Some boring combat

The following is a recollection of a fight from a session about a year ago, which I count as one of my worst gaming experiences. Not long after this I ended my tenure as referee in this ongoing game. It was particularly disappointing as I had had many of my best experiences in that same game in the previous three or four months.

The game is Wolves Upon the Coast, a game inspired by OD&D (whatever that name means to the author of this game) with an integrated setting. In order to understand this play report, you need to know that:

  • To attack, a character or monster rolls 1d20 and adds their attack bonus and their opponent’s armor class, both numerical values between 0 and 9, plus some kind of circumstance modifier, and tries to hit 20 or above.
  • Characters and monsters have health points, 1d6 points per “hit dice”. Monsters get +1 to their attack bonus for every 2 hit dice
  • Most attacks reduce a character or monster’s health by 1d6. Hits generally have no other effect, and combat is extremely abstract; there are no rules for injuries, for instance
  • At 0 health a character or monster dies
  • Some attacks (poison, magic) ignore health and have a flat chance to kill something
  • By default, nobody gains a mechanical benefit from killing anything (i.e., you don’t gain “xp” from fighting)
  • Characters do get a mechanical benefit (+2 attack bonus or +1 hit die) from making boasts that they can accomplish suitably heroic tasks. If they accomplish the task they keep the benefit
  • Every day, there’s a chance that the characters will encounter some kind of monster as they walk around the world
  • When characters encounter a monster, the referee is supposed to roll on a chart to determine its demeanor

The characters, many of whom were quite new, set off from a city to get some opium for its pirate queen. I rolled that they would encounter a wyvern. In the region the players were currently in, there was one wyvern, which roamed the whole place and was supposed to be an apex predator. I was really excited to see this result, because I enjoy playing powerful monsters and being scary. While I am or try to be neutral for most of the game (I say what I think is most likely to happen, not what I think would be most interesting, for instance) when I control a monster I enjoy trying my hardest to defeat the other players.

This monster was particularly scary, I thought. It had 6 hit dice, so it was as strong as 6 men, its scales were as hard to penetrate as the heaviest armor (armor class 2), it could fly, and it had a poison sting that could instantly kill anybody it hit, ignoring their hit points

I rolled for its demeanor and found that it was hostile to the players. Hunting probably. The creature was once a human, and probably intelligent; it could even talk, if it wanted to, I guess. I also decide that it will attack with its tail sting whenever I roll a 1 or a 2 on a d6.

So the wyvern swoops down to attack the characters’ pack horse. It misses. The horse attacks the wyvern back. One of the players boasts that his character will rip the wyvern’s wings off while it is still alive. Now his character is honor-bound to follow up on this boast. He might not survive, but he has to try. If he doesn’t give it a good enough try, he may as well give up the character; it can’t ever boast again. (The other players vote to decide if he’s given it a good enough try.) So now at least one character is committed to trying to fight this thing.

The boasting character wants to stick a grappling hook through the wyvern’s wings. Normally there’s no rules for such a feat. I decide to dig up the hit location charts from the Blackmoor book by TSR. I am pretty pleased with this decision. The character manages to hit the wyvern’s wings with his grappling hook. He’s attached the hook to a rope, and attached the rope to the pony, which he now smacks. The pony runs off, dragging the wyvern behind it. He wanted to pull off its wing, but this will do.

The characters chase after the wyvern with a net and manage to cover it. The wyvern spends its turn clawing free of the net while the characters try, and mostly fail, to hit it. It yells at the players, asking them how they dare to lay their hands on it. (It was a prince, once upon a time.)

The wyvern gets free of the net and stings the pony, but the pony doesn’t die. (It targets the pony because it’s tied to the pony.) The players all keep trying to attack the wyvern, incrementally racking up damage. They try to pin its tail and cut it off, but keep hitting other parts of its body instead. I think the wyvern gets free of the rope, but I don’t really remember.

The wyvern keeps trying to hit them or anybody and keeps missing. When it gets down to half health I roll for its demeanor again, to see if it flees or fights to the death. The demeanor table tells me it’ll keep fighting.

Combat continues, slowly, with a lot of misses on all sides. I have a strong desire to simply skip it, give a summary judgement, but a single successful hit from the wyvern will probably kill any single character, so it seems too important to skip. I want the wyvern to fly away, but I already rolled for its demeanor; doesn’t it have to stay now?

Eventually one of the players manages to disable the wyvern’s wing. (Not the one who boasted about it.) No running away for the wyvern now. Combat drags on longer. No hits from the wyvern. They grind it down to 0 hp, and it dies.

The whole fight takes about 2 hours to resolve, even though it’s tactically pretty simple. Part of this is because so much time is spent whiffing, and part of this is because the players were simply taking a lot of time to say what they were doing and roll the dice.

After the fight, the characters continue on their way. We have a bit of fun joking about the horse which resisted the wyvern’s poison and dealt a fair bit of damage to the creature. Otherwise nothing has changed for any of the characters.

My immediate reaction was to blame the system. It’s ridiculous on its face that the wyvern (6 hit dice) has +3 to hit, barely better than a starting character, when it’s supposed to be an apex predator. I still think this is true, that the numbers fundamentally don’t make sense here. But that’s not the real problem.

The real problem with this session was that I had turned the game inside-out. I wanted all the specific subsystems of the game (hit locations, demeanor rolls, random encounter rolls, etc) to sort of play themselves; I looked at them as the substance of the game. Now I think instead that they provide Bounce in the game, but they are supplemental to the substance of the game. (They certainly do other stuff as well, but I’m not concerned about that right now.) The substance of the game is: do what’s reasonable and honest, given the motivations of everybody involved and the constraints of the fiction.

A wyvern is a pursuit predator like an eagle. It should circle potential prey from above, so high it can barely be seen, and then swoop down and pick its prey up in one move. It should never willingly land to fight on the ground. This wyvern in this game was once a human, so it should be even smarter than an eagle, and make far better choices. As soon as it failed to take out the horse, it should have just left.

There’s no doubt more to say about this encounter, and I’m curious to see what others think, and focus on.

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8 responses to “Some boring combat”

  1. I have a lot of sympathy for the desire for the game “to play itself.” Mostly, because I was once very invested in similar ideas. Early on the promise of an RPG was, “imagine a boardgame that when you played it produced a story.” And by “play” I mean more in the board-gamey sense of pulling the mechanisms of play toward an optimal outcome. If we chase the currencies and bonuses and manage the tradeoffs the machine will algorithmically lead us to narrative.

    Around here we talk about “widget” design. I’m a little more forgiving than some of “widget” design because, as an activity, they’re generally fine the first couple of times you play them. They are a lot like narrative coloring books. The game provides the shape (with prompts or currencies or explicit framing or whatever) and the group provides the details. Two different groups will end up with basically identical stories structurally but different colorful details. What I notice is that these games stop being fun after the first two or three times you play them. Swapping details ceases to be enough.

    The two approaches to game play, however, are very incompatible. If you approach a coloring book design like a musical instrument design you will quickly become frustrated because the game’s first priority is to lock you into its assumed structure and arc of play. If you approach a musical instrument design like a coloring book design then you end up with… well, pretty much what you’ve posted here. A general outcry that the mechanics “don’t do anything” or “the mechanics aren’t producing the desired play.”

    I’m currently running The Blade Runner RPG, and I think even a few years ago I might have dismissed it as a boring stats and skills game that “doesn’t do anything.” But instead I’m bringing my interest in detective stories and issues of policing (and so are the players) and it turns out its mechanisms are wonderfully supportive of that. It’s supporting what we’re doing instead of following what the game desires of us.

    • Nailed it in one.

      This sort of thing has been an increasing series of realizations and re-realizations for me. I used to mostly approach game texts as a collection of interesting mechanisms themed in a way that interested me; let’s engage the mechanisms and we’ll find “the juice”. That’s been universally disappointing. At certain points I’ve considered that maybe roleplaying isn’t for me, because I assumed this is what roleplaying WAS.

      The realization for me has been that I have to bring something to the game. Passion for the color, an interest in whatever is humanly going on here, some sort of beat in my throat when I see the imagery…and then the game is a tool for my interests and (small “a”) agenda here. Totally mundane revelation. Revelation nonethless. So glad I didn’t give up on roleplaying.

  2. Thinking of a monster as “particularly scary” has brought me some grief over the years. What if the monster is underperforming (for whatever reason)? What if the players aren’t suitably scared?

    I try to refrain from thinking about monsters and NPCs in these teleological terms (and focus on motivation as filtered through reaction rolls and, more importantly, on not thinking about possible outcomes or even possible scenes), but it’s hard and I’m still slipping all the time.

    *-*-*

    As far as subsystems playing themselves, I probably don’t understand you guys! In my experience, having enough moving parts (especially ‘game-changers’ like distance, surprise, reaction and morale rather than to-hit and damage etc.) makes things unpredictable. Add pressure (e.g. a ticking clock or a deadly sting) and I’m probably hooked, though admittedly the whiff chances here might have been too much for me.

    • That whiff business brings up a key point that I cannot shut up about. What’s a failed attack roll when it’s not just a delay in the proceedings?

      When I realized that resolution is not about the chance to succeed, but rather the chance to fail, and that this isn’t merely a cute rhetorical reversal, play became better for me in every way.

      The new wrinkle I’ve just discovered is that applying it, when playing a game with the words Dungeons & Dragons on the cover, is psychologically more difficult for me. I’m thinking about the failed assassination checks in the last session – simultaneously, by two player-characters, upon a morale-broken, fleeing smuggler (bandit) in magical darkness.

      The imagery of the moment was fun, as another player-character outside the room noted this guy run screaming past her and away out into the night, probably not stopping for hours. But resolution is about more than momentary amusing imagery. What was resolved? I thought, who is this guy, and what is he going to do now?

      … which is fine, but I’m still thinking about direct consequences of plain-old missing an attack roll, there in the moment of ordinary combat. It’s strange: I have no problem with it in playing 5th edition Tunnels & Trolls, which has a similar long-term round assembly structure for combat, as this version of Advanced D&D I’m playing. But I’m going to have to remind myself about it for the latter.

    • @Ron I get the same feeling with the Holmes game I played yesterday.

      One striged survived 2 rounds with most players doing 2 attacks by round – so +- 7-8 failures in a row. The Strige hit first so I described him sucking the player and ready to suck every next rounds.

      So I described every missed attack as the character moving around the dungeon screaming with this thing attached on her brest and sucking her dry, but also waving frenetically its wings. And the characters not being able to find an opening in this moving mess in the corridor without hitting the stuck character. Which is the same situation you’re describing, a momentary amusing imagery.

      This lead some character to try a different approach (I’m trying to push this thing), but I resolved that with an attack roll too.

      But still, everyone’s face was kind of wondering what was happening, rules-wise, and it didn’t feel like an engaging instrumentation, at least for me, after so much failed rolls. It was more imagery than bounce, and kind of fell flat.

    • Johann,

      I’m not analyzing my response to what you’re saying, I’m just going to give some raw text output.

      I want to be scary when I’m playing a scary monster. I don’t need to succeed in scaring the other people, but I need to go through the motions. If I’m playing a horror game and I’m describing the actions of the slasher, maybe I don’t actually send chills down any spines, but I can’t be risible. The world doesn’t make sense if Michael Myers trips every time he takes a step towards the babysitter.

      I think that the ultra-low attack bonus didn’t make sense, didn’t fit with the fiction of something being an apex predator. An apex predator should probably be able to kill a horse! Or at least last a successful hit on a horse!

      I also think the morale result didn’t fit with the fiction. I wasn’t playing the wyvern as an intelligent creature anymore, I was playing it as a stat line. I’m starting to think that reaction rolls and morale checks are great when used as oracles, to help me decide how an actual character would react. But I don’t think the monster’s actions should be truly random.

      Ron,

      I’m curious what, if any, general solution you can find to the problem.

      I think AD&D’s combat structure/scale/level of abstraction/whatever is totally fucked; the attack roll would naturally model an individual blow, but according to the rules it’s actually just one telling moment in a minute-long exchange. If the rules are supposed to model anything — a fraught question, I’m sure — I’d expect a minute-long combat to have a much more abstract and summary resolution. Even in movies, most fights don’t last more than a few minutes! On the other hand, if we’re modeling every exchange then I think it makes good sense to have the world change a little on every failed blow.

      (Maybe this last paragraph is too great a digression. Feel free to tell me to save it for another occasion.)

    • As you can imagine, I’ve been witnessing this conversation for forty-five years, and I’d prefer not merely to replay it. I think I can offer perspective and a sensible path to conclusions if you’re interested and not overly invested in winning an argument. in a while, I’ll put up another Musing for the Advanced D&D post about combat sequencing, which is probably the best place for that.

    • Ron,

      That would be great!

      This is a place for me to improve my play, not for me to win arguments.

      I’m excited for the video, because for me the only path forward was to change the time scale of the game, and say that 1 round is really just a few seconds, a single serious swing of the sword.

      I am still interested in the attack roll failure topic, too!

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