Magic Monday – Thoughts on Timing

(I picked up YAOSC and tinkered with it in the winter, then put it down… for the whole spring semester. It’s high time I picked it back up for more tinkering, at least for the duration of the summer. I’ll be busy, but not as busy as things will be in the fall, so it’s high time. Anyway, this post is a day late, but dangit at least it’s going up!)

Combat and time have some weight in YAOSC despite the overall abstracted design, in part because how those things work will be instrumental in shaping a wide selection of skills. At the moment, I’m sort of stuck between two incompatible systems… and if I’m going to muse about it, why not do so in a post? Anyway, the options under consideration are what I’m calling rounds and therbligs.

Rounds

This is the traditional route for most RPGs, and it’s already included in my time scale and assumed in a number of other mechanics such as spell descriptions. You chop up time into discrete packets, and assign various actions a value either in fractions of that packet (e.g. you can sneeze up to twice in a round) or multiples of it (e.g. belching on purpose takes three rounds). Everybody has a default number of actions (for YAOSC I’ll say two), and everything you can do consumes a default number of them (one). An initiative mechanic determines who goes first, either anew each round or one time that governs an entire combat scene, and then everybody just does things in turn until it’s over.

Pros:

  • It’s easy in play. Your turn comes, you do your thing(s), done. You don’t need a high degree of system mastery to understand how combat time works.
  • It’s familiar. I can’t even think of an RPG right now that doesn’t use rounds in some form or other, at least until you get into the GMless story games.
  • It’s simple to design. You don’t need to weigh and balance a whole lot of factors or add a whole lot of complexity unless you really want to.

Cons:

  • It breaks verisimilitude. People in real life don’t take turns doing things, especially in a fight (despite what kung fu movies might have you believe). You can imagine a dynamic scene in your head no matter the system, of course, but thinking about the mechanics too hard can (and does) make it all start to feel weird.
  • It can get complicated anyway. Just look at any RPG where combat leans toward the tactics-and-minis school, and it’s easy to see how using rounds to mark time doesn’t protect against system bloat.

Therbligs

(I’m not using the word correctly; it’s just there because it’s fun and sort of relevant.) This system would be based on a scrolling version of time, still granular but less choppy than the above. Instead of actions being counted in terms of rounds, each action would cost a given number of time units (which I’m tongue-in-cheek calling “therbligs”). These values could be adjusted by factors such as skill level, the condition the character is in, the circumstances they’re acting under, and so on.

When your place on the scroll comes around, you choose an action. Then, if all goes well, the action is completed after its assigned number of therbligs have passed, and then you choose again. Instead of initiative, a skill determines the number of therbligs it takes to comprehend and respond to a situation, after which the scroll unrolls on its own.

Pros:

  • It offers greater verisimilitude. You can tinker with your therbligs until the relative length of time spent on a given action feels right, and there is no artifice of “taking turns” – everybody is always engaged in some action or other. This leads us to:
  • It smooths out edge cases. The simplicity of rounds invites extra rules to account for cases where rounds don’t make sense, and you end up adding things like “surprise rounds.” Therbligs do away with this.
  • It affords tremendous versatility and tactical depth. A therblig-based system makes it easy to set up situations where a fast fighter can interrupt a slow one, wait for exactly the right moment to act, or simply gain advantage by observing.
  • It should increase engagement. Rounds tend to encourage players to “tune out” when it’s not their turn, and while my imagined implementation would break this open a bit, I suspect that a well-managed scroll would

Cons:

  • It would be hard to learn and hard to master. The basic concept may be intuitive, but it could take some time for GMs to learn how to run the scrolling combat efficiently and without too many mistakes, and a long time for players to get a feel for how to use the system to their advantage. This is definitely a system that can prioritize player skill over character skill, which creates a barrier to new or casual players.
  • There’s lots of room for bloat. Every time you add an element of versatility or tactical depth, you add another rule for everyone to learn and remember.
  • It would mean a massive amount of work to design. While it’s possible and necessary to establish generic guidelines for the number of therbligs it takes to perform any given action, at the very least the system seems to demand a considered, hand-crafted rating for hundreds of common actions, combat maneuvers with a variety of weapons, and spells.

Therbligs delight me to no end, and I want to develop them further as a pet project… but for the time being I’m leaning toward sticking with rounds for simplicity’s sake. If YAOSC ever gets published, like, for reals, then perhaps I could roll out therbligs in all their fiddly glory for those theoretical players who like my quirky hyper-niche D&D clone but also want some extra tactical combat up in there. Or maybe I’ll recycle some of the ideas for use somewhere else – I can’t stop thinking about how therbligs would work.

No minis, though. Even feeling some excitement at the idea of detailed, “real”-feeling tactical sword-and-sorcery battles, I’m more interested in making a theater-of-the-mind RPG than a combat-focused boardgame.

Anyway, this is definitely a topic where any feedback or thoughts on the matter would be appreciated. Should I nurture this beautiful awkward pet, or invest my time in putting a fresh spin on the familiar, traditional system? And does anybody know of a game that does use a therblig-scroll for its timekeeping that I could look at for reference?

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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