12 October 2018

Phased Real-Time Combat - The Solution You Didn't Know You Needed

Phased Real-Time round structure dates back to the 1824 Kriegspiel rules; that is to say, to the very origin of wargames and of roleplaying games. The 1959 board game Diplomacy is a more familiar example. It appears in computer games and simulations, as well, such as TacOps v4 and Combat Mission.

Roleplaying games have largely eschewed this structure in favour of the deeply flawed Sequential round structure. I hope to re-popularize Phased Real-Time rounds.

What is Phased Real-Time Round Structure?

PRT breaks a "round" down into phases - typically an orders phase and one or more resolution phases.

Within each phase, there is no concept of "order" or "initiative" as there would be in a Sequential round structure. All operations are considered to happen in real time, as they do in the fiction.

Orders Phase

Here, each player outlines what they choose to do on their turn. In a competitive game, generally speaking there must be some element of secrecy to this phase. Diplomacy, for example, requires the players to write their orders down on paper using a specific (and strictly enforced) syntax. Kriegspiel keeps the staffs of the two sides in separate rooms, where they write orders on paper and hand them to the umpires.

In a cooperative game like D&D, it is hardly necessary to keep the players in the dark as to each other's intentions. Interesting and tense results could be had from enforcing secrecy and non-communication, but in a friendly cooperative game this is not worth the trade-offs. A degree of honesty is required on the part of the DM; they must not alter the orders of the monsters in light of information gleaned during the turn.

Execution Phase

Here, the accumulated orders are resolved. Generally speaking, there will be obvious groupings of orders which must be resolved together, and which can be resolved independently of any other grouping.

In a game like Diplomacy, resolution is strictly algorithmic, requiring no interpretation on the part of the participants. This is possible because of the extremely regimented nature of a board game. In a roleplaying game, some amount of interpretation may be required. In this case, participants must apply their judgement of the reality of the fictional world to the unique situation at hand. This makes the participants and the fictional reality first-class citizens in order resolution.

What is Sequential Round Structure?

Sequential Turn Structure breaks a round down into one turn per agent. Each agent's actions are declared and resolved in a certain order, one after the other. The order of the turns can be set or changeable. There are sometimes mechanisms for interrupting another agent's turn, which can create highly complex situations.

Each turn is considered completely resolved and completed before the next begins (except for interruption rules), with all other agents frozen in time and space for the duration of the turn.

Freezing of inactive agents either requires tactical decisions informed only by the game rules and not by the fictional reality, or complex rules surrounding interrupting the active agent's turn.

There is a certain amount of fudging of the interaction of the game rules and the fictional reality required. A sequential resolution of actions takes more fictional time than a simultaneous resolution of the same actions, but we assume only the time required for simultaneous resolution has passed. This allows exploits like the infamous Peasant Rail Gun, for which the best answer of a sequential ruleset is to add additional game rules which corral the fictional issue.

Why Phased Real-Time Round Structure?

Sequential round structure works well in wholly abstract games like Chess. Chess is not modeling any kind of reality, and so the "freezing" of the black side during white's turn is not a problem of verisimilitude. In a roleplaying game, however, there is a fictional reality being modeled. Sequential round structure fails when asked to model a fictional reality. Verisimilitude is broken when the artifacts of the sequential round structure defy the obvious realities of the fictional world.

Phased Real-Time has no such issues. Actions are resolved within a finite and defined amount of time. The fictional reality, as interpreted through the judgement of the participants, is paramount. Complex special rules for interruptions are not required.

How to Switch to Phased Real-Time Round Structure?

Switching over to phased real-time round structure is quite easy for most RPGs, requiring little more than abandoning initiative, attacks of opportunity, etc. and substituting PRT. My suggested protocol is as follows:
  • Orders Phase
    • DM Hints at Monster/NPC actions
    • Players Declare Actions
  • Execution Phase
    • Interdependent Groups are Identified
    • Actions are Resolved Group by Group (using your existing ruleset)
Let's examine each step in turn.

DM Hints at Monster/NPC Actions (Orders Phase)

This step gives agency to the players. Having a hint of what their opponents are doing allows them to make an informed choice about their own actions.

Players Declare Actions (Orders Phase)

In whatever order is convenient (clockwise from the DM's left works well), the players declare the action they would like their character to undertake this round. There will inevitably be tabletalk regarding what everyone should do. This is a normal and natural part of the game, and should be allowed.

Interdependent Groups are Identified

Rare is the mass melee, where all combatants are engaged in a single interwined struggle. More typical is several fairly discrete combats happening simultaneously. One of the beautiful parts of the PRT round structure is these groups are identified and resolved together, creating a narrative structure to the round which is lacking in Sequential round structures.

Actions are Resolved Group by Group

Resolve each group entirely before moving on to the next. This best allows for the application of judgement to the resolution, as all the facts can easily be kept in mind.

You can use most any existing RPG ruleset to resolve the actual combat.

Whither Initiative?

If you are enamored of initiative, PRT round structure actually can actually make initiative more meaningful if you choose to incorporate it. Here is one example of hooking in an initiative system.

If the players have the initiative, the DM tells them what the monster actions will be and lets them give their orders in full knowledge of the monsters orders. If the monsters/NPCs have the initiative, the players must declare their actions blind and the DM may assign the monster/NPC orders with the knowledge of the player's orders.

Example of Play

Orders Phase

DM: The Pig-faced Orc is drawing a flaming sword and is moving towards Bill, the Horned Orc is charging Jane, and the Fanged Ogre is preparing to throw a rock. What are your actions?

Bill (fighter): I'm going to draw my sword and attack thePig-faced Orc.
Wilma (cleric): I'm going to help Bill fight the Pig-faced Orc.
Steve (wizard): I'll cast Figface on the Fanged Ogre.
Jane (thief): I'm going to flip the table to block the Horned Orc's advance, and look for my Horn of Fury in my pack.
Phil (fighter): I'll shoot an arrow at the Horned Orc to hopefully distract it from Jane while she looks for the Horn.

Execution Phase

DM: Ok, so Bill, Wilma, and the Pig-Faced Orc are engaged. Jane, Phil, and the Horned Orc are engaged. Steve and the Ogre are engaged, as the Ogre is throwing its rock at Steve.

DM: Bill, Wilma, roll to-hit against AC 7. The Pig-faced Orc rolled a 19, and hits Bill for 5 damage.

Bill: I missed.

Wilma: I hit for 3 damage.

DM: The Pig-Faced Orc makes a morale check for taking damage, and it fails! It turns tail.

DM: Jane, you flip the table well before the Horned Orc reaches you. Roll a Dex check to find the Horn of Fury this round. The Horned Orc's charge is blocked by the table; he's clambering over it, though.

DM: Phil, roll to-hit against AC 5.

Jane: Damn, I failed the roll. I'll have to keep looking next round.

Phil: I miss the Horned Orc.

DM: Cool. The Ogre is throwing a big rock at Steve, and Steve is trying to get off the Figface spell to blind the Ogre. Since your spell will be ruined if you're hit by the rock before you cast it, Steve, roll a tiebreaker with the Ogre - d10+Dex Mod [note that this is basically an initiative check like we would see in a Sequential system, but in a PRT system, it is reserved for actions where order matters and is non-obvious].

Phil: I get a 7.

DM: Bad news, the Ogre got a 10. He's going to get his rock attack off before you blind him.

DM: But, the Ogre rolled a 5 to-hit on his rock attack, and the boulder smashes harmlessly into the wall behind you. Your spell shrivels its face up, blinding him and making it very hard to breathe.


Phased-Real Time is a simple drop-in substitution for your existing Sequential round structure. It is simple to understand, and fluid in practice. It produces combats consisting of integrated small scenes, rather than a monotonous series of disjointed actions. It is fiction-first, and respects the reality of your game world. It puts the participant's judgement in the driver's seat regarding action sequencing, while keeping standard initiative rolls in its back pocket for corner cases.

Phased-Real Time is strictly superior to Sequential. Switch your game over today!

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