Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bloody Attrition

Several days of being sick and I still have an ache that proves my head has been removed and replaced with a basketball full of pudding.  Through the blear, however, there are several posts I could think to write.  Most of them are not about D&D.  This one is.

I wish I had the time to work up a decent set of modifiers or perameters that would create an environment vs. players damage system that would make me happy.  These things get like a piece of gristle and I can't let go.  But then, new angles come up and I recognize that not rushing into creating a system is sometimes a good thing.  Here's the new angle for today, and this too comes out of that Kohima book I'm grinding through rather slowly (it isn't light reading).

Let's look at it from a wargamer's perspective.  I played wargames before D&D, and both wargames and RPGs tend to suffer from some of the same assumptions.  Let's consider the map below:

Site of the largest tank battle, ever.
It's a small section of the Central Russian Uplands, a vast area of rolling hills and steppe south of Moscow.  I've chosen this because of the proximity of the road from the south, through Belgorod and Oboya, and the road from the east, through Staryy Oskol and Tim.

In most wargames, roads provide double the movement speed for units moving from hex to hex.  In other words, while it may take one full move to go straight east from Belgorod, it also takes one full move along the road from Belgorod to Oboya.  This also means that it takes 4 moves to go from Belgorod to Staryy Oskol through Kursk (8 hexes) and 4 moves to cut across country from the bend in the road north of Belgorod, following the black arrows, to where you can meet with the road again.

Some games get 'complex' in that they would differentiate between the height of hills in the first hex of the black arrow east of the Belgorod road (the reader will note that the corner of the hex reads 895 feet) and the next hex along the black arrow route (377 feet).  This drop in elevation might mean that the black route was slightly slower, and that therefore the road through Kursk was still faster.

What I have never seen in a wargame, however, are rules that argue that attempting to go overland had a chance of actually bogging down the unit so that it couldn't move at all for several days.  And I have also never seen any rules that suggested the unit coming out of the rough country (the black arrow route) emerged at half its combat strength.  And yet this is what would be proposed by a D&D rule regarding damage from travel.

Consider larger units in the game than just the character party.  The fighter, cleric and mage devise a strategy by which the main body of the player's army, led by the cleric and the party's hired officers, will attempt a cautious assault upon the castle gates with catapults and siege towers, mostly to draw the enemy's attention.  And meanwhile a hundred picked men under the fighter - with the mage along for support - will move through the dark swampy forest and over the mountain spur above the fortification and flank the weaker defenses from the rear.  A simple glance at the castle will show that there are less men posted there, the walls are not nearly as high and there are no ballistae mounted on the towers there.  Obviously, the castle defenders do not expect an attack from there.

Why not?  Are they just dumb?  Surely a child could see that was the direction from which to attack - at the castle's 'Achilles heel.'

Ah, but is it?  Perhaps the builders of the castle were no so dumb after all.  When the flanking group finds their strength wittled down by freezing water and hundreds of nips from normal sized rats and mid-sized centipedes; and when they find themselves tearing up their hands and boots on the naturally sharp rocks during the ascent of that spur; and when they find themselves losing men from slips and falls from the upper slopes that are covered with dew when the picked men try to make the climb at night; perhaps this won't seem like such a good idea.  Don't imagine a group of daring men emerging from the unwatched side and quickly cutting through the 'weak' defenses like butter.  Imagine a group of torn, bleeding remnants who, after crossing the wilderness to reach the castle, have half their hit points or less, with dead and weakened companions scattered over the land where they've just come.

There's another rule I have been considering.  If a party were to move through a given wilderness hex (or any hex without a road), it follows that the second time they moved through that hex circumstances will have slightly changed.  First of all, they would have found better routes by trial and error already ... so they ought to move faster.  And in finding the routes, they ought to take less damage.  In fact, every time they move through a given wilderness hex, their time and their circumstance ought to improve.  Oh, certainly, there's a point where it couldn't get better, and they would still be subject to the weather, but it should still improve.

In our little scenario of the flanking group above, how many lithe bowmen familiar with the terrain would it really take to screw the party, but good?  Defenders would know the rocks, and would know just where to set up ambushes, who knew when an attacking party was bound to get trapped between the deep bog and the soft ground where running towards a group of three or four archers was practically impossible.  It wouldn't take anything to pin them down when the party came to a certain point on the far side of the spur.  The defenders would have names for every feature, and would say to one another, "They'll have to climb their way up over Finn's drop, or climb through Kelly's defile.  If they're fool enough to do the latter, we'll have Ransom and Troy pin them down when they round Leggim's bend, and drive the back end of their group west from Oram's roost.  We won't last long, we'll have to back out after they scramble up the slope that's there, but Davie and Dan can dodge into Galick's cave.  They'll never find it, as we all know."  (Laughs all around)  "We'll get four or five of them for sure.  Then we can back up and when they go over the ridge near Wavel's Grave, we'll set off the traps."

And so on.

A group of defenders who knew the wilderness well would make life hell for a group of interlopers who knew nothing about the country.  Even with a guide leading them, that guide would have to be someone who knew the country well - and the guide would then be known very well to the defenders.  If the guide really knew the country, he'd know enough to tell the party, "Don't do it, you fools, they'll kill half of us before we'd get there."  Or the guide would have enough larceny in his heart to know when to keep his head down at the bad bits, and when to disappear with the party's money.  Otherwise, the guide's chest is going to be the first target aimed for by the defenders ... without much pity, either.

There are a lot of angles on this rule than what I've seen.  It's more than merely travel.  It's attrition, too.


  1. The search for an attrition travel system, is indeed like gristle that won't come out.

    I know some of my ideas have been less impressive to you Alexis, but I would love someone, anyone, to come up with a system that works well. I know Zzarchov's system of body points and luck points, works well for him, but I was hoping for a pure hit point loss system, without the creation of a new mechanic for hit points all together.

  2. "What I have never seen in a wargame, however, are rules that argue that attempting to go overland had a chance of actually bogging down the unit so that it couldn't move at all for several days. And I have also never seen any rules that suggested the unit coming out of the rough country (the black arrow route) emerged at half its combat strength."

    There was this infamous monster wargame, the Campaign for North Africa, that I remember some college kids in our D&D club trying (stress on this word) to play back in the day. Its attrition, movement, and logistics rules were obsessively granular and modeled both situations.

    In fact you'd even have to compute things like water usage into attrition--with factors like Italian units requiring more water in order to boil their pasta rations (kid you not).

    Still looks like you are getting somewhere with this thread.

  3. I've been fiddling with an alternative hex movement system for wilderness adventuring that could incorporate attrition. not sure if it'll help but here it is on my blog:

  4. Alexis,

    This is starting to sound a lot like actual D&D adventuring to me. The way you're describing the hazards of the places the characters are moving though, the improvement of conditions as they get to know the area enclosed by the hex and so forth strike me as things that a DM might want to play out turn by turn for his party.

    There's a line somewhere in there between abstracting travel to die rolls and table results, and just plain ol' playing D&D, but I think with this topic you're starting to blur it.

    This is very, very good. As I've moved away from story-driven games and toward sandbox play I struggle with what to abstract and what not to. I've been following this topic with interest and will continue to do so.

  5. I am trying to think about how to solve some of these problems using otherwise 'pure' D&D.

    A die roll of damage based upon terrain (perhaps with a bonus or penalty to the die for weather).

    Allow certain gear (tents, etc) to reduce damage (ie, a tent and hammock will reduce the first 2 points of damage).

    Perhaps also allow players to reduce damage by 1 each time they have gone through a hex before, to a maximum of say of -5.

    Even a grizzled guide with proper gear has much to fear in trying to traverse the tropical leech marsh (2d12 damage per day), but the local meadows (d4 per day) are probably safe if you know what you are doing.

    Then we get into healing and magic. Roughing it through malaria infested jungles with hellish humidity has got to impact your sanity. I am reminded of a scene in "The Pacific" where after months of rain and mud one Quebec commando blows his brains out. A chance per day of being unable to fill empty spell slots might do the trick.

    The priest can use cure light wounds, but with a 45% chance of not getting it back tomorrow..can the priest really risk it?

  6. I've enjoyed watching this travel system come about, it's certainly one of the better ideas the blogosphere has popped out.

    That said, my main quibble is that at the lower levels, travel is exceptionally dangerous. I mean, a Magic User of first level (average 3 HP) could very well lose half of their health to a day or three of travel.

    This is actually a weakness I see in lower level HP, rather than in the travel system itself.

    In that sense, my suggestion for "fixing" that HP aspect in play is to give an HP kick: Alexis' own HD by Mass table should suffice. 1d4 makes leaving the house lethal. 1d4+1d6 (avg 6) makes it...slightly less. Very slightly.

    But then again, maybe the harshness is an intended effect, in which case, it is pulled off quite nicely.


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