Monday, March 5, 2012
Combat Fatigue and the Failure of Gygax
Travolta: That's how Ali took the title from Foreman. He beat him with a rope-a-dope. Don't you remember?
Slater: I don't remember what day of the week it is.
Travolta: Everybody thought Ali's arms had run out. That he's running on empty. But he's just setting Foreman up. He's letting Foreman burn himself out. And then, in the eighth round, here comes Ali; and poor George has nothing left.
-- Broken Arrow, 1996
Dungeons and Dragons does a lousy job of emulating combat fatigue. And i'm not just talking about fourth edition. We're talking every single edition.
It would be tempting to blame Dave Arneson for the failure of DnD to emulate the effects of combat fatigue. After all, he is the author of the hit point concept.
Arneson's hit point concept eventually became DnD's aggregated measure of luck, skill, stamina, concentration, life-blood and endurance. In fact, after all these years, it is still argued that only the last few character or monster hit points actually represent the life-blood of the combatant. For the most part, inflicting hit point damage represents the whittling away of your opponent's stamina, the sapping of his will and skill, and the gradual theft of his luck. In a word: fatigue.
But nowhere in DnD's combat system do the effects of fatigue reveal themselves. A character's combat abilities do not wane as his hit points decrease. A figher's speed and combat prowess are undiminished, despite having suffered a 50%, 75%, or even 90% hit point reduction. And in a perverse twist, 4E actually provides combat bonuses when some players and monsters become "bloodied". If you can imagine, as one becomes "bloodied" (fatigued), combat ability actually improves.
While it is true that Arneson first implemented the concept of hit points in his pre-DnD games, it took Gary Gygax to unthinkingly promulgate their hybrid use, as a combined luck, skill, stamina and endurance measure, when publishing the earliest versions of DnD. And to this day, hit points in all versons of DnD, including 4E, continue to function just as they did in 1974, as a rather ghoulish goulash of combat capability measures.
Gygax should have known better. As an avid reader of pulp fantasy literature, he had myriad sources available to confirm that pulp fantasy role-playing games absolutely require some sort of combat fatigue emulator.
Even something as simple as the loss of a single hit point during each combat round due to exertion would have provided some reminder to the players that fatigue is a serious matter in battle.
My clucking and finger-wagging at Gygax applies equally to those DnD game designers who came after.
You need look no further to see that continued failure, than to study one of the so-called "marvellous innovations" of 4E, the AEDU system. The 4E AEDU system gives each character at-will, encounter, daily, and utility powers, and is a rather uninspired effort at combat fatigue emulation.
It posits that there are certain daily and encounter powers that are so exceptional, and fatiguing, that they can only be attempted once per day or encounter. That AEDU system has been roundly and justifiably derided, as riven by disassociated mechanics. Most importantly, it eliminates an important component of player choice, since it prevents players from re-attempting a daily power, accompanied by some equally significant sacrifice elsewhere.
There's really no justification for the absence of combat fatigue emulation as a feature of DnD combat. That few, if any, have recognized and rued its absence is the real tragedy.