Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Designing Rules for Strategy and not Reality

Today I want to send the reader to Alonzo's Credanzo, to read his post from Monday on the Thought Process.  It's a good post.  The dialogue is well-written and accurately captures the kind of discussion - without the crippling misunderstandings - that typically goes on between someone wanting to address a game issue and the critic thereof.  The reader should read it.

For me, it tags to an assumption that I see often, and is here highlighted perfectly.  I want to quote one line from the 'Self' character:

"Basically, I want armor to work as damage reduction because I feel like that makes more sense than armor class - it's too much of an abstraction when its like that.  I want this system to feel real."

Now, the reader needs to know I'm not going to riff on this.  I'm holding my temper these days, so this isn't going to be a rant.  I do want the reader to deconstruct the one line above in a couple of ways - from reading the rest of Alonzo's post, you should be able to see how important this one line is.

To begin with, the Self feels a particular way.  There's no actual logic to the preference.  The term 'abstraction' actually applies to either the old, AC method and the new damage reduction method.  Both are abstractions.  Every game rule is an abstraction.  The statement, "this is an abstraction and I don't like it," is akin to my saying, when I speak I don't make the thoughts in my head perfectly clear; I think I need to sing more.

We do a lot of game design based on 'feeling.'  There's nothing wrong with that.  Every kind of game rule is supposedly designed to produce feelings, such as fun, intrigue, triumph, anxiety and so on ... so feelings are important.  The only error here is in deciding that the problem is somehow based on what is, or what is not, an abstraction.  That's a neat, conveniently non-specific word that we leap to in order to justify our feelings for or against something.  Another is to say something is 'squicky.'  We get a feeling we don't like it; we can't be more exact. The word 'abstraction' isn't common enough in everyday use that everyone absolutely agrees on its definition.  That makes it a good word to use when we want to make our notion feel ... well, that it isn't just our notion.

There's actually no logic to the 'damage reduction' idea, either ... though it seems like there ought to be.  To put this into context, lets suppose you're going to go at a picnic table with an axe.  The table is made of wood (treated wood, usually, which makes it pretty tough, so let's say this is a table your father built out of untreated lumber ten years ago).  The wood is a bit rotten, because its been out in the sun and the rain and maybe the snow, so even though you know it will take a bunch of swings, that table is coming apart eventually.  Thus, it makes sense.  The axe does so much damage on a hit, the table can take so much damage before coming apart, when enough damage is done then so is the table.

Now let's suppose we cover the table and attached benches with a layer of iron metal 1 mm thick (1/25th of an inch for Americans), and that the metal is bonded to the table.  How long will the table last then?

I'm not adding all that much metal.  But if the metal is coated and won't come free from the wood, chances are the axe handle will break before that table will. That table is going to be immune to weapons that cut or stab.  This is what armor class is meant to describe.  That if I am squatting under the table, and you're hitting the table like crazy with your axe, I'm not taking any damage.  Thus, unless you poke your weapon or hack your weapon into the joints between the protection provided by the armor, you don't do damage.  The idea is that plate armor offers less gaps than leather armor. The actual damage to the armor in a ordinary fight is usually minimal.  A single good piece of armor could last through a dozen fights and still be more or less as effective as it was at the start.  Banged up maybe, perhaps not as pretty, but still effective at keeping a sword from drawing blood from your chest.

But then, armor can break with just one hit, can't it.  All that has to happen is that the hit be just so, springing a rivet or cutting a strap.  The durability of armor isn't based on how much damage it can take, but upon just how lucky you are when you're wearing it.  If the right strap is broken, then the armor is hanging loose from your left shoulder, getting in the way of your sword strikes ... and you have to rip the rest of the now annoying armor from your body if you're going to stay in the combat.  Complex collections of things designed to wrap around your body have a lot of weak points, and any of them could go at the wrong time.  If you're in full plate, how useful is that going to be if a piece of your shin-guard has come loose from it's strap, and is dragging between your feet and threatening to trip you up?

Some chance hit like this is going to affect the usefulness of your armor far more frequently that waiting for a hundred thudding blows to land.

In the bigger picture, however, we have to ask - what is the function in the game for having armor at all? Is it to provide a realistic reproduction of a set-piece battle?  Or to test the effectiveness of one sort of armor against another?  Or even, as Alonzo suggests, to produce an annoyance to the party member who must occasionally replace their armor (which could be done very easily by having everyone roll a d100 once per combat).

No, the purpose of armor is to create the ideal of being able to purchase your way into greater safety against your enemies, in order to feel safer on the battle field and, by upgrading, last longer and kill more enemies, feeling therefore more powerful and ultimately greater as a fighter.  In short, the purpose of armor is to provide bling and good spirits.  Supposedly, at low level you can only afford leather, while at higher level you get plate, or you find magical armor and so on.  As a materialistic society, we equate bling with feeling good about ourselves, and thus the players feel they're getting ahead in the world when they can buy better armor.

It also has to be pointed out that there is a strategy inherent in armor class.  The more armor you have, the slower you move.  The less armor you have, the faster you move.  If you have a medium amount of armor, you have a medium amount of movement.  This lends agency to the players.  They can pick how vulnerable they want to be versus how mobile.  Neither is technically better or worse.  That's what makes this particular strategy really interesting.  There is no right answer.

Change that rule and you have to offer a new strategy for them to experiment with.  If you haven't got a new strategy to go along with your rule, then you've forgotten that you're not making the rule for the sake of reality, you're supposed to be making it to add thrills and chills to the game.

You can incorporate the most horrible, annoying, crippling book-keeping rules into your game, as long as there is a strategy inherent in those rules that let's the players explore and manipulate the results.  If the various strategies each have angles that make them preferable, then you really do have a cool rule to add to the game.

Thus you can't work on just your feeling.  Game design takes designing.  What function is this rule going to serve?  How will the players interact with the rule?  Will they find angles on it you never considered?  Is there room for that?

Better go back to the drawing board and start asking the right questions.  The fact that a thing is more or less 'abstract' is really just a way of saying you don't know what you're doing.


Lukas said...

Every word in a good poem is intentionally evaluated, chosen, placed and paced with careful intent and purpose.

Every rule in a great game shares that quality.

I suddenly wonder why one is merely good, and the other great.

Eric said...

We're running into definition issues here - I remember hashing this out with you in the past, Alexis. If I recall correctly, in your opinion, something is either abstract or concrete, and it doesn't make sense to talk about "degrees of abstraction."

Jhandar said...

This is a very interesting and I think your question regarding the ‘function’ is the sticking point. The core of this is the fact that rules affect play. While certainly not a revolutionary statement, I don’t think it gets as much credit as it really should and people often times gloss over the impact of rules on actual gameplay.

AC versus Damage Reduction is one of the flagship mechanical differences amongst table top games (with Vancian magic versus a magic point system being the other biggie). To claim one is superior to the other is more of a Coke vs. Pepsi distinction. But it is a very important flavor distinction.

And from a player perspective facing a group of 10 goblins armed with short swords (1d6 damage) it is a very different feel from the perspective of AC thinking that they need a >16 on a d20 to hit me and if they do I take the full weapon damage versus they need a >10 on a d20 to hit me and I have a damage reduction of 5 points. From a mathematical perspective these are two very different battles, and that will be ‘felt’ in the playing of them, even if they both result in the same amount of actual HP damage sustained. Again, one is not better, but it is important to outline early whether your game will be serving Pepsi or Coke as it were.

Dave Cesarano said...

To build off of what Jhandar wrote above, I've experimented with various systems that incorporated DR to various degrees. White Wolf has a Soak mechanic that allows a character to absorb a number of health levels of damage equal to his Stamina rating (no HP per se, but rather blocks of health that, as they are ticked off, take longer to heal and penalize your character's dice rolls until they are totally incapacitated or dead). It also has three types of damage with different healing rates (bashing, lethal, and aggravated) and all-in-all, although abstract does actually feel more realistic than D&D combat. Normal humans can only soak bashing damage, which heals the most rapidly and usually only results in a KO. Lethal can only be soaked with armor.

Palladium and Mongoose's D20 Conan game offer a system where AC and DR are combined--if you roll above the armor's rating, your weapon finds the crack or crevice and does direct damage, otherwise damage is dealt directly to the armor's hit points (Palladium) or DR kicks in (Conan D20). Conan D20 also added armor piercing ratings, allowing specific weapons to penetrate armor more effectively.

The entire hit point system has problems because although it is so abstract and nobody can quite agree on what it really represents. In real life an axe to the clavicle will deal the same amount of damage to a novice swordsman as an experienced warrior but for some reason in games the warrior has more HP so the axe's ratio of potential damage to potential HP (in other words, its lethality) is greatly reduced. This can lead to all sorts of little issues that can, if you and your players think about it too hard, disrupt suspension of disbelief.

I discuss HP here because, frankly, it is intrinsically tied to combat and AC/DR as a whole and you really can't try to "fix" one without logically attempting to "fix" the other.

But this begs the question as to whether anything needs fixing at all? In a combat-intensive game such as D&D, "fixing" it could over-complicate things, slow down combat, etc. In White Wolf games, where combat is (ideally) rare it is highly dangerous and extremely intense, with fights usually being completely decided within one or two rounds (a single hit with a sword can easily wipe an unarmored opponent out in White Wolf, and in the hands of a strong opponent a swing that connects with a high accuracy roll result will even kill someone wearing chain mail in a single hit).

It all depends on what you want for your game. If you want rare and extremely dangerous combat that may require a lot of rolls but also feature high stakes and high tension with every swing, White Wolf isn't a bad choice. If you want a lot of combat and want it to run smoothly because you're going to be having fights with high regularity, D&D is the way to go.

Designing your own system is going to require plenty of playtesting in order to help design and incorporate those strategies Alexis mentioned. Just saying, "This is broke and I want to fix it" isn't good enough. The redesign has to suit a purpose and provide opportunities for players to engage with the system and have fun doing so. It also has to fit the needs and intentions of the game, the world, the tone and mood, and the overall aesthetic that the DM and players want to experience while playing. Otherwise, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Alright, I've got a new post up. It's part defense of my ideas on abstraction vs realism, and part a proposal for a new system that goes back to more tradition AC, but with nuance for finding out the specifics of what happened when it's important for gameplay resolution. There are probably some good holes to pick in it, so I guess I'll see what people think.

(By the way, for people who don't know, Ozzie is a nickname of Alonzo based on rearranging some of the letters. It's not a very common name variation so it's probably not clear to some people that we're the same person. The commenter Grethshifor is my worpress account, also.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

I wasn't really criticizing any system, Ozzie, or looking for one. I was making Dave Cesarano's point - that a GAME system isn't based on what's real, but on what makes a good experience.

Most of the arguments about systems that have become hopelessly bogged down in this vs that for the sake of this rather than that have done so because, on the whole, none of the solutions proposed over the last forty years have substantially changed the dynamic originating with the first role-playing games (I include more than OD&D). Cosmetically yes, there are changes, but the all important factors of "victory against long odds" or "fear of death" haven't improved in any system I've ever seen offered. The very fact that these are NEVER considerations for the person who changes the rules is very telling.

Dave Cesarano said...

This does clue into Ron Edward's (now revised) GNS theories which have gotten a lot of traction at The Forge ( where independent game designers with self-published games are experimenting with roleplaying and what it can do.

A Simulationist game system wants to create a believable world into which the players can step and explore with systems designed to model life in that world as accurately as possible. Alonzo, I'd definitely suggest you start looking into GNS Theory and some of what Ron Edwards has written about system design because, although I've some issues with it, it does successfully describe three broad categories of player which I've encountered. I don't think it can hurt your design experiments and can probably help you, if anything.

Mike said...

This is the key to good game design, strategy, the strategy the rules do or do not open up to the player's. And hopefully they are ones they want.

The next, for me, is implementation of this rule in the simplest form possible to get you that strategy.

People throw around verisimilitude, but I'd say that word works when you get both the game strategies you want wrapped in the flavor you want.