Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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RPG Design: The Role of Magic and RPG Balance

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 12, 2014

I’ve been doing some brooding over Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath since Comic Con (more on that in a future post), and it’s brought about a few changes. There’s one point I’m not sure on yet, because changes might mess with the flavor. I don’t want to mess with the flavor.

One problem – and it is a problem – is that things were a little too balanced. Yes, I know, in a world where people on the Internet are screaming about AAA games not being balanced well enough, I’m here to tell you that it is the imbalance that makes things interesting. If you’ve got things balanced so well that at a high level the differences between options are pretty subtle, then you have a problem. Subtle doesn’t play well in games, so you’ve ended up with a non-choice.

That’s how things were at Comic Con. It’s all well and good to prove on a spreadsheet that Arianna does more damage in melee than Chloe, but Chloe can do more damage with a spell (at a higher endurance cost) than Arianna, in practice the differences aren’t too noticeable – especially when randomization adds noise. If the sorceress only does 8 points of damage on the average in melee, the rogue 10, and the warrior 13, that’s all well and good. But if you are fighting a creature with 15 health, it makes no difference – they all kill it in 2 hits. If it has 40 health, they all kill it in either 5 hits or 4.

Big frickin’ deal.

Make Chloe’s spells do 18 points of damage? Again, big deal. Monster goes down in 3 hits instead of 4 or 5. Again, big deal, although it really depends on the situation. One-shotting the 15-health monster might be kinda cool.

Traditionally – courtesy of Dungeons & Dragons, mainly (which is the familiar flavor I’m trying to emulate) – the role of magic fits the trope of “Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards.” Or, in the words of the song “Always the First to Die,” “It might suck at level one, but you’ll rip at level nine!” Even if the wizards don’t do excessively more damage than the other classes, they may play something of an “artillery” role, dishing out damage to a lot of targets at range. This works, but it doesn’t scale too well – eventually everyone else ends up playing a support role for the wizards.

Of course, there’s more to it than just doing damage.

Okay, not really. Not in most games I’ve played. Maybe you can make creatures lose morale and flee, or maybe use a spell to make the enemy switch sides temporarily, but 90+% of the time, it’s all about taking the enemy’s health bar to zero before he takes yours to zero. If it takes me 4 rounds to kill an enemy normally, but if I have a 50% chance of stunning him and then I’m able to kill him in 2 rounds… well, at a 50% stun chance, it’ll average 2 rounds to land the stun, and then 2 more rounds… again, 4 rounds. The spell has made no difference in combat. Maybe it’s made it riskier… you might NEVER be able to land the stun… or slightly easier (half the time  you stun the enemy on the first try, so he’s dead in 3).

But still, if you have enemies with some interesting combinations of powers, defenses, and weaknesses, then magic can add a rock-paper-scissors element to the damage-dealing. So you have a slightly different role for magic: Magic has flexibility in attacking to take advantage of weaknesses that are difficult to exploit with more mundane methods. That’s a nice variant – and a popular one. That way magic doesn’t have to be inherently much more powerful than melee.

If victory conditions don’t require the enemies to be utterly destroyed, magic can take on a much more interesting role. Borrowing from strategy games – what if the enemies will flee if they can’t dislodge your party from your position within six turns? What if your goal is to stop the enemy from pushing their way past you? Suddenly magic can have a critical role in positioning and movement. Spells that increase or reduce movement would be far more powerful.

In a game with enemies or challenges with significant threat or protections, or if there’s a heavy “fog of war” on the battlefield,  magic that can reveal their risks or weaknesses can be the most powerful spells in the game (think of the sniper’s Battle Scanner ability in XCom). Or what about a “phase-based” RPG like Wizardry or Bard’s Tale where a spell can reveal exactly what the enemy has planned for the next turn, and allows you to go first? Suddenly those informational or “divination” spells become super-powerful.

And then there’s all kinds of non-combat uses for magic. The indie game Magical Diary: Horse Hall explores some of that potential.

Theoretically, a game like D&D could have had all of these situations, but it depended on a Game Master being very creative. That’s why there were so many different spells in the game. So most of these ideas don’t completely break us out of the old-school Western RPG paradigm.

The important part here is that there needs to be more than just the “Linear Warrior, Quadratic Wizard” balance between melee and magic (or any traditional combat and magic). Now that traditional role-playing games are no longer a rarity in computer games (YAAAAAAAY!), designers of fantasy RPGs should spend more time thinking about exactly what role magic should play in the game system rather than simply emulate what’s gone before. Magic is all about warping the laws of science, so let’s have some FUN with it!

Filed Under: Design, Frayed Knights - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • JT said,

    I’ve always been a fan of the “make the warriors wizards, too” approach. That is, give elements of magic to all characters. As a reference, look at action clickers like Diablo 3. Each class has a wide variety of magical attacks, be they melee or ranged. Ultimately, to me, the whole “click this button to swing pointy stick” has never been an interesting gameplay mechanic. “Click this button to slice and dice with a magically enhanced WHOOSH!”, however, is.

    It helps with the balance math behind the scenes, too. No need to worry about simple melee being outgunned if the melee classes get fun stuff, too.

  • McTeddy said,

    I HAAAAATE HATE HATE HATE HATE the “Warriors are wizards” approach.

    It makes all the character classes play the same. It doesn’t matter if the warriors “Spells” are all melee because its still all MP management.

    I want my classes to FEEL like different experiences.

    For example:
    – Wizards have MP and play how we’d expect.
    – Warriors have “Attack Styles” such as “Accurate Attack” that have no cost but only tweak the basic attack formula.
    – Barbarians have rage that builds up with each attack and can unleash powerful actions LATE in combat.
    – Clerics require “Focus” for spells that charges each turn but drops when they attack or take damage.
    – Thieves “push-their-luck” with stealth. Each time you successfully sneak your damage multiplier jumps up… fail the roll and it resets.

    And so on.

    With the cross-class system from Frayed Knights maybe I could forgive it. But MP warriors and thieves are one of my ultimate peeves and the reason I like very few modern RPGs.

  • Felix said,

    Yep… that’s the whole point of magic, potions, scrolls, wands… you name it. To change the rules. E.g. a spell that makes your melee fighters deal double damage for the next turn — now *that* can change the game, even if it’s still “just” about killing those mobs faster. Or double their chance for critical hits for the rest of the fight. Even better if you use magic for something you can’t normally do with a sword or arrow — e.g. prevent a mob from regenerating. Maybe wizards still can’t deal enough damage to matter, but they can make all the difference in a fight. In fact, I’ve seen games where magic was all about enchanting weapons and armor — not unlike in LOTR or Forgotten Realms. And that’s fine.

    Or you could have magic providing alternatives. Maybe your party doesn’t have a thief to pick locks, but the wizard can make the door intangible. Nobody has the “hide in shadows” skill, but a spell can create fog. No-one in the party knows how to hunt or cook, but magic can make anything edible.

    Then again, all of these options require more coding, whereas a magic missile is just an an arrow with fancier animations…

  • Felix said,

    Oh, when I wrote Forgotten Realms above, I was thinking dwarven magic. Everyone else in the setting has the regular fireball-slinging wizards. Well, there are also the gnomes with their illusions. But yeah, having magic be relatively specialized is another good option.

  • JT said,

    You can have “warriors as wizards” and let them still play differently. In fact, that’s exactly what you’re doing with your rage/focus/etc… You’re giving them “magic”, just with different resource pools and power distributions. Behind the scenes, it’s all code. Magic is just the illusion and fluff the developer hangs on it all. The trouble in the past, with the quadratic-growing wizard, is one purely of mathematics. Giving each class “magic” (ie, mechanics more sophisticated than simple attack rolls) you can put them all on roughly the same footing as far as power growth and “interestingness”. This lack of interestingness endemic to melee and non-magic classes in the past has led to a lot of personal boredom with those early games for me. Many games I gave a pass to simply because the non-magic combat just wasn’t interesting.

  • Egberto said,

    I hate the “warriors as wizards” too.

    In my mind, what is the point of training (spendig xp, points, etc) in a thief if a Wizard can open the lock with a simple spell? A wizard that can transform into an enormous beast (beating a veteran warrior) with a single spell, create “magical” food cancelling the skills of a ranger in finding food, etc.

    I enjoy these other games (mainly jrpgs) that support the “warriors as wizards”, but have to switch my mindset, and tell to myself (well, they have another culture the important things for them aren’t the same to myself and then I’m fine [almost]).

    In the end, is a preference I think, but I like each skill as unique as possible. With the exception of magic items (that are more expensive or scarce).

  • Davzz said,

    First, you define “balance”.

    “I hate the “warriors as wizards” too.

    In my mind, what is the point of training (spendig xp, points, etc) in a thief if a Wizard can open the lock with a simple spell? A wizard that can transform into an enormous beast (beating a veteran warrior) with a single spell, create “magical” food cancelling the skills of a ranger in finding food, etc.”

    I’m not sure how the 2nd paragraph supports the rest of your post… the rest is consistent, just a general statement on preference, but the end paragraph is about the power level of wizards obsoleting non-casters?

  • Felix said,

    “In my mind, what is the point of training (spendig xp, points, etc) in a thief if a Wizard can open the lock with a simple spell?”

    The point is, you may not have a thief in your party. How would you like finding yourself literally locked out of winning the game because you weren’t playing the way the game’s designer expected?

  • Michael Miller said,

    Hmm, I dunno… In Baldur’s Gate 2 and the other IE games, it’s usually my warriors who have the majority of kills, whereas my wizards mainly provide utility spells and crowd control. I guess it’s about two things: management of resources (the mages’s spells are more difficult to renew than a fighter’s health) and flexibility (buff the fighters, debuff enemies, remove negative effects from friendly npcs, neutralise one ultra-powerful monster or swarms of smaller ones…).

  • Cuthalion said,

    So, how did you decide to resolve the “overly balanced” issue?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I haven’t, yet. Oh, I’m experimenting – and I’m finding myself nuking some of the variables that aren’t contributing much but confusion to the equation.

    But the last four weeks have been focused on more nuts-and-boltsy stuff.

  • Cuthalion said,

    I’ll be interested in hearing what you end up with. I’ve been mulling over how magic should work in my tabletop lately. Specifically, whether combat spells should do more damage than weapons (only the mage class really has this problem, as the others tend toward healing or non-combat magic). I’ve gone over a pros-cons list in my head of melee vs ranged vs spellcasting characters and realized that having them be the same as weapons, but with more options, makes them a pretty anticlimactic option. Nothing like hearing the excitement in a player’s voice change to weariness as they find their fire mage performing as nothing but a more fragile archer with shorter range… (although it didn’t help that I did the damage math wrong that one time)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah. Magic has to feel like magic. But from a dramatic fiction standpoint, you’d probably have the mage do something major that turns an impossible fight to a possible one – a major feat – but then be “done” for the rest of the fight. But then they’d be down to… well, maybe a Gandalf swinging a sword around the rest of the fight or something. Decent in drama (they’ve served their dramatic purpose), but not so decent in a game (especially if that’s a player’s only character).