Friday, July 10, 2015

Damn Barn

I do have to put this together on my wiki; but as it needs organization, there's nothing wrong with my thinking through the process on the blog first.

So, let's go back and look at Prowess again from the previous post.

As I said, I'm not interested in increasing the number of attacks or the amount of damage the fighter does.  This is always the premise for adjusting fighter abilities and frankly, I think it's dissonant in thought structure. The fighter will inevitably increase attacks and damage through gaining levels and acquiring equipment!  Adding even more to that is simply doubling down on the same system that's already in place.  Why not just half the amount of xp required to go up a level and have done with it?

The problem comes from adopting an overly abstract combat system.  Yes, yes, we can make the system very 2-dimensional in structure in order to encourage the fluidity of the system - but it also means that we take away most means we have to tweak that system.  If, for example, we invent a system where every weapon does the same amount of damage (1d6), then we get rid of any need to refer to the instrument as a sword, a dagger or a club.  "I swing with my weapon" is the only phrase that has relevance.  We have rendered everything else gray.

Players accept this graying of rules because it is believed it makes combat easier to manage.  Less abstraction makes for greater complexity, while complexity sucks the life out of a combat.  Virtually every system that steps away from abstraction winds up producing an excessive number of tables and rules for using tables to account for the greater number of events that would be expected in a more complex combat simulation.

I think the thinking is muddy.  The error isn't that less abstraction makes things more complicated; the error is thinking that more detail makes things less abstract.  Take the classic deviation from abstraction: hit location.  The supposition that by introducing a table that tells the player what part of the body will be hit, we will increase the immersion of the experience.  It is similar to the weapon argument I made above; knowing what part of the body is hit removes the grayness, yes?

There is a very distinct difference between these two concepts, one that is always missed by would-be designers.  I, me, I am the one that chooses what weapon to use.  This makes it personal.  Personal elements do promote immersion, because these are elements that I control.  Hit location, on the other hand, is controlled by the die.  It is impersonal.  I am not in control.

In choosing the weapon, I develop a strategy that fixates on how much damage the weapon does as opposed to how heavy it is, how likely it is to break, how hard it is to replace, how many hands does it need, what is its range, how effective is it against different monsters, etcetera.  These are considerations that affect my choice.

To produce a similar effect from hit location, I need to be able to control the exact amount of armor that I wear on different parts of my body; I need to know exactly what effect occurs if I am hit on the arm versus the leg, and which leg, and which part of my chest (because both sides are not the same), and my neck versus my head, so that I can comparatively shop for what parts of my body I really want to cover.  I need to know the width of my shield and how widths affect movement, the same with the material the shield is made from, etcetera.  Finally, I want rules on targeting other persons, because I want to remove the randomness, I want to make it personal, I want to feel like if I hit him in the arm I meant to do so, because it produced this result that works great when I then hit him in the thigh and drive for his weapon-bearing shoulder.

Note the difference in difficulty between attack and defense.  Defense is harder to manage, it is harder to build a rule system for and it is generally less exciting than hitting.  In hit location, the only thing that makes it interesting is targeting.

But, if we target, we know we're always going to want to target the best way to kill the person.  If I know the head is the kill spot, then I don't care about anything else.  It doesn't help to make a rule about what happens to my target if I go for his legs, if the head is ultimately the kill spot anyway.  If it's better to go for the legs first and then the head, sure, that's great, but once that's the pathway we've settled on then it Might Just As Well Be Gray.

But this is a nuance that is generally lost.

I can feel the weapon in my hand.  That matters.  I like that I'm using a spear not a sword.  Because I can throw the spear or use it vs. charge.  Where damage is concerned, however, I just want to know how close I am to killing.  Every other consideration is meaningless.  The difference in weapon only matters because the sword kills in some situations better than a spear.  The sword does more damage than the spear.  I can't throw it.  The spear does less damage but I can throw it.  These alternatives are distinctive.

In many campaigns, however, no chance is ever, ever, ever given to throw the spear. Or the players just don't think about it. Context isn't encouraged. The DM rushes the combats to get to the other side and everyone just throws dice anyway.  Whereupon the distinction is lost, so who cares anyway?  Make every weapon do 1d6 damage.  Will make no difference in that campaign.

We have run into it so many times it has become dogma:

"Adding Rules Makes The Game Unplayable"

It's bogus, but the prejudice is there.  We've all played games that were trash and we've all gotten frustrated when the complexity of the rules made adapting to the game impossible.  But in our anger and frustration, we've rushed out and lynched the wrong culprit.  Complexity is a normal part of most of the things we do - just look at the computer you're reading this on.  No, no, no, the real culprit is bad design.  Abysmal design.  Design that tried to add colour to peripheral, unimportant, deservedly gray parts of the game . . . that in turn failed to produce any value in exchange for it's increased complexity.

We deal with these computers because they do amazing things.  We don't put up with a bad combat system because it does shit.

Damn.  I've gone way off into left field.  This is not what I was going to talk about.  I just wanted to make the point that to make rules for adjusting combat without adding to number of attacks and damage, we need a system that lets us access player choice.  Prowess as a sage study is no good at all if the players aren't encouraged to adjust their combat strategies through the acquisition of new approaches, tools, abilities and so on . . . and that isn't possible in a bland, overly abstract system.

We need a complicated system if we're going to give the players more choices.  Choice is the Holy Grail.

If you are right now designing a combat system that doesn't start from the position of giving the player more choices, then stop now.  Rip it up.  It will fail.  You're totally looking at the wrong problem.

The question isn't, "How do we make this more real?"

The question, dear reader, is "How do I give more opportunities for my players to participate?"

If they're allowed to participate MORE during combat, they won't care if it's complex.  They'll want complex.  Hell, so long as there's return for their actions, you won't be able to make it complex enough.

This is the problem the game world is having where it comes to video games.  After 40 years, they're still too simple.  It still isn't like, well, anything is alive . . .

We do get that A.I. would be insanely complex, right?


  1. Well now I have several things to go back and review in my own game. I have a feeling some of the things I've intentionally left abstract could use more definition in a way that introduces all kinds of choices they've used them for in the past. Being able to better define what they can actually do would certainly assist some of my less experienced players feel like they have more impact compared to my more creative players. Level the playing field a bit without stripping out all flexibility. Good stuff here, I really enjoy your work.

  2. As someone's who been trying to solve this question for awhile, this is great food for thought. I'm beginning to wonder if partial automation is part of the answer.

  3. I know I promised you ages ago that I was going to comment more frequently, let you know when you hit the mark. Of course, I haven't even had time to keep up with the blog...
    Do I need to tell you that this is pure gold, or did you already know?

  4. It is always, always, always good to hear it, Maximillian.


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