Monday 9 March 2009

Fighting Between Two Stools

For some reason my posts weren't displaying yesterday or today; bloody computers. Anyway, this is the last of my Warhammer/D&D related posts. Back to regular esoteric stuff from tomorrow.

I think there are basically two schools of thought on combat in role playing games. There is the realist school (whose foremost proponents are GURPS, Cyberpunk 2020 and Rolemaster) where all elements of combat are played out in a detailed manner - from parries and dodges to appreciably nasty wounds. And then there is the abstract school (exemplified by the likes of Dogs in the Vineyard, Tunnels and Trolls, and the old World of Darkness games), where generally pools of dice are rolled and the results are interpreted in a vaguer and broader way.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is very much in the realist school. A combat round takes 10 seconds, and players not only roll 'to hit' but can also parry blows, lauch 'swift attacks', feint, and perform various other maneuvers. Generally speaking injuries are as severe as you would expect in real life, and it isn't unusual to see characters being killed with one hit. No matter how experienced a character is, they remain vulnerable to physical attacks: an unarmoured character of the highest level could still be killed by a few goblins firing arrows.

D&D was traditionally much more abstract. A combat round was a minute long, and the 'to hit' roll was really a shorthand term for determining whether, over the course of one minute, one character would be able to land a telling blow on another. Characters lose hit points, but these should be seen not as 'wound leves' but as a combination of physical health, morale, energy and other factors keeping a character in the fight. As characters gain in experience they become almost impervious to physical attacks; there is no chance that a level 20 character will be killed by a few goblins firing arrows, because an arrow hit will only take off a tiny percentage from their huge pile of hit points.

I like both methods of combat. Warhammer allows for a more tactical and realistic game. One thing I love about the Warhammer combat system is that it accurately reflects the level of protection that armour offered: a knight in plate mail is almost impossible to injure unless he is disabled somehow or falls over. Combat frightens the players because their character could easily die or suffer permanent injury, and this makes them cautious and clever. On the other hand, traditional D&D combat is fast and furious and allows for improvisation on the part of the DM and the players, because the rules are so loose.

Trying to mix the two schools is often a mistake, and I think that is where a lot of my dislike for D&D 3rd edition stems from. It sacrificed the almost freeform nature of D&D combat in previous editions for a greater level of tactical detail (attacks of opportunity, combat grids), and yet it retained the abstractions of hit points, armour class and the like - resulting in a bizarre mixture of both irrealism and restrictiveness. Not only did the 3rd edition combat system fail to match Warhammer for realism and danger, it also failed to match traditional D&D for ease of use and improvisational fun. It fell just in the middle of two stools, and (for me) was not at all as enjoyable as it should have been.

I haven't played D&D 4th edition, so I can't speak for it directly, but the designers seem to have made an effort to make a better hybrid of tactical detail and abstraction. Did they succeed or not? I can't say, but I think I generally prefer the either/or of realism and detail vs. freeform and abstraction.


  1. I agree about 3.5, but I think the basic skill system works really well and is flexible enough to extend into hit points (for more tactical realism) and combat (for more speed), so you get the best of both worlds.

    I have limited experience of 4e, but it seems to retain the 3.5 edition problems.

    I don't like what little whfrp I have played because I hate being useless (I don't remember being able to do any tactical moves or suchlike either; maybe I was too weak).

  2. faustusnotes: Who was your GM for the wfrp game you played? Even the weakest characters are able to parry, dodge, feint and so forth.