Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Why Horse Around?

I have to ask myself from time to time: is there a point where the game I'm designing becomes too gritty, too much for the players to manage, too much for me to manage.  At what point should I stop adding rules, knowing that there are just so many rules that a person can keep in their head.

Of late, one of my grittier players expressed a 'concern' about the proposed horse rules.  There was a definite feel of ". . . erm, maybe this is more than what is needed . . ."

I should warn the reader; this is going to be one of those posts where I look at something from a bunch of potentially negative angles and then decide not to change because I don't want to change.  That really is the truth.  There's no point lying about it.

I admit, however, when one of my strongest players shows hesitation, that's a sign.  That is a moment for introspection.

On the recent poll that I ran, that I've just taken down, about a quarter of the participants tagged the choice, "why would anyone want this?"  I added that to the poll because it is a fair question.  Why would anyone want this, why would I want this?

A central part of the rules proposal is this:  that when the player wants to ride their horse at the enemy, or along a road, or up into the hills above the road, the usual statement that the player will make would be, "I ride my horse at the enemy."  "We ride to the next town."  "We head up into the mountains."  The last would probably make no reference to the horses in the party's possession at all.

Usually, when the party is in a town and wants to buy some horses, the players say, "We want to buy some horses."

Simple.  Direct.  The way the game has always operated.

My rules would propose the following statements for the player to make when riding:  "I gallop at the enemy."  "We trot our horses along the road."  "We amble our horses off the road and over the hill paths."

My rules would propose the following statements to be made when buying horses:  "I want a good pacer.  I want a foxer that does well off road.  I'm not a rider; I want a quiet 9-year-old that doesn't have much spirit."

When players usually ride a horse into battle, they usually say, "I ride my horse at the enemy," accepting that when they get there, they get there.  No fuss.

My rules would propose that the character plan the speed of the horse, that they choose to trot until they get to such-and-such a distance, then they dare to canter, then they kick the horse into a gallop, hoping they haven't done it too late or too early, hoping that their timing on their charge isn't off so that they're stuck three hexes in front of the enemy when the enemy gets to let loose with a volley of crossbows at perfect range.

I can see the problem.  The first time the players try it, they'll probably screw it up.  They'll probably feel overwhelmed by the rules and the finicky nature of it and get confused about the difference between a canter and a trot.  They'll judge the field wrong or miscount or find themselves at the slamming end of a cavalry charge that I mount at them without making the mistakes they'll make.  They'll lose a lot of hit points and feel that they've been screwed by rules they had no part in deciding upon, and hate the horse rules because these will stop letting horses be, well, non-entities.

Let me step back and consider a different variant.  I played a number of modern RPGs once upon a time, spy games, future games, auto games and so on, where cars were involved.  The cars raced around the track and never once in any of those games was the player asked to say when the car would be shifted out of first gear or into third.  We would just say that we make the car go faster, always describing the experience in numbers - numbers of miles/km per hour or numbers of hexes between the where we were and the corner.  We were never "in the car."  Like with most games, D&D included, all these things were decidedly meta-gamed, from God's point of view, where there was time to count the distance between the car and the wall and divide it by the distance per second, then measure the angle of the turn needed in the time left over to make the turn without hitting the wall.

This is most games.  Either the images and the squares are obvious, like chess pieces, or they're represented in such abstract terms that distance or timing means nothing at all.  I played many games where I would say to the players, "Ogg is moving towards you, he's close enough to shoot an arrow without penalties at if you want.  Derek the Fighter is closer, if he wants to run in with a weapon, he's close enough to melee.  No, Gareth is too far away for an axe throw, unless you want -5 to the die roll.  Yes, the mage can cast a magic missile easily."  And so on.  Such games are not tactical, they're not complicated with movements and angles and line-of-sight; and they are totally dependent on the DM's whim as to who can swing or shoot or cast what spell within what range at which opponent.

Which is why I moved away from them.

There is a legitimacy to those who call for less rules, or at least for a ceiling on present rules, because it does seem easier to have God's point of view and be able to see horses as very easy to manage, interchangeable vehicles that enable the players to move faster between towns and between enemy combatants.  The more that horses operate like hover-boards without rules, the less clutter there is on a battlefield and that is a good thing.

This does not keep creators from inventing hundreds of different styles of weapon or armors, mostly because these all work like a hammer to some extent and go on like a jacket.  Horses are complicated.  They're difficult to relate, because most players have never, ever been on a horse.  Or, at best, they have been on a trail ride, not maneuvering their horse but instead acting as part of a train, on an animal that is trained to train.  Most have never actually operated their own horse, have never cantered, wouldn't know what a canter was if they were actually moving at one and couldn't care less.

Asking a player to describe their actions driving a car, saying that they're pressing on the gas pedal or turning the wheel or changing gears seems way too gritty for players who'd rather just look down on the car like God or imagine the car as an abstract - and this for people who drive cars every day, who know from experience how much it matters to touch a gas pedal just so much or turn a wheel just so much.  Driving is a visceral experience and that sort of thing can't be captured - it is supposed - in an RPG.

People know cars and they don't want that.  People don't know horses; that makes it a hundred times worse.

What is the value, then, in wanting any such rules for horses?

For me, it makes the horse real.  It matters what horse a player picks to buy.  It matters because this horse potentially goes faster than that horse, in a way that will matter when the battle plays out.  It matters because the player has a level of horse skill that lets them do things with a horse that other players can't do.  It matters because the horse itself becomes a treasure, an acquisition, a cherished thing that can be taught additional skills - because we've defined skills and details for horses that can be tweaked, adjusted, played with, overcome, used as a defect or exploited as a measure of some special injury or obstacle that will matter where it comes to the players achieving the end of an adventure.  The player tried for this and the horse is tired.  The player tried to make the horse do something it wasn't trained to do and now the horse's leg is broken.  The player bred the horse, trained the horse, taught it to be a warhorse, rode the horse in a dozen battles and now the horse is dead.  All because we have rules for these things.

There are no rules for horses in most books.  And what books do have rules don't talk about the horses themselves; they talk about charging, hit points, how fast a horse can go, how much does a horse cost and so on.  Nothing whatsoever about what makes a horse a horse.

All of which makes the horse a very dull, easily ignored part of the game.  And that is what I have seen players do for thirty plus years.  Ignore their horses.  Hand them over to just anyone, because it doesn't matter; if this horse dies, we'll just plug another into its place, because all horses are the same.  No horse is special.  We wouldn't know how to make one special if we wanted to, because there are no rules for that. No one took the time.

There are hundreds and hundreds of other parts of D&D that are exactly the same.  We're not talking about the difference between complicated rules and simple rules, we're talking about no rules vs. any rules.  My only answer to that is to keep making up new rules and to hope, seriously, that the wiki can keep them all straight and organized so that when I want to look up the many odd things that players may want to do in my world, I will have at least the basis for giving them all the dimension on that thing that they could wish for.

Sometimes, yes, it means they're going to have to canter their horse rather than ride their horse.  But you know, that's going to pay off in the long term - because when they meet the girl or boy of their dreams, and it turns out that person loves horse-riding or equestrianism, our D&D player is going to come off as much less of a moron . . . in fact, it's good public relations, because he or she is going to ask, "Where did you learn all that stuff about horses?"


Tim said...

There are two things I quite like overall in how you've presented this and how it relates to developing other, more "advanced" rules and systems for the game.

The first is that even though there's many more possible choices and actions to keep track of, once the players get comfortable they can just say "I canter towards the enemy," instead of "I ride towards the enemy." The actions necessary are still simple enough that they can be expressed this way and then we can handle the details of where that takes the character given their action points. At other times, house-rules or new systems can feel disarmingly complex to the players because the rule asks them to keep track of more information, like when determining wilderness damage from a remarkably large series of parameters (shelter, food, warmth, protection from danger, weather, etc.) This system, as you mention, can become familiar more quickly and doesn't ultimately overshadow any other portion of the game in terms of complexity.

The second is that a player's horse can be improved like their character. They can equip the horse, train the horse and spoil the horse. My players, virtually none of whom have ever been equestrians, always enjoyed just naming their horses and deciding on colour: I am sure that the possibility of creating and "designing" the perfect horse would engage them.

The biggest hurdle for so many of these sorts of rulings is, I expect, the appearance of opaqueness. Most DMs and players (at least in urban areas) aren't familiar with horses and are unlikely to ever be on a horse except at a summer camp or on holiday, where as you mention there are guides and stable-hands to keep people from doing something stupid. There are a lot of aspects to horses: they are bred for all kinds of purposes, they need to eat different things, they are susceptible to illness and injury. When confronted with all those possibilities, any kind of system for dealing with them is going to seem convoluted or unnecessary: why detract from the "pure" (heavy sarcasm) adventuring that D&D already has? It's a lazy attitude and an easy out for not challenging ourselves to improve our game, even though that may be difficult. But I often find D&D has helped me learn vastly more about things I otherwise would never have explored. I recently started a campaign set in seventeenth century Hercegovina which has taught me so much about the history of the region, and now I'm doing the same for the Caribbean of the seventeenth century. As far as opportunities for learning go, D&D has got to be one of the best.

Mike said...

I agree with you that D&D has no rules for many things that you'd want to do in an adventure fantasy and that the original spirit of D&D is for the DM to craft what is needed.

I greatly admire the research you put into your rules and world, it's why I come here.

You asked if they are too gritty. For me they are way to gritty. I've no problem with grit fundamentally but it slows down play and design. I think I understand the impulse and where you are coming from. I to became enthralled with RPGs way back, 1978 was my first game. I to have gone down the road of many rules I see on your page, especially Action Points.

I suspect you have spent much time thinking on your approach and have tried many others, so would value your thoughts on game design.

I see your approach as a "simulation/bottom up" approach. Much in the line of games like GURPS, and Aftermath (old FGU games). Where the philosophy seems to be, have the rules accurately reflect the individual actions (even if abstracted somewhat) and the tactics and results seen generally in the real world will emerge. Thus, players can make intelligent choices about how their characters act based on real world knowledge (e.g. about the effects of planting a spear, or charging) and expect that to matter in the game; instead of having to master rules which are counter-intuitive to real world experience. Accordingly verisimilitude is achieved. Verisimilitude being the ultimate goal for me.

The above is hard work, given the need to understand a real world action, think of the relevant variables, and condense them down and incorporate them into (hopefully) an existing mechanical framework of the game.

Another approach is top down, look for a mechanic that is not trying to simulate or account for individual actions, yet nevertheless the statistical outcomes and general feel of its application comport with real world experience and thus provides verisimilitude. In general you have a mechanical framework that appears abstract but which many situations, designed for and new, can fall under and it all still works. I'd submit that Chainmail is this type of game for mass miniature combat.

I'd love to see your thoughts and experience on this.

Alexis Smolensk said...

As you say, the most important thing is giving the players the necessary agency in the fight.

If you haven't played with these rules for very long, or with someone who has played with them, they would be TOO gritty. I have no doubt of that. But I find most of the problem with "slowing down of play" is that both the DM and the players are unfamiliar with the system.

You might be surprised how quickly it plays. Or more to the point, how involving it is. The players are so engrossed in the combat, because it IS so agent-oriented and filled with potential for unique action, that time flies by and no one is bored.

The key is that the hitting of the melee makes the combatants move. You push them way, knock them back, forcing the lines to shift and change and adjust, so it never gets to be the slog that 4e is where you roll huge amounts of damage repeatedly like hammering a nail into a chunk of wood. The moving, the constant shifting, keeps everyone on their toes and demands a greater immersion in every fight.

Verisimilitude is nice but it isn't my goal. Nor am I searching for a simulation. I'm working for immersion, period. I want the fight sequences to be interesting, no matter how unrealistic a portrayal of real weapons it is. Yes, absolutely, agree on the player expectation point, but the bigger thing is to not make any one weapon or battle technique so awesome that it balances the game in one direction.

My personal feeling is that the system I've created is WAY better than Chainmail.

Scarbrow said...

Expanding a little on Tim's comment:

If you want to sell the "know your horses" approach to the urban player, remember her that she's also never or almost never wielded a steel sword for real. Another fine sport, and good to know about (best English link I could quickly find). That doesn't preclude the player from learning. Also, swords are cool because books and movies made them cool. Horses can be cool too. Never underestimate your ranger again.