Strength And Dexterity

Today I want to talk about statistically influenced mechanics.

In a game of any kind, mechanics control the methods by which you as a player interact with the game world. This is as true in a color matching block game as it is in Football Manager, but I have a very specific topic I wish to discuss today.

Specifically, I am going to talk about the different ways in which accuracy and power are presented in games, especially role-playing games, and what they mean for the players. We’re going to be using Dungeons & Dragons as the ur example, but this is applicable in what should be a fairly obvious array of cases.

In Dungeons & Dragons, a character possesses six statistics, including the eponymous Strength and Dexterity. Strength purports to be a gauge of your character’s aptitude at at tasks requiring physical power, while Dexterity measures your character’s natural talent in challenges that require speed and coordination. You may not be surprised to learn, then, that Strength is the traditional purvey of a melee focused character, while Dexterity more greatly benefits a ranged combatant, as in both cases the single statistic does a fine job of seeing that character through their allotted tasks.

So, this clearly works perfectly well. But why does it do so, and how might it work differently?

Well, traditionally, most games with a more complex set of data for the player to consume benefit from streamlining when they can, as long as it is not at the expense of the experience. Accessibility is a wonderful thing, and any veteran of gaming knows that any game with any RPG elements at all benefits greatly from the ability to say “This is my strong guy, I put all his points in strength, now on to the next fellow”. It also makes things easier on new players, as a character who possesses a great deal of information but relies on a central attribute is one that can be explored at the player’s leisure, absorbing information in their own time.

So, why change it? For a different, more thoughtful, more balanced sort of game, of course. Imagine, if you will, a game of Dungeons & Dragons where all bonuses to strike the enemy were derived from Dexterity, and all bonuses for damage were derived from Strength. Ignoring the more recent invention of Finesse weapons (which can be disregarded if you haven’t heard of them), think of what this does to the landscape. The Ogre, a tremendously strong brute with a previously unerring club, is suddenly a lumbering thug whose strikes spell death for those it hits, if only it lands one. Suddenly, the man mountain in armor and the nimble rapier duelist are on an equal footing, one dodging war-hammer blows by a hairsbreadth and the other trusting armor and luck to save him from death by a thousand cuts. It brings a certain air of Robert E. Howard fantasy to the concept, and is at least a departure from the norm. It also encourages a broader array of abilities than previous, as a warrior with moderate speed and strength will likely prevail over one solely focused on either.

White Wolf actually makes use of this concept in some of their World of Darkness games, in fact. A character needs a solid combination of Strength and Dexterity to stand a chance in combat in Scion, for example, where a strength focused hero will find they cannot land a blow. However, White Wolf also often makes use of an interesting mechanic wherein a well aimed strike gains additional chances to do damage, providing further incentive for improving your character’s Dexterity to prepare for combat situations.

In conclusion, the most important thing to keep in mind is what you want the effects of your mechanics to be on your game. Decide what you want the player to be able to do, and what you want the game to feel like, and then work backwards to create mechanics that support that feeling.

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Parallel Paths: Or, Why Dishonored Needed A Club

This week we’re going to talk about player choice, and making sure that you’re prepared for the ones they make.

For starters, I want to clarify that I’m not talking about choice as it pertains to letting the players do whatever they want. If you’re running a D&D campaign and the players decide they want to open a ladder re-purposing Ten Foot Pole Emporium rather than actually play out that cool story with the dragon and the intrigue and the world ending terror you have prepared, then you may as well just ignore them, because they clearly did not show up to play the same game you did.

What I’m talking about is making sure that your game, be it a video game, tabletop RPG, or board game, supports a reasonable number of parallel paths to victory. These are all fairly straightforwards, so I’m going to touch on each of them in turn. I’m also going to focus largely on single player or cooperative games, as with multiplayer games this strays more into a discussion of game balance.

So, to finally get to what could easily have been the opening line of this post, the most important part of presenting a game in which parallel paths are implied is to make sure they are all supported. They don’t have to be equally difficult, but they have to function.

Let’s talk about Dishonored for a moment, if only because I put it in the title. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Dishonored is a first person stealth and action video game about betrayal, revenge, and absentee parenting. The core choices of the game, the ones presented during every moment of game-play and not just during the major moral choices towards the end of each level, are whether you are playing a stealth game or an action game, and whether you are a big murdery murderer or not. Overall, at least in the experience I had, the game does a good job of making both of these choices a great deal of fun, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t let itself down in a few key areas, notably by rather limiting to player to being an action murderer or a nonlethal sneaker. By and large most of the choices the player will make in the game, from the use of either normal crossbow bolts or more limited sleep arrows to the decision of whether to stab a major villain in his neck meat or decipher a fairly elaborate puzzle to send them to a nonlethal fate worse than death, the dual focus design rewards more murder prone players with a quick and easy solution while providing nonlethal players with a more complex but perhaps more rewarding alternative. There are two notable exceptions to this ethos, however. When presented with an unaware enemy, one has the option of loudly and messily stabbing them to death while simultaneously alerting all nearby enemies or quietly strangling them into a restful sleep. While the murder option is quick to reward the player with more murder, something the player may or may not be thankful for, it is something of an issue when the nonlethal option’s only downside is a minor increase in the time it takes. So you have the potential to be spotted, which is a moot point with the other option is to always be spotted. Simply allowing the stealth kill to actually be stealthy would have solved this discrepancy, although combining that with making the strangling somewhat alarming to nearby guards would be more in keeping with the game-play philosophy, if not as balanced.

And then there’s the club I teased you with. Or, rather, there isn’t the club. There is no nonlethal melee weapon in Dishonored. This seems like a severe oversight when every other piece of game-play has a lethal and nonlethal option (for the sake of this argument, the sleep darts from the crossbow are also an alternative to the pistol). It seems like a rather easy fix, simply giving the player a nonlethal melee weapon usable in the same manner of their sword, possibly with a reduced reach and definitely with requiring them to land a few extra blows, and thus not completely removing the nonlethal gamer from the action half of an action stealth game. It could even be upgraded, as with all the other equipment in the game, perhaps adding taser like stun charges and such.

Alright, so that was video games, but what about tabletop RPGs, I hear you ask. Well, the good news, is that I’m not going to ask you to completely rewrite all of your favorite systems in order to cater to as many potential player actions as possible. That way lies madness, and as such has already largely been done. I’m also not going to sit here and tell you that if you were planning a game of courtly intrigue, you have to let Krod the loin-clothed barbarian swing from the rafters and throw axes at the punch bowl. The object isn’t to cater to the players, but to create a story with them. If you’re playing a game of courtly intrigue, and the viscount is holding a piece of important information, make sure that it’s not kept in a mental chest with a single lock. It makes no sense if a character would spill their darkest secrets for five gold, but will resist weeks of torture or the threat of a scary man standing over them with a knife in the middle of the night. If the players want to get into the ancient tomb of a long dead king, and the front is guarded by living statues who ask you three questions about your deepest fears, it’s understandable that they might want to just figure out around where the tomb is laid out and start some exploratory strip mining. Remember, the important thing is not that the players follow your story, no matter how cool you think it is. If you build a world and it reacts to the players actions appropriately, you will find all manner of fun and exciting role-playing opportunities crop up over the course of game-play. Maybe Krod wasn’t a good fit for courtly intrigue, but if he’s allowed in as an amusing oddity, he might just overhear some interesting rumors from folk who don’t believe he can understand them.

In conclusion, make sure that when the player has a choice of paths, each one is worthwhile to walk.

Rallying Round The Banner

This has been a long time coming, but I need to talk about Banner Saga, storytelling, and integrating game mechanics with story.

Starting off with what I liked, Banner Saga is a lot of fun. It manages to marry turn based strategy and choose your own adventure game play around a core of Oregon Trail but with magic. The core resource, Renown, is used to pay for both supplies and character upgrades, so you occasionally have to choose between everyone being able to eat and leveling up your heavy hitters. Granted, that’s an odd situation to be in, but it definitely serves the game-play well. The interplay between story choices and turn based strategy is mechanically one-sided, as your decisions will change who joins or leaves your party, but those choices are in turn informed by your tactics and which characters you are most attached to. More than once I made what was in retrospect a poor decision and lost a character I had invested a lot of time and Renown in, but the events always felt like a natural progression of the story.

The turn based strategy itself deserves a special mention, as it incorporates a couple of fairly interesting mechanics. Opponents alternate moving a single unit at a time, unless one side only has one remaining, and unit health is measured both by an ablative layer of armor and the unit’s strength. Damaging armor is largely inconsequential, while damaging strength reduces an enemy’s capacity to damage others, but remaining armor reduces strength damage. It’s a very interesting interplay, and the leveling mechanic ensures that it’s possible to build any character in a variety of different ways, as a character’s stats are leveled individually and each have a specific function (Armor, strength, ect.). If I have a gripe about the combat system, it’s that there is almost no randomization, which I tend to prefer in games simply for the sour losses and epic but unlikely victories chance can bring. More than once I ended up in a situation where the exact outcome was a foregone conclusion, but of course I had to play out the remaining turns anyways.

Now, to get into the things I did not like as much. When I mentioned earlier that there was no effect from the battles on the narrative (Other than winning or losing), that was not strictly true. In many battles, you are tasked with choosing an overarching tactic for your forces, and that combined with how well you do in your ensuing match helps determine the outcome. The issue I have with this, is that I had no idea in what way my actions were effecting the outcome. There was no indication I could see for which tactic was the correct choice, so I simply picked the one I liked the name of best, and there was no feedback on how that effected how many of my warriors survived. On the subject of surviving warriors, I was initially very enthusiastic about making sure as many people made it through my play through as possible, but as their numbers dwindled, I stopped seeing a reason to care about them. I didn’t experience any negative effects, not even really any grumbling despite the amount of time we spent without food. Even just a few messages or the idea that they might want to take my inept, fumble-fingered self out of command would have been nice.

The big issue that I have, though, is that at the end of the game they changed the rules on me. The game comes down to a final climactic battle, which is beautifully set-up and upon which the fate of every person and place I had seen in the game rested. And then they forced me to take a character with me I had never used, had no idea how to use properly, and had specifically told not to come with me. With my limited for selection, that was crippling, in the face of a legitimately challenging boss battle. That honestly soured me on the whole experience, although it’s a testament to how good the rest of the game was that WAS legitimately upset when it buggered me.

In conclusion, this game is not without flaws, but I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re looking for a good blend of narrative and tactical game-play.

Edition Wars? Huh! What are they good for?

Alright, I’m going to talk Fifth Edition D&D. Hold on to your hats, it’s going to get old school in here.

First question, just to get it out of the way, is 5E a good system?

Yes.

Second question, will you like 5E?

Yes, again.

Third question, should you switch over to 5E from your current system?

And there, mysterious hypothetical questioner, you have hit the nail on the head. 5E brings a lot of really good, really fun stuff to the table, but whether or not it’s for you and your group remains to be seen. I can break it down for two groups who are going to absolutely love it, but otherwise it’s going to be a case by case decision. First off, if you’ve never played D&D before, or your group is going to have a lot of people who are new to tabletop, this is absolutely the game for you. Second, if you’re in a D&D group, or you have friends who enjoy D&D, but you cannot decide on an edition to play, pick this one.

Fifth Edition plays smoother than absolutely any other version of D&D or similar RPG while still retaining the freedom that makes pen and paper such a marvelous method of mutual entertainment. Streamlining efforts have been pushed to the brink, tying almost every action directly into a stat roll, one way or another. Stats pour directly into attacks, skills, and saves, without any intervening stage such as Reflex Saves or Pathfinder’s Combat Maneuver Bonus, making number crunching far simpler. Most bonus and penalty stacking has been replaced with an intuitive advantage/disadvantage system that translates to rolling twice and picking the higher or lower dice depending upon whether the circumstances are favorable. In fact, there are fewer steps all around between the player declaring an action and the results being known. There’s also a straightforward system for replenishing abilities, as resting for a day tends to put everything back to normal. I was initially skeptical of this, but upon experimentation, players burn hp at an alarming rate, and playing well enough to survive to rest is worth the benefits of resting.

That’s just mechanics, and while mechanics are important, they aren’t why we play these games. So let’s talk about narrative. 5E bakes narrative right into character creation, with every character picking a AD&D-style background that grants both a non-numerical mechanical ability (such as contacts in the underworld for a criminal) and forces the player to think about who their character is and was. This also benefits the canny game master who can use their player’s actually existent backgrounds as a source of plot hooks and immersion as characters interact with friends and family from their pre-adventuring days. The Monster Manual includes at least a full page of background and setting detail on every monster, the Dungeon Master’s guide is as bountiful in role playing advice, alternate rules, and magic items as it’s AD&D 2E grandfather, and, this is the kicker for me, the DM screen has a random name and random “Something happened” table on it.

If you’ve got a favorite previous edition, you’ll recognize the bits in 5E, like a much saner version of 3.5’s feats or spell casters keeping one or two tiny spells they can cast forever, a la 4E, and if you’re new, this will come easier to you than any of the other options.

In conclusion, this isn’t my new favorite system, but it might be yours. I’m glad I picked up the books either way.

Balance, my oldest foe.

So, first, an announcement. I’m going to start posting playtestable games in various stages to this site. Play them, tell me what you think. If they make it to publishing, you’ll get playtest credit.

Now let’s talk about balance.

Balance is something most games need. It’s also something most people who play a game complain about one way or the other. The problem with balance, is that when you’re designing a game, you need to decide HOW to balance it. Games where balance is essential, especially multiplayer games, that contain any kind of challenge need to ride the line between a perfectly even gameplay and giving the players intensely disparate choices.

For an example of this, let’s design a competitive fps. We start with two players, one gun, and a room for them to shoot each other in. This game is boring. So lets add a second gun. But what does it do, and how do we make it fair? If it’s roughly equivalent in utility to the first gun, we can just give the player one of each, but then the players are still the same all the time,  so lets let them choose which one they want at game start or on respawn. But what if one gun is better? Well, let’s make it harder to get then. Let’s put some cover in the map, and then put the nice gun in an area out in the open. It’s nice to have, but it’s dangerous to get too.

You see how this can get out of hand? If you want an interesting competitive game, you need to have multiple viable strategies and you can’t have any of them be drastically better or worse than the others, or it’s just wasted effort. But what if you want your game to be fun and don’t care that much about balance? Well, suddenly, the challenge is more about finding interesting and fun gameplay mechanics. Let’s talk about the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer. For those unfamiliar, it’s a third person shooting game where the players must work together to survive waves of enemies. It is also a game in which there are around a hundred different playable classes of varying utility which can be unlocked. Some of these classes are very good, some of them are not, and some of them are only good if played by a skilled player. But, the point of this game wasn’t to make a venue for people to test their skills, it was to create a fun environment in which to play with your friends, and careful consideration was given to accommodating a huge number of playstyles. Want to hide behind a wall and send flamethrower drones out to do your fighting for you? Done. Want to smash monsters with a hammer because you don’t believe in this “shooting” thing everyone seems to like? Done. Want to take the two largest guns you can find and fire them until they overheat so badly your hands burn off? Done and done.

As a callback to my posts on role’s and class systems, balance can be a tricky thing in terms of cooperative games. But the decision you have to make there is how many different playstyles do you want to cater to, and how much do you want to have them rely on each other. In D&D, a Wizard is powerful, but the “balance” is that if a Dread Knight gets up in your grill, you’re a dead man without a Fighter to stop the charge and a Cleric to keep him on his feet.

So the questions to remember are how fair do I want the game to be and how fun do I want the game to be? Because you can do both if you try really, really hard, but you probably don’t need to be perfect on both.

You win some, you lose some

Ok, there’s something I want to make clear, as I feel like it has been falling out of favor.

Loss is story.

As a player, it’s natural to want to win. People play games for an myriad of reasons, but I think it’s safe to say that a large amount of people play games to win them. But the thing is, the difference between a game and a puzzle is that you can lose a game. A puzzle, for instance a sudoku or a jigsaw puzzle, you can sit in front of and systematically try every possible solution until you finally succeed. Given enough time and effort there is no way to lose a puzzle. Not so with games. Games tend to require a player to compete, either with other players or with the game itself, and it is possible to reach a section of a game you cannot beat without getting  better at the game.

The problem, in my mind, comes from turning a game into a puzzle. Using an example from my own life, I’m guilty of this with regards to the Fire Emblem games. For the unfamiliar, it is a turn based strategy game series chock full of swords, sorcery, and interesting characters. Fire Emblem has a number of interesting facets, but the two that are of interest for this discussion are the support conversations, that unlock additional story and dialogue between units, and the fact that units who are eliminated from a battle are permanently removed from the game. Together, this could make for interesting and poignant story, as characters develop interpersonal relationships and have to deal with the tragedies of war. The problem arises with the trivial ease with which a level can be restarted if things go wrong, to the point where it is more a matter of dedication and patience to beat the game rather than skill. When you can try any action an infinite number of times, the statistics that determine success lose all meaning.

Loss is meaningless if it can be immediately reverted.

This philosophy is already prevalent in most pen and paper role playing games, but it occasionally gets subverted. Let’s look at D&D. In, say, 3.5 D&D, if a character is killed after a certain level, it is actually more likely for them to come back than not. Once the players have access to high level divine spells, they will not stay dead. They just won’t, unless their enemies go significantly out of their way to make it so, either by disintegrating every part of every party member, or killing everyone who might eventually raise them, or any equally outlandish solution.  Once a player knows for sure that if they die they’ll come back the next day, what is death but a nap, occasionally paired with XP loss? It serves a story’s tension to have some measure of chance for failure, It serves a character’s humanity to have some fear for their own mortality. Life or Death engagements have little meaning when Death is just time out. By the same token, the story itself should be able to survive the death of a character. I’m not saying there should be no means of reviving a character, if it serves the story you are all telling, but there’s a difference between finding the right horn of the fabled blue minotaur to trade to the queen of the fairies to get her to fulfill the death oath sworn between her court and the father of the PC and going to see Jim’s brother, who’s a decently high level cleric of Pelor and will probably even spot us the gold if we tell him the quest is epic enough.

Video games find it harder to implement this idea, simply because a player who loses will restart, most of the time. That said, players have been trained to accept a win ending and a game loss, or at most a plethora of win endings based upon their morality choices. But what about basing the ending on their qualitative choices? The S.T,A.L.K.E.R. games embrace this idea to an extent, offering the player a number of epilogue scenes depicting the consequences of their actions, ones they may not have thought twice about. Fallout games also generally do this, although the game itself generally makes it clear which actions are choices that will effect the course of the game. The trick is to give the player choices during game play, and not show the effects until after the game is finished. A game wherein you fight the final battle and that decides whether you win or lose can have an epic finish, but a game in which the entire shape of the final battle is determined by the outcome of a hundred skirmishes you breezed through earlier is a game whose story the player has an impact on, and vice versa. It’s also a where the player will be incapable of simply skipping back a checkpoint and saving that one NPC who matters to the story.

It’s worth noting that this advice can easily be applied to traditional writing as well, as writers should not be afraid to kill characters, break objects, or destroy places that haven’t necessarily served their narrative purpose if it serves the story. It’s much more jarring to lose a character in the middle of his quest than once he’s finished all his relevant story functions.

So remember, plot armor is your enemy, and make your story strong enough to survive breaking.