Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Combat in Play-by-Post

Play-by-Post isn’t my favorite form of gaming. In fact, I’ve kinda avoided it for a few years now. Partly this is because the games always end up collapsing, and it’s usually in the middle of a combat when someone just stops posting and the whole thing grinds to a halt.

Still, PbP has a lot to recommend it, especially in terms of the wide availability of players and GMs, and its low-impact requirements for participation. It’s just that the usual, extremely granular combat systems of most RPGs don’t suit it well. They create a continuous series of bottlenecks that are fatal to the momentum of a game.

Even old school D&D, with its very simple back-and-forth style of combat can get bogged down as you wait for players to declare their actions, then wait for the DM to report the results. But D&D’s combat serves an important purpose. It allows combat to be exploration by other means. Is this a monster we can beat? Are we dishing out enough damage to it? Is it dishing out too much damage to us? Does fire harm it more than steel? What about magic?

This is why resolving an entire combat in a single roll is a sub-optimal solution as well. It doesn’t give the players time to react, or a chance to learn anything about their foe.

The compromise between efficiency and interaction would be, I think, three decision points. Chatting about this with Oddysey, she suggested a flow of initiate, adjust, and follow-through for these three decision points (though she didn’t actually use those words). The first decision point is initiating the combat and possibly setting the stakes. The GM responds to the player’s initial actions, leading to the second decision point: press ahead or adjust tactics? The GM lets the players know what happens in either case, and that sets up the final decision point: go for the kill, or cut your losses and pull out.

In this case, I’m thinking efficiency does not necessarily mean brevity. At the table, many small, iterative actions make sense. That sort of thing is death to a PbP game, however. Complexity, both in the actions of the PCs and in the descriptions of the results from the GM, is probably a virtue here. If it takes five minutes to resolve and describe an action, that’s just fine in a PbP when you can find your five minutes at any point of the day. This detail and complexity can also give the players more to work with as they make their choices. Do they screen with their drones and drive a wedge of capital ships into the enemy line? Form their own line of battle and duke it out with heavy graser cannons and torpedoes? Or do they curl into a defensive ball and shield their more vulnerable ships from the assault? A more detailed, tactical view, I think, would work much better in this sort of game than a simple, “I attack the nearest goblin.”

Art by Hippolyte Bellange.


sirlarkins said...

I participated briefly in a long-running PbEM about 10 years ago that had the players post their combat actions in large chunks as contingency chains, kind of like what you're suggesting. Something like: "I attack the goblin nearest me. Once it's dead, I move across the room to engage the hobgoblin leader, engaging any goblins who move to block me on the way. When I attack the first goblin, I call out to Mysterio to fling a magic missile at the leader to soften him up for me. If I'm knocked down to 5 HP or less at any point, I'll do a fighting withdrawal." Then the GM would run everyone through several rounds of combat until all the contingencies had played out, then announce the results in a suitably narrative fashion.

"Still, PbP has a lot to recommend it, especially in terms of...its low-impact requirements for participation."

Strangely, I haven't found that to be the case and this is actually the one thing that's turned me off of PbP gaming. I don't mind a slow, steady pace, actually (that's part of the territory), but I've found that inevitably you get one or two players who are able to post much more frequently than the others, sometimes to the point of practically engaging in real-time chat through the boards, which creates a major division in the party dynamic as these uber-players jump ahead of everyone else, taking the proactive lead on practically everything and leaving everyone else in a reactive, "me too, I guess" sort of mode.

(Can you tell I was never the one who was able to post frequently? ;P)

Vedron said...

In terms of the operational art of war, I think the key decision point is when and where to commit the reserve. In D&D terms, the "reserve" probably means committing henchmen or PCs to decisive mano-a-mano combat, burning powerful spells, or recognizing/seizing/exploiting key terrain ("get there the firstest with the mostest").

Using these sorts of resources as "ante" for several rounds of betting would be interesting. You could either double down on your current strategy, switch to another one, or cut your losses and walk (run) away.

trollsmyth said...

sirlakins: Yeah, most of the games I've been in have had both maximums and minimums on posts (or actions) allowed per day. I think that helps, but I've seen what you're talking about. And that seems to exacerbate the issue when someone has de facto stopped playing and nobody notices until you hit a bottleneck that requires their input.

Vedron: Yep. To me, it suggests a 4e-style, exceptions-based rules set, where the players have access to limited-use resources that change the normal rules of combat, potentially arranged in a rock-paper-scissors hierarchy.