Sunday, March 25, 2012

Catching Up With "The Rule of Three" - Complexity, Dreaded Monster Abilities and Smart Play

original article is here

What kind of steps are you guys taking to make sure we don't see a big difference in complexity between classes like the fighter and the wizard (and why shouldn't there be a complexity difference between the two?), and what are you doing to avoid the linear fighter/quadratic wizard issue ? (I have no idea what the fuck they are talking about here)

One of the challenges when talking about these kinds of issues is terminology, and the tendency for concepts to get lumped in with one another when they can be quite separate issues. Complexity is a separate issue than power; I can design an incredibly complex class that isn't very powerful, and some very simple things that are extremely powerful. Take a look at feats in 4th Edition; the original Weapon Expertise feat is an incredibly simple feat, yet many people would argue that it is one of the most powerful feats because it provides a raw numerical upgrade to accuracy that is not contingent on meeting certain conditions, and that cascades throughout the entirety of the attack system (yeah, uhm... i guess i am glad i skipped 4e). Additionally, there is a difference between symmetry and parity. When looking to design two classes, I may want to make sure that there is parity between the options available to each class, without needing to be symmetrical and give them the exact same kinds of options in the same frequency (most players can't tell the difference). Parity and symmetry can be applied to both power and complexity, making these two axes of design. Personally, my experience with games (both RPGs and board games) is that symmetry is not essential for parity, and in many cases the game can often be made more exciting by asymmetrical mechanics (funny how Mike and Monte can write and be understood by the masses, and here I feel like I'm back in college calculus.  I understand what he is saying, but there are much easier ways to say it without sounding... pompous)

The linear fighter/quadratic wizard phrase, for those of you unfamiliar with it, refers to an environment where the fighter progresses at a steady pace, with its output increasing by a relatively set amount at each level. The quadratic wizard, on the other hand, gains output increases both from additional spells (more spells = more output) but also from those spells dealing more damage and having more powerful effects (turning people to stone, instant death, etc.). Thus, the wizard eventually outstrips the fighter in output thanks to an ever-increasing series of gains over many levels (ah, the classic "weak as shit as a newbie, but a powerhouse at higher levels".  ever notice that intelligent adversaries always target the casters when the DM plays them right?).

To address the first part of the question, I think it's OK for it to be possible to have a big difference in complexity between the fighter and the wizard, if that is what the player wants. (but couldn't we just design a variant caster class, say "sorcerer", and have that be the simple wizzie?) What is important is that if the player chooses this path, we want to ensure that there remains parity in his effectiveness despite the difference in complexity. We've already shown how this is possible with the slayer fighter from Essentials; complexity of options is lower with the slayer, but the slayer can still retain parity of effectiveness with the other classes. I've said it before, but one of the best things we gained from the design and development of 4th Edition is a handle on how to examine the math behind a character's effectiveness (again, IMHO, removing the "soul" from the game), and there are even more steps we can take to accurately gauge a character's capabilities given the last five years of experience working on that game. Whether a player chooses to play a complex character or a simple character, making sure that character has parity with the effectiveness of the other members of the party should always be a goal. (does this mean everyone is just as effective as everyone else, both in and out of combat?  was there any out of combat actions in 4e that weren't "combat" with the serial number scraped off?)

When we look at providing options for character building, however, symmetry does not need to be a goal. The goal should be to provide a satisfying experience that does what the players want. Take, for example, the fighter. In a previous column, I mentioned that the fighter could serve the need for a low complexity class, and also have options to serve the needs of those who want a high complexity class. It is important when examining ways to build in that complexity that we focus not on symmetry, but on the needs of the player who plays the more complex character. I would argue that what the player looking to play a complex fighter needs (in broad, generalized terms; I full well realize that every single player's needs are different) includes things like having multiple options for things to do on their turn, have some expendable resources, have the ability to expend those resources for great effect, and have some ability to customize a fighting style to match their vision of the character. (Note that I chose to focus on combat here, but the same points can apply to exploration and interaction). Those goals can then be married with story goals, and verisimilitude (SAT word for the win) needs, and a host of other goals to, hopefully, produce the fighter that meets the players' needs. (I feel this whole paragraph is a bunch of over thinking by a game designer.  make the game fun, and the rest will take care of itself)

There is a challenge in making sure that higher-level non-spellcasters have a good variety of unique, and compelling options available to them (if the wizard can fly, teleport, and travel the planes, what does the rogue do?) (umm, roguish shit perhaps?), but that's something we solve by making available those creative options; again, parity of compelling options, not symmetry of mechanics. I think we see some great examples of compelling mechanics for non-spellcasters at higher levels in 4E, especially in epic destinies. Take the Thief of Legend's ability to steal intangible things, or to basically be so good of a thief that he can steal something and have it appear in a place of his choosing. (so, the thief in 4e gets magical powers?  now I'm really glad I skipped 4e)

I was wondering about some of the more dreaded monster abilities that made some previous edition monsters scary. Are you guys looking at the return of things like level drain, instant death effects, harmful polymorph spells or abilities, etc?

In general, I think that monsters should do what fans of D&D lore expect them to do, and if that means being really scary mechanically then so be it (good answer so far). I think there's room in the game for monsters that simply are more dangerous and deadly than others, just as I think there's room in the game for monsters whose purpose is to be interacted with, not fought. I also think it's good for monsters to exist that you don't want to face in a straight-up fight, but that you need to be prepared for or figure out a clever way to outwit rather than going in spells a-blazin'. (hey, this sounds like "Old School" gaming shit here) There needs to be an element of danger in the world in order for the game to feel exciting, and unpredictability is important for sustaining engagement. (holy crap!  does this mean characters "Can Die!?!)

We have some game tech developed for 4E that helps a lot here; for example, rather than being petrified instantly, we might use the method that requires you to fail two saving throws before becoming petrified, allowing the player (and his or her allies) to try and intervene in the process (I hope the first fail is at least the equivalent of a slow spell). And we may look at something like level drain and say, "Here's a mechanic that is both scary, and causes some game play issues," and then try and find a new solution that retains its sense of danger without using the exact same mechanics.  (I'll reserve judgement so far.  little info here)

The other important element when dealing with monsters that have scary abilities is education. We need to be able to communicate to the DM when a particular monster is suitable for a straight-up fight, and when it should be used more carefully. For example, if a medusa can instantly turn you to stone, that's fine, provided that the DM knows that a medusa shouldn't be just casually tossed into an adventure without first dropping hints to the players (allowing them to be prepared for the medusa when encountered) or being aware of the consequences of using a monster that instantly petrifies foes. (actually, this is also very "Old School" in nature.  forewarned is forearmed)
It was mentioned in the recent Legends and Lore that Vancian magic rewards smart play for wizards. What kinds of things are you working on to reward smart play for fighters? For other classes?

I prefer not to use the term "smart play," because even if I decide I don't want to carefully mete out my resources doesn't mean I'm not playing smart—it just means I am not as interested in the game-centric aspects of D&D (er, but vancian magic is about managing resources.  and D&D is still a game, right?  isn't that why they are using mathematical formulas, to prove they can balance the game). To address the question of what we're going to do to engage players of other classes looking for a more strategic play experience, it's going to depend on the class, truthfully, and the play style of the character. For example, the fighter might be concerned with things like the preservation of hit points, which not only includes making strategic choices at character creation, but also might involve managing a pool of self-healing resources, or using defense-based options to mitigate damage while still occupying an enemy's attention (thus also mitigating the damage that enemy could do to the fighter's allies) (MMORPG Tank type class) . The rogue might be more concerned with the management of risks, moving into a dangerous fray to fell a dangerous foe vs. sitting back and playing it safe, but not dropping an enemy as quickly. However, those need to be meaningful decisions; if it's always simply the right thing to do, there's no real reward for thinking strategically or tactically. (i'll accept these ideas.  they sound like fun additions to the game)

Resource expenditure is not the only source of fulfilling tactical and strategic play, but it is a perfectly valid one. Just as valid are things like target selection, knowing when to take risks, choosing the right tool for the job, knowing how to mitigate randomness, having backups ready in case of failure, and balancing a trade-off between accuracy, damage, and defenses. Moreover, it's a perfectly valid choice to decide that one wants to eschew all of that and focus more on the narrative of the character. This touches again on the symmetry issue from the first question: giving a class a fulfilling strategic or tactical play option is not about mirroring the options of other classes, but creating a satisfying experience for that class. (from what I understand, this is a lesson learned from mistakes in 4e) Who is the ultimate judge of what is satisfying? Well, you are, which is why we want to use the playtesting process to make sure we are achieving that goal.

1 comment:

  1. "(so, the thief in 4e gets magical powers? now I'm really glad I skipped 4e)"

    4e thieves are absurd. I've seen them do upwards of 30hp damage in a single round. Oh, and they get to add their charisma modifier to their damage rolls when they use their (at-will) "sly flourish" power. That shining smile hurts so good.


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