Roleplaying Combat in d20

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rgrove0172
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Roleplaying Combat in d20

Postby rgrove0172 » Tue Apr 17, 2007 11:47 am

Ive read a great deal of discussion in the past about how d20 combat is more of a miniatures skirmish system than a roleplaying tool. I only recently started using d20 for the first time with my new Conan campaign. We've played for a few months now and Ill agree, try as I may its very difficult to pull off a combat using the system without a fairly involved tactical visualization - be it miniatures, dry erase, counters or whatever. Regardless of the medium, you do indeed feel as if you are playing a miniatures game and the roleplaying sort of takes a back seat. This doesnt bother my players much as they are all old historical miniatures gamers at heart anyway - but what are the thoughts out there? Is d20 combat really a miniatures system in disguise? Are there better alternatives for Conan? Am I simply missing a technique to better blend the d20 system in with the roleplaying atmosphere?
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Postby Halfbat » Tue Apr 17, 2007 12:21 pm

That's d20, I'm afraid.

That said, Conan is the best adaptation of the d20 system I've played. None of my players are miniatures gamers (rather than miniature gamers), though several do online wargaming. We manage to fit a fair amount of roleplay in, mainly by ensuring that most hits are described rather than a plain "A 21. That's a hit, isn't it? ermmm. 1d8+7. 11 damage. Who's next."
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Postby Majestic7 » Tue Apr 17, 2007 12:32 pm

Yes, d20 Conan is the best d20 game out there - mainly because I'm in love with the massive damage rules and other little things that keep combat lethal even to higher levels. In d20 Conan, every hit could lead in to death, even for level 20 characters. I love that.

However, I'm having the same problem I'm afraid. Combats tend to degrade too easily in to rollplaying rather than roleplaying. I take much of the blame for myself - I find it hard to concentrate on multiple things at the same time. In combat I'm usually busy running the world around the battle, so descriptions don't get very verbal. I guess I should try to involve my players more in that sense.
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Postby Garet » Tue Apr 17, 2007 3:42 pm

We rarely use minatures in games, 3.5 or Conan. The only time we use them is for big honking battles with the battle mat drawn out. We visualize it and move on. Sometimes we make a quick sketch of the area on a piece of paper. This lets us do more role playing and WE do like to roll dice though :D

Now we do have one GM who runs occasionally and he can't visualize the field. He has to draw it all out and count spaces. So we spend alot time waiting on him to do his stuff. :roll:

When i was running Conan i'd have a sketch of the area ready and say your in a nest of boulders 20 ft up on this side of the valley and 15 people are attacking you 60 feet away. This is the cover they have and describe the cover. We don't worry about AOO unless the GM brings it up. Makes for a fun game, fast game.
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Postby Auggie » Tue Apr 17, 2007 3:58 pm

I don't use miniatures at all in my campaign, but if I need to, I'll draw a quick map for my players, just to give their imaginations a jump-start in visualizing a big combat situation.

I try to offer as much description as possible during a combat encounter without bogging down the session. On rare occasions, it turns into 'rollplaying' instead of roleplaying, but that usually happens if the group encounters en enemy 2 to 3 times the party size. Still, folks stay interested, especially when the enemy scores crits :shock:
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Postby blackenedwings » Tue Apr 17, 2007 3:58 pm

While my group does use miniatures, I don't think we let it degenerate too far into a true miniatures game. As a DM I am rarely focused on the encounter as a pure combat experience and far more how it impacts the characters in a roleplaying sense. I have found that you have to let people define themselves as something unique based off their skillset so they feel their character is a real living and breathing person. This lets them step into the shoes of that character much more easily. Even in 2nd Ed Dnd which had an abysmal combat system I tried to do this.

For example, the main party warrior was an orphan raised in a city based off gladiatorial games. She ended up fighting in the games, using her speed to stay ahead of dangerous opponents. For her first levels she focused on blindingly fast, brutal sort of moves, and I would describe this in detail during combat situations. I would describe each stroke of her scimitar. She eventually met a human blade-master who had been trained in elven style. She became his pupil and as her character progressed my descriptions of her combat focused more on her finesse and skill as she slipped blades between plates of armor, and took out foes. (sound familiar?)

The point is though, that miniatures or not, attacks of opportunity or not, the weight really lands on the DM to make the players feel that combat makes them unique and special characters. Each sword blow should feel important and deadly.
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Postby rgrove0172 » Wed Apr 18, 2007 1:04 am

In my experience the problem comes from the number of combatants. When Im dealing withm only the player characters and a few enemies the combat rules can easily be described in greater detail and the feel of roleplaying maintained. When there are over a dozen or so participants though you have to cut back on the detail in order to keep things moving, and thats when the game takes on a different feel. If you try and keep the level of detail and color in the middle of all that die rolling and interpretation, youll be playing that single combat all night. Keep the detail on the players and reduce the NPCs to a "numbers only" combat exchange and in creeps that feeling of a skirmish game. The only solution I can come up with is to spend all the time an energy on the PCs and either script the results of the NPC exchanges or reduce them to a single abstract roll that can be made without the player's notice and simpy explain the result of the battle outside their own personal sphere or influence in threatrical terms.

ie. As you step back from the dead Corinthian at your feet you notice three of his comrades are now on the ground, pools of blood spreading about them. One of your henchman is crawling toward the horses, an arrow jutting from his back while the others are still trading blows with the remaining Corinthians who are beginning to show signs of retreat.

This would work perfectly but hand the GM a great deal of power in interpreting the results of combat and pretty much eliminate the need for NPC details such as skills, feats, hitpoints and the like, except as general concepts for the GM to consider when arbitrarily levying the outcome of a fight, or when they actually face a player character.

Thoughts?
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Postby Majestic7 » Wed Apr 18, 2007 1:18 am

You could use the narrative combat rules from Free Companies to handle something like that, without becoming too much of a despot. That way, there'd still be chance of the dice and some sort of ruleset involved in the process, without degenerating the fight in to rollplaying.
Campaign log & house rules at Obsidian Portal:
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Postby rgrove0172 » Wed Apr 18, 2007 1:33 am

yes, those rules would work well for large groups I suppose but what about a medium sized group of say 4 PCs and 6 NPCs, against maybe 15 enemies? Kind of small for the mass combat rules but too big to work quickly with the conventional system.
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Postby Majestic7 » Wed Apr 18, 2007 1:37 am

Well, surely you can use them to see towards which direction the combat is going and use it as a base to describe the situation? That is what I meant, using the military cohesion -style rolls to guide your control of the generic atmosphere in the combat and improvising based on it.
Campaign log & house rules at Obsidian Portal:
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Postby Kyorou » Wed Apr 18, 2007 7:11 am

rgrove0172 wrote:This would work perfectly but hand the GM a great deal of power in interpreting the results of combat and pretty much eliminate the need for NPC details such as skills, feats, hitpoints and the like, except as general concepts for the GM to consider when arbitrarily levying the outcome of a fight, or when they actually face a player character.
Well, I never draw stats for NPCs (besides "John Doe/5th level") and always arbitrarily decide of the outcome of combats. I also tend to ignore the outcome of the dice rolls I do behind my screen.

My players know it and, so far, I haven't had any complaints. But my group is strongly narrativist, so maybe yours would react in a less positive way.
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Postby kintire » Wed Apr 18, 2007 9:03 am

There is nothing wrong with having a combat that gets system heavy. You don't want it happening all the time, but providing the players with tactical challenges rather than roleplaying ones can be a good change of pace. The players can still roleplay their reactions to a crisis. Also, the vast majority of combats will not take that long to resolve, even the ones involving 20 combatants. In actual practice, the eventual outcome of the battle usually becomes obvious by round 5 at the latest, and at that point the participants on the losing side should be trying to leave, even if they wouldn't actually be wiped out until round 20. You'll get the occasional fight where it is too close to call right down to the wire, or where the losing side can't or won't retreat even in the face of obvious defeat, but those should be rare. I think you do need some sort of markers for the bigger fights, or they get hopelessly confusing, but you don't need minitures. Not to plug any particular company's products or anything, but the box sets of Shadizar and Messantia have a whole load of counters in them with character pictures on, and they work great.
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Postby rgrove0172 » Wed Apr 18, 2007 11:50 am

Thanks for the tips. As for miniatures, we've figured that aspect out and are happy with the compromise Ive put in place. We do use minis, and a semblance of 3d terrain, but in a stylized manner that doesnt require nearly as much painting time and constuction. Anyway, thats really not the issue, its the time involved in resolving all the combat. I can see your point that on occasion, expecially if the players are the leader of a military unit or whatever, a tactical game might be sort of fun, but only in that situation. It just doesnt seem to make sense to allow the player to control and run a group of caravan guards he happens to be traveling with for example. Im not quite convinced I would feel right about just making up the combat resuls, but a quicky die roll of some kind is probably in our future. Ill be working to develop something level and class based that allows for combatants to at least perform respectively even if its just an abstract die roll.
Last edited by rgrove0172 on Wed Apr 18, 2007 6:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby kintire » Wed Apr 18, 2007 12:02 pm

if you have groups of npcs, I either assume that the PCs side is performing as well as the PCs do, or run a sample fight between two indiviual NPCs and assume the whole fight mirrors that.
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Postby rgrove0172 » Wed Apr 18, 2007 6:54 pm

Yes, Ive considered having the NPCs reflect the performance of the PCs but there are so many times in Howard's stories wherein the hero does more than his share but ends up on the losing side anyway that I didnt feel it was true to the genre. The Heros should be heros no matter how the NPCs do, and the NPCs should have the ability to come to the rescue if the PCs occasionally perform poorly - one of the real advantages of having Henchmen.
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Postby Sutek » Wed Apr 18, 2007 7:02 pm

rgrove0172 wrote:In my experience the problem comes from the number of combatants. [...] When there are over a dozen or so participants though you have to cut back on the detail in order to keep things moving, and thats when the game takes on a different feel.
Well, yes, but if you were to try to describe a boxing match as opposed to describing a fight with over a dozen combatants, you'd have more luck descibing the boxing match, I'd wager. It's a simpler fight, so it takes less to describe it.

That's what you're doing with larger combats: complicating the "explanation" exponentially with more and more added combatants.

What I do is decide if this is a role playing situation or just a fight. If it's just a fight, then the baddies are there simply to kill or be killed and impede the physical progress of the heroes. If it's a roleplaying fight, then skill use will be important and and things will undoubtedly become rather more complicated. In the pure fight, all NPC combatants (unless they are player party cohorts or something) are super generic swords with DV and base attack scores and that's about it. This alows me to scale tem up or down at will (unbeknownst to the players, of course!) to increase the difficulty if necessary. In a role playing fight I need to know the participants a little better and will have fully fleshed out stats and character motivations that can come into play over the course of the fight.

None of that stops me from being descriptive or using color commentary as we go. I describe the gouts of blood or the clang of steel on steel to keep the players pumped and focused on the true nature of what they're doing. It needs to stay "combat" and not feel like jus rolling dice to get to the next scene (unless that's what's required, usually in the pure fight method).
rgrove0172 wrote:[...] hand the GM a great deal of power in interpreting the results of combat and pretty much eliminate the need for NPC details such as skills, feats, hitpoints and the like, except as general concepts for the GM to consider when arbitrarily levying the outcome of a fight, or when they actually face a player character.
That's why you have to decide from the outset what purpose the fight is going to serve within the campaign. If every fight is a lurid, colorful, adjective-filled scenario, then players won't appreciate your descriptive efforts. If it's always glossed over, roll the dice and kill the baddies, then combats will take on the feeling of being dull and worthless in the scope of things or a means to an end and your players will lose interest in why they're fighting in the first place.

Now, you can't help it if you have a bunch of blood-thirsty marauders in your PC party. If they pick fights with every group of shady looking fellows they stumble accross, then you're hard pressed to keep making the battles interesting. In cases like that, you usually have to step into rolleplaying combat mode on your own and initiate a combat to "teach them a lesson". Having city guards of higher than PC levels come to arrest them for too much public brawling is a good choice (lol).
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Postby Kyorou » Wed Apr 18, 2007 7:16 pm

Well, a (very) simple way to determine who's the winner would be to attribute a military power score to each side (based on the number and quality of the troops + terrain + other factors), roll power +1D20 for each side. Better result wins (more or less quickly according to the margin).
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Postby rgrove0172 » Wed Apr 18, 2007 7:37 pm

The "One Roll to Rule Them All" approach worries me as it disregards player character interaction such as killing the enemy commander, implementing a brilliant tactical plan in the midst of battle, or just doing exceedingly well in slaughtering the enemy. I think the abstraction has to be governed by the combat round so as to allow a bit of player input.
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Postby Krushnak » Thu Apr 19, 2007 9:27 am

if there is 5 or more npcs on each side then i tend to resolve their attacks against each other using mass combat but will always resolve attacks against the pc's directly.
Well, yes, but if you were to try to describe a boxing match as opposed to describing a fight with over a dozen combatants, you'd have more luck descibing the boxing match, I'd wager.
more like i'd have greater luck describing the boxing match, a 1v1 fight in greater detail than the brawl. however that doesnt mean i cant describe the brawl it just requires different terms and attitude towards it. in the 1v1 i can describe each attack the opponents make and all the special combat maneouvers they attempt and things like taunts and witty comments. for the brawl i have to get it into the pc's just how random and chaotic the fight is while making sure the action is fast and brutal.
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Postby Etepete » Fri Apr 27, 2007 4:58 pm

I used the "narrative" mass combat rules from Pirate Isles. In the beginning it went fairly well, with players singling out key npcs for personal combat, piloting or cheering the men on. In the end it went rather arbitrary though, since the PC:s couldnt really interact with the combat resolution system, and the winning or losing seemed rather random. Dont know if any one else had this problem.

I go without miniatures. I do use sketched out maps at times though, just to present the layout. I was just struck by an idea: how about pinning a standard sheet of paper map unto a cork mat and pick out npcs and pcs with pins? Anyone tried this?

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