Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Playing with the Sword-and-Board Fighter

Ian over at the Swashbuckler's Hideout has a neat new variation on the "shields shall be splintered" house rule. It's considerably more attention-intensive than mine, but he also has very different goals:

My goal for this rule was to make defending with a shield an active, rather than a passive, ability and to create a large difference in play styles between the sword & board and two-handed combatants.

I'm really looking forward to hearing what his goals are for his game. Everybody plays the game differently because everyone gets their fun in different ways. So what follows should absolutely not be seen as a criticism of Ian or his rules. That's not my goal here at all; I'm really looking forward to seeing what he has in mind and why he's doing things the way he's doing them.

That said, I see in Ian's rule a tendency I see in myself and most other designers. If we want one choice to "play differently" from another, we give them new dice rolls. I see two issues with this. First, modern game design loves its central mechanics. The whole point of the central mechanic is to make every procedural dice roll similar in execution. This makes the game a lot easier to master. Learn the central mechanic, and you've pretty much learned the whole game. Of course, this means that relying on dice rolls to make classes play differently doesn't work very well. If you're using a central mechanic, all your dice rolls are going to be extremely similar. Ian’s starting with an older version of D&D I believe, so this isn't as big an issue for him as it is for some of us, but it's something to keep in mind.

The other issue is something I've been harping on lately: when you're rolling the dice, you're not playing the game. Dice rolls are what happens when the game stops and we wait to see what sort of curveball randomness is going to throw us. People think dice rolls are the game because that's mostly what we see in the books. But games are about making choices, not rolling dice; the game of craps is in the betting; rolling of the dice only tells you who won.

So as an exercise in what-if, let's take a look at Ian's goal of making the sword-and-board warrior play differently from the two-hander. In the faux old-school game Mazes and Minotaurs, there is a rule that gives warriors in a shield wall bonuses in combat, specifically giving them a +2 defensive bonus.

If we import this rule, or one very much like it, we can see that it will encourage the sword-and-board warrior to fight with other sword-and-board warriors, shoulder-to-shoulder in a shield wall. One way to do this would be to have other fighters in the party also fight sword-and-board. That would work well for a large party, but what if the party's very small or the other players don't want to play sword-and-board fighters? It might be best for our sword-and-board warrior to instead rely on retainers, hirelings, or henchmen to fill out a shield wall. This gives us a very different sort of warrior. Now we've got a character for whom Charisma is not a dump stat. He needs that high morale bonus to keep his guys in the shield wall. He is also a lot more worried about logistics. He's got a crew to feed and transport and arm. The other warriors in the shield wall need arms, equipment, food and their own share of the loot. Our sword-and-board warrior is now more commander and leader and less of a lone-wolf like his two-hander swinging counterpart.

So now we have a sword-and-board warrior who plays very differently inside and outside of combat. The interests and concerns of the player are noticeably changed from those of a generic fighter. And we did this without adding a single dice roll, just a simple rule that modifies certain already-existing combat rolls. I suspect this doesn't do Ian much good; this is probably not the direction he wants to take his game at all. This is just a fun little exercise in thinking outside the box. Often our first instincts are spot on, but it's useful to poke around and see if they are other and better ways to accomplish our ends.

Art by Walter Crane.


Chris said...

Now we've got a character for whom Charisma is not a dump stat. He needs that high morale bonus to keep his guys in the shield wall. He is also a lot more worried about logistics.

Interesting. I might have to nick this. It'll make a nice (Saxon Huscarl-style) change from the knight-and-squire thing that tends to go on in our group at the moment.*

* That in itself is the result of 'life insurance' bonds PCs have to pay when they take on hirelings.

Matthew Slepin said...

That's an awfully keen idea.

Tom Fitzgerald said...

Nice, I always liked that rule of yours, I've just got to work out whether and how it should work for snakebite and pixie arrows and suchlike non-shield-splintering but still significantly threatening attacks.

I've got an idea that all PCs could benefit from hirelings in different ways making charisma potentially the most useful stat overall (like it in real life).

Anonymous said...

Awesome! I've been trying to find something that would make shields more significant in the game, as I believe they were in real life; likewise, the group's main fighter is played by a Warhammer player, and I've been wanting to give him a chance to work with unit tactics again.

In your own campaign(s), what rules do you use for two-handed weapons and two-weapon fighting (assuming you allow this one)? I've been lucky not to have to commit to a ruling on these yet, but i suspect it's just a matter of time.

Swordgleam said...

"when you're rolling the dice, you're not playing the game."

I have one and only one counterexample to this. The free RPG Midgard has a central mechanic of "casting runes," which involves rolling a number of d8s, and each result relates to a god rune. So a 1 is bad, but not because it's low, and a 4 might be better than a 6 depending on what you're trying to accomplish. You also get to put 7s and 8s into whatever number pool you want, so even the resolving die roll itself involves some strategy. I would LOVE to see more games with mechanics like this.

Dagda (Brooks Harrel) said...

Seems like a more elegant approach would be to have larger shields give a +1 defense bonus to adjacent allies (that stacks with any other bonuses of the same type). Now the sword-and-board fighters have the same teamwork bonus when they form a shield wall, as well as a fundamental way to support their teammates as they play.