Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 14, 2013
The game was “Western Hero,” many years ago. It was a dice-and-paper RPG based on the Hero game system, the same one that fueled the Champions superhero RPG. The designers had taken pains to make Western Hero not very superheroic – following the style of movies and books about the American “Wild West” of the mid-to-late 1800s, there was no magical healing or protections or other contrivances of fantasy and science fiction to give adventurers a leg up in the world.
The culmination of the first adventure had us in a shootout that put the O.K. Corral to shame. We had the initiative, and the bad guys were spread out over an encampment that gave us plenty of approaches and cover. There were six of us to something like 9 or 10 of the bad guys, and we were able to take out most of the bad guys by ones and twos until they could mount anything like an organized defense. When the smoke cleared, all the bad guys were down, and our group had suffered only minor injuries. Luck, good tactics, and having the initiative won the day.
In the next adventure, the game master – a long-time member of our gaming group – decided the battle had been far too easy, and tried to give us a greater challenge. It ended in a gunfight with more bad guys (something like a full dozen, IIRC). But more importantly, we were not on the attack. We did not get to pick where to attack and plan our tactics in advance. I thought we did pretty good, actually, given the circumstances. But this time, when the smoke cleared, half of us had to create new characters. It was a devastating victory.
But the game master was the most devastated. We had a good game and had enjoyed the campaign, and were quite ready to keep on gunslinging with new characters. But our friend felt that he’d let us all down. And yeah, he had screwed up, although from our perspective it wasn’t that bad. I know I’ve done worse. But he never ran another game for us after that, which was a loss for us. While perhaps he lacked a solid sense of balance for this new game system we were trying (it was Hero system, which we were familiar with, but the changes to fit the genre did take some getting used to), he was an entertaining GM. He moved away before we were able to convince him to take on another game.
His biggest ‘mistake’ is a lesson game designers need to learn (and relearn) often: It’s very tough to gauge balance changes when you are changing multiple variables at once. In this case, he changed the difficulty of the encounter (at least in numbers – I’m not sure if they were more skilled NPCs or not), and the context of the encounter – from allowing us to take the offensive to forcing us to react defensively. Both (or all three) increased the difficulty level substantially, and combined with the fact that in some ways we just got lucky in the big shootout in the previous adventure, he didn’t understand the consequences.
Now, in dice-and-paper games, GMs don’t have the luxury of testing and tweaking and re-testing the same encounter multiple times for ‘balance.’ You have to go with your gut and vary things to keep them interesting. So changing multiple variables at once wasn’t the mistake that it often is in video game design. Guys who run dice-and-paper games have to do that regularly to keep things interesting. That’s probably where my own bad habits come from.
But here’s the main thing: Even if the fight had been with perfect clones of the bad guys from the previous encounter, it would have played out very differently – and been much more challenging – because we did not get to choose when and how to attack. It was different. And variety is the spice of RPG life.
Another example, from far too many 3.x edition D&D games (including their CRPG counterparts) is dragon encounters. A planned dragon encounter in D&D (with the dragons color-coded for your convenience, so you know what sort of attacks and resistances to prep for), particularly one that takes place underground where the dragon does not have the opportunity to use its mobility advantage (flying), is not that big of a deal. But encounter the same dragon when you aren’t expecting it, out in the open somewhere… and what would have been an an almost uninteresting encounter before can easily wipe out an adventuring party.
This is a bone I have to pick with many RPG design. Combat often occurs at the player’s convenience. Unless you are reloading from a previous save, you may not know exactly how it’s going to play out, but the decision to risk combat is almost always in the player’s control, normally via geography. You can hang out on the other side of the door all day long, resting, casting buffs, exchanging equipment, and nothing will happen until the moment you kick open the door. Or move into the area not currently visible on the screen.
This trend has led to a complete abandonment of things like resource attrition between combats. After all, if the player can simply rest outside the door to the monster’s lair to get all their hit points and spells back, then why bother having that be a ‘thing’ at all? Why not just set a cooldown guaranteed to pop between combats, and auto-heal the player when a fight isn’t active? It’s an obvious streamline if that’s how the game plays. But then the same designers who make these decision struggle to figure out how to vary combat, and fall upon such goofiness as always having ‘waves’ of attacking enemies. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, I guess… Here’s a hint: When a variation is used all the time to address a weakness of the game system, the variation ceases to be ‘variety’ and all, and can get pretty tedious. Either come up with new ways of keeping things interesting, or un-paint yourself out of the corner and change the fundamental flaw in the system.
CRPGs have the “advantage” (if you want to call it that) of having the game force the encounter situation, preventing the player from optimizing tactics and preparation before the fight, to shake some variety into things… but I’m not so fond of forcing the player to be stupid like that.
Ultimately, I believe the player shouldn’t be able to dictate the pace of the game – or the timing of the encounters – with 100% accuracy. Sure, there should be times and places where the player should be completely safe and can hang around all day without fear. That’s important. But at other times, I feel it’s important to shake things up, to have encounters happen when the player or party is not 100% ready. Yes, those inconvenient fights are going to be more difficult (although I know of no game that awards extra experience for those kinds of encounters to make up for it), but they do help vary the action. And they make ‘hostile territory’ feel hostile. I like the feeling that the bad guys are there, taking initiative and planning counter-attacks and marching patrols around to actively defend against adventurers like me.
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