Artifacts of Granularity

by mshrm

I was just reading a post over at Gaming Ballistic, which pointed me to this Kromm Post, and this one (“The idea that the figures on the map are only in those specific, relative positions for as little as a fraction of a second, and quite possibly never…”) from the same discussion.  This got me thinking about similar sticking points we’ve run into a couple of times, down in the dungeon.

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The earliest one was actually during the incident that named the blog. Picture the tableau:  TKotBO was standing, bare-handed and in a pair of moccasins, in a doorway, facing a troll. This was one of your full-sized SM +1 trolls, able to stare Alric (aka “Big Man”, “Biggy”, and so forth) right in the eye. Both sides were startled, but neither was surprised. The troll wasn’t the quickest participant in the combat, but it was quicker than TKotBO. It took a shot at him, attacking with a bite. Successful attack roll. Failed defense roll. (Not sure how that happened. Must have been the inferior first draft of the armor-and-shield loadout.) Random hit location says…. the foot.

Now y’all have heard the story before, I’m sure, about how TKotBO had skimped on armoring his extremities to concentrate protection on his head and torso, and how he should have lost his foot, but we goofed (first of many) and gave him a lot of DR that he didn’t really deserve. What I don’t think I’ve mentioned is the discussion that came about before we tripped over that misinterpreted footnote.

The question came up:  How does a standing eight-foot troll bite a flat-footed man in the foot?

In hindsight, if we had it to play over again, the bite would count as a grapple, and the troll would have used its hold to drag TKotBO off his other foot on the following turn. (Reading GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling has made a big difference in the number of monsters that want to hang on.) Unless TKotBO broke free, or the foot came off entirely, of course. That would have given a more satisfying finish to the interaction, I think… but the objection came up before that. How could the troll even reach such a distant target? At the very least, shouldn’t it need to go to kneeling?

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More recently, another eyebrow-raiser has come up. These days, the party is tilted hard towards the sneaky, lightly-armor, highly-mobile side of the board. Alric’s been steadily improving his armor, but everybody else is relying on Retreats and Acrobatic Dodge. The question goes like this:  Say some goblin with a death-wish and a dagger takes a swing at Gabby. To do so, it has to enter Close Combat. In accordance with the rules from GURPS Martial Arts, page 117, this gives her a substantial (-4) penalty to her Parry with her Rapier. She can use a Retreat to avoid these penalties, and in fact, since she’s all fencer-iffic, she’ll get a +3. Since she’s managed to retreat out of Close Combat, though, shouldn’t she be out of danger without needing to roll? The goblin’s dagger can’t reach her in her new position, after all.

In this case, they took my word for it, but I would be able to point to the text on page 377 of GURPS Basic Set: Campaigns: “If it would take you out of your attacker’s reach, he still gets his attack.” Still, a lot of players looked at me funny.

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The common thing about all of these moments of perceived weirdness is, they’re all artifacts of the granularity of GURPS. In the real world, things are decided by inches (or less) and fractions of a second, where in GURPS, the smallest units you can address are the one-yard hex and the discrete one-second combat turn. The action that we’re trying to simulate on the hex map happens at a resolution below what the rules handle.

This is because GURPS is a game, not a physics simulation. If we had to draw the maps at 1:1 scale, tabletop play would get unwieldy. (And imagine the price of full-scale miniatures!)

So, we break up the analog combat into a digital, yards-and-turns format. Each character’s actions happen one by one, in one-second chunks, just like each character’s position can be pinned to one particular hex. In the real world, a person’s location wouldn’t be restricted to a hex, and in the same way, in the real world, people’s “actions” overlap.

For that matter, in the real world, there’s no hard line between standing, kneeling, crouching, and so forth, only varying degrees of one posture or another. We cut down the number of categories we need to juggle, to simplify play.

In the case of TKotBO’s foot, the situation only looks weird if you assume that TKotBO was standing there, motionless, passively allowing the troll to take its turn, with the intention of then taking his turn while the troll stood stock-still. If we had a blockbuster movie budget and filmed the action, I would expect to see TKotBO lift his foot, probably as part of a big, lunging step to start his upcoming attack. At the same time, the troll is in motion, moving forward and ducking low. It managed to get tooth on tootsies, but only passed through its low posture momentarily.

Two standing enemies, one bites the other on the foot? No, sir, I don’t see how it could possibly happen…

In fact, since we seem to have entirely embraced trolls in the style of World of Warcraft, I would be tempted to say the troll performed some sort of acrobatic capoeira-style move that had its mouth at ground level for just a moment.

Imagine if FuBar were to perform an acrobatic evasion to pass through a couple of hexes that are occupied by enemies. The entire action takes one second of his time. If you set the slow-motion camera on him as he throws himself between the enemies’ feet, you might get a frame or two with him on two feet, a few frames where he’s on two feet and one hand, some with him prone, then supine, then prone again as he rolls, one or two with him apparently standing on two ears and one hand, ending up standing. In GURPS terms, it was just a Move, no change in posture.

What about Gabby and her would-be assassin with the dagger? Same thing. We wouldn’t see the goblin announce “I shall now stab you”, then standing still while Gabby takes a giant step backward, mocking him from an unreachable position one yard out of reach. No, what we would see is Goober the Goblin getting in her face while she scrambles to back up! If she scrambles fast enough, great, she’s a step back and untouched. But if Goober’s lighter on his feet, he’ll cut her as she’s moving out of reach.


My favorite example of this effect is the “Sword Limbo” trope. (Be warned, if you’re not careful, you’ll click that link and not come up for air for another six hours.)  Character A takes a step, or performs a Move, then takes a Retreat to avoid Character B’s attack, then takes another step (or a further Move) on his next turn. In the movie, we don’t see Character A bob back and forth, moving forward, then back, then forward again. Instead, we see Character A’s stride falter. His final position is just a bit closer to his start than it would have been if he hadn’t had to duck that sword.