Billy Ray Smith (Anthony Edwards): [outraged] You just shot that man in the back!
Van Leek (Lou Gossett, Jr.): [unperturbed] His back was to me.
–El Diablo (1990)
There is an aphorism kicking around, perhaps actually taken from the US Military, perhaps invented or popularized from Tom Clancy novels, that if you can see a foe, you can bring the appropriate quantity of flaming death around its ears, be it physical, magical, or otherwise. In roleplaying games, this is partially true, and partially not. In some editions of D&D, for example, it’s quite possible to have a foe with Armor Class so high that you cannot land an effective blow. This can be particularly true in GURPS, where even if you can see a target and it’s not even moving or fighting back, it can have a Damage Resistance (DR) so high that attacking it is pointless.
This final column in the Violent Resolution series on Castalia House will deal with perception in combat, since the entire series is about that aspect of gaming.
We’ll start with the most detailed game, and draw distinctions from there. As noted in Time After Time, GURPS operates at a resolution of one second. As such, looking around to notice things can potentially take many turns. Further, GURPS embraces facing to a greater extent than the other games discussed here – which is to say, it considers facing at all.
Let’s start there.
GURPS has a dedicated Perception sub-statistics. It defaults as equal to IQ (the all-encompassing ‘mental stuff’ stat), and can be raised and lowered independently. Perception covers all senses, with vision being but one of them – hearing and taste/smell are also part of the suite covered by Perception. Usually, it can be assumed that these rolls cover a quick glance or sniff – basically tied to the GURPS 1-second time frame – but not always. You get bonuses – substantial ones – for something being out in the open (“In Plain Sight” gives you +10 to the roll), and penalties for distance. Vision uses the Size and Speed/Range table, while there’s a dedicated Hearing Distance Table for noise. The penalties for light level can be pretty interesting, and there have been successful efforts to quantify penalties in the form of units of illumination (lux) as well as more descriptive methods (“the light of a typical street lamp”).
GURPS in miniatures/tactical combat mode is played on a hex map, giving six potential nodes from which a bad guy can strike. Even in a more descriptive combat mode, care is taken to distinguish whether a foe is in one of three arcs of vision: the front, the side, or the back. This distinction is important.
I’ll refer to the “front arc” here, and that’s a term I tended to use in Technical Grappling to distinguish between the front hexes and the 180-degree hemisphere in front of the character, since the fighter may well be prone and facing the ground (his front arc is basically the floor, the basement, etc.).
While in the front arc, by and large foes may be attacked and defended against normally – you just play the game and fight the fight with no special action required. When considering weapon-and-shield fighters, both weapon and shield can be considered to cover the entire front arc. Importantly, you suffer no additional penalties to notice things in that arc unless you have special cases in play, such as looking through a vision device (like a telescopic sight) or a vision-restrictive helmet. A great helm, for example, bestows No Peripheral Vision, restricting vision to the front 120 degrees instead of 180 degrees, while looking through a scope might impose Tunnel Vision, restricting perception to only a 60-degree slice in front of you (that’s an optional, if sensible, rule found in GURPS Tactical Shooting).
Moving around to the back arc, this is the slice of your surroundings (unsurprisingly) directly behind you – defined as a 60-degree slice (the hex immediately behind you). The presumption if you’re attacked from that arc is that you can’t see it coming, and the character doesn’t even get a chance to defend unless special advantages or situations come into play. Those might include follow-up grapples from behind (you know that the puma is gnawing on your back; it does not surprise you), or if you have eye-stalks or a 360-degree panoramic vision on your combat robot.
In between the front and back hexes, there is the side. Each side hex covers a flank of the fighter, defining an area where you are usually presumed to be able to see a foe, but attack and defend at a penalty.
As one might imagine, starting in a foe’s back hex is a commanding advantage. Negating the ability for a foe to make a defense roll is very important where they are the first – and often most important – line of defense against being injured. Striking from a hidden position, especially with high-speed projectiles such as lasers or guns, can also negate the ability to defend.
While all sorts of options can be brought to bear, cutting the noise down is usually done by deciding if a foe can be seen at all. If not, attacks from that foe are surprise attacks, and cannot gain the benefit of active defenses. If there’s a possibility they can be spotted, Perception rolls are brought into play, and if successful the foe is treated as being in the proper arc, with penalties assessed accordingly. If they’re just out there (a mundane human trying to bash you in the face with a sword from a yard or two distance), no roll is required.
Deciding what arc a foe (or foes, or horde of foes) is in isn’t the only, or even the most frequent, use of Perception abilities. Finding treasure, traps, or secret doors all will qualify. But those aren’t Violent Resolutions, so they don’t count. What does count is the ability to pick up clues that someone is about to get the drop on you. Such detection is resolved by an opposed skill roll (a Quick Contest, using GURPS terms of art), sometimes using an actual skill (Perception is an ability score, not a skill) such as Observation (acquiring tactical data about something) or Search (looking for items not in plain sight). Both default to Perception-5, so are quite difficult do to in a one-second time scale unless they have been deliberately purchased to higher levels, or the base Perception stat is very high.
A quick note – none of the other game systems really deal with facing explicitly in a way that drives tactical decisions. Fate and Night’s Black Agents are narrative-driven games that don’t resolve themselves on a tactical map. Savage Worlds and D&D do use such maps, but also don’t explicitly use arcs of vision by default. It may well be a GM call that one figure is behind a foe, but that’s not automatic. How games play this out or allow for such in-game occurrences does vary, of course, and while no explicit allowance for arc of vision is made, implicit or results-driven allowances are made.
Combat-scale perception in NBA is driven by the Sense Trouble general skill. Casing a joint, or looking for clues, is an Investigative skill, which means if you have it on your sheet and you spend a point, you automatically succeed. General skills are the more traditional “roll vs. X to succeed” type, and Sense Trouble gives you the ability to use your senses dynamically and in combat. You can hear the click of a safety being removed, detect the odor of a monster around the next corner, or see a moving shadow or camouflage failure. Infiltration is the broad “stealth” skill; Conceal is the basis for camouflage.
The basic result of a failed test against a foes sneakiness is that the characters are Surprised. This means they go last in combat, and all of their difficulty numbers go up by 2 when making General Skills tests. If the GM is feeling particularly nasty, one or more rounds of no action may go by.
NBA is a narratively-focused game, and distances and movement and just about everything else is kept deliberately abstract. Likewise, the focus on thriller action means that even on a failed die roll to Spot Trouble, the fact that you’re rolling at all is a meta-game clue (the book says it’s the equivalent to a slow, ominous crescendo of music in a movie). Given the right circumstances (and that’s a GM call – narrative games have to be strong Rule Zero games), players can roll to be sneaky, or “Jump In” to enter a combat that they’re not directly part of. In those circumstances, depending on the almost-always player-facing die rolls, the results can be narrated as having attacked from a surprise angle or anything suitably appropriate.
As with everything in Fate Core, perception and its results are going to fit into one of five general categories. Story background that can just be stated is the first, and the other four are the classic four actions in Fate: Attack, Create an Advantage, Defend, or Overcome an Obstacle. Hiding yourself is probably Create an Advtange, where a successful roll (or even an unsuccessful one) puts a new environmental Aspect on the table, such as a good Stealth roll placing “Dug in like an Alabama tick” on the table to describe a sniper in a very well defended, well-concealed perch. A poor roll would either not work, or be on the table with a very low difficulty – there’s always the chance that the foe is more oblivious than you were obvious.
The best case for noticing a hidden foe is likely to Overcome an Obstacle (where that difficulty is probably the degree of success your Stealth roll when Creating the Advantage in the first place).
In the middle of combat, a player would also have to Create an Advantage (or utilize an existing situational or environmental aspect) in order to leverage attacking from odd angles or from a flanking position – the zone-based combat system of Fate Core doesn’t explicitly provide for such.
As with Dungeons and Dragons, Savage Worlds puts most of the miniatures on the board and all figures on the board are assumed to be visible – the metagame board position implies in-game awareness, it would seem. The only concession to something that might be facing or positional advantage seems to be using a Hold action to get in a blow before your foe gets to go. This includes Surprise, which treats surprised characters as not being dealt in to the initiative order.
Turn order doesn’t feel like perception or facing, but in an abstracted game, “I was able to get in an effective blow before you did” can be nearly anything, up to and including striking from behind or from favorable angles. While the rules for held actions call out opposed Agility rolls, having a sneak attack being resolved by an aggressive action (or a stealthy one) opposed by Notice or a similar ability.
Part of the reasons why facing is not addressed in tactical games in some cases is that with a long-enough turn length, it’s assumed that combatants have acquired head-on-a-swivel syndrome. One will not, it is assumed, in a swirling melee where foes are known to be in all directions, ignore all those other threats.
One item not in my Deluxe Edition was a section on Ganging Up. This gives bonuses when surrounded, with each additional fighter giving +1 to Fighting rolls, to a maximum of +4 (which is between the average rolls of a d8 and a d10, so that’s a big bonus), and the Modern Martial Art supplement allows a trained fighter to mitigate this through the Edge “Bring it On!” which reduces that bonus by 2, allowing you to face three foes at once at no penalty, and “Bring it ALL On!” which allows as many as you like.
Finally, I believe from the same book (Explorer’s Edition), it’s possible (by GM compliance) that you can catch a foe so off his guard that he’s basically toast. Sniper shots, or surging out from total concealment to put a knife in an unsuspecting Extra’s back. The attacker gets the On Hold status, and +4 to both attack and damage rolls – a large boost.
Facing is not accounted for in D&D, and the rationale is likely the same as Savage Worlds (though of course D&D came first). The miniature’s position on a battle map dictates location, not facing, and so what is apparently a bow-shot to a fighter’s back – at least the back of the figure – is often defended against using the full AC of the foe. At best, such attacks will wind up ignoring the DEX bonus to achieve an effective hit.
So facing isn’t a big deal, right? Perception doesn’t matter?
Not quite. While other editions focus on things in different ways, Fifth Edition has abilities that are triggered by a lack of implied ability to gain full situational awareness.
Let’s start with thieves – err, Rogues.
Rogues – all of them – gain the ability to do a Sneak Attack in combat. If they have advantage on a roll, they can do extra damage if they hit with a finesse or ranged weapon – basically an extra 1d6 per two levels. So at 8th level, a properly executed sneak attack gets an extra 4d6 damage (this can rapidly outclass fighters and other expert combatants; a Paladin’s ability to spend spell slots – an expendable resource – grants 3d8 per 2nd level slot at 8th level).
That’s not all, though – if there’s another enemy of the target within 5 feet (that is, on a usual 5′ square map, if there’s a foe adjacent to him) he doesn’t even need advantage. The foe is presumed to be distracted enough that if the Rogue can land an effective blow, he can claim the extra damage. A Rogue fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with an ally can be a very effective front-line combatant, especially if she has a high DEX bonus and the ally specializes in Defensive Fighting with a shield.
While other character classes don’t get a bonus damage roll as with Rogues, if they manage to attack without being detected first (through judicious use of, say, Dexterity (Stealth), they may get Advantage on the attacks. Not nothing, but a higher hit chance, and some Feats allow exchanging hit penalties (-5 to hit) for increased damage (+10 to damage).
Special abilities can also be acquired by selection of proper Feats as one levels up. Characters with the Alert feat have substantial initiative bonuses, as well as not suffering from surprise (which gives foes free shots at you), nor do they gain advantage if they’re hidden from your view. The Sentinel ability allows you attacks of opportunity even if foes Disengage, as well as allowing a reaction to attack a foe that tries to beat on one of your friends – the offensive version of Defensive Fighting.
Everyone has a Perception score – it’s based on Wisdom, and bonuses can be obtained both for proficiency as well as Feats (Observant gives +5 to passive Wisdom(Perception) and Intelligence (Investigation) rolls). As noted in prior columns, the “do you notice stuff” roll is huge in most games. If you fail to notice foes, they typically get one or more rounds (usually only one) of free attacks even before initiative is rolled. No actions or reactions can be taken while surprised, either.
It all, of course, depends on the game, and tactics will be driven by the rules in many cases – or be resolved by the influence and fiat of a GM. If a player wants to maneuver around behind a foe, well, the usual philosophy is “anything can be attempted.”
In D&D, there isn’t really any “behind,” but with the proper distractions, one can (if you’re not a Rogue) gain advantage on an attack. There is no real “tactical” surprise that can be gained in the middle of combat in D&D – it’s strategic surprise (you may not act or react when surprised) or nothing. If you are a Rogue, you can potentially gain the advantages of your Sneak Attack every round, provided your foe is suitably distracted or you have advantage on your attack via stealth. A dedicated Rogue crossbow archer at 6th level (assume DEX 18) will be rolling 1d20+7 to hit with a weapon they can fire every round, and will do 1d8+4 base damage, plus an additional 3d6, for 8-30 points of damage per attack under the right circumstances.
In Savage Worlds Deluxe, about the best you can do seems to be to act before your foe. No amount of tactical maneuvering will help. The Explorer’s edition adds a few items that feel, in kind, like the kind of advantage one gets for surrounding a foe in D&D – bonuses to hit and damage, especially for fighting multiple foes, who can use your distraction against you.
Night’s Black Agents would allow an Infiltration roll, which if successful makes your foe go after you (possibly after everyone) in combat, and difficulty numbers go up by 2 – that doesn’t seem like much, but it could easily put a foe into the zone of “can’t hit back at all unless many points are spent.” Those points are scarce resources in combat.
Fate Core has the sneaking be either Creating an Advantage or gaining a free or bought invocation of an existing environmental aspect. Once you have this in place, you can gain the (dominating) +2 bonus for your attack roll with the spending of a Fate point. Tactically this would be Create an Advantage in combat; strategically you’d be leveraging a pre-existing aspect to try and claim free invocations.
Finally, in GURPS, you would attempt to work your way, turn by turn, to a position where you begin your own turn in your foe’s side or (best of all) the back hex. This will enable maneuver selection (such as All-Out Attack or Telegraphic Attack from GURPS Martial Arts) that increases the chance of a hit . . . which can be turned into injury through hit location selection. So long as your foe doesn’t turn to face you, these advantages are retained. Strategic surprise can also be had – to be made even more devastating because that can stun the targets, which prevents them from doing much of anything until they snap out of it.
GURPS rewards tactical and strategic methods to use your foe’s lack of perception of your actions the most, it would seem. D&D and Fate probably come next, especially with the right tactics, with NBA giving a bit of advantage and Savage Worlds more or less impacting turn order.