Further clarifying DECIDE!

What’s the basic “unit” of RPG play? I’d call it this little exchange or interaction:

1. Something – some event, stimulus, something – happens.
2. Players weigh the likely consequences of that something, and state how they respond.
3. Based on the that interaction, the holy trio (GM, Players, and Game Rules) determine the outcome.

And from that little procedure, you build a scene, a session, even a campaign – it just depends on how many times you rinse and repeat.

There is in GURPS one small, wacky, but mostly harmless exception to this core unit.

Defense rolls.

That’s right. Defense rolls, by curious rule fiat, twist that 1-2-3 order to 1-3-2. That is, an attack is launched (that’s the 1), the GM determines and announces its future outcome (that’s 3), and then the defending player is allowed, based on that knowledge of the future, to choose his response (step 2) and — possibly — change the future (go back to 3, get new outcome).

Odd. It makes way more sense to have the player state his response (step 2) before determining the outcome (step 3) — the same way everything else in the game is played!

I call that improved version “declaring defenses”, for lack of another name. I won’t harp on further detail; head to DECIDE for the full detailed suggestion.

The whole thing’s not a big deal, and I have no beef with anyone who sticks to the current rule. If you like it, great, play it! Invite me over, and I’ll happily play along too!

But what’s really odd is that some folks not only insist that the 1-3-2 order makes sense (an odd claim), but try to discredit the suggested improvement by making up silliness about it. I’ve seen posts argue that declaring defenses creates extra steps and “bookkeeping”. (It does neither!) In a recent forum thread, folks began portraying the suggestion as a “wargaming relic” involving “declaration phases”. (Huh?!)

In the interest of blog fodder, here’s the forum post I made in response to the claims of a “war-gaming step”:


 

I’d respond to that with a big, friendly “bah!”, as it seems to be referring to something other than the topic at hand. The term “declare” may sound wargame-y, but sticking to the original concept of “declare defenses”, all we’re talking about here is plain, normal gaming: “Something happens. Tell me what your character does”.

The very core of RPGing. This stuff:


GM: “You hear footsteps. There are guards approaching. Looks like the patrol path will bring them dangerously close to the gate you’re trying to break into. What do you do?”

Player: “Shoot, we’ll have to wait it out. You guys, duck behind the barrels, stay in the shadows. Torches out. Ready crossbows just in case. Me, I put down the tools quietly, and take out my invisibility potion. Next, I…”

or

GM: “With this final clue, the picture is clear: Dr Villous is planning a strike on the White House tonight! What do you do?”

Player: “We can’t allow that! Let’s make a plan. First, I…”

 

“Declaring” defenses is the exact same thing:

GM: “The orcs hurl their spears at you. What do you do?”

Player: “Dang, I guess I can’t just stand there prepping my spell… I raise my shield and jump aside.”

GM: Okay. Let’s see what happens…

 

That’s all “declaring defenses” refers to: the GM announces an attack, and the player gives his character’s response. The same way any other event in the game is played. Wargames? Declaration phases? I think folks are imagining very odd stuff in a few of the posts!

That said, there’s nothing wrong with the standard method for those who like it. Sure, it looks funny when examined:


GM: “The orcs hurl their spears at you.”

Player: “Dang, I hate to mess up my spell prep… Will the spears hit?”

GM: No, they’re going to miss. You don’t need to do anything.

Player: “Okay. I keep prepping the spell. Next, I… “

 

But if the players don’t mind, it’s a harmless thing. Play on!

(Well, I suppose I could point out that if you played the rest of GURPS in the same way as combat, it’d look like this:

GM: “You hear footsteps. There are guards approaching. Looks like the patrol path will bring them dangerously close to the gate you’re trying to break into.”

Player: “Will they see us?”

GM: “No, their Perception rolls will fail.”

Player: “Okay, we keep working at the gate…”

or

GM: “With this final clue, the picture is clear: Dr Villous is planning a strike on the White House tonight!”

Player: “Will he succeed?”

GM: “Actually, no.”

Player: “Okay. We spend the evening in the Training Room. How many hours’ study is that?”

 

… but that might be seen as tweaking people’s noses. : )

4 Comments

  • Ken

    I think the problem arises when you look at the specific set of actions that happen in combat:

    1. GM: “He attacks you.”
    2. GM rolls to hit
    3. Player: “I parry!”
    4. Player rolls parry

    Each roll nicely follows the action it describes. The fact that 3 and 4 may not be bothered with if 2 fails is an interesting artifact (discussed in a bit).

    If you switch the order of 2 and 3, you’re splitting the declaration of an action and the roll for that action. Not a big deal generally, but is yet another pending action that has to be remembered. Each one doesn’t do much on its own, but these things add up to slow down play. In technical writing, parenthetical statements, especially mid-sentence, are discouraged for basically the same reason.

    That’s probably the source of the “extra bookkeeping” and “declaration phase” arguments. The “bookkeeping” comes from keeping track of pending rolls, and describing this sort of thing in rules tends to lead to phases: “OK, action A is initiated. OK, next, everyone who’s aware of A, declare your reactions. OK, next, a bunch of rolls occur to resolve what actually happens.” The system becomes less of a dialog and more of a big game of tracking simultanaety.

    I do a bit of LARP game design, and I’ve found that the simplest, easiest, and fastest combat rules are the ones with the least amount of simultanaety concerns. Hit-and-run mechanics are just better for fast-paced things. Applied to sit-down RPG combat, if you can just declare an attack and roll it right then, you can then go off and scrounge for cheetos or calculate your current falling speed or whatever while your target copes with the rest (defense) of the attack.

    That aside, I don’t think the “interesting artifact” from above cause any real problem to GURPS melee combat. Actually, I think it’s a bit more realistic, concerning how fighters react to stressful stimulus. Sure, it misses out on an innate mechanic for accidentally feinting with a missed hit, but I don’t really care for that. Every time someone misses a shot, I don’t roll the dice to see if accidentally knocked a pigeon out of the air.

    Now, I do often think there is a problem with GURPS dodge when applied to ranged attacks, and I do house-rule that into something more complicated. But it _is_ more complicated, and does have more bookkeeping.

    • tbone

      Ken, first an apology: I didn’t see your comment on my post until just recently, when moving things over to the new site. That’s the fault of my inattention to the old site. The new site will make it much easier for me to keep tabs on comments, and I promise to do so.

      I appreciate the detailed response. You note:

      1. GM: “He attacks you.”
      2. GM rolls to hit
      3. Player: “I parry!”
      4. Player rolls parry

      Each roll nicely follows the action it describes. The fact that 3 and 4 may not be bothered with if 2 fails is an interesting artifact (discussed in a bit).

      I’ll note that

      1. GM: “He attacks you.”
      2. Player: “I parry!”
      3. GM rolls to hit
      4. Player rolls parry

      is also a nice flow, with each reaction nicely following the triggering action. And as I mention, it’s also the way everything except defense rolls already works in the game.

      As for the bulk of your post, the points are taken. I agree completely that the insertion of “defender response” between “attacker declaration” and “attacker roll” is what leads some folks to talk of “extra bookkeeping” and “wargaming” and what not. But what I’m saying is that those folks are misunderstanding something. There’s zero extra bookkeeping, or other funny business. At least in the way I define bookkeeping. I define it as having to keep track of a state from one point through to another, where other significant actions/tasks come in between the two points. GURPS combat does have bookkeeping. For example, your choice of action on your turn affects your defenses, so you have to keep track of what your action was, through the start of other players’ turns, up until your defenses come around. Or a Feint: you have to keep track of the defense penalty you generated, through other characters’ turns, up until your next turn comes around.

      That doesn’t happen with the defense order I’m discussing. The attacker states his intent,the defender states his response, and the attacker rolls dice. Nobody starts a new turn between the start of the attack and the dice roll. It all happens right there, at the start of the attacker’s turn. There’s nothing to remember, jot down, or otherwise carry over through someone else’s turn. To me, that’s zero bookkeeping. (Maybe the order carries some special difficulty in LARP, as you mention; sorry, I don’t have any experience there.)

      Further, we’re talking a split-second reactive decision here. Any good GM limits the time a player can take to state his action at the start of a turn. A GM should be even more ruthless in demanding that a defender instantly state a defense decision. It’s not like there are many choices; Dodge, Block, or Parry are about it! You can give the defender til the count of three (and if there’s no response,say “okay, you Dodge out of reflex.” Fair enough.) That means the attacker loses three seconds from his available time to leave the table and scrounge for food, true. I think it’s well worth it – especially because those are three seconds spent on the game’s key element of fun: character interaction and decisions.

      That aside, I don’t think the “interesting artifact” from above cause any real problem to GURPS melee combat. Actually, I think it’s a bit more realistic, concerning how fighters react to stressful stimulus. Sure, it misses out on an innate mechanic for accidentally feinting with a missed hit, but I don’t really care for that. Every time someone misses a shot, I don’t roll the dice to see if accidentally knocked a pigeon out of the air.

      I also avoid the word “problem”; I think the GURPS order here is really odd, but I didn’t even notice it for years! It can’t be too awful a problem. : )

      That said, I don’t follow the point about the GURPS order being _more_ realistic, or follow the pigeon point. Please explain further if you like.

      Finally, you note that you _do_ change the order of things where ranged combat and defenses are concerned, so you would seem to agree with the “declaring defenses” idea in at least some cases. But I haven’t seen your house rules, so I don’t know how they create bookkeeping here.

      I’ll add a final thought on my preferred combat order. I think the current GURPS attack-defense order devalues the most fun element of table-top RPGing – character decision – in favor of dice-rolling. In the GURPS order, attackers do make decisions (good!), but defenders don’t necessarily have to; the game jumps right to mechanical stuff, and then only asks the defender to make a decision if the mechanics call for it. Yet, it’s the defender that’s facing a life-or-death instant! There’s a halberd screaming down toward your character’s head. He’s a split-second away from death. It’s as ‘cliffhanger’ a moment as you’ll ever find. If that’s not a time for the GM to ask “WHAT DO YOU DO?”, then when the heck is??

      That’s my take. And to keep it all in perspective for the casual reader: I’m not saying that the current rule is nasty, evil, or even “broken”. Just that it’s… odd. And an improved version is, IMO, easy, free of bookkeeping, more realistic, and more fun to boot. Hard to beat that combination! 🙂

      • Ken

        > Ken, first an apology: I didn’t see your comment on my post until
        > just recently, when moving things over to the new site. That’s the
        > fault of my inattention to the old site. The new site will make it
        > much easier for me to keep tabs on comments, and I promise to do so.

        No need to apologize. I’ve taken long enough to reply, as it is.
        Additionally, I hope I haven’t mangled the formatting too much. 🙂

        > 1. GM: “He attacks you.”
        > 2. Player: “I parry!”
        > 3. GM rolls to hit
        > 4. Player rolls parry
        >
        > is also a nice flow, with each reaction nicely following the
        > triggering action. And as I mention, it’s also the way everything
        > except defense rolls already works in the game.

        I think you’re oversimplifying a bit (and I’m only bringing this up
        since it seems to be the theme of your post). Any system, including
        GURPS, uses all sorts of different sequences of dice rolls. GURPS
        basically says the underlying basics are success rolls, damage rolls,
        and contests (quick and regular). How those rolls are used in
        sequence can vary wildly.

        Secondly, combat (with all these active defense rolls) already occurs
        in a completely different context from the rest of the roleplaying:
        there is combat time, with an explicit turn sequence, where pretty
        much everything is micromanaged. Of course there is going to be
        dice-rolling that would feel out of place outside of combat.

        > As for the bulk of your post, the points are taken. I agree
        > completely that the insertion of “defender response” between
        > “attacker declaration” and “attacker roll” is what leads some folks
        > to talk of “extra bookkeeping” and “wargaming” and what not. But
        > what I’m saying is that those folks are misunderstanding
        > something. There’s zero extra bookkeeping, or other funny
        > business. At least in the way I define bookkeeping. I define it as
        > having to keep track of a state from one point through to another,
        > where other significant actions/tasks come in between the two
        > points. GURPS combat does have bookkeeping. For example, your choice
        > of action on your turn affects your defenses, so you have to keep
        > track of what your action was, through the start of other players’
        > turns, up until your defenses come around. Or a Feint: you have to
        > keep track of the defense penalty you generated, through other
        > characters’ turns, up until your next turn comes around.
        >
        > That doesn’t happen with the defense order I’m discussing. The
        > attacker states his intent,the defender states his response, and the
        > attacker rolls dice. Nobody starts a new turn between the start of
        > the attack and the dice roll. It all happens right there, at the
        > start of the attacker’s turn. There’s nothing to remember, jot down,
        > or otherwise carry over through someone else’s turn. To me, that’s
        > zero bookkeeping. (Maybe the order carries some special difficulty
        > in LARP, as you mention; sorry, I don’t have any experience there.)

        There may be no new state to remember, but there is a new period
        (between attacker’s declaration and attacker’s roll) during which the
        existing state (that there is a roll pending, and the roll’s target
        number) needs to be tracked. Mathematically, this isn’t very much to
        consider, though I still hold fast to “every little bit counts.”

        Psychologically, it’s probably a bigger deal, since the attacker is
        now spending this extra bit of time wanting to make their roll. Now,
        you might say this adds dramatic suspense (which I think is also part
        of your overall point). However, I’m going to go out on a personal
        limb and say that combat is sufficiently long, repetative, and
        methodical to drown out the suspense behind most any single die roll.
        That’s generally my experience.

        (I’ll get to this more below.)

        >> That aside, I don’t think the “interesting artifact” from above
        >> cause any real problem to GURPS melee combat. Actually, I think
        >> it’s a bit more realistic, concerning how fighters react to
        >> stressful stimulus. Sure, it misses out on an innate mechanic for
        >> accidentally feinting with a missed hit, but I don’t really care
        >> for that. Every time someone misses a shot, I don’t roll the dice
        >> to see if accidentally knocked a pigeon out of the air.
        >
        > I also avoid the word “problem”; I think the GURPS order here is
        > really odd, but I didn’t even notice it for years! It can’t be too
        > awful a problem. : )
        >
        > That said, I don’t follow the point about the GURPS order being
        > _more_ realistic, or follow the pigeon point. Please explain further
        > if you like.

        Ignore the pigeon point. 🙂 I was distracted, and mis-remembering a
        point you make in GULLIVER. I’ll address the realism point below.

        > Finally, you note that you _do_ change the order of things where
        > ranged combat and defenses are concerned, so you would seem to agree
        > with the “declaring defenses” idea in at least some cases. But I
        > haven’t seen your house rules, so I don’t know how they create
        > bookkeeping here.

        In short, you get the option to dodge when you notice (by a perception
        roll or GM fiat) someone pointing a gun at you. You could even hide
        whether it’s an Aim or an Attack, but if dodging an Aim turn has
        benefits, then you can get away with not hiding what maneuver the
        shooter is using.

        The extra bookkeeping is mostly as described above: more points in the
        course of combat where you need to remember what you’re about to do,
        like that you’re about to roll against Guns (Rifle) at -3.

        I understand that this may be splitting hairs over the definition of
        bookkeeping. However, it definitely slows combat down somewhat.

        > I’ll add a final thought on my preferred combat order. I think the
        > current GURPS attack-defense order devalues the most fun element of
        > table-top RPGing — character decision — in favor of
        > dice-rolling. In the GURPS order, attackers do make decisions
        > (good!), but defenders don’t necessarily have to; the game jumps
        > right to mechanical stuff, and then only asks the defender to make a
        > decision if the mechanics call for it. Yet, it’s the defender that’s
        > facing a life-or-death instant! There’s a halberd screaming down
        > toward your character’s head. He’s a split-second away from
        > death. It’s as ‘cliffhanger’ a moment as you’ll ever find. If that’s
        > not a time for the GM to ask “WHAT DO YOU DO?”, then when the heck
        > is??

        To address the realism point:

        If a halberd is screaming down towards your head, and you think about
        what you’re going to do, you get hit by the halberd. People in real
        combat don’t have time to think; they simply react. The lower
        portions of the brain take over (and often, the combatants don’t
        really remember afterwards what they did in the combat). Thinking
        “WHAT DO I DO?” is an excellent example of Combat Paralysis or just
        the surprise rules.

        When someone takes a swing at an you, you tend to “know” if it’s going
        to miss without consciously thinking about it, in the same way you
        tend to “know” if you’re about to step in a puddle or not. Feints and
        Deceptive Attacks are good ways for an attacker to actively try to
        subvert these reactions, but they usually don’t happen “by accident.”
        The fact that you might flinch from a missed hit is rarely if ever
        worth paying attention to (and in GURPS 4e, is probably covered by the
        default situational stress of combat). Yes, very inexperienced
        combatants are going to have all sorts of wildly bad reactions.

        (The above doesn’t quite apply to bullets, as they move too fast to
        see. But when you notice someone pointing a gun at you, you _do_
        react, except for when you freeze.)

        Some GMs or players will want to take dramatic license and give combat
        a more suspensful, cinematic, slow-motion feel. This is fine, but a
        different issue entirely 🙂

        • tbone

          Thanks for more thoughts. A few in return:

          >Secondly, combat (with all these active defense rolls) already occurs
          >in a completely different context from the rest of the roleplaying:
          >there is combat time, with an explicit turn sequence, where pretty
          >much everything is micromanaged. Of course there is going to be
          >dice-rolling that would feel out of place outside of combat.

          Sure, combat will have to play by its own rules. I only don’t see a need for combat to vary with the rest of the game on this particular point.

          On the extra time caused by asking the defender for his action:

          >There may be no new state to remember, but there is a new period
          >(between attacker’s declaration and attacker’s roll) during which the
          >existing state (that there is a roll pending, and the roll’s target
          >number) needs to be tracked. Mathematically, this isn’t very much to
          >consider, though I still hold fast to “every little bit counts.”

          The period in question is only as long as it takes for the defender to say “I duck!” or whatever the action is. I guess I can’t see the bad in that. (And of course, the attacker could roll right away, hiding the dice for that extra moment.)

          >you might say this adds dramatic suspense (which I think is also part
          >of your overall point).

          Yes, it is!

          >However, I’m going to go out on a personal limb and say that combat is
          >sufficiently long, repetative, and methodical to drown out the suspense
          >behind most any single die roll. That’s generally my experience.

          Mmm, I’d say that combat certainly shouldn’t be that way! Sounds to me like some bigger problem… Maybe it’s time to rev up the description? Or just move to more basic, abstract combat? Flurries of life-and-death moments should be the fun part of the game, not a chore… But, yeah, I know what you’re saying overall: big combats are work. I don’t see important player defense decisions as part of the problem, but other than that difference of opinion, I know the feeling. : )

          >> Finally, you note that you _do_ change the order of things where
          >> ranged combat and defenses are concerned, so you would seem to agree
          >> with the “declaring defenses” idea in at least some cases. But I
          >> haven’t seen your house rules, so I don’t know how they create
          >> bookkeeping here.

          >In short, you get the option to dodge when you notice (by a perception
          >roll or GM fiat) someone pointing a gun at you.

          Isn’t that the normal GURPS rule? You get a Dodge vs gunfire, which is explained as ducking out of the “path” of the gun pointed at you. Or are you saying that you use perception (or fiat) to limit that ability?

          >To address the realism point:
          >If a halberd is screaming down towards your head, and you think about
          >what you’re going to do, you get hit by the halberd. People in real
          >combat don’t have time to think; they simply react.

          And that’s my beef with the GURPS rule. I say you need to state a response right away. GURPS says you can first wait and judge whether the attack will hit or not, and after having determined that to complete precision, then take your choice of response. You’re saying that defenses need to happen quickly, but the GURPS method that you’re arguing for gives fighters more time to leisurely plan responses (including the response option, “Ah, it looks like I can just stay put”). I find that far too generous of GURPS. (As a way to model some sort of supernatural battlefield precognition, it sounds just perfect!)

          >When someone takes a swing at an you, you tend to “know” if it’s going to miss
          >without consciously thinking about it…

          That I can’t go along with. Even setting aside missle weapons, where “knowing” TH starts to get pretty silly (and I think you may agree there), it doesn’t make sense to me for melee weapons either. An experienced defender should be able to “read” a miss early in the blow, sure, but remember that GURPS grants the most inexperienced, never-even-seen-a-bar-fight pacifist the exact same 100%, unerring ability to predict incoming misses that it gives Conan.

          FYI, my house rules do allow the option to wait and “read” the blow, through the mechanism of placing a defense penalty (a small -1, where melee attacks are concerned) on those who waited. It’s the same absolute penalty for experienced and newbie fighters, but under the nature of GURPS rolls I see the effect as working fine: the veteran can “afford” the penalty on his good defense roll, while the newbie’s already-poor chance of success plummets sharply.

          Anyway, lest I sound like a “revise the rules!” crusader here, let me note:

          It is a minor issue, and the choice of official vs my way doesn’t change the game drastically. After all, under my house rules the only difference for a defender who waits and “checks” for melee misses before committing to defense is only a -1. A fair-sized difference in concept, I think, but not a huge difference in final numbers.

          And, as always, “play how you like” is king. So while I think “declaring defenses” is a rock-solid improvement, it’s nothing earth-shattering, and I have no issue with folks who are happy with the current rules.

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