This is a site for discussing roleplaying games. Have fun doing so, but there is one major rule: do not discuss political issues that aren't directly and uniquely related to the subject of the thread and about gaming. While this site is dedicated to free speech, the following will not be tolerated: devolving a thread into unrelated political discussion, sockpuppeting (using multiple and/or bogus accounts), disrupting topics without contributing to them, and posting images that could get someone fired in the workplace (an external link is OK, but clearly mark it as Not Safe For Work, or NSFW). If you receive a warning, please take it seriously and either move on to another topic or steer the discussion back to its original RPG-related theme.
The message boards have been upgraded. Please log in to your existing account by clicking here. It will ask twice, so that it can properly update your password and login information. If it has trouble recognizing your password, click the 'Forgot your password?' link to reset it with a new password sent to your email address on file.

Author Topic: Combat in chat: difficulties and techniques  (Read 523 times)


  • Guest
Combat in chat: difficulties and techniques
« on: September 14, 2006, 10:32:46 pm »
(This is long, so I'm going to break it up into multiple posts.)

Last week I ran the first combat I've ever been completely satisfied with.  I have always run online, usually in chat, and this has produced a collection of problems resulting from the bandwidth crunch that playing in chat produces.  I know of no games intentionally designed for play at 40 wpm.

The general aim in my campaigns is to answer "What if --?" questions in a realistic manner: given a particular setup, what would really happen from there?

The particular focus is on the characters: if you were a given character, what would you do in these circumstances and why?  And how well would it work?  We're after immersion, or deep IC: to look through the character's eyes, to think as the character thinks, to some extent to feel as the character would feel.  Anything that forces the player out of the character's perspective is undesirable.  So is anything that doesn't feel as if originated in the fictional world, but which feels like an arbitrary intrusion from the player-level.

The bandwidth crunch in chat has thwarted these aims in two major ways:

1.  Discussing and employing the mechanics takes time and attention away from the in-world events.

This slows play to a crawl -- combat mechanics are often cumbersome, sometimes extremely so -- and also forces disconnection from the character's viewpoint, by crowding the descriptions of fictional-world action off the screen for significant periods.

2.  It becomes difficult to clearly convey information about the positions and motions of the combatants.

This slows play down, and forces a divergence from the character's viewpoint: the player is often struggling to understand something that the character can simply see.  That produces a sense of disconnection from the character when we want You Are Thereness (and it is particularly jarring for tactically minded characters).  Also, it makes combat an arbitrary affair: if the character cannot make intelligent choices about using terrain or openings to their advantage, the winner is likely to be determined simply by how the GM stacks the dice.  This is most unsatisfactory, as combat then does not come come close to answering "What would really happen if -- ?"

A GM whose style involves a lot of preplanned encounters can mitigate this second problem by drawing diagrams of the terrain in advance, and emailing them to the players.  But my style is heavily improvisational: I can't count on knowing in advance where and when a fight might occur.  And until recently I was on dialup, which eliminated a lot of the ways in which, with broadband, I might quickly transmit graphical information.

(It is true that the character is not seeing the terrain from the perspective of an overhead diagram.  But I haven't found this to be difficult to adapt to.  On the other hand, information starvation in a place where the character has knowledge at a glance is hard to deal with.)

Next: attempts at partial solutions


  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • b
  • Posts: 3190
    • View Profile
Combat in chat: difficulties and techniques
« Reply #1 on: September 14, 2006, 10:44:20 pm »
Have you tried more than one chatroom at a time?

Such that action, description, and in-character dialogue happen in one place...

And everything else is kind of "off to the side" ???


  • Guest
Combat in chat: difficulties and techniques
« Reply #2 on: September 14, 2006, 11:02:20 pm »
Quote from: beejazz
Have you tried more than one chatroom at a time?

Such that action, description, and in-character dialogue happen in one place...

And everything else is kind of "off to the side" ???

Yeah, but it doesn't do much for me.  There are people who apparently find the mixing of data streams to be the problem, and they swear by dual windows.

But for me it's more having to devote time and attention to the OOC stuff, and not being able to put together a coherent impression of the character's situation.


  • Guest
Partial solutions 1
« Reply #3 on: September 14, 2006, 11:07:22 pm »
Dicelessness: not there yet
When I first encountered these effects as a novice GM 16 years ago, I was running GURPS.  I found it impossible to keep track of the mechanics and the positions and motions of the players at the same time, and the combat sessions ran with agonizing slowness.  My previous experience with roleplaying had been a message-based collaborative fiction board where we all owned the characters we'd introduced, and some none-too-serious freeform.  In desperation, I fell back on the expedient of simply making up the results as we'd done on the fiction board; and this at least speeded things up.

However, it didn't solve all the problems.  I was still losing track of the action.

I had also changed the manner in which player-level intrusions were manifesting in the fictional world, but I hadn't eliminated them.  Diceless resolution has a tendency to encourage description and consideration of fictional detail as explanation for the resolution (whereas this is more optional with dice), and I find that this increases the You Are There quality of play.  As long as I have a good reason for choosing one result over another, or as long as multiple results are more or less equally likely and desirable, I probably prefer to do without the dice.

But these circumstances seldom obtain in combat.  There often isn't a good reason for resolving one way instead of another, in the sense that there isn't any strong reason why I should say that the spearhead passed through one point, instead of through another two inches down and three to the left; but such minor differences in geometry can be the difference between a glancing blow and a deathstroke.

I hate to kill or maim a PC without a compelling reason, to the point where I'm not likely to do it.  I can likely find a plausible way to avoid doing so on any single occasion.  However, this tendency is acting to defeat the overall purpose of the game: it is choosing a short-term benefit at the expense of a long-term benefit at every turn.  It may be credible that the PCs escape serious harm once, twice, or thrice, but it is not credible that they should do so all the time, unless they're taking pains never to engage an opponent they don't overmatch.  The least damaging effect this undermining of credibility can have is to leave a lacuna in the game: we may not know What Really Would Have Happened, but we can't avoid knowing that what we played probably wasn't it.

So diceless was better because it dragged less, but it wasn't good enough.

Very short rounds
Some time later, I was playing freeform, and the rule in a lot of freeforms tends to be to give your opponent a chance to answer your post, to take turns.  But players describe different amounts of action in posts, so you could see someone describe a single swordstroke while another describes a series of actions that'd take 15 seconds to execute.

Watching this, I realized that I can keep track what's going on if it's broken into short single actions.  GURPS' 6-second rounds (IIRC) were too long.  They made it impossible for me to visualize what was happening over that stretch of time -- how can it be that only one exchange can usually be made in that time?  But I could visualize who was doing what if the rounds were a second or less, if the action was more realistically speedy, and if I didn't let one character's moves take much more time than the other's, so that they desynchronize.

I tested this by orchestrating a complicated combat for a collection of characters in the consent-based milieu of the freeform, which was satisfactory for that mode of play ... um, in the sense that it was as good as consent-based combat usually gets ... which is damning with faint praise, there being no GM to kick out the munchkins or maintain consistency in the setting.

This still didn't solve my problem with getting oriented on complicated terrain without a diagram, or with impartial non-consensual resolution, but it was a step forward.

Next: more partial solutions


  • Guest
Partial solutions 2
« Reply #4 on: September 14, 2006, 11:13:38 pm »
My homebrew
I wanted a system that would easily accommodate the oddball characters that interest me.  I didn't want to spend any time fighting the system to make them fit: I wanted the system to let me quickly and easily describe the character in my head, with room to add detail later as I became aware of it.

And I wanted a die mechanic with very low handling time and a tendency to yield results in the middle, rather than the wild swings of single die rolls.  I didn't want the opacity of dice pool probabilities.

For character creation, I ripped o-- er, was inspired by Over the Edge.  Characters have a main trait (usually their profession), however many subsidiary traits are necessary to give an idea of the character's abilities, at least one disadvantage, and a brief description of background and their motivation.  The traits are on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being miserable and 10 being world-class.  They may get some description specifying particular areas of strength or weakness.  It's pretty darned easy to build a character on the fly with this system.

The basic die mechanic is to roll 3d12 and taking the middle die; if it's <= the trait, you succeeded.  Rolls should only be made if there's a serious chance of the character not being able to do the task at all, or if it matters whether they get it right the first time.  (And if for some reason I don't want diceless resolution).

The typical combat roll is an opposed roll where the characters both roll against whatever traits are relevant, and, if either succeeds, the one who succeeds by the most wins.  The level of damage inflicted on the enemy is determined by subtracting the loser's degree of success or failure from the winner's degree of success.  (Exactly what kind of damage is determined by the descriptions of what the characters were trying to do.)

This tends to give me the kind of results I want, but the opposed roll is still awkward enough to slow down combat if it's handled round by round.  I was using one opposed roll to settle the whole combat.  But then I got another idea, which is

Dice code
I'm playing on a MUSH these days, and writing custom code to handle the dice is a pretty simple project (although MUSHcode is the ugliest code ever conceived of by man).  I put together a routine that will handle both the roll and the comparison in the opposed roll above, and tell me who succeeded and by how much, with a mere ten keystrokes' input.  That's fast enough for me to go back to throwing dice exchange by exchange, provided that

I handle all the die rolls myself
Which I do.  Because the worst thing with online combat is devoting any of that very limited bandwidth to talking about the mechanics, when we want to be focusing on what's going on in the fictional world.

Broadband, yay!
I moved last year, and got broadband, so now I can potentially use some kind of a whiteboard or online RPG program to sketch on players' screens.  

Next: last week's test


  • Guest
Test of the system
« Reply #5 on: September 14, 2006, 11:27:25 pm »
Last week, I managed to put most of this together.  I'm running a solo campaign, and we decided to test my new approach to combat with an encounter between the PC and an NPC.  If it worked, we'd consider it part of the campaign; if it didn't, we'd write it off as a failed test.  It worked.

We played for about 6 hours elapsed time, with probably at least an hour of that being antecedent and wrapup, rather than the combat itself; we also interrupt sessions for breaks, so I think the combat itself probably took between 4 and 4 1/2 hours.  I was particularly pleased in that I spent very little of that time distracted: the bulk of my conscious attention went into considering the fictional situation and writing descriptions thereof.

I thought that, with one player, I might be able to get away with using file transfer via Trillian instead of needing a program that functions as a whiteboard, so I loaded up Adobe Illustrator and got my tablet ready, expecting to sketch the terrain and send the player a JPEG.  However, it turned out that I didn't need to draw anything.  I'd already sent the player a topographical map of the area as part of the general campaign info.  I had anticipated needing a sketch of the terrain on a smaller scale, but it wasn't particularly complicated terrain, and the existing map turned out to be all we needed to get oriented.

I still expect to need to send graphical information at times, because not every place where combat may occur is likely to be mapped in enough detail.  I've bought ProjectForum, which is a wiki server, to organize my campaign notes, logs, and maps, and it may be that simply adding a sketch to the wiki would be a satisfactory way of communicating quickly to multiple players.  Without testing, I can't tell whether that would be sufficient, or whether I want to go for a program like Fantasy Grounds that allows players to move tokens representing the PCs around.

I was happy with the way my homebrew worked.  It wasn't hard to come up with descriptions of what was happening that more-or-less tracked the dice results and followed from what had come before.  The thing that particularly pleased me is that, while it had a tendency to drive results toward the expected outcome, that tendency wasn't so strong that the PC, making fewer tactical errors, couldn't overcome the NPC's edge in skills.  He underestimated her, erred in his opening move because of it, and never recovered the dominating position he might have had.  She won, by a margin that seemed believable to me given their skills, in a fashion that seemed believable.  If not for her capitalizing on his mistake, it in all likelihood would have gone the other way; and that's how I wanted it to work.

I haven't described any mechanical rule for carrying over advantage and disadvantage into subsequent actions.  I did some of this on the fly, taking into account the results of a previous action to determine whether someone could act effectively and in a timely manner the next time.  I don't know whether having a mechanical rule for this would help or hinder.  I could probably use the winner's previous degree of success as a bonus to their next role, and I could even modify the dice code to pick it up automatically for me.  But I'm not sure whether this is always the realistic procedure -- is it not possible that a character's next action might be of a sort that a previous failure might not interfere with that much?  So I want to try a few more sessions without a rule first, before I experiment with one.

I was momentarily puzzled as to how to resolve a sort of attack that I haven't seen described in any other game system.  Usually an attack is physical or magical, but not both.  However, this was a fight between mages, and in my setting it's common for mages to use weapons and magic at the same time: for instance, a charged sword may assist in penetrating the enemy's magical shield and delivering a magical strike.  Finally I decided to roll twice for such an attack, once for the physical and once for the magical aspect.  It produced intelligible enough results, at least in this instance.