As I work on the system portions of the War of Ashes RPG I’m writing for Evil Hat Productions, I’ve reached the sections that are not ready just out of the box in the Fate Accelerated system. In Fate parlance, these are the Extras, used to model some special features of the setting like magic, superpowers, advanced technology, etc. Part 1 of the discussion focused on magic.
I think I’m going to skip the discussion of Ancient technology for now because (A) it’s probably going to be a list of examples built on aspects and stunts which should be relatively straightforward to build, and (B) I’d like to keep it mysterious. Today, let’s talk about the issue and challenges of miniatures combat.
Instead of using fixed measurements, for example to describe the range of a particular weapon or the distance a character can run in one action, the Fate system uses a relatively abstract yet narratively consistent approach to combat and movement based on zones. In essence, rather than limiting how far in measurement units you can get in one unit of time, or how far you can shoot, then applying penalties for local conditions like terrain or visibility, it skips the math and looks at local conditions to establish how far you could move or shoot.
This method is also part and parcel of Fate‘s fractal approach, since it allows re-scaling; if you change the time unit, or the size of the map, or both, then per force your zones are going to change too, while necessitating no change to the rules describing how things work.
So why are miniatures necessary or even useful if you don’t have to measure anything? Why would we want to have them? (Yes, I know that for a lot of gamers, to ask this question is sacrilegious. Bear with me, I’m working my way through the Fate Golden Rule: Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.)
Visualising the action. Having a scaled-down model of the scene helps the gamemaster define zones, the players understand what is going on, and the entire group stay on the same page as the events unfold.
Adjudicating movement and manoeuvres. Even with adjudication based on the fiction being created as the game progresses rather than on arbitrary numerical values, it helps to see what is going on in order to decide whether Ragnar can actually move past Salvia, or whether the balcony railing provides any cover against Goomba’s ranged attack.
Suggesting actions and supporting tactical decisions. Just as the GM gets a better idea of what is possible, being able to see the action suggests to the players some of the cool actions their characters might take. Ooh, yeah, there’s a mezzanine level! That begs for someone to vault down and swing in from the chandelier, doesn’t it? Hey, Frigga is boxed in by those Kuld—but they have their backs to Marko!
Tactile and aesthetic enjoyment. Displaying a lovingly crafted and painted diorama of a scene, complete with buildings, landscaping, and miniatures, is fun. It’s visually exciting, it focuses the attention of the players who might otherwise be checking their Facebook stream or playing Angry Birds until it’s their turn to act, and it’s a matter of pride for hobbyists. If you walk into a gaming store or a convention and among the many tables there is one topped with a colourful miniatures battle, you’ll want to at least peek, won’t you?
Moreover, the miniatures combat system for which the setting was originally developed, ZombieSmith’s War of Ashes: Shieldwall, offers an array of colourful, zany, attractive minis. I’ll be damned if I pass up an opportunities to use them for my RPG! ^_^
Mini-game with its own rules. (Gamist enjoyment) Some people just love the game-within-a-game part of miniatures combat for its own sake, not just as visual support for the fiction; they want rules that are consistent, challenging, and provide suspense and tactical opportunities.
Simulating the “real life” flow of battle. (Simulationist enjoyment.) For some gamers, it’s not just about visualising but experiencing the action, and they want rules that will make this feel as “real” as possible.
Supporting specific stunts and rule fragments that make characters cool. While you can design all your fiddly rules bits so they never actually require miniatures combat, having the option opens new possibilities in play.
Connecting with a beloved tradition. Roleplaying games were born from miniatures wargaming 40 years ago, and several have remained close to these origins. For a lot of gamers, having a chance to reconnect to this tradition while using Fate’s modern, elegant system is a treat.
Connecting with other games in the same setting. This is specific to War of Ashes, but since there is already a mass combat game using miniatures, and a skirmish game coming out in May 2014, having a bit of continuity between the games seems appropriate.
An aside: I made a few notes regarding “gamist” and “simulationist” enjoyment; along with the term “narrativist”, they refer to a theory of gaming styles put forth by Ron Edwards on The Forge forum back in 2001. I’m not overly fond of the discussions the theory has sparked nor of the specific terminology it uses, but I recognize that different people look for different things in games. I want to provide opportunities for fun for these differences. I know some argue that you should concentrate on just one, but I respectfully disagree. Since Fate has a lot of bits to support “narrativist” enjoyment, I’m trying to pay a little more attention to the other two for a moment.
We may not be able to scratch all these itches equally, but at least now we know what we’re looking for and why we want to offer some rules to work with miniatures. These rules will be entirely optional, you will still be able to play by simply scribbling conceptual zones and placing an X for each character if you prefer.
To Map or Not to Map?
In some games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons and its family of games, maps are marked with squares, each representing a 5 ft x 5 ft, 6 ft x 6 ft, or 2m x 2m area; many other games use a hexagonal pattern instead, again with about the same scale.
In games where movement allowance and range are provided as absolute measurement, this is important because it provides verification of scale to allow the GM to adjudicate the rules. In addition, many such game systems have developed rules (feats, special abilities, spells, manoeuvres, ranged weapons, etc.) that provide effects which rely on the presence of these markings for interpretation. For example, can your rogue move into this square and perform her special attack?
A while ago, Evil Hat’s own Fred Hicks came up with a concept for using grid maps with Fate. But to be honest, I’m not terribly excited by most games which have rules on what a character can do based on a map grid—generally referred to in my gaming life as “square-dancing.” One thing I love about the Fate system is that it’s about your ideas, not arbitrary rules. So I need to find ways to use maps that are tactically satisfying but don’t negate the qualities I love in the system.
That said, yes to maps: they go well with minis and they let you use some of those props you’ve been saving for a special game. I just haven’t decided how much I’ll use the grids. (Suggestions welcomed, as usual.)
Tomorrow: More thoughts about miniatures combat, and gear!
Credits:Photos by Edmund Metheny 2013, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike). Zone map from Fate Core, Evil Hat Productions 2013. Grid map from Haunted Temples Map Pack, Wizards of the Coast 2012. Hex map by Sophie Lagacé 2012, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.