You have the right to a hex-grid…

Back in the late 1980s my friends and I played a lot of ForeSight, which is a SF/GP RPG with a detailed combat system regulated by turns and a grid. We were most of us living and running our games in college rooms (dorms), or shared digs and family homes where we were lucky to get the lounge room, and seldom had the luxury of a dining table. What with one thing and another it always seemed like more trouble than it was worth to break out the hex grids, dry-erase markers, and tokens for what was likely to be a short and decisive fight. So we used the system of turns and discrete actions and the resolution systems of the game, but with only a mental map or a sketch on scrap paper, which went quickly and seemed satisfactory.

But after a while @frank.hampshire and I noticed that fights without a hex-grid were less varied and tactically interesting than those with, that PCs took less advantage of position and manœuvre, and that PCs were in general noticeably less effective in combat. We tried to make it a custom to always use a grid, but couldn’t overcome the grumbling at set-up. Only semi-defeated, we promulgated a convention that any player is entitled to ask for the grid to be used in any fight, and that the GM ought not to do anything that would have a chilling effect on the exercise of this right. Frank and David Lawrence started work on a Miranda warning for players whose characters were about to enter combat, but it never got further than “you have the right to a hex-grid”.

Despite my earnest intentions and occasional extravagant preparations, like I suppose most of us I usually don’t bother to break out the battlemats, the hex-paper covered with acetate film or encased in clear PVC, the dry-erase panels with hexes painstakingly drawn on them with paint, the markers and the cardboard heroes. But I really feel that that amounts to my being too lazy to strive for the best results.

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In an earlier campaign of mine, Manse, I got out the hex grid when the elder aristocrats staged a formal dance for their children, to which the younger (and unmarried) soldiers and the children of the village gentry were invited. We used cardboard heroes to represent the named characters and other sorts of counters for the extra, keeping track of who was dancing with who, or sitting out a dance and talking, or strolling outside. Then at the end the hostess’s cat came in and sat down on the ballroom!

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This always seemed to be system dependent for my groups. D20 edition D&D, 4th edition D&D, and Champions always had battle maps.

Champions was the only one in which it was a true celebration of the form though. Out triumph was covering the majority of the floor of an apartment with hex paper so the speedster could actually use his full move for a chase sequence on the player’s birthday. Heroclix were in full swing at that time which lent an additional bit of color to the proceedings.

Earlier D&D editions never led to battlemap usage. Just general position and layout maps for dungeon completeness checks.

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In many ways the two sides of this represent things that I am fond of from role playing.

On one side there is the tactical, crunchy hex-grid style combat. Where you put your character’s fate in the hands of you own technical skill and the luck of the dice. During the combat the story takes a back seat to the mechanics and eventually you’ll have to weave the events and outcome back into the narrative and force it to make sense.

The other approach is a more story based flow for an action scene. The dice are used to directly influence the story and where the events and mechanics are contributing to it, with the technical nature of an action scene taking a back set to telling the story.

Games like D&D, Gurps, Foresight, Hero system are good examples of the first, where as Fate, Apocalypse World are good examples of the second.

Both have their unique appeal to me.

These days, however I’m mostly doing Play-by-post games, and because of their nature I like to minimize the number of micro-decisions in an action scene. What I really want in a system is something that prompts important changes in the story and the detail of an action scene is there to serve that outcome. So for Pbp, I definitely prefer a less detailed approach to resolution.


The place where I play most often in person doesn’t have a large table, and we all sit around on armchairs and sofas. My equivalent, though, is that the players can always ask me to sketch a map of the situation.

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I’ve never been a big fan of the first style of play, in role-playing games – it’s fine if you’re playing a board game (I played much Car Wars three decades ago, and that’s all super crunchy tactical stuff, before and during the game.). I’d rather discover the story, and throw some dice to see how things roughly go. You can do that in Gurps, just ignore the bits you don’t care about. (And the nice thing about that, is that they’re there when you want them. you can have fast moving narrative stuff, even with combat, and then get to the climactic big battle and break out a hex grid).

That’s why I continue to run GURPS even though in a typical session all the mechanics I use are “you have this skill, roll against it” and maybe a little combat.

Some time in the 1990s I played a dungeon-bash board game and realised that, for me, the mechanical dungeon-bash RPG was dead: it had all the mechanical bits one might want and none of the faff, and you could still put on a silly accent and talk about ale if you were playing the dwarf. Now we have Descent and Gloomhaven and the like, and I think it’s even more true; if you want a fight with weird monsters in a confined space, they do a much better job of making that an enjoyable experience than any RPG I’ve played. (Quicker character generation, cleaner rules with fewer special cases.) I play a lot of boardgames – I’m about to spend the weekend doing so – and what I want from an RPG plot is what it does better than a boardgame, supporting the development of characters’ personalities and interactions among them.

I seem to recall that, with players who were into it, in Champions, a lot of the story emerged from events on the hex grid. Your character was someone with a specific set of (colorful, larger-than-life) capabilities, and how you chose to use them, and how you interacted with allies and antagonists with their own abilities, and where that left you, was the story.

I certainly can believe that that could happen. But my experience with Champions didn’t include such play. A big part of it seemed to be a sort of meta-game, where each player went off on their own and tried to build a character that made ingenious use of the design mechanics for power maximization. And then that character was presented in play to the other players and the GM (who had not seen it before play began). The aim seemed to be mainly (though perhaps not entirely) showing off the character’s capability for tactical combat.

Now I did have somewhat better luck in my own two Champions campaigns, but neither of them was truly superheroic. One was teenage children of world-famous scientists; the other was the kind of masked heroes who came before supers—a stage illusionist, a martial artist, an inventor, and so on. In that second campaign I ruled that any stat above 20, or any true superpower, would have doubled point cost. That might have created the incentive for a change of focus, or maybe I just benefited from choosing a different player population than the Champions campaigns I’d played it—I don’t know. But it’s left me with a (possibly superstitious) caution about larger-than-life capabilities in Champions.

This kind of thing soured me on Champions too (my introduction to it was people who’d just discovered the joys of DEX 23) and I’ve never really gone back to it. This is probably more my prejudice than a fault of the system; those players would have minimaxed anything. And yet, somehow , doing it with BattleTech mech designs was more fun.

I’ve never looked at Battletech. What is its design system like? Pure gaming effectiveness calculations like Hero System? More or less realistic engineering like GURPS Vehicles? Arbitrary costs like Technocracy gear in Mage?

Closer to Car Wars than any of those. Nominally realistic engineering in that you’re trading off capability against weight (the ton you spend on armour can’t be used for a laser or a bigger engine) but with some interesting nonlinearities and corner cases.

Helped, now that I think about it, by the first published collection of units mostly being distinctly rubbish, thus providing the spur of “I can do better than that”.

Champions doubtless ended up depending a lot on the players you got for it; gamists were certainly prone to run amok with it, because minimaxing character designs worked, and vetoing stupidly baroque and borderline rules-violating character designs could be a bore for the GM. I still remember it as a fine simulation of silver age four-colour supers, though, presumably because I had a fairly good group.

I’ve seen someone online say my Kingdom of Champions revolutionised the way they played that game, shifting the focus from “maximum damage” to “actually paying attention to the skills”. That approach was partly down to me and largely down to my players of that time.

The mindset that we took from that also made Fantasy Hero a pretty good genre fantasy system, with enough skills and character twiddles to make non-combat scenes interesting and a hex-grid combat system that made fight scenes genuinely interesting, which was good for people coming off a few years of D&D. Come to think of it, D&D third edition developed something of the same flavour, after taking a mere fifteen years to get there.

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Wait… Do you mean, an NPC cat? Or was it an actual out-of-game IRL cat, that belonged to the hostess of the place where you were gaming?

And if it was the latter, did you incorporate it in the game, by having a giant cat-monster appear in the middle of the festivities, giving all the posh snobs the fright of their lives?

An actual out-of-game IRL cat. And no, because the game world had no giant cat monsters. Though we did all laugh at the image of that happening!

The phrasing “posh snobs” doesn’t really capture the emotional tone of the campaign, by the way. The five aristocratic lineages that jointly occupied and held the titular structure were maintaining the ancient enchantments that kept out the magical chaos of the surrounding world, and taking emergency actions when some of the chaos broke through; they had an ethos of service. And the campaign and the players mostly treated this unironically, though there was both drama and comedy extracted from the tensions between aristocratic ideals and human realities. But a campaign about upper-class twits would not have been nearly as much fun.

It can be fun to play a bit of an upper-class twit, if you have validating capabilities in some campaign-relevant area. But crucially, this works best if there are other characters in scene to act as a foils by which ones twittishness is defined and thrown into contrast, and best of all if those foils are other player characters. A twit doesn’t look like a twit unless he or she is more twittery than those around him or her, and the competition to be twitty ends up turning everyone into gumbies.

A similar effect is found with mavericks and with hard men making hard decisions.

And yet there is the Wodehousian Drones RPG.

At which point everything devolves into yet another Upper-Class Twit of the Year contest.

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