Monday 9 February 2015

Game Design #27: True Line of Sight - The Messiah or Just a Messy Boy?

Something that passes almost without notice, "True Line of Sight" has become one of the most common trend in rules.  But is it an elegant simplification or a false economy - an idea that creates more problems than it solves?

What is "True Line of Sight?"
Basically, you put your eye down at model height and if your model can see it, you can shoot it.  Usually, if you can see it to shoot it, it can shoot back as well. Allegedly eliminates all spotting/observation rules and arguments (ha) while being more realistic and cinematic. It assumes models are frozen in place at the moment of measurement.  It also assumes all players possess decent, easy to use, LoS-blocking terrain (ha again).  It also means a rules designer can ignore "vision" or "observation"rules in favour of a single sentence:  "This is true line of sight, guys - if your model can see it, he can shoot it."

Abstract Line of Sight
This often has "size categories" where units are perhaps classed by base size or unit type rather than the actual height or pose of the model. Terrain features like woods are abstracted - you might only see 6" into the wood from the edge (or not at all) regardless if your 'wood' is only three trees on a base (which may have been done to make placing models easier.)  It's more accessible than true LoS - heck you can use felt cutouts for forests if you want. Usually, models fully within a terrain piece have a cover bonus, regardless if bits of them are showing or not. The exact pose of the model does not matter, as models tend to be rated by base size and occupy a cylinder or cube of a set size extending up from the base of the model.    Abstract rules are becoming increasingly unfashionable. Perhaps this is due to the perceived 'simplicity' 'accuracy' and 'elegance' of TLoS. Perhaps it is also due to the fact having a section on observation/visibility/spotting can remind one unpleasantly of some of the horrifically convoluted spotting charts/rules from games in the 80s/90s (WRG anyone?)  Perhaps it is simply because were Games Workshop goes, 90% of rules designers follow.

Using true line of sight, the British soldier is not in cover at all.  It kinda makes the 'woods' largely worthless, unless I fill them with so much underbrush it makes placing models impracticable. Using a more abstract system, he could be within the wood if he is on the brown base - which is actually more clear cut than checking if he is partially behind a tree or something.
The issues with True Line of Sight (TLoS)
I'd suggest True Line of Sight can create more issues than it solves.  Apparently it makes things simple and solves all arguments - if you can see the target by putting your eye down at the "model's eye view" of your mini, then your mini can see the target. So simple, so elegant! theory.  In practice this is less clearcut.  I'd say every game I play has at least 1-2 'iffy' TLoS occurances which have to be amicably agreed between players. In abstract systems it's easier to say a force is hidden in a building without checking if the top of someone's head is poking above a window, or deciding what part/fraction of a model counts as in cover. In fact, TLoS isn't strictly TLoS most times - often things are ignored like weapon barrels and flags - sometimes even arms. So why not go further and abstract the whole model?   Even hardcore TLoS games like Infinity are now moving to abstract 'base templates' to combat the confusion created by TLoS when models have different poses.  

You see, with TLoS, the sculpts of the models themselves make a difference.  Kneeling or prone models are harder to see and may have a distinct gameplay advantage, just ftom the way they are sculpted. A cool leaping pose or a model on a jetpack might be easier to spot than a MBT. Even if the jetpck model is walking on foot, with TLoS he's still treated as being 6' off the ground because he's posed up off his base on a wire.   True LoS tends to dictate bland, uniform model poses.

With TLoS the sculpt's pose matters. A prone model can take advantage of more low cover (and conversely have trouble seeing over it) than a standing model - an issue that Infinity has recently addressed by abstracting matters so all units possess the same vertical space, regardless of pose.  It's also a bit insulting to assume wargamers can't imagine that the prone sniper can't get up or take other poses and has to always end his turn prone, just cos that's the way his sculpt looks.

True LoS also assumes wargame players don't have imagination. Which, given the slavish adherence to studio paint schemes I see, is probably the case.   But it's a bit insulting nonetheless. I don't know about you, but I CAN picture those 3 trees as part of a forest (or at least, a small copse).  Heck, I can imagine that painted metal statuettes are actual soldiers and units, which is why I'm playing the game in the first place.  In fact, frequently stooping down to see if a model can see between a few trees or through a window breaks immersion somewhat. 

TLoS can create a barrier starting the wargame due to terrain requirements. Infinity is notorious for needing a high requirement of LoS-blocking terrain for the game to even be playable. Not all players have the ability to make (or store) tablefulls of terrain.

No cover or hard cover?  Under many TLoS rules, the British soldier probably still isn't in cover, as the stone wall is too low (only base height). He's no better off than the German who is out in the middle of nowhere!  However it is ludicrous to assume a real soldier wouldn't go prone behind the excellent hard cover and enjoy a massive advantage.  This highlights another issue - TLoS rules are often riddled with exceptions to the rule (i.e. half the model obscured counts as in cover, or 1/3rd the model, or 'only torsos - arms and weapons/flags don't count,' etc)

I'd also argue True Line of Sight is LESS realistic.  In fact, our game tables are by nature an abstract representation of a real battlefield.  Most countryside I know has lots of dips and undulations in the ground - it's not perfectly flat like a bowling green or salt flats. Even 'open ground' has places for concealment. Yet 99% of tables are dead flat with the rare neatly sculpted hill.  Battlefields are also usually notable for their noise, dust, smoke and confusion.  Yet our battlefields are usually perfectly lit - and we have an unrealistic 'god's eye view' at all times.  It's weird we abstract so much, yet insist on "true" "accurate" LoS when it is often detrimental to do so. (And not even very realistic, true or accurate.)

Using TLoS, woods are seldom a barrier (unless we cram them with so much undergrowth that placing models in and around the woods is well-nigh impossible.)  What's the point of making terrain that has little effect on the game and is (for many) a nuisance to build and a nuisance to use?  A TLoS model placed standing on top of a pile of rubble or a burnt out vehicle is easier to see - where in reality he might be crouching amongst the ruins/wreckage and is in fact in concealment/heavy cover despite his elevated position.

TLoS, I believe, is a reason for our unrealistically short weapon ranges in many wargames. Remember the Bolt Action WW2 rifles that shoot only 24" (50 yards in-scale, and not even the length of Warlord's own Arnhem bridge model!) Short weapon ranges are a (lazy) way of balancing the power of weapons boosted by true LoS.

TLoS also assumes models are static - obligingly "snap frozen" or in stasis at the time of combat. In a era when IGOUGO is on the way out, and fluid reactions, movement and initiative sequences are in, it's not unreasonable to assume that a model is not obligingly standing in that precise location while every enemy empties their magazine at him. Heck - he might move a short distance to seek cover if fired upon, or (gasp!) even go prone without having to be specifically 'ordered' to by his general.  This is especially true of "platoon" level games where the basic unit is a fire team or squad that may be occupying a general area rather than a specific location.

There are a few games that do this; where models are assumed to have a modicum of common sense, and are treated as being in some cover as long as they are within a few inches of cover. In fact this could even be made the 'normal' to-hit roll.  Only if a unit is stranded way out in the open does it suffer a penalty to be hit (or if it is on a road or similar hard flat surface). Units totally within or behind a terrain feature are fully in cover and get extra defensive modifiers.

 This might blow the mind of TLoS die hards, but you could argue the British solider is actually in cover despite being on the 'wrong' side of the ruin.  Wait, what?  Well, we could assume the soldier has common sense and will automatically fall back an inch or so into the ruin when the German advances, without needing the explicit instructions of his platoon leader.  The German, however, is obviously outta luck as he is stranded far from any cover.   

True line of sight is an attempt to simplify things, but like removing stats and replacing them with special rules, I'd argue it creates more grey areas that it solves. TLoS is not the Messiah, and it's not a particularly neat boy either.

This is not to say true line of sight does not have its place in some games - but I'd like to question the slavish, near-universal adherence to it (or what I call "Games Workshop sneezes, and everyone else catches a cold").


  1. Preaching to the converted here. I hate true line of sight with a passion it's a stupid rule akin to 'he can't shoot me he's not in a firing pose' which, of course is so obviously stupid it's not even a rule. True line of sight should not be a rule for all the reasons you've mentioned.
    Area cover is the way to go as far as I'm concerned. No mess, no fuss.

    1. I'm not surprised! After seeing your last rules, I think you are the new champion of abstract and results > method. Have you played any Brent Spivey rules? I'm thinking Rogue Planet (which I'm due to review now my shed is back up) which seems to share some of your philosophies....

    2. I bought Rogue Planet to show solidarity but I haven't read the rules properly yet.

    3. I've read them, and given them a rough playtest, but I'd like to try them a little more extensively before doing a review as they are certainly very 'different.'

    4. With you 100%.
      TLOS opens the door to all manner of atrocities - kneeling halflings - Tzeench on a unicycle!!

      And then there's some twerp (replace your own description to taste) who pulls out a laser pointer and wobbles it all over the place.
      Scenery and figures get bumped over and nobody knows teh true positions any more.

  2. Why do you assume that TLoS is not itself an abstraction? Just as a the three trees and a low wall is actually a physical but abstract representation of a dense copse of woods, the physical space occupied by a model is a physical but abstract representation of an active combatant. Figures, like the ruins in your second photo, get a little "fuzzy around the edges". At some point you need to set concrete guidelines, and it's not clear to me how the abstraction of TLoS differs from the abstraction of morale or "this line here is the definitive edge of the treeline, figures within this line are in cover". Yeah, my sergeant isn't standing there with pistol in the air waving one arm around, but those physical representations do pretty well show where he is and whether or not you can see him to take a shot at him.

    I'll use one of your examples to show how TLoS, when done right, can work well. You mention guys laying down having an unfair advantage. Which figures are normally posed laying down? Snipers. Masters of hiding and striking from cover. Using TLoS with snipers laying down is a great way represent that a sniper in cover is a darn hard target to hit - you're better off bum rushing the guy or laying down some area effect weapons. Now, you're big dang hero with arms spread wide legs akimbo in that heroic kick-me-in-the-nards pose? He's going to be harder to hide behind cover, which is as it should be - he's a brash and tough guy who don't need no steenking cover!

    Regarding the subject of open ground...while some rules gloss over what's going on, a bit of thought reveals that all rule sets use the standard assumption that open ground is never the table-flat bowling-green depicted. Open ground is just that part of the table where figures are *relatively* easy to hit when compared with figures in specific coverage. This is covered by the need to roll a to-hit/wound die? We've all seen games where a figure shoots at and missed an opponent standing in open ground two inches away. There's your example of a figure in open ground clearly taking advantage of scant cover or dodging - neither of which are represented physically, both of which are covered by the shooting rules.

    All that said, I don't use TLoS myself. This dovetails with your discussion last week on tall interior terrain pieces. Big walls often make it physically impossible to play TLoS - if they both have their backs to the walls, or if the floors block my LoS to the figure then it doesn't do a whole lot of good to use TLoS.

    tl;dr I don't use TLoS much, but it's not clear to me that it doesn't have as valid a place in the game toolkit as other abstractions like "everybody moves X-inches" or "everything within the forest base is considered in cover".

    1. I'm not super concerned about TLoS in itself, but rather how it is treated as gospel.

      I'm not sure what you're saying in your first point (sorry - it's early a.m. here!) but I'm agreeing that the location of minis can be fuzzy around the edges, if that's what you;re saying.

      However your second (prone snipers vs brash tough guy pose) assumes the sniper is incapable of taking any other pose except the one you can see. It also assumes the sniper will not have a "stealth"rule or something similar. Carrying the logic further, the sniper should only be able to crawl at half speed, he should only be able to shoot models precisely in line with his rifle, and to use Makatishi's example, if his gun isn't raised he cannot shoot anyone. Basically, it implies that the mini itself is frozen that way and has no common-sense and the wargamer playing has no imagination.

      In the third point, I'm not arguing it's impossible for a mini to miss in the open (though it COULD be from other factors other than cover, i.e. running, panic, etc) but rather the ratios compared to each other. I.e. most rules have different modifiers (hard, soft cover, concealment, fortified etc) at different +1. +2 ratios etc. I'm arguing WHEN these can be applied. I.e. the British model in the last pic could be +3 hard cover, not 0 in the open. Whereas the German is obviously never going to get a bonus.

    2. The relative poses of the figures are not meant to represent a figure's current and by extension permanent status (i.e. laying down). Rather, they can be used to represent a figure's general approach to battle. The scout that crouches down? He's clearly a hidey-type that's easier to stash behind cover. The big dang hero stands tall? He is a bold man who occupies more real-estate, both 2D and 3D, and it's thus a lot harder to hide him behind a lamp post. That's all I'm getting at.

      As to the last paragraph in your response? Now you're just down to where you draw the line. The easiest place is the edge of the terrain piece, as even GM does with forests. Or you could use inside the ruins. The area between the edge of the piece and the stone work is a gray area, sure. I'm not arguing against the use of gray areas here, just pointing out that rules that eliminate gray areas (like TLoS) have value, especially in tournament heavy games like 40k. That mess of a ruleset has enough to quibble about that a clear-cut rule like TLoS is a breath of fresh air.

      We may be talking past each other. It sounds like we largely agree here. The larger point here is that, if you're going to have TLoS, you better have thought out why you're going that route, and how it fits into the larger picture of your ruleset.

    3. This may be slightly tangential but I always wanted to write a "army men" game where the pose tells you what type of unit it is.

      So if you want stealth units, you have to use the army men that are prone and so forth :)

    4. " We may be talking past each other. It sounds like we largely agree here. The larger point here is that, if you're going to have TLoS, you better have thought out why you're going that route, and how it fits into the larger picture of your ruleset."

      I think we were talking past each other - your last sentence sums up exactly what I was (probably very incoherently) getting at!

  3. Oh, hey, something else to consider! The beauty of TLoS is that it places the onus of taking cover on the player. You want your guy to be in cover - move him there! Put him behind something or inside a terrain base. Your guy *almost* in the ruins? Perhaps he already moved as far as he can this turn - he sprinted and just didn't have enough wheels to dive into the ruins in time while old Jerry there moved up and took a shot at him.

    But then, that's why I like terrain bases - that hard fast line makes things a lot easier than whether or not you can see 52% of a figure or 48% of it.

    1. The onus of placing a figure precisely in cover need not be on the player. It's a tad unrealistic actually. If you are the actual platoon leader, you wouldn't have the gods-eye view we do, and you would not run around in a - 30 second? - game turn period, pointing and telling 30 guys exactly where to stand and how much of their bodies to expose when firing. You'd say "B squad, take cover in those ruins" and B squad would do that.

      Using IGOUGO with no reaction moves (i.e. everyone on your side moves, the obligingly waits to be fired upon) kinda fits with the method you describe, but many rules have a more fluid game turn with reactive moves etc.

  4. We tend to assume that the miniature occupies the space equal to the base and just kind of estimate it a bit.
    We are very specific when positioning figures at corners etc. to clarify if they are supposed to be in sight or not, though.

    As a general rule, I lean towards true LOS in skirmish games and some sort of abstraction in larger scale games but it's probably something that doesn't bother me much either way.

    1. "As a general rule, I lean towards true LOS in skirmish games and some sort of abstraction in larger scale games but it's probably something that doesn't bother me much either way."

      ^ Tend to agree

    2. Somewhat related, I hate writing line of sight rules :-)

      When we play in my group, we all have a sort of understand of what is reasonable and what is not.
      But when you write for strangers, that goes out the window and you have to account for all sorts of weird fringe cases.

      Expectations differ too. A lot of people expect to be able to fire through units, whereas one guy (a former marine) told me that there'd be very bad words exchanged if someone tried to fire an M60 "through' his squad in a fire fight :)

    3. ...and that's what's great about the 5Core system. You are forced to state outright whether figures are peeking or completely hiding. The figure location narrows down the possible state of the figure to one of two conditions, and the player has to verbally commit to one or the other. An elegant solution to avoiding faulty assumptions.

    4. Thanks :)

      It was basically a consequence of playstyles that ended up as a rule.

  5. I am a fan of zone terrain - woods, fields etc - and the effects it has if you are in it.

    The Battlegroup WW2 uses zone style terrain PLUS and observation roll. Its kind of annoying when you line up a nice flank shot on an enemy Tank, only to fail your observation roll when its clearly in sight. But thats exactly what you are talking about - the minor intervening terrain, smoke, etc obscures the clear shot and the gunner has to wait for a better opportunity. Such is the friction of war

  6. Excellent article.I'm convinced that a more generel "unit level" LOS is the way to go, with cover proximity like you suggested and cover bonuses being worked out as a unit average -thus avoiding all the contention over pose, model height, and small gaps in terrain. To balance things for the target a"take cover" or "hide" option is the ideal way to allow units to truly remain out of LOS

    1. I'm not saying zone LoS is the best for all games, bear in mind - just we need to think things through before we simply slap "true LoS" onto our rules and call it a day. A bit like unit coherency - it's kinda a default that no one questions...