Horses on squares

A figure chess rules system is one where the combatants take turns and during their turn they typically move and do some other stuff. There might be squares or hexes or one might do without. There are a few situations where most of them break down, with dynamic movement being the most glaring. My interest is in solutions that make these things work in a figure chess context, and different cases where the break-downs happen.

D&D 3,5 with Sean and Helma

athes, my pseudo-mongol mounted archer, wants to keep his distance to a swarm of stirges while shooting them. He has speed advantage and this is precisely the kind of activity he is made for, as a character; the skills and the feats are there.

But how do you keep your distance in figure chess? You have to pre-empt how fast and to which direction the enemy is going to move. So, in context of D&D 3 and relatives, I have to guess whether they are going to move, double move/charge, or run, and towards me or somewhere else. No feedback, just guessing, and they can even react to my decision.

This can be solved if the group looks at the fiction and accepts the figure chess as the abstraction it is; “I keep them at around 70′ from me” is a reasonable thing to try, so we should solve it in some satisfactory way. But if one sticks to the figure chess rules strictly, it will be utterly impossible. The enemy can just choose to fly away at full speed, or fly next to you at full speed, or do whatever, based on how you act first.

In game we did not have problems with this; flexible enough a group and clear enough a situation.

A rider, charging

D&D 3, way back when I was a lot younger. Some enemy knight wanted to charge player characters, who were running to a wall to climb or jump over to escape. The characters and the knight saw each other from fair distance but we turned to combat rules only when there was not so much distance and the hostile intent was clear.

The rules say that the escapee can ready an attack, in which case they attack when the knight gets to within reach and then the knight gets to do their worst. Or, if the knight wins the initiative, they get to move and attack first. This all assuming that the characters in fact use their actions for fighting rather than moving.

The possible coreographies are:

  1. The character walks away warily, attack prepared. Then the knight comes. Character attacks, knight attacks if they are still standing. (character won initiative, readied an attack)
  2. The character runs away, and depending on the distance, the knight stands still while they make their escape or charges and strikes them in the back. (character won initiative, ran or took a double move away)
  3. The character stands still and the knight attacks them. (knight got the initiative)

Not quite all of these coreographies make sense and the problem is, again, a dynamic situation, plus the strangeness of the initiative rules and turn-taking.

Similar and maybe even worse strangeness would happen with jousting, but this I have not seen in play.

I no longer remember what happened or how we resolved this. We had not figured out functional play back then.

Skeletons into a pit

Pathfinder 1, completely different people, several years ago. Characters enter a room and two fall into a pit, 10 feet by 10 feet, as they always are. Three skeletons in the room notice and jump into the pit to slaughter the unfortunate bastards. But wait! A combatant in Pathfinder (and other relatives of D&D 3) occupies a 5′ by 5′ square, so where does the third skeleton go? What if we had even more skeletons? The pit is nine square meters, so certainly there is enough room for lots of skeletons (thin as they are) trying to rip the fools into pieces, and the fiction makes sense, too.

We had some discussion and I think the ruling I made was that one skeleton and character are sharing a square, with some penalties I no longer recall; maybe the squeezing rules? They were easily dispatched and the ruling turned out to not play a decisive role this time.

This is not quite as fundamental a problem as the previous one, but still illustrative of the combat space assumption. A hypothetical similar situation would be a thick crowd of people, where everyone presumably does not hold more than two square meters to themselves, and then a combat starts so suddenly everyone requires that much space.

Abstractions in general

To the extent that some rules act as a model of some kind of reality (as they do in many roleplaying games, though not really all), they simplify and maybe twist it, much as models always do. Much as any other model, they have often implicit limits outside which they do not really work (dynamic situations in figure chess, relativistic speeds in Newtonian mechanics), and sometimes the simplifications break apart (skeletons in a pit, is the ball that falls on the floor really a fully elastic collision).

This is one context where “rules as written” makes sense as a concept. One person says that yes, the figure chess rules are how stuff actually works in this game, and if this means your mongol can’t really keep a fixed distance or the third skeleton can’t jump into the pit, so be it. Another person says that no, the fiction is primary and if the rules are a bad model in a particular circumstance, then we will, in whichever way, alter or interpret or ignore them so that the fiction still makes sense.

As mentioned in the beginning, I am interested in other such cases where the figure chess nature causes the abstraction to fail and if there are good solutions to the issues of dynamic movement in such frameworks. (The skeletons in a pit, while amusing, is not really a huge design issue.) I am interested in cases that have happened in actual good faith play, rather than speculative peasant railguns.


8 responses to “Horses on squares”

  1. Chessboard of the Mind

    It did not make much sense to try and integrate the grid as a visual medium with this game, though it would have been possible. There is no doubt that the figure-chess concept is core to 3.X and one that was a pain point for some coming out of AD&D2. But I can show off maps, ones with grids as necessary, to keep the visual aspects of the game intact while still holding the approzimae distances in my head. It is necessary to know the distances and the numbers, primarily for the reasons of the 5ft/1m step + Full Action combo, as opposed to the Full Move + Action combo. But with a small group and copious hand written notes, I feel I will be able to create a satisfying mental board for everyone. The medium we are working in requires us to make adjustments.

    One of my earliest attempts at participating in online tabletop gaming was in a Liciing Force game, which was a Living campaign in the RPGA. It used the Star Wars D20 system where using a grid was also an option. At the time there were few options for playing games on grids. Vassel was used for war games and such, but almost every ttrpg had to be theater of the mind. 

    In the game we had characters of widely varying ranges. Jedi and Force Users up close. People using blasters and then me, who was a distance shooter. We really had to pay close attention to what as going on and used approximate range bands. There was no particular solution other than to "do our best".  Such a situation, owing to better tech, would be easy to rectify today. But back then it required good faith. 

    • I am fine with not using a

      I am fine with not using a grid (and fine with using it). I think the complexity in our game would not have thus far benefitted from a grid; there would not have been significant value added, and the trouble of setting it up and getting it to work would have been non-trivial. (Roll20 with everyone having GM rights allows for fairly fast collaborative map creation that does not demand the GM to have decided ahead of time where encounters take place, if one does want a digital solution.)

      The issues with the figure chess movement and turn order remain irrespective of using a grid; things look strange in the fiction if one always respects the rules mindlessly.

  2. Spacing or timing?

    It seems to me that the examples emphasise space and movement, but that the real weakness is more in the timing part of the model (taking turns) than the positioning and movement part. Even without movement, imagining the goblin stabbing the dwarf while the dwarf stands still waiting for the goblin to be done with it, and then the dwarf punching the goblin while the goblin now stands still, results in the same kind of strange fiction.

    • Hi Shimrod,

      Hi Shimrod,

      I think it is the interplay of timing and movement that causes problems. If a dwarf and a goblin fight, there is no issue in imagining them taking action simultaneously, but one them finding the opportunity to strike a fatal blow first, and then the other.

      But in situations where two characters should both be moving at the same time, or worse yet, as a reaction to the other, things seem to break down.

      But it is a good point that the timing might be more significant than the movement. Something to keep an eye on. Gurps with very short turns might be a good test case, but I don't have sufficient experience with it to say.

    • Why is it more difficult to

      Why is it more difficult to squint in the same way and say that even though they're in fact moving simultaneously, one of them just finds the opportunity to close some distance (or pull away) before the other reestablishes the range?

      And I agree it is! I'm just not entirely clear why that is, why we're a lot happier accepting taking turns to trade punches, than taking turns to move.

    • To Shimrod: there’s an

      To Shimrod: there's an extensive body of dialogue and work at this site about this exact issue across a wide range of design and RPG history. I can't summarize it in a soundbyte in comment form, so let me know if you'd like to schedule a conversation.

  3. Why do we do this?

    I think the question is relevant.

    I've always felt like there is a stark difference between games that use a grid system because they feel like they need to (because "it's more accurate" or "realistic" or "tactical") and games that use it because they want to use it.

    Personally I think that your post perfectly illustrates how a grid system is neither inherently realistical nor accurate. There are several hundred hours of video evidence on Adept Play that showcase how a map or drawing and people's capability to associate positioning and distance with landscape features can lead to absolutely accurate decisions during play.

    So why use grids at all?

    The first reason is that in my experience grids provide some degree of bounce. One rather common phenomenon during "theater of the mind" play is that someone gets the final word on whether my guy is close enough to your guy or if I'm in range to shoot an arrow, or if the pack of dogs catches up with our group.
    Using a grid can often answer these questions in ways that aren't controllable by anyone. When someone ends up being 2 squares too far to be able to charge in or when you can't really place an AoE in an efficient way… those are the times when I felt it made sense to be using a grid.

    I won't digress on this, but I feel 3.X isn't a particularly good game in terms of how it uses the grid itself. It's incredibly static, as it massively punishes anyone who attempts to move, so most of the time initiative matters a lot more than positioning. 4E does a far better job using movement (voluntary and involutary) and areas of effect, and you often end up using that precision that the grid offers ("I want to move precisely here to be able to do this, and push that guy there").

    4E does not, however, solve the abstaction problems. I've often joked about how these systems could be useful to introduce Heisenberg's uncertainty principle to children. There are tools that help fight the impression that everything happens in snapshots, with the entire world freezing while something plays out – interrupts, reactions and so on. But still, it's a world where car crashes would be fundamentally impossible.

    Possible solutions:

    Ok, that may be getting a bit ahead of myself, but I'd like to share what I've been working on because it's pertinent to this discussion.

    When I started designing the game I'm currently working on, it was immediately evident that this type of system wasn't going to work. I wanted a grid because of that bounce I was mentioning before (an hex grid, but that's irrelevant to this discussion), and I didn't want the snapshot problem. 

    It's important to say that realism or simulation was never the goal here: I wasn't trying to improve on those systems, I needed something different because I wanted the sense of urgency and timing to affect the way people would play the game. I wanted people to avoid the mindset that they would take their turn and then wait, and instead having them react to what was happening around them, and having them look at things as they were starting to happen vs when they had already happened. More than anything I wanted to avoid the feeling of "taking turns".

    In order to do this I decided that keeping track of time was as important if not more than keeping track of space. So I developed two indipendent tools – the hex grid, and something I'd call the "wheel" that was doing the tracking for time. 
    Obviously this isn't some fresh or novel idea, and there's several games that do this – Hackmaster comes to mind, plus at least one post-4E heartbreaker. The idea that every action costs N units of time, including movement, and that by cross referencing the time instrumentation and the space instrumentation you could identify where and when something was happening (and at with stage of resolution) isn't precisely groundbreaking. My predictably arrogant roadmap included having better instrumentation that made the entire thing usable and fun instead of convoluted and draconian, but that goes without saying.

    What I discovered fairly soon is that nothing was as simple as it may have seemed initially.

    You would need some things to just happen as they were declared in the face of the "logical" premises (melee attacks with "cast times" would be trivial to avoid most of the time; hitting someone with an arrow could become impossible, etc). Without becoming too boring, the "time tracks" on the wheel became two, and actions gained keywords.

    Getting to movement, movement types were an immediate issue: running, crawling, walking… the most immediate answer is that each hex of movement has a different cost depending on which movement type you're using. But how about this character or creature that is faster than the other? And do you handle the entire movement step by step for each individual actor, or you only use the instrumentation to "rewind time" in case you need to do so? 

    The maths and the list of exceptions easily became intimidating. I have foundt my own solutions over time and hopefully they're valid, but I'd lie if I said I wasn't constantly tempted to do something different and lose all that "precision" – because it's that capability of actually knowing where something is when that brings in the complications. You can't have one without the other. I even developed a completely different instrumentation to make all the other elements of the game work somehow without using a map at all. 

    Point being, my impression is that the issues described in the original post are sympthoms of something that isn't solvable unless you're willing to welcome in further levels of abstraction and more procedures that may or may not be worth it. To me, if the underlying goal is simply that of removing the abstraction or not incur into weird or illogical situations, the answer is "it's not worth it". Lose the grid, it's easier.

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