Sunday, March 29, 2009

Assigning specific roles to character classes

Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons has adopted the MMORPG idea that character classes are specialized to perform certain roles in the party, namely defender, leader, striker, and controller. I've been pondering my impressions of how this works out.

I'm comparing this in my mind to traditional role-playing games of the past. In particular, Champions comes to mind is a great tactical role-playing game, since the idea of roles seems to be a rather tactical idea. In Champions, it is traditional to describe characters as being “bricks”, “martial artists”, “mentalists”, and so on, each of which is assumed to have certain characteristics. But these are just labels - there is nothing that constrains you to make characters that fit any of these niches, and even if you do, the roles don't really dictate what your actual purposes in a fight, they are more like descriptions of what you tend to be good and bad at, from which your purpose might be inferred. In Dungeons & Dragons, each class has strong specific powers to perform its specific role, and there is a clear idea of how the different roles are supposed to work together in combat.

What I think I like most about the roles is the idea of the leader role, a character who specializes in making the party work better as a whole rather than in making individual attacks. The main reason this appeals to me is that it allows certain character conceptions to work much better. I've created a number of character conceptions in the past which are based on the idea of being leaders or support characters. Certainly in fiction, the idea that someone can be a great leader is considered very important and meaningful. But in game terms, this typically had no effect, or very little effect. And trying to be a character who offer support in other ways was typically boring, ineffective, or not well supported by the game system. The leader classes allow you to make this character type interesting, effective, and fun to play.

The defender role is also fairly interesting and had a lot of potential. In a game like Champions, a character with high defenses would often try to suck up attacks by going one-on-one with the most powerful opponents were standing in the middle of the toughest situations, but there wasn't really anything in the game rules that specifically made this work. Adding in special abilities to make this work as part of the game is fun because it allows you to better implement the purpose of your character, and having more types of useful abilities makes characters more distinctive and thus more interesting.

In 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, not only do they create these new powers to represent the various roles, but they make sure to specifically give each class powers that strongly place them in a given role, so that each character is a specialist in one role, rather than having a general assortment of various powers. The idea is that the party forms an interlocking whole, with each character participating in their own way (as in World of Warcraft, which I've heard about but never played).

So from a game design perspective, the question that comes to my mind is whether specializing each player into a specific role works better than my previously preferred character generation style of giving each character whatever powers seem appropriate for their conception, even if the powers do not synergize together to implement a specific role. After playing Dungeons & Dragons for a while, I feel that having a party which consists of an interlocking group of characters, each of which sharply implements one of the 4 roles, works well but isn't particularly any more (or less) interesting or desirable than a group of characters with fuzzy roles.

First of all, each of the 4 roles seems optional and the party is still interesting without each one. While having a defender in the party is certainly useful, the opportunity attack mechanic seems to do a pretty good job of tying down monsters in melee combat with the characters, and the defenders mostly just tie down the same monsters even better. Just like in any other game, the way the damage gets spread out among the players ultimately depends on who the GM decides to attack. The striker role is really just better at the “default role” of all characters, causing damage to single targets, so removing all strikers wouldn't really change much. The controller certainly has a big impact on how effective the party is vs. large groups of monsters, but I've played with and without a controller, and although it changes the feel of combats vs. masses of monsters, the combats are just as fun without a controller as with a controller. The leader class is the only one that is absolutely essential, but that is just because the existence of healing powers in the party makes the damage system work much better. If you look at the “leader” aspect of the role, the ability to give bonuses to other characters in the party, this is interesting and certainly useful but the combats seem like they would also work okay without a character dedicated to these powers.

It is probably more interesting to have a variety of the different types of powers (certainly I think it wouldn't be that great if everyone was just a damage dealer and no one in the party had tactical powers), but it doesn't seem essential that these powers be given to characters of the corresponding role.

The downside of strongly identifying each class with a specific role is that can be a definite nuisance when trying to create exactly the character you want to create, because it forces the character to have or not have abilities in a way that may not match the "role-playing meaning" of the class. The problem is subtle, but quite noticeable to my perfectionist eye.

For instance, the rogue class has a very powerful sneak attack ability to fulfill its role as a striker. However, the "color" of the class makes it appear that a rogue can be a wide variety of dextrous, skillful, lightly equipped martial character types. You can be thief, a swashbuckler, a ninja, a bold explorer, or lots of other things, and the powers and paragon classes seem to support this. But ultimately, the characters you can actually create are more limited. You can be a thief who is obsessed with gaining combat advantage, a swashbuckler who is obsessed with gaining combat advantage, a ninja who is obsessed with gaining combat advantage, a bold explorer who is obsessed with gaining combat advantage, and so on. The idea of playing a character who is obsessed with gaining combat advantage is pretty interesting, but it is a little monotonous that all rogues must be built this way.

A similar example is the fighter. It sounds like the most basic fantasy archetype you can have, just a heavily armored martial warrior. But ultimately, you can't just make a heavily armored mercenary. You have to be a heavily armored mercenary who immobilizes his opponents. This is a cool idea, but it is odd that every fighter has it. What I've seen is that when players who aren't too familiar with the rules make a fighter, they tend to envision that they are making a heavily armored warrior with a strong defense and powerful offense. The idea that the character class has this very strong ability to immobilize opponents is just kind of weird, they aren’t necessarily all that interested in having this ability as compared to something more straightforward.

A final example is the warlord. The idea of the great leader who gives benefits to his troops is really cool. But from a role-playing perspective, which you usually envision is a great warrior with strong leadership abilities. Having every single power, without exception, be based on teamwork and leadership, can feel somewhat restrictive.

I think there is actually a lot to be said for making sure that the characters have distinctive powers and capabilities, so that each character adds something to the party which no one else does, and the characters do not overlap. However, I do not think sharp role delineation is necessary to achieve this - in fact, it seems to get in the way (characters of the same role tend to be pushed towards more similarity with each other than they might otherwise prefer).

Actually, now that I think of it, the striker role is so generic that my issue with the rogue can't really be with the role, but more about the very specific implementation of striker power that they have. If the rogue was simply allowed to pick a different striker power, you could probably make a swashbuckling fencer just fine. But what if you wanted to make a fencer who could sometimes attack fiercely, sometimes inspire the party with his charismatic leadership, and sometimes tie down the opponent with a defensive fighting style? This is the sort of thing that I think would work just fine if allowed, even though it is spread out over multiple roles.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Focus Fire

The topic of my blog today is focus fire. This is the tendency of games to encourage all of the attacks on one side to be directed against a single opponent on the other side, instead of being spread out among the opponents. Focus fire is number 1 on my list of hard-to-fix problems with classic game mechanics; the problem is omnipresent in many games of many kinds, and I have been thinking of ways to deal with it for a long time. But this article is mainly about describing the problem.

Focus fire is a major problem on 2 fronts - it is not fun, and it does not simulate the source material or reality. For the first point, focus fire definitely is not fun when it is performed against the players. The effect on the game of encouraging focus fire is to cause the characters on one side to be "whittled down" one at a time. Being taken out of the fight is not fun for a player. If the player is only controlling one character, he is out of the game completely at that point. Game mechanics that encourage this sort of thing to happen are very directly anti-fun.

4th edition D&D helps deal with this problem by making different rules for players and monsters, and making it very difficult for players to be permanently knocked out of the combat. But even still, having one character be the focus of all enemy attacks is still boring, because the other players don't have a chance to use their powers and abilities to defend themselves. Although making attacks is certainly more fun than taking attacks, it is quite common in many games for characters to have powers and abilities that help them defend, powers that they want a chance to use.

In a role-playing game where one side is controlled entirely a game master, the question of whether it is a fun to have the monsters be whittled down one at a time is much less clear-cut. Defeating foes one by one can give a sense of progress and accomplishment, and if players can do it but their opponents can't, it provides a way to have good dramatic pacing where the villain seem very powerful at the start but eventually they get weaker and the players come from behind and win. But I'm not sure focus fire handles this in the right way. What you really want dramatically is for the players to become more heroic, start outfighting the monsters, and defeat them in a climactic blaze of glory. When the monsters are whittled down one at a time, what you get is that they become less and less dangerous, but even after the characters know they have won the fight because they have defeated the most dangerous monsters, it takes a long time to chew through all the hit points of the undamaged remaining monsters. Focus fire tends to mean that scary, interesting monsters get killed very quickly, so the monsters become less interesting and capable as the fight progresses. Of course, you can sometimes lessen the problem by having the monsters run away when the fight becomes less interesting - but this isn’t always practical or desirable.

Also, when the characters know that focus fire is incredibly effective, it greatly constrains their actions. Instead of attacking the target that seems most interesting or most appropriate to attack, or who is most vulnerable to whatever power or tactic they plan to use, every character must attack the same target. Of course, a tactical game involves making some decisions better than others, but this isn't a very interesting tactic. It is monotonous to concentrate fire on the same target all the time, especially because it usually isn't very difficult to do.

Focus fire also isn't generally consistent with the source material for the genre of the game. Most fictional characters and units just do not focus all of their fire on one target at a time. Instead, they “engage” and matchup against individual opponents, though often the engagements are ever-shifting in the confusing excitement of a general melee. This sort of excitement is fun, but it doesn't exist in a game where everyone is clustered around the target of the moment, concentrating on beating in one head of the time. Compared to the exciting action of fights in movies and comic books, a fight with focus fire seems “dorky” - repetitive and out of place, more reminiscent of a mindless computer game than a story.

The fundamental source of the focus fire problem is the game mechanic of hit points, a tried and true game mechanic going all the way back to first edition D&D. When using the classic hit point game mechanic, each attack has a chance of causing some amount of damage to the character, and the main or only effect of damage is that when the total damage reaches a certain level, the character is defeated. This is a simple, reliable system that works well in many ways, but it adds a certain artificiality that creates the focus fire problem.

Specifically, the problem is that an attack has no effect on the target or anything else unless it is the final attack that brings the opponent over the threshold and defeats them. The only way to gain any tangible benefit in the combat is to knock out or kill you foes, and the best way to do that is to concentrate your fire on one target at a time. Spreading your attacks out over multiple targets simply means that none of them will be defeated until it is close to the end of the fight. In most games there is very little that controls your choice of targets, so this becomes the overriding game mechanic.

This key element is one of the elements that makes focus fire seem so unrealistic. With the classic hit point system, you know with certainty that making an attack against an opponent who hasn't been attacked before can't possibly have the slightest effect on them. This doesn't seem to correspond well to many real or cinematic fights. When you attack someone with a sword, you expect that the attack poses a serious threat to them. Characters in the movies don't "know" that sword attacks aren't allowed to hurt the opponent unless the opponent has been attacked many times previously.

Also, in a real or cinematic fight, many things are happening and you have to pay attention to defending yourself and making whatever attacks you can get away with amidst the chaos of the fight. You aren’t just sitting there launching one attack every 5 seconds against a target of your choice. Role-playing games try to manage the havoc and complexity by breaking things down into simplicity, and they need to do this in order to make the game playable. But an unfortunate side effect is that they don't model “engagement” very well - in a game, it is awfully easy to ignore the guy standing in front of you and attacking you with a sword, so that you can run somewhere else and attack the most efficient target.

It is interesting to compare how classic strategic wargames typically do not have the focus fire problem. In real life, "concentration of forces" is a valuable goal, and classic wargames give you a major bonus for concentrating your forces, which might seem like it would create a greatly magnified version of the focus fire problem. But in a war game, concentration of fire really means getting a lot of troops in one area, and the reason this is interesting is because the game provides other incentives that make you want to spread your forces out, such as the desire to conquer or hold territory. In a classic war game, even if you are allowed to make yourself unbeatable by putting all of your forces into one city, the enemy will simply ignore you and destroy every city except the one you are in, and thus win the game. The problem with many tactical and role-playing games is that concentrating your fire or your forces is encouraged by the rules and is trivial to do, so the proper tactics degenerate into merging all of your forces into one homogenized glob.

There are 2 very simple alternatives to the classic hit point mechanic that remove the focus fire problem, but neither is practical in a typical role-playing game.

The first is to make the damage stateless, so that the effect of a hit does not depend on the number of previous hits. Most often, this means that a hit has a chance of defeating the target, and if it does not, the target is completely unaffected. This works well in games involving one player controlling large numbers of units, none of which is terribly crucial. Hypothetically, it is fairly realistic for certain types of combat, such as gun fights with on unarmored combatants. However, it is much too simple, random, and sudden for the important heroes and villains in a role-playing game.

The second approach is to make the offensive capability of the character proportional to the number of remaining hit points. This also has a certain amount of realism, and is more practical to do in a role-playing game. In fact, many games have tried some version of this, giving attack penalties to wounded characters. But in order for this to really be effective to prevent focus fire, the penalty has to be quite large. I recall playing games with such large penalties, such as MERP, and the rule was generally loathed by the players because it made them ineffective when badly wounded, and it just isn't fun to be ineffective. The general feeling was that it was better to be knocked out completely then stumble around the combat is an invalid. Role-playing games are about heroes, and heroes are supposed to fight even more bravely when wounded, whether it is realistic or not. So this rule isn’t practical. However, when trying to make more entertaining rules, it is interesting to compare the effect they have to this "mathematic ideal".

Many games have other rules which explicitly encourage focus fire, such as many-on-one bonuses, or implicitly encourage focus fire, such as limits on the number of parries a character can make in a single turn. Such rules are typically added for greater "realism", but I generally dislike such rules because they make the focus fire problem even worse. In theory, some of these rules could be interesting if there were other rules that made it tactically difficult to concentrate fire on a single target. But because concentrating fire is so easy, I prefer to ignore rules that give you extra bonuses for doing so.

Monday, March 16, 2009

My Favorite Games – Part 2

In my previous blog, I described my very favorite games in terms of game mechanics. Here I will describe some of the games that also caught my attention with interesting and useful game mechanics, though I didn't necessarily like the game mechanics overall.

MERP (Middle Earth role-playing) was very interesting. I should properly say that Role Master was the actual game system, but I liked the stripped-down system in MERP better, especially since it had so much more background and character. The critical system, along with the open-ended rolls and the distinct effects of armor and agility, was an early attempt to make combat much more interesting than in D&D. And indeed it was more interesting. Unfortunately, it was a terrible idea for game balance - the characters were doomed to a sudden and instantaneous death at a random time. But it was fun in the meantime, and I'm not going into all the bad points here. I also love the fact that there were more than a dozen different races of humans in the game. You could have a party consisting mostly of humans (which always feels more realistic), and still feel that you were different from each other.

D6 Star Wars is my favorite game that I did not include in the previous blog. The combat and skill systems are overall rather pedestrian, so I couldn't include it as a game with great game mechanics. But the emphasis on cinematic role-playing, and on capturing the spirit of the source material, was perhaps my favorite of any game, actually better than that of Torg. I also really liked the "spell system". Treating force powers as skills whose effects the GM can arbitrate seemed elegant compared to systems using spell points or spells per day.

Phoenix Command has to be commended for its drive in attempting to produce a "realistic" modern military role-playing game. I don't recall actually liking the gameplay, but it certainly sticks in my mind as a reference point for a certain style of role-playing game rules construction.

Vampire and the Storyteller system seems to have been a very popular game, but it didn't have interesting game mechanics, this seemed to be more of a game for pure role-playing. The one part that seem cool to me was the idea of taking what would normally be a singular type of monster, and breaking it down into many subtypes, each of which have a different subset of the powers attributed to the monster.

Marvel Superheroes had some pretty weak rules overall, but it does have a couple of aspects that stick in my mind. It was the first game I can recall playing that seriously used the "hero point" concept to allow amazing feats, rather than just weak “luck points". Also, I have a fondness for the way it had a clear system for rating which your attributes meant in absolute terms - you could rate exactly how good your character was compared to the classic comic book characters.

Monday, March 9, 2009

My Favorite Games

At this blog I'm going to describe those few games that stand out in my mind as being the great advances in game mechanics.

The first great advance in game mechanics would have to be first edition Dungeons & Dragons, since it was the first role-playing game. Although I don't care for the game mechanics now, at the time it was pretty amazing, and it created the rules basis for later games to improve upon. I had a lot of fun playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, though I stopped playing as newer and better games came out, and D&D stayed the same.

The other games on this list are games that I remain impressed with to this day. I'm pretty picky when it comes to game mechanics, and for the great majority of games I think of them having basically weak or mediocre game mechanics, with certain interesting exceptions of rules that I find noteworthy. The following are the games that I think of as having basically great game mechanics, and it is the rules I don't like that stand out in my mind as the exceptions.

The first is Champions, the superhero role-playing game. Perhaps the greatest feature of Champions is that it is the epitome of the flexible, point-based character generation system. Champions attempts to let you create any character you can envision. No classes, no lists of interesting but highly specific powers - you just think of the character you want, then figure out how the character can be realized within the game system. Of course it isn't perfect (what is?), but it is by far the best game at doing this sort of thing.

Champions also introduced a strong combat system with enough interesting powers to make combats intrinsically exciting. In most role-playing games, combats are primarily interesting to the extent that you are invested in the characters and the storytelling. Taken out of context, the gameplay is pretty weak compared to playing a modern board game or war game. 1st edition D&D was mostly just rolling dice and picking spells. In Champions, however, combat is a big event, and each combat feels like a board game session all by itself, something that can be really interesting even without the role-playing aspects.

The next great game in my mind is Torg. The first impressive feature of Torg is its emphasis on cinematic role-playing. Champions wasn’t too bad in this area, in that it tried hard to suggest that the game follow the world of comic books rather than trying to be pseudo-realistic. But Torg (actually West End Games in general) really focused on great suggestions towards playing your game like a movie, dividing it into acts and scenes and pacing it like a dramatic adventure.

Torg was also great in progressing to the next level in terms of intrinsically interesting gameplay. Champions has a fun combat system, but it plays things as a straight simulation. Torg added "gaminess” to the combat system, adding gameplay elements that were just fun to do even when they had no literal direct parallel to what was really happening “on the screen”. Playing around with cards, and in particular being able to taunt and intimidate opponents as an actual part of the game system, is really cool. Not that this style of combat doesn't have disadvantages as well as advantages, but as a new and exciting alternative, it was a great development.

Torg was certainly not the first game to use the "hero point" concept, but in my mind it was the first game with generally great game mechanics to use that concept, and it really went with it wholeheartedly. With cards and possibilities, you really have a lot of control over what happens to your character in the adventure, and you can shine when you really need to.

To me, though, the biggest innovation of Torg was the dramatic skill resolution system. Traditionally combat is a big and exciting part of a role-playing game, but the use of skills is just talking and a few dice rolls. Trying to make skill checks integrated into the system as a fun and exciting part of gameplay, so that trying to disarm a bomb or infiltrate a villain’s hideout can be just as dramatic and exciting in the game as it is in the source material, was a fantastic concept.

The final game on my list is fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons. First of all, I'm just impressed they had the guts to take the oldest and most well-known game system, and changing it into something new and exciting that incorporates some of the sophistication of Champions and Torg, while pushing forward the boundaries of game mechanics even further.

The aspect that impresses me the most is the improvements in the way that powers work. I love the way that there are many different and interesting powers, and that even mundane fighting characters are given powers that are just as interesting as the more exotic magical characters. Having powers which can only be used once per encounter or per day makes for much more variety in the use of powers. And the attention to detail in the combat system and its interactions with the powers - for instance, the ability to have powers put foes under conditions which are tactically interesting rather than ineffective or frustrating - is really exceptional.

The other aspect I really like is the attempt to make Dungeons & Dragons a system which is fundamentally game balanced. Torg and Champions aren't even remotely balanced games, and fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons is just awesome in that it not only supports a fundamental game balance, but has tremendous flexibility and versatility at the same time.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Updated Combat Fatigue Rule

I posted a new version of the Combat Fatigue Rule (see the sidebar) and updated the designer's notes. I think it is now much simpler, more fair, and more elegant.