Sunday, November 22, 2020

Is marching order grognardy nonsense?

Wizard's Crown was a pretty decent computer RPG of the early eighties. The tactical combat system was robust for its day, using a top-down map with placement and movement mattering in fairly sophisticated ways.  If you played any of the popular "gold box" D&D computer games, you played an upgrade of the Wizard's Crown system with larger and more colorful sprites. 

I didn't get anywhere near finishing Wizard's Crown. As I recall, something about the skill system was too grindy for my taste and it took a long time into the game before any cool monsters showed up. The "vorpal bunny" of Monty Python fame is the one decent monster I can remember right now.

One feature I remember distinctly about the game is the marching system. On the strategic map, the party is represented by a single anthropomorphic icon, as was common in the day. But when moving on a smaller scale map, the whole party is displayed. Like the image below. The party is entering a tavern from the left side of the screen. The box around the one character indicates he has been selected by the player. Any keypress for movement will move that character. The rest of the party follows, but not in an entirely predictable way.

You can see this play out in the video below (from which I grabbed the image above), which I've queued up to the bar scene. One slightly confusing factor to know ahead of time: two door guards come into view only as the first party member enters the tavern.

I very much like how marching plays out. Generally, the party follows the leader in something resembling the marching order desired, but sometimes people wander a bit out of position. For example, a combat can start at an inopportune time when your wizard, normally well-covered by fighters, is a square or two out of position and thus vulnerable to enemy crossbow fire.

Which brings me to the question in the title of this post. With its wargaming background, where pieces move across the board in orderly ways like chess pieces, D&D tends to assume that marching order is a fixed thing. Heck, that is one of the main uses for minis mentioned in early rules sets: using the PCs' figures to set the marching order. But are D&D parties more like marching Prussians or undisciplined skirmishers? 

This depends on the level of discipline that you believe your party can achieve. Unless there's some reason to believe they are  well-drilled professional dungeoneers, I think it is more likely that the party generally resembles the marching order at any given point rather than exactly replicates it. Maybe at the moment an encounter occurs the halfling is examing a small mushroom and is out of position. Maybe the cleric stopped to scratch his butt and is a couple of steps away from where he should be. This makes sense to me given my usual assumption that the typical assemblage of murderhobo types lack a certain level of operational sophistication.

The trick, of course, is how to implement this insight into a tabletop game. Given how much time is spent in my games trudging through smelly tunnels, any new mechanic would have to not be a drag to do four or five times in a session. Would something like this work?


  1. From a grognardy POV, the surprise mechanic covers this quite nicely. Outside of that, the appearance of wandering monsters when a party is examining a room also covers this nicely. I don't really see the need for more mechanics because they already exist. The key is to describe these mechanics in such a way that you understand that the halfling is off collecting mushrooms, etc.

  2. My initial I-don't-know-what-I'm-talking-about thought is that this is perhaps covered, in an abstract fashion, by the surprise rules. The mushroom enthusiast halfling is not literally surprised, but because he's looking at a lovely toadstool, he's fallen out of marching order and got into an unfortunate position.

    1. Oh, never mind, FrDave got there first!

  3. You both bring up great points. I had not considered the surprise roll as a possible way of determining whether or not you were in proper position. Of course, I normally do group surprise, making it an all-or-nothing affair.

  4. I don't have a concrete kind of depends on the group. In general, I'd figure that the larger the group, the more difficult to maintain discipline and group cohesion. Terrain also plays a factor; I definitely wouldn't worry about any kind of "marching order" in the wilderness. But a small group of 6 or 7 in cramped quarters should be able to stay pretty tight...and the pressures inherent in the environment (I'd imagine) should be enough to keep individuals from straying. Do you really want to fall behind in the Underworld?

  5. My first thought was actually that initiative handled the matter well enough- caught slightly off guard it takes you a few panicked moments to scramble into something resembling your defensive positions and the orcs get the drop on you...

    Then I read Dave & thought yes, surprise comes first & does a similar thing. Initiative could also explain it, even if there is no surprise. I run group initiative & group surprise, only modded if there is a situational reason or encumbered party member (distracting everyone with his constant re-adjusting all that gear & whining).

    I stopped calling for marching order with players I regularly DM. If they give me one, it assumed they more or less keep it (aforementioned exceptions allowed). Often they give me one at the start of a crawl, usually when I ask who's got the light. But if they are in a city or entering a tavern or hunting in the woods, I assume they are random unless told other. If we need to know if Bob is isolated or near a big tree, dice decide. Unless a quick thinking player can offer me a reason to put the dice down.

  6. I have some first hand experience with people trying to deal with this in a boffer style Live Action Roleplaying.

    It naunced.

    First off it matters how much space you have to work with it. In a dungeon you definitely have a marching order. There not a lot of opportunity to drift when marching through corridors.

    When you outdoors or in a spacious interior the order is a more loose. But entirely without order.

    In both cases the party, especially one with experience, will naturally sort themselves out into a front line, middle, and rear. With the front and rear being the locations where you see the same folks occupying those nearly all the time. The middle in contrast will frequently switch.

    Indoors depending on the space. The front will be lined up and the rear will stay in the rear to keep the party from being ambushed. The middle follows the front.

    Outdoors the people at the leading edge the group are also the same front line fighters. The middle stay behind them but tends to spread out further than a dungeon. The rear folks hangs back keeping an eye out. But most outdoor (or spacious interior) you want as many folks that can fight up front.

    I played and ran boffer LARP events for over a decade under all kinds of conditions and weather including caves, dungeons, and outdoors.

    So how do I translate this to tabletop?

    In general I use miniatures. I don't mandate an order but I do consider the location of the players miniature to be definitive. Given the fussiness of moving a bunch of playing pieces, I will accept the lead figure as representative of the party's location. But if they move into a room or start to explore something specific. Then I will have everybody locate their miniatures and that where they are. It not exactly like how goes in a LARP but close enough.

    When it comes to outdoor or a spacious room encounter I do something similar except I will generally sweep up the figure and lay them out in a mob at the edge of the maps with the frontline slightly closer to the center. I will then say, is this OK for everybody is at? And the player sometimes will adjust it. But for the most part just accept where I place them.

    In recent years, I do an approach phase to anything outdoor. Most folks don't realize that situational awareness and line of sight is often quite extensive outside. In general if the encountered group is not actively hiding, they will be spotted hundreds of yards away as the part crest a ridge or hill. Sometime the terrain will hide both party even though they are close if they are paralleling each other along a ridgeline. So I do mix it up a bit.

  7. Many players love marching order when it keeps their character from getting zapped, they hate it when it keep their character out of the immediate action. It's not unrealistic all by itself as the notion of a scout or point man is pretty basic strategy even in a tight space.

  8. Usually in my games, if the players have surprise their marching order is tight. If both parties are surprised, one or two PCs might be out of order. If there is one round of surprise against the PCs, up to half the PCs might be out of order. And if there are two rounds, I get to place them on the map with extreme prejudice... because if they were surprised, it means they were likely not keeping tight order, so discipline is lost...

    Of course, that is when there is an encounter while marching; if in a room already and investigating things, marching order is generally out the window...