View Full Version : Personal Combat: Defeating the week-long combat round (PbP)

2017-01-25, 04:56 PM
Anyone who's played a PbP d20 game knows that combat can move at a glacial pace. Differences in player availability (and interest) can add up to combat rounds taking days to finish, and battles can stretch on for weeks - or more likely, never finish at all.

High latency in combat cripples a PbP game's pace, and sucks the sense of urgency and excitement from combat. Battles should be fast and fierce, not slow and borning. What can be done to enhance the PbP combat experience for fast-posters, without excluding players who don't have the time, energy or attention to keep up with it?

"How what about group initiative?"
Group initiative is a helpful and welcome improvement over traditional initiative, but it doesn't go far enough. Even group initiative leaves the party waiting on its slowest player, and that can create tension and uncertainty over whether the player should be waited on, messaged, skipped, or expelled, and every option will likely frustrate someone.

Below is my attempt to answer that question in a simple, easily digestable, and not enormously exploitable way. I'd love some feedback on it; if and why it wouldn't work, how it could be improved, made more simple, or given better presentation.

A New Solution: Personal Combat

"You take the big guy, I'll handle the one on the left" - Fantasy Trope

Personal Combat in Brief

The Basics

Start the combat using group initiative.
When a player wins an opponent's attention, that opponent immediately joins the player's personal combat.
Once a player has acted, all of her personal combat opponents take their turns to act.
Once all of a player's personal opponents have acted, the player gets to act again, and so on.
Opponents prefer to focus on the player who has their attention, but if that is impossible they will seek other targets.
Any opponent not involved in a personal combat continues to act on group initiative.

Winning Attention
Taking any action against an opponent wins its attention, this includes:

Attacking it (even if the attack misses)
Casting a spell at it
Using an active skill on it (e.g. Sleight of Hand or Bluff)
Being adjacent to it
Directly addressing it with free-action speech

If two players compete for an opponent's attention, the highest, most recent, closest wins; unkind words will not distract an opponent from a player who stabbed it, and of two players merely standing next to it, it will focus on the player lobbing insults.

When you have wildly varying demands on how fast combat moves, split the combat. Under Personal Combat rules, combat is broken into swimlanes, each containing a single player and one or more opponent, largely of their choosing. The player acts against her opponents, and then those opponents act against her, and then she acts again.

These swimlanes run in parallel for each player. This means that a frequent poster can take a combat action every day, while an infrequent poster can take a combat action whenever they have time, and neither will inadvertantly place restraints on when the other gets to play.

Potential Problems, and Solutions
When I first imagined this solution, I almost tossed it away. I had so many problems and reservations with it, but the more I thought about it, the more I found rationalisations that would let me accept it. Now, I finally think it might be a workable system. Below are my initial issues, and how I resolved them.

Wouldn't this make time move differently for different players?
The first thing that put me off was how weird I thought this would look when I tried to imagine it. If Albir the Swordsdwarf is taking three rounds for every one that Brendan the Barbarian takes, wouldn't it look like Albir was moving ridiculously fast?

The answer: possibly. If Albir used his actions to Run, then he would either seem to be moving impossibly fast to Brendan, or Brendan (and his opponents) would seem to be standing around like dullards. Fortunately, most combat is mainly not spent running (well... (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92gP2J0CUjc&t=1m32s))

Instead, most combat is spent taking offensive and defensive actions. In this situation, three rounds of close melee attacks between Albir and his opponents would look like a fast, furious duel to Brendan. It's perfectly reasonable for one combatant to make a half-dozen furious attacks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lC6dgtBU6Gs) in the same time another might only make one ponderous swing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EE2TZAdoaS8&t=1m41s).

The issue of wierd-looking unreasonbly fast movement is a standing problem for this one, but not an insurmountable one. Combat rounds are an abstraction, and there's enough trope support for different combat styles and speeds within one battle for me to accept this on the whole, and ignore places when it would look odd.

Doesn't this make players overpowered?
If one player is many times more active than the rest, then personal combat gives a strong advantage in fights where the players are outnumbered - it lets very active players isolate and bring down their opponents one-on-one, without being swarmed by the opponents who are still acting on group initiative.

If all players are exactly as active as each other, then a battle running on personal combat is indistinguishable from one running on group initiative, except opponents will prefer to focus on players who are acting against them.

If one player is many times less active than the rest, then personal combat inflicts a disadvantage in fights where the players outnumber their opponents. In the case of a 5-on-1, the one monster will get a new action after any player acts against it (or at least as often as the GM updates the game).

What if Personal Combat is abused to lock down a boss?
This is fine. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJZZNHekEQw&t=54s) Gandalf didn't need a three feat lockdown build to protect his friends, and I consider the ability to perform this fun trope without extensive build specialization an unintentional benefit of the system. Eventually the boss will have to be dealt with, at which point it will be more difficult than normal (see above).

What if one hyper-active player tries to take care of all of the enemies themself?
This is fine. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSgeEH-Zwbk&t=17s) Less frequent posters may feel left out, but there are always more opponents, and when the alternative is a game-killing loss of momentum, ranger showboating is arguably a necessary evil.

What if a player accidentally attracts more attention than they can handle?
This is fine. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbZDMGeNY4s&t=59s) This merely formalises what we already knew - a loudmouth fighter needs to be careful about who he antagonizes, or pay the price. If he does shout comments about the entire orc army's ancestry at once, maybe he can beg the other players to peel off a few of his new friends.

Isn't it too complex to manage?
I don't think it is. Depending on what I hear back here, I'll run a test battle using it with some volunteers and see how it goes. It really upsets the balance of some fights, shuffles the CR of many encounters, and changes the dynamics of combat, but the advantages are worth it - giving the impression of a fast-paced free-for-all, but that doesn't actually descend into a free-for-all.

I'd really like to hear about unintended consequences, abuse cases, and problems I might hit running it. I feel like it could work, but I need some fresh brains to examine it before I'm sure enough to invest time on a trial run.

2017-01-25, 05:20 PM
So, just to check that I've got this right:

Jim, Jake and Joe, the three ogre mooks, are fighting against James the fighter, and Jared the mage. Jared's player posts, deciding to move up and cast Cone of Cold, hitting Jake and Joe. James' player posts and attacks Jim with his glaive.

Right now, James is in personal combat with Jim. Jared is in personal combat with Jake and Joe. The DM comes online and posts, and right now it's all three orcs' turn because both players just acted. Jake and Joe run up to Jared and take off most of his hit points. Jared's also in the inner 5 feet of Jake and Joe's reach, so he's currently screwed if either Jake or Joe gets a turn. Jim goes up and attacks James, whose full plate saves him from the attack, but even he's a little wary of trying to take on two ogres at once.

We then have this weird situation where Jake and Joe are focusing on Jared. If Jared's player posts, he will die, as both ogres get their turn if and only if:

- Jared does anything
- James attacks them.

This means, as far as I can tell, that Jared is disincentivised from posting, and worse, James is disincentivised from trying to attack either Jake or Joe until Jim's dead. This also allows Jared, specifically by doing nothing, to distract the ogres so that James can attack them one at a time.

It gets weirder with Delayed Blast Fireball. Suppose it's now James in trouble, and he's in the outer rim of the ogres' reach so he's capable of withdrawing. Jim can set off several delayed blast fireballs so that all of them go off concurrently, and then Jim can escape just before the fireballs all go off.

This gets even weirder. Elsewhere, Jay the truenamer and Jess the rogue are fighting Jordan, a town guard. Jay's busy throwing truespeak checks at Jordan, when Jess picks Jordan's pocket, but does that after Jay's action so it's most recent. Jordan rolls an opposed spot check and does not notice Jess using Sleight of Hand against him, but because it's a skill use, it triggers Jordan's attention and he sets off after the hapless rogue. Jay can't, for whatever reason, reach Jordan to attack him with his morningstar, so instead he idly wonders who the guard is, rolling knowlege local to see if he knows. That's also a skill, but it's most recent, so Jordan turns his attention back to Jay.

Obviously, these are extreme examples, and it's easy for a DM to realise that it doesn't make sense and alter it, but in a lot of cases it can just make it more of a hassle to keep track of combat, and also disincentivise players from posting.

2017-01-25, 05:46 PM
Those are good cases.

The first case - I'm not very worried about. I'd say Jared isn't disincentivised from posting so much as he's disincentivised from attracting the ire of a pair of ogres. He can still act, even if it's just to Withdraw and leave James to his fate.

For the first case look at it the other way, imagine they were using group initiative. There's a good chance the DM would have all three ogres dogpile Jared the mage anyway, as he's squishy, dangerous, and got up close to use his spell. If this happened, Jared could withdraw, or if James were feeling brave he could dart across and distract at least one of them.

The second case exposes a big flaw. Like you say, what if the opponent isn't aware of the skill use? It gets nonsensical. I'd need to change that method of attracting attention to fix it.

I can see it does add hassle. On a table top it would be almost impossible, but on a PbP you usually have a complete combat log, so it would be possible. I can't judge if it would be too much hassle, but I don't think it'll be so difficult to run that it warrants throwing the idea away yet.

2017-01-25, 06:55 PM
Those are good cases.

The first case - I'm not very worried about. I'd say Jared isn't disincentivised from posting so much as he's disincentivised from attracting the ire of a pair of ogres. He can still act, even if it's just to Withdraw and leave James to his fate.

I deliberately chose large opponents (and to specify that he's in the inner area of their reach) to prevent the Withdraw action protecting him. Even if he were just fighting medium creatures, essentially, Jared has three options:

- Cast defensively and pray that he kills Jake and Joe in a single spell, otherwise the ogres will kill Jared and then James.
- Withdraw, leaving James to fight three ogres who will kill James and then Jared.
- Never post, allowing James to 1v1 Jim, while Jared essentially puts Jake and Joe into temporal stasis just by choosing not to post, then James can 1v1 Jake (not to mention that James will also get the first shot - he can also spend three rounds setting up for a Death Attack if he's dipped into assassin), while Jim is stuck in temporal stasis with Jared, then finally, James - having killed Jake - attacks Joe, but of course Jared should stab him with a dagger first, so that James' glaive attack is more recent, allowing James to force aggro onto himself.

See why posting looks like a bad idea for Jared? His best ability is his ability to trade actions with multiple opponents.

This gets even weirder when Jonah the warrior and Jeff the commoner find themselves fighting against an entire army of, say, 100 swordsmen, who are standing 150 feet away. Jeff shouts at the entire enemy army, who can't actually fit into reach of Jeff. Jeff now has the attention of the entire enemy army. Jonah chooses to twiddle his thumbs.

Suddenly, the entire enemy army lurches forwards 120 feet. Remember that they're still in personal combat with Jeff. Jeff's player now stops posting.

Jonah walks casually - there's no need to rush, after all, because the entire enemy army does nothing until Jeff takes his turn - until he's 250 feet away from the enemy army. He then lets loose his full attack action with his longbow at a single one of the enemies, and keeps on doing this until the one person in personal combat with him is dead. He then chooses his second victim, who naturally dies just like the first. Using normal combat rules, two relatively low-level NPC-classed characters wouldn't stand a chance against an army (which seems intuitive), but now Jeff can make it so that rather than having two rounds to shoot at the enemy, Jonah has two hundred rounds to do so (and if that's not enough, he only ends up in dangerous melee combat with one enemy at a time; alternatively he can stand further away). In fact, so long as Jonah stays at least 10 feet away, he can build a wall around the army because they are, essentially, frozen in time.

Incidentally, this also messes with durations. Suppose Jaya, Johan, Julia and Jayden (this is getting harder by the second) are all hasted by Jaya, but Julia takes 7 turns (thus running out the effect, plus two rounds) in the time Jayden took 3 and Jaya took 5. Does the entire effect end when Julia took her fifth round? When Jaya (who cast the spell) took her fifth round, which was after Julia did? Will it only end when Johan, who hasn't acted at all since the spell was cast, takes his fifth round? Or does the spell only end for Julia and Jaya, while Jayden will be affected until they take their fifth turn, and Johan will be until he takes his? What if the haste is dispelled, and then Jay from the previous post (who is a truenamer, and can therefore un-dispel spells) comes along and reinstates it?

What if Jay uses Energy Vortex, which is an area-of-effect damage-over-time spell, and then Jaya (who is immune to the type of energy damage the spell deals) grapples a creature (who isn't immune) in the area for longer than the five rounds that the spell actually lasts? Does the spell end, but only for them, even though it never targeted them (or anyone else)?

What if Julia gets hit with an acid arrow, and is only on 2 hit points, and therefore chooses not to post until Jayden the paladin can use their Lay on Hands? Doesn't that mean that everyone can basically delay damage-over-time and poison effects just by not acting until a healer arrives? Or does this only work in combat, which means that Jaya and Johan have to get into a wrestling match with each other until Jay can go and fetch Jayden if they're not around (and Jay doesn't have any healing spells)?

And what the hell happens if Johan uses White Raven Tactics or Julia uses Celerity?

2017-01-28, 01:04 PM

Agreed on every front. While I have no issue with bending time and/or turn order occasionally in a PbP game (or a live game, come to that), attempting to build a system around it is awkward at best.

This particular system has a ton of weird edge cases, inconsistencies, and, as Jormengand has pointed out, can create an incentive simply not to post. Casting Fireball and leaving the thread is suddenly a Wizard's best form of crowd control.

I really think the solution is simply to use this sort of technique when and where it's appropriate, and the rest of the time just be ready to adapt to people's posting rates, whether it involves DM control of the character after X days or something else entirely.

2017-01-31, 10:17 PM
How does this interact with summoning, buffs, and heals? I'm very curious to know how well this system works in actual practice, but it's not yet to the point where I would implement it myself.

2017-02-01, 08:37 AM
I appreciate the help with this. I want it to work, which makes it hard for me to come up with things that would stop it working completely.

I still think it can work, after the rough edges are sanded down. I'm not particularly worried about incentivising inaction, or at least thats at the bottom of my list, it's a non-mechanical problem that probably has a non-mechanical solution.

I am worried about the one-man-army and daylight-murder abuse cases, so I've got the following small change to the attention grabbers:

Winning Attention
Taking any action against an opponent wins its attention, this includes:

Targeting it with a non-free action, such as a spell, an attack, a feint etc.
Changing its disposition/attitude
Being adjacent to it
Directly addressing it with free-action speech

The disposition option: 1. answers the problem of one-shotting a townsperson in view of the guards - you made the placid guards hostile and got their attention, 2. gives a handle for the GM to light-touch interfere in unforseen abuse cases.

Spell durations and buffs: targeted spells tick down when the target acts, untargeted spells tick down on group initiative.

This is going to be simple to keep track of when playing normally, but there are so many spells I can't guarantee it doesn't manifest something crazy. If that happens for a couple of obscure isolated spells, I'll toss them on the same pile as the 1d2 crusader and hope they never come up. If it happens for a whole class of spells I'll be alarmed.

It might be worth mentioning, in case anyone hears the idea and prefers it, my first idea for solving this problem was chess-like combat, where players take turns as often as they want, but by doing so they grant the GM a turn's worth of actions to share out among her minions. If the players are outnumbered 2:1 then a player turn grants the GM two turns etc. I set it aside because I thought it enabled too much unfairness and left too much up to the GM.