Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Breaking Off Combat

I have been working to break a bad habit I have, wherein combats are almost always resolved the same way, until one or the other group is dead.  It is not really the way battles are fought, even between small groups of people, except of course in the movies.

You may take any number of battle scenes: Henry V, Braveheart, Spartacus, Gladiator, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy ... and the onscreen depiction is classic: side A and side B stand facing one another, until one force rushes into the other, or both forces rush together.  What follows is a mash-up of slaughter and butchery, with no one in close order, until virtually all of the enemy is dead or fled.  My D&D combats have tended to follow this motif ... mixed up as much as possible, particularly in how the combat is joined, but still with the central theme being that side A and side B duels to the death.

The fault, I feel, begins with the rule that states the participant that stays is entitled to one free hit on the participant who takes flight.  This tends to reduce a party member's willingness to turn and run, and my willingness to give parties a free hit on NPC's ... the result being that battles, once joined, tend to stay joined.

Recently I have taken note that fighting between participants in actual combat do not tend to stay in close proximity to one another; six to eight feet is quite consistent, with participants moving forward to smash and blow a few times before breaking off again to judge one another.

Now, there's some argument in that for rounds being longer than they are (I've recently expanded a round in my world to 12 seconds from six) but I don't want to talk about that here.  I merely make the point to say that, if two persons were eight feet apart, and one chose to run, the other could hardly have a convenient last moment stab.  Consider the distance between Inigo and Count Rugen, just prior to Count Rugen's turning and running.

I also point out that accounts of battle that we have show that participants are quite able to pull back from the heat of melee as a unit, so that most large scale battles are fought by driving off the enemy, who reforms for another attack, falling back again and reforming again, giving up ground and retreating to a better position, the tide of battle turning back and forth with both sides remaining in close order and not flying apart into disarray.  In fact, disarray is a sure and certain way for your force to get itself wiped out ... it is, in war, the WORST form of fighting.  Two battle sides who were both in disarray would be blown to retreat, in the hopes of reforming into ranks before the other side was able, and therefore crushing the opponent.

In D&D, where the skirmishing is usually small scale, a combat between a very tough band of characters might be broken down more by small attacks by groups of 5-8 goblins, rushing in from different points of the compass, hoping to get the best opportunities from initiative, throwing a few spears, exchanging a few blows and immediately running away.  Meanwhile, bowmen continue to harrass the party.  Given the party tendencies for heavy armor, it would reduce their opportunities to chase down these goblin groups.  Before, the party could have killed three goblins every time they turned to run away ... but no longer.

Most of all, this does not happen in the space of twenty minutes, but in the space of twenty hours ... said goblin harrassers jumping forth just long enough to force the party to keep awake, themselves sleeping and resting in shifts, while the party gets more, and more tired.  Until the party is feeling the characteristics of forced march.

So that a high-level party which could usually handle 60 goblins in a stand-up fight finds themselves wittled down bit by bit, getting more and more freaked out as the damn, bloody goblins won't ... leave ... them ... alone!

Their only hope is to find a defendable place, hopefully with a source of water - or even better, the sight of civilization, before it's too late!


Anonymous said...

Excellent post and right up the alley of something I've lately been pondering myself.

I began awarding combat XP some time ago the same way you do, Alexis. 10 points for each hit point of damage delivered/ taken and peeling off a bonus for the most hurt and most effective character during combat.

The result has been somewhat more XP awarded for weaker monsters and somewhat less for more powerful. I don't use your mass/ hit points system, so that is part of the mismatch.

What has happened over time is that the party simply looks for opportunities to take on large groups of relatively weak humanoids rather than risk more for a bigger baddie. My response has been to use these groups, when found, more effectively in terms of terrain advantages and tactics... but all but a few melees still result in them eventually getting wiped out. Spreading things out over a day never occurred to me.

Alexis said...

Great response, James. Thank you.

While large groups of relatively weak humanoids seems like an X.P. opportunity (60 goblins x 4hp = 2400 x.p.), it must be remember that those experience come with a much higher #Attacks/hp ratio (60 attacks over 10 turns = 1 attack per 4 x.p.).

Consider a big monster like a treant (12 HD x 4.5hp = 540 x.p.), which offers much less ... but it also only gets 20 attacks in 10 rounds, or 1 attack per 27 x.p.

The goblin will hit less frequently than the treant, and the treant will do more damage on the hit ... but treants don't use grenade missiles like burning flasks of oil, they can't use crossbows and bows from a distance of 80 yards or greater, and as you say, a treant hasn't the advantage of unit tactics.

The fault is not in your party seeking to attack 'weaker' creatures ... that's laudable, actually. But you can make it worse for them if you give your goblins, orcs and gnolls a good store of oil - or even pestilence-infested feces, thrown at the party with sling bags.

No one ever thinks to use rot grub as missile weapons!

drnuncheon said...

The "free hit" has always been (as far as I know) for when the opponent has been routed - i.e. he turns his back and flees. (In the Inigo/Rugen example, they're not actually in melee when Rugen turns & runs - Inigo finishes off the soldiers but never gets to engage Rugen.)

Retreating in good order is handled in B/X by the "fighting withdrawal", which reverses the situation and gives the retreating force a free attack if pursued. AD&D has a similar rule (only referenced in the PHB as far as I can tell, page 104) which differentiates between "falling back" and "fleeing". (It also adds a parry mechanic that I had never noticed before!)

Alexis said...

I feel there is a strong difference between the fighting withdrawal (slowly stepping back, facing the enemy) and running. And it is precisely that rule that I think distorts the combat.

I just plain find it odd that you feel I need to be educated on the rule, when clearly I knew what the rule was when I referred to it in the post. We all know the rule. We all read the books. What point do you make proponderantly restating it?

"I hear you when you argue that euthanasia should be legalized, but I feel you should know that it is illegal."

Greg Christopher said...

In Errant, I made it so that if you only move during a combat round, you gain an AC bonus equal to half your DEX. And I have no attacks of opportunity.

I haven't playtested it yet (very soon, new baby almost sleeping through the night now) but I think it should encourage a lot more retreats and a lot more tactical movement in general.

Wickedmurph said...

Tucker's Kobolds.

JDJarvis said...

Most folks have no idea how mobile most big fights are. I recall an interesting piece of WW2 footage that showed U.S. and Japanese soldiers in close combat. They were chucking grenades at each other, using bayonets and other hand arms and it looked like a soccer scrimmage with each side rushing back and forth across the little bit of ground they were fighting on.

In fake fighting I once ran backwards a couple hundred feet dropping my weapons as the pressing the attack agaisnt me was flailing away with his sword (knocking my weapons from my hand as I was drawing them). I finally was able to draw and hold a dagger and stood there defiantly in a proper stance and he broke off and ran away

Fights can be very mobile and tiring. Do you really want to chase someone across a field after you've been fighting for a few minutes?

Anonymous said...

The option of an orderly retreat from mortal combat did not become apparent to me until I stopped thinking of the "monsters" as cardboard fantasies and started wondering "why are the monsters (NPCs, guardsmen, whatever) fighting the PCs?"

Then it immediately became obvious that various opponents would have various breaking points where they would decide to go get reinforcements / flee for their lives / what have you.

It's that sort of nuance that makes the experience more roleplaying and less hack and slash. Funny that the heightened roleplay also offers a worsened chance of PC fatality. Maybe that's why some players prefer hack and slash-stye power trips vs "roleplaying oriented games". Although your players seem willing to roll with realism.

veris: true dat.

Dustin said...

When Hosting, I create battles where most rivals flee, or at least yield before death.

If you want your players to have a good fight against five goons, make the fight be against nine, and once five perish, the rest flee.

My players generally take captives and spare the rest. Makes me so proud.

I agree that running should be allowed though. You're giving up your ability to see the battlefield properly in exchange for getting out of there!

Anthony said...

If you are looking for a way to tweak the rules, try incorporating pursuit rules into breaking off combat. You could use what is published for AD&D or modify to your hearts content.

Essentially, it would break down to whoever had the advantage in the pursuit phase would dictate whether or not the engagement continued and in what manner.

So any side can choose to break contact without any kind of 'free attack' penalty, but if they are significantly slower, their pursuers could re-engage, fight a running battle, or just shadow the fleeing combatants. If the faster side breaks contact, than the slower party might only have a round or two or whatnot to react in whichever manner they deem appropriate before the range is too great.

Alexis said...

I have already tweaked the rules: the circumstances of running away can be gleaned from the table I posted in the wiki on Tuesday: here.

I will write something about how this works exactly, soon.

Anonymous said...

The whole "free hit against disengaging enemy" rule has always been bullshit. Anyone who's done any form of HtH combat training or recreation knows it. Greg's rule seems not too far off.