Friday, April 5, 2013

The Myth of the Featureless Plain

One thing that comes up in a lot of combat rules analysis (especially for GURPS) is what I think of as "the myth of the featureless plain."

You probably know what I'm thinking.

Two combatants.

No surprise.

No prior damage or exhaustion.

No allies.

No time limit.

Unlimited room to retreat.

No lighting penalties.

No bad footing.

No level/height differences.

No walls.

No terrain, really.

Just a big, wide open hex mat on white paper that extends forever in all directions.

It's on this battlefield many hypothetical situations fight it out. The Reach 2 guy who you can never close with. The close combat fighter who can never grapple anyone. The shield guy you can't flank. The Counterattack or Riposte or Arm Lock specialist who auto-kills you if you attack and has a single super move that you can't counter. The DX monster you can't touch or the ST monster you can't hold on to. Dodge Man who avoids all attacks with ease. Defensive Grip dude who takes his +1 because the penalty for a flank defense never comes up, because you can't get to his flank.

You know, your completely atypical battlefield.

I call it a myth because you have to really work to make that happen in a game.

In most campaigns, this doesn't happen. It's rare to get a truly unmodified skill roll in circumstances where nothing outside of you and your opponent can affect the next few seconds. It's possible, but it's rare.

Even in a duel, you won't get this. No walls? No edge of the dueling arena? No cheating? No outside interference?

It doesn't happen even in structured environments. Grappling matches re-set you to the middle if you go off the edge of the mat. Fighters get separated and re-started if they go too far or do too little. This kind of thing happens - cage fights have cages, so you can circle but a clever fighter can box you in. Tournaments have fighting areas. Duels have an agreed upon ground and features in an around that.

Never mind actual melees. You know, with multiple combatants and unfair setups and situations where Arm Lock dude really doesn't want to grapple you because he needs his Parry against the next guy. Or where Counterattack dude leaves you alone because he's got problems elsewhere. Or back shots, or bad footing from blood and sand and dead bodies, and random missiles that thump you from a flank because your friend made his Dodge and the arrow kept on going into you instead.

This is why I often gripe about the one-on-one featureless plain basis of analysis. It's not a bad way to start your analysis of a rule, but it's not the end of it. A lot of the uber-tactics of the featureless plain are just foolishly suicidal in a melee, or might be merely risky. What might work great one-on-one on a featureless plain isn't as effective in bad lighting, on bad footing, when you're tired and wounded from the fight just before. High-cost tactics (Extra Effort in Combat, say) might not cost anything in a short fight but cost greatly if you don't get to rest before more folks come. There are costs and benefits that might not be apparent in just this circumstance.

Not every fight takes place in Nogard. Few, in fact, do. And if your game features more featureless plains than dark, dingy places with uneven footing and mismatched fights, you might want to consider looking at B402 for inspiration, just for a start. In my own games, a fight without some basic penalties is a pretty rare thing, and the more cramped spaces, terrain issues, and "don't step there!" hexes I can manage, the better. Battles are rarely fought in ideal circumstances for either combatant. So mix it up - and see how things work when everything is less than ideal.


  1. Wow, a Nogard reference. And I got it. You and I might just be old...

    I think that the Featureless Plane is a very scientific invention - it's a control, a way to eliminate variables and analyze the mechanics without outside influence. That they should rarely, if ever, be applied in that sort of controlled situation isn't really taken into consideration. I blame our very scientific society, and our very litigious society, for our reliance on it.

  2. Yeah, one of the ideas for arena battle scenarios I'm working on for my DF campaign actually centres around the environment (the actual fighting space is suspended over a large, rapid river) and the fact that several contenders are cheating ("You notice that the man you saw talking secretively with your current opponent is in the front row of the audience. He seems to be staring intently at you, and animatedly working his mouth.").

    1. That reminds me of fighting video games like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Tekken. The times I've seen them, there have been complex backgrounds, but they're just that: backgrounds, where the fight itself is basically taking place on the same flat infinite ground as always. It would be much more interesting to be able to say "this arena is on top of a skyscraper under construction, so there are gusty winds and holes in the floor" or "this arena is a log over a river, so there's no sideways movement".

    2. It doesn't even have to be that dramatic, honestly, to shape the battle. "These hexes with the green in them are swampy, while these three here in red are where the camp fire is blazing. These black blobs are rocks, and you'll need a DX roll (or other appropriate skill) to avoid falling if you back into those hexes..."

    3. Or just "there is a wall a few yards behind you." Oh, your plan was to retreat and keep the guy at range? That'll work for a few seconds, I guess, until the wall.

    4. I'd need to do the math on this one, but the typical resort, even on a mostly-featureless plain, for a big guy would be to bum-rush the guy with run-and-tackle, take him to the ground, and pound him into the consistency of a wet prune. This is a higher percentage move in life than in GURPS, I suspect (but I could be wrong). This sort of "hey, I dance around you forever, ha ha ha!" crap won't last more than a few seconds.

    5. It generally doesn't. The bum-rush-and-tackle thing doesn't always work so well in GURPS because it's not sufficient to make up for a big gap in skill. An orc isn't going to pull it off against a DF swashbuckler, say. But it'll make up for a narrower gap.

      In any case the "this works on a featureless plain" thing isn't helpful, IMO, because you won't get to fight on them very often anyway. If ever.

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. I'd be interested to know what seems a reasonable ratio of "features" vs plain, in hexes. I try not to create boring battlefield maps, but I sometimes feel the players would prefer a featureless plain so that they didn't have to worry about "minuses"from the terrain.

    8. I can't really put a number on it. It depends on the location - a loosely-sanded beach might be all bad footing, but unbounded on three sides. A dojo floor would have no footing issues but be surrounded on all sides by walls, and might have bystanders in the way.

      Really the issue is creating believable and interesting battlefields. And if PCs balk at fighting on bad footing, or the players just don't enjoy it, work with what they'll accept - walls, gaps, stairs - these things are common and dramatically affect how a battle goes.

    9. Thanks. Your mention of walls reminds me: in the past I have imposed restrictions for partial hexes that are against the wall of the room/cave/etc. I know the rules say that partial hexes should be treated as full hexes, but it seems to me that fighting with a 2-yard weapon would be trickier with one's back against the wall, or in a corner; especially with hexes that cover 1/2 (or less) of the normal area.

    10. I tend to rule depending on the circumstances - is that half enough? Generally yes, if the hex placement is all that's causing the problem (IOW, you'd have been fine if the hexes were aligned differently). But yeah, I have made it clear that clearance behind you can be "bad footing" or similar - -2 to some actions.

  3. I think one of the great things D&D 4e (a skirmish combat obsessed game if there ever was one) tried to hammer into peoples heads was the idea of both room to maneuver AND having things you need to maneuver around. Or can push your enemy into, or might want to stand on to get an advantage at which point he wants to push you OUT, and so forth.

    It's a little bit of thought pattern you can take away into any game - RPG, wargame, whatever.

    And really when you come down to it, what wuxia or swashbuckling movie doesn't have things for the fighters to climb over, jump off, swing from, bounce from one to the other, or otherwise do something much more interesting than just shuffle back and forth in an open space?

    1. My taste for cluttered battlefields goes back to Man-to-Man, but it's nice to hear later editions of D&D included it as well.

      I'm trying to think of any significant Man-to-Man scenario that didn't add some element of time, space, or terrain (often all three) to mix it up. Maybe just a plain vanilla one-on-one duel. Even the "Valhalla" blank-map fight was two-on-two, so you couldn't just concentrate on one guy without interference.

    2. Yeah, 4e was all about moving around "difficult terrain" and tactical positioning. I did find that a lot of it got nullified though by what turned into combatants do-se-doing around each other, but at least they made the effort.


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