Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 23, 2012
A friend asked the other night about combat encounter difficulty in RPGs – is it better to have the challenge be consistent, or variable? I answered pretty firmly in favor of the latter. I think most people who suffered through the automatic level-scaling in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion would probably agree. But here’s why.
First of all – consistent, linearly-increasing difficulty level in video games is generally recognized as a Bad Thing. It’s predictable, tedious, and causes player fatigue. It’s far more entertaining to have hills and valleys along a generally increasing difficulty level slope. Naturally, the peaks of the hills will often represent boss encounters or other significant events, while the lowest dips will generally follow immediately after as the player is given a ‘breather’ after a major challenge. But a little unpredictability in the pattern helps keep things interesting.
In RPGs, another consideration is anchoring the player in their level progression. The frustration in Oblivion – as well as many other RPGs, though it is less blatant in many other games – is that the reward for level progression is increasing difficulty of encounters, which actually results in the player feeling less powerful relative to his opponents as he theoretically “levels up.” Easier combats – particularly those similar to the more “challenging” combats encountered much earlier in the game – reveal how much the player characters have progressed in ability.
One problem with the modern trend of eliminating almost all resource management in mainstream RPGs is that weaker encounters become meaningless. I first saw this in a dice-and-paper RPG years ago, when playing Fantasy Hero. The Game Master decided to try and provide one of those “anchoring” experiences I just mentioned, and had our group fight some ogres – a creature type that hadn’t challenged us in a very long time. Due to the nature of the system, not only was the fight boring, but it was pretty meaningless (and the GM never tried it again), as our party was fully ‘healed up’ and refreshed for our next encounter. So we never again encountered anything that didn’t offer at least a moderate risk to our survival.
That is exactly the problem with games like Dragon Age where the party heals up fully almost immediately after every fight. And thus designers fall back on things like overusing things like “waves” of enemies to inhibit resource restoration while re-using less challenging foes.
In D&D, hit points and magic spells refresh slowly, which means a less challenging encounter still impacts the overall game. Sure, a dozen goblins may carry no significant risk to a party of 6th level characters, but any hit points lost or spells expended in the battle won’t be there for the next one – which may be a lot more dangerous. In this way, even the “easy” battles require significant choices to balance risk and reward. For all its weaknesses as a system, D&D still got the basics right.
Likewise, throwing in a more challenging encounter other than the conventional “gatekeeper” encounters can help keep things fresh and interesting in an RPG. It can encourage the player to adapt and use less “brute force” tactics. Or encourage him to finally put those one-shot magic items he’s been hording to good use. Or he may exercise some freedom of choice and skip the encounter, possibly coming back to it later in the game after he has progressed a little bit further (thus providing another ‘anchor.’) It keeps things interesting.
One final, tangential word: Even as combat difficulty should be varied as it scales, combat style (for lack of a better word right now) should also be varied. Even at early levels, the player should face combat encounters that require different approaches. Enemies should vary far more than just having more hit points and do more damage with their claws and bite attacks. Encounters should vary the “best” approach, including types of attacks, types of defenses, tactical positioning, use of items, use of the environment. There can even be encounters which are best fought by not fighting at all, but luring the enemy into a trap.
Variety is the spice of life, and it is definitely the spice of any RPG.
(Image above is from the 1E AD&D Monster Manual. (c) 1979 TSR. Good ol’ David Trampier art…)
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read