Again, this is simply a repost of an off-the-cuff rant to a blog entry at WOTC. Read it first, or this replay makes no sense.
An interesting fantasy, and I don’t mean the kind with elves. Now, let’s discuss how gridless combat really works, based on 34 years of actual play experience.
DM: The orcs charge around the corner! One attacks you, the others charge by to get the wizard!
Fighter: Like hell, I’m going to stop one with my axe!
DM: You can’t, they’re too far from you.
Fighter: You said this was a 10 foot corridor. My axe is five feet long. There’s no way I can’t get a swing at one of them!
DM: Sigh, fine. Uhm… the one on the right or on the left?
Fighter: I dunno, does it matter? Right. I roll a 19, I’m going to guess that hits, and, crap, 4 damage.
DM: OK, one of the orcs is wounded, they attack the wizard now.
Wizard: Can I cast a spell before they get here?
DM: Uhm… let’s see… they have a move of 6.. and you said you were “hanging back”… how far back, exactly, were you hanging?
Wizard (after doing some quick math in his head): Uhm… forty feet.
DM (eying him suspiciously): Well, then I guess you can get off a spell…
Wizard: Cool, I cast magic missile!
DM: At which orc?
Wizard: Uh… the wounded one. I roll…a 2. Smeg.
DM: OK, he’s still up.
Thief: I backstab him!
DM: You can’t.
DM: Because the wounded one is on the left and you’re sneaking in the shadows on the right.
Thief: Nuh-uh! I crossed over behind the wizard while he was casting. So I’m on the right.
DM: But the you’re in front of him, not behind him. You can’t backstab from the front. That’s why it’s a backstab.
Thief: Wait, wouldn’t he have to turn to look at the wizard who just magic missiled him?
Fighter: Hey, do I get a turn here? I’m going to charge the one that’s wounded. Death to the orcs!
DM: OK, as you turn to charge, the other orc, the one you’ve all been ignoring, attacks you from behind. +4 to attack! He hits, 12 damage!
Fighter: No way, I’d have backed away carefully and not let him do that!
DM: You’re going to back away carefully AND charge?
Fighter: I’m fourth level! Now, where’s the orc I’m trying to kill?
DM: He’s on the right… no… wait… I marked down the damage on two different orcs… uhm… which one was hit by the magic missile again?
And so it goes, in the REAL world. This is why I try to avoid any RPG without a tactical map (My systems of choice are GURPS, Hero, and D&D 3.x/PF/4e), and why when my group plays WOD or M&M, we *add* a tactical map, just so we always know where everyone is.
To elaborate: If there’s any possibility of conflict, confusion, or questions about “Can X do Y before A can do B?”, I really want the positions of characters marked as clearly as possible. The fact is, people imagine scenes differently, and fill in details based on their own expectations and assumptions which might not be shared by the entire group. Even something as simple as a barroom conversation turning into a barroom brawl can drag the game to a crawl when you try to establish where everyone was when the gameplay shifted from “roleplaying general milling around the area” to “Get to drawing, Screen Monkey!” (In other words, “We are about to engage in combat, oh respected Game Master. Please, draw us a tactical map of the region, so we may best engage in the enemy with full knowledge of our surroundings and his position.”)
“Theater Of The Mind” (Isn’t that White Wolf’s trademarked line of “Stand around in black clothes playing rock-paper-scissors” games?) works best if you’re into “telling a story”. It’s much less useful if you want to “find out what happens”, which is my preferred style of play. Contrary to what a lot of people like to assume or imply, disputes between the DM and players over the positioning of monsters, the relationship of various entities in space and time (and relative dimensions in space), whether or not you were standing in the area of the fireball, etc, are not necessarily due to immaturity, munchkinism, or competitiveness, but simply that people all have their own unique internal maps of the world, and in a complex conflict — anything worth playing out by the rules, as opposed to just saying, “Look, these guys aren’t remotely a threat, you have them at your mercy inside of 5 seconds” — you will have far too many factors to easily keep straight. It’s very easy for one player to not have heard another player say he’s moving across the room, thus placing him in the path of the first player’s lightning bolt, shotgun blast, or grenade. If one hobgoblin is knocked prone, it’s easy to say, “I attack the one on the ground”, but if there’s two of them, you need some other qualifier (“Uhm… the one on the ground who looks more wounded…”) and it quickly scales up from there. Within a player’s mind, often consumed with trying to juggle awareness of what everyone else is doing (pretty much the same, in a major battle, as trying to play mental chess), the distinction between “I plan to walk over there” and “I told the DM I walked over there” is easy to blur; likewise, “I run next to the orc” might imply a completely different orc to the DM and to you, and so on. The potential for conflict and confusion is high. I mean, as my players will be happy to attest, even with the aid of miniatures and a grid, I often mix up which figure has the Ongoing 5 (save ends) and which is Dazed Until The End Of The Next Turn. Now, you might reply, “Well, that’s what happens when you’ve got all those rules and conditions and powers. Keep things simple!” Just one problem — simple is boring. Calling one sack of hit point an “orc” and another sack of hit points with exactly the same combat abilities, except one spot higher on the attack chart, a “hobgoblin” is boring, boring, boring. I like my monsters and NPCs to have the same array of potential abilities as the PCs.
Obviously, if 5e is going to try to make the “one hour adventure” a design goal — and they are — they’re going to default to very simple monsters and very basic fights and tactics, leaving anything more complex than “I swing!” up to the judgment of the DM, which basically means pixelbitching until you find out what he expects you to do. I hope that the initial rules include grid based combat as a “core module”, though. If I have to wait six months or a year to get a combat system that is more than “Hey, everyone, let’s make up a fun story about how we killed some orcs”, that’s six months to a year I won’t be playing D&D, which kind of makes the idea of “unifying the base” an abject failure. So, here’s hoping they don’t do that.