Game design musing: It’s about time (Part III)

Part 3 of 3. If you thought the articles were geeky before, be warned: it gets worse here.
The past two articles:

Part I
Part II

Jumping into the new:

Action points, Version 1

In the last episode, I detailed some of my early endeavors at gaming more varied action times. Enough of that. Here’s another general method: action points.

I can’t point to any single system as an example; I’ve seen many variations in home-brew games or as options for existing systems. One reader (see comments in first article) points to an AD&D version from an old Dragon magazine.

The idea is simple: give each character some number of “action points” (APs) based on whatever measure(s) of speediness the game employs. Every action costs some number of APs. The character with the highest AP total goes first, reducing his APs by the cost of the chosen action. Then the character with the next highest AP total takes an action, and so on, until all characters have spent their APs. That’s the end of the round; everyone’s APs refresh at the start of the next round.

The method will let a fighter with unusually high APs fit in one or several actions at the start of the round, before his APs drop to the range of other fighters’ APs; after that, all fighters will interleave actions one-for-one (or as appropriate for the cost of their chosen actions) until the end of the round.

Or you could work this slight variation: Fighters start at a count of 0, and add their chosen actions’ AP costs, building up to each fighter’s maximum APs. That variation will have fighters interleaving actions from the start of the round, with the unusually fast fighter tacking on one or several extra actions at the end of the round.

Either way, there’s (at least) one minor downside to the system: There’s no easy way to map APs to real time. If two fighters each have 10 APs in a one-second round, it’s easy to declare an action point as representing 1/10 of a second; a 5-AP action takes half a second. Makes sense, right? But toss in a fighter with 20 APs, and what happens? The first fighters’ 5-AP actions now take only a quarter second? Who knows.

Action points, Version 2

A bigger variation is this: Fighters all have the same number of APs, but the AP cost for an action varies by some factor(s), such as each fighter’s speediness. That’s essentially the HERO method. Its vocabulary and description differ, but you could say that each HERO fighter has 12 APs per round, and spends (12/Speed) APs for each action (i.e., each turn, as I believe the HERO terminology puts it). A fighter with Speed 2 effectively spends 6 APs per action (completing two actions during the round); a fighter with Speed 6 effectively spends 2 APs per action (completing six actions per round).

Under this version of action points, tracking rounds is not necessary. A fighter’s turn takes as long as it takes; when he’s done, he starts another turn. A game may track rounds for other bookkeeping or simulation purposes, as HERO does, but basic turn order would function fine even if HERO ignored the round barrier, and just continued to tick off phases past 12, on to phase 13 and onward.

Note that the HERO system is very limited in what it accomplishes. While it varies action times for character speediness, it doesn’t allow for other factors to vary the action time, such as a heavy sword blow taking a little (or a lot) longer than a quick knife thrust. Even HERO‘s unique timing system is fairly static in what it allows.

Action points, other versions

You could create an AP system that combined both of the above Versions: an AP total that varies by character, together with an AP cost per action that varies by character and/or by action. There’s no point, though; the doubled workload adds nothing, and still leaves you with AP totals that don’t map to real time.

In the other direction, you could create an AP system that gives each character an equal number of APs, and an unvarying AP cost per action. In fact, typical games already work that way. You could see GURPS, for example, as awarding each combatant one AP per turn, with one second of action costing one AP, for any and all combatants. Or, as almost any rules-hacking GURPS GM has no doubt noted, you could say that each GURPS turn awards two APs per second, with an attack costing one AP, and the normal complement of defenses costing one AP. An AOA is the result of spending both APs on attack; an AOD is spending both APs on defense.

There’s a quirk to that GURPS two-AP model: a character spends both APs at once, as in a double-attack AOA, before the next character spends his two. The exception: waiting-type actions do take place later, after foes announce actions. That’s not only for the official Wait action; if you think about it, the everyday GURPS Active Defense is really a type of Wait action. With many such waits jumbling the occurrence of actions, some interesting interleaving takes place in GURPS combat.

But that’s all heading off on a tangent of GURPS rumination. They key issue here is this: An AP system with fixed AP per character and a fixed AP cost per action isn’t much of an AP system at all (and so it’s no surprise that games like GURPS don’t describe themselves using AP mechanics). And such a system still doesn’t make any detailed allowance for variance in time required for an action, which kicks us right outside the purpose of this article: to ask how a game could implement such variety. So let’s drop the tangent and head back inside.

Building on the above

So, can you build realistic timing on action points? Here again is the “real life” model:

1) There are no turns or rounds.
2) Attacks may vary in how long they take to “set up”.
3) Attacks may vary in how long they take to deliver.
4) There’s nothing to prevent two fighters from launching truly simultaneous attacks.

Looking at those in reverse order: Any AP model makes some provision for item 4, if desired: all that’s required is that when APs dictate simultaneous actions, you let them occur simultaneously rather than using some method to “break the tie”. Whether the rules allow for that depends on whether the author writes it in. Simple enough, so let’s move on.

Item 3 is the meat of the issue. The Version 2 AP system up above works well here (everyone has the same number of APs; the AP cost of an action varies by character and/or by the action). The Version 1 AP system (the AP cost of an action is the same for everyone, but characters vary in how many APs they have), meanwhile, isn’t a good choice, as it blurs any consideration of how long an action takes.

Item 2 in the real-life model is easy enough for any system to handle, where “long actions” such as loading a bow are concerned. But as a component of a “normal” melee attack, “setup” goes hand in hand with Item 3; its implementation is just a question of whether the system wants to consider attack setup and delivery separately, or combine them into one simpler action. Either way can work fine. There’s not much more to say here.

That leaves item 1, dropping the use of turns or rounds. The Version 1 AP system is no good for that; it explicitly requires the round/turn “barrier” as the point at which everyone’s APs refresh. Version 2 is a better starting point: it doesn’t require rounds (nor does it forbid them as a bookkeeping measure), and explicitly connects APs to actual time.

So, the conclusion: If you want to build a realistic system on APs, hew to Version 2. A rough outline: Set an AP cost for each action, varying with individual characters’ speediness and with the action itself, as appropriate. Each AP spent maps somehow to real time (whether a second, or tenth of a second, etc.). Play order should be obvious. An example: Starting at the same time, Fighter A makes an AP 3 action, while B makes an AP 5 action. Fighter A hits (or otherwise completes his action) “on 3”, then begins another action – say, a slower AP 7 action. Then B hits “on 5”, and begins another action – say, another AP 5. This time, they’ll both hit “on 10”; either use some method to resolve the tie, or allow simultaneous action if you prefer. And on it goes.

If you like, mark off a “round” every 10 APs or 20 APs (whatever you choose to use). That still leaves the combat action itself essentially round-less; the rounds are only there for purposes of bookkeeping (such as tracking fatigue and wound effects), and, of course, for mapping combat action to real time.

There, a simple skeleton. But it still needs to be completed, and tested for playworthiness.

My latest conceit

So here’s what I’ve been working on. It’s a model for the “Project T” rules project I’ve said little about – and sorry, it’s yet too early to spill many beans.

The combat timing portion is under construction and not yet properly tested. I’m pretty much following the AP system outlined immediately above, though dropping actual mention of “action points”. Time itself is all that’s counted: Fighter A’s action requires such-and-such length of time, while B’s requires its own length, and time flows naturally from there. If elapsed time has two actions happen simultaneously, then they happen simultaneously. Instead of rounds, turns, action points, and so on, action timing and pacing would work in a way that can best be described with “it happens when it happens; it takes as long as it takes”. No rounds, no turns, no phases, and no “favored” time scales: while human-centered combat will occur at a certain expected pace, super-slow beings or Matrix-style speedsters are equally covered, with no change in the system.

That should all raise big “unplayable” warnings in your mind: Simultaneously tracking, say, Fighter A’s 0.8-second action with B’s 1.25-second action and C’s 4.5-second action? “Okay, B, you go… let’s see, 1.25 minus 0.8… uh, 0.45 seconds after A…then you both still have 3.25 seconds before C completes his action…” That sounds mad. And it would be mad, if not for a simple trick up the sleeve that should address the problem.

But it’s all a bunch of woulds and shoulds at this point. I haven’t finished the basics and put them to the test. And when I do, it may all work niftily, or may be unplayably ugly. I’m going to cut off the discussion here, and report again later on actual field tests.

Wrapping up

Why the interest in action time in the first place? Because it’s fairly untouched territory in game design. Published and home-brewed games have probed magic systems, skill models, wounding simulations, firearm workings, and a hundred other topics in every way imaginable. But action timing and pacing, the most dynamic aspects of combat, invariably fall under a handful of variants, all of them pretty static and limited in the variation they allow.

From that initial post I wrote years ago:

The ideal system would interest itself in relative differences, equally allowing for battles between psi warriors (typical attack times: 1/10 second, 1/15 for the fast ones) or between the living mountains of Ryol III (typical attack times: 3 Earth years for a “punch”, 2 for a “jab”, 1.5 for a “fast” mountain’s jab, etc.).

Add to that the normal, slight – but decisively vital – differences among “human-speed” attacks, and it’d be fascinating to see a system that flexibly handles variations in time, both large and small. My musings and experiments are game-system R&D for its own sake, and there’s no telling where that’ll lead. The most likely destination, I think, will be the realization that game systems stick with their static models for a good reason: the alternatives are unplayable. But I’d rather test that assumption and possibly fail than take it as a given.

(And as should be obvious, my development work is taking place at a very slow pace of action. I’ll be happy to push ahead and report back here – as soon as I can find the time.)


Two tangents

The following are two tangents from the topic at hand, but related to combat timing. Both are GURPS rules items I haven’t cared for; I’d like to handle them differently in my home-brew efforts.

Tangent 1: Lulls

Breaks, pauses, and circling in combat. I have only questions here, not answers.

The current Martial Arts for 3e has a rule (p. 62) for injecting random lulls into combat to reflect the pauses and breaks that take place, with two effects: a) simulating fighters’ sparring, catching their breath, preparing to engage, etc.; and b) slowing down the default non-stop game combat pace to something more realistic.

That’s fine; there’s really nothing wrong with the idea. My only (minor) complaint is the artificial feel. It’s an action tossed in by the GM with no real game effect on combatants, and it’s arbitrarily used in some fights but not others. Injecting lulls into all combats would remove that arbitrariness, but that’s not satisfying; some fights should not have lulls. A fighter hacking through foes to reach the damsel about to fall off the ledge, or the student sparring with a wooden dummy, or the hungry zombie closing in, won’t stop to dance about and think. Automatic lulls would be wrong there.

Real fighters choose when and if to break apart, circle each other, and so on. The question that’s unanswered is why game characters would ever choose to do so. Default attacks come with no game cost, and there’s almost never a reason for a player to give one up. (GURPS 4e‘s new Evaluate maneuver does nicely provide a reason, though only for a few seconds’ pause at most.)

I don’t think there’s any complexity in the real-life reasons. Fighters break off for any number of mental reasons including planning/preparation, watching the other guy, or working up nerve. Purely mental factors like that are hard to game, though, without potentially complex rules and a reduction in player control over the PC’s mind.

Another very real factor is taking rests to cut fatigue, which will build up quickly after even a few seconds of all-out activity. That factor can be modeled realistically, but only through nasty per-turn bookkeeping.

In the end I have no complaint, whether the lull rules are used or not. I’m only wondering whether readers have insights into what goes in in real-life lulls, breaks, and “circling”, which – and this is the biggie – could actually be translated well into game rules.

Tangent 2: Chambara

The old “chambara” rules in GURPS Martial Arts awarded free extra attacks for high level with certain skills. That’s perfect if it’s the effect you want. I myself like to marvel at swordmasters’ lightning-fast multiple blows as much as the next geek, but I’ve always disliked the chambara mechanism.

As touched upon earlier, if an attack has no cost, there’s no incentive not to use it; there was no incentive for a swordsman with three attacks to make one well-placed blow instead of three flashy ones. That’s not a problem for everyone, but I prefer the trade-off model, and long argued that extra blows should come with a TH or other penalty.

Some pro-chambara players argued strongly that Skill 18 should automatically represent far greater speed than Skill 12. My take was this: Skill 18 should represent a TH roll of 18 at the default attack pace. A faster pace should be possible, but at a TH penalty; the fast-slashing Skill 18 fighter working at the limit of his speed should be as (in)accurate as the slower Skill 12 fighter also (presumably) working at the limit of his speed. By awarding Skill 18 both a high TH and no-cost multiple attacks, the game was “double counting” the benefits of skill and DX (when DX was arguably too powerful to begin with).

So I’m glad to see 4e follow the model I prefer through the Rapid Strikes mechanism (and a similar mechanism for multiple Parries), even under 4e‘s (thankfully) higher cost of DX. On top of a TH penalty for Rapid Strikes, I think a damage penalty makes sense as well, but I’m fine with the Rapid Strikes rule as is.

No complaints or real insights here. But if you’re an armchair designer pondering rapid attack rules for a home-brew game, I hope the above rambling is of small interest.


  • congo

    There was some subjects on SJG forums about descriptive attacks. Depending on the excitement a description of characters turn brought the GM applies a +/- bonus to players action. This brings not only fun to the games, but players would be encouraged to make a short pauses to think of new descriptions (meaning the circling and catching your breath would be more frequent).

    • tbone

      Right, bonuses for rich description is a good tool in the GM arsenal. Assuming that ‘the bad guys’ aren’t getting the same bonuses for the GM’s own descriptive attacks, it’s a method that falls squarely under the ‘gamist’ style of play: “the heroes are special because they’re the heroes”. If that’s the game style, then it sounds good to me – anything that spurs more imagination and involvement in the storytelling is great!

      The connection to my article’s topic (which is certainly more of a topic for the ‘simulationist’, not ‘gamist’ crowd) is, as you say, the possibility for awarding bonuses for player actions that exploit the game’s combat pacing less effectively, but make for better drama. Some mechanics, like GURPS’ Evaluate, already formalize that a little. I can see the GM rewarding such actions even more, though: maybe a bonus beyond that conferred by Evaluate, for a player who gives up even more attacks in order to dramatically circle, soliloquize, etc. I think that’s what you’re suggesting.

      Getting back to gamist vs simulationist, I expect that a gaming group that heavily modifies characters’ successes for richness of description is a group that wouldn’t have much interest in my nerdy topic of combat timing! I admit that my musings in this article are more of interest for, say, gladiator-style battles emphasizing tactics and simulation, than player interaction-focused storytelling.

      Alas… while I like rules-light storytelling games as much as the next gamer, I always end up writing about the crunchy simulation stuff. : )

  • Douglas Cole

    One possible way to approach sequencing in GURPS might be by messing with the rules for Basic Speed. One could also calculate a Mental Speed and Physical speed, or some such. Actions might be declared in reverse order of Mental Speed–so the slow thinkers declare first, and the fast thinkers get to react accordingly.

    Then, resolve the actions in order of whichever speed number is appropriate and highest. Multiple actions divide speed, so if you are doing two attacks, one of which is a Rapid Strike (three total actions), you might act at Physical speed, X, 2/3X, and 1/3X.

    As a verbal example, two PCs (Able and Baker) are fighting three cannon fodder bad guys (C1, C2, C3). Able has DX13, IQ11, Basic Speed 6. Baker has DX10, Combat Reflexes, IQ13, Basic Speed 5.75. Cannon fodder have all stats 10, basic speeds of 5.

    For declaration, C1, C2, and C3 have to go first, the GM declaring that two attack Baker (one regular attack, one AoA double), and one attacks Able. Baker then declares a move and attack, trying to ensure both guys can’t get him at once. Wanting to try and be ready to come to his buddy’s aid, Able then declares an AoA–Feint and Attack– on C1, who’s coming for him.

    We resolve this in order of speed. Able’s Feint and Attack might be a Mental Speed (say, based on IQ11) followed by a physical attack-which sequences at half (two actions) his DX, or 6.5. Baker will move and attack, both physical. He sequences at his DX and DX/2, but possibly with say a +1 bonus for the combat reflexes. Baker sequences at 11 and 5.5.

    The bad guys perform simultaneous actions at 10, with one more holdout at 5 for the second of the AoA.

    We’re left with:

    Able feints at C1 and Baker moves at sequence 11

    C1, C2, and C3 all attack at sequence 10. Note that C1 in this case is being feinted AND he’s doing an AoA. some of these attacks from C2 and C3 on Baker might not be in range anymore–tough tooties for the slow thinkers.

    Able performs the second half of his AoA–the attack, on C1

    Baker performs the attack portion of his move-and-attack

    If C1 still lives, he performs the second attack in his AoA.

    This moves GURPS to an explicit round system. It also means something like if you have a character with multiple shots from a firearm, that the old 3e mechanic of resolving each shot separately makes more sense, but the new 4e mechanic is less book-keeping intensive and I like it. So that kind of action, which should rightly be distributed throughout the turn, is problematic.

    Anyway, good thoughts from you regarding timing. I’ve mused on this myself.

    • tbone

      Actually, I am experimenting with discretely separate mental and physical speeds, though not for GURPS. I will certainly report here when I have something interesting!

      As for declaring actions in reverse order: that’s what was used for initiative in Star Frontiers. Initiative losers first declared what they were doing; winners next made their decisions based on that knowledge, and then took action first.

      It’s an interesting system that was fun (and possibly one of the few innovative things about SF combat). On the other hand, it’s a little hard to explain in RL terms. For the Initiative “winner” to know what the “loser” is doing, the loser must begin the action while the winner waits and watches, right? So it all works like the GURPS Wait action – though in both cases, it’s hard to explain why the guy who waited always acts before the guy who didn’t wait.

      Nits have been picked. That aside, the system you outline is pretty interesting, and doesn’t bring any exotic new concepts into play. Nice. My biggest reservation, on first glance, would be an issue I briefly mentioned: directly tying DX and/or skill to number of actions per turn. In your system, a DX 20 guy would get twice the actions as DX 10, as well as the huge +10 on combat skills. Granted, DX 20 should be awesome-and-then-some, but that is adding a big bonus to DX that should be balanced by extra cost of DX.

      Or maybe you’re already assuming that standard 4e TH penalties apply for Rapid Strikes, which would place an appropriate penalty on Mr DX 20 as tried to take advantage of his amazing speed potential.

      In any case, it’d be fun to put the system to the battleboard test!

  • Kuroshima

    Well, you’ll excuse me if I continue to add more MA teasers without saying anything (mostly because of the user agreements I had to accept to participate in the MA playtest) but I think that you’ll like the updated rules for chambara fighting (and other kinds of combat between high skilled opponents). It will not add an AP based system though, since the round mechanics are rather fundamental to gurps combat.

    Oh, and well, the “defence costs an AP” method for differentiationg attack, AOA and AOD, well, it’s less true in 4th edition,multiple parries are possible, albeit at penalties. AM will also make this issue even more fuzy

    • tbone

      I myself haven’t tried anything too radical with action time in GURPS, for the reason you note: the system’s pretty bound to its fundamental turn mechanic.

      I think you can still argue that defenses in GURPS “cost” an AP even in 4e. Not each defense; rather, the whole trifecta of possible defenses (including multiple Dodges and Parries), regardless of how many you actually perform, could be called equivalent to a one-AP action. It’s not a practical matter anyway, just a way of pondering the inner workings.

      The glimpses of the upcoming MA are enticing. I expect GURPS forums and websites will be deluged with MA-induced cheers, questions, nitpicks, and debates after its release.

      Thanks as always for the comments!

      • Kuroshima

        Well, I consider the new MA to be basic set 4 (the same as Powers is Basic Set 3), as it will be a nearly indispensable toolkit for combat situations (in the same way as Powers is a nearly indispensable toolkit for modeling exotic (as in fantasy) abilities). Not only it includes a lot of options that anyone can use (yeah, more possible maneuvers, for when an attack is not all out but still it’s risky, or for when you wish to fight defensively, but still have a chance to attack) and a maneuver creation toolkit, it greatly adds to the value of existing advantages such as WM and TBaM, and adds something for fantasy archers. (Sorry, I can’t say more. This has all been released by the powers that be as tidbits in the main forum, and as such I feel safe stating it here. There is much more though)

  • Juballa

    tbone wrote:
    I’m only wondering whether readers have any insights into what goes in in real-life lulls, breaks, and “circling”, that could actually be translated well into game rules.

    Fun story time: I volunteered to assist the local police department when they were undergoing simunitions training, by being an attacker. The specific drill involved my charging an officer while his weapon was holstered. I knew if he was able to draw his weapon, I would almost certainly be shot. So, I ran up and grabbed the butt of his weapon with my left hand, while attacking non-stop with my right. My hand on his weapon accomplished three goals – a) he couldn’t draw the weapon, b) he couldn’t disengage, and c) he risked losing his balance because I was aggressively pulling and pushing against the weapon. The controlling officer stopped the exercise after about 30 seconds, with no clear victor.

    To pull this back to the topic, this was an exercise where lulls were not an option. I learned the following things – a) you can’t get a cop’s pistol from the front (the holsters are designed to prevent it – I actually damaged the holster enough to ruin it, but never got the weapon), b) nonstop fighting is _extremely_ tiring, much more so than “standard” sport-style sparring. We were probably, in GURPS terms, using All-Out Attacks at least half the time. A realistic simulation of combat, IMHO, should include fatigue drain every second (or attack), with additional drains for things like AOA. I know you mentioned this crunchy bit in your text – just adding my support.

  • Kuroshima

    tbone wrote:
    I’m only wondering whether readers have any insights into what goes in in real-life lulls, breaks, and “circling”, that could actually be translated well into game rules.

    > I’m only wondering whether readers have any insights into what goes in in real-life lulls, breaks, and “circling”, that could actually be translated well into game rules.

    Consider everything below to be prefaced, many times, with a big ol’ “IMHO”.

    A fighter chooses these tactics:

    – To create distance to launch a powerful, long-range attack (a step-behind side kick, for example).

    – To recover from a blow.

    – To recover fatigue.

    – To recover balance/get better footing/better grip on your weapon – you could include recovering from a badly-failed attack here as well.

    – To get time to think (“well, _that_ didn’t work… what else can I try?”).

    – To get time to accomplish some non-combat goal (pick something up, such as a dropped weapon).

    – To showboat, taunt, ridicule, talk smack, etc. Doing something to get a mental edge.

    – To create a lull and draw your opponent into that lull, in order to attack explosively.

    – To feel out the opponent (for example, provide a target of opportunity, let’s say exposing your left-side ribs, to see if you can trick him into attacking that location).

    – To check out what’s going on in the immediate vicinity.

    – To determine how effective your attack was.

    – To learn something about your opponent (for example, throw a punch while clearly out of range, to see if your opponent reacts to it anyway).

    Almost all lulls occur outside of weapon reach. Lulls happen, in GURPS terms, when one combatant takes a Step or Move away from the opponent, and the opponent doesn’t follow – but GURPS doesn’t typically model any reason for the opponent to not close the gap. Sometimes this will be accurate; of course, an ideal time to attack is when your opponent is trying to accomplish any of the above. But many times it won’t be. When one fighter disengages, the other allows it, to accomplish their own goal.

    As a side note, part of the difficulty of any 2-on-1 situation is the 1 doesn’t get much of a chance to take advantage of lulls.

    I think we can all see ways to model these in GURPS – you mentioned a few in your article. Certainly, you’re looking at increased bookkeeping for most of these.

    • tbone

      Thanks for the comments, including the RL story.

      The reasons you give for RL lulls all make sense. A few work fine as GURPS rules: recover from a blow (back away out of combat to shake off shock or stun), get time to think (if the GM enforces player slowness as character slowness), recover balance (not common in the RAW, but GULLIVER adds more opportunity for getting off balance), accomplish non-combat goal (any long action), showboat/taunt/talk (if the GM has these take time), create a lull to draw in opponent (possibly Wait or Feint, though the latter creates only a second of lull), and learn something about foe (Evaluate, for up to a few seconds’ lull).

      No criticism here of the game for the lulls it doesn’t explicitly handle via rules; the above is a fine start!

      Per your other comment, I think fatigue management is probably the biggest, most realistic factor in lulls – but gaming that level of fatigue gets pretty number-crunchy. Oh well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.