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Author Topic: Fighting retreats in skirmish games (specifically Song of Blades and Mordheim)  (Read 3143 times)

Offline Hobgoblin

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This a thread prompted by both recent games of Mordheim and long experience of Song of Blades and Heroes. I like both games, but one factor common to both is the propensity for characters to get 'locked in' to fights - like tight forwards in a rugby scrum who can't get out until the whistle blows. This can lead to rather static melees - possibly the only real criticism of Song of Blades that I have after years of playing it.

Because characters either can't break off combat voluntarily (Mordheim) or suffer unopposed attacks if they do (Song of Blades), it essentially never happens. And those combats are static: the participants don't move, which slightly undermines the swashbuckling feel of both games. But I think a simple rule tweak can lead to a more dynamic, tactical and interesting game.

In each case, I'd allow characters to perform a 'fighting retreat' (as an action in SoBH and in the movement phase in Mordheim). This would enable the character to retreat directly backwards by a short movement stick in SoBH (maybe just a base depth for characters with the Short Move trait) and by half movement in Mordheim. This move would be permitted unless the character is completely surrounded (i.e. no more than three attackers).

The opposing characters should be able to follow up automatically (by their regular movement stick in SoBH and by their full move in Mordheim). But they can also choose not to - allowing their retreating foes to break off the melee.

What are the advantages of this? Well, I think there are loads of tactical considerations, especially in a game with Mordheim-type terrain. The lone swordsmen who retreats onto a narrow bridge might be able to avoid or escape being outnumbered. In SoBH, he might be able to retreat to higher ground. And he might also gain an edge by luring clumsy opponents (Initiative 2 orcs, for example) onto terrain that's more dangerous for them. He can also draw opponents into the line of sight of friends - not for missile attacks in either game, barring the Evil rule in SoBH, but for easier charges in both games. And there's generally more scope for a cinematic game if melees don't stay fixed in place. A hero who is confident of winning a fight eventually might want to gradually retreat towards an objective or his friends, and so on.

This wouldn't really devalue the Free Disengage trait in SoBH because that allows characters to break away without the prospect of pursuit (and to use a full movement stick).

I'd also allow characters in both games to deliberately retreat over a drop - using the rules for jumping down. Again, I think this is nicely cinematic. In both games, it gives agile characters (based on Q or I) advantages over clumsier foes - so a Clan Eshin assassin might opt to back off a building, confident in his ability to land while his orcish foes might decide to let him go rather than jumping down in pursuit (that Initiative of 2 again!).

Finally, I'd allow characters who outnumber their foes to break off with a full move - so long as someone stays in place to keep the fight going. So if two orcs are fighting an elf, one could move away without penalty (he couldn't run in Mordheim, of course, because of the proximity of a foe).

I think much of the following applies to plenty of other skirmish games as well; there's a tendency for many to suffer from the melee-as-scrum rule. At least scrums can move! Steve Jackson's Melee might be an exception, if I remember correctly.

Any thoughts on this - especially unintended consequences I might have overlooked?

Offline Citizen Sade

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Mordheim does tend to end up in huge, messy brawls. Tried the optional ‘Escaping from combat’ rules on p.117 yet? Risky, but sometimes you might want to chance it.

Offline Dean

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I have limited experience with modern rule sets at the moment but I can see where you are coming from.  Both Saga and Five Leagues from the Borderlands allow the victor in a round of melee to choose not to follow up which makes a lot of sense.  5LB also has an optional rule where the defender can choose to "Fight Evasively" where they try to duck out of the combat, but of course may not get away with it, which makes sense to me.  Reading through your thoughts below I didn't find anything to disagree with, nicely thought through.
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Offline Hobgoblin

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Mordheim does tend to end up in huge, messy brawls. Tried the optional ‘Escaping from combat’ rules on p.117 yet? Risky, but sometimes you might want to chance it.

Aha - I hadn't spotted that (the joys of vast online rulebooks ...). That looks a nice rule and would sit nicely beside what I'm proposing, I think: two different things, each adding a bit of realism and risk/reward.

I have limited experience with modern rule sets at the moment but I can see where you are coming from.  Both Saga and Five Leagues from the Borderlands allow the victor in a round of melee to choose not to follow up which makes a lot of sense.  5LB also has an optional rule where the defender can choose to "Fight Evasively" where they try to duck out of the combat, but of course may not get away with it, which makes sense to me.  Reading through your thoughts below I didn't find anything to disagree with, nicely thought through.

Cheers!

Yes, those sound like good approaches.

Now that I think of it, Song of Blades combats often move a bit through knock-back and follow-up, but a voluntary fighting retreat would allow players to attempt to direct that a bit. And it would play into the SoBH 'action economy': someone with two successful activations could choose between attacking and retreating or doing a power blow or retreating and attacking or - if not followed up - retreating and moving off.

Offline Elbows

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In my newer skirmish games I have the option to withdraw from combat, but it's often an Agility roll, meaning the faster/sneakier models are more likely to do so without harm.  Likewise if you outnumber an opponent, one of your models can leave freely.

In addition, the games use a three tier system "Fail/Pass/Exceed"...and if you score a 'Fail' during a melee attack your target model has the chance to either immediately counterattack or withdraw without harm (then opening your model up to being attacked with ranged weapons, etc. etc.).

If both sides are decent fighters, you still tend to stand and trade until someone dies, but it does give you an option to retreat if you're caught by a superior foe.  Sometimes, if you flub your agility test you will have your head taken off while trying to scramble away.
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Offline Hobgoblin

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In my newer skirmish games I have the option to withdraw from combat, but it's often an Agility roll, meaning the faster/sneakier models are more likely to do so without harm.  Likewise if you outnumber an opponent, one of your models can leave freely.

In addition, the games use a three tier system "Fail/Pass/Exceed"...and if you score a 'Fail' during a melee attack your target model has the chance to either immediately counterattack or withdraw without harm (then opening your model up to being attacked with ranged weapons, etc. etc.).

If both sides are decent fighters, you still tend to stand and trade until someone dies, but it does give you an option to retreat if you're caught by a superior foe.  Sometimes, if you flub your agility test you will have your head taken off while trying to scramble away.


Interesting - and the free withdrawal in outnumbering situations sounds great!

The one thing I'd say is that in an actual sword fight, a fighting retreat - moving backwards while staying 'in combat' - is the easiest thing in the world. Unless you're actually grappling with your opponent (and even then ...), there's nothing that obliges you to stay in place. That's why fencing has a penalty for retreating off the piste - it's effortlessly easy to do, so the sport needs an arbitrary rule to prevent it.

Note that I'm making a distinction here between 'withdrawing from combat' and 'retreating while still fighting'.

Actually, the more I think about it, the odder it is that many (most?) skirmish games don't allow much in the way of fighting retreats. One reason for that, possibly, is that the likes of Chainmail Man to Man (and thus D&D) and the Mordheim/SoBH lineage* are derived from massed-battle games, where the movement being simulated isn't as free as in individual combat.

*I think SoBH is in many ways a descendant of Mordheim - or perhaps Mordheim crossbred with HOTT, to good effect.

Offline Aethelflaeda was framed

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I altered the combat results table in ToBH such that losing pieces almost always had to fall back/recoil or else take an extra hit as an option in addition to any other effects.  Even attackers, who failed to score the hit, might fall back.  This usually produced plenty of dynamism in maneuver as it was a less common situation where the various fencers were stuck (tied rolls only). Agility or evasion traits could give the free withdrawal but it worked better as a tool to get past/through gaps in a defender’s line to it’s rear, avoiding the free hacks. 

Voluntary retreats or fall backs are difficult for units and if the line or shield wall gets a hole in it due to pushing from the enemy (or the voluntary retreat of one of its figures) disaster can result if the rear or side can be engaged.

Skirmish games that do not give incentive to linear formations (even if just 3 figs) by ignoring facing weakness never give that sort of nuance.
« Last Edit: March 06, 2024, 08:42:23 PM by Aethelflaeda was framed »
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Offline Patrice

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I wouldn't comment what other, very good and popular, rulesets  ::) should do, each ruleset has its own logic.

However, the mechanism to quit a melee in Argad rules is: you are free to do it, roll 1D6, your move backwards is reduced by the result (in cm). Your opponent has to roll too, and if he catches you he strikes you in the next melee phase and you cannot strike back.
(oh, and if you roll a 6 you cannot move at all – as when crossing difficult terrain in the rules)

Also note that:
- this does not apply to people who do this to contact and attack someone else nearby, as often happens when you need to reorganise units in a melee;
- people who had to recoil (one base length) in the melee phase of the previous game turn are no more “in contact“ if the opponent did not choose to advance, so they don't suffer this process.

Offline Elbows

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I think in wargames, skirmish games in particular, the "being trapped in combat" is an abstract representation of someone fighting you even as you move around.  Like you said, it's easy to back up (watch any combat sport) while still being "engaged".  It's just easier in a game to not be moving your pairs of miniatures 2-3" around the table all the time.  In an abstract way, two miniatures engaged in base-to-base combat are likely really wheeling around in a 4-5" diameter space...but we don't bother moving them to show that.  Not saying you couldn't add a simple "may move 2" while engaged" kind of thing - dragging your opponent with you?  Not a bad idea.

In addition in a gaming situation, engaging in combat is often one way to catch/stop/restrict an enemy model.

If we tie it to history, there is some merit to being "locked" in combat from an abstract view.  Say you have a guy in full plate armour (i.e. 40-50 lbs. of armour) vs. an opponent in a linen cuirass and a light wood/wicker shield.  Surely the lighter fighter would be able to disengage and run away easier, while the heavier knight would struggle to outpace or evade the lighter fighter.

This goes back to stuff like Roman gladiator games which were historically set between a "big shield" and a "small shield", often a heavier armoured fighter vs. a lighter/nimbler fighter.  One of the heavier classes being a word that translates to "Chaser", etc.

For a more topical example, look at the origins of modern MMA back when they didn't have weight classes and wanted Sumo wrestlers to fight little 135 lb. muay-thai kickboxers and stuff, lol.  Surely the smaller/nimbler guys just ran around the ring trying not to get crushed, etc.

Offline Hobgoblin

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I altered the combat results table in ToBH such that losing pieces almost always had to fall back/recoil or else take an extra hit as an option in addition to any other effects.  Even attackers, who failed to score the hit, might fall back.  This usually produced plenty of dynamism in maneuver as it was a less common situation where the various fencers were stuck (tied rolls only). Agility or evasion traits could give the free withdrawal but it worked better as a tool to get past/through gaps in a defender’s line to it’s rear, avoiding the free hacks. 

It's years since I played Tales of Blades and Heroes, but that sounds a good approach.

Voluntary retreats or fall backs are difficult for units and if the line or shield wall gets a hole in it due to pushing from the enemy (or the voluntary retreat of one of its figures) disaster can result if the rear or side can be engaged.

Skirmish games that do not give incentive to linear formations (even if just 3 figs) by ignoring facing weakness never give that sort of nuance.

Yes - the 'free fighting retreat' is very much a man-to-man thing (and the smart thing to do if it becomes men-to-man).

I think in wargames, skirmish games in particular, the "being trapped in combat" is an abstract representation of someone fighting you even as you move around. 

Yeah, we're definitely supposed to assume movement from static combats. That said, I think the zone of movement in a real sword/spear/whatever fight is much bigger than the base-to-base paradigm would suggest. I was practicing some Chinese dao manoeuvres in a martial arts class the other night, and the space that two combatants take up is huge. I guess the compromise is between bases generally being too big for tight massed-battle formations and too small for loose skirmishes (if we're using base-to-base to signal engagement).

As I write, I've just positioned two 28mm orc miniatures on my desk: they're clearly at normal sword-fighting range when their bases are two inches apart. But games do need abstractions and shorthand to function.

In addition in a gaming situation, engaging in combat is often one way to catch/stop/restrict an enemy model.

If we tie it to history, there is some merit to being "locked" in combat from an abstract view.  Say you have a guy in full plate armour (i.e. 40-50 lbs. of armour) vs. an opponent in a linen cuirass and a light wood/wicker shield.  Surely the lighter fighter would be able to disengage and run away easier, while the heavier knight would struggle to outpace or evade the lighter fighter.

This goes back to stuff like Roman gladiator games which were historically set between a "big shield" and a "small shield", often a heavier armoured fighter vs. a lighter/nimbler fighter.  One of the heavier classes being a word that translates to "Chaser", etc.

Good points all - but I suspect there would be other nuances to it: heavily armoured men typically being stronger, fitter and better trained. I wonder if the effects of heavy armour would result in early fatigue more than significant loss of speed (in one-on-one combat). And fatigue is very hard to model (Saga has the only intuitive system I've seen).

The best handling I've seen of the secutor/retiarius set-up is probably Melee (the Steve Jackson game), which really exaggerates the risks and rewards of armour (it protects you well but makes you very clumsy). I don't think it's realistic, but it does play up that sort of thing for a good game. And one way it does that is by giving much more freedom to manoeuvre; if you want to trap someone, you have to get their back against a wall or a pillar or something. The only downside is the hex grid, which facilitate so much of the game's manoeuvre-based play.

For a more topical example, look at the origins of modern MMA back when they didn't have weight classes and wanted Sumo wrestlers to fight little 135 lb. muay-thai kickboxers and stuff, lol.  Surely the smaller/nimbler guys just ran around the ring trying not to get crushed, etc.

Yes - and it was the 180ish guy who exhausted heavier opponents who ended up winning, typically. But MMA has one big artificial constraint - the ring!

(Just separating this bit to deal with it fully:)

Like you said, it's easy to back up (watch any combat sport) while still being "engaged".  It's just easier in a game to not be moving your pairs of miniatures 2-3" around the table all the time.  In an abstract way, two miniatures engaged in base-to-base combat are likely really wheeling around in a 4-5" diameter space...but we don't bother moving them to show that.  Not saying you couldn't add a simple "may move 2" while engaged" kind of thing - dragging your opponent with you?  Not a bad idea.

The idea here is really to open up tactical opportunities. The more I think about it, the more even a small amount of voluntary retreat per turn could allow all kinds of interesting things to happen - especially in a Mordheim-type environment when you've got plenty of doorways, ramps, bridges and ledges. Back into a doorway to avoid being surrounded; lure a clumsy opponent onto a narrow ledge where a knockdown is likely to knock him off; draw him into your friends' line of sight so that they can charge him more easily - and so on.

And of course, the other player has the option not to follow up - I can see all kinds of Indiana Jones-style fun where someone backs off, hoping to lure their opponent into an ambush - and that opponent just stays still and shoots them in the next turn!

The backward movement would just be 2" to 3" a turn (depending on the base move/stick) in what I'm proposing. That might be enough, but I wonder if it could be made more dynamic still - maybe by some contrivance liking allowing the retreater to move up to the other combatant's full move or something (so that the other combatant can always follow up and Skaven can't just do as they please!).

Song of Blades already has the knock-back result, but I wonder other games could do with something like an option to forego wounding to push back instead (maybe after the hit but before the 'to wound' roll in Mordheim- or maybe before the knockdown/stun/OoA roll?). Most of the time, it would just be a fairly minor positional outcome. But it could be used tactically too: force a foe over a ledge or into line of sight or whatever. The successful attacker might even get an option as to whether to follow up, so you could force your enemy back and allow your friends to shoot him if it's your turn next!

I mean, look how much movement there is in these scenes (the first instance in the Flynn one is a knockdown/edge fall in Mordheim turns, but the most of the rest is "fighting retreat"):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liZD1qScUYA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYwUsPJfkVo

For me, anything that simulates those is an improvement over the 'scrum paradigm' of locked-in fights.

Offline Ethelred the Almost Ready

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Hobgoblin, I have been struggling with the same issue.
Below are some quick, random thoughts between doing work.


I agree that fatigue is a consideration for armour.  In normal circumstances, it does not slow people in combat and does not make them clumsy (although some helmets will impair vision and you might be more clumsy in armour in very broken ground).  There are plenty of historical references to how agile people could be in armour and there are a lot of Youtube videos demonstrating just this.  Fatigue can be hard to model and you would need to consider how this interacts with wounds.  Do you then need to track wounds and fatigue?  This could start getting complicated.  What if you take a blow to a helmeted head resulting in no wound or fatigue but you are stunned?  Another thing to track?

I think it is Fistful of Lead that allows for the winning combatant to push back or change places with the other figure.  This could be tactically important in a game.

Push backs are useful when outnumbered.  If I win and push back an enemy, I might reduce the outnumbering enemy for a turn.  Possibly, as long as you are not engaged by other enemies, the winner can choose to push back or exchange places with the enemy figure.  If the former, the winner can also make a partial move (equal to the push back distance) – this could be used to follow up, withdraw, or move to a more advantageous position.

Offline Hobgoblin

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I agree that fatigue is a consideration for armour.  In normal circumstances, it does not slow people in combat and does not make them clumsy (although some helmets will impair vision and you might be more clumsy in armour in very broken ground).  There are plenty of historical references to how agile people could be in armour and there are a lot of Youtube videos demonstrating just this.

Yes, absolutely. And when you take into account (a) the probably superior fitness, strength and experience of the professional men-at-arms who would wear heavy armour and (b) the very short passage of time (five or ten minutes?) modelled in a skirmish game that takes an hour or two to play, it's probably much less significant than many rulesets indicate (as I noted above, Melee gives a good game but isn't a good simulation, I suspect).

Fatigue can be hard to model and you would need to consider how this interacts with wounds.  Do you then need to track wounds and fatigue?  This could start getting complicated.  What if you take a blow to a helmeted head resulting in no wound or fatigue but you are stunned?  Another thing to track?

Yes - I think it's almost ungameable. Saga does a great job for a unit-based game, but its system would get a bit fiddly with an individual-centred game and isn't terribly portable (it rests on Saga's potential for multiple successive activations).

And again, most skirmish games probably model a period short enough for adrenaline would outweigh fatigue. Massed-battle games are different here.

I think it is Fistful of Lead that allows for the winning combatant to push back or change places with the other figure.  This could be tactically important in a game.

Yes - it's been a while since I played it, but I think you're right! The ability to change places is a great idea. Steve Jackson's Melee allows people to shift a hex or two at the start of their turn, I think, which makes combats more dynamic and allows people to manoeuvre into better positions while the fight goes on.

Push backs are useful when outnumbered.  If I win and push back an enemy, I might reduce the outnumbering enemy for a turn.  Possibly, as long as you are not engaged by other enemies, the winner can choose to push back or exchange places with the enemy figure.  If the former, the winner can also make a partial move (equal to the push back distance) – this could be used to follow up, withdraw, or move to a more advantageous position.

Yes, great ideas! There's definitely something to be said for 'winning' a section of combat even if no wounds are caused, thereby gaining a positional advantage. In Mordheim, one might add a rule that when one side hits (or wounds, perhaps) but the next roll negates the damage and the other doesn't land a blow, then the 'winner' can claim a pushback or swap as you say. That way, you'd gain some advantage for hitting even if you didn't cause significant damage.

I think you've also got a great point there in establishing a fighting-retreat/push-back/follow-up distance that's the same for both combatants - so that neither participant gets 'stranded' unless one chooses not to follow up (whether that's following up a voluntary retreat or an involuntary pushback).

As I write, I've just positioned two 28mm orc miniatures on my desk: they're clearly at normal sword-fighting range when their bases are two inches apart. But games do need abstractions and shorthand to function.

On this point (and on my point about dao/sabre fighting): I measured the striking distance covered with a single step/lunge to put in a cut to the head, and it's between seven and eight feet from the attacker's head to the defender's. And a spear or halberd-wielder would operate from a fair bit further away. Compare and contrast with typical base-to-base positioning in a skirmish game! I can't help feeling that this is really the ghost of the rank'n'flank games that came first.

Offline Ethelred the Almost Ready

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I suppose, in wargaming, base contact leaves no room for argument.  Being within 1 or 2 inches could potentially see arguments about whether a figure is at 2 inches or 2.5 inches.  I have gamed with people like that.

I have toyed with making fatigue a temporary, all-or-nothing status.  In a Sellswords and Spellslingers context, moving using all 3 activations while in heavy armour may cause fatigue. Until a turn is spent resting the character will fight at -2.  This limits tracking too many factors but does allow for heavy armour having some limitation. 

Mobility in armour:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzTwBQniLSc

The Christian Cameron books give a good feel for how dynamic armed (and armoured) combat could be.

Online boneio

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My favourite skirmish game, Open Combat, has 'force back' as quite a few of the results of an engagement.

Importantly, being pushed back into hard terrain does damage.

It's a bit of an abstraction but combined with the facing of the model being important, it means that positioning actually matters in the game and makes for a really nice tactical flow i.e. do I move this guy first to get an outnumbering bonus but risk this other guy over there being pushed back into terrain, or do I attack with the 2nd guy first to keep him safe and lose the chance to gank an enemy?

It also means models actually move around the battlefield a lot, both to seek positioning advantage and just as a result of combat.

Offline FramFramson

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzTwBQniLSc

I think a lot more folks are aware of this these days, even non-nerds, because of how often this has been debunked or disproved. Especially given modern soldiers often carry far more than 50 pounds and in a far more unwieldy way given it's typically all on their backs, even if they usually drop some of it for actual combat. Really if plate armour was as bad as the old bromides made it out to be, its use would have been far more situational and niche than we know it was.

That said, it probably still got HOT in there, much as it does in say, hockey goalie equipment, and it's still 30-40 pounds more than someone in much lighter armour, so endurance in armour still matters even if it's not a significant burden over shorter time frames. But for short skirmish scenarios it probably doesn't matter much.
« Last Edit: March 08, 2024, 09:50:31 PM by FramFramson »


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