Gear up, spelunkers! It’s time for a dizzied descent into the dankest depths of game-design geekdom.
In a very old blog post I briefly pondered the topic of action pacing – especially combat pacing – in RPGs.
Below are some thoughts on how three major game systems tackle the topic. A caution in advance: while I know my GURPS, please accept my apologies where I mangle HERO; it’s been a long time since I last played. And I really risk disservice to D&D, as my only familiarity with 3e rules is from perusing the books, not actual play. Corrections to my text are greatly welcomed.
In the three game systems, a character’s chosen combat action is typically resolved on the spot, and then is “over”, although the character’s turn effectively continues to run until the start of his next turn. That is, whether or not the given system calls his turn “over”, the character is still active in an effective “post-action” portion of his turn and may be called upon to take defensive action, or otherwise respond to surrounding happenings. Typically, the options open to a character in this “post-action” portion are affected by his preceding choice of action.
That’s a simplification, but I believe describes the basis of the three systems. On to more specifics of the three:
Visitors to this site are probably very familiar with GURPS play. GURPS uses one-second turns (and to properly understand those turns, think of a character’s turn broadly as a second of time alloted to the character, not narrowly as just an attack).
HERO has a pretty unique system, dividing a 12-second round into one-second phases. A character gets a number of actions during that round equal to his Speed. As the phases go by, he acts on given phases specified by his Speed, ending up with his alloted number of actions spaced out (more or less) evenly over the round. If you’ve run Car Wars’ system for vehicle movement timing, you know how HERO’s system for character action timing works.
Per my simple understanding of D&D 3e, the system uses six-second rounds. (My main D&D play experience was back in the days of one-minute (!) rounds, always a topic of intense debate.)
Simultaneity and Rounds
GURPS character turns are not simultaneous, and are said to “overlap”. Character A starts his turn, then Character B starts his, then Character C. With each change of turn from one character to the next, a fraction of a second has elapsed. That fraction isn’t specified, but what we can say for sure is that when the order comes back around to Character A, a full second has elapsed since the start of his previous turn.
A cycle of GURPS turns (i.e., each combatant taking one turn) does not form a “round” (though I see no particular harm, nor benefit, in applying the term). Thus, there’s no start of “a new round”, and no shuffling of turn order. (It’s a bad idea to shuffle: see GURPS House Rules Best Left Homeless.)
D&D uses explicit rounds, each round encompassing one turn for each combatant. Turn order is typically shuffled at the start of each round (or at least it was back in my day!). But at the risk of playing down any difference with GURPS, I don’t think the turns can be labeled “simultaneous”. Clearly, plenty of time passes between the first character’s attack and the tenth’s attack (by which I mean time in the game, not the table time that claimed the third bag of Cheetos). And although the round officially “ends” after all turns have been taken, I believe the actions chosen by each character on his turn will continue to affect his available “post-action” options during the new round, until his next turn rolls around.
In other words, although some GURPS players make a big deal over its “overlapping turns”, I’m not sure there’s a real difference in practice from D&D turns, or much significance to D&D’s “rounds” (beyond bookkeeping) – if the D&D turns aren’t shuffled at the start of a new round. (And shuffling turn order sounds like a bad idea in D&D for the same reasons it’s bad in GURPS, such as a slow character getting two turns in a row and outrunning a fast one.) But, I’m talking past my knowledge; I welcome enlightenment from D&D players.
HERO turns overlap in a very different way from the other two systems. This is the only of the three systems (perhaps one of very few in the world of RPGs) that varies turn length itself by character. Thus, Character A may have two or more full turns for every turn of Character B. Or he may have four turns for every three of Character B. Any ratio A/B is possible, as long as A and B are integers between 1 and 12.
There’s no shuffling of turn order with new HERO rounds – again, character Speed rigidly determines timing and length of turns. Thus, I don’t believe the end of a twelve-phase HERO round has any special significance, other than as a bookkeeping measure.
Wait… Hold still so I can hit you…
Let’s take a look at slower-than-usual attacks. GURPS allows some slow weapons to strike only every other turn, creating an interesting new attack frequency that’s much slower than typical. However, I wouldn’t quite label this a change in attack speed itself. There’s a requirement that a slow Ready maneuver precede the attack, but once readied, the “slow” weapon strikes as quickly as any other.
GURPS’s All-Out-Attack option for extra damage or a TH bonus could be seen as a “slower” attack, if you see it as denying defense by “taking up the whole turn”. That’s not a very satisfactory explanation, though, as the attack itself occurs no later than a regular attack would have. However you may wish to describe the action in terms of game color, it mechanically simulates an attack that happens as quickly as any other, but whose lengthy post-attack follow-up or re-readying disallows defense later in the turn.
I’m not aware of any HERO and D&D options for unusually slow actions. In short – and correct me if I’m wrong – it appears that none of the three systems offers common options for true slower-than-normal attacks (again, other than unusual readying time in GURPS, which is really a separate thing from a slow attack itself).
Whoosh whoosh whoosh
One of the reasons the games give short shrift to slow attacks is, of course, that slow or delayed attacks aren’t fun. (Even GURPS seriously sped up its slow-readying weapons in 4e.) Every combat geek will do almost anything for just one more attack. With that in mind, let’s head to the Matrixy motion-blurred side of things.
All three of the games allow multiple attacks per turn. Starting with GURPS, we have All-Out Attack for multiple attacks (or a Feint + Attack combination), as well as the difficult Rapid Strike action for multiple attacks that still allow later defense. (GURPS 3e had a separate option for automatic, penalty-free extra attacks with high skill. I was not a fan, and do not mourn the rule’s disappearance.)
D&D awards multiple attacks automatically with higher character level, and special extra attacks with certain double-ended weapons. These multiple attacks require the “Full Attack” option, limiting movement, but are otherwise easy to employ. The game also awards free “attacks of opportunity” in many circumstances.
I’m not sure what unique options HERO awards; maybe nothing. But I believe that all three systems, HERO included, allow extra attacks for mundane circumstances such as using the off-hand. In short, if you want to fit an extra attack or few into your turn, all of the systems will accommodate you to some degree.
That brings us to the subject of how attacks interleave – that is, in what order they take place. When attack frequencies vary from the one-per-turn base, it’s an important consideration.
As expected, all of the games interleave attacks that take place at the standard one-per-turn pace. HERO does this explicitly through its varied turn lengths, whereas in GURPS and D&D, one-per-turn attacks will be neatly interleaved in “you-go-I-go” fashion (or less than neatly in D&D if turn order gets shuffled with each round). No surprises there.
Further, all three systems interleave attacks that take place at a slower-than-standard pace, through the simple means of allowing (or at times requiring) non-attack actions. If I sometimes break from my one-per-turn attack pace to make a readying action, to spend a full turn on defense, or to run around for a full turn, then I’ll make Y attacks per your X attacks over a given length of time. That naturally adds spice to combat. All is good.
But when it comes to the faster-than-standard pace of multiple attacks per turn, all three systems (unless I’m again wrong about HERO) follow the “all at once” model. No more interleaving: if you and I each have three attacks to throw during our turns, you’ll make your three all at once, then on my turn I’ll make my three all at once.
In other words, as soon as the action shifts to faster-than-standard “multiple attacks”, all three systems shift to an abstract attack pacing in which attacks no longer interleave. The word “multiple” itself points to the break in handling: two attacks in two turns is not considered “multiple”, while two attacks in one turn is. It’s an interesting quirk of RPG design. (It’s also wildly artificial from a realism standpoint, but I’m not criticizing; it’s difficult to make this factor both realistic and playable.)
Weapons and varied attack speeds
What’s faster, a knife or a two-handed sword? The former in real life, of course. But how about in the game?
As mentioned above, HERO is the only of the three systems with explicitly varied turn lengths. But that varies by character, not inherently by weapon variable (such as mass or length). To the best of my recollection, little knives and heavy halberds attack at the same speed in HERO, unless the latest version and/or Fantasy Hero inject a difference in some way.
GURPS hands every character the same one-second turn, though the Ready requirement for some weapons nicely adds variety to attack frequencies. (It’s not fine-grained variety, by any means: your attack frequency is either one attack every other turn with the slow weapons, or a base one per turn with everything else. There’s sort of an in-between speed, represented by unbalanced weapons that can attack once per turn but not parry on those turns, though I’m told that this is an odd feature of the skills used, not the weapons per se.) Otherwise, there’s no differentiator for attack speeds. (There is an interesting differentiator in parry speeds for certain light weapons used with certain skills, as represented by the lessened penalty for multiple parries.)
In D&D, I believe there’s nothing at all to vary character turn length or weapon-dependent attack speeds.
In short, there’s little or nothing to differentiate attack speeds in the three games, other than GURPS’ ready requirement for some weapons. However many attacks you get on your turn, you get that number whether you’re wielding a wee dagger or a hefty claymore.
Where this is going
It’s about time we considered that. This is heading to – you guessed it – some gearhead thoughts on tweaks to the above and alternate approaches. Come back for Part II in a few days. If you’ve got the time.