Monday, 13 April 2015

Game Design #38: Reactions (Medieval and Fantasy)

This will be part of a broader topic about the "in thing" - reactions (and when/where they are best used).  However this post is a lot more specific as it follows a train of thought I've had about fantasy/ancients games.  Reactions seem pretty rare in this genre.  Do reactions even belong in fantasy?

REACTIONS in Fantasy:  Balancing Missile & Melee
Most reaction fire rulesets are based on the WW2/modern/hard sci fi area, where cover based shooting dominates.   Reaction firing makes sense here - i.e. pinning and locking down fire lanes etc. 

Reactions are fun, and allow both sides equal involvement in a turn.  I'd like to see the interaction and decisions of reactions in a fantasy game.  However is the principle of reactions one fundamentally unsuited to melee-oriented warfare?

Lords & Servants allows you to "set aside" some actions in order to react. Kinda like saving "overwatch points".  You sacrifice actions in your own turn in order to interfere in your opponents - which limits total reactions.   Pretty sensible. But what if we like unlimited reactions?  Can we make a cinematic, medieval Infinity, or is this simply too fundamentally different?

Whilst I want models without shields/armour to think twice before crossing open ground in front of an archer, I don't want machine-gun like barrages of arrow scything down models before they can charge into contact.  Neither do I want to give the active player a major advantage in archery duels. In fact, the weighting should favour melee as the "decisive" factor in battles; whilst allowing units and models to be reacting almost constantly to opponents actions.

I'm going to start with the standout "extreme" reaction system - Infinity.   EVERYONE can react to an activated individual or unit who acts in line of sight, if they beat them with an opposed roll.    Missile fire is very lethal and wise use of cover is paramount.  The benefits of being active - the active unit gets two actions, and reactees get only one.  Infinity also favours the active unit by giving it a higher rate of fire. One side is active, then the other - sort of an IGOUGO but with the opponent given unlimited overwatch.  It's a really interesting system and it's also free, so check it out here.

Fantasy Reaction Problems:
* Balancing the rate of fire and lethality of bows so they do not dominate like a modern M16/SAW
*Differentiating between the loading methods bows and crossbows - and to a lesser extent slings, javelins etc. Traditionally bows in IGOUGO do things like "half move to fire"- bow  or "move or fire" -  crossbow but this may not always mesh with our activation system.
*May make the game too passive (i.e. waiting around to react, rather than acting - having the "initiative" actually being a disadvantage)

Possible solutions:
*Bows etc do weaker damage at long ranges, as well as lower hit chance
*Keep the ranges low (the traditional 24" or less)
*Shields and armour are effective, especially at long range (shieldwalls = effective)
*Restrict the rate of fire/reactions (which is the simplest/best way to do this?)
*Change the reaction system itself (which radically changes all aspects)

For a start, let's work with the extreme (unlimited Infinity-style reactions) and see if it can be adapted.

Let's Go Hypothetical
A bow traditionally fires 24".  A normal foot figure could move 8" (4+4")  meaning it could be exposed for 2-3 shots if a reactor can fire every move.  Maybe 3-4 shots if the figure is slow - 6" . 

The first shot would be 50%, -20% at long range (30% to hit); with about 50%, -20% long range (30% to damage) on the first shot.  I.e. about 10% chance of fatality.  At closer range, the chance would be 50% to hit, and 50% to damage.  About 25% chance of a fatality.   So combining both shots, it's basically a 1:3 chance to survive crossing open ground and get into melee.  Far too deadly? It is a peasant in a loincloth, though... what if we gave them some basic armour which reduced the damage chance by -20%?
We'd  have 30% and 10% on the first shot (3%) and then 50% and 30% (17%) on the other. About a 20% (1 in 5) chance to make it into melee.   Still a bit deadly? What else can we do?

The Opposed Roll
If a reacting player loses the opposed roll as the attacker runs towards him he doesn't get to shoot at all. Presuming equally skilled opponents, this naturally cuts shots down a further 50%. 

Skirmisher Special Rule
Archers must test morale to shoot if an enemy activates within charge range (i.e. 8") or their move MUST be to fall back away from melee contact.  This might reduce the amount of deadlier close-range shots.

First Strike
If an archer tries for a point-blank shot at a charging but fails and an enemy moves into contact, the charger gets an unopposed strike.  Again, this would make archers think twice about close range shots and consider drawing a sword instead.

Snap Shot
Maybe penalize reactees a further 10% in "to hit" and also "to damage" - for hasty, half-drawn shot.  This simulates the lower RoF of reactees like in Infinity upon which we are basing many of our concepts.

It's important that reactions don't solely revolve around shooting.  Meele has to be advantageous. Perhaps you can also react by moving 4" into contact.  This means melee units under fire can react by steadily closing on the missile troops.  Also, perhaps there is a counter-charge bonus which means it might be better for missile troops to charge into melee rather than try for that last shot. 

Weapons - Rate of Fire/Damage
I could play around with this a lot more. If we have loaded/empty we'll need tokens to denote that which I'm not overly fond of.  

Takes 2 actions - you must draw (load) and fire. This would halve the fire rate to only 1-2 shots.
Active: Shooting takes an entire action
Reactive:  If you fire, you'd skip a reaction reloading*

Takes 2 actions to load.  But one action to fire. This would pretty much limit the crossbow to one reactive shot.
Active: Takes a complete activation to load, but you can move+fire.
Reaction:  Can fire with no penalty, but then skip two reactions to reload.  

So looking at our rules so far...
Hmmm. Not too keen on the weapon rules, but it's a start I guess.

 Again, this isn't so much a serious attempt at rules as a "think aloud" to how concepts which seem so good in WW2-modern could be adapted to a different setting, bringing the cinematic fun and decision making of reactions without compromising the melee-oriented gameplay.

Don't focus on the mechanics I've outlined, so much as the broader concepts.  I.e. how can we make a unlimited-reaction system that is not to missile-heavy or enourages passivity? Or should we restrict reactions to say 1 per turn (or simply reduce active actions, like Lords & Servants?)

I'm sure better ideas will emerge in the comments as usual!

EDIT: An reason the "fantasy Infinity" won't work well is perhaps because of the activation pool system.  Basically a player has as many activation points as it has models, but can spend them as they choose.  A single model in a 8-man warband could spend all 8 APs and activate 8 times in a row while the other 7 did nothing.    This means a model could potentially travel say 8 x 8"  - 64" in a single turn.  If it activates that much and charges all over the map it deserves to attract some reactive missile fire... in an Infinity a model would be restricted by the lethality of weapons and the availability of cover. In fantasy getting the balance wrong could see a model charge the length of the table.    Maybe limiting units to a single move each per turn with perhaps a LOTR-ish "heroic move" might be useful.  

The other issue is the basic Infinity tenet - "one action, many potential reactions" i.e. a single soldier moving could see potentially 10 guys reacting to him.  In a cover based game like modern warfare, this isn't an issue.  But having guys cross an open field 1 by 1 to be greeted with massed archery fire (or even a massed counter charge) means the initiative would be a thing to be dreaded.


  1. We are on the same wave length. I was doing some work on reactive heroic fantasy game only a couple of weeks back. In the end I came to the consideration that unlimited ranged reactions were impractical based on limited rate of fire.

    However melee could be made much more interesting with a reaction based system of moves and counter moves.

    1. "In the end I came to the consideration that unlimited ranged reactions were impractical based on limited rate of fire."

      ^ This. Basically, a 30-round magazine means single shots can be spaced out in a variety of ways - reloading is only a minor inconvenience and you can ignore it for game purposes. You can space out shots at 1 per second, and spend 30 sec firing and 1 sec reloading.

      To reload a crossbow is not even remotely in the same ballpark. You might spend 1 sec firing and 30 sec reloading. 30:1 vs 1:30....

      However allowing reaction moves without reaction fire means melee might stroll up to infantry unopposed, which doesn't make sense either.

      The other thing is limiting reactions to one or two (or a system like Lords & Servants). But I'd like to start at the extreme end, and then work my way back....

  2. I'd aim the reactions at movement (moves and shorter counter-moves) rather than shooting.

    To me, "reaction fire" is a distinctly modern concept, so I'd ditch it.

    1. Hmmm. However archery duels are not uncommon especially in the Late Middle Ages. Also think sieges. I don't want a missile unit able to pump shots into an enemy unit without some sort of response.

      Weren't longbows more known for their rapid "suppressing" fire rather than Robin Hood accuracy? Maybe make a unit pass a morale test to return fire unless they are behind some sort of cover?

      Tying missile reaction fire only to movement does not solve the problem of archery dominating melee units anyway. It just makes them free of interference from other missile units.

    2. I like the 1 for 2 trade for taking reaction action vice a normal action - its a nice decision point. It also provides an accuracy penalty that comes with 'snap fire'. i.e. If you are the active player you can aim and fire - if you are reacting you can only fire. I like the idea of it being triggered by a visible action, which might include aiming - thus you might get your duel

  3. Don't see the point for missile fire. Charges and counter charges; and skirmishing should be where the reactions come in. See Lion Rampant for some use of that (eg Evade and Counter Charge abilities of units)

    1. "Don't see the point for missile fire. "

      With the flexible activation systems of many rulesets, it may result in a unit activating multiple times, and a melee unit may be able to attack a melee unit unopposed.

      Perhaps the answer is messing with the activation system rather than the reaction system.

  4. The great skirmish boardgame Cry Havoc! from the 80s/90s had reactive fire as part of the basic phases. The player would do offensive fire first, then move AND AT THE SAME TIME the opponent would do defensive fire (reactive fire basically) and finally close combat. Then the second player would do the same phases.

    Of course it was a system based on old school odds calculation resolution tables, which meant it was very easy to make defensive fire results completely different from offensive fire (just gotta look at the table). But as far as implementation it was very well done and did not feel out of place at all.

  5. An easy way to do this would be to have different reaction target numbers based on the weapons. I.e. it is harder to react with a missile weapon than a melee weapon. In addition, you can even make it weapon specific for a mroe "granular" approach. For example, it might be easier to react by firing with a throwing axe than a crossbow.