Thursday, April 2, 2015

Time in Mass Combat

As a second post on mass combat, I'd like to talk about time.

Over the years, I have settled on 12 seconds as the appropriate time for a combat round to last.  In the beginning of my experience, I adopted the one-minute round with everyone else, though in the early 1980s it was a favorite mocking conversation to talk about how much could be done in the time it took to remove 1 hp from a goblin.  Eventually I had trouble with movement vs. one-minute rounds and I tried adjusting my combat so that it ran in segments rather than rounds.

For those not familiar with AD&D, there were ten segments to a round.  The 'weapon speed' for individual weapons had been carefully broken down in the player's handbook: daggers had a 'speed factor' of 2 segments, halberds had an SF of 9, morning stars 7, long swords 5, short swords 3 and so on.  For a year (about '84), I tried a system where the time it took to fight with a weapon was the speed factor plus 10, so that a dagger could be used in attack every 12 segments, a footman's mace every 17 segments and a war-hammer every 14 segments, along with other weapons of varying speeds.  Quickly players moved over to faster weapons and the two-handed sword disappeared (even though I was still using special damage against large creatures in those days).  Being able to attack 8 times in the space of 100 segments with a dagger was vastly superior to attacking 5 times with a two-handed sword.

But, it really didn't work.  The actual time element hadn't actually changed and so trying to explain what was going on with all that time was becoming more and more problematic - particularly when I made the decision to slow spellcasters down (see the last post) in order to reduce their power.

So I adjusted my 'rounds' to 6-seconds, the length of the old segment, so that spells that took '4 segments' to cast in the players' handbook became 4 rounds to cast.  This was eventually adjusted too, so that now I use a system where 1st and 2nd level spells take 1 round to cast and part of 1 round to discharge; 3rd and 4th level spells take 2 rounds to cast, 5th and 6th level spells take 3 rounds to cast and so on.  Everything discharges at the same speed.  There are exceptions, such as the 24 hours for find familiar or the gunshot effect of command, where casting and discharge happen simultaneously in the time it takes to speak one word.  Command is a weak spell, however, so I have no problem with it.  As well, I have certain spells where the discharge is automatic because it affects the spellcaster personally, such as sanctuary, shield, shocking grasp, etcetera - the caster does not need to spend movement discharging the shocking grasp, but time must be spent trying to touch the opponent . . . but this is all unimportant right now.

Six seconds was too short, however, particularly as I adopted action points into my campaign from 3rd Edition (I thought them a good idea).  Twelve seconds offered a more refined speed for events, so that a single 'action point' (AP) was anything that required 2.4 seconds to perform (5 AP per round).

Using this scale, however, when we measure the 29 rounds it took to bring the melee in the previous set of posts to the point where I stopped recording the battle, we find that all of that takes only 5.8 minutes.


I don't think that the solution is to return to one-minute rounds.  Granted, 29 minutes seems more reasonable for a mass battle (still pretty fast, though), but it also means that when the mage blinks out of existence, that mage is gone for a full minute of time.  It means it takes the mastodon three minutes to cover a distance of 70 feet once it chooses to flee, smashing through the 15 ft. high palisade wall that surrounds the fort.  The mastodon weighs six tons.  I made the time it took to smash the wall equal an extra 12 seconds; traditional AD&D would suggest it takes the mastodon a full two minutes to smash that wall.  That is as ridiculous as 5.8 minutes of total time for the combat.

No, no, no, the solution is to force the combatants to do what they actually do in real life:  hesitate.  At several points in the combat I had the enemy hesitate (or even fail to do the logical thing and rush across the courtyard to shore up a battle), but I did not require the party to follow that principle.  That's a way of giving the party an edge.

But rule ideas I proposed earlier this year could massively slow down a combat like this.  Where both sides of the north gate battle or the west breech battle are steadily losing strength and combat effectiveness, it more or less forces Falyn - who fights virtually every round of the entire combat, when not held - to fall back to avoid passing out from heat stroke.  If the reduction in character abilities across the total force is deep and hurtful enough, eventually the entire force will withdraw out of missile range, to cool down and regroup.  Even if they're winning!  That is the thing about biology - it doesn't care how well the battle is going.

That is only the first consideration, however.  At the time of this battle, I was not playing with the recently proposed biological unit rules that I've lately adopted.  Those rules give another 4 hit points to every goblin and every glaiver all over the field, so that instead of these dying upon hitting zero, as I was doing in 2010, more than half of them would actually be alive and well.  This should result in many of the glaivers who are standing at the back and doing nothing except waiting to get into battle to change their minds in order to walk or carry their still-alive companions off the field.  This is going to produce a different sort of attrition on both sides, one that every real-life commander of a military unit accounts for and accepts as proper behavior from the combatants.  The commander who opposed such action would undoubtedly get 'accidentally' shot in short order.

So as that attrition is happening, simultaneous to the loss of statistical power, the players would have to retreat in light of the fact that while they might be inclined to stay, staying may not be an option.  Once again, by forcing the battle lines to pull back, time is spent, thus more closely reflecting the duration of a battle without changing the time it takes to move or swing a weapon.  We often fail to recognize that most battles that are fought throughout a day are not fought continuously as they are in role-playing.  People take breaks.  Both sides, in fact, acknowledge the need for these breaks and are willing to let a side retreat - simply because they are too exhausted to follow.

Finally, in the mass combat above, I was not applying any meaningful morale system to the events.  Occasionally, for something profound, I would require a morale check (for the druid's animals, for instance, after a fireball) - but I did not employ them unilaterally.

In the fall, however, I began trying to employ a morale check for NPCs, in order to affect the way that followers of the party reacted to combat differently from their own henchmen.  Mostly, it has been an attempt to force parties not to rely upon hirelings to show 100% loyalty in combat.  It has worked, more or less.  Parties still have hirelings, but they are much more conscious of trying to boost the hireling's overall morale while at the same time protecting them, since they know that the hirelings will fold in actual combat if left to themselves.

So far, the morale system is still in its learning stages; there are a number of details that haven't been memorized by the players or even by myself, so that looking up the linked page above has been a chore.  Eventually, however, the rules will stick; they've already proven themselves in terms of increasing the tension and tactical considerations in battle.

If this morale system above is applied to a mass combat, this too will cause whole units to collapse and fall back from battle.  If the reader takes the time, the consideration of sympathetic morale could mean that an entire unit could rout on account of one participant in that unit.  A routed unit would then retreat, again to a point outside of missile range, to reform, cool down, then march back into combat.

Overall, between heat exhaustion, injuries and morale, a battle such as the one detailed in the many posts this week could easily take five times as long to play - particularly if the party wanted to have all three or four fronts hammering away at the fort at the same time.  It is easy to see the Queen drow and other smarter defenders being able to move from melee to melee as this one or that collapses, leaving only one group still actually assaulting the fort.

Would this drive the players crazy?  Yes.  Would it make them question the validity of this sort of assault?  Yes.  Would it feel like actual mass combat feels, a frustrating, disappointing, disheartening and maddening procedure encouraging both sides to make some sort of treaty rather than going on with the apparently unending attack?  Abso-fucking-lutely.

I love that people have written to say that this combat from 2010 was fantastic and awesome.  But I still think I can do better.


  1. I'm fairly sure that I've seen studies of melee based battles which very specifically talk about the speed in which it's all over. I'm sure the Battle of Hastings, which lasted all day was in fact several skirmishes, each only lasting a few minutes. Most of these large battles, I think have most of the time taken up in manoeuvring, feinting, retreating, building courage and fervour in your men before a flurry of actual fighting which is over in 10 minutes.

    It makes sense as well, I used to be a fit guy, I have done re-enactments wearing a chain vest and a kilt, carrying a hand and a half blade - it was exhausting. The thought of keeping that level of activity up for half an hour seems impossible. I would have to stop and rest during that time.

  2. To be clear - I'm agreeing with you!

  3. The 1 minute rounds were always the most baffling thing about AD&D for me. B/X had 10 second rounds at least as far back as 1981 (not sure about Holmes Basic).
    A minute may make sense in a large scale wargame where you have entire units fighting on a big battlefield, moving considerable distances (and perhaps using muzzle-loading guns). But for one on one swordfights it never seemed to make any sense.

  4. Yes, yora, but you see that the point I was making was that we can change these things ourselves - we don't need to throw out the whole system and adopt something painfully simplistic like Holmes or B/X, which fail on so many OTHER levels where it comes to creating a deeper, more elaborate campaign.

  5. Do you have rules to account for rallying the troops? Or might that fall under the fighter skill tables?

  6. Rallying the troops would fall under the Leadership sage ability, when I get around to writing it. I plan to link it to the morale mentioned above, plus writing rules for stopping sympathetic morale failures, slowing routs and improving the time to reassemble when they occur. Leadership will also improve willingness to enter combats, even for non-combat trained persons, as well as rallying/drafting volunteers in times of necessity or trouble (and not just for combat).

  7. The AD&D combat round (of one minute) was based on the original D&D combat turn (of one minute) which was based on Chainmail's mass combat turn system of one minute (Chainmail being the original "default" combat system of D&D and the roll-D20-thing being an "alternative combat system" that has, over time, become the default system).

    I only bother to mention this to say that originally the "one minute" time segment of combat was considered appropriate for the scale of mass combat. When the scope of battle became condensed in the man-to-man skirmish game, the scope of *time* was not (hence the need for adjustments like your own).

    Adjusting time scale based on size of the combat seems reasonable to me.


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