Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Solo Gaming and Reaction Systems (3)

When we left off last time I was lamenting that there were still a number of decisions that the solo gamer is responsible for with Two Hour Wargame's (THW) rules Rally Round the King (RRtK). Let's review those decisions the solo gamer needs to make for the Non-Player General (NPG).
  • Terrain size selection (if defender)
  • Terrain placement within randomly determined section (if defender)
  • Baseline selection (if defender)
  • Terrain setup acceptance (if attacker)
  • Troop division between left flank, center, right flank, and reserve sections
  • Exact unit/group placement within sections
With the preliminary decisions out of the way, the solo gamer then needs to make the following decisions every turn for the NPG.
  • Which halted units/groups should be set into motion.
  • How moving units/groups should be moved.
    • Should the unit/group move at full rate or half rate?
    • Should the group leave behind slow units in order to increase it movement rate?
    • Should the unit/group maneuver in any way?
Again, some actions are not legal in the RRtK rules, such as most maneuvers once a unit is within charge range of an enemy unit it is facing, so it is not really a decision, but following a rule.

So, the solo gamer is left with determining how to make all of these decisions. Last series I created a set of rules that dictated the behavior of the NPG. I have been asked by some readers to explore the idea of using probabilities and chance to determine the NPG decisions, rather than pure logic and rules. Given that I don't believe in purely random systems – as the NPG itself gets random, which most often is not very challenging as the majority of possible moves are bad ones – I need a foundation to build off of for determining realistic probabilities for good, better, and the best choices to the decisions that need to be made.

Back in March of 2007 I ran across a set of rules called Mythic Role Playing. Their claim to fame is that it allowed a player (or group of players) to run any role playing game (RPG) without a Game Master (GM). This had me intrigued because RPGs are notorious for requiring a lot of interaction between players, much more so than miniatures games, so if it could do what it advertised I might be able to use it for solo miniatures gaming. By April 2007 I wrote up two posts on the Solo War Gaming forum detailing how I had used Mythic for gaming solo with another THW reaction-based gaming system.

I learned a lot from that experiment, but ultimately I had missed the point of the exercise. I had used Mythic more to develop the scenario and less to regulate the decisions of the non-player enemy characters.

So What is Mythic?

Mythic is "a universal improvisational role-playing game." The key here is "improvisational, which the author states is because "the action and details in a Mythic adventure are concocted as you go along." The GM would normally define an adventure, complete with detail. In Mythic "you can start an adventure with zero details." In short, Mythic provides a mechanism for defining the details of a story, which would include numerous decisions by a number of non-player characters. In essence, this is what the solo gamer is looking for too, a method of defining decisions that the non-player opponent makes.

From the Mythic rules: "there are two concepts that are central to successfully running a Mythic adventure: logic and interpretation. The entire mechanic for generating adventures on the fly, running without a GM, and making it all work hinge on the proper application of logic and interpretation."

Logic: Used to determine what happens, or in the case of solo gaming, what decisions the NPG will make. The rule is, whatever the most logical decision is, that is what is expected to happen.

Interpretation: The logic mechanism has the player create a series of questions that can be answered yes or no. Dice are used to determine the answer (yes or no). Interpretation is required to translate the answer into either an action (in our case, on the tabletop) or to ask another logical question.

When questions are asked, rather than having a GM answer Mythic uses a Fate Chart to determine the probability of a "yes" answer. Dice are then rolled to determine if the answer is "yes", "no", an "exceptional yes", or an "exceptional no". In Mythic all questions are treated this way, including questions about hitting the enemy and the success of performing a task. When using Mythic with an established miniatures rule set (or RPG or board game), there is no reason to replace those mechanisms for the one in Mythic. Simply play the game as normal. Where you have to make a decision for the NPG – such as "where will this unit move?", "which unit will this archer shoot at?", and so on – use the Mythic mechanics.

The key to Mythic is to not try and "trick it". If there are several choices select what you consider the most logical path first and ask the question so that answering "yes" would take that choice. For example, the rules you are using do not have targeting priority rules, so each eligible target is a choice. Consider the picture to the right. Assume we start by shooting with red B at blue B. When when we come to red A, our choices are to shoot at blue A or blue B. Assuming that our rules uses a method of accumulating casualties, rather than a straight die roll to determine if the enemy is eliminated out-right, it makes sense to concentrate fire on blue B and eliminate it, as it will (according to our fictional rules) reduce return fire to us more than if we spread the casualties out and will further garner us a victory point. So you might state that the odds are "Probable" for red A to concentrate fire, but if that succeeds the odds that red C will also concentrate fire on blue B becomes "Highly Probable". So, how would that all work? Once the fire from red B to blue B has been resolved, and casualties registered, the question posed might be: should red A concentrate its fire on the wounded blue B?" Not that this is a yes/no question; it is not posed as giving alternatives. If the answer is no, you will keeping posing alternatives as yes/no questions, in order of most probable to least probable until a "yes" answer is reached, or you are left with only one alternative remaining. Continuing on with our example, if the answer to the question above was "no", the only remaining alternative target is to fire on blue A, so no other question is asked; red A fires at blue A. However, if the rules give an advantage to withholding fire – because there is an ammunition limit or the fire can be used in the opponent's turn should he charge – there is a viable alternative, however improbable, so you must continue asking questions and rolling dice until you either get a "yes" or run out of alternatives.

Note that although you are asking questions from the most probable course of action to the least, as you get "no" answers and move to other alternatives, your odds may go up, not down. This is because if the dice have made you reject the most probable, it is more likely that you will select the second-most likely and so on. One way to understand this is to consider how you might reduce the choices down to a single die roll. Let's say that you have three possible courses of action: X, Y, and Z. If you were to determine the odds for each choice, reduced down to a single die roll you might assign X to occur 75% of the time (probable), Y at 20% (improbable), and highly improbable Z at 5%.
Normally you don't reduce all choices down to a probability chart because:

  1. Sometimes it is too hard to think of all the possible choices.
  2. It is hard to assign strict percentages to each choice.
  3. It takes too much time to write it all down or keep it straight in your head.
So simply thinking of the most logical choice, then assigning it a likelihood is easier. But once the most logical choice is rejected, each remaining choice is elevated in probability. Back to the example.
So, you ask the question "should it be X" and the dice say "no". Your two choices, Y and Z are rated 20 and 5, making Y four times more likely to be selected than Z. So the odds of choosing Y, now that X is not a choice, is 80%. If Y is not selected, the remaining choice Z, originally rated at 5% chance, is now at 100% because it is the only remaining choice.

All this may sound complex, but it is not. The idea is that you choose the most logical choice, assign a percentage of probability, roll dice to determine if it occurs and take the action if it does. If the choice is not taken, you determine the next most logical course of action, assign it a probability and roll. You will keep doing this until you have an action specified, either by probability or as a default.

Next entry will be a battle report of Rally Round the King examining its use of the reaction system, and using Mythic to make those decisions that Rally Round the King leaves to the NPG to figure out.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Solo Gaming and Reaction Systems (2)

When one thinks of a "reaction system", one usually thinks of Two Hour Wargames (THW), as it is probably the most touted systems on forums like The Miniatures Page. So, what exactly is a reaction system? I discussed this, and a couple of other aspects of THW games, in my last blog entry. But, in a nutshell, a player's actions can force a reaction by the opposing forces, whether controlled by a player or not. These reactions are controlled by dice, charts, and modifiers. Last time I looked at NUTS!, but this time I will look at Rally Round the King (RRtK).

The Basic Mechanics

The game feels like a traditional ancients, medieval, or fantasy game. Units has attributes that determine its offensive power with missiles and melee, defensive power (armor), movement, morale, and training. In some ways it feels like Chainmail or Warhammer, with movement rates, armor classes, and special rules, but the similarities quickly disappear. As with most THW games there is generally one core attribute, Reputation or REP, that largely determines how good a unit will be in combat.

REP is a numeric value, with average soldiers having a '4' (higher being better). The idea is to roll your REP value or lower on a D6. Most tasks will have you rolling 2D6, but rather than adding the values together, you compare each die rolled to the REP to determine how many successes (or "passes") you achieve. Passing on two dice means great success, on one die it is a partial success (and partial failure), and passing on no dice means a total failure. Simple and elegant. Some of these tasks will have modifiers, which raises or lowers the REP value making it easier or harder to obtain a success.

In some regards, movement in RRtK has a DBA feel to it too. Units are single bases (elements) and they can be moved in groups. There is a command point-like system – you activate units/groups equivalent to your general's War Rating – but units/groups have a much more logical "body in motion tends to stay in motion" behavior than in DBA, which feels much more like the General has his army on a leash.
By the way, this behavior is not a part of the reaction system, but an addition peculiar to Warrior Kings, Warrior Heroes, and Rally Round the King. It is not found in other THW games that I own.
The important point here is that once a unit/group is put into motion, it follows a set of loose rules on further movement, until it hits an engagement range (either within charge distance of an enemy unit/group or when in range to shoot its own missiles), at which point it follows a much stricter set of rules for movement, if it is not following reactions.

As it is possible for units to halt their movement after they have started (due to a reaction check, coming close to a friendly unit/group blocking its path, impassable terrain, reaching terrain you want to occupy, and coming into range where you can shoot), Generals do have some use with the War Ratings after the battle lines have been launched, but for the most part they are only used afterwards to commit the reserves. Given these restrictions, it is pretty important that you have a reserve to commit, in order to plug gaps where the battle has not gone so well, or to exploit a success. Again, I find this very realistic and a major difference between RRtK and DBA, where committing everyone at once (in order to have a longer battle line) is the norm.

Missile fire is handled by rolling 1D6 per foot or mounted skirmisher unit  and 2D6 per foot missile unit, applying modifiers to each die, totaling the amounts, and then inflicting one hit for each ([AC value] + 1) pips. However, the number of hits inflicted cannot exceed the number of units firing.

Melee works the similar to missile fire in that each unit rolls 1D6, each die is modified, then you inflict one hit for each ([AC value] + 1) pips. There is no limit on the number of hits inflicted, however.

Hits represent not just casualties (dead and wounded), but the loss of morale and effectiveness. The primary effect of hits are that they lower the REP of the unit point-for-point.

The Reactions

Of course, this would not be a THW game if melee and missile firing only caused hits. There are reaction tests associated with each too. So, what is a reaction test? Simply, it is rolling 2D6 against REP and determining how many passes are obtained. The dice rolls may be modified, in some cases more or less dice may be rolled (but you still only determine whether you have 0, 1, or 2+ passes), and the number of passes are compared to a chart to determine how the unit reacts to the triggering event.

The triggering events are:

  • Enemy Threat - when an enemy unit starts a move outside of 4" of your melee unit and ends its move facing and within 4" of that melee unit.
  • Received Fire - when fired upon by missiles, whether hits were taken or not.
  • Wanting to Charge - when a unit wants to contact an enemy unit.
  • Being Charge - when an enemy unit successfully charged your unit (after the enemy had passed a Wanting to Charge check or due to some other result).
  • Involved in a Melee - when in a melee, whether hits were taken or not.
  • Leader Lost - when a Leader is lost due to rout, death, or wounds.
The results of these tests often force the checking unit to perform some involuntary action, such as advance forward, retreat, return fire, or halt. It is this part of the game that leads most people to the conclusion that reaction systems are good for solo play, as it puts the soldiers on "auto-pilot". I generally disagree. My first miniatures game was with Column, Line, and Square and there is little difference between fighting in a melee and taking a reaction test that tells me to pull back, and taking a post-melee morale check, failing it, and being forced to fall back. Most games also have morale checks to charge, receive a charge, and for the loss of a general.

What is generally unique is a unit's reaction to missile fire and to enemy threat. I would say many rules do not have reaction to missile fire, or else they term that the unit is "pinned", "suppressed", "disordered", or "shaken". Threat tests, however, are pretty rare in rules. The only three that spring to mind are Huzzah!, Patriots and Loyalists, and a set of free Tricorne-era rules from Jackson Gamers. (It is an idea I was thinking of working with in my own rules.)


Given that units have a limited means of reacting to changing events in these rules (discussed further later), and the General has a limited number of units in reserve, this RRtK plays greater emphasis on getting your deployment the first time. (The authors even stress this point in the rules.)

Deployment is affected in two primary ways, both of which have random elements in RRtK: terrain placement and "Battle Tactics".

Setting up the battle consists of the following steps:

  1. Calculating each side's scouting values.
  2. Determine who is the attacker.
  3. Roll for the terrain type in each of the nine sections of the board. The defender places the actual terrain piece.
  4. Determine baselines.
  5. Attacker has the right to refuse the terrain setup twice (starting the process over at step 3).
  6. Both sides place their units.
Steps 1 and 2 are pretty automated. Step 4 is the defender choosing the baseline they prefer, which is also a fairly easy choice without many rules needed. Step 5 is also pretty easy to determine the answer without needing many rules. Step 6 warrants its own discussion. That leaves step 3, of which the hardest part is determining the size and exact placement of a terrain piece. (Interestingly, this problem comes up in my solo DBA development project.)

Troop Placement

Another comment I have read is that RRtK is solo-friendly because it tells you how to deploy your troops. No quite. In the Solo Gaming section of the RRtK rules it discusses Battle Tactics, which is a rating on the type of troop deployments and attacks each army type made. There are three army types: A (heavy dependence upon melee troops), B (fast mounted army with strong missile component), and C (defensive army with strong missile component). A die roll cross-referenced with the army type determines the army's battle tactics (basic plan of action) and the percentage of troops devoted to the left flank, right flank, center, and reserve. That's it. No indicator of which troops go in which section. No indicator of how troops are to be grouped, or placed in their sections. No discussion of which troops should be used for what missions.

But, it is a start, and it is better than nothing.

Decisions, Decisions ...

So, now that you have the basics of RRtK, we can look at the decisions that a solo gamer must still make for the Non-Player General (NPG), which I will do in the next installment.