The Tyranny of the Turn

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In the beginning (i.e., the 1970s and early ’80s), turns in combat were very abstract things, representing a series of exchanges of blows. (I’m avoiding technical usage of turn vs. round here – just assume I’m talking about both of them.) The assumption was that only a small percentage of attacks were effective.

As time progressed, the abstraction diminished. People assumed that they were modeling every attack they made with a ‘to-hit’ roll. The rules shifted to be more accepting of such interpretations.

Games other than D&D were developed. Most of these did away with the elements of abstraction in combat. GURPS, for instance, uses a 1-second time interval in combat, rather than D&D’s vaguer 3-5 second time interval. In general, successor games didn’t even refer to combat as abstract. With few exceptions, each attack was represented by an individual roll. The thing that stayed? Turns.

Now, combat – particularly combat between two individuals – tends to have a rhythm to it. People talk about trading blows, for instance. I used to fence (and should really start it up again), and there is definitely a cadence in a bout.

That said, it is not unusual for someone to attack several (or even many) times in a row. This is obvious if you watch boxing matches (I don’t, but… ummm… I’ve seen Rocky and stuff). In most RPGs, this doesn’t happen due to the way combat is structured in turns.

When you add in multiple combatants, combat gets a lot messier and even less structured.

Given that, why do we use combat turns?

  1. They are easy: When you’re sitting around a table, it is easier for everyone to have a turn in combat than to figure out and adjudicate who gets to go when.
  2. They are fair: Combat in real life may not be fair, but we like our games to be. We all know gamers who wouldn’t be happy if they got into fights where they never had the opportunity to even try to land a blow.
  3. Historical momentum: Early RPG combat developed out of wargaming. Later RPG combat systems developed from earlier, turn-based ones. It is hard to break some assumptions…

Are there alternatives?


Notably, Exalted uses a system where each action takes a certain number of ticks. Some actions in combat take longer than others – and when you are done with the action you’ve taken, you can take another. I like the basic idea of Exalted’s system, but I have a few issues with its specific implementation.

Are there other non-turn-based systems that you like?



5 Responses

  1. Keith and Frank of The Gaming Den talked about a fencing-style system for their D&D-derived homebrew game. They explored the idea of using positioning and tactics in combat to gradually build up dominance over the narrative outcome. This accumulating Combat Advantage could be 'cashed in' for ever more serious status effects as the total grew larger.

    IIRC one effect chain ran something like: Dazed > Stunned > Unconscious > Comatose > Dying

    Under this sort of mechanic a light weapon swashbuckler might find it easier, and more in keeping with his combat style, to 'cash in' early and try for action denial and/or stunlock effects. As a light weapon fighter he'd only accumulate enough Combat Advantage over his slowly weakening foe for a killing blow after Flynn-duelling the guy all over the landscape.

    Several threads here ( ) discuss the various ways in which this might be implemented in play.

    On a related note, Shamus Young of 20-Sided once talked about a fencing system for computer games which may have applicability to a table-top setting.

  2. Palladium Books, as wonky as the rules can be at times, does account for this type of situation. There are quite a few times that a pair of opponents will trade blows for a bit and then one will attack two or three times in a row before the other gets a chance.

  3. That would be Exalted Second Edition; the first edition had turns. Why does everyone keep forgetting it’s been through two?

    I had a friend who had been involved in a system whose whole target was realism; he told me they went through something like eight or nine variations on tick systems before getting sick of it. Apparently the things are really hard to do right.

  4. This has gone through my head as well. I don’t know of any game system that does turnless combat, or at least less I-go-you-go turn-based combat.

    I have been thinking of adapting the old Avalon Hill card-based combat system (from games like Hannibal: Carthage vs. Rome) for melee combat. If you have access to one of those games I suggest you give it a play with an eye on adaptation. Seems like fertile ground.

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