Rear and Flank Bonuses: An Experiment

I just had a strange idea. I was thinking of the normal Rolemaster positional bonuses (+15 for a flank attack, +35 for rear), and what they represent. It seemed to me that characters got these bonuses because targets would find it more difficult to parry, dodge, and block attacks from these awkward directions, due to the fact that it is harder to see them coming and to turn to parry, block, or dodge. But what about a target such as a giant amoeba, that does not have eyes and does not parry, block, or dodge? Why should the amoeba’s attackers get positional bonuses against it?

The other thing that got me thinking of positional bonuses is DnD 5e’s system of positional bonuses — or lack thereof. (My group plays DnD about half the time and about Rolemaster half the time, so I am always comparing the two systems.) The 5e player handbook, which contains the core combat rules, uses no positional bonuses at all — not even flanking. That is of course terrible. However, the Dungeon Master’s Guide lays out optional rules for flanking and facing. Flanking provides advantage (i.e. you get to roll 2 d20s for your attack and take the higher one), which is neat, but can become a bit overpowering; and the downside is that to gain flanking, you have to be on the exact opposite end of the target square/hex from an ally who is also attacking your target. This leads to odd combats that devolve into the famous ‘conga line of death’, a long line of combatants, alternating ally – enemy – ally – enemy, as everyone tries to get the flank bonus by aligning exactly on the opposite edge of an enemy. That isn’t really very realistic and kind of makes a mockery of formations.

The 5e DMG also offers optional rules for facing: attacks through the rear arc benefit from advantage and the target does not get a shield bonus. The shield bonus only applies to attacks through the front and shield side arcs. This is better, and also contains the stipulation that some creatures, such as ‘an amorphous ochre jelly’, do not have rear arcs, as well as more detailed rules for playing on both a square and a hex grid. The downside of the 5e DMG facing rules, however, is that 5e does not have sufficiently developed rules for ‘sticky’ combat: characters only get attacks of opportunity when opponents leave their zones of control too hastily, not just when they move through them too hastily. This means that in 5e, you can circle strafe to an enemy’s rear and attack with advantage all in the same turn with virtually no penalty. Oops — this is the reason why turn-based systems need some ‘stickiness’ to their combat, so that characters have a reasonable chance to react to the actions of their enemies.

To fix DnD 5e’s rules, I’ve brought back 4e’s rule about moving through an enemy’s zone of control: moving through or out of an enemy’s zone of control now provokes opportunity attacks if the movement is hasty (i.e. not using the ‘withdraw’, ‘disengage’ or ‘5-foot-step’ action). This houserule change largely solves the strafing issue. I can now use 5e’s facing rules without getting too annoyed.

But making this change also got me thinking of an innovation to eliminate the ‘conga line of death’ and make formations matter more again: instead of giving advantage in the case of two combatants being on exactly different sides of their opponents, I would only give them a +2 flanking bonus. Similarly, attacks from the flanks (back left and back right on a square grid) would only get a +2 flanking bonus. To get advantage (i.e. the right to roll 2 d20s and take the higher one), you would have to attack through the rear arc only, because advantage can be a huge bonus.

Then I went a bit farther, and thought, instead of flanking bonuses, why not just say that targets don’t get the benefit of any Dexterity bonus against attacks through the flank? Because really, the flanking bonus is meant to represent the fact that it is harder to dodge/block/parry an attack that you can’t really see coming very well. So wouldn’t it be easier just to eliminate the set ‘flank bonus’ altogether, and instead just say that targets don’t get a Dex bonus vs. flank attacks?

Thinking of how I would fix DnD 5e’s positional rules in this way also led me to think about an experiment in applying a similar rule to Rolemaster. What about instead of set bonuses (+15 for flank, +20 for rear) for positional modifiers, we tailored the bonus to the situation and the abilities of the combatants in a more realistic way? What if we said this:

–A Flank attack is an attack made through the left flank or right flank hex. Because such attacks are harder to see and therefore defend against, the target cannot benefit from any shield bonus, and receives only half his quickness and/or parry bonuses.

–A rear attack is an attack made through the rear hex. Because such attacks are especially hard to see and defend against, the target cannot benefit from any shield, quickness, or parry bonuses.

Rather than giving creatures set bonuses, then, we would instead be limiting their defenses in a more realistic way. There would no longer be any abstract ‘flank’ or ‘rear’ bonus that worked the same for every creature and combination of battlefield conditions; rather, flank and rear attacks would be deadlier against combatants that rely on seeing attacks coming and actively defending against them, and less deadly on creatures that don’t defend or even see at all. Amoebas, Gelatinous Cubes, and amorphous ochre jellies everywhere would rejoice (though we’d never hear them, since they don’t have mouths). And we will no longer have any conga lines of death!

Has anyone ever tried anything like this?

Emotional Beats

Emotional beats are a game feature that designers try to identify and maximise. I will try to explain what they are and then why they are important to Rolemaster.

Every roleplaying game I know goes through the following process.

  1. The GM sets to a challenge
  2. The players plan their reaction
  3. Dice get rolled
  4. GM describes the result

So that cycle could be a combat round as easily as a negotiation or hanging off a place balcony as the mortar crumbles under your grip.

The player is focused on the challenge as the GM describes it. Then focuses on their character and the options they character has. They make their rolls, while trying to get as many bonuses as they can and then they wait for the result.

The emotional beats start with anticipation as the challenge is described, then a level of anxiety is common if the right skill isn’t known or the character is forced into combat when they are weak. When it comes to the roll we have heightened anticipation while they await the result and then a sense of elation upon success, the resolution stage.

What professional game designers do is minimise the time delay between the dice roll and the completion of the resolution step. The reason is that the longer that time delay is the less the feeling of elation and importantly elation releases dopamine into the players blood. A game with a snappy skill/conflict resolution system is quite literally more addictive to play than a slower game.

Games with hit point attrition can still have fast emotional beats or rhythm. With each successive combat round the odds are changing and the risk to the character increasing which heightens anticipation and when victory is achieved the sense of elation is greater and that leaders to a bigger dopamine hit.

Looking at Rolemaster through the lens of emotional beats you can easily see how and why the ability to one hit a foe makes you feel so good. You instantly know if you have made a great attack roll and the likelihood that you have an E critical. You then roll 66 and you just know that it is curtains for the bad guy. What the GM eventually tells you is just a cherry on top, you already know the beastie or villain is dead meat. Instant resolution. instant elation and instant dopamine.

As a game designer there is a danger of ‘getting high off your own supply’ (I think that is a hip hip lyric from NWA but don’t quote me on that). You see a potential problem in the rules (anticipation), create a special rules to fix the rules and test it (moments of anxiety) and it works (elation and reward). The problem is that the temptation is to create endless rules and complications; as the simple act of adding them to the game makes the designer feel good.

One of the reasons the damage calculations from the size rules were unpopular, looking at it from an emotional rhythms point of view, is that it puts a delay into the resolution stage. Worst still it happens before the real resolution, the critical, can be calculated and resolved. If you are fighting something and size rules are reducing your attack size this is even worse as it is the wrong sort of anticipation. Positive anticipation is waiting to see if you have succeeded. Negative anticipation is expectation that things are getting worse. Having your E critical turned into a C is not something to look forward to.

In another part of the RMu rules we have spell casting going from 2 rounds prep to zero rounds of prep. This is great. Although there is technically less anticipation time the player still gets to cycle through what spell to cast, the spell casting roll and waiting to see if their spell worked and the effect it had. Without the prep delay the emotion rhythm is much faster.

Looking at skills, if RMu piles too many penalties on to the characters it is in danger of breaking the emotional cycle. By that I mean if failure is more common that successes then the anticipation is negative and the elation is diminished if it came from pure chance rather than your skillful play and choices.

I think the character creation time is another point at which the reward, getting to play, is too far from the start of the challenge. This is also an area where the playtesters and fans are quite vocal.

Game design by fans, for fans is not always a good idea if they lack the actual skills to pull off a great design.