Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Power levels: Baseline vs. Minimax

I have a passion for game balance, and I often evaluate games in considerable detail to determine which things are more powerful than others. After buying the D&D Player's Handbook 2, I naturally started looking things over to determine what the power level was and to determine whether there has been "power creep", the tendency of games to print new things with every expansion published that are more powerful than the old things, so that people playing with the new expansions are more powerful than people playing with the old stuff. But first, I thought I would mention something that often comes to mind, which is why my own opinion of the "power level" of various things in the game does not always seem to match up with what would appear to be the "online consensus" that one might tend to pick up by skimming popular forums. I think that my temptation is to analyze the "baseline" power level of a game, but that most people who evaluate the power level of a game are more interested in evaluating the "minimax" power level of the game.

For instance, in a theoretical sense you would expect the various power choices available at each level for a D&D class to be approximately equal to each other. But in practice, they are not equal. I often get frustrated with the way that powers can be so blatantly unbalanced that it is immediately obvious they are not equal - what were they thinking? But even if you make a serious attempt to balance the powers, you are bound to make mistakes, it is just too difficult a task. So you have a bunch of different abilities, some of which are more powerful than others. Which abilities represent the "power level" of that class?

From the power-gaming point of view, the answer is clearly the very best powers from each class level. Moreover, the focus of discussion is on using these powers in combination or in situations in which they are most powerful. This "minimax” power level seems to be the most often talked about, likely for the reason that is the essence of power-gaming. And by “power-gaming”, what we are really talking about is traditional competitive game playing. Surely just about every chess book ever written is written from the "power-gaming” point of view, the desire to analyze what the best way to win the game is. Who writes chess books about fun ways to just move the pieces about? The fact that role-playing games can allow, and encourage, non-competitive playing is the unusual new paradigm.

This, however, is more like the paradigm from which I view the game. The "baseline" power level is the level that appears to represent how powerful the game designers intended to make each ability, under the assumption that they thought they were making balanced powers. Mixed in with this is a dose of how good the powers would have to be in order to make the classes equal. Also, in many cases, what I tend to look at for the “baseline” power level is what would be the average power if you ignored all the powers that were so weak and useless as to be boring, and ignore all the powers that were so mighty and broken that I would want to modify or ban them.

An illustration here is Magic: The Gathering. I go in and out of phases of playing this game, but my passion is always for making decks that are fun to play and balanced against each other rather than trying to make decks that will beat other players’ decks. When looking at the various sets of magic cards published, if you look online, you might see a lot about how many of the cards in the original “alpha” edition of the game were completely broken, like the infamous moxes, which could make just about any deck better, and how this was corrected in later sets. You don’t see so much talk about what is interesting to me, which is that the vast majority of the cards in the original edition were extremely weak compared to the average cards in later editions, and the power level of the average card seemed to keep moving up and up in later editions. If you are interested in competitive gaming, it isn't terribly interesting how powerful the average card is, since most cards fall into the category of "useless cards" anyway. But when I'm trying to make decks that are balanced against each other, it is very significant to know how powerful the average card actually is. To a competitive discussion, the “correct” power level of a card is to be equal to the best cards currently played with that aren’t banned or restricted; to me, the “correct” power level of a card is the typical power level you might get if you built a deck from random cards.

On a related note, the question of how "broken” a card is also varies on your perspective. A “mox” is considered totally broken because you pretty much want to have in every deck, as it is strictly better than the alternatives, not to mention the possibility of including it in evil combinations. But from my perspective, when constructing "normal" decks, a card like "Moat” is much more broken. The "normal" deck wins by attacking with creatures, and Moat can potentially shut down certain decks completely so that they cannot attack at all. Moat isn’t the sort of thing that is considered powerful in competitive play, since you aren't using "normal" decks at all, and even if you are using a deck that would be affected, you could easily make sure your deck can deal with the problem, and because so many decks can deal with the card, nobody will bother to even put the card in the deck at all. But I find this card very broken because it is fairly easy to play, and once it is played the other player, if he is using the wrong kind of normal deck, may be totally helpless, or may be stuck trying to draw the one or two cards in his entire deck that could deal with the situation. Putting a mox in one of my normal decks would seem tame by comparison; it wouldn’t break the game to draw a single mox, it just makes the deck more powerful.

This reminds me somewhat of web discussions on the “Orb of Imposition” wizard ability in D&D. It is easy to find discussion about how broken this ability is - which is certainly true when you reach very high levels or combine it with unfortunate combos. But my first impression about this ability is how depressing limited it is at low levels. There are only a tiny handful of daily powers with which this can really be used, and the effect isn't that much. You pretty much have to take the sleep spell if you want this ability to do anything, and even then it is just a modifier to a roll by the GM once per day. Pretty disappointing compared to most real class features. The real story with this ability is how broken the scaling is, it starts off weak and grows disproportionately rapidly with levels.

Well, back to the original point, while I haven't really had the time to do a deep analysis, my impression of the PHB2 was that it increases the "baseline" power level, but doesn't have as many "broken" powers, and is probably better balanced in general. So it probably doesn't increase the "minimax” power level, except insofar as the new “mandatory” feats make every class in both books more powerful.

I'll continue this discussion in the next blog entry.

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