Saturday, March 3, 2018

Fight Semantics

Charles Taylor and I are going back and forth on the last post ... and it's a good discussion, I don't want to let it die.  Part of me thinks we should just get on mic and suss it out for five or ten minutes ~ which would be an interesting strategy for engaging mini-podcasts ~ but I'm going to write about it in the moment.

Basically, this is an argument that has been going around for quite a while, and is part of the "weapon simulation" rule-set vs. the "weapon game convenience" rule-set conversation.  To wit: should rules for combat in an RPG be redesigned to more closely represent reality, or should they continue to exist as a shorthand for getting the combat over with so we can get back to role-playing?

Here's Taylor's proposal, a perfectly fair one:
A fighter should be able to snatch up their sword and be able to competently defend themselves, but in D&D, your weapon has no effect whatsoever on your defensive ability. Armour is the only control over their defense the player has, so of course they're going to cling to it. They have nothing else, unlike in real life, where you defend yourself with your sword and armour is a safety net to protect you if you screw up.

I am probably closer to this sentiment than most, who still feel that the priorities of combat are a game.  I love the idea above ... that any character with weapons skill ought to be able to count on their weapon as a means to parry attacks against them, to preserve themselves, and thus rely less and less on the use of armor.  We like the notion that Robin Hood, D'Artagnan or Conan doesn't need to wear armor, because they're just that good with a sword.

Only ... most of the rule sets I've seen that try to present this ideal are cumbersome, or ultimately become a sort of guarantee that the sword swinger becomes invulnerable.  Don't get me wrong.  I like a multiplicity of rules that relate to combat ... otherwise, I wouldn't have this list of standard, regular rules that exist in my game.  And I don't want that as a dungeon master.  I never want the fear of death to go away; I want every combat to be legitimately dangerous, no matter how good a fighter a character happens to be.

My purpose for writing this post is to flesh out the reply I gave to Taylor at the end of the last post's comments ~ my argument that the weapon's defensive element is included in the old D&D combat system, just not in the way people usually think of it.

To begin with, let's take two combatants, Hichem and Jocasta, both unarmored, both 1st level.  Hichem goes to take a swing at Jocasta using a d20, needing a 10 to hit her.

Why a 10?  Why not a 1?  What is this magical force that surrounds Jocasta, that makes every roll between 1 and 9 a miss?  It isn't stated blatantly in the rules, but I think this "missing" is due to Jocasta's use of the weapon ... her weapon is 45% effective against blocking attacks made by Hichem against her unarmored body.

IF Jocasta also happens to have a dexterity above 14, this makes her even less likely to be struck by Hichem's attack.  Now, usually people describe this as Jocasta dodging Hichem's attack, but this is actually pretty unrealistic.  We don't fight by dodging.  We fight by putting our weapon in the way of the opponent's weapon.  Jocasta, because of her dexterity (let's say it is a 16, giving her a 2 pt. armor bonus), is faster at getting her sword in the way of Hichem's sword than she would be if her dexterity were, say, 12.

Now, suppose Hichem hits.  We'll say Jocasta has 10 hit points, and Hichem hits her for 3 damage.  This 3 damage is 30% of Jocasta's hit points.  Now, we can say that this represents Hichem's ability to cause damage ... but we can also say that Jocasta's ability to deflect Hichem's attack resulted in taking 30% of her total hit points.

Suppose Jocasta gained a level, and 10 more hit points, and then fought Hichem again.  And Hichem, again, hits Jocasta, again for 3 hit points.  Now, that 3 damage only counts against 15% of Jocasta's hit points.

We could say, and we usually do, that this means Jocasta can take more damage.  But that is actually a rather warped way of looking at it.  Jocasta's body hasn't changed.  Her skin isn't harder, she hasn't gained weight, there's no physical rationale for her being able to take more abuse.  However, there is a perfectly reasonable argument to be made that when the 2nd level Jocasta deflected Hichem's 3 point attack, less of the actual weapon touched her body, because she is getting better at deflecting an attack.  Where, at 1st level, Hichem's blow probably gave her a good cut, now it does little more than score her.

And if she were 10th level, and had 80 hit points, that 3 points of damage would be little more than a nick on her skin.  She is much, much better at deflecting a hit, using her own weapons' ability.

So the "competent defense" that Taylor is asking for is already inherent in the rules.  It is only that, from bad habit, we've gotten used to thinking of characters "dodging" during fights and not "parrying," just as we've gotten used to thinking of characters "taking more damage" rather than "taking a smaller percentage of their total physical integrity."

It's unfortunate that we've gone that way with semantics, but that's not a problem with the rules.  The rules do account for better effectiveness for weapons.  We don't have to add extra modifiers for parrying attacks for better weapon-AC bonuses ... the modifiers are right there in the experience/level system.  Of course, we can add bonuses; but we're really only tweaking an already working system.

So much for AD&D.  I have another point to make.

Long ago, I introduced my stun lock system (recently renamed from just "stun").  In it, the better combatant has a higher chance of hitting the lesser combatant.  When Hichem hits Jocasta the 1st level for 3 hit points, he stuns her, thus allowing him to attack again before she is given a chance to do so.

This "stunning" will probably be confusing forever, because the combat system is viewed as a turn-based process.  I see the turn as representative for game play, but not as a descriptive for what is going on.

How does a fight usually go?  Hichem swings at Jocasta, she swings at him, he swings at her, she swings at him, ad nauseum?  No.  That's how Gygax saw it, or framed it ... and there's no wonder it's boring as hell.

A fight actually goes, Hichem swings at Jocasta, then swings again, gets off balance, she swings at him and hits, and because he's staggered by the blow, she swings again, glancing off his body, so he swings and misses, so she swings and hits again, then again, then again and Hichem drops unconscious.

Sounds more interesting right off, doesn't it?

Mechanically, it works like this, if Jocasta is a much better fighter (3rd level) than Hichem is, still being 1st.  When he hits, the blows are mostly taken on Jocasta's weapon.  Some of it touches her, but so little of it that she isn't stun locked by the damage he does.  When she hits, however (and she has a better chance to hit, because she's 3rd level), her blows use up a larger percentage of Hichem's hit points.  He's stun locked because he's easier to hit and the hits matter more, because he's lower level.

She doesn't win because she can "take more damage."  She wins because she takes LESS damage, as a percentage of her total hit points, which describes her superior use with a weapon, because she's gained experience that Hichem hasn't.

Just because we don't typically use the words, "Jocasta wins because she's a better fighter," insisting on this semantic of referring to her hit points and chance to hit, doesn't mean she isn't actually using her weapon a lot better than Hichem is.

We could improve our understanding of what's happening in a combat if we could stop letting language be a barrier to describing what is actually being represented here.


Regarding those people who, after a century of failure, still think that incentives work on humans: