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.


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.

So that’s how it is.

This week we’re talking about how smart players are. Sorry, but this one is mainly focused on tabletop games.

Players will almost always try to think ahead of their Dungeon Master. If they can out think you, they can predict what you’re going to do next, and be prepared for it. And if they’re prepared for it, they stand a much better chance of surviving it. Probably, at least. The thing about players, though, is that they generally have to discuss their theories with each other, and considering they’re generally sitting across the table from you, you generally get to hear both what they’re planning, and what they think is going to happen.  A bad dungeon master will take this information and use it to thwart their players at every turn. That is the sort of behavior that leads to players communicating with each other only in whispers, passed notes, and semaphore. As a rule, if your players decide to leave the room once in a blue moon because the ultimate battle of ultimate destiny is about to happen and they want to keep their preparations secret, let them. But, if they leave the room when deciding what route to take to the store, you need to reevaluate your table dynamic.

That being said, one of the greatest thing a DM can do is steal from the players. They are going to be coming up with all kinds of ideas about how your game world works anyways, you might as well use some of them. If you’ve come up with an explanation for something, like why the chancellor is plotting his revenge against the king, and the players have decided he’s out for revenge over the perceived slights the king has been heaping upon him for the last thirty years while you decided he was being mind controlled, incorporating the player’s idea will only enrich the story. Perhaps the demons in his head found firmer purchase thanks to the years of abuse he felt he had suffered. Storytelling is a collaborative effort, and it pays to get help with it. That being said, don’t tell your players you’re doing this, as it detracts from the feeling that the game world is a concrete place. Letting players know you changed your mind about why the great space war was fought based solely on an offhand remark one of them made about how funny it would be if the space elves had masterminded the whole thing will draw unwanted scrutiny to your universe and make it seem far more fluid than it should be. Also, while blending of ideas can be done fairly regularly, such as the mind controlled chancellor example, outright stealing of ideas, such as the space war being masterminded by the elves and not starting over a mineral dispute in Alpha Centauri, should not occur with any kind of regularity. Players love to find out that their suspicions were right all along, but it doesn’t do to let them think they’re smarter than you are, unless they do actually guess what you are planning, in which case they earned it. Quick little explanations, such as the shop keeper being prejudiced because he hates elves, are generally fair game though.

In summary, your players sometimes have good ideas. Just don’t ever tell them that.

I didn’t need to know that.

Today we’re talking about explanations.

Many times, while you are running a game, players will demand to know the rational behind a certain choice. Why did the orc choose to stab the rogue instead of the fighter? Why did the designers of this warehouse decide it needed an acid pit in the center? Why did the quest-giver decide that the fate of the world/universe/kingdom was best left up to a team of murderous vagabonds? And no matter what explanation you give, they will endlessly question and debate your reasoning. As a rule, if you’re players are asking such a question, it is because they have come up with a separate, and in their minds far better, explanation for why whatever situation has just occurred should have been resolved differently. The orc clearly should have stabbed the more dangerous looking party member! That acid pit is a workplace hazard and OSHA would never have stood for it! Fighting the inescapable horror from beyond the universe threatening the world/kingdom/universe should really be someone else’s problem!

And you will want to argue with them! It’s only natural, they are impugning your ability to craft a believable universe, it’s only right that you feel the need to defend your handiwork. You might even start trying to explain things ahead of time, in an attempt to forestall argument. The orc realizes the rogue is an elf, and takes a swing at his hated racial enemy! Do not do this! Your players don’t need an explanation, it’s enough for them the things their characters see and hear. It’s perfectly fine to give them hints, along the lines of “The orc snarls as his eyes fall on your pointed ears and takes a swing”, and it definitely provides an enriching experience for the player, but refrain from telling them why YOU are doing anything. Maybe that rogue is getting stabbed because he’s tactically the most dangerous, or because the player is getting on your nerves, or because the fighter is completely untouchable. It doesn’t matter, because you’re not going to tell them. They are living in the world you establish, and it is up to you to make sure that world makes sense, not them. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use player input, which I will cover later, but it does mean you shouldn’t discuss the rational for game decisions with your players.

If you’re players ask within the confines of the game, though, that’s a different story. If they subdue the orc, kidnap the building designer, or make demands of the ruler, they deserve an answer. They may even do some research into their questions, searching the infoweb or ancient libraries for reasons. This is a good time to get in your backstory, give out the thought processes behind the NPC’s decisions, and put a bit for realism into your world. That being said, I’m not in any way suggesting you have to tell them the truth, just that they deserve to know something. Remember that NPC’s are allowed to be just as untrustworthy as your average player.

Remember, don’t explain yourself, don’t have your NPC’s explain themselves unless someone asks, and don’t forget to lie to the player when appropriate.

Game! Set! Story!

Ok, this one is coming at you a bit late, but real life is one of those things.

This week I’m talking about the importance of set dressing, the little touches and objects that give places and people character without you having to rub your player’s noses in it.

Unobtrusive set dressing is one of the best ways to convey information to players, and it gives your game a vibrancy it would otherwise lack. A player who walks through town to the mayors office and told “Times are hard because of the recent goblin attacks, and we need you to fix this” is going to be nowhere near as engrossed as the player who walked through a shantytown of refugees to the scorched walls of town hall, where the bedraggled mayor pleaded for their assistance. I should stress, though, that sets are not just a matter of applying adjectives until the right feeling is achieved. Seeing an object can generally be relied upon to get the player thinking about how it got there, which in turn helps fabricate their opinion of someone. For instance, the crusty old barman might have a hook for a hand, but it’s the well worn sword hanging on the mantle behind him that tells you how he got it. Objects speak volumes, and go a long way towards giving players the back story they need to hear, but could never possibly stay awake for. The town was saved by a mighty hero hundreds of years ago? There’s a statue of a burly man with a sword standing on a dragon’s head in town square. This kingdom has been at war with the dwarf mines for fifty years, and have settled into an uneasy truce? The tavern has a “No-Footstool” sign up and there’s still a couple of people with beards nailed up on their walls. The humans and weird blue skinned aliens have had an alliance for hundreds of years? The holonews has an alien and human anchor, and all signs and announcements are in human and crazy alien gobbledygook.

The rule is pretty simple. If you can show it or tell it, show it. A player who can visualize your world more clearly is a player who is more immersed. Same for visual media, don’t tell the player, put it there for them to see. Not in a cut-scene, but something they stumble across in their travels. Possibly the best use for set dressing is for defining characters. If you walk into a man’s office and he has a messy desk, newspaper clippings of his past triumphs on the wall, and a half empty bottle on a shelf in the corner, you can suddenly form a picture of them in your mind. This sort of thing is remarkably easy to do, and can be done fairly quickly. Generally, all it takes is to think about the person or situation you want to describe, and come up with three sentences about it. Simple things, like a dungeon being damp and musty, or an abandoned outpost having moss growing over it’s broken walls, or even the sides of a man’s computer being covered in layers of post-it notes will let the players delve deeper into your world and construct a more satisfying narrative.

Nowhere is this concept more important than in a video game wherein the player’s character is expected to have a certain personality. Giving the player a chance to visit some space that belongs entirely to them is by far the one of the best ways to tell the player who they are and why they act the way they do. A fussy character may have an extremely neat desk denoting his meticulous personality, a grizzled mercenary commander may have a little box of medals and a picture of the girl of his dreams hidden in his locker to show he is courageous but sensitive, and pretty much any character would have a box of machine parts shoved discretely out of the way because they are secretly a robot. The main thing is that you let the players see the environment their characters have created for themselves, so they know why they are expected to act they way they do.

Remember, use objects, not just adjectives, and try to make three sentences. It makes it long enough to be worth listening to, but not so long they tune out.