Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 12, 2011
Okay, this is a topic that will probably make a lot of action gamers and casual gamers immediately start snoring. Actually, it may make a lot of people start snoring. But here I go throwing caution to the wind and talk about it anyway. It’s something I’ve touched on before, but I thought I’d elaborate just a little.
There are a couple of different approaches to how combat and character state are handled in RPGs – specifically with how “attrition” is handled. One definition of attrition is “The act of weakening or exhausting by constant harassment, abuse, or attack.” It also refers to losses in an army due to death or injury, or less painfully through resignation or retirement.
The traditional model is based on Dungeons & Dragons, which is in turn based on wargaming of the era. In these types of games, attrition is a significant factor, even though the actual loss of characters might be (relatively) uncommon. Health and special abilities (typically spells) don’t automatically regenerate between encounters. If you hit a trap which damages the party in room 1, then they will be wounded going into the battle against the guards in room 2, and they’ll carry the injuries and fatigue with them in the battle against the baron and his thugs in room 3. Expend your best spells sweeping room 2 clean means you won’t have them at your disposal in room 3. You are likely weaker when encountering the final encounter than you were when you started.
A popular modern approach is to eliminate this aspect of attrition – characters can quickly be restored to full health and power automatically, or through a quick and relatively risk-free action that can be performed as soon as the coast is clear. (I should note that I was a devoted fan of a dice-and-paper RPG that followed this approach for almost as long as I was playing D&D – Champions / Hero System – so the idea isn’t really all that new). Special abilities may need nothing but a few seconds to regenerate or “cool down.” Debilitating effects are often removed at the end of combat in many of these games. Ironically, as older RPGs borrowed their approach from early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, this approach – derived more from action-based video games – seems to have in turn inspired the design of the latest edition of D&D.
Both of these approaches – traditional and low attrition – have aspects of resource management, often in the form of limited-use items or ammunition. So in both, the party may encounter the final boss with somewhat fewer resources to draw upon than they started. In practice, the way I play at least, I find myself looting stuff from enemies as fast as I use ‘em in all but the most challenging encounters, so I may actually find myself better prepared to meet the Ultimate Bad Guy of the Last Two Hours.
There are some other side effects of either approach:
The staple of “old-school” gaming, the traditional approach generally led to multiple forays against the same enemies – or at least against the same geography. Yes, you can call it grinding – I won’t mind. In the dice & paper games, the modules often included suggestions for how enemies might reinforce their losses or make preparations for follow-up attacks. In computer RPGs, you typically just face respawns.
It may make sense if your approach to an adventure is more like a military campaign (here comes the wargame inspiration again – though only for strategic-level wargames, which I don’t believe were a major influence). But for dramatic purposes, having the boss hang out in his lair ignoring you while you repeatedly make deeper and deeper penetrations into his headquarters just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Traditional CRPGs did a lot of hand-waving and deliberate ignoring of the issues caused by heroes knocking it off and going home to rest up and trade for a week before returning to face The Ultimate Evil.
Varying Encounter Levels
With the traditional approach, encounters can vary wildly in difficulty. The adventurer’s may face a powerful adversary one minute, and them some pathetic underlings the next. They have to approach each encounter carefully, weighing it’s potential threat and expend resources carefully to respond. If you don’t recognize the danger until too late, your party is going to find itself in deep trouble in a desperate fight. But overkill can be just as bad – blowing your most powerful spells and items to wipe out a minor threat can weaken you just as badly as severe damage. Though it’s definitely fun once in a while to face combat challenges with former foes that are now easy to defeat (without being utterly useless).
With the low-attrition model, there’s really no point in relatively weak encounters. The player will never be weakened enough for the encounter to provide any real challenge or threat, and the player won’t suffer any sort of attrition from them to make future encounters more challenging.As a result, encounters under the low-attrition model tend to be pretty even in difficulty and – if the designers aren’t careful (as seems to be the case in Dragon Age 2, according to reports – I’ve not played it yet) – boringly similar and repetitive.
Whereas the traditional approach typically suggests a more methodical approach to play and the low-attrition model tends to emphasize no-holds-barred action, that’s not necessarily the case. Players can find themselves motivated to slow things down while waiting for longer-duration effects to “wear off” and for longer-length timers to pop before advancing forward. This can turn into waiting for waiting’s sake, which is not good game design in a single-player RPG (and probably not the best in an MMORPG, either). Sitting and hiding and “waiting it out” is not an activity to encourage.
Traps and Speed Bumps
Either approach can have things like stand-alone traps or damaging environmental effects, though with the low-attrition model designers (or game masters) have to be a little more clever about their effects if they aren’t depending upon instant death as a probable outcome. Under the low-attrition model, there’s not much sense in simply dealing damage to the character. But longer-term afflictions could also just slow down the pace if they can be waited out, which leads to non-fun. But they can still be creatively implemented. And fun.
Which is Better?
While the above examples may seem small, they really make a big difference in the pacing and “feel” of a game. Champions (the dice-and-paper game, not the MMORPG) would have been poorly served by adding much more attrition or resource management. It wasn’t about an endurance match to the final bad guy – it was about over-the-top comic book battles and melodrama with everything you’ve got, every time. The system served to promote a specific kind of pacing and gameplay that was a lot of fun.
As a personal preference, I like the traditional approach better. I like having encounters that build on each other rather than being completely stand-alone. I like having to manage my resources a bit. I like how the traditional, attrition-heavy approach rewards more methodical play and planning rather than just reaction. But it’s not best for every game. Both approaches – and their infinite variants between them – can be a lot of fun.
The concern I have – as always – is the attitude that one approach is “best,” meaning the other(s) are inferior and can be safely discarded. No way, no how. There are a lot of variations on these styles, and tons of room to blend them together at different levels and in different aspects.
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