"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

B/X Combat - Fast, faster, fastest

One of the benefits (at least in my mind) of B/X combat is the speed at which it is resolved.

Recent editions have focused on taking long duration combats and giving the players enough "fiddly bits" to make the combats interesting. However, I prefer the fast, abstract combats of B/X. A few reasons why:

1. Initiative is rolled every round - I much prefer this to the cyclical initiative in the most recent editions. I like the uncertainty and I really like the fact that it eliminates the need for such things as Attacks of Opportunity. It is also instrumental in balancing spellcasters and fighters.

2. Declaration of actions prior to initiative - I find that this and the fact that initiative is rolled every round keeps players at the table and interested. it also speeds things up. It eliminates the "what am I going to do this round…" when it cycles to each players' turn.

3. You can really try anything - I know that free form actions in combat are not restricted in 3E or 4E but I find that feats and powers have the unintended consequence of focusing a players decisions to a relative narrow scope of actions. There are no such mechanical focuses in B/X.

3. Fast feedback - Tactics in B/X are very different than in the most recent editions. Proper tactics in B/X are really focused on the decisions made prior to combat - things such as marching order, choke points, resource management, etc. But there are still enough decision points after entering combat to give players some control over what happens after combat begins - such things as trying to trigger opponents morale checks, when to withdraw or retreat, etc. The speed with which B/X combat is resolved allows for quick feedback of these larger macro decisions. There may only be three of these large scope decisions to be made each combat but the speed of B/X combat allows for these decisions to be made in quick succession. The longer combats of recent editions instead focus on micro decisions such as 5-ft steps, avoiding attacks of opportunities, etc. I would rather have a 10 minute combat where there are three important decisions that impact the outcome of the combat and then move onto the next encounter instead of an hour long combat where there are thirty decisions each of which has a minor impact on the outcome of the combat.

4. Onto the next encounter - I much prefer a series of short interesting encounters than a long encounter with a series of variables. Maybe it is a lack of attention span.

However, recently I have been finding myself getting wrapped up in the narrative description of what is happening in a combat. I am beginning to think this is actually a "bad" thing. Why would describing the action be bad?

1. Slows things down - if one of the key benefits/strengths of B/X combat is speed, anything which detracts from this is harming the action.

2. I can't compare to players' imagination - How can the words I use compete with the image in each player's head? Any verbs or adjectives I use may be counter to how a player imagines the action. My descriptions cannot be as vivid nor as interesting as what a player can have in their mind's eye.

3. It takes focus off of the important decisions - who cares if the orc hit with an overhand chop or a sweep at the legs? it doesn't impact the decisions that the players can make to affect the combat.

4. It takes focus off the things which do create tension in B/X combat - Tension in a B/X combat is not created by intricate description of the action but instead by the attrition of the party's resources. Quick combat keeps the focus on how many hit points you have left, what spells you have remaining, how many retainers have fallen, etc. Me describing how a bunch of hobgoblins press the attack does not create tension as much as a player seeing their hit points dwindle under the on-slot of those hobgoblins.

What do you think? Do you prefer fast abstract combats with only a few significant decision points or long combats with a large number of intricate decisions? Do you use colourful descriptions in your combats or instead stick to the basic, "you are hit for 6 points of damage"?


  1. I like fast, abstract combats mechanically, but I always describe them with plenty of color.

    To use your example, I like to tell players that the orc chopped at their legs with his chipped and rough greataxe as opposed to "he hits you for four damage."

    In my mind, these two things aren't at cross-roads at all. Combat should be viscereal and easily visualized, with the attrition and the pain taking center stage.

    Simply describing combat as a back and forth of damage and misses makes it too sanitary, in my opinion. Combat should be messy.

  2. I prefer faster combats, but only if they involve colorful descriptions. I generally don't find that it slows combat down _that_ much, and I quit the RPGA game my wife and I were going to because none of the DMs ever provided any description. I'd like to think I have a well developed imagination, but if that description is lacking combat can just turn into a bunch of numbers to me.

  3. As an interesting and somewhat related point, Old Geezer (Mike Mornard) mentioned over at rpgnet:

    "My combats are fun. ON the other hand, I LOATHE "descriptions" in combat.

    "And then the EARS, I get the POINT, get ON with it!"

    But OD&D is a fast system, fast enough that we can run a combat turn in barely over a minute; the fast pace provides its own source of fun."

  4. I like exciting combat descriptions, but hit or be hit, I have the player's do the describing. I enjoy it when they work the things they've imagined about the location and/or sitch into the game. It gives me more to spring off of, as well.

  5. Aw, geez. What N. Wright said, lock stock and barrel.

    Mechanically, I make my combat rounds blaze past with hell at its heels, leaving behind streamers of description in their wake.

    Many's been the time when I've said something like "'Kay! The gnoll chops downward with his haldberd, aaaand -- the blade buries itself in the ground!" only to have a player say something like "In the ground? OOH! I wanna RUN UP THE SHAFT OF THE HALDBERD, JUMP UP AND CLEAVE ITS HEAD!"

    I figure -- paint the PCs a picture, and they too will grab a brush.

  6. Yeah, what the good Dr. Rotwang said! Fast combats *and* colorful descriptions.

  7. Another vote for colorful descriptions. The players will further interpret the words with pictures in their heads. As was said the Orc hits for 4 points is not really very exciting. I think the few extra seconds of colorful description is well worth the exertion, at least in our game the players really like it.

  8. I love colorful narrative. One recommendation that I would make is try hard not to get too wrapped up in the descriptions; instead, try and use whatever comes off the top of your head. Make your combat description short and sweet (like a comic) and demand that your players move quickly into their next move. I like to push my players for their next move and try to move combat as quickly as possible to give it a sense of drama and danger. It pushes people to be spontaneous and do some cool/crazy things like what Rotwang was describing.

  9. I think one reasons some people don't like old school games is they have played in a game where combat is as exciting as "ok, you take four hits. Hmm, rolled a four, he takes two hits. Rolled a six, take 12 hits". It's just repetitive. What happens out of combat has to be pretty bloody exciting to make up for that. It's just dull.

    Now, you don't have to go over the top with surgical precision describe the damage dealt. Sure, if you want there's always the critical hits tables in Rolemaster, but that's the extreme.

    Instead I suggest you add as much as "Rolled a six, a sweeping blow connects and deals 12 hits." It's not much but it makes a hell of a difference between playing Monopoly and actually being there in a way that only a rpg can handle.

    Taking a cue from narrativist games, you might even have the players do all the describing if you don't feel that creative. That's if you want some more of it, and it really helps the players be attentive. No risk somebody watching tv or texting if you run it that way.

  10. I enjoy combat a lot more (as both player and DM) when the players state what their character intends to do that round rather than counting squares and such. Also, too often I find that the “counting squares” sort of combat leads to characters not being able to do what really ought to work or doing unnatural things that probably ought not to work.

    I think there is this real disconnect in Wizards’ D&D 3e. (A game I like and play. Just making an observation here—not trying to condemn.) When it comes to stuff outside of combat, the advocates argue that it is the character’s ability that should be tested instead of the player’s. Yet, in combat, they want the player’s mastery of this intricate combat system to be tested instead.

    I like it more when the player sets the “strategy” and the character executes the “tactics”. (The scare quotes are because I don’t feel those are proper uses of the terms, but I’m trying to make an analogy.) I feel the level of abstraction in B/X does that nicely.

    Regarding description: I don’t tend to be flowery about it, but I try to describe what happened in a round in brief, straightforward, everyday language besides just the jargon of the game. (Or maybe it is just that I’m not particularly good at description.) Just as I prefer the players to state their character’s intent for a round rather than naming mechanical maneuvers. It’s the visualized battle—as one might read in fiction or non-fiction—that really matters to me. Not the mechanics we may use to resolve it.

  11. Well put Rob. Like I wanted to say it.

  12. Man, it depends.

    I absolutely LOVE fast B/X combat, but even so I've found ways to speed it up. Rolling multiple D20s for multiple monsters (creatures with claw/claw/bite like trogs or half-a-dozen spear wielding goblins). All roll the same to hit, all roll the same damage, mark off the damage and describe the results ("you are raked by multiple claws as the gibbering horde scrambles over you," or "you're character is pierced by multiple spears").

    But in a "big ol' fight" with a Big Bad, narrative and color IS important. Plus, I like to use narrative to describe "misses" in terms of something other than "whiffs." Like, "You hammer your opponent with blows, but he withstands your assault," or "none of your stabs strike home, though your opponent is bleeding and lacerated."

    But, of course, it's a balancing act.
    : )

  13. @Andreas, I also use a "narrativist" approach by asking players to do their own color commentary in combat. The ones I always do are "please describe how you kill the enemy" and "please describe your character's hideous death" - in both cases, the question also serves as the announcement that the foe, or your PC, is dead! These are both events that don't happen all that often, so narrating them doesn't slow down the pace that much, but are momentous occasions that I think deserve a little more attention.

    @P_Armstrong, I'm totally with you about three fast, meaningful decisions being much more fun and dramatic than thirty slow micro-decisions. I see a lot of changes in 4E D&D as enforcing the latter style of play, like eliminating save-or-die spells, creatures vulnerable only to certain weapons, and smoothing out differences between classes. For my part, I would rather have an occasional chance to be the only one whose +1 sword or web spell can dramatically turn the tide of battle than to have a guarantee that I'll be able to contribute in every combat by whittling away the foe's hit points just like everyone else.
    - Tavis