Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Design: All Or Nothing, and Deviants

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 21, 2010

Okay, is it just me, or did old-school RPGs really tend to hit players early with things like diseases and poisons, when they are too low level to afford proper cures?

Assuming this isn’t simply a gross mis-interpolation based on a couple of examples, my guess might be that this was simply because there was just a short time period that such conditions were a threat and not just a trivial inconvenience. So it was pretty much an all-or-nothing effect: Below Xth level, it was horrible, and above Xth level (or maybe X+2), it was trivial. What it did, however, was make those encounters with otherwise boring giant rats a lot more exciting. The random likelihood of getting diseased from a lucky shot made all giant rat encounters a little more intimidating. At least until you were capable of casting “cure disease” on yourself.

In fact, there were a lot of “all-or-nothing” effects in earlier games that aren’t nearly as present today:

* Clerics + Undead: This was generally better balanced in computer RPGs than their pen-and-paper grandfather. But undead encounters were often either party-killers or trivial depending upon whether or not you had a cleric that was on the ball.

* “Save or die” spells: These have been largely scrubbed out of the latest version of the pen-and-paper version of Dungeons & Dragons.

* Just the likelihood of missing, or having a spell fail entirely, tended to be pretty high in these older games.  When an enemy could be felled in just a couple of hits, a string of misses could make a radical difference in combat.

The end result of these effects was that encounters would get a lot more deviations from the norm. Sure, an encounter with a half-dozen goblins, on the average, would result in your party’s victory with something like 24 points of damage spread across six characters.  No big deal. However, 10% of the time it would instead result in a total party wipeout, and 5% of the time the party might get lucky on the initiative and sleep spell and suffer no damage whatsoever. And a whole spread of results in-between. The “average” meant very little.

It seems to me that modern computer and console RPGs have made an effort to decrease the deviation from the norm. Misses have become as rare as critical hits, and damage deviation has been smoothed out. And as more RPGs increase the number of encounters (as in most action-RPGs), deviations are further lost in the noise. Player success and failure becomes pretty consistent, without much being left to chance.

Is this preferable? I don’t know. A lot of players complained of the amount of randomness involved in the fights in the pilot release of Frayed Knights, and I made changes to tone that down.  But there’s a gut-feel part of me that resists the urge to smooth things out too much. Because adapting to changes and surprises – to the deviations – is part of what makes combat interesting in RPGs.

I’m still not saying I’m a fan of all-or-nothing successes or failures – but I do appreciate the wider spreads of potential results.  Too much consistency is boring.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 22 Comments to Read

  • David said,

    Adapting to changes or surprises is a good thing, certainly… but I think that your own crappy luck being the mechanism for these changes/surprises isn’t fun.

    The examples you gave were of the form “I rolled poorly, and so I am screwed”. There’s not really anything you can do about it, beyond leveling up and trying again. I think that what’s more appealing is something being different, and causing you trouble that you overcome by being cunning.

    For instance, the addition of terrain effects and positioning to encounters might qualify. You might get an encounter where the wussy goblin archers are on a ridge above you, so you have to go a long way around to reach them. Ideally with said encounter being laid out so that there’s a way for smart players to create cover from their arrows.

    Or, say, combinations of enemies that work together in ways that are difficult to overcome, without any cheap one-shot-death events. You see this in games where there are healer enemies — if you don’t take them out first, the encounter will be a lot longer and more painful.

    So yeah… moving it from one dice roll screwing you over to the general terms of the encounter being slanted against you in a surmountable way.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Interesting points!

    I did notice a big difference between the first Baldur’s Gate (2nd edition?) and Neverwinter Nights 2 (3rd?).

    In BG, if you didn’t have certain party members, things could get very difficult. Also, remembering the correct spells was very important.

    By the time NWN2 comes around, basically you just needed high damage attacks, and most of your healing/curing could be done by resting (not sleeping!) and items.

    In BG I can remember being killed by gnolls because I ran out of spells and couldn’t sleep with enemies near. In NWN2 that problem was almost completely gone.

    BG felt more like a PnP experience for me (although I’ve not played PnP myself) something that later games have lacked. Although Storm of Zehir (expansion for NWN2) was perfect for me.

  • Yoel said,

    I’ve noticed this before. In a tabletop, things tend to be pretty random. In a modern computer RPG, they are a lot more consistent. I think this has to do with the psychology of die rolling. In the tabletop, you roll the dice and hope for a good result. The hit rolls and damage rolls themselves can be suspenseful. On a computer, it rolls the dice for you, and you don’t see them. So when you miss all the time, or do 2 damage one attack and 20 the next, it’s because the computer is cheating. Or, so it seems. Because you aren’t rolling the dice with your own hands. Instead, you’re pressing a button and awaiting the computer’s random ruling.

    Imagine if your DM rolled everything for you.

    This is made even worse in 3d action-RPGs, where you see your sword or bullet going through the enemy, and yet the computer tells you, “Sorry, you missed.”

    For these reasons, the tabletop system I’ve made has a lot more randomness than the computer RPG battle system that uses the same rules.

  • Yoel said,

    What would have been even better would be to say,

    “Imagine if your DM rolled everything for you and didn’t let you see the dice.”

  • Tormod Haugen said,

    Point; In the olden days (Gold box, Wizardry, M&Ms) I remember actually using potions and one-off devices. Don’t do that much any more.

    Though I’m pretty sure it’s just because I’m getting better 😉

  • Adamantyr said,

    I just ran an AD&D 1st edition session this weekend. I’ve owned the books for years, but never actually seriously tried to use them for such a purpose. (I was only 3 when they came out, and by the time I was old enough to even start tabletop games, the box sets were my preference.)

    I’ve been running a 4th edition campaign for quite awhile, and so it was pleasantly surprising that my players actually enjoyed the session a lot. In fact, they said they found it MORE fun than 4th edition has been of late.

    Part of that is, naturally, we used pre-gens I gave some pretty decent magic items to, and they were all 5th level. So none of the fights were particularly damaging. One character failed a poison save (which in AD&D is proceed directly to death), but through the use of a non-weapon proficiency (healing), the cleric was able to allow him a second save which he made.

    What I noticed, though, was that combat moved fast, and there was a lot of good luck around the table. I have a feeling that even if a hit hadn’t landed, it wouldn’t have gone over too badly. And instead of a lot of arguments about power descriptions, we mostly just got the business done.

    Mind you, AD&D has a LOT of warts. I dug out my first print 2nd edition books, and it looks like a lot of the cracks were sealed up and fixed, I may do that one next time we feel like some old school gaming. But I would say that computer games have reflected the transition of tabletop games as well over the last few years; mitigate and smooth until it’s not about the dice or luck. And I don’t know… I must say that having that d20 make the difference is a refreshing way to play.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    You are right, a lot of old-school games did throw some nasty stuff at you. Poisons were the worst, where you often had to have curing potions on hand or be so close to the town that you could get a cure there. I remember the early Wizardry games being particularly bad about this.

    Some of the Might & Magic games were terrible about this, too. I remember being frustrated in one of the middle ones (4, I think) where almost every enemy at the end just threw instant death spells at the party and hit with annoying regularity.

    From a game design point of view, these are missed opportunities. Allowing the player to make a choice is what makes this interesting. For example, if a character gets poisoned maybe they poison only affects them in combat. So, a character that just defends in combat might not feel the effects of the poison so quickly. The player has to decide between pushing on effectively one party member short, perhaps using that character when really needed, or heading to a place to cure the poison (perhaps having to head away from your goal). Making a false choice (go back now or your party member dies and it sucks) isn’t really the answer, though.

    That’s what random events like this in a game should be. The chance for the player to make a decision, play it risky or safe as they want. The problem with the old-school games is that getting poisoned on the second floor of the dungeon just sucked, because the poisoned member was going to die unless you could cure the poison right there. A real choice is what keeps the player interested, and makes the game fun, in my opinion.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    What the randomness (usually) introduces is the “no plan survives contact with the enemy” element. Your sleep spell fails this time – the leader manages to resist your crippling spell – whatever. Forcing a change in plans and tactics.

    It goes both ways, too. We had lots of “big bads” in a D&D 3.0 game many years ago, but most of them weren’t super-memorable. But one that WAS was a powerful vampire wizard who got nailed at the beginning of round 1 with an arrow of undead slaying. Very anti-climactic, but the players loved it.

  • Calibrator said,

    There are two different kinds of “early hazards” and you probably mean the non-scripted type, i.e. “bad luck”.

    And then there is the scripted type and it’s probably a thing of more recent games (last ten years?).
    I remember a particularily nasty surprise in Baldur’s Gate 2 where a certain party member gets heavily cursed in the first major city of the game. I found this very annoying and my first reflex was to load the last save.
    Which was most probably “wrong” in the eyes of the developer of course as I influenced the story line drastically. In their opinion it would be better if the character got killed because the player was unable to save him/her.
    Now I’m not against killing party members or even important party members *cough*Aerith*cough* but there has to be some sense in it. Literally wasting characters casually early on like this is intolerable, IMHO.
    The discouraging effect on the player can be way stronger than the possible advantage of this kind of “push-button dramaturgy”.

  • BrianH said,

    I remember being thrilled when I would find a pair of Swamp Boots early on in Ultima VI and VII. Early swamp poison could mean the end of my party at the beginnings of the game.


  • Rampant Coyote said,

    It ended my party. More than once.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m all for the randomness, but many that people think it’s unfair to have no defense against rolls.

    So, why not base a system of defenses against bad luck situations.

    For example: The “Fluffy Bunny Hood” offers no defensive bonus, but not even the God of Evil would instant-death such a cute creature.

    Or the “I’m all bones Tee” which will keep away all literate zombies in order to keep zombie hordes to a manageable size.

    It can keep things consistent for well prepared players, but the hasty ones could be in for a shock.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Actually, I am kind of experimenting with that, with the drama stars in Frayed Knights – it still won’t stop a TPW, but the intention is that it lets you make your own luck to a degree.

    But you are totally correct – heaping bad must-reload chances on the player, especially in early stages of the game, is not good design. I like Psychochild’s philosophy of turning it into a dramatic decision.

  • Calibrator said,

    Yes, a decision is much better: It’s actively *playing* – with the fate of the character. And, perhaps, some consequences later in the game…

  • Kimari said,

    I’ll summarize my thoughts on randomness in two very easily distinguishable forms:
    I HATE randomness that is both: final and detrimental to my perfomance. Example: Misses, save throws, one-hit kills, etc.
    I LOVE randomness that isn’t final, meaning that it doesn’t determine any outcome on it’s own. It can be rewarding, it can be punishing, but either way I’ll love it. Examples: Shuffling a deck and drawing a card but not being forced to play said card, status effects that will come into play in two or more turns (giving the player time to prepare), a magic spell of a random element that changes from battle to battle (and you know the element chosen without having to cast the spell in the first place), etc.

    You’ll notice that I didn’t mention critical hits anywhere, and that’s because it depends on how you implement them. Either way, unless they only do 1.5 times or less damage, then I’d probably be against the use of them… but I’d never hate any game just because it has criticals (that is, unless they were very VERY poorly implemented).

    Anyway, those are my 2 cents. As you can probably see, I’m not exactly a “gambler” and more of a “card player”. I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to be a game to me when the outcome is based on a random calculation instead of a decision I made. Randomness can be awesome, as I stated above, but only as flavor, not as a determining factor inside battles… for me, at least.

  • Kimari said,

    Er… I didn’t mean to go into the definition of the word “game” there. I meant to say that I _prefer_ it when games don’t rely on random outcomes and instead give random initial variables.

    That is all.

  • WCG said,

    Two things:

    “Save or die” spells – and any of those kinds of events – just cause the player to reload a saved game. I’d never restrict saves in a game (I can’t stand that), but the last thing a game should do is ENCOURAGE save-and-reload behavior. (Note: this especially includes random loot in chests.)

    I used to enjoy battles where my mage would be put to sleep on the first round, because it would force me to fight differently,… but only if my party won the battle without characters dying. Otherwise, it would be reload-the-saved-game again. So random is great, but only to the extent that I can work with it.

    Second, you say “as more RPGs increase the number of encounters.” How depressing! Much as I loved the old SSI “Gold Box” games, I used to yearn for a more advanced RPG that would greatly increase exploration and discovery, while greatly decreasing the constant battles.

    Fighting gets old after awhile. Sure, I understand why developers do that. Battles are relatively cheap and easy to produce, and they significantly slow down the gameplay, making the game seem much larger than it really is. Designing a big enough world for exploration and discovery, without constant battles to slow down a player, would be horribly expensive, no doubt.

    Still, it’s very disappointing. I’d hoped for so much more, back when I was playing the early computer RPGs. But I guess this is our idea of RPGs now, anyway. After playing the “two steps and fight, two steps and fight” kind of gameplay for years, this is just what we think that an RPG is.

    And since nearly everything has to be a shooter now, that’s really the only mechanic that matters in most games. Fighting is the whole point. Everything else is just a very minor detail, just an excuse for the fighting. This is not what I’d hoped from the future.

  • Robyrt said,

    The recent action-RPG Too Human inverts this, by adding all-or-nothing status effects as a measure of difficulty. By the final level, being poisoned means an unavoidable 100% damage, with a couple nearby enemies set to drop healing items. Thanks, random number generator!

  • ClassicsRemade said,

    Matt Barton’s video on Autoduel illustrates this pretty well. At some point he sumarizes by saying that players simply had more patience for a challenge than they do today. Sheer capacity and graphic quality have shifted player interest towards a more cinematic experience.

    No judgement intended – games are for fun and everyone’s fun is his own but I felt this very vividly with the first release of UW, with people requesting that the priestess and hillman be removed in town & the drake be made less durable. The game was being called unplayable otherwise. It wasn’t – even if the battles were more difficult.

    But in the end it was for the best. Difficulty shouldn’t arise abruptly in the beginning. Give players a chance to immerse a bit.

    Then punish them 🙂

  • Wavinator said,

    As a fan of rogue-likes I get a big lift out of surviving really tough situations and being rewarded for planning ahead. It’s a shame that this sort of design decision isn’t a matter of player controlled game settings, rather than being seen as bad design. Heck, with the mania for achievements these days it could be offered as a “Played the game ‘Old School’ Hard” achievement unlocked!

    @WCG: About combat and what we hoped RPGs would be, all I can say is “Amen, brother.”

  • Tesh said,

    Challenge and punishing mechanics like simple pass/fail checks aren’t the same thing. Challenge is something that can be overcome *by player choice*, even after the fact. Punishing mechanics (time sinks in most video games) are just capricious wastes of time. Good riddance to them.

    …so yeah, Psychochild ++

  • Kylotan said,

    The numbers in the system definitely conspire against you. When you start out with 1d8 hit points and your opponents deal 1d8 damage, then whoever lands a hit first wins. Hit points tend to scale up linearly but damage doesn’t, so suddenly everything becomes a lot more forgiving.

    From The Bard’s Tale to Baldur’s Gate I have fond and not-so-fond memories of sustaining terrible losses to my party in the early stages as a result of these mathematical odds not being in my favour. But the former game had the benefit of your party consisting of arbitrary adventurers who can be replaced at will. Indeed, building up a party capable of surviving those first few levels by replacing the dead was part of the gameplay. You can’t easily do that in a game with lots of art, dialogue, and voice acting for the characters. Perhaps this is another area where the technology and the presentation has harmed – or at least limited – the gameplay somewhat.

    The mathematical problem can be avoided by careful design. Instead of thinking in terms of the individual system components foremost, the system can be designed around the typical amount of health per person, the typical amount of damage done per hit, the typical amount of hits per attack, and so on. Some designers are too quick to come up with a set of stats they want to use and not quick enough to think of the implications of changes in those stats over time.

    I think the more interesting question lies in reframing some of these seemingly-arbitrary failures as part of the game you can adapt to. Instead of wastes of time or sources of frustration they’re just a different type of challenge. Of course it’s no fun to continually get your party wiped out at an early stage, but if we can move towards a middle ground where fleeing and replacing dead party members is part of the game rather than a reason to reload, then I think we’ll have improved matters.