Thursday, August 11, 2011

Weakening With Time

When I was in university, many of my profs would strongly emphasize that the whole of extant works from the classical period would fit on a single shelf about six feet high and four feet wide.  This would include everyone, Greeks and Romans, from the great historians like Livy and Tacitus to the hacks like Vegetius and various other writers of the late Empire.  It would include the encyclopediac writers like Strabo and Pliny, the biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius and the philosophers like Aristotle, Plato and Marcus Aurelius.  It would include all the plays, all the poems and all the satires. It would even include Apicius' cookbook.

In other words, very, very little.  It is a small enough collection that a diligent reader can comfortably read the whole lexicon in the time it takes to complete a four year degree in Classical history.  It is small enough that a dedicated scholar can become so familiar as to recognize virtually any passage the moment it is spoken.

As such, most of what is written about the Greek and Roman period is speculation based upon the speculation of earlier sources, who themselves are speculating upon writers who speculated upon the original sources, in a tradition going back two thousand years.  Every time new work on the original material comes out, it usually represents an insight which is nine parts personal creativity, ninety parts the copied personal creativity of other persons, and one part original source material.

But that's really okay, because the original source material is, as well, merely conjectures largely written by people who were not present at the events they describe.  We read Livy, who writes about things happening centuries before his own time, which he has based upon hearsay and tradition and quite probably blatant lies, the historical tradition between the 3rd century and Livy's own time (he lived as BCE became AD) being fairly catch-as-catch-can.

Take, for example, the Battle of Cannae, 216 BCE, during which Hannibal slaughtered the Roman Army.  If you compile all the bits and pieces surrounding the event that were written before the year 400 AD, it will take you all of five, perhaps ten minutes, to read the words.  But since that time, so much has been written conjecturing the events at Cannae that you can easily spend ten years reading through the mass of source material on the subject.  So if it seems that a modern author presents a viewpoint as though they have recently built a time machine in order to gather their information, it helps to remember that two thousand years of amassed writing is essentially a time machine in itself.

With this introduction, I want to draw the gentle reader's attention to this interview with Robert O'Connell, author of The Ghosts of Cannae.  By clicking the link in the center of the page, the fifty-minute podcast is available to all.

And I'd like to refer now to the part beginning at 6:45 minutes into the podcast, where the interviewer asks O'Connell about what fighting was like, and O'Connell answers,

"One of the most prevalent misconceptions about combat, especially the sort of, you know, we get from movies, is that it was continuous.  You have this sense that these armies come together and they fight and they fight, and they're hacking away and they're hacking away, and our hours past, and people die, yada yada yada.  It really can't be like that.  It could never have been like that ... Put yourself in that position.  Try to fight somebody with a sword when your life is on the line for even five minutes and what you find is that you're more exhausted at the end of those five minutes than you've ever been in your life."

In classic D&D terms, five minutes is a mere five rounds.  I play with the rule that rounds equal 12 seconds ... but five minutes is still no more than fifteen rounds.  O'Connell suggests that long battles, therefore, would break up with the contestants on either side backing away, catcalling and taunting while resting up for the next melee.  That in effect a battle going on all day would include many hours of both sides not fighting at all.  My imagination thinks of men sweating, sitting on stones or the ground, pouring water over their heads to cool down - assuming they have the water to waste - then tiredly lifting themselves to steadily advance again, the two armies flowing and ebbing over the landscape, moving steadily this way or that, looking for opportunities to flank the other.

For all I know all battles, right up to the present day, operate like this.  I can't be certain, as I've never been in an actual battle, and certainly have never had the opportunity to observe one like a football game, an analogy O'Connell makes later in the interview.

But I'm curious how this would play out in D&D, if the rule were created to force the reality.  There had been a discussion months ago about the exhaustion effected by travelling through the wilderness causing damage, and I made the exhaustion connection there with combat ... but upon further thought (the Cannae interview was last Friday) I came up with a completely different solution.

Suppose that each combat round, or possibly every three combat rounds (depending on the length of round), a -1 "to hit" modifier was applied to all attacks, regardless of success.  Swinging the weapon is still an effort, though it is hitting with the weapon that causes the shock to go up one's arm.  Perhaps you could say -1 per successful hit and -1 per three misses.  It's a real bookkeeping mess, and it wouldn't be popular with players, but imagine the effect it would have on combat when after six or seven rounds the players and their opponents were all attacking with compounded minuses to hit.  How long would players keep at it?  Would they stop when it no longer became possible to hit at all, or would they begin to realize when their odds were shortened to 3 in 20 or 2 in 20 that it was time to back off?

The balance, of course, is that for every round of not fighting (or every three rounds, or every ten rounds - the number is up to the house), a negative modifier is dropped.  Eventually the participants regain their strength and resolve, and go at it again.

It could very seriously change the face of a mass D&D combat, particularly when you consider how this creates the importance of keeping some participants IN RESERVE.  So that, when the front fighters begin to weaken, the rear can defend their retreat ... particularly in situations where five or six player characters are fighting fifty or sixty goblins.  God, what a disaster that could prove to be!


Carl said...

I was a Kung Fu student for a few years. I won't go into the style details, but it was closer to a boxing gym than a typical martial arts studio. We sparred a lot and punched things a lot.

During that time, I learned just how exhausting fighting is. The footwork alone will wear you out in a minute or less, especially if you have to chase someone. Fighting for one minute straight, is like running as fast as you can for one minute.

I like the one-minute round concept. I think that the more you fight, the more vulnerable you become to damage. You become exhausted and cannot defend yourself as well. Witness the famous Ali vs. Holmes fight wherein Ali lets Holmes punch him for 9 rounds at which point, Holmes is completely spent and Ali simply lines him up and knocks him out with a quick combination in a few seconds.

I'm thinking that as the rounds of fighting progress, for every round you swing your weapon, maybe I should increase the damage multiplier. Round 1 is 1x, Round 2 is 2x, etc. That should speed things up a bit.

Alexis said...


There's some interesting information there, so I wanted to publish it; but I wasn't asking for your solution, I was asking, as always, for a critique of my solution.

Isn't it time you started blogging again?

ChicagoWiz said...

When I was diving into Chainmail whole-cloth, I really got to like it's fatigue rules which mimic this. There wasn't a cumulative effect, which I like the concept a lot, but it was serious enough that it would affect tactics and decisions. The concept was similar to a -1 to hit, but I would probably go further and say that it's a -1 to hit, to damage AND to AC. In Chainmail, it was dependent on how many turns consecutively you moved, charged and/or melee'd. It required a turn (equivalent to a D&D turn) of rest to regain. Perhaps I'll toss this out there in the future.

Alexis said...

I think the thing with a flat rate modifier, a player will just suck it up and call it the price of doing business. To really force the issue, the result must be a diminishing return which guarantees, ultimately, that the player won't be able to hit, no matter what.

At the moment I'm thinking of a system that would let players toss a penny in a cup whenever they miss, and a nickel whenever they hit. Call a nickel worth three pennies, and divide the total by three to get the modifier (fractions ignored). Then, for every round the player does nothing (except perhaps walk slowly up to 10'), remove a penny.

mikemonaco said...

Hmm. Five 12-second rounds (12r) to a standard AD&D melee round (ADDr), right? So if my fighter attacks once a 12r, he'll be at -5 on his last attack in the ADDr. Then say he rests the next ADDr, getting his five ho-hit penalty points removed. But if he could risk taking the time, he's best off resting after attack, and still makes 5 attacks in two ADDrounds, with no penalties, vs. 5 attacks with increasing penatly all in the first ADDround and being knackered in the second. (using the intially proposed sytem)

The fatigue factor will be different with the nickle/penny system, and potentially lead to a hit this ADDr, rest next ADDr ... maybe just stick with 1 minute ADDrs, huh?

But I like the reserves/fatigue kicking in with larger sirmishes and battles. I won't propose an alternative here, out of respect for the author. :)

Tom said...

One thing you may want to consider is a few rounds 'free' from fatigue at the beginning of a combat, assuming the characters are otherwise well-rested, before fatigue begins to kick in. So for the first say 10 rounds, no fatigue applies, then it starts to take its toll, as the reserve energy runs out.
Presumambly the Undead and/or Constructs and/or Elementals would be tireless and immune to fatigue.

If you were willing to kick the complexity up several notches you could tie the Fatigue and it's penalties to diet of the character as well. (One could also throw in some modifiers for those NPCs who lead a more sedentary lifestyle than the average adventurer.)

Alexis said...


The problem with your logic is that it's usually difficult to rest within arms reach of your enemy, so you can be sure to attack him every other round when its convenient. Usually, you have to fight until finding an opportunity to go somewhere else and rest. This, plus if O'Connell is to be believed, after five ADDr, you should be too pooped to do anything except stagger away. So you're not in better shape with the original time measurement.


I love, LOVE, the idea of linking it up to the player's diet. And yes, there might be something to giving them a 2-5 round grace period (though I'm not inclined to make it ten, since that's 40% of O'Connell's suggested limit).

shlominus said...

would you apply this penalty only to melee attacks? what about magic, how exhausting is it to cast spells?

while linking fatigue to a characters diet might sound good on paper, i think going with constitution might be a lot more practical.

maybe con-10 rounds without penalty?

Alexis said...


You bring up a very good point. I personally would not see magic being as exhausting as combat, because mages don't have a constitution requirement. I could see the casting of a spell being the equivalent of a missed swing (whether the spell affects or not), just in terms of actual EFFORT.

This brings a marvelous added quality to the thief. I am thinking of the battle scene of Pistol and Nym in Branagh's Henry V; neither of them seem the worse for wear while battle rages around them, stealing as they go.

I am loathe to link the battle exhaustion to constitution, since so much is already linked to it. This rule I think applies better when it applies universally, and not as yet one more instance in which people with stats get the breaks. I think it is enough that a high level player can afford to take more modifiers than a low level player. Adding a constitution balance too sounds awful 4th edition for my taste. There might be a realism there, but for playability's sake I think the application would overbalance the play.

Alexis said...

I'd forgotten one phrase in the above; I meant to say that all fighters already require a certain constitution bonus; that is enough constitution involvement in this rule as I might like.

JDJarvis said...

It makes sense to apply fatigue if you are looking for a more accurate reflection of combat. But players don't like it becasue of the bookkeeping and the moaning about being heroes.

I recall a number of rules from the good old days used a round by round accounting of fatigue but the only one I have readily on had is the original Gama World where combatants degraded in offensive capacity as the battle raged depending on weapons used and armor worn. It was imperfect in it's complexity of detail (and an error in regards to how the penalty should be applied) but it was a nod to realism, a curious one given the game itself.

I have done fake fighting with padded weapons and mock armor of different types and combat in battle is nothing like a short fight. You do end up with people falling back and resting up while the battle rages, sometimes looking like they've come to picnic at the battle, and while it is easier to do in a fake fight it doesn't conflict with accounts of such things in real battles.

I've read accounts and seen photos of the stone-age people of New Guinea and how they wage war and they spend a lot more time maneuvering, posturing, and haranguing the opponent than they do in direct combat.

There's some footage of WW2 fighting at close quarters between U.S. Marines and Japanses soldiers and there was a lot of scurrying back and forth in little packs and it looked more like a rugby match with a bit of schoolboy brawling thrown in instead of how people typically imagine combat.

Fatigue and morale (which ebbs and wanes along with fatigue) have a big impact on how combat is conducted.

I believe a simple rule similar to the one you propose would do nicely.
You just need players and GMs willing to actually keep track of things for it to work.

Chad said...

How do you intend to apply this for mounted characters and archers? Mounted characters have an easier time moving into and out of the fray, and likely use less energy, but would they suffer a negative modifier at a reduced pace?

As for archers, I'd consider giving them the same penalty - especially if you're doing it for casting characters - without compound bows, holding and pulling that bowstring back will fatigue your arm quite quickly.

Last thing, would there be some benefit for characters who are generally in shape? So much of combat training - both for sport and for war - emphasizes conditioning that I think characters would quickly figure out to practice and drill relentlessly, which ought to give them some benefit.

mikemonaco said...

Hmm, yeah, I suppose that if you are actually defending yourself (and gaining the benefit of your shield and HP) you can't really be "resting" -- I was fixated on the "attacking" as opposed to "fighting."

Better hire some mercenaries with large shields to fall back behind. I imagine a shieldwall would have a lot of back and forth like that in battle.