Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Balancing The Game To Encourage Genre Appropriate Actions

One of my primary goals when designing game mechanics is to make the game encourage actions which are genre-appropriate, fun, or fit well with the theme of the game. Encouragement can mean different things, but it most often means making that action one of the best possible actions from the competitive point of view (winning the game or defeating the adventure).

Let's create an example of what I'm trying to prevent. Imagine you have a fencer in a swashbuckling adventure game. The character concept, and the genre, imply that he should frequently use his weapon to disarm his opponents, rather than simply stabbing them.

In most traditional roleplaying games, the disarm maneuver involves the attacker making some sort of (often fairly difficult) roll to successfully force the defender to drop his weapon. So the game has fulfilled the mechanical requirement of permitting the character to disarm the foe.

The problem is that the disarmed opponent can then spend his action to pick the weapon back up. So all the fencer has done is spend an entire action to force the opponent to spend an action. And that is if he succeeds in the disarm; otherwise, he has spent an action for no effect. So overall, disarm costs an action for the attacker in order to cost the defender less than an action. Not very useful.

Now, one might point out that there are situations where this disarm maneuver is indeed useful. In particular, if there are two PC's fighting one opponent, one PC can disarm the opponent, and the other can pick up the weapon, leaving the defender unarmed and helpless. Or if you are fighting near a cliff or in a bog, you may be able to disarm an opponent and have the weapon be lost for good. Also, you can use disarm just to waste time, in case the situation doesn't require you to win, or if you are one-on-one with a more powerful opponent and want to delay matters until your allies arrive.

Unfortunately, none of this really helps the situation at hand, which is capturing the spirit of a swashbuckler movie where the fencer frequently disarms opponents in situations where none of these are true. Indeed, the fencer is often outnumbered and pressed for time, yet still disarms the opponents. But when playing a game with standard disarm rules, one would very quickly realize that this is totally ineffective and basically a waste of time, and the player would want to start stabbing opponents to win the battle.

One response to this would be to say that the swashbuckler has a psychological limitation that makes him enjoy disarming opponents even though it isn't really effective, just because he enjoys doing so. This limitation could give him the points to be such a good fencer that he can get away with some nonsense and still win the fights. But I don't really feel like this is true to the source material or the character. If this were true, you'd expect the other characters in the movie to say, "Wow, that guy's a good fencer. Too bad he's a grandstanding moron!" But they don't do so, and the movie doesn't convey that impression. Indeed, the character concept for the swashbuckler may well be that of a reluctant hero forced to fight for an important cause, not a that of an egotist enraptured with his own fencing skill. Also, if the psychological limitation theory were true, you'd expect the swashbuckler to drop the disarming when he has to save the life of his true love, but that doesn't really seem to happen in the source material.

A slightly different response would be to say that because disarming is appropriate to the source material, it is the player's responsibility to throw in some disarm attempts as "good roleplaying". The idea of expecting players to help make the game fun is a good one. I don't generally play roleplaying games in a highly competitive style, and in the roleplaying games I play in, it is understood that the players don't just go all-out to optimize every game mechanic to win the game, but try to do fun things and advance the story, or at least make the battles entertaining. There is no way to balance everything perfectly or guarantee that the most entertaining move is the most effective. You expect the players to mix things up and put some variety in the game even if a careful analysis may reveal that a more boring strategy is somewhat more effective. But I generally think this sort of thing works best when the game balance between the different actions being considered is pretty close. A lot of the time, you may suspect a certain action isn't optimal, but there are pros and cons both ways, so it isn't really clear. So you really feel free to do whatever you think is cool.

For instance, in Torg you had the ability to take "approved actions" each round, like taunting or tricking the opponent, instead of just attacking them. Success would give you a minor advantage over the foe and an extra card. We loved approved actions, they were cool, and we did them over and over. We always strongly suspected that just attacking the foe would be more effective; ending the battle early is generally a good thing. But the benefit of cards was hard to quantify; they could set you up for a big attack later on, and could potentially be saved for use later in the adventure. And approved action were fun, and Torg characters were so full of possibilities (hero points) that you weren't that scared of combat anyway. So it all seemed to work OK. Actually, though, I should admit that in this case I did make some rules changes to make the approved actions a bit better and encourage them more.

However, when one action is just flat out way inferior to another, even in cases where it ought to be useful, that is just going way beyond the scope of what should be expected from the players. In the case of the disarm example, using disarm in most situations isn't an interesting choice with pros and cons; it is just a way to make your character less effective. The more you use it, the less effective you are. It is basically as if the GM is saying, "I'd like you to vary your actions to make the combat more interesting. Whenever you do so, I will punish you by making you less effective. The more interesting you are, the more I will punish you." It is perverse and unfortunate, and even though players can and often do make games more entertaining this way, it would be much better if the rules were changed so that they were not made ineffective by doing so.

On a related note, the players can bypass various forms of rules abuse by following conventions. For instance, in Champions, when an enemy strongman jumped up to you and started trying to smash your face in, it was most effective within the rules to ignore that person and attack a weaker enemy. Nothing in the rules required you to pay any attention to enemies attacking you; even if you were virtually surrounded on all sides with angry swordsmen, you were free to run off to a different part of the battlefield as if they were all paralyzed and attack the vulnerable boss behind them. Since this was totally inappropriate to the genre (and reality too), we made a convention that you were expected to defend yourself when attacked and had to do something if you wanted to fight your way past the attacker. This was a good convention; conventions can be useful to fix bad rules or substitute for rules that don't exist. But it is even better to fix or create the rule, rather than having a convention. Then you know exactly when the rule applies and what the penalty is for breaking it. In any case, the idea of making a convention doesn't work well for disarm example because it isn't clear how you would apply the convention. Saying that you had to disarm every other attack would just be way too unnatural.

Another way to deal with the issue here is for the GM to compensate by rewarding genre-appropriate maneuvers. I highly approve of having the GM reward genre-appropriate maneuvers with cool custom bonuses. But this is best for things done infrequently. If the genre rarely involved disarming opponents, and you suddenly had a good reason to do so as a surprise maneuver to liven things up, it would be very appropriate for the GM to make up some sort of bonus on the spot. But if you disarm constantly as part of the genre, custom bonuses aren't very practical. If you give the same bonus every time, you've created a rule, and the rule might as well be written down. If not, you start to play a game where the GM is just making up the rules arbitrarily. You can do this, of course - you can roleplay without any rules at all if you want to. But the assumption here is that we are playing a game with rules, and the premise behind playing a game with rules is that, most of the time, it is better to have a rule than rely on pure GM arbitrariness.

So for all of these reasons, I would want to devise an improvement to the disarm rule. One could argue against this by pointing out that boosting the disarm power as written shouldn't be done because it would be too strong and would break the game in the situations where disarm is already a useful ability. This is true, but simply means that attempting to fix the problem requires rethinking the rule rather than simply boosting it. Part of the skill in modifying game rules is making sure that you don't create more problems than you fix. Just because my game analysis indicates that a game has some sort of problem or imperfection doesn't mean I will make a rule to fix it. I only make a rules change if I think the new rule will be better overall than the previous rule.

The truth is that every game is going to have problems simply because of the choices made in meeting various conflicting design goals. And sometimes those elements that make the game fun also seem to have disadvantages too. For instance, one of my favorite board games is History of the World. But it has the disadvantage that more than 6 hours to play. It can be hard to get people to play for this reason. But the length of the game is related to the fact that it plays out the "History of the World", and that is part of what I like about it. I haven't really thought of any clever way to speed up with game without detracting from the epic quality I like about it. So I haven't tried to make a rule to speed up the game, I just consider the length part of the pros and cons of a game I really like overall. I feel that putting in a simple-minded rule to speed up the game - like playing for only 3 turns - would make the game worse rather than better.

But if I did think of a way to make the game just as fun but twice as fast, I wouldn't hestitate to try it out. Just because a rule is hard to improve upon doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Sometimes I try a lot of experiments, and a lot of those experiments fail. Sometimes I try experimental rules that I know won't work perfectly, just to get information. But in the end, the goal is to craft a new rule that is better overall than the previous rule.

By the way, I've never really come up with what I would call a perfect solution to the disarming problem, only various ideas. One example of an idea would be to use the 4th edition D&D power design philosophy and have disarming be a special attack that causes damage, with the special effect that the damage is totally abstract and the attack looks totally non-violent. Attacks which fail to kill have the bonus effect of temporarily disarming the enemy; attacks which kill the enemy either look like kills on-screen, or the enemy looks like he is still conscious but is counted as "defeated" and no longer has any game effect on the battle.


  1. Hmmm, here's two ideas for disarming:

    * Disarming involves not just causing the weapon to fall, but actually "throwing" the weapon some number of hexes away, so that the defender would have to move in order to retrieve the weapon--something that in D&D provokes an attack of opportunity, and in other games is at least rather inconvenient.

    or alternately:

    * Picking up a disarmed weapon immediately provokes an additional attack. (Which is a rather "realistic" result.)


  2. We use the assumption/convention that picking up a weapon provokes an attack of opportunity.

    As a GM I also use the convention that people who fight somewhat reluctantly (like normal guards) against clearly very capable foes need a moral test to even attempt to pick up their weapon. They were basicly defeated (disarmed) and can get out there without getting pierced, so picking up their weapons to have another swing... that would be determined chaps!

    (and they never pick up their weapons anyway, they draw something else, worst case a dagger. When standing in front of an armed chap who just disarmed you there is no picking up stuff from the floor without risking getting run through as you cant defend when picking up stuff from the floor.)

  3. Good analysis. I've struggled both as a player and a GM with trying alternative actions that seem like they should grant good advantages, but in practice turn out to be less than optimal. In 4e, knocking an opponent prone has some benefits, but I've been in too many toe-to-toe slugfests where the opponent just stands up again. Their only loss being a move action they weren't using anyway.

    Part of getting players to think creatively is encouraging alternative action choices, so it's really important to find ways to make this stuff work without punishing the player for trying.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone! All 3 of your posts sound good to me.

    I like the idea of "Ords" fleeing when disarmed. And provoking an opportunity attack to pick up a weapon sounds like a good standard rule. It is interesting that if the opponent takes a full turn and provokes a normal attack by picking up the weapon, the break-even point of disarm vs. a regular attack is at 50% hit chance. That is, if your chance of disarming is better than 50%, you are better off disarming, and if it is less than 50%, you are better off attacking normally - assuming a static fight against a single foe with no time constraints.

  5. Here's a roleplay way to encoruage disarming. Encourage a code of honor against killing an unarmed man. Back that up with laws defining this as murder. You'd have to let the players know about this upfront. 4e also has a built in answer to the "action trade" argument. For a minor action you can pick up the opponent's weapon - or kick it under a table - or step on it so it won't be easy to retreive.

    For a rules option to encourage all sorts of swashbucklery things - change action points. I'd still start everybody with one AP after an extended rest, but I'd change how they were used and accrued. I'd grant one third action point every time they did something "cool". This could just be in how they describe it, but I'd be pretty lenient. Most people who take any effort would get 1/3 every turn. But this is the minimum - the GM has the right to grant more for actions that are particularly stylish. This would encourage disarming and swinging and swashbucklery moves. I'd also remove the limit of one AP per encounter. To balance this, I'd have the bad guys getting more AP's. To go with 4e's lack of bookkeeping, I'd make it a recharge ability that starts expended and recharges on a 6 for significant foes, 5-6 for major villains.

    Further ideas to increase the errolflynnery - reduce armor use. Grant characters with heavy armor the ability to add Con to AC with light armor. I could also see removing certain classes to encourage swashbucklery play - Imaging no defenders. Or even an all-striker game. Each role encourages a certain type of play. Defenders and controllers tend to lock down the enemy. Without defenders, strikers need to be quick and clever, and leaders help to make party members do their best. With these two you'd have lots of flashy moves.

  6. Lots of interesting ideas in your post, Miguel, most of which are good food for discussion (but I don't have time). However, you first point doesn't make sense to me. Having a code of honor against killing an unarmed man would seem to strongly discourage disarming the opponent. All it does, relative to having no such rule, is penalize you for disarming the opponent by prohibiting you from finishing him off. Much better in this case to just attack normally and kill the foe while he is still armed, so there won't be any legal repercussions.

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