be fun, too, depending on the character and player mix.

December 14, 2014

You poured rules lawyer all over my fun

Over on the SJG Forums, a thread started up that inspired next Thursday's Melee Academy topic, a cross-blog event where anyone that wants to take a shot at it writes about their favorite way to tackle a given topic. This particular thread is named "unarmed vs. knife," and the melee academy was broadened more or less to shortish-reach one-handed weapon (Reach C, 1 in GURPS, probably anything that can strike the same tile or adjacent 5' tiles in D&D).

That's neither here or there. What I want to do is point out something. Somewhere around Post 62 the thread sort of digressed (devolved?) into a protracted back-and-forth between mostly two posters. Sure, others got in there, but mostly it was 60 more long, involved posts that are really taking the letter of the rules, shaking them down for their lunch money, and stuffing them in a locker.

Most of this seems to revolve around an interpretation of particular language that is legalistic in nature - the rules say what the rules say, or what you can make them say. This would be somewhat opposed to a descriptive or principles-based approach to the rules and to the game.

In this particular case, the general concept of how the various parts of movement - in this case a "step" can be combined seems to be - with some reasonably support by +Sean Punch more or less that the step/movement and the attack are really just one continuous thing. So you can take it as a step, attack, or an attack, then step. Or if you're doing something that allows multiple steps, you can mix and match. Or if you're doing Rapid Strike, you can attack one guy, step, then attack another. Basically, try not to be too atomistic about it, and so long as you're more or less obeying the rules for when you can change facing relative to movement, you can blend your facing changes, steps, and attacks together in a way that represents your continuous movement fairly. Your foe, likewise, should be assumed to be able to do more or less the same thing on defense.

The sixty or so posts in the linked thread represent a bit of the extreme opposite approach, as if the rules have to be defended in front of some sort of Gaming Supreme Court of Nerd Rage or something.

If you note that I have an exasperated tone in this post, you're not wrong. Because much as in another parallel thread on the exact parsing of the wording in Committed Attack, I think discussions such as this, that turn on a near Clintonesque view of what the meaning of the word 'is' is do not help gaming in general, and GURPS in particular, draw in new blood and new fans. I'm not even sure they help resolve the issues at hand, because they're so very particular they require a level of system mastery and textual precision that takes a flying leap off the fun mesa, landing messily in the burning abyss below.

Unless they're contract or patent lawyers who really love their job, because that's what both of these threads remind me of. I've had conversations like this with vendors at work, usually when they're trying to weasel out of delivering what they promised to deliver, because, well, the contract says precisely X, and we can torture it until it means Y, and if you want what you say you want, well, a million bucks, please.

Again: not helpful.

I said it way, way back: the rules serve the story. This isn't to invest story with magical powers either, but consider this quote from Eddings' Belgariad:

"Because it’s necessary to say it. The word determines the event. The word puts limits on the event and shapes it. Without the word, the event is merely a random happening. That’s the whole purpose of what you call prophecy—to separate the significant from the random."
This is the purpose of rules. To give shape to the event. To allow us to put bounds around what can and can't be done. To allow the players to have a common understanding, and again to borrow from pop culture (this time Xander Harris), to define rules, borders, and an end zone. Substitute "rules" for "prophecy" here and I think you're on to something.

That is, rules exist to put gutters and bumpers on the game. To allow the story and events to evolve without someone flinging the table over or deciding that the game is too arbitrary, and the opportunity cost for playing the game is higher than the alternative: shaving one's head with a cheese grater while chewing on tin foil.

So whenever I see sixty posts worth of not explorations of tactics, but how much you can get away with within the letter, but not the spirit, of the rules, part of me gets frustrated. GURPS doesn't need that crap, because it suffers from an undue burden of point-based front-loaded chargen, one-second turns that are shorter than the usual time frame within which people conceive of character action, and an attack-defense-effect paradigm that can be festooned with Attack Options and Defense Options. If you take all of this useful color and then require sixty posts to figure out that, no, Clyde, your foe can in fact see you running round him in the middle of a one-on-one combat, and can in fact compensate for such - then you're turning my favorite game system into something even I don't want to read about or play.

Surely, of course, I don't have to play that way - and I don't. But I'm positive Sean, +David Pulver, and +Peter V. Dell'Orto - just to name the authors of Basic and Martial Arts (though I could throw +Hans-Christian Vortisch in there for Tactical Shooting, a perennial fave on this blog) don't write rules with the intent that sixty posts are required to figure out what is precisely going on here.

Parting Shot

Now, it is possible to seek clarity with what the rules are supposed to be saying, to determine what kinds of action are provided for, and not be trying to be an evil rules lawyer, but instead serve as the lawful good variant of that trope.

Asking if the intent of slicing the pie really does require Step-and-Wait, for example. That's legit, especially since the text of that passage does seem to require it, but doesn't call it out explicitly.

Asking when, if ever, anyone would ever use the ST-based rather than DX/skill-based options for moving to someone's side arc when using Technical Grappling? Totally legit.

But if you find yourself having a "cool" move hinge precisely on the word-for-word interpretation of several rules from several books? If what you're trying to pull off only makes sense when looking at a series of moves arbitrarily divided by an equally arbitrary definition of what a turn is? What you're doing is a rules exploit, and if you get Rule Zero'd, you deserve it.

Follow-up Shot

Honestly, as I think of it on the run-around-to-the-side thing, there's already more or less a consensus that if you want to claim the "the foe can't defend" that derives from attacking from the back hex, you have to start there. Otherwise, you treat it as a run-around attack, which only treats it as an attack from the side. That's -2 to defend.

I'm almost wondering if a similar logic should apply for side attacks. You only get the benefit of that if you start your turn in that arc.

Another way to look at it is to treat the "rear" arc as -4 to defend if you end in the rear hex (bear with me), the side as -2, and the front as no penalty. The penalty to defend is the average of where you start and where you end. Defenses are still minus infinity (no defense) if you start in the rear hex.

So a true run-around, starting in the front and ending up in the rear, is at -2 (average of 0 and -4). Start from the front and end in the side? That's a -1. Start in the side but end in the rear is -3.

That gives a game-mechanical benefit to sliding around a foe, but doesn't invite the kind of hair-splitting the brings the game to a halt and chases away players.

Another simple way: if a foe steps around you, go ahead and let them make a single hex-rotation to follow you as part of a defense, and two or even three rotations combined with a retreat. This has consequences of its own, of course - it might open up the back to your friends - but it would also make clear what's going on in that run-around attack, and show why you get that -2 instead of no defense. The game presume you're not standing frozen, which is exactly what you're not doing in a swirling melee.

December 12, 2014

Musings on "33 Things I want from Combat as a player" Part 2 (12-22)

+Lowell Francis over at Age of Ravens threw down a mighty post: "33 Things I Want From Combat As a Player." I read them, and had thoughts. I will share them, because that's what I do on this blog.

This is the second part of a three-part response. You can find my comments on the first 11 of his wish list here.

My comments are in black, while his are in color. The original post was huge as it was, so I'm hiding most of the responses behind a page break!

12. Everyone should have someone to fight.
Assuming that combat is the purpose of the character and the conflict resolution method at play . . . no, I still don't necessarily agree. It does suck to want to be involved in the combat and not be able to either engage a foe, or have them all out of commission before you get there, though. I ran into that in my first Dungeon Fantasy game. By the time Cadmus got to the fight at Move 4, the other guys - either the archer that could engage at a distance or the magic user and/or gargoyle that could both fly - had already mopped everyone up. That was irksome.
13. There should be some sense of risk from the mechanics itself. By that I mean, I should be worried about damage or status effects. There should be a chance I could die if things go terribly badly-- well, maybe not die, but that I'd get taken out.
I think this is a good general rule, and by and large I dislike the "I've got 1 HP left, I'm good to rock and roll" feeling. But then, in games such as Swords and Wizardy, my HP are basically my "awesome battery." If my foes are hitting for 5-10 HP at a time, and I've got about 50 HP, then I can take about 5-7 hits before my "whack 'em in the face" strategy needs to change to "fight defensively," "run like hell," or "take a moment to slam down a potion." 
In GURPS, the purposeful presence of the death spiral (shock effects impact hit chances; stunning is a game-over effect, mostly) to incapacitation means that once you take a hit, you need to be very aware of how that impacts your fighting ability. Crippled or grappled limbs, dropped weapons (not unique to GURPS), low ammunition or a jammed gun in modern games, or even the presence of an enemy with high DR or high mobility can all make a fight go from "I'm OK" to "HOLY CRAP" in one hit.
But basically: yeah. Fights should be scary unless getting in a long series of fights is the whole point, and (as referred to elsewhere in a post I should link to and will do so later) the real campaign challenge is resource management, not having any particular fight be a big deal.

December 11, 2014

RAW Grappling: Win

A repetitive but useful introduction: 

In previous posts I talked about grappling from the perspective of someone totally unfamiliar with the concept and application. 

I proposed what is effectively a loose four-step model. Like all models, it's wrong, but hopefully useful ( "All models are wrong; some are useful." G. E. P. Box).

The steps (and the post titles) are:

  1. Grab him
  2. Grab him better
  3. Achieve a dominant position
  4. Win

Along the way, I digressed into defending yourself from grapples and while grappling, as well as a very detailed look at the arm lock technique in the Basic Set/Martial Arts. 

In this installment, we talk about the fourth and final step: achieving victory. Due to time constraints tonight, I'm only going to talk Rules-as-Written. I'll hit TG in a later post. Sorry.

That depends on what "I Win" means

A key decision here is to define victory, and if you're grappling, the goals are probably one or more of these four things:

  • Escape from a conflict
  • Immobilize your foe, either to keep him from leaving or to stall him
  • Incapacitate him and make him unable to continue fighting
  • Kill him. Dead. D-E-D. Dead.

December 10, 2014

I get to play DnD Fifth Edition!

I'm very excited. I asked to join a DnD game with some names you're going to recognize when I post session reports, and was invited to join.

Because I don't have access to the PHB, I"m sticking with the basics. Fifth level fighter, and he's developing a nice backstory.

I rolled ridiculously well for stats: 4d6 drop lowest, plus being human, gave me 13, 16, 14, 14, 16, 15.


Right now, I'm considering Heavy Armor Feat instead of the +2 to stats, but I'm unsure. I don't really have access to the feat list. If I just do stats, I can rock out with STR 18, DEX 15, CON 16, INT 13, WIS 14, CHA 14 or I can go with STR 17 and DEX 16. I like high DX for both the AC as well as often a bonus with ranged weapons. I've got an Archery specialty at the moment, but Great Weapon Fighting might be fun too. He's going to let me start with plate armor, and my loadout is a longsword, longbow, glaive, and two handaxes.

The back story on him is At a certain age (18, 21, whatever) the noble scions of the House of the Azure Tabard (or some such) are sent on Quest. They're teleported (voluntarily) way the hell away. They must adventure, thrive, enrich themselves to show they are worthy, lead men, follow men, slay monsters, fight for law, and . . . eventually . . . return home.

I've got some other notes on him, and I'll post a final character when I'm done.

For now, though - I'm open to suggestions! What am I missing?

Jay Meyer's Noble Treachery - On Sale!

A while ago, a coworker of mine decided to live his dream and publish a boardgame of his own. He worked it, designed it, sourced the art. He started his own game company: Great Northern Games, and made it happen.

It's now on sale, at CoolStuffInc among other places. +Jeffro Johnson interviewed him about it, and now the full printing is out.

It's a combined card and dice game - he calls it the Cardicean system, and it's worth taking a look at.

Here's the post I did a long time ago.

Congratulations to Jay for his persistence - he's done something we can admire. Go buy it, play it, and say nice things in public (say, on BoardGameGeek). Preferably in that freakin' order, thanks.

December 8, 2014

Musings on "33 Things I want from Combat as a player" Part 1 (1-11)

+Lowell Francis over at Age of Ravens threw down a mighty post: "33 Things I Want From Combat As a Player." I read them, and had thoughts. I will share them, because that's what I do on this blog.

My comments are in black, while his are in color. The original post was huge as it was, so I'm hiding most of the responses behind a page break!

1. I don't want to have to look up complex maneuvers and abilities-- if I have something special, like Martial Arts or something, I should be able to write the quick details on my sheet. The complexity of some of the Gurps MA (for Gurps 3e) is an example of this done badly. Basic maneuvers-- feint, disarm, etc should be simple enough that after doing them once or twice, I don't have to look them up again.

I think that GURPS 4e is much better in this regard, but I agree with the overall sentiment. One of the things I consciously tried to do in both Technical Grappling and a related D&D5e article that's kicking around on my "shopping this around" list is to ensure that the basic mechanics for these actions are the same as for basic combat. 
In fact, one of the basic ideas that +Peter V. Dell'Orto and I have bandied back and forth is to take the "one unified mechanic" concept to a logical and fast-paced extreme. 
We'll see how that works out.
But yeah - your favorite stuff should be easily noted on your sheet, and stuff that "anyone that fights should be able to do" should be easily noted, or even better, be obvious on how to do it from the basics of how the system works. I think Peter and +Sean Punch's Martial Arts for Fourth Edition succeeds very admirably in this regard. 

2. Maneuvers like feint, disarm, grapple, called shot shouldn't be hideously complicated in play. Yes, maybe there are one of two extra rolls or tests, but they shouldn't bog things down into a mini-game. At the same time, if I forgo my standard action I should have a chance of getting a benefit. That chance should be balanced against the potential reward. That's not always realistic-- disarming can be devastating, so it ought to be tough. As a player I want fun more than I want realism in the combat.

No surprises I agree - and strongly - with this. If something can be done, it should neither be stupid to try nor an automatic I win button. The mechanics should hew closely to the rest of the system, and not require a whole new combat flowchart.  
Grappling can be a bit tough because the effects are both persistent and changeable, in that quality of a grapple can theoretically vary all over the place, vary by hit location, etc. When I discussed grappling as presented in DnD5e Basic some of my observations were that as presented, grappling wasn't that good. In some OSR games, a grapple that "misses" or fails can have a serious impact on the attacker rather than just being a miss. Not much reward and significant risk! 
I think mostly GURPS handles this well, and DnD could be modified easily to handle it much better.