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.


  1. I was just reminded about this post because I was talking to my gf about a game mechanic in an MMO (Atlantica Online). In these battles (where your party is fighting several opponents rather than a single foe), you can stun an opponent by hitting it with an attack three rounds in a row. Basically, you accumulate a combo point if you have a successful attack against that particular foe. If you do not succeed in hitting it in the next round, that combo point is lost.
    Of course, this is a much easier mechanic to bring into a computer game, as there is no toll on game time, but a system along those lines might be an idea.
    Of course, the effect (stun) and duration would have to be balanced.

  2. I'm not clear from the description what exactly would make this effect work against focus fire - that is, what discourages multiple characters from concentrating and super-stunning the same foe?

    Perhaps it is one or more of the following:

    A) If everyone concentrates fire, the foe doesn't survive long enough to get stunned by anyone.
    B) Stunning the foe is so effective that it is a waste for more than one player to stun the same foe.
    C) Timing issues make it difficult for characters not to stun the same foe simultaneously, and stuns aren't cumulative.
    D) Players disrupt each other's attempts to build up combos.

  3. To clarify what I mean by "super-stunning", I mean, what aspect of the game mechanics makes player not want to perform the D&D "stun-lock" mechanic, where one player stuns the opponent, and each other player stuns him again as soon as he recovers from the first stun?

  4. I don't remember what I wrote before, but allow me to explain :)
    In Atlantica Online (AO) you control a party and fight groups of monsters (much like in D&D). The in-game mechanics for Atlantica Online are as follows:
    The first hit in an entire round provides the players with 1 combo-point. No matter how many hits you deal to one monster in a round, you only get a single point. If a hit is scored against the same monster for three consecutive rounds, it is stunned (for a round or two). After the stun wears off, you can again start to accumulate combo points. This removes some incentive for focus fire as 5 players can (theoretically) stun all 5 monsters every 3 rounds - assuming all attacks hit.
    If you focus fire, you would only stun a single foe every 3. round. Spreading your attacks can stun more monsters (although there is probably a breaking point where you want to have enough attacks on a monster to ensure that it is hit every round).

    But for a D&D house rule, the 3 consecutive turns requirement could be removed.

  5. Of course, I don't think this can be directly translated to work for D&D. First of all, that would mean even more "super-stunning" when the players have powers that stun AND they can stun by hitting three rounds in a row.
    Also, the stun mechanic is very powerful. Something such as dazed might be better.
    It also has to be balanced with a solo encounter where all attacks go against a low amount of monsters or area attacks, which become a lot more valuable.
    There may also be an easier way to manage the tracking of the "combo-points".

    An idea might be to have the monster hit better or do more damage if they aren't disturbed. If no fighting are going on around them, it is easier to set up a good shot/attack (a little like lurkers, as you mentioned in a post on monster roles). But again, the tracking this is the limiting factor.