Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Rule Philosophy: Minimize Special Cases

Yesterday I posted about two rules I often fail to apply in my games. One of them is how and when the limited defenses for Close Combat apply.

Dustin Tranberg correctly pointed out that the GURPS FAQ contradicts my post.

I responded that, basically, the rules as written don't really imply that a special case of "the first turn of close combat" should apply to defenses. So, I don't apply that FAQ answer, even if it's canonical.*

This is part of what's been my gaming philosophy, at least recently. You can see some of this discussed back in July 2016:

Conditional Modifiers and Simpler Play

More broadly, though, it's like this:

Minimize Special Cases in the Rules

Whenever possible, avoid special cases in the rules. Unless a special case is so common, applying the basic rule results in a cost in verisimilitude and/or enjoyment, or otherwise egregiously breaks suspension of disbelief, don't create a special rule for it.

Whenever possible, just use a simple, blanket rule. When special cases are created, use them as broadly as you can.

For example:

Bad Footing. What's underfoot, whether broken cobblestones or sand or bodies, makes for poor footing? -2 to attack, -1 to defend. Grease and ice and actively slippery surfaces get their own rule - and use the same rules as each other. Pretty simple. One main case, one moderate-sized and very clear set of special cases. It's not -2 and -1 for sand, -2 and -1 per body up to X bodies, -3 for loose sand, -4 for ice but only -1 to defend, or whatever. Two cases, basically all situations. This doesn't cover all situations where you're unsteady, but it doesn't have to - yet, if you wanted it to, it could.

Close combat defenses on the first turn?

Much of how I've ruled in my games is slicing out special cases to speed things up. This is one of them.

"You can defend normally the first turn someone steps into Close Combat" is a special case. It doesn't actually need to be there. It has lots of spill-on effects: close-in defenses only matter on the second turn you're stuck in there; being backed into a wall isn't a problem for the first second you're backed in, it's doubly-hard to get in close on anyone armed or not. Also, the rules as worded apply sometimes, but not all of the time. If you follow the rules as worded without this FAQ, this case goes away - Close Combat rules apply when people are in close, no matter when that began. If you Retreat, you can use your full complement of defenses (just like in Basic), and gain the benefit. People generally do this anyway, so you're not really harming the defender, just saying they don't get to pretend that a Reach C-only attack was started at Reach 1 so they can defend as if it was. You can say, but a defender with a shield can get it between himself and his attacker and block his attack before he's fouled up and in too close even without a backward step. Perhaps he could - but in order to do so you need this extra case in the rules that only applies sometimes, just for this.

For me, I see that as a time and memory and rules mastery cost just so shield-armed guys don't have to Retreat and can block even if they've already retreated. Get rid of that case, and you've gotten rid of a need to commit more rules to memory and make more tactical decisions between options.

Even the -DB for shields that doesn't affect first-turn attacks or slams is easy to understand but just a special case you could easily ignore. Slams don't suffer DB penalties, everything else does, don't bring a shield and a Reach C knife together into combat and pretend it's a good combo if you just keep dancing in and out. Finished.

Yet you don't want to get rid of Close Combat as a larger special case - weapons are already privileged enough in reality and in GURPS. Saying "There is no Close Combat, attacks and defenses just work everywhere normally" cuts out an interesting and dangerous sub-section of combat. It's something you could do for a very basic, simplified set of rules - yet for the games I play that's losing a bit of game play option and verisimilitude that I find adds to the game. Rules like that would let you Block or two-handed sword Parry vs. the bite of the disease-ridden rat that's climbing your armor to bite your face instead of getting you to panic-drop your shield or weapon and grab it to pull it off. Simpler, faster, and less special cases - but cutting down something that adds to the fun I want to have to do it.

It's not cut-and-dried.

But in general, when there is a special case or a special modifiers or conditional situation, I take the time to ask - do I need this? Does this add enough to justify the cost of memorizing or calculating it?

For me, this rule gets answered with a No. So it's gone and the rules as written and worded get played that way.

* Although I do keep it in mind when I'm writing posts meant to discuss canonical rules as written without house rule changes (Melee Academy, GURPS 101), or writing for SJG directly with rules-related material.

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