Lessons Learned on Combat Systems

Yesterday was the 3rd session of Keep on the Borderlands, and I tried something new. While I had been running with the Labyrinth Lord rule set, I was using a grid and mini’s map more appropriate for 4th Edition D&D. Previously I was running with a modified version of the move/minor/action combat that 4th edition uses in conjunction with that map. I did this because it’s pretty much the only combat system I’ve had experience with, and it just came naturally, and because my early experiences as a player were similar systems. As I mentioned in Ten Minute Rounds, I’d run a couple of rounds using the LL system, but hadn’t used it for a full session. Last night I did.

As a refresher, in Labyrinth Lord, a combat round is Declare Actions, Roll (Group) Initiative, Move, Missile, Magic, Melee, Repeat the M’s for losing initiative. In practice, this can lead to some lightning fast combat, but playing in last night also bogged the combat down. The combat didn’t flow nicely from round to round, there were starts and stops and sometimes things just got lost. So why is that so? Why after all my griping about 4th edition’s combat systems did I find using the LL combat system to be almost as bogged down when used for an entire session?

I think that mostly, LL (and old D&D’s) combat system doesn’t work for detailed mini’s maps. It was designed to work with the old “Theater of the Mind” combat that defined early edition combat, and it compliments it nicely. When the GM says “You enter the room, it’s about 10’x20′ and there are three goblins across the room from you, one behind the others”, the LL combat system really flows naturally into the reactions from the players “Blackleaf and Tristram will hang back and shoot at them with their bows while Binwin and Purehart charge the goblins”. When looking and thinking about the combat situation in that manner, it’s really easy to see how the LL system works: Initiative is rolled, Binwin and Purehart start charging, Blackleaf and Tristram loose their arrows (roll, roll), and Binwin and Purehart swing (roll, roll).

But when running this with minis, this can get awkward. Binwin and Purehart move their tokens forward and stop at the lead goblins because they can’t move past them to get to the third one (1 mini per 5 foot square). Blackleaf and Tristram roll for attacks, and happen to kill one of the lead goblins, great so now Binwin can move forward a bit more to get at the rear goblin right? Well, no because we’re past the movement stage. So then Purehart rolls, kills the goblin in front of him, and Binwin can’t do anything because both front goblins are dead, and he can’t move. Now as a GM, you can always handwave this stuff away either that the arrows actually fly while movement is happening so Binwin can adjust his movement, or that everything happens so fast that Binwin doesn’t have time to adjust which is why he can’t move. Equally, you could do what you would likely do in the TOM version which is hold off on declaring the results of the attacks until the end, so that Binwin swings and no one knows for sure whether it was his axe or the arrow that took down the goblin in question, but doing that with minis just feels out of place. Either by shuffling action orders until you’re almost running a move/minor/action system anyway, or by feeling really restrictive as the tactical situation changes on the map, but the players can’t react to it until the next round

On the other hand, 4e’s combat system (and individual initiative) works wonderfully with mini’s. Blackleaf fires, hits and decides not to move, Tristram does the same, killing a goblin, Purehart moves up, swings and kills the second goblin, now Binwin, reacting to the changing tactical situation moves up to the third goblin, stepping over his dead counterparts and swings for a hit. As you can see, that sort of system makes sense as mini’s move around the map. Conversely, it doesn’t work very well for a TOM combat, simply because you have to keep track of each character’s particular movements and actions individually.

Looking at it from this perspective, I can also see why so many people found the 2e AD&D combat system so clunky and cumbersome. Obviously it had it’s other flaws, but it was attempting to apply a combat system more suited for mini’s play (with individual initiatives, and segments and so on) to a game which was still heavily a TOM type game.

So which system is better? What will I be using in the future? Well, I’m not sure. I want to eventually move away from having to rely on a map and mini’s, which means that I’d like to use more TOM and LL combat, but for any mini / map based combat, I’ll have to make do with a modified move/minor/action system, perhaps only requiring that spells be declared upfront.

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