Thursday 13 August 2020

Small Decisions, Big Impact

Working on a miniatures game has been an interesting contrast to RPG design. It's a narrative-focused wargame, but the fact is miniature games rely a lot more on their rules than RPGs do.

With RPGs so much of the joy can come from situations outside of the rules. Even with a narrative wargame I don't feel like I can let go of the mechanical wheel quite so easily. As a result the mechanics in GRIMLITE feel like they're carrying a lot more weight than the mechanics in Electric Bastionland. You can tear through a good RPG session on pure GM and group cohesion alone, barely touching the game itself, but that just isn't possible on the miniatures table.

But I've quite enjoyed that. It lets me really focus in on every single rule in GRIMLITE, thinking about the impact it has on the game. Even more so, it lets me look at typical wargame rules that GRIMLITE doesn't include, and what effect their omission has on things.

I thought it might be interesting to look at some specific examples here. It's too early to judge GRIMLITE as a whole, but I've done enough test games now to get a grip on the impact of some of the individual parts.

Advancement through Trophies and (sometimes) Dying

In GRIMLITE there are two ways to improve your warband: getting trophies from killing Horrors or getting a lucky roll (1-in-3 chance) on your Casualty roll falling in battle. I considered having units gain experience through killing enemies, but much as with D&D I found that had undesirable consequences. Battles would be more about wiping out the enemy than actually chasing your objectives, and the first side to get a numerical advantage would be encouraged to grind away at the remaining enemies rather than focusing on the trophies.

This approach is very much the equivalent of "Gold for XP" that's so popular in OSR games, and I think it translates nicely over to this format too. You'll still want to kill your enemies, but you'll be doing it for strategic reasons instead of chasing abstract points.

Withdrawal or Slaughter

There are two possible triggers for the battle to end. Slaughter is easy, one side is wiped out. Withdrawal can be triggered by either side at the end of a Round if at least half of their remaining units are touching a table edge, with these units immediately leaving the board safely. 

After either trigger occurs, players perform one final Round, trying to sweep up the remaining Trophies.

Endgame always felt weird to me in wargames. I remember playing Warhammer Fantasy Battles and wondering what happens at the end of that last round. My heavy infantry that got so close to charging the enemy now just turn around and go home? Everybody agrees to stop shooting each other?

It's an abstraction of course, and a necessary one. It might be more realistic for battles to end on a whimper but it's more satisfying for a game to have a clear finish. I think the Final Round element here at least gives a bit of narrative sense to the whole thing, and on Husk 28 it's easy to imagine a dust storm sweeping in or more Horrors on the horizon to provide that time pressure. 

My goal here was to make Slaughter generally less common than Withdrawal. This is a wargame, and the two warbands should fight each other, but again I wanted to keep the focus on the objective, not a fight to the death. The opponents are rivals more than arch enemies, at least until grudges inevitably form.

So here if one warband takes losses it's relatively easy for the remaining members to form a retreat, but giving the other warband a full Round of uninterrupted action means Withdrawal isn't seen as an absolute solution for any battle that's going against you. 

No Stacking

Each type of roll you make has exactly one modifier that can ever be applied to it, and it's always plus or minus 1.

Shooting into Cover is -1.

Fighting a Downed target is +1

Recovery is +1 when an Ally is touching you.

Moving is +1 when you can see your Leader.

Resist is the exception here, currently having no modifier applied to it. I'm leaving that design space open but also I'm not going to put a rule here just for symmetry's sake. It's also arguably the most useful type of roll, so any modifier would have to be very carefully considered.

This was an outright goal early on (No Stacking, No Tracking) but as well as the desired effect of keeping things simple I think it also shines a spotlight on that particular modifier. Without dozens of little +1s to remember you know that when somebody is Downed you should get a melee fighter in there. You know that your Leader is best kept in sight of your units, and your Initiates are more survivable if kept in pairs to help each other back onto their feet. 

By honing in on a single modifier for each type of activity it makes those modifiers feel all the more important to exploit. 

No Weapon Ranges

As you'd expect, when you remove the range element from shooting it becomes all about line-of-sight. Precise range management gives way to getting into a position where you can duck in and out of cover while having a clear view of the battlefield. Makes everybody feel a bit more daring and active. Less incentive to sit still in that ideal firing spot. 

This certainly relies on a small board and dense terrain, but that's clear from the start of the document. I think with anything above 3x3ft you're going to run into weird niche situations where a unit gets just-about line of sight on an enemy 48 inches away and gets to fire their pistol across a football field.

Weapon Transparency

Barring the weapon mods, weapons are generally split into two types: one high-damage shot or several one-damage shots. In terms of raw damage potential the former are always more efficient, but you're putting all of your eggs in one basket. And maybe you just don't need that much damage.

If you're shooting an Initiate, they're resisting damage on 5+, so 3 damage will on-average kill them. This happens to be the damage score of a basic high-damage weapon. But even hitting this Initiate with a one-damage shot will likely Down them, and their chances of recovery are low, especially if they're on their own. Do you really NEED that full three damage or are you better using a 2x1 weapon that can reliably down these low-quality troops?

Meanwhile, against a Leader or other powerful target that's resisting on 3+ your 1 damage probably isn't going to do anything. Even if you hit with both your 2x1 shots you've only got just over a 50% chance of downing the target, and an 11% chance to kill them. 

Hit with that 1x3 Rifle instead and you've got a 70% chance of Downing them and around 33% chance to kill. A lot better, and even if you just Down the target you've got an opportunity to get a Melee fighter in to finish the job. 

So you might be looking at all those percentages and think "this isn't very transparent", but the key is that there are really only two types of weapon. Those that are good for killing grunts, and those that are good for killing high-powered targets. Not that each of these can't also perform the other task, but the specialisation is clear. You don't have to look a target and consider 3 or 4 ways in which they might be mechanically "tough". 

Are they hard to hit? High Toughness? High Armour? High Wounds? Have an invulnerable save? Some other bullshit? No, forget all that. You know that your rifle is good for toughies and your shotgun is good for grunts. Now get your attention back on the battlefield and out of the stat-blocks. 

Shoot Once, Fight Twice, Move Thrice

I wanted the game to feel mobile, so having three potentially long-distance movement actions in a turn was scary at first, but combined with the need to roll for Moves after your first I think it gives the game the desired mobility. It especially makes the Nimble skill feel impactful, a fact you'll appreciate after your first few attempts to get your QL5+ units to move where they need to be.

With Ranged having an innate advantage over Melee combat I wanted to give Melee some sort of advantage to even the scales. An easy fix is just making Melee weapons cheaper than their Ranged equivalents, but this isn't a game of finely balanced point costs. Shooting was already limited to once-per-turn, so allowing two Fight actions felt right. If you could charge in with your first action then getting to wail on your opponent twice felt nice and deadly, especially if you Down them with your first attack and get that juicy +1 on your second attack. My Exile Hounds (Nimble 5+ T2x1) were especially useful in my last game, darting around the battlefield somewhat reliably and proving especially useful for finishing off downed enemies, especially considering their cheap cost. 

There's plenty more work to do on GRIMLITE but I'm pretty happy with the core right now. Expect to hear more as I try and polish this up into something a bit more complete.

1 comment:

  1. I like the no stacking rule. It makes total sense, both from the point of limiting number inflation and convenience. And transparency, very important if you want players to make informed choices. Don't know if the limit should be +/- 1. That depends on your dice mechanism probalilities. In the only other game I know that has this, Rogue Planet, the limit is +/- 3, which if you look at the probabilities on 2D6 is right in that larger modifier don't really change anything.

    And of course I'm very happy with the line of sight range. How does this go with moveùment speeds? If move distances are too small you might get a game utterly dominated by guns where everybody spends most of their time pinned down in cover.