Have you ever had a player at a table try and convince you whether something is "realistic"? I have. One of my good friends and an amazing role-player is (for good or ill) fairly opinionated about what his character should be able to do during a 6 second D&D turn. "If I'm an experienced adventurer, of course I'm able to [grab a potion/drink a potion/pour a potion down a friend's throat]."
An SCA re-enactor once told me: "We're like practical archaeologists. We try out what medieval historians think was true and see if it's realistic." I felt the same way during the years that I LARPed, though I was investigating fantasy conventions and not actual history.
This post details some of the lessons learned about fantasy conventions and how they stood up to field testing.
Combat is an Exchange of Blows
Watch this video from the 1977 movie The Duelist. It is Ridley Scott's directorial debut and I think it captures what "actual" combat looks like. The essential gimmick of fighting is "If I get close enough to hit that guy, he's close enough to hit me. If he hits me, that will hurt me."
D&D combat is a lot like Final Fantasy combat. One side goes then the other side goes. It's stunningly obvious, but the exchange of blows is simultaneous. You can't get a good stab on somebody because you are very preoccupied with not getting stabbed.
Also, during combat people move around a lot! I never quite grokked what Tweet was going for with opportunity attacks. It's pretty well documented that since disengaging is disincentivized, combatants in grid combat move next to each other and then full-round attack until one party's HP is down. In LARP combat, people close and retreat constantly. Dodging or evading is primarily done by putting distance between you and your opponent.
Key Takeaways: Combat should simulate an exchange of blows. Into the Odd/Electric Bastionland does a good job of this by cutting to hit rolls. Every time you close with an opponent, your precious blood is being shed. I tried to simulate this in my Wilderland house rules by letting defenders get a few hits in if the attacker fails their attack roll.
Weapon Length and Shields Matters A LOT
In D&D, most weapons feel more or less the same. Maybe your sword deals half damage to skeletons and maybe the great ax deals a d12 instead of a d8, but often the differences are cosmetic.
In my experience, the two biggest factors in combat are weapon length and the presence of a shield.
As I mentioned, "trying not to get hit" is the biggest factor in combat. If your opponent has a spear and you have a dagger, that job becomes infinitely harder. Likewise, if your target has 25% of their body covered with a shield, your job is also harder. One of the primary uses of a shield is to move your opponent's weapon out of the way so you can do the essential job of "hitting you and not getting hit." Shields are an indispensable part of combat.
Because we're not trying to actually hurt each other, LARPing really doesn't capture this well either. Your shields don't get sundered. You don't use your full strength to move an opponent's weapon aside. Even still, the essential premise is clear.
Key Takeaways: Weapon length and shields should absolutely be central mechanics. Burning Wheel has a subsystem about being "inside" or "outside" of a weapon's length that work well. Similarly, the oft-lauded "shields shall be splintered" rule makes shields an active part of combat instead of a factored-in-and-forgotten AC bonus.
Fighting Multiple People is God Damn Impossible
Fending off multiple attackers is impossible. If you have two opponents and two hands, your opponents have 100% more hands than you. You cannot effectively participate in the dance of "hurt them without being hurt." Your only choice is to run away. (Remember: Giving ground is the primary way you actively evade attacks.)
Unfortunately, this can be pretty lame in a role-playing game. Fantasy fiction is full of cool heroes wading through multiple foes.
Key Takeaways: If your goal is quote unquote "realism," fighting more than one opponent should carry a massive penalty. If fantasy fiction trumps fantasy reality, this penalty might be lighter than it would otherwise be. D&D handles this well with flanking bonuses and giving rogues sneak attack opportunities by ganging up on someone.
Inventory Management is Hard
I just finished a weekend of backpack hiking. It was fun. My body is now a husk.
I'm a faaaiiiirrrrly avid hiker. I want to use hedging language here because I know actual hardcore hikers and those people are insane. They cover distances and heights that are impossible for me. But I hike trails near me ~2 times a week. Backpack hiking is a whole different story.
Weight is, uh, heavy. It impacts everything you do. It makes you awkward and top heavy. It makes you tired.
Moreover, it is hard to deal with the fiddly bits of inventory management. When I wanted to give my dog water, I had to pull my pack off. I had to open the pack on the ground. I had to lift out my bedroll. I had to find his bowl. I had to unfold it. I had to find the water. I had to unscrew the lid. I had to pour the water into the bowl. He had to drink it. This did not take six seconds.
Now imagine that you're doing this at the same time that somebody is trying to hit you.
Key Takeaways: If you're ignoring encumbrance, you're ignoring a meaningful problem and a fun subsystem. LotFP's inventory system is so frequently borrowed because it works and is fun. Patrick Stuart's assertions about pack weight in Veins of the Earth is true. Assuming that turns are quick to resolve, it absolutely is a full round action (if not more) to retrieve something from your pack. It is absolutely a full round action to use an item e.g., drink a potion.
If you are rummaging around in your pack, you should take a meaningful penalty to defense. If your hands are empty and searching for a precious potion, you're not participating in the shared threat of combat.
Armor Penalties are Real
On the subject of encumbrance, armor penalties are real. Sometimes I see people trying to dispute this with Youtube videos called "The TRUTH of armor mobility," but whatever.
Here are some facts about moving in metal armor:
1) You're clanking and clattering. One old school clone whose name I've forgotten from the 90s had something called "Rattle and Clank (RAC) Factor," and I think that rules. When you're even wearing a mail shirt, you're constantly making a "chnk chnk chnk" sound.
2) You're not doing acrobatics. Can you climb a ladder? Sure. Can you stand from prone? Sure. Can you Darksouls roll? No.
3) You're getting tired and hot. If you're out on the field and the hot sun is shining on you, you have a real risk of overheating. Combatants who can give ground can outlast you without ever meaningfully exchanging blows.
4) You cannot swim. If you fall into deep water, you're gonna drown.
Key Takeaways: Armor penalties are meaningful. Having armor cost inventory slots ala Lamentations and applying a penalty to Acrobatics, Swim, Stealth, etc. makes a lot of sense.
Combat is Psychological
LARP combat is supposed to be safe. Even so, psychology plays a huge roll. If a dark elf assassin takes the field with glowing eyes in the dead of night, you take a few steps back. You don't want your beloved PC to die. You can get legitimately scared. (This "bleed" is why I like the genre, frankly.)
When you're scared, you fight badly. When you're confident, you fight better.
It's weird. I've seen competent fighters (in LARP terms) get overwhelmed by the "emotion" of the combat. I can only imagine how true this is when combat has actual stakes.
Key Takeaways: Morale rules are important. Monsters and henchmen shouldn't fight themselves into an early grave: they should break, run, surrender. Similarly, saving throws vs. fear should meaningfully impact your combats. Feel free to throw them the first time a PC encounters a new type of monster.