I've started a conversation with Ron in the comments of a Seminary post and he suggested to bring the subject to its own post.
A small foreword: Ron suggested I use this chance to talk about a game I'm working on (and as, he correctly points out, I can't seem to stop talking about it) but I wanted to start from an example of actual play (from a 2015 D&D4 game) that encapsulates very well a few of the things we touched upon in that discussion.
The second (necessary, I feel) thing I need to say before starting is a brief explanation of why all this is important to me and my design. The game we're working on (if we want to talk about purpose at the table) is strongly oriented towards a Step On Up sensitivity. It's a game about killing monsters, and how to do so in a way that combines the strong tactical elements of a game like D&D4 with the technologies and techniques that we learned to love in the more narrative oriented games that populate the indie scene. We had our ideas on what we wanted to implement into that kind of game in terms of narrative authorities, IIEE, structure and I guess seeing how the new edition of D&D went in pretty much the exactly opposite direction (in making the experience absolutely about the DM's vision of how the game should flow) gave us even more motivation.
There was a short list of things that were important to us, in terms of design: we decided we wanted to do something about the decidely turn based structure games of this kind tend to have, because we wanted people to act more often and taking a shorter time; we wanted what I think Vincent Baker called an "IIEE with teeth", because we wanted a game that combined the wargame elements we liked with a strong sense of narration; we wanted a system whose rules were clearly accessible to all players, were both the characters and the narrator directly interacted with them and had to abide to their prescriptions, because we wanted a game that once conflict started was played in the spirit of each side actively trying to kill the other.
And here is were the conversation in Ron's original post about movement and grid become relevant.
I'll move on with our actual play of 4E and then make my observations on what we learned from that game and what we're trying to bring over or perfect.
In this scenario we had 3 players (a Hexblade Warlock, a Weaponmaster Fighter, an Executioner Assassin) with me acting as the DM. As this will be long and probably meandering, I'll put the relevant observations on game mechanics and how they influenced my design in bold.
The premise is that one NPC that is very important to the players (a childhood friend of the Fighter who acts as the Healer of the group) got knidnapped by a group of sellswords hired by one of the antagonists. Their plan is not particularly sofisticated: lure the heroes into an isolated place with the perspective of collecting ransom, and overwhelm them with numbers and knowledge of the battlefield.
The location they picked was an isolated shrine devoted to the Raven Queen, a circular structure with a single entrance, aside from a large impluvium that opened in the roof. Something not far from this:
I had to improvise a lot as the events that led to this transpired in the same session, so I created an arena with a single entrance - a set of double doors the sellswords left open - and plenty of shadows and hiding places for the ambush to take place in. Due to the way that game was run and the narrative that led to the event, I also staged the fight in a way that was overwhelmingly in favour of the sellswords, going well over the XP budget for the encounter (and communicating that to the players through information they had gathered).
They knew they'd be walking into a trap, the Assassin got wind of the size and strength of the mercenary force through some contacts in the black market. They were aware they would probably be obliterated.
As usual I left the players decide the course of action without trying to influence them, but I assumed that based on that info they'd be trying a diplomatic solution or play out the moral conflict of abandoning their friends.
What happened was that they devised a plan, and the interesting thing is that they did so by using the game's mechanics and their tactical applications.
- the Assassin had the easiest time figuring out his approach. He possessed an At Will ability (Ghost of the Rooftops) that turned his movement speed into a Climb speed, as long as the last square of the movement ended up being a stable platform. He also possessed an ability (from his Paragon path, I think) that allowed him once a day to teleport inside a shadow within 30 ft.
Now, what I foundt englightening in how he strategized over those abilities can be broken up in 3 points. First, he never had to negotiate with me about what was possible and what was not. If the abilities he was going to use had been of a more traditional nature (a bonus to Climb or Hide checks, for example) we would have probably engaged in a long discussion about bonuses and patrols and the details of the structure. Instead he was able to ask for a description of the shrine and devise the plan on his own. Second, the absence of an element of uncertainity in the use of the abilities allowed for long term planning, and shifted the focus from "can this work?" to "how can I use this?". This is threaded ground in many fields of modern game design, but I've not seen it frequently used in tactical themed games. The third, perhaps surprising, aspect was that very strong movement mechanics encouraged the narrative. By knowing that what he was going to do was going to work (at least in terms of getting where he wanted) without needing to compromise with dice, the player felt encouraged to narrate the way he infiltrated the structure (by climbing on the back for the shrine, reaching the hole in the wall and teleporting in the shadows behind the snipers) in a very flavourful way, without needing to wait to see if he was going to make a fool of himself.
- the Warlock's plan was similar and again it used game mechanics on a strategic and tactical level.
He possessed a daily ability that turned him into a cloud of nasty insects (a reskin from an ability that turned you into a blob, but I digress) that gave him phasing during movement. You move through enemies, damage them, return solid.
He inquired about the presence of windows (there were none) but the shrine was in a strong state of disrepair, so you had cracks and holes. He "wastes" the attack to turn into insects and swarm inside the shrine, and he reforms in the shadow.
Here, a modicum of negotiation with the DM happened, but still we can see what is a "tactical ability" used in a strategic way. If anything, my impression is that if the authority over the efficiency of a movement ability rests in the hands of the player (rather than the dice or the DM's approval) it's very easy to use tactical abilities to form long term strategies.
So we have the assassin and warlock entering from the back, in the shadows. The Fighter hired a few mercenaries on his own and planned to provide a distraction by approaching the front door and negotiating while the two stealthy guys weeded out the opposition. Which again would work rather well and without needing my direct intervention (the Assassin had an ability, Garrote Strangle, that silences the target as long as you hit).
Now this is one example, but my takeaway from that experience was that:
- player-facing rules are instrumental in creating the kind of tactical engagement we were looking for; the ability to devise strategy and tactics in a way that was so "objective" was something we felt was entertaining for both sides of the table. The DM could present the situation without having to constantly map every pixel because the players were empowered enough.
- the fact that those abilities were designed with the kind of detail that fundamentally implies the usuage of a fixed size grid surprisingly didn't hinder speculation and creativity in their usage; I'm not sure if this a perk of my group (because I've heard many lamentations on how presenting player abilities in well defined terms apparently makes them harder to use outside of straight combat encounters) but again I feel that having very clear, understandable and well stated effects in the abilities provides the right amount of accountability to the ruleset that allows the DM/GM to be freed from the burden of having to be impartial, as long as he follows the rules.
The situation of course evolved further; as the assassin started taking out a few stragglers I decided the sellsword leader became impatient with the fighter's chatting, and he dragged the cleric in the middle of the room, and started raising his crossbow at her.
What happened then was one of the best scenes we had in, well, I dare to say our entire roleplaying life. The players can't communicate so initiative is rolled and they all have to take action. The Warlock was the quickest, and he decided to cast a spell that allowed him to basically take control of the shadows and attack anything moving closer to him by shaping it into tendrils. At this point the bandits were still focused on the fighter so I rolled a Perception check and it turned out they didn't really spot the odd movements in the shadows around them. The Assassin had a surprisingly terrible roll, and a few sellsword actually went before the rest of the heroes, shooting their crossbows at the fighter.
Now the fighter comes up, right before the bandit leader. He moves up to him and uses a move that pushes him away from the hostage. Then he blows an action point and uses the infamous Come and Get It.
Now, Come and Get It is a move that triggers a lot of reactions among D&D fans. I won't go over the endless debates, but it's one of the most "meta" abilities in D&D4. It offends fans of simulation because it uses Strength for what is basically a taunt. It offends DMs because it allows players to move monsters.
To me, it's a delightful little thing that never fails to create amazing situations. Here, in particular, we got the fighter pushing away the sellsword leader with a shoulder ram, then putting his two handed sword over his shoulders and giving a brief, mocking taunt to the room, followed by what was basically a recreation of the "people taking turns at trying to kill the hero and getting blown to pieces" trope. Half a dozen goons charged the guy and met an horrible demise (I was using a lot of minions).
Now, cool scene or not the actually interesting element was how this ability made movement dynamic and interactive. Monsters who are moved by compulsory effects don't trigger opportunity attacks, but they do trigger traps and effects that don't rely on OA mechanics. The Warlock's spell in fact was one such effect, which led to the sellsword leader (who was hit by Come and Get It and rushed in to get his revenge) to be pulled away by shadow tendrils. A minion set up a snare placed by the assassin.
Now in all honest I don't have a very strong explanation for how and why this worked so well. I guess there's a psychological element tied to all this happening during a player's turn that gave the players a sense of control and authority, and in turn it led to stronger narration.
What I can say is that my impression is that when designing tactically oriented mechanics:
- compulsory movements are good
- players moving monsters definitely brings up the meta "problem" but at the same time can lead to strong narrative moments (think of how many times the DM gets to vividly describe how the troll lifts the poor dwarf off the ground and throws him into the pile of rubble)
- if you implement a strong component of gameplay that is based around setting up reactions and using action currency to counter or interrupt someone else's actions, you create a more dynamic experience
Now, briefly touching on how all that influenced my game:
I suggested in the original comments that seeing movement simply as "getting from here to there" is only part of what makes combat dynamic. What I'm experimenting with is the idea of making movement not just about positioning but also a "state", something that is in good part compulsory. The irony of games whose action economy rewards you for being static by having you perform more attacks is that attacking while standing still is almost impossible. Movement is a crucial part of combat, so my idea was that taking 4E's approach to out-of-turn movement possibilities and making it an integral part of play. For example, attack modes can imply the necessity for some movement (if you are Pressing someone with your attack, you get to move him - and follow, of course - a few hexes as part of your action; or maybe taking a defensive approach may force you to retreat some hexes). Dodging a dragon's breath would require you to place yourself out of the area of effect as part of the reaction, and so on.
Now all this shuffling around risks being merely smoke and mirrors (you're moving around, but does it matter?) if you don't have interesting terrain to limit and enrich such displacements. If you use a map or fixed unit grid, you can follow the kind of "good practices" D&D4 and other games suggest, I think. Now, if you don't (but even if you do) and you don't want to make this a completely one sided process that hinges on some creative effort by the Narrator/DM/whoever, you can introduce mechanics that allow the scenery to become more interesting and Ron itself made a point about how Bounce could be the right dynamic to do so. It's something I want to explore because I think there's a lot of potential there. I would touch on how I wanted to introduce something like this but didn't really know how, and how tests and conflict work, but this is already a way too big post and I would make it even less focused.
Another element of interest in making movement meaningful (and again there's a lot of this in D&D4) is area of effects, terrain effects and auras. The lovecraftian horror you're fighting has tendrils on its belly that flail around and hit anyone who stands too close. There's lava slowly (or not, lava is actually terrifyingly fast) moving across the room. The lich has created a desecrated patch where skeleton arms emerge from the ground and grab your ankles. The cleric has summoned an healing spring. Place new effects on the ground and let players avoid or seek them, creating the necessity for movement.
Incidentally, this is one of the reasons that led us to take an hex based approach - compulsory movement works better, in my opinion, if you can be flexible about it.
Ok, this has been a lot long that it probably should have, but the topic is so... vast.
I think the underlying questions here are: what makes movement fun, and what makes it tactical? Can the two things go hand in hand? Throw anything at me, your favourite solutions in game you play, your ideas, any opinions.
Again, sorry for the post's size.