Thursday, April 2, 2020

Turn length in GURPS

On my last Felltower summary, Eric posted the following comment:

" In the confusion of combat GURPS is already generous about allowing free choosing of targets that should be difficult to even line up on a still target..." This brings up a question I've had for a little while: if DnD combat rounds are too long, are GURPS combat rounds too quick? How does the GURPS combat system rate, verisimilitude-wise, in the opinions of those who have martial arts training (armed and/or unarmed)? Your opinion, Peter?

I said I needed a post to answer. Here is that post.

This post will mostly be about GURPS.

Let's first just get this out of the way - 1 minute combat rounds in AD&D are long . . . long enough to not allow for some of the true speed of combat in real life. A lot can happen in a handful of seconds, nevermind sixty of them. But the one second turns in GURPS can feel a bit short.

GURPS isn't the only game that realized that one-second combat turns make sense, especially with firearms. TSR's Gangbusters used one-second combat turns. Oddly, you could only melee once every three turns (punch on turn 1, can't do so again until turn 4), but you could shoot every second. Fair enough - most guns either have a totally unrealistic ROF on a multi-second turn (six shot revolvers emptying in 2/5s of a five-second turn, or getting limited to 3 shots in five seconds), or put out so much lead that you can't easily resolve it (a SAW putting out 60 rounds or limited to just 12) or some abstracting mix.

That said, TSR's Top Secret had five-second combat turns, divided up into 5 1-second phases. Guns had some odd ROFs because of that - you can only fire one pistol shot per second, for example, or an Uzi 4 shots per second, well below a realistic actual max ROF - but it was workable enough in actual play. Still, it took abstraction and tradeoffs. You only managed a small number of offensive and defenses melee actions, as well, if you engaged in hand-to-hand combat, over those five seconds. For melee combat especially it seemed fine until I actually started to really practice combative martial arts.

An amazing amount of violence can happen in a few seconds. And a whole fight can be over in a fraction of a second.

Check this exchange out:

Click here if the embedding doesn't display well for you.

(Discussed further in my post Longsword Sport)

So resolving GURPS fights at the one-second scale make sense.

But at the same time, sometimes it seems too short.

I've occasionally noodled about the idea of just increasing GURPS combat turns to 3-5 seconds; perhaps a slight increase in actions allowed but more time to do them. This would potentially allow for more actions than just swinging and casting as fast as possible - and battles that last more than 10-12 seconds for "long" fight. That's not a crazy length for a brawl, but for large battles, it's oddly short. Too much happens in too short of a time, with no one hesitating to act because, thanks to the minutes each second takes to resolve, they have a near-perfect knowledge of the battlefield and the actions of everyone around them. Player decisions mitigate against this, but it's quite possible to have everyone on a single side act in perfect harmony with each other's actions. That's unrealistic, and how unrealistic it seems and feels is exacerbated (I'd say multiplied) by the speed at which it happens.

That's where the issue lies, and it's very difficult for a game to do both well. One the one hand, a one-second time scale allows for realistic rates of fire, the flash of an exchange that leaves one combatant dead and the other living, and allows for rains of punches like you see finishing a TKO in an MMA fight or a YouTube video of some poor schlep starting a fight with a boxer. On the other hand, with a confused melee being resolved at a one-second scale you don't get the much more realistic overall length where a lot of time is spent in the OOD part of the OODA loop - Observing, Orienting, Deciding, and Acting. Instead that happens in the meta, and everyone acts tightly within an identical loop. No confusion, no mistake, and no error of observation or orientation, only of decision. Making turns longer wouldn't change that in the meta-sense, but it would change it in the overall time it takes. You'd gain back some overall time cost to battles, and gain the ability for reinforcements to realistically arrive (nonsense on a one-second scale, unless the reinforcements are only yards away), non-combat actions to occur ("Hold them off while I pick this lock!" - not likely when it'll take one minute, just do it after), and combat to feel realistically long. Yet to do so, as I noted, costs in the observed reality of how fast you can dump an enormous amount of violence onto a foe.

So GURPS has verisimilitude on the micro-scale of actions, but less so on the macro-scale of overall time for a battle to occur.


  1. I've been puzzling through this for a few years, too. I think that you can probably work through the "blinding speed" matter by giving high-skill (and other advantage) characters multiple attacks in a longer combat turn, possibly using something like the "Attack Priority" system from an old issue of Dragon magazine, where an initiative roll would also determine how many attacks the character got in that turn. I've been thinking that somewhere in 3-6 seconds per turn is the ideal range. I currently tend toward 4. Firearms would probably handle well with a combination of number of attacks per turn as with hand to hand, plus variations of GURPS's excellent method of handling multiple shots with one skill roll, so that anyone can empty a revolver at one target, but it takes some skilled effort to plan out a series of shots at one target followed quickly by shots at another.

    I don't know. I feel like there has to be a good solution, but almost everything feels like it trades too much from one way in pursuit of verisimilitude from the other, as it were. I'll continue to read think-pieces like this one and give it thought, for sure. Anyway, my point is, thank you for this article.

    1. You're welcome. The eternal tradeoffs are tough. You tend to know when you've gotten it wildly wrong, but it's probably hard to get it truly "right" for all cases.

  2. If you want to implement proper OODA loop into GURPS, you could just increase to 3 second actions and handwave it, or you could give penalties for Immediate Actions in combat (and probably have to grant slightly higher Evaluate bonuses).

    Off the cuff, I'd say -4 feels about right. This allows for the crazies to All Out Attack (Determined) or All Out Defend (Increased) and still be kinda capable (talking 'realistic'* skill levels). Evaluates become popular to defray this cost, and Instead of a flat +1 I'd go with +1 + the 1/2 MoS of a Tactics roll (or maybe 1/2 tactics? or even a flat +1 on success, +2 on a crit? Maybe toss on a cap on the MoS?).

    This would apply to movement as well. DX rolls maybe, certainly penalties to Per to spot dangers on the move. Maybe Move and Concentrate could allow 1/2 move for a +2 to Per...

    That's my BotN take on this one.

    1. Spells and movements are the real case that mess everything up - 1 minute durations, casting times in seconds. Do you allow a caster 3 x 1 second spells, or a full-power casting of a Missile spell? Can I cast a 1-second missile, Aim it, and then loose it on my turn? What's my Move if I'm just, say, sprinting?

      It's a tough nut to crack.

    2. Right, which is why my BotN approach is to keep one second Turns, just toss down penalties.

      A more elegant solution would be to lower skill levels, extend Aiming (or increase the bonus), etc. Rebalance around lower skilled folks taking a few Turns to Aim/Evaluate/Concentrate, but still allow for crazy high skilled cinematic fights.

  3. Best of all worlds would be multiple turn-length options, a la GURPS Spaceships. Run into a some orcs in a corridor? Use 1-second turns. Firing arrows back and forth across a ravine? Use 5-second turns that include maximum aiming bonuses. A party of adventurers against hundreds of lizardmen? Use 30-second or even 1-minute turns and adapt the horde rules from GURPS Zombies.

    Alternately, make Enhanced Time Sense a mandatory advantage.

    1. It's the spells that really make for a problem, honestly. Casters can and will expect that if you can cast X spells in Y seconds, than when I shift to 2Y or 3Y then they can cast 2X or 3X . . .

  4. Rather than mess with Turn lengths when you want extra verisimilitude or feel the players are abusing coordination you can apply certain requirements.
    1. Use Douglas Cole's Aiming Rules from Pyramid.
    2. GM fiat and tell players to act now or choose a Wait if your thinking they are taking too long to decide.
    3. Require Tactics rolls (possibly Per based) to coordinate or notice things, possibly with penalties such as number of people in the fight and bonuses for Teamwork Perks or Techniques.

    Mostly though I just go with whats fun and only roll out special limits when the game is slowing down too much or the players abuse things. Of course the GM can coordinate pretty easily too.

  5. RuneQuest had one attack per 12 second turn subdivided into 12 strike ranks. DEX, SIZ, and weapon gave the base SR, so someone quick, big, and with a long weapon would have SR 0 and attack first. Moving and casting added more SR. Typical spell duration was 5 minutes.

    1. Sounds like Champions, in a way.

      Or, in a less deliberately phased system, the alternate initiative system for Rolemaster from the Rolemaster Companion.


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