On the Failure of Tactical Combat

It's bad to tell other people that they are having badwrongfun.

They can play however they like.

But there's a problem with throwing around the term "Edition Warring" and somehow conflating some legitimate concern with a concrete quantifiable issue with a desire to dictate how other people should play. I have no idea, nor do I particularly care what you do at your table. (Although I do have a vested interest in making my own opinions clear and understandable).

However, If I point to the naked emperor and say that he has no clothes, then perhaps he should just get dressed, instead of having his subjects tell me why it's ok to make us look at his glory.

And before I get into this, I want to take a moment and give props to the fourth edition design team for making a game that's quick to DM - taking NPC and monster creation and making it easy. Props for giving good tools to estimate the difficulty of numeral comparisons of monsters.

Why disassociated mechanics are a serious problem.

There's a lot of talk over what dissociated mechanics are, but I can tell you why they are such a problem. Associated mechanics have an effect with a result - disassociated mechanics have a result caused by an affect!

What does this mean? Let's look at fireball.

An associated mechanic says "We are going to create a ball of fire! What are the effects of a giant ball of fire?" and then it describes a list of things that occur when a ball of fire is exploded!

A disassociated mechanic says we're going to do X damage to an area Y large, and it has fire traits and arcane traits.

Associated Mechanic: Effect => Result
Dissociated Mechanic: Result => Effect
Why is this a problem? The disassociated mechanic is only useful for it's effect - which is causing damage in combat.

Now I don't know if this is true for you, But when I game for six hours, players will fight maybe 5 different times, and only spend about 90 minutes in combat. Can we see the problem?

The associated mechanic is useful as a tool for 6 hours of play. The dissociated mechanic is useful for only about 2 hours of play.

This is a serious real problem with every power in 4th edition. People defend the elegant math, but my math equation using real actual numbers comes out much differently then whatever math is being talked about when they talk about elegance. One common response is "Most of these are magic effects! Warriors don't have access to them!". That comment is made by people who don't have fighters with armies, or charismatic characters with followers, or magic items like they used to be - filled with strange and unique effects.

One way to make this work is to only spend the time fighting battles so that the the powers are useful more often.

What a terrible thing to do.

I say this because I have never seen any argument, discussion, or statement that address this issue in a quantifiable way. It is a serious concern for me as a player and the fundamental issue with nearly every single one of the endless arguments I had while trying to play 4e. I kept asking what was actually happening, and kept being told that it wasn't important.

In the spirit of this, I'll be archiving the excellent theory written by Daztur recently tomorrow and the next day here at Hack & Slash. His article led me to understand why this was so difficult for me and what those players were looking for.

They wanted an arena battle, two equal forces facing off. A game of chess. A game of equal (or nearly equal) starting conditions - even if those conditions were geared against the players.

It was not what I was looking for. I only hope that the recognize that even under a rules system that might be NEXT that I still won't be looking for those things. And the players that are, well, I probably won't be gaming with them. Do the makers of NEXT understand that? The only question I have left is will they sell anything I can use for my LL, ACKS, OSRIC, or DCC game?

16 comments:

  1. Note: there is some sarcasm and snark in the above post. (i.e. What a terrible thing to do) please read it in good humor and recognize I understand the validity of a play style that isn't my favorite.

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  2. To those who would cry "edition war" I would say that the only thing in your post that I think could reasonably be taken that way is the part about the emperor having no clothes.

    It's good and useful to say "I like THIS in my games over THAT, and I hope that D&D Next has more of THIS and less of THAT". It's also good to acknowledge that other people might like THAT and that it's okay for them to play games with lots of THAT.

    But the "emperor has no clothes" comment comes across as being more "objectively true" and that's what tends to lead people to start throwing around terms like "edition war". Perhaps all you meant by the emperor having no clothes was "hey guys, 4e has lots of dissociated mechanics", which I think most people would agree with. But the story of the Emperor's New Clothes is more about everyone being afraid to tell the horrible truth, which implies (at least to me) that the "truth" here is that "4e makes heavy use of dissociated mechanics, AND THAT IS BAD." Saying "I don't like this particular aspect of a game" or even "I don't like this particular game" is fine and not a war. Saying (or in this case, at least in my eyes, implying) that "This particular game is BAD" comes across as a war.

    That might not be what you meant, but since you sounded sensitive to the edition war issue I thought I'd share how that one particular sentence came across to me. Nothing else in your post seemed even remotely "edition warry" in my eyes, and I thought the post was well written.

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  3. Ever played DDO? (Dungeons and Dragons Online)

    I sit down for two or three hours with my buddies, and it's about 90% combat and 10% resource management.

    The resource management part consists of things like, deciding what to buy with levelups, actionpoints, gold and essences, and deciding what to put in inventory slots of various types...all of which are evaluated in terms of what would be most effective for my role in combat.

    Some people play pen and paper that way. Dissociated mechanics make it easier (and for some, more fun) to run a game that way. It's on purpose.

    In my Sunday night "Gyris" campaign, combat comes up possibly once in a 2-3 hour session, and generally is resolved in about 15 minutes. More often the conflicts are social or internal. As a result, we use Fate because the system is much more focused on supporting what we play. We tried using Pathfinder and it was a total nonstarter.

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  4. Daztur = me.

    "Associated Mechanic: Effect => Result
    Dissociated Mechanic: Result => Effect"

    I really like this definition. By this definition, there are some dissociated mechanics in TSR-D&D, but vastly more in 4th edition. In 4th edition, for most powers, there is a specific mechanical result of using the power but very little information about HOW that result happens, so it's very hard to figure out how to use that power for anything else but that codified result.

    When I get the time, I'll do a sequel post about DM-fiat...

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  5. Thanks for posting this! I'll try to tackle the issue.

    As a friend of mine put it: I don't need or want an airtight mechanical system for talking to the king. I do need an airtight mechanical system for combat.

    Systems that describe powers (using the term generically here) in the associated sense are imprecise, and quickly create openings for individual player interpretation. That list of effects is only a list of examples, after all; what's important is that it's a big ball of fire. Each player will have variant conceptions of this that still fit within the effects.

    That said, you seem to be saying: "I don't have much combat in my games, and I don't like crunchy combat." In that case, it *is* a matter of play style; there are systems other than D&D 4E that will better fit your style. Have you tried Old School Hack, for example?

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  6. There's a difference between edition warring and telling the truth.

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  7. "Systems that describe powers (using the term generically here) in the associated sense are imprecise, and quickly create openings for individual player interpretation."

    That's exactly what I like the best about associated powers :)

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  8. I actually tried to address the beginnings of this argument here.

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  9. No, I don't see the problem. If the majority of the wizard's spells (or any other powers) are only useful in combat, so what? He is not merely his spells. But anyway, what you describe is not the case: dissociated mechanics are not necessarily only useful in combat.

    Associated mechanics (what I usually call "realism") are, in theory, not a problem because they just do what would "really" happen, and everyone can work with that. In practice they're a problem because there's no way to adjudicate everything that would really happen. No version I've ever seen of D&D or any other game has accurately described the physical effects of being able to cause conflagrations at will. There would be noise, concussion, vaporization, and it's likely that nothing inside it would survive. Great, but hard to do at a table and probably not all that fun without seriously rebalancing.

    Dissociated mechanics (what I usually call "abstraction") sidesteps all that, except for what's specifically listed in the mechanics AND except for whatever the DM and players can agree on. I'll admit that the rules are not clear on this, but nothing says that the powers can't do more than they're listed as. The listing of a power is just the minimum that can't generally be taken away. It's the solid foundation. But if you want it to be able to do more, it's a simple conversation with the DM to arrange something outside of the baseline, for use in or out of combat. Want to use the concussion of a fireball to move a ship out of a collision course? A DM can flat out allow this, require a roll, or flat out disallow it. In my experience, this how it's always worked in every edition, and it's only a problem when the DM loses control and gets talked into setting in stone far more effect than he or she was prepared to grant the players.

    I find it incredibly powerful to be able to describe my fireball, sword strike, healing effect, or whatever I want, so long as it holds to the mechanics. That descriptive license is worth far more to me than "realistic" effects that might be useful in a wider range of circumstances.

    You appear to claim that magic balanced in past editions. You could be right. I never saw that myself, but I never experienced the full range of what was available. I still don't see how having an army or followers makes up for personally being able to fricassee a mass of people.

    And don't get me wrong: I'm not a huge fan of tactical combat either. But I feel like I understand it and can find enjoyment in freedom the abstraction gives me.

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    1. I would just like to point out:

      The burst of the fireball creates little pressure and generally conforms to the shape of the area in which it occurs.

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  10. Hi centauri.

    It is clear that we are doing very different things in play.

    This does not mean that there is anything wrong with the way you are playing -- but it is clear from your comments "A DM can flat out allow this, require a roll, or flat out disallow it", "it's only a problem when the DM loses control", "there's no way to adjudicate everything that would really happen", that what is actually occurring at your table is very very different from what happens at mine.

    This is cool, I'm glad you're doing your own thing. I'm sure you are enjoying it.

    That aside, there are are some logical fallacies in your statements I wish to address.

    The Rule 0 Fallacy "I'll admit that the rules are not clear on this, but nothing says that the powers can't do more than they're listed as."

    I'm concerned with playing games as they actually are. Just because I can add, change, or ignore a rule; doesn't mean the rule isn't broken in the first place.

    Definist Fallacy "You appear to claim that magic balanced in past editions."

    Your concept of balance is neither true nor particularly relevant to the method of play at my table. i.e. I am not claiming that magic is balanced in past editions - the idea of balance is not relevant to play at the table for OSR play (or more precisely my specific implementation of OSR play). See this.


    False Dilemma (or possibly strawman, but let's go with the benefit of the doubt). "No version I've ever seen of D&D or any other game has accurately described the physical effects of being able to cause conflagrations at will. . . The listing of a power is just the minimum that can't generally be taken away. It's the solid foundation."

    These things you list aren't the only options, nor are they mutually exclusive. There are certain baseline effects in old school spells (1d6 per level, range, etc.) just as there are things to be adjudicated in disassociated mechanics.

    Strawman "In practice they're a problem because there's no way to adjudicate everything that would really happen."

    This is neither necessary, desirable, nor an issue in actual play (therefore the 'problem' doesn't actually exist).

    Truism Not a logical fallacy per se, but. . . "Dissociated mechanics . . . sidesteps all that, except for what's specifically listed in the mechanics AND except for whatever the DM and players can agree on." is true of any rule of any game ever -- this isn't a feature of disassociated mechanics. It's a feature of rules for games.

    Finally,
    "No, I don't see the problem. If the majority of the wizard's spells (or any other powers) are only useful in combat, so what? He is not merely his spells."

    I address this in the article above. Combat is less then an hour of play in a six hour game. A large part of the design in games with dissociated mechanics is focused on the disassociated mechanics. To play the style of game I am talking about fundamentally wastes that time. I am not interested in having my time wasted, nor wasting the time of my players. I like all their tools in their toolbox to be useful for the entirety of the game.

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  11. I think you're 'meant' to spend most of the time playing out combats in 3rd and 4th edition.

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    1. That would explain why I don't play those games.

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  12. I know the post is a bit old, but I just read it :P

    "The associated mechanic is useful as a tool for 6 hours of play. The dissociated mechanic is useful for only about 2 hours of play."

    I really don't see this. What is keeping you from using a "dissociated mechanic fireball" outside of combat? I don't even understand what does it matter how the fireball came to be designed in the first place. The dissociated spell is actually even easier to reflavor.

    You can't expect the rules to tell you that you can light a fireplace with a fireball. If it's common sense the DM will allow it. My point is creativity is always dissociated from the rules; it's not creativity otherwise.

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    1. A poor DM mostly.

      A strict reading of the rules requires targets as in opponents on a grid for most of the disassociated mechanics.

      But mostly, "Move an opponent 2 squares away from you" is meaningless outside of combat, whereas "Shout" you know, shatters glass.

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