Friday, March 7, 2014

[War of Ashes] You Got Your Minis in my FAE

Pictured: The aftermath of a really fun combat.
So as Fred mentioned in the most recent State of the Hat, I've been brought onto the War of Ashes team to work on some minis combat rules. Of course, the inestimable Sophie Lagace is still the lead designer/developer/writer/do-everything-person. I'm just doing this one thing.

What is this one thing? Little background on my influences here: I've played a bunch of every edition of D&D, and really enjoyed the tactical element of 4E in particular. I enjoy Descent a whole bunch, and own three sets of Dungeon Command, 4E's minis skirmish-game offspring. Despite this, I wouldn't necessarily call myself a "minis guy," which is too bad, because I like minis as a physical thing, but since I mainly run Fate, I haven't found a practical use for them. (I also run a very occasional D&D game that's cycled from Rules Cyclopedia to a couple of my own heartbreakin' "fixes" to D&D Next, but my players really enjoy not having any visual aids at the table, so even that's devoid of minis.)

My starting point for WoA's -- for lack of a better term -- tactical combat is to make use of existing elements in Fate that can lend interest to incorporating minis. Zones are already a thing, of course, but admittedly, a thing I rarely use. Descent, 4E, and Dungeon Command all taught me that interesting terrain can make for interesting minis combat by making the minis and defined space feel both relevant and fun instead of a barrier. Fortunately, Fate has an existing way to handle the "interesting" part too, in the form of aspects. So I'm not interested in 5-foot squares or hexes or anything on that level of detail. A zone and an aspect are good enough for me. In fact, if you look at that picture above, each separate card in the Noteboard is its own zone, with its aspect written in. There's enough implied contrast between Open Field, River, Trees, and Clifftop to make any more detail redundant.

Forced movement, too. I love playing fighters in 4E, not just because they're good at their job without being magical (although that's a big part of it), but because it's so satisfying to push, pull, and slide badguys around. You get a real sense of battlefield control. So that's a thing here. But because we're dealing with such coarse-grained detail, as long as you're in melee there's no functional difference between pushing or sliding someone into an adjacent zone. (Pulling looks the same too, but has a different feel, IMO. I'm not sure I can tell you why, which may mean I'm wrong about the different-feel bit.) Forced movement isn't always the most useful or exciting thing to do, but when it is, it's awesome. You may not care about pushing a guy from one Open Field to another, but pushing him into a Waterfall or River or off a Clifftop is another matter.


So. The aim is to add enough tactical detail to make fights more concretely realized without constraining the action, and no more. The rules need to be intuitive enough that your best guess about how something should work should do you fine and/or agree with the text. And everything still needs to play like Fate, not a tactical skirmish game that happens to use Fate dice.

To that end, I managed to press-gang some of my San Diego friends into a little playtest last weekend -- just a single combat to try out some ideas. And it was honestly a lot of fun. We worked a few things out in play that I hadn't been entirely sure about beforehand, but for the most part the stuff I came in with resulted in a good balance of Fate-style narrative and tactical play. The map and minis added fun to the fight instead of leeching it. I'm eager to try it again.

Pictured: One of Shieldwall's puppety oddballs.
You probably want some more details on mechanical stuff. Hey, I know I would! So here's some of that.
  • Given the additional tactical elements, I decided to streamline things a bit by using conditions, from the Fate System Toolkit. I'd never used them before, but they were great. A++++, would use again.
  • I used a version of my Red/Blue dice hack, which can also be found in the Toolkit. The minis wargame on which War of Ashes is based, Shieldwall, uses "Normal" and "Lethal" dice, so I called the Red dice Lethal dice. Lethal damage skips the stress track and goes right to conditions, and a single point of Lethal damage is enough to take out a nameless NPC.
  • We did a thing I've been doing with the Sparks Nevada RPG, which is simultaneous combat. Attacker attacks, defender defends, but whoever has the higher total deals damage to the other, as long as they have a way of doing so. It speeds up combat and makes things deadlier, both of which are right for this project.
  • This means that Blue dice (from the aforesaid Red/Blue dice hack) don't really work, because if you have Lethal dice to roll you're rolling them even on defense. So instead armor converts Lethal damage to Normal damage. Advantageous -- you'd certainly rather have it than not -- but doesn't drag out combats. Sometimes I find that Armor ratings can be kind of a bummer, and I like that here winning the roll will always have a direct effect on your opponent.
  • Scale. Size matters in Shieldwall, so it does here, too. Bigger-than-average combatants basically have a +1 across the board against smaller opponents. There are probably more interesting ways to do this, but this was the most expedient and intuitive solution.
  • Facing and positioning within a zone is way too fiddly for my tastes, so instead all we are about is numbers. If you and your allies outnumber your enemies in a zone, you get to roll more Fate dice and keep the best four (six-keep-four if you outnumber then less than 4:1, eight-keep-four if you outnumber them by 4:1 or more). This also gives added incentive to forcibly move your enemies around. Maybe you want to break them up so they don't get those extra dice against you, or maybe you want to push them into a single zone to surround them.
How did this all work? In brief, really well. Not everyone in the playtest group was super into using minis, I think, but they all got into it quickly enough. The word "feel" is kinda problematic in these contexts because it's so personal (and therefore often meaningless); nonetheless, I have to say it still "felt" like Fate in spite of what amounted to additional visual aids. We got to test out all of the above rules, too. We had the ogre PC fighting four NPCs at once. They had the numerical advantage, but he managed to push one of them into the waterfall, from whence the poor NPC was promptly pushed downriver by invoking the zone aspects along the way. (He was a nameless NPC and I thought it was funny, so we went with it.) We had someone invoke the Open Field aspect as part of a charge, and someone else invoke Clifftop to dodge a thrown rock from below. Even a single point of Lethal damage proved dangerous to the PCs at the right time. For me, a hallmark of an exciting Fate combat is if the PCs are beaten up by the end of it, and as the ogre finished the scene with a full stress track and a full four conditions, I'm going to say this more than qualifies under that criterion.

Now, could we have played this combat without the minis? Absolutely, and almost nothing would've changed rules-wise. The fact is, we enjoyed the minis, which is the experience WoA is supposed to help create.
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