combat, exploration, interaction, logistics

December 3rd, 2012 by paul

The D&D Next designers say that the "three pillars" of D&D are combat, exploration, and interaction.

In Playing At the World, Jon Peterson seems to have independently developed three very similar play modes: combat, exploration, and logistics. "Another key ingredient in Dungeons & Dragons is dramatic pacing, achieved by transitioning between three different game modes: a mode of exploration, a mode of combat and a mode of logistics. Time flows differently in each of these modes."

Comparing the D&D Next developers' and Jon Peterson's analyses is comparing apples and oranges, so it's strange that the fruit look so similar. The D&D next pillars are, I think, intended to remind the developers that each character should have something to do in different scenes of the game. Peterson is analyzing the flow of game time in a session, which varies between turns, rounds, and days.

Now that we know that it's a bad idea, let's try merging the two models.

In Peterson's model, combat has a game speed that might be significantly slower than real time (depending on whether your rounds are a minute or six seconds long). Even if each round takes a minute of game time, you're unlikely to get through all the PCs and monsters in that much real time. Exploration is faster than real time, but the scale varies: "we go north for 120 feet" and "we go north for 10 miles" might take the same amount of real time. Logistics is even more variable: shopping for new plate mail and spending a month healing up might both take, say, thirty seconds each.

Interaction (i. e. conversation, mostly with NPCs) is unique in D&D modes in that it takes roughly the same amount of time in real and game time. There might be variations: a player might consult his notes to remember his character's wife's name, and a DM might pause to roll reaction dice, but in general, during interaction, the player and the character are doing roughly the same thing. It doesn't hurt to throw an interaction mode into a discussion of pacing: I've definitely run sessions where the pace suffered from too much or too little interaction.

Logistics is interesting because I've never heard it mentioned as a positive part of a game. If it's mentioned, it's as something to be gotten through as quickly as possible. Still, it's always been a big part of D&D. Gaining levels, or researching spells, or replacing spent arrows, or collecting tax income takes up table (or between-session) time. Peterson convincingly argues that "by rationing the modes carefully a referee guides the players through satisfying cycles of tension, catharsis and banality that mimic the ebb and flow of powerful events."

The logistics portion of D&D can be fun in itself. Sometimes you want to be fighting a monster, and sometimes you want to be updating your character sheet. The Adventurer Conqueror King fief-management rules are fun because they embrace logistics as something to be relished.

How would a "logistics pillar" inform D&D Next development? It seems a little strange to say that each class should have its fair share of bookkeeping, but maybe there's some truth to that. The wizard class comes with plenty of bookkeeping, with its ever-increasing spell menu to be tweaked each day, along with the most complex spell- and item-creation rules in the game. In 1e, a fighter eventually gets a castle to manage. In 3e, a fighter gets a feat to choose every two levels. Maybe it needs a little more logistics in Next.

10 Responses to “combat, exploration, interaction, logistics”

  1. OtspIII says:

    I think there’s actually a hidden second use to each of these three pillar models, which is one of adjustable player engagement. I’d say that there’s some element of a “tension, catharsis and banality” cycle not just in the experience of the group as a whole, but in the experience of each individual player as well, and for both versions of the three pillars the designers should not only make sure each class has something they can do during it, but also make sure that individual players can choose to what degree they want to engage with each section.

    To put it another way, some players are way more into combat than logistics, or interaction than exploration, and it’s important that the game both gives every class something to do during each of these phases, but also makes sure that the player can more or less autopilot through whichever phases they’re less interested in. Give each class the option of buying into the logistical mini-game, but don’t force anybody into it, and even try to give players of traditionally logistic-heavy classes shortcuts out of it if that’s really not their thing.

  2. Pandora Caitiff says:

    Logistics is one of the prime reasons I ran a OSR D&D game.

    Carefully managing oil/torches; judging whether it’s worth spending an (in game) hour searching a huge room for secret doors, or just moving on to avoid wandering monsters; or working out whether its worth the encumbrance taking that gold statue instead of the plate armour; are all things an old-school D&D *character* needs to think about, as well as the player.

    Although even 4e has logistics – daily and per-encounter powers need to be carefully rationed to avoid being caught short later.

  3. Laura says:

    I like that each of the classes differs in how much logistics they require because it allows you to choose which class you play based on how much you like that kind of thing. I NEVER play a wizard. That said, it is pretty fun to follow up a horrific boss battle with some serious, balls-to-the-wall SHOPPING.

    I do think the pacing is what’s important; like in a book or movie, you want action, plot, and dialogue. Too much of any one throws off the momentum.

    Except dialogue. I would be happy with a session that was 100% interaction or a movie that was 100% dialogue.

  4. paul says:

    Otsp and laura are right – ideally, each player shoudn’t be forced to spend a lot of time thinking about his or her least favorite pillar of the game. If necessary, this can be done by choosing classes – if I’m a fighter, I don’t need to mess with logistics, and, oddly, I can get through combat without making a lot of decisions either. It would be great if each class had room for several play styles. It would be cool if resource-management-averse players could play a wizard with, like, three cool at-will spells and that’s it.

    Pandora – true, early D&D was largely a game about logistics, with combat thrown in to make the bookkeeping more challenging. Later editions moved towards other things, partly because they decided logistics was no fun. As it happens, I can enjoy both the count-the-encumbrance-of-the-pitons and the handwave-everything-till-we-get-to-the-dragon play styles, so I appreciate the existence of all the rulesets!

  5. Matt says:

    I’d love to play a logistic-heavy game in the style of Dwarf Fortress or Oregon Trail. I find that hard to do in most recent RPGs that handwave away as much as possible, so I guess that will be my test as to if the ruleset concept works.

  6. paul paul says:

    I would definitely play Oregon Trail & Dragons.

  7. 1d30 says:

    Maybe people who don’t mind, or even like, paperwork will be more drawn to M-Us and Clerics and those who really don’t want to do it will prefer Fighters and Thieves.

    Maybe it would be nice to have an M-U or Cleric option that didn’t require so much bookkeeping (say, 3E Sorcerer) but I don’t see why anybody would want more bookkeeping for F/T.

  8. Jon Peterson says:

    I hadn’t seen those three modes of D&D Next before. I agree it is strikingly similar to the conclusions that I drew from OD&D. Then again, you see these modes in many modern RPGs, even computer RPGs.

    Final Fantasy is a classic example where you start exploring an environment, then you have a random encounter that moves you into a combat mode that is removed (graphically) from the exploration environment, and then most noticeably you have “safe” time in towns buying and selling where random encounters do not occur.

    Or consider the three modes of World of Warcraft: normal (exploration), in town (ZZZ, gain rest state), and combat (crossed swords). These modes have fundamentally different properties – there are some actions you can do while in the mode of exploration that you can’t while in combat, like mounting up, for example.

    So perhaps it’s not so extraordinary that the D&D Next designers would light on the same trimodal structure: it’s been implicit in RPGs for some time. I got interested in these modes because of their relationship to earlier wargaming structures (the strategy-tactical wargame, mostly) and what that relationship tells us about how D&D evolved.

    Neat post.

  9. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Old aphorism…

    “Junior officers think about tactics, middle grade officers think about strategy, senior officers think about logistics.”

    My wargaming experiences definitely back this up.

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