Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Paintballs & Polyhedrons

I've always found it interesting that RPGs, taken as a whole, usually revolve around a great deal of combat, be it fantasy, science fiction, historical, or modern-day. But at the same time the people who play them (with some notable exceptions) are working on no practical "combat" experience. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, of course - I certainly have no desire to go get run through with a sword or hosed with a Thompson just so I can make my gaming experience more real - but I am a proponent of having a little real-world experience under your belt when it comes to various gaming-related activities. Little things like:

Taking fencing lessons.
Taking martial arts classes.
Visiting a real cave complex
Visiting a real castle (or the nearest equivalent you can get to).
Going horseback riding.
Going camping (without all the amenities).
Going rock climbing (with the amenities, please - be safe).

This list could go on forever. Anyhow, my point is, it's always helpful to have a little practical experience with activities your characters might engage in. This doesn't necessarily mean that you need to do this to make your games more "realistic", but it will help you picture things in your mind, and give you more idea fodder.

Where am I going with this (hint: read the post title)? This weekend, me and three of my friends went to play paintball. It was my first time (two of the other guys had each gone once before), and I was interested to see what it was like. I won't bore you all with tales of me and my friends hosing 12 year olds with paintballs, or the elusive bandanna-clad Paintball Ninja who stalked us relentlessly (and who is now our sworn nemesis), or the climactic showdown where friend fought against friend to the bitter finale (when we all ran out of paintballs).

But what I would like to mention is, if you have the chance, go do it. If for no other reason than to feel that rush of adrenaline as you get shot at and shoot back in turn (without actually worrying about dying, of course). Below are few things you will quickly discover. Also note, as a favor to me, friend and fellow blogger Darkwing of the Arcadia Prime Blog was there with me (and has played paintball before) and offers up some comments of his own (which I've put into italics).

1. Suppressive fire really does work. When you're pinned down behind a log or a rock or a barrel and you can hear and see shots smacking into the cover and all around you, zipping over your head or past your eyes as you try to take a peek, you really do not feel like getting up and exposing yourself. Even when you know it's just a game and the paintballs just deliver a little sting when they hit, instinctually you just do not want to put yourself in the line of fire. After experiencing that, I'd be more than willing to make in-game rulings that NPCs (or PCs) who aren't "fearless" (like a golem, or dragon, or zombie) need to take some sort of Morale check in order to move out of cover when they're subject to some sort of "suppressive fire". I'm sure you could modify it for, say, having heavy armor, or a large shield, or some other protection that means you're more confident it won't hurt you, but i think it's just plain old hindbrain self-preservation instinct that keeps you behind that protection.

2. Sometimes, you just need to advance. One thing we quickly discovered is that while most players would immediately run for cover and hunker down at the start of the game, the veterans never did this - they would calmly and coolly advance towards the opposition, firing steadily to pin the other team down and take out anyone they could draw a bead on. This meant they weren't wasting time hiding, and they were already in a position to take down anyone who poked their head up since they already had their gun up and seeking targets (and also, they can follow where people went when they ran for cover). This move also caused the opposition to hesitate and there was a bit of an "Oh crap!" moment when they poke their heads out from cover and realize that the enemy isn't cowering behind some cover 30 yards away, but Right In Their Face with the muzzle of the paintgun looking like the mouth of a cannon, right before said surprised opponent catches one right between the eyes. Again, after experiencing this, I'd be willing to grant a PC who took the initiative and made a bold and unexpected frontal assault on an enemy position (ok, not a castle perhaps, but you know, a few guys hunkering down behind a stone wall or wagon) the chance to either automatically gain initiative against his foes, or perhaps have them simply stunned and unable to act that round.

3. Sometimes, the battlefield is not your friend. If you're in a fight in the middle of the woods, there's rocks, roots, branches, piles of slick leaves, mud, pools of water - all sorts of things that can turn your foot or catch you unawares. I'm typically not one of those anal retentive GMs who gets a (not so secret sometimes) thrill out of imposing movement penalties or ability checks / saving throws for characters to move quickly through terrain without mishap. But, believe me, taking a pleasant stroll through some rock-strewn wilderness, swishing through the autumn leaves and lazily squishing through a bit of mud here and there is a whole different experience than charging through the same terrain full tilt, with your vision obscured, exhausted and adrenalized and being shot at from all sides, with your weapon in your hand that you're trying to avoid smacking against every obstacle you come across or get clogged with dirt and mud if you stumble and fall. I'd say that if all a character wanted to do is cover ground, then fine - go ahead and move your distance. But if there's going to be moving and shooting or moving into melee with a foe who sees you coming, you might need to take a test to see if you can get there without mishap. Otherwise you might get there, but in no position to actually accomplish your goal.

One thing that I'll add is the Fog of War. Ahead of each game, we'd try to make plans and try something coordinated, and remind each other to communicate. As soon as the game starts though, you find yourself under fire and you get in cover. You look around, and suddenly
you think "Where the hell did everyone go?" When you and your teammates are in cover, it's hard to see what's going on. You know you're under fire, and you might have an idea where it's coming from, but as long as your head is down, you can't see a damn thing. You have no idea if the enemy is just sniping at you or advancing on your position. In rpg terms, this could be represented by making a "Situational Awareness" check or something similar. If you're hiding behind good cover, you may be impossible to hit, but you also have no clue what's going on around you. So while taking cover is definitely a good thing, you don't want to let it dominate your actions to such a degree that you lose sight of the tactical situation.

Anyhow, I think that's all for now. It's food for gaming thought. Questions, Comments?


RonSaikowski said...

There is a big difference between theory and reality.
Having just a bit of "real" experience (no matter how close to the actual thing) can put it all into perspective.

Nice post.

Brian Murphy said...

Great post. I've gone paintballing 4-5 times and not only is it a blast, but it does make you realize that being in a live firefight would not be fun. It also makes you realize that RPGs just cannot simulate reality--how do you replicate an adrenaline dump, tunnel vision, fear, etc.?

How are you feeling today, by the way? Each time I was sore as hell for 2-3 days afterwards from the running, ducking, falling down, etc.

Badelaire said...

Hey Brian,

Yup, back and knees were murder for about 48 hours, but it's all good now.

Out of curiosity, what places in MA have you been to? We're thinking of getting a posse together for a mid-December matchup. Interested?

Ben Overmyer said...

While paintball is great, it's not really as appropriate for fantasy RPGs as it is for modern RPGs.

If you want a good experience of medieval heavy combat in full (real) armor, attend an SCA event and watch the fighters. If you're game, go to a fighter practice for said organization, and typically you'll be able to borrow some armor and a weapon and get into the action, as long as you're wearing an athletic cup.

Oh...and SCA combat will hurt a whole hell of a lot more than paintball combat if you're not properly armored. Good incentive to avoid charging right into battle without a plan....and puts some perspective into melee tactics.

Badelaire said...

"While paintball is great, it's not really as appropriate for fantasy RPGs as it is for modern RPGs."

True, although I think what we covered in the article can be applied to any campaign setting.

(And for the record, I hardly restrict myself to fantasy RPGs here, regardless of the somewhat biased-sounding blog title.)

I have very mixed feelings about SCA combat. I've had associations with the SCA for years, and I'm pretty ambivalent about them. I think that if you find the right people at the right places, you can really learn a lot and have a great experience. If you find the wrong people at the wrong places, it can be a joke, or worse, a really hostile and uncomfortable environment. I've seen both.

Darkwing - any comments on live combat re-enactment (nudge nudge)?

Darkwing said...

I think the point of the article applies to any rpg with combat in it, regardless of genre. How much you can get hurt in paintball or SCA or whatever isn't really relevant to this article. In both, there's a resistance to 'losing', either by being shot/hit/eliminated in a game, which provides for a simulation, however incomplete, of similar situations in real life.

But the point of the article is addressing the psychological aspects that are rarely addressed or even thought about during an tabletop RPG.

You can roll dice to determine "initiative", which just amounts to who goes first in a melee round. Or you can advance on the enemy using suppressive fire, (or charge the enemy's position brandishing your weapon and screaming a battle cry). Doing something like this gives you the REAL initiative--taking an action that forces the enemy to react or die. Either way, you control the situation.

Then there's the aspect of fear in a tactical situation: Paintball, SCA, LARPing, whatever, they're all just games, so you aren't experiencing fear for your life. But there is an immediacy to them that makes you want to play more cautiously than does the average PC does in a tabletop RPG.

And lastly there's situational awareness, which applies to any genre. When you're in the thick of things, you do get a kind of tunnel vision and focus on the threat that's immediate to you (this does have survival advantages to it...). But you lose sight of the big picture. It's often the person with the best situational awareness--this is a skill that can be learned--that wins the fight, simply because they know better than anyone else just what the heck is going on.

In a tabletop RPG, every player tends to know the exact status of all their teammates--how many hit points they're down, who they're fighting, do they need help or not, etc. This is all part of the fun. But sometimes it can be fun for the GM to take into account just what the character can see and hear, not what the player can.