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.


blake said...

But what good would tracking fatigue points possibly add?

Where are the masses crying out for more book-keeping, greater complexity, ways to make my fighter less useful by tiring him out?

JB said...

B/X (and OD&D, I believe) have rules for general fatigue. But most B/X combats don't last the same length of time as a 12 round boxing match...with each round being ten seconds, they don't usually last beyond a minute or two, and it can be presumed (at least *I* would presume) that adrenaline could carry a character's sword arm THAT long, at least.

Provided they get the required rest afterwards, I see no reason to penalize PCs in the midst of short-combats.

UWS guy said...

0d&d had fatigue rules in the CHAINMAIL

Andy Bartlett said...

Yes, BECMI/RC definately has some modifiers for fatigue (to be applied at DM's discretion). I was checking out my D&D books last night (AD&D1e and 2e, and the D&D RC), trying to work out which one would be best suited as the ruleset for a new sandbox campaign, if I'm not going to go with a d100/BRP system.

Funnily enough, I couldn't find (in the RC) any modifiers for fighting from a higher position/from the flank/from behind/outnumbering, which is what I was looking for. Are there any in the RC? Have I gone rule-blind?

blake said...

I presumed those tactical advantages were at the DM's discretion, not necessarily prescribed...

rhamilton said...

Absolutely nothing would be gained from it, you'd introduce an entirely unnecessary death spiral into the system, and you should probably feel bad about almost every one of those sentences. They're all wrong.

Unknown said...

I agree this is something missing from the rules. Here's my suggestion for an optional add-on that doesn't add any new stats to track: Combat Fatigue, Weakness and Wounds for OSR D&D

Brendan said...

Ars Magic has a pretty simple combat fatigue rule. I always liked how that game dealt with wounds and fatigue.

Bruce Heard said...

I understand the concept of combat Fatigue and what impact it should have on physical prowess. But the real question remains: is it really desirable? There are plenty of aspects in D&D that aren't "realistic." D&D is meant to be a game and not necessarily a simulation of reality (magic, monsters, and fantasy roleplay don't exactly fit in "reality"). Personally, I think Combat Fatigue mechanics are superfluous. If you really want them, keep them very simple (if you're down 50% or more, you're fighting at -2 to hit.) In any case, I wouldn't call the apparent absence of Combat Fatigue in D&D a "failure" on the part of the game's creators.

Claytonian said...

I feel like pimping my own retro clone then. Kill It With Fire has a direct correlation between remaining hit dice and effectiveness at hitting/dodging.

Peter D said...

I play in a game system that tracks post-combat fatigue, and which can easily track it in combat, too, if you so choose. But even so, my players never clamor for us to do it.

I think gassing out in combat is just not that fun to track.

Sean Robson said...

I use a system that I think is a pretty good compromise in reconciling the idea that hit points are a measure of fatigue without adding undue complication to the game. In addition to hit points, which I consider to be solely a measure of fatigue and which recover at a rate of 1 HP per hour, characters also have wound points equal to one-half of their Constitution score. Once a character runs out of hit points they are too tired to effectively defend themselves anymore and further hits are actual injuries. Unlike hit points, as a measure of physical resilience to injury, a character's wound point total never increase and they heal much more slowly - 1 WP per two days of rest.

This works very well and adds no extra complication to the game, whereas I think that a sliding scale of deteriorating combat ability would be too cumbersome to work effectively within the D&D system. I think you'd have to completely re-engineer the hit point/combat system to make something like this work.

Andy Bartlett said...

"I presumed those tactical advantages were at the DM's discretion, not necessarily prescribed..."

Yes, I presumed so too.

As for fatigue - I'm not sure I want D&D to be the game to mechanically model that - a few modifiers based on DM judgement seems to work best for me. I'm always tempted to bolt on new things (Critical Hit systems, Wounds, Sanity scores, etc.) to D&D, but largely end up playing by the book. If I want more crunch, I have other FRPGs. And the level and types of crunch in a game effect the flavour of the game as much as the setting.

James Mishler said...

Fatigue is not missed today because it is no longer a real issue in post-RPG fantasy novels (which were all informed by D&Ds lack of declining ability, rather than the more realistic stories in the old pulps). Fatigue, if used at all in modern fantasy literature or gaming is invariably "flavor text," never an action-driven, rules-based part of the game that could affect combat.

Some of the earlier gamers, though, did recognize the issue, specifically the guys who developed RuneQuest, where Fatigue is a central part of the system. Appropriate for a group of designers who were intimately tied into the early SCA...

I've often tried to implement the Fatigue system from RuneQuest in my D&D games, even once trying to tie it in with a non-Vancian spellcasting system. Sadly, in every case, the players rebelled, not seeing the need for it.

DHBoggs said...

Started a reply but it got to long so I turned it into a 'blog post myself.

Anyway, interesting post.

RobJN said...

Unless the DM is throwing encounter after encounter at the party in a sort of "survival mode" scenario, I really don't see combat fatigue stacking up enough to warrant any sort of penalty. Fatigue for things like eight to ten hours of forced marching overland, or hours-long bouts of hard physical labor (digging, moving dwarven furniture) I could understand, but not for a few minutes of adrenaline-fueled combat.

Black Vulmea said...

Characters should rest for one turn - ten minutes - after strenuous activity such as combat ("Time in the Dungeon," 1e AD&D DMG, p. 38).

That said, from what I've read of Mr Gygax's approach to hit points, D&D combat is intended to look like this or this.

JDG Perldeiner said...

I agree thoroughly with RJ. Fatigue would really only apply in long and arduous combat situations. Nor do I agree that a character isn't really "hurt" until they lose their last few hit points.

Critical hits to specific locations (and DM fiat about how much hurts where) cover declining combat abilities as you are damaged. Older editions of D&D expected their DMs to use rulings (not rules) to account for these kinds of things.

Svafa said...

I believe 3.5 had a variant rule similar to the one described by Sean Robson. The typical hit points were split into vigor and wound points; vigor comprising the majority and being something of a rollercoaster, while wounds were seldom lost but also slow to be regained. I think you only took wounds if were out of vigor or took a critical hit.

4E isn't perfect by any means, but I do like the Bloodied status as a means of tracking combat fatigue. When the edition first came out I was hoping they would go more the route of giving monsters and players abilities to use against bloodied enemies, rather than the route of giving abilities to use when bloodied (the PHB races had an example of both). The former would be a fairly clean and rewarding manner of simulating fatigue, but sadly seems to have been glossed over while they make everyone suddenly get stronger when bloodied.

Svafa said...

Actually... thinking about that last bit on 4E and the Bloodied status, as I usually customize every monster for our 4E game, I might start adding something like "When Bloodied takes an additional X damage" to most monsters. Would speed up combat as well, which tends to slow down to a crawl halfway through the bigger fights.

Theodric the Obscure said...

In the words of the immortal Luke Skywalker: *I* care.

This is actually something that I've been thinking about for my ongoing rules tinkering, so maybe I will post what I have been playing around with on my blog, if you're interested.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if excluding a fatigue system in D&D was a 'failure.' Frankly, I think DM's have enough to keep track of...I don't see what another layer of bookkeeping adds to the game.

Besides, even if the PCs are getting tired as they fight, so are their opponents (in most cases), so most of the time it'd be a wash.

-Ed Green

Anonymous said...

Anyone remember the backlash against RuneQuest 3rd Edition when it introduced fatigue rules? And that was in a simulationist system.

Brendan said...

While looking through some old stuff last night I discovered that none other than Paul Jaquays wrote a fatigue system for D&D in an issue of the Dungeoneer. everyone has (Str+Con)x5 fatigue points. actions cost fatigue, and when you are get to a certain percentage of your fatigue left you start to take penalties. Seems like this would work just fine, but as a few people have said, it's another layer of complexity and record keep that many of us just don't want.

Anonymous said...

I agree with edowars: both sides should be getting just as tired, so the end result (if fatigue is represented as penalty to hit) is just a longer drawn-out fight.

However, people with high CON should be better at withstanding fatigue.

I would give a fatigue penalty to a party if they didn't rest for 1 turn after strenuous activity, except that everyone with CON 15+ would have no penalty. I considered just having everyone do system shock rolls to avoid fatigue, but that's too many extra dice rolls.

For me, this turns the issue into resource management and tactics. The one turn of rest after a fight is a resource. The tactical part comes in whether you will choose to press on and suffer the penalties or spend the time risking further attack from monsters attracted by the noise.

Less commonly you see new combatants enter the fight, fresh and rested. In this case I would give them a bonus to hit for the first couple rounds to reflect their comparative vigor but that would vanish and they would become "tired combatants" after those 2-5 rounds.


It's also possible to make your HP on PCs represent luck and stamina except for the last 6 HP (what a normal man could have) which would be actual serious injury. Or HP are all stamina and heroism and when you hit 0 you start rolling on the death and dismemberment table, which is real serious damage. Healing spells would heal only the stamina damage, while you need regeneration or something to heal serious physical damage.

In that HP scheme, you could just give everyone 1 HP of damage per turn they fight or engage in strenuous activity, rounded. Rest could bring back 1 HP per full turn (6 HP per hour, or pretty much full after a night's sleep).

This way a normal man, non-sedentary, of 4 HP can work strenuously for 4 minutes out of every 10 indefinitely, or can work 10 minutes on and off, or 34 minutes followed by a 30 minute break. Remember this is life-and-death struggle carrying heavy loads in a dank moldy dungeon deep underground. Think underwater welder rather than factory work.

John B said...

The various complaints here about fatigue point tracking is why I decided that I would use a saving-throw-type check for fatigue instead of points.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and that HP-based fatigue model already gives bonus fatigue due to high CON because high CON gives bonus HP.

It makes all fights / strenuous encounters fall into one of just a couple categories: no fatigue (1-4rd), 1 HP fatigue which goes away if you rest 1 turn after (5-14 rds) or something longer (15+ rd) which hardly ever happens.

This also nicely mimics the AD&D 1E DMG rule given above, where you have to rest 1 turn after a fight.

It also nicely handles fresh newcomers to a fight because if they arrive on round 5, everyone else will have 1 extra HP damage and the newcomers won't get that penalty for 5 rounds. That's 1/6th a strong Normal Man's fighting endurance!

It's also occasionally possible for someone to fall unconscious from fatigue / heatstroke / dehydration and then wake up later after the fight. I like that possibility a lot.

Finally, this rule pretty much goes away at high level, as fights take less time and HPs are much higher. And that's appropriate, since similar concerns also go away at high level (light, food and water, travel time, encumbrance, shelter).

I do believe this is a good rule.

One issue I can see is that it's an extra rule, and as such if you don't care about it enough you can chuck it without affecting the rest of the game.

Another issue is that, with "stamina HP", it turns combats into less "stab stab bleed bleed" and more "duck weave dodge parry villain-laugh wearing-down then HE DED". That might not be what you want in a fight.

And of course the fact that it doesn't scale up with level means your PCs will eventually stop caring about it so much. I like that, but if your game is meant to be hardscrabble-gritty forever then you might want a more robust fatigue system. Then again, such a game probably features PCs of only 1-3 HD anyway, so it could still work.

Keith Davies said...

I spoke about a similar thing a few months ago in my post On Hit Points and Healing.

It doesn't include a death spiral (I think they're generally bad design), but you do get worn down over time. I think this adequately models fatigue in a fight, at D&D scale.

In a 12-round boxing match you're up there a long time, and can expect to be tired at the end of it. Even basic sparring (my kids are in taekwondo, and I used to fence) takes rather longer than typical combat in D&D. I suspect long-term fatigue isn't an issue for most D&D characters in most fights because the fights are intense, but very, very short.

Philosophical slumber said...

Not only do i blame the absence of fatigue in OD&D, i blame several other aspects as well.