Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

An Inconvenient Combat

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 14, 2013

WesternHeroThe 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.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Patrick said,

    I’ve been thinking about something very similar in the context of stealth games.

    What made Thief so very, very juicily good? (Apart from level design, characterization, the mesmerizing voice-overs, the mind-twisting cutscenes, and the sense that you were in a much larger world) Fundamentally, the immediate penalty for failure was small, but the cumulative impact of repeated failure was huge. You almost always had some way of escaping from a mistep or stupid blunder, and that was very good. However, if you did so too much your resources would dwindle and the game would get much harder. So you were constantly encouraged to play smart, but you could get yourself out of trouble if needed. This meant that level design could be more active and aggressive in spots. Sure, it was pretty cheap tech by today’s standard, but consider that AI basically hasn’t improved since Thief. If anything, it’s gotten worse. The guards in Thief took their time resetting, seemed to come from awfully far away, and were much stronger than you. Now contrast that against the guards in Dishonored, where stealth play was more tedious or perfectionist than dangerous.

    This matters because (tying into what you wrote above), it gave the player a reason to keep going and excel without trying to abuse a refill mechanic. No one mistake was particularly damaging to your play, but at the same time could threaten the PC with long-term consequences that propelled the challenge forward. Alpha Protocol tried to do something a bit different with alert states, and the relatively small stage size meant that an alert could be a significant hindrance, but potentially a fun one.

    It would be really interesting to make a non-Bro Shooter. Your mechanics would be those of a typical BroFest, but with the addition of a lot more information and mission planning, where you have reasonable intel on what’s ahead. The point of the game is to get into each site and grab the macguffin/kill some dude/disable their defenses/find out something. But instead of being a hide-n-go-blackjack stealth game, you’ve got to aggressively move forward because you *aren’t* a superhuman bullet sponge with regenerating health and an insta-kill melee attack and the ability to hide completely behind a thin chair. To compensate, you’re not just a lone killing machine, but can potentially call in allies if necessary – and these serve as distractions as well as threat removal.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Your non-Bro shooter sounds almost identical to the early Rainbow Six games on PC. 75% of those games was studying the mission briefing, combing over the available blueprints of the site to create a plan, gearing up and positioning your team, etc. Then you had the break-neck execution where you pushed forward with your half of the team and decided when to pull the trigger on telling the other team to breach and fight to your position. The player or any teammate went down with 1 or 2 shots, and you often had to contend with hostages, bombs, multi-shooters, etc. They were definitely “thinking-man shooters” – when you lost a teammate, they were gone for the rest of the game.

    I seem to remember a lot of the old 2nd Edition D&D CRPGs had random combats thrust on the player – but I never found these very effective. Again, you have to contend with save scumming in a computer environment – players just got in the habit of saving before doing anything that could trigger a random encounter, and if things went badly, they reloaded. If they didn’t want to fight at all, they reloaded until a “non-encounter” popped up instead.

    It’s the same reason temple healing and resurrection is always a waste in those games – no player is going to deal with a near party-wipe by trudging to the temple and spending all their gold on revivals (and the cost of 1 constitution point) when they can click “Load Save”.

    It would be interesting to see an RPG system designed to account for the computer environment, rather than trying to adapt PnP systems. A game where the protagonist has the in-story ability to memorize set points in time and rewind along his own timeline to return to them (saving and loading) and uses that to manipulate events with pre-knowledge of coming situations, etc. could be very cool. Basically, turning save scumming into a game and story mechanic.

  • Maklak said,

    I believe much of the confusion about combat difficulty in games comes from DnD. One of the things I strongly dislike about that very constrained game system is that the GM’s book actually has rules for setting combat difficulty according to player level. It also makes most GMs penalize creative solutions to combats, such as hiring cannon fodder, bypassing the fight to take treasure (for example by a Wizard with a spell to make him invisible to undead), using divination to have an idea about what’s ahead and so on. I much prefer more open systems, like WoD, where combat is always a threat on the horizon, but can almost always be avoided in some way and the emphasis is on talking and thinking.

    I would normally expect to have some idea of what lies ahead and not embrace the “kick the door” mentality. One upside of this is that it frees up the GM from “balancing” encounters. If the players find a Beholder while level one, their best option is to abort mission and finding a group of goblin raiders on level 11 leads to a nice breather and satisfying slaughter. Mid to high level characters are supposed to be powerful and it makes little sense for the “average threat level in the area” to scale with their level. Heck, once they kill a Dragon or something, the local bandits should take a clue and stay low or move away, so the area that has heroes should actually become safer over time. But then DnD players expect the encounters to match their level and be able to win a straight fight, so they would blame the GM for bumping into a Beholder or something else dangerous, even if there were clues about it earlier.

    The best solution I’ve seen so far to the DnD problem is to actually Munchkin-up and fight back against the GM. If enough players do this, they may actually win, which is very rewarding. The best DnD story I’ve heard is about players defeating some enemies and taking their horses as loot. The GM got pissed and said the gods got pissed about them taking a detour from their mission, intervened and teleported them into a hole in the ground where the players could climb out, but the horses couldn’t. Several castings of “Spider Climb” by their Sorcerer and difficult Handle Animal checks by their Druid, they saved their horses. Several encounters like this and the GM gave up and they got to a town with their horses intact. Best session ever!

  • CdrJameson said,

    This worked in Fallout 3 for me. I remember both extremes
    – Coming out of a side alley onto the Mall, and into the middle of a completely unanticipated war zone. Barely escaped that one by the skin of my teeth (and a lot of mines)
    – Circling Evergreen Mills/the sniper to get the best position to pick off targets, and assaulting them in the way I preferred.

    Even the usually anathematic random encounters worked nicely. You’d be able to walk past a hut, past a burning car and know there was something going on…

    There were the patrolling merchants, but I don’t know if enemy groups did the same thing. I seem to remember tailing a Caesar’s Legion patrol for some way in New Vegas.

    Anyway, generally interruption by patrolling enemies good, random encounter bad.

    Some kind of time limit can also force you to trade off healing vs progress.