Game design musing: Drawing a bead on ranged combat targeting

D. Cole, an inveterate rules hacker, Pyramid contributor, and GURPS community guru on things gun-, bow-, and armor-related, is posting plenty of good stuff on his Gaming Ballistic blog. If you’re the sort of gamer who likes this site, you’ll probably like his even more so. Hie thee to it.

D.C.’s recent post Shoot/no-shoot: checking fire under pressure resonated with me, because I’d pondered something similar in the past: In a game’s ranged fire rules, is there a way to simulate the act of “lining up” your sights, only firing when you’re “where you want to be” (as D.C. nicely puts it)?

As noted there, this can involve highly variable timing, and thus isn’t quite what GURPS’ existing Aim maneuver statically delivers. Here’s the sort of thing I had considered a bit:

Zeroing in

The term I’d worked with is “drawing a bead”, that act of trying to follow and/or lead a difficult target until timing, target motion, shooter motion, stability, and any other key factors converge on “Shoot now!” The obvious game effect, of course, is that the shooter spends extra time – a variable and possibly long amount of time – in exchange for added accuracy.

I had decided that while the rule might realistically replace the existing Aim rules, I’d prefer it remain an option, used only when a shooter is willing to accept its tradeoffs (and any extra complexity). That means the option needs to coexist with Aim, with neither maneuver the across-the-board better choice.

The basic mechanic of my Draw a Bead maneuver was a roll to “mark” the target, with success providing some TH bonus on the subsequent fire action. Using a roll adds a small in-game burden, but it’s what creates the uncertain timing that the existing Aim bonus lacks.

I figured that the Draw a Bead roll should be the same as TH itself, but at a hefty skill bonus, as it only gets the weapon oriented well enough to at least inspire confidence in shooting (while not necessarily well enough to actually hit).

A first shot

Imagine mechanics like this:

  • Aim functions normally: +1 TH per turn of Aim (up to +3 TH).
  • A shooter aiming a weapon may use both the Aim and Draw a Bead manuevers freely, in any order. However, only one of these manuevers can be used on a given turn.
  • TH bonuses from Aim and Draw a Bead stack, creating a combined TH bonus. 
  • Draw a Bead uses a weapon skill roll at +4, plus all TH modifiers (Size, Range, Acc, etc.) that the actual shot would take. (It’s difficult to “line up” a shot that’s difficult to begin with.)
  • Drawing a Bead requires declaring the exact shot to be made. (To Draw a Bead on a hand, for example, the hand has to be targeted by both Draw a Bead and the subsequent shot. You can’t Draw a Bead on a big target and then use the bonus to shoot a smaller target!)
  • Failure on the Draw a Bead roll has no effect; nothing is gained for the time spent. 
  • Success on the Draw a Bead roll yields a +1 TH bonus for every 2 points of success (minimum +1 TH).
  • Bonuses from Draw a Bead are not cumulative; a +3 TH bonus replaces a +2 TH bonus.
  • A shooter can continue to roll against Draw a Bead on subsequent turns until a bonus is first gained, or until a higher bonus is gained.
  • The maximum bonus from Draw a Bead is +8 TH, or +10 TH on a critical success.
  • A critical miss on the Draw a Bead roll erases all Draw a Bead and Aim bonuses!
  • Both Aim and Draw a Bead assume constant careful aiming until firing, with the same restrictions as noted for Aim. Any action or event that would erase the bonus of Aim erases the bonuses of both.
  • At the GM’s discretion, very long Draw a Bead attempts may start accumulating penalties on the rolls, from physical or mental fatigue.

Here’s how it’d work:

Example: Jim has a poor roll of 8 or less to shoot a difficult target. He decides to roll Draw a Bead, which gets a +4 skill bonus and thus rolls against 12.

Jim rolls 13. No good; he doesn’t feel “on target”. On his next turn, he rolls 12: success, and a +1 TH bonus. He decides to keep going. Next turn, he rolls 15; nothing added. Next turn, he rolls 10: that’s +1 TH, but he already has that much bonus, so it doesn’t help. Next turn, he finally rolls well: an 8, for +2 TH. He can keep trying to roll even better on Draw a Bead, or can take the shot with that +2 TH bonus.

Jim should definitely also use Aim. He can mix the manuevers as he likes: 

Example: In a later firefight, Jim performs Aim for two seconds, for a +2 TH bonus. He then uses Draw a Bead for one or more seconds to gain another +1 bonus (total: +3 TH), then Aim again for a +1 bonus (total: +4 TH, but no more possible from Aim), He then uses Draw a Bead again until a good roll replaces the earlier +1 with a +2 (total TH: +3 from Aim, +2 from Draw a Bead = +5).

Off target…

And so on. Interesting – though as you can easily guess, it’s not tested. Like D.C. in his post, I’m just mulling some ideas (in my case, old ideas with a little spur-of-the-moment embellishment). I’m not at all sold on my idea above.

First, is my Draw a Bead even useful? Typical examples yield pretty modest bonuses, at the expense of valuable combat time. Hmm, perhaps its built-in +4 skill bonus should be a +8? 

Or, perhaps we should leave it at +4, but let Draw a Bead yield +1 TH per point of success. That can quickly create some big bonuses, true; if too big, we may want to rethink whether to allow TH bonus from Aim and Draw a Bead to stack (i.e., you can use both maneuvers, but get only the larger TH bonus from the two).

However, before you decide that a quick +2, +4, or better TH bonus from Draw a Bead is far too generous, consider this: large bonuses will only come with great rolls that would have hit the target anyway had they been actual shots. (It’s awesome to claim a +6 TH bonus on your next rifle shot thanks to a great Draw a Bead roll, but not as awesome as it would have been to have actually shot the zombie with that roll!)

Homing in on that point, though, I see further trouble: Using my numbers, does it even make sense to seek a Draw a Bead bonus greater than +4? That is, once you’ve secured a +4 TH bonus, you now have the choice of rolling Draw a Bead with its built-in +4 skill to try gaining more TH bonuses, or rolling TH at your current +4 bonus to actually nail the freaking terrorist! That’s not much of a choice at all. Similarly, if you’ve performed your full 3 seconds of Aim, why bother making a Draw a Bead roll at its +4 skill bonus so you can possibly gain yet more TH bonus, when you instead can make the actual monster-blasting shot at an almost-as-good +3 TH bonus?

Alas, without some boost, there’s little incentive to use my spiffy new maneuver.

Realigning my sights

I think I may have a good fix for my concerns. Let’s go back to the bullet-point rules above, and make one addition: Let the TH bonuses gained from Aim and Draw a Bead also feed back into Draw a Bead itself!

Example: Jim can shoot his target at a tough TH roll vs 8. Alternately, he can start using Aim and/or Draw a Bead (rolling vs 8 + 4 = 12) to boost his TH. When he gains a +1 TH from either of these maneuvers, he can now roll TH vs 9, or Draw a Bead vs 13. If he gains a total of +6 TH from the maneuvers, he now roll TH vs 14, or Draw a Bead vs 18. And so on. 

In other words, we make clear that the Draw a Bead roll is the current TH roll +4. That creates an interesting positive feedback loop. Until his TH gets so high that Jim is comfortable with his chances of hitting and finally takes the shot, he always has some incentive to keep trying to perfect his targeting using Draw a Bead. If he has the time, that is! (He also risks the loss of all his hard-won bonuses through a critical miss…)

How much did I miss by?

That’s a very wordy exercise in out-loud design musing; the rule can no doubt be rewritten succinctly, if made workable.

If, that is! What do you think, reader? What’s broken in the above, and how would you fix it?


  • RyanW

    I’ve got what may be a simpler solution: Use the rules from “What’s a Miss?” Each two consecutive turns of Hesitation is treated as a single Aim. If a shooter absolutely refuses to shoot until the sights line up, give him a -1 to hit, but divide his margin of failure by half (round up) to determine hesitation/miss.

    Those numbers are just arbitrary and may need adjusting, but I think it would be worth a trial.

    • tbone

      My What’s a Miss rules are intended for ranged combat as well as melee (though I may need to clarify that in the text), so the basic idea is fine.

      I like your idea of treating a hesitation under those rules as an Aim (or, I’d think, as an Evaluate for melee weapons). It should be welcomed by players, letting some number of disappointing miss results convert to minor useful actions instead.

      I think it’d be easiest to game this as a simple “every 1 second hesitation = 1 second Aim/Evaluate” – though I suspect you have a specific reason for suggesting “every 2 consecutive hesitations” instead. (Any comment?)

      However, as much as I like the general idea, the mechanism differs in an important way from what I’m getting at in this article. “Draw a Bead” describes the deliberate act of “following” the target, with the express intent of not yet shooting, as opposed to the unintended hesitation described above.

      So I don’t really see “treat ‘What’s a Miss’ hesitation as an Aim” as a replacement for the “Draw a Bead” suggestion – but I do like it as a separate rules tweak, and do plan to nick it (with credit). : )

  • RyanW

    The reason I went with 2:1 for Hesitate->Aim was because at first glance a 1:1 would seem to make an intentional Aim (and Evaluate, I like that addition) much less useful. On additional thought, though, depending on hesitation in place of Aim runs the risk of shooting early and missing instead of improving your TH number in a way which Aim does not. It’s completely untested at the moment.

    Feel free to use it.

    • tbone

      Off-hand, I’m not sure whether either the 1:1 or 2:1 option poses any trouble, so for now, I added the 1:1 option (with credit in the intro “History” notes) to What’s a Miss?. We’ll see if playtesting finds any trouble…

      Thanks again!

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