Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Line Dancing

So, I played some more Hail Caesar! a few nights ago with some friends.  We had fun crushing each other, and playing with Mycenaean figures, dressed in skirts, riding chariots, and armored in segmented bronze cone-skirts. 

Rolled lots of 6s.
Yet, despite the carnage, as often when I play ancients games (or Warhammer Fantasy for that matter), it didn't like I had many meaningful choices as a player.  It just felt like the two lines crashed into each other.  Each unit fought whatever happened to be across from it, and the better unit (and luck) won.

So I got to thinking: how could an ancient's game offer more complex choices?

In a modern game, units rarely form rigid battle lines, and with their long range and freer movement, a commander can decide what to target and where to go with greater freedom. But an ancients'  battle, with few ranged weapons, most of them short-ranged, and large blocks of troops can't follow this design.

Hail Caesar! focuses on generals and their orders, but it is largely a negative system. Every time you, as a player, want your troops to follow an order to move, you have to roll dice.  On a failure, they sit there.  On a super success they move farther.  I found this system frustrating.  Troops look like they should be able to perform a particular move, but then they screw you over.  There's variability in the game, but it's an annoying variability.

But what about a game design that focuses on generals and order management, but does so as a form of resource management?  And rather than controlling movement, the generals could activate various bonuses.

So, when you read about brilliant generals in the ancient world, what sorts of clever things did they do, and how can this be represented by game mechanics?  Some ideas:

Inspiration: In ancient battles, cohesion and motivation were hugely important.  The side that broke and ran, or lost its formation, tended to get run down and squashed.  But a unit that could hold together might withstand a lot of punishment.  Flags, banners, instruments, orders, and so forth were designed to help a unit hold together, maintain organization, and not panic.  If you could see the general or other symbols of authority, you knew you were still in the fight.  So why not let the generals give a unit a bonus to morale checks -- maybe a reroll, like Flames of War uses.  Let the general focus attention on a nearby unit and bolster its durability.

Deployment: A lot of ancient strategy involved how armies were arrayed, based on estimates of enemy capabilities and behavior.  Yeah, you can do some of this just through letting players make choices about where and when to place troops, but on a table top, everything is visible.  There's no fog of war, and other uncertainties.  Why not let generals mess with deployment?  Maybe they could bid against each other in some way to determine when and how troops must be placed.  Maybe a power would allow them to swap units in the line after deployment.  Maybe a schrodinger's unit could hide in ambush.  Etc.

Line Manipulation: In the battle of Cannae, Hannibal arranged for his center to bend under Roman pressure, and his flanks to envelop the Roman sides.  I have no idea how I'd simulate this in Hail Caesar or WFB, but it seems like the sort of dirty trick you should be able to pull. So how about some abilities that let you try?  Generals could activate special maneuvers, allowing units to feign retreat and move while locked in combat.  Or units could be moved quickly to the sides, increasing spacing.  Worn units could (with a successful action) be removed from the line and swapped with supporting forces or reinforcements.  All of these could be activated from a controlling general.

Ow!  Not the pokey stick!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Open Hand (Part II)

From the Codex Wallerstein. Wikipedia.
This post continues my sketch of a combat system based on Renaissance fencing manuals.  (See part one here.) It's not designed for any particular game, but should be fairly easy to implement for any game that uses skills:

Each combatant has a skill rating.  This skill represents both offense and defense, against a variety of weapons.  There need not be a different skill for each weapon type; but I suggest that a character be able to gain a bonus with or against a particular weapon as a specialty.

Each weapon has a length, indicating the distance at which it is most effective.  Outside this distance it cannot attack.  Inside this distance, it suffers a penalty.

Each weapon has a lethality rating, indicating how easy it is to deliver a killing blow.  The default value of an arming sword is 0.  Small knives will have a lethality penalty. Large weapons have a lethality bonus.

(For now we are not going to worry about armor, but if we were, we'd also give weapons an armor piercing characteristic that negates the defensive bonus of armor.)

Weapons and other defensive equipment (such as armor) have a defensive rating, indicating how helpful they are in fending off blows.  Their defensive rating may suffer a penalty inside their preferred distance.

Characters exist in several wound states:
  • Unwounded
  • Lightly injured
  • Wounded
  • Incapacitated
  • Dead
They may additionally be stunned, a temporary state of serious impairment, or unconscious.

Now, imagine the area around a combatant as a bulls-eye, with the fighter in the center.  Move his opponent through the rings, as they circle, and open or close the difference.  Let's label the rings so:
  • Open distance is beyond the effective range at which either combatant can strike.
  • Extra long distance is the distance at which a combatant can effectively strike with a spear or other similar weapon.
  • Long distance is the distance at which a combatant can effectively strike with a weapon like a rapier, a long sword or a staff.
  • Fight distance is the distance at which a combatant can effectively strike with a one-handed weapon like an arming sword or hand axe.  This generally means the reach of the combatant's arm, plus a step or a step and a half, a lunge or a passing step. 
  • Close distance is inside of fight distance.  At this range the combatants can effectively strike with a dagger, a shield, or their hands.  At this distance also, the combatants can grapple or wrestle.
Combat will take place in turns, an arbitrary and variable division of time.

Each character will have the option to strike once per turn.  They should declare their preferred distance at the start of the round.  Generally, this will be the same as their weapon's length, but a combatant whose opponent is too close may opt to strike at a shorter distance at a penalty.

At the start of a typical fight, both combatants will be at open distance.  Then (assuming both of them wish to fight) the combat round will proceed inward, from open distance to the preferred distance of each combatant. It will not go any closer than then the smallest preferred distance.

So, for example, if combatant A has a spear (extra long preferred distance), and combatant B (fight distance), the turn will progress from extra long to long to fight distance, and then stop.

Once their preferred distance is reached in the turn sequence, the character may make an attack
  • The attacking character rolls their skill + lethality.  The defending player rolls their skill + defensive bonus.  The defending player always gets a roll, providing they are capable of movement.
  • If the attacking score exceeds the defending score, the attack hits.  The degree by which it is exceeded determines the level of wound inflicted.  (Depending on the dice scale, this might be every 3 points or every 5 or whatever). 
  • If the defending score exceeds the attacking score, then the defender is not injured.
If (as is common) both characters have the same preferred distance, resolve thrusting attacks before other types of armed attacks, and armed attacks before bare handed attacks.  (The point is faster than the edge, and nobody wants to grab a knife.)  Otherwise, the strikes are simultaneous.

At close distance, an open hand may be used to grapple, wrestle or throw.  This will have different results than a simple wound.  For example, a grapple attack may hold the enemy in place or incapacitate them.

The results of wounds are applied immediately, and so a successful attack may end the combat instantly, or impose a wound penalty on the injured character.  So it's a huge advantage to strike first.

Once the attack has been resolved, and assuming neither combatant is incapacitated or killed, move inward to the next preferred distance and resolve the next attack.

At the end of each round of combat, the combatants make another opposed skill test.  The winning combatant then choose the distance at which the combat will begin next round. This represents the combatants maneuvering for position.  If a combatant has a greater preferred distance than the one on which the fight ended, they are trying to increase distance and return to their weapon's preferred length.  If they have a shorter weapon, they are trying to remain close.

The results of open-handed attacks may affect this roll.  (For example if one character has grabbed the other.)  A character may also try to return to open distance in this way, preparatory to fleeing.

For ongoing rounds of combat, the fight will begin at whatever range it ended.  If either combatant's preferred distance is inwards of this, proceed inwards until it is reached.

So, in this system, maneuver, weapon length, and skill will be the most important factors in the system, with wounds having a powerful disabling effect.  (GMs who ant to keep player characters alive should probably layer a system of "fate points" or other bonuses on top of the system, letting important characters reroll or modify results.)

In Germany, they still have frats that slice each other in the face with sabres.  Transfer now!  Mensur.