Sunday, 18 September 2011

D&D Combat Isn't Abstract

Getting into the powers for each of my One Page classes, I'm graphically illustrating some of the combat-relevant powers with icons representing the combatants and terrain, on a five foot = 1 inch grid. I fully expect a few people to react with five-foot-square-latter-day-edition-phobia, so let me explain.

I know the role of miniatures in D&D is an evergreen Old School debate topic, right up there with ascending armor class and evil PCs. I don't think the debate has been properly framed, though. It has been about miniatures, but it should be about graphic displays.

"You need miniatures to play D&D" immediately brings up anxiety about blown credit card limits, trying to get every monster you're using in the campaign, having to paint up the damn things, anti-corporate grumbling about required additional equipment. None of this has to apply to other graphic displays, like pennies marked with Sharpie on a dining room table, or whiteboard drawings updated on the go. Sure, the more you invest, the better it looks, but does anyone limit their encounters to their miniatures collection? Sooner or later, orcs are going to have to stand in for lizardmen, chess pawns for extra goblins beyond the 5 or 10 you own. This "miniatures" thing is a red herring.

"Coach, can't we just narrate this encounter?"
Another red herring is the allegedly abstract nature of the D&D combat rules. Come, I will show you an abstract combat system, and its name is Tunnels and Trolls. No locations, no maneuvers, just who's fighting and who gets hurt. D&D only looks abstract as a combat game because it's a kludge, an exaptation, a hybrid of naval and tabletop wargame rules that became obsolete as an accurate simulation of skirmish warfare the moment Runequest came out. Hit points and armor class are for ironclads, the whole idea of incrementally taking damage from a large pool is a better model for large units than individuals, and various other things like the one-minute round and missile rules with assumptions more suited to mass than skirmish archery also betray the game's battle-scale roots.

It would be impossible for such a battle-based system to ignore the various situations that need accurate positioning to resolve: flanking, a charge versus a missile-firing unit, breach of a line. At the most basic level in D&D are similar questions. How many PCs can attack the monsters? How many monsters can attack the PC's? Who's in front, who's safe and who's vulnerable?

People generally accept the relatively fine grain of time in D&D combat, rather than resolving all in one chuck of the dice, because it gives leeway to make tactical decisions as basic as "should we stay or run?" And this, in turn, is because combat is a common and lethal activity that players need to have spelled out for them. It's OK to have the DM rule "The wall is too slippery, you can't climb it" but not OK to have the DM rule "The mummy is too strong for you, he kills you with a single blow."

I'm genuinely curious, though: if you don't use some kind of visual aid in a D&D-like game, how do you keep track of what's happening to the same standard? The abstract solution sounds fine, right up until the point where your players' view and yours diverge. In a world of 10' passages, 5' doorways and marching orders that might never happen. But neither will this scenario where tension, fun, danger and the unexpected are a direct product of the characters interacting with the scenery. Even Ludovico Ariosto, the Renaissance poet and author of Orlando Furioso, used model knights to help choreograph that epic poem's climactic three-on-three battle on the isle of Lampedusa.

Bottom line is, if you're communicating with the players, why give up the ability to illustrate the action in ways that work together with words? I'm not sure but I suspect for some the urge is to flee the figures, the toy soldiers, the wargame roots of D&D and embrace something seen as more mature and story-like. That's not where I want to go, though. For the adventure game I want to play, figures on a map do best to regulate the tension and strategy of knife's edge combat.


  1. I'm one of those abstraction people. I use a white board, however, to draw anything I have a difficult time explaining through words alone.

    The issue I have with drawing every little thing is that it just takes so long, usually about as long as the battle itself. For me, if a combat takes longer than 10 or 15 minutes, I'm bored. Combat isn't that interesting to me as a DM or a player.

    For, the game is about exploration. Using miniatures, in my experience, switches the focus of the game to combat, something I'm not really all that interested in.

  2. I find miniatures removes the mobility that would be present in hand-to-hand combat.

  3. Pencil, eraser, ruler and squared paper currently accompany me to sessions where the players are dungeoneering. Solves any problems about positioning for line of fire, backstab, light source etc, and also ties in with the strict movement rules, and thus exploration. My players like the combat and exploration to be tactical. When I'm playing other games I tend to be totally abstract with combat as just another task.

  4. @Ian: In that case would you say the map becomes your main visual aid? I'm thinking even 10' squares would be useful to set up broad descriptions of a combat (the goblin soldiers are coming from here and here and the wizard in up on a ledge here...)

    @Stuart: Explain further please?

    @Sean: Looks like another vote for map-as-tactical-display...

  5. When I started my current campaign two years ago, we found ourselves rapidly reaching the limits of what pencil scratches on hasty grid maps could represent.

    It may have been the temptations of figures from a LOTR-themed RISK game being available, but I found myself swiftly making use of them to indicate what I was talking about, then bringing along the few miniatures I owned once the types of figures the boardgame could supply reached its limits. From there it was a small hop-skip-jump to purchasing WOTC minis pell-mell, and even creating my own paper figs on occasion.

    If the tactical situation is simple enough, the combat's outcome sufficiently foregone a conclusion, or the like, we just handwave the positioning aspect...

  6. Not to put words in Stuarts mouth, but I think I see what he is saying. I use tokens (and avoid representational miniatures) if the combat is quite complex, with hazards or obstacles, but I feel like it shifts the mood as soon as they are on the table, sometimes giving making things a bit "Igo Ugo".

    It seems to detract from narrative urgency and subconciously I think my players sometimes see the two pieces static next to each other, removing any feel of PC's being in a maelstrom of combat.

    On the other hand, it saves a hell of a lot of descriptive talking if you've got a visual representation in front of everyone. I'm torn. Maybe having a battlemap with squares on doesn't help.

  7. I'd quibble with the basic claim of the title (that D&D combat isn't abstract), but I think it's more due to a difference in how we're using the word "abstract" in this context. I think I'd have a different working definition. Reading your description of what you mean by it, I don't see anything that I'd particularly take issue with. So I'll leave that one alone.

    I think I can address some of what you say at the end, though.

    Bottom line is, if you're communicating with the players, why give up the ability to illustrate the action in ways that work together with words? I'm not sure but I suspect for some the urge is to flee the figures, the toy soldiers, the wargame roots of D&D and embrace something seen as more mature and story-like.

    I don't think that this is the reason, or at least, I doubt it's the main reason or most common reason. Some of my favorite games use minis, and I love minis wargaming, but I generally drop minis in D&D. If I want to play an RPG that requires (and makes good use of) minis, I'll go with The Fantasy Trip every time. I'd never play it without minis. I also have had fun with minis in classic D&D, but I often go without them. My reasons are practical ones, mostly.

    1) There's very little to no "set up time" between the outbreak of a fight and the resolution. With minis, I get some of that (though I have strategies to reduce it).
    2) Minis provide an unrealistic "birds eye view" to players. The characters would be knee deep in swinging swords and bloody ruin, not planning tactics from above the fray, so the general "fog of war" that lack of minis contribute to is fine for me. (Though I don't have anything against the top-down view in principle -- like I said, TFT uses it, and I love it for there.)
    3) If I don't use minis, I don't have to carry as much stuff around. I don't generally host, but I almost always GM, so I need to bring my resources to the table. I bring dice, pencils, some notes, and a game book. That's it -- my days of carting around bags full of junk are over.
    4) We rarely have any problem keeping track of positioning in a general sense without minis. There are losses to tactical specifics, I'm sure, but we're rarely confused about the field of battle, so I don't think that's a real issue.

    None of that has to do with "maturity." We're too old to care about that. I actually do like the toy factor of using good minis and good terrain, and with wargames I'm all for it. It really enhances the experience. With RPGs, I'm happy either way, but convenience, efficiency, and immersion all click for me without minis as well as (or better than) with, especially in classic D&D.

  8. Thanks for representing the nonvisual side, everyone who's done that. I was genuinely curious, not trying to be dismissive, and I especially appreciate the "fog of war" rationale.

    I think you'll find, as you see my character combat powers presented, that they all can make a pretty smooth transition to the abstract. For the most positional power (the rogue can "distract" or spin an opponent around) I give examples of what, in abstract terms, that can accomplish within the rules of positioning.