Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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[Archive] RPG Design: Solving The Brute Force Problem

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 18, 2015

This is a previously-published (and lost) article from many years ago. I’ve discussed it a few times, but usually in reference to this original article. I’ve edited it a little bit and reposted it here. The sad thing was that when I wrote this, Gary Gygax was still alive and kicking butt. *Sigh*. Anyway, now that I have more design experience than when the article was originally written, and now that some new games that have been both bad and good examples of what I’m talking about, I’ve been able to dust things off and rewrite the conclusion a bit to be more… um, conclusive.

tomb-of-horrors-classic-coverI remember reading an article by Gary Gygax (the co-inventor of roleplaying games…) where, at a gaming convention in 1999 or so, he ran one of his classic modules. He was aghast at how horribly and quickly parties were wiping out. He’d run the adventure many times in the past many times, and while it always had a reputation for being deadly, he’d never seen players fail so rapidly and consistently before. Some veteran players (who had even played through the module before, back in the old days) came up to him later and asked what they had done wrong.

His response (as I recall) basically came down to the fact that they were trying to “brute force” the dungeon. He then launched into something of a gentle tirade against modern adventure design (and the influence of computer games on them). “Old school” adventures didn’t expect the party to “clear out the level.” That didn’t really start until the late 80’s or so.

That stuck with me.

The actual game rules for old-school D&D were pretty simplistic. The fighter was the “beginner” class for the game, and the hard decisions of the combat system for fighters consisted of “Who do I try to hit this round?” You could pretty much predict the mathematical probabilities of an all-fighter combat (for higher-level characters, at least, where lucky / unlucky rolls weren’t a make-or-break situation) with a pretty high degree of accuracy. All those combined dice rolls resulted in one heck of a bell curve. You could break down combats into pretty much a damage-per-turn calculation on both sides, a race to zero hitpoints, and the conclusion could be determined before the first blow struck.

Hmmm…. sorta how most MMORPGs work these days. What’s the DPS of that sword, again?

Now, apologists for the “old-school” RPG systems (specifically Dungeons & Dragons) maintain that the lack of rules for doing anything else aside from swinging at your opponent are a virtue. The intention was for players to be creative with their characters actions, and the human game master (“Dungeon Master”) would then make a ruling on the results. Anything goes.

To a point, I agree. One of the differentiating factors between skilled and unskilled players was how creatively they delt with the challenges of the games. The old “tournament modules” would outfit groups of players with exactly the same characters, and they’d score points based on how effectively they played those characters and used the weaknesses and strengths of those characters, as well as the features and limitations of the environment, to “win” the adventure. You couldn’t just leave a tough encounter for after you’d gained a level or two and could crush it with ease. You couldn’t get some edge in gameplay mechanics over other tournament players. You had to think your way around the challenge.

That, to me, is the essence of RPG gameplay. Well, okay, that and melodrama (spiky-haired angsty teenagers optional).

The melodrama is well-handled in many RPGs. But avoid brute-force solutions and requiring a lot of thought and player skill going into potential combat encounters? Not so much. Especially now that “action RPGs” have started dominating the genre on PC… player skill is too often limited to rapid mouse clicking, being fast on the healing potion selection, and practicing your circle-straffing and aim techniques from FPS games.

Some of this is the limitation of the medium. Without human moderation, it’s very difficult to enable a player to “think outside the box” – both from an interface perspective, and by allowing the game to properly react to a unique situation. Note that while I say, “difficult,” I don’t mean impossible. While I’m not a cheerleader for “realistic physics” in games, the biggest value it can add is enabling the player to use the complexity of the physics systems to, say, build a booby-trap for a monster. Or work out some other advantages.

Some of it is player expectations. Such as in Gary Gygax’s tabletop game. Especially in computer RPGs, where the game lets the player proceed at his own pace, even though it may taunt him (or her) with promises of impending doom and warnings that time is running out. Players are encouraged to simply leave off the difficult encounters until they’ve gained more power and can effectively “brute force” the solution and clear the dungeon. I do this myself (maybe that’s one of the reasons I dislike games that scale to your level).

How do you solve this dilemma? (Editorial Note from 2015: Everything from this point on is new)

  • First and foremost, the game design has to have an open-ended approach to meeting goals. A lot of modern design is built around the idea of scripted, cinematic experiences — to the point where we even have “quick-time events” where the player really just mashes buttons to keep the movie rolling. This is the exact opposite of what we’re talking about here: We want the player to be clever, not to let him watch how clever the designers were. The idea has to be “The player meets an objective” rather than “the player completes activity X, Y, and Z.” While the following suggestions suggest concrete ways of meeting this design goal, they’ll be useless unless they feed into the overarching vision. While a lot of it is pretty scripted (at least in the early version that I played – and it sounds like this is a big part of the reason it’s been so slow reaching completion), Iron Tower’s Age of Decadence has really taken this perspective across the board.(And before anyone says anything… yes, mea culpa. Frayed Knights is not designed this way, although it has some elements of this. But I’ve got a bunch of ideas for what I’d like to do after the series is done that do take this approach).


  • Divinity_OS_SS32Secondly, you need open-ended gameplay with a significant level of general-purpose interactive depth. Basically – you need a more simulation-oriented world. This means you don’t just have a scripted area where you can drop a rock on a monster’s head… you need to make the world full of rocks and other things that could be dropped on monster’s heads. Divinity: Original Sin recently made some good strides in this area, with ways the environment could at least be used to the player’s advantage. The Thief series – particularly the earlier games – also offers some good examples of a flexible tool system that allows multiple ways of “solving” problems.  Several newer “sandbox” games have taken this approach, but you don’t need to be a sandbox game to do it.


  • Third, the reward system should not favor a “brute force” solution over a more clever, subtle solution. This means that if the game awards experience points for killing a monster, it should give experience points for outsmarting, negotiating with, defeating via other means, or even bypassing the enemy. It’s tough when we’re so focused on risk-vs-reward and we know that the player has actually minimized their risk. That’s why point #1 is so important – it requires a bit of a ‘paradigm shift.’ The player must know that in the long run, they are not losing anything or missing out on anything by trying out alternative solutions.


  • Fourth – even though scripting is generally avoided, during the early stages, the game will have to train the players to keep an eye out for alternatives by pointing them out. It’s not something we’re used to these days, and we’re not used to being allowed to think outside the box. In conjunction with this, the game should deliberately (at least in early stages) provide challenges that cannot conveniently be “brute forced” (but personally, I feel it shouldn’t necessarily be impossible to brute force, either).


  • Fifth – as a bonus to make it “stick” – the game should recognize the player’s use of alternative solutions. This is again part of the “training” thing, but it’s a really nice reward to hear in-game/in-context that the player’s cleverness or or weirdness was somehow recognized and appropriately responded to.  This reinforces the “anything goes” approach. And frankly, it’s just fun… it’s a continuation of the interactive world.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Mephane said,

    “Third, the reward system should not favor a “brute force” solution over a more clever, subtle solution. This means that if the game awards experience points for killing a monster, it should give experience points for outsmarting, negotiating with, defeating via other means, or even bypassing the enemy. It’s tough when we’re so focused on risk-vs-reward and we know that the player has actually minimized their risk. That’s why point #1 is so important – it requires a bit of a ‘paradigm shift.’ The player must know that in the long run, they are not losing anything or missing out on anything by trying out alternative solutions.”

    I do remember a particularly bad offender in this regard: Deus Ex Human Revolution. Not only did it reward the player with XP for taking out opponents (achieving the objective while avoiding any form of enemy contact would yield far, far less XP than taking out every single foe in the area); it rewarded bonus XP for taking them out in certain ways. For example, just making humans unconscious, without killing gave you bonus XP. While on paper that is a nice idea to encourage a non-lethal approach, it means that the game basically decides that this is the approach you are supposed to follow.

    I’ve long since come to the conclusion that it would be better for this type of story-based RPG like Deus Ex (as opposed to, say, a Diablo-like games where you are meant to slaughter demons by the thousands anyway) to not award any XP *at all* for taking out opponents, only for reaching quest objectives (and also no bonus XP for “not setting off any alarms” – it should entirely up to how the player likes to approach the situation, whether they go in guns blazing or sneaky), and also to limit the loot that can be gained from foes; instead put that shiny weapon into a locker which you can reach by sneaking past the guard, or killing the guard, or distracting them, or bribing them, etc).

  • ogg said,

    Very interesting, thank you for the update. This is the sort of thing I want to really try some day, though the result may not really be an RPG.

  • T2.0 said,

    Very interesting, indeed. I’m really glad I found this blog 🙂 – better late than never !
    From now on I’ll check the new posts every day.

  • FallenAngel said,

    I agree that a game that encourages multiple approaches to problem solving should not imply one of these to be the one “true” best solution by giving the most mechanical benefits.

    That doesn’t have to mean all the solutions “feel the same” as the counterargument tends to be, this is where you can differentiate via the game recognizing the specific way you tackled the problem(as the article points out).

    I feel UnderRail does this pretty well with its Oddity-system. It was originally intended as an optional way to handle xp but has since become the main method, with traditional xp being optional instead.
    Experience is aquired by finding the eponymous oddities, whether you do that (for example) by sneaking through an area, charming/bribing the guards, or blowing up everything that moves is your decision.

  • Daniel "Darklord" King said,

    Deus Ex Human Revolution was actually even sillier in that not only would it give you bonus xp for non lethal take downs of every enemy, but at the end of the level after getting that bonus you could then go back and kill them all for even more XP! o.O

  • McTeddy said,

    Hey! That’s exactly what I did!

    I leveled up awfully fast in that game.

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