Thursday, January 27, 2011

Squeeze That Unit In A Box

Lacking anything of my own to write about, I'll steal something that Hackmastery wrote about yesterday, a long time bugbear:  a mass-combat resolver ... as opposed to a mass combat 'generator.'  I have no trouble generating mass combats, but resolving them ... ah, that's another matter.

I confess, I wish there was time to play out the combats one roll at a time, as I did last year; but alas, I wouldn't put my players through that again.  I do need some sort of assistance on the large scale front ... particularly as the next pitched battle my party will be involved in will no doubt be three times as big.

Virtually everyone who sets out to create some sort of system begins by 1) compiling together the hit points of a group of men; 2) averaging out their AC; 3) averaging out their chance to hit; and 4) averaging out their damage.

The problem, of course, is that unlike a singular entity which, when it runs out of hit points, it dies, the 'grouped' unit is able to suffer damage and go on attacking.  More importantly, some of the individuals inside the unit die, which should mean that the unit's attack and damage potential should be reduced (AC averages could change also, but that's less important).  Most designers skip this part, and perceive that this unit continues to fight as though they remain a full compliment, right up to where the whole unit dies.

And then, when they play this methodology out at the table, somehow the intrinsic quality of the battle is lost.  The game is reduced to all the flavour of chess ... something to be enjoyed by a particular wargaming Zot-headed type, but dull as dishwater for a RPGer.

However, when the more forthright designer tries to handle the change in combat ability in a unit that has taken damage, the calculation tends to become unwieldy, losing the simplified grail that is the desired purpose of a mass-combat system.  Players and DM alike grind through the annoying trial that was concocted, hating it, then tossing it aside gratefully so they can go back to one-on-one encounters.

Now, if the gentle reader would forgive me.  I am at that point again in the post where I am listening to the voices of my critics before they have a chance to speak, expecting then to advance systems I haven't heard of in order to be helpful.  I will take this moment to express an appreciation for their efforts, but to point out some serious defects in their suggestions, which have nothing to do with the quality of those other systems. 

They're not D&D.  More to the point, they are not my D&D.  They won't take into account my changed hit point rules or my modified combat/stun/lose turn rules.  I'm only guessing here, but they won't be flexible enough for me to tailor them to my own personal needs.  Even if designed expressly for AD&D as opposed to 3.5 or 4 or even OD&D, they will still make assumptions about the use of magic in my world.  If the reader could please understand, they just won't be any good to me.  They wouldn't be any good to any DM who has, for years, modified their personal game to satisfy their own personal needs.

The biggest problem in finding anything designed for your world is that in almost every case it won't work for your world.  It works for someone else's world, a world so annoying that you wouldn't run in it on a bet.

This is not to say that a mass-combat system couldn't be designed.  It only says that it would have to be designed in such a way that it did not make assumptions about combat rules.  It should be a system defined by mathematics alone ... something for which I can plug in the numbers I want, and get out the numbers I need.  And nothing else.  The rest I'll incorporate myself.

To draw this out, and emphasize the problem, let's say I have a unit of 10 men.  Two of them are leveled fighters, 1st & 3rd level, with 12 and 28 hit points respectively.  The rest of the men, 8 of them, have 4-7 hit points, or an average of 5.5, or a total of 44.  The unit has ten attacks, right?

Already we run into troubles.  Because the unit actually has 12 attacks if it fights against zero levels, since the 3rd level would get three.  And then again, if they fight against a mixed unit of levels and zeros, like themselves, how many attacks does the 3rd level get?  An average of 2?  Do we just assume that the levels will fight each other, and only each other?  By what logic are we able to argue that in the middle of combat, they will automatically find each other as if they were polar opposites?

But okay, let's put that aside.  Most would argue that we can forget the bonus attacks, and say the 3rd level fighter just holds back or something.

We'll add that everyone is in leather & shield, and with an armor class of 7 (arguing flatly that there's no chance anyone in this group has a dexterity of greater than 14).  We have to make the same assumption about strengths less than 16 when we give them all long swords for an average damage of 4.5 x 10.  But these problems are quibbling.

Let's put our unit in the field (we'll call it the defending unit), and let's say that in one round they experience the following (having miraculously not suffered any previous damage):
  • A group of four archers fire into their number.
  • One of the archers is an elf.
  • They find themselves in melee with a similar sized 'attacking' unit.
  • An 1st level illusionist at the back of the attacking unit casts a phantasmal force, causing the attackers to seem twice as large, and some of the defending unit fails save.
  • A 3rd level cleric standing next to the illusionist casts hold person and freezes three of the defenders.
  • One of the attacking group has a +1 long sword.
  • Two of the attackers are elves and have a +1 to hit with long swords.
  • One of the defenders has been given an aid spell by a cleric.
And this is without taking into account strengths and dexterities that might be possessed by either side.  Feel free to determine the resolution after one round of combat, to express both the attack and the defense in one die roll.  And please demonstrate the power of the defending unit following that resolution, and have that unit then return the attack ... again, one die roll only.

All right, feel free to roll a lot of dice.  But please, if you could, resolve the combat in short order.  Please make it feel at least some of the tension enjoyed by having the ten defenders fight the twelve attackers fight the traditional way.

I'll sit here and wait.  No hurry.


Blaine H. said...

Question for design purposes... how much front end to the system is desired?

If combat is to be set up in a fashion that reduces attack and defense down to a single roll per formation... how much detail can go into the units that comprise the composition?

Can the details of the unit change from one 'round' to the next?

How detailed a 'unit card' is desired?

Just wondering these questions to be able to start assembling a solution. Forgive me for asking if it is wrong to ask.

The only problem I can see of trying to create a single roll mass combat system is that there might be a huge amount of needed rules on unit types and compositions to facilitate the ease once the units hit the field.

But it is an interesting question.

mikemonaco said...

Chgowiz is (or was) working on this problem. I've given up on it. I don't think it is possible or necessarily desirable to have a mass battle play out just like a skirmish between PCs and monsters.

If the number of combatants gets to a size that I'm tempted to not to play it out in regular D&D combat (according to my house rules), I'll just use a wargame, probably a more abstract one like HOTT; maybe Chainmail if I were playing OD&D without a lot of house-ruling. Making a battle palatable to people who are not interested in wargames seems like a waste of effort. If a big battle is imminent and my players say they don't want to play a miniatures battle, I'd just let them play out a scaled-down version of the battle as it involves their PCs and resolve the main battle "off screen".

Zzarchov said...

I solved this years ago.

Any size battle, any number of special modifiers, any number of unique cases (provided you are willing to seperate them out). The only limit for larger battles is where logistics become involved and supplies, messangers, food and intelligence become more important than combat.

How does it work?

Short notes, it works by averages. How many hits will be scored, how many injuries and how many killed.

However, for each "Group" their number of hits is modified by a d20x5%. This adds the chance aspect, maybe they roll a 20 and get double the normal hits, maybe they roll a 1 and get % their usual effectiveness. You can swap out d20 for 3d6 should you wish to smooth out the mass combat into a bellcurve.

All of the bonuses of +1 or a marginally different weapon still enter the mix. As individuals die (or are injured) their numbers thin out, they inflict less hits and damage in a gradual spiral, not an all of nothing. The one simplifcation is that 2 injuries equal a downed individual.

More information:

Zak S said...

Just made this up, might be a useful starting place, might not:

Basically it's an opposed d100 roll, high roll wins.

Decide generically before the game how much different kinds of advantages are worth: 2-to-1 advantage is worth such and such bonus, a certain amount of bonus is given for each point of AC superiority per unit, plus some percent for each magic weapon bonus, etc.

Focus only on differences between the units meeting, not a total value for each unit.

When units meet, count up total bonuses for each side, both sides roll d100 and add bonuses.

Hopefully, this won't take that long because the advantages force A has over force B have been very present in both the DM and players' minds since they both found out there'd be a fight. Oh, their shields are broad-- (+5%), and they never flee (+3%). Hmmm...

High roll wins and (optionally) the difference between the two rolls represents:

-How much of the losing unit is left
-How much of the losing unit is left and they're fleeing
-Percentage of HP the losing unit members each have...
-How long it takes in seconds for the winning unit to wipe out the losing unit

...or something like that.

SupernalClarity said...

I have a 3rd edition book that actually provides a nice system for accomplishing this. Each unit has a set of aggregate stats based on all the warriors / creatures it comprises, and the effectiveness of the unit is easily scaled based on its size (so people dying equals fewer attacks, lower defenses, etc.)

However, it does require the use of averages for some thing, which you seem to frown upon. I honestly don't think that a single +1 to attacks for one warrior in a much larger group would matter in the grand scheme of things, but I can see your reasoning in wanting to make the simulation as accurate as possible.

Adam Thornton said...

Zak: you mean like JOESKY did back in December? Only more detailed and correctly spelled?

It's actually--as with many things JOESKY--not bad.

geordie racer said...

Zak's idea is similiar to the abstract one-roll Mass combat resolver in the Heroes rpg I play:

Work out the army sizes as a ratio, roll d100 on a table with roll results on one axis, ratios on the other (roll is modified by such things as general's INT), giving an outcome of the battle for the army and the character (wounds,spoils looted).

Zak S said...


Kinda, but with unit-by-unit rolls rather than one roll for the whole battle(so tactics matter) and with bonuses for each member in a unit.

Plus partial damage, so while the PCs are doing their thing, the units are each in stages of the battle.

Alexis said...

Thank you Zzarchov, I find that very helpful. I was struggling with a idea for something like that. There's an old mechanic for a game called System 7 (Napoleanic Wars) for troop morale that I'd like to incorporate. Beyond that, there would have to be matters of time and formation that would have to be incorporated ... but you've given me a boost in the right direction.