Monday, April 4, 2011

B is for Battlemat

I'm going to open this next post by riffing about the two RPG books that I've released, Engines & Empires and Retro Phaze. The former is a setting for Labyrinth Lord (and Dark Dungeons and others). The latter is a standalone game, though clearly derivative in nature. This past Saturday, I just concluded an Engines & Empires campaign; next Saturday, I start a Retro Phaze campaign with many of the same players. These two sets of game rules share many similarities, but one of the telling differences is the way that they treat physical representations of battle encounters.

Long ago, in days, of yore, I played the 2nd and 3rd editions of AD&D. For 2nd edition, we didn't bother with miniatures or battlemats at all. We were big Final Fantasy fans back then, and all of our battles in 2nd edition were imagined to work just like that: the heroes lined up on one side, the monsters lined up on the other, trading hits and spells until the monsters were defeated. There was no need at all for movement or position, never mind trinkets on the table to represent these concepts. Then Y2K rolled around, 3rd edition appeared, and we upgraded like good little consumers, even converting our current campaign mid-stride.

Coinciding with the appearance of this new edition was our collective discovery of the SRPG ("sim" or "strategy" RPG, also called the tactical RPG) on video game consoles: Shining Force was the favorite of the group, but Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics made their mark as well. I, for one, became just a little obsessed with these kinds of games. Add to that the fact that 3rd edition was such a complex game, one that practically demanded minis and a grid, and, well, you can probably guess what happened.

There were two regular DMs in our group. We didn't so much take turns as play whichever DM's campaign we all felt like playing that day. My fellow DM was the creative type who saw RPGs as an art-form and an excuse to engage in improvisational acting. He never prepared anything ahead of time: not a setting, not an adventure, not a single NPC. He just ran everything on the fly. And he always, always did without miniatures. And you know what? His campaigns were the best. The only really unsuccessful campaigns this guy ever ran were the ones that never got of the ground due to scheduling constraints, lack of time, or whatever. But me? Back then, I was the polar opposite. I was a chronic world-builder, hashing out everything in advance: settings, dungeons, house rules, classes, items, monsters, spells, villains, plots. And when it came to the tabletop, I wanted to see some tactics in action. I had managed to build up a decent collection of minis by then, and then I got a battlemat.

Chessex. The only game in town. Everybody who plays D&D knows the pearl-colored 1" grid meant for wet-erase markers. I have a couple of these (one Battlemat and one Megamat; unfortunately, I've never found a Mondomat) from way back that I still use. For a while, I also had a Combat Mat from Crystal Caste, although that one eventually started falling apart at the edges. The point is, I loved my battlemats. They were a fixture in all of my campaigns. But there was a problem with playing the game this way—a huge problem.

No, it's not that the battlemat became a distraction or a time-sink or anything like that. Anybody who thinks that just having minis on the table will somehow impede good role-playing is a frakking nimrod. It's not that at all. Rather, it was a question of scale and distance. You see, movement in AD&D (whether 1st, 2nd, or 3rd edition) is predicated on a character being able to cover 6" on the tabletop and still swing a sword. In 1st and 2nd edition, you had the 12" movement rate for a character who didn't attack that round, or 6" for the character who did. 3rd edition was rather more complicated, what with the 1" = 5 ft scale explicitly spelled out and the smorgasbord of movement actions (standard, partial, double, charging, running, etc.). A running character quadrupled movement, or quintupled it with the Run feat! 30" across the tabletop in one round... that's the whole span of a typical battlemat! And don't even get me started on monks!

In other words, characters could move across the battlemat far too quickly. Tactics became a matter of position alone, with distance hardly ever mattering. Not so important in a dungeon, perhaps, but some of us like big outdoor battles too.

Since then, my own efforts at game-design have tended to address this problem in different ways. With Engines & Empires, it was a simple matter of leaving the rules intact but zooming out the scale. In that game, I've used a 1" = 10 ft scale, with upwards of four characters occupying a single 1" square at a time. Now, given the way movement works in classic D&D (most characters can move 40 ft and attack, or 120 ft and do nothing else), characters can still close distances very quickly by scurrying across twelve inches of tabletop space... but most of the time, they'll creep along at three or four inches a pop and shoot a bow or a gun until they're in melee range. Best of all, a typical old-school dungeon map (the kind printed in light blue inside module covers) usually uses the 10 ft scale, and I can squeeze just about an entire dungeon floor onto my Megamat. This scale works well enough, but it's still only ideal for dungeon-crawls. 12" across the table in one round is a bit too much for tactically engaging outdoor battles.

Retro Phaze (which, I suppose, never having mentioned it on this blog before, I should link to) takes care of this problem in an altogether novel way. It uses the more traditional 25mm miniature scale, where 1" = 5 ft. Or rather, since I'll be running a sci-fi game very shortly here, 1" = 2m. Nothing says "sci-fi" quite like using meters rather than feet (and kilograms rather than pounds or stone). But here's the good part: the average character is only allowed to to move 5" per round... and that's it. No running, no charging, no double-move if you don't attack. You can either take your five squares/hexes or leave 'em. You see, distance and movement in Retro Phaze is all pretty abstract. It's designed around gameplay at the tabletop, not around some misguided attempt to simulate reality. This might strike some as a little too "gamist" or "dissocated" or even "4th editiony", but I consider the trade-offs well worth it. The end result is a simple game where characters actually have to take a few rounds to cross a battlefield, and things like missile ranges are drastically easier to deal with than even the least complex edition of D&D. That's a pretty good day's work, if I do say so myself.

This brings me around to another controversy, one near and dear to my heart: squares vs. hexes. It's up there with Goobers vs. Raisinets or sausage vs. pepperoni. Let's break it down:

- Tessellated hexagons don't produce a situation where two adjacent spaces are separated by a diagonal. Distances are thus counted by the same number of hexes in all directions, making the hex-grid ideal for any game where you have to count spaces for character movement, missile ranges, spell areas, etc. Win for hexagons.
- Man-made rooms and hallways tend to be rectangular, leading to awkward situations when hexagons are used for indoor areas. Win for squares.

In the Engines & Empires campaign that I just ran, I knew that there would be lots of dungeons with many more straight lines and angular rooms than winding tunnels or natural caverns. So squares won the day for that campaign. But my Retro Phaze game is doubtlessly going to involve all kinds of brawls, shootouts, and even starship battles. Unconstrained by right angles, hexes are going to be far more useful here. Even if the occasional room or straight hallway does show up, it will on the balance be a better trade-off to take the awkwardly fitting grid and this time leave the odd "diagonal counting squares" problem by the wayside.

Of course, this decision does have its impact on what equipment I bring to the table. For the campaign that just ended, I generally avoided using my Chessex wet-erase mats. Wet-erase is messy. For most of this game, I used a Paizo flip-mat: between the dry-erase surface and the ability to fold it up and store it in my D&D Red Box, it's been just about the most convenient and well-used piece of gaming equipment that I've ever spent twelve bucks on. But it only has square grids, on both bloody sides. If I want to use hexagons, I have to switch back to the rolled-up Chessex Megamat, to wet-erase markers and damp cloths. (Jeez, that reminds me, I need to pick up some new overhead markers soon. My last set ran out of ink.) Thankfully, there are restrooms adjoining the game-room in the FLGS where we play, so washing the battlemat is less inconvenient than it could otherwise be, given some of the other places I've played.

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