Thursday, 17 November 2016

Never Settle (in game design)

Greetings friends!

Today I wanted to take a moment to talk to you about a few observations of mine regarding game design on the tabletop and my own rule about how and when a rule should exist.

This rule is simple, that every rule should conform to Occam's Razor, and have a narrative explanation.
- Note, this is about a rule, not a core game mechanic, those are different. With those, the most narrative driven and razor sliced rule would be eliminating dice or cards and have models actually do what they're supposed to do. But that is either not possible, or impractical.

Let's look at 2 examples of this from my beloved First Law: Override. Firstly, Hackers and Exo Suits. The former are the super characters of your Force who are almost always the stars of the show who win you the game, but are physically weak to compensate for the super human actions they can perform. The latter, a huge powered suit with the best armour, the best melee weapons, and an arguably best ranged gun. But these two are like oil and water.

They don't mix.


Well the meta reason is because of balance. You give a hacker an ExoSuit and they become unstoppable. They became unfun.

So out comes the razor and a rule is made to say they can't use them.

But where's the narrative?

That's simple: wetware.

Hackers have a neuronet in their brain that allows them to connect to their hacking deck, and an exo suit moves and reacts thanks to connecting to the user's brain. The two if put together would cause the hacker's wet ware to short circuit and would fry their brain.

Simple! An element of balance retained, and a narrative reason as to why!

Next up: Link-Bots and combat.

A link bot is Override's version of Infinity Remotes, or Malifaux Totems. They are physical extensions of the Hacker's deck, while being hard to kill and fast. But when they had the ability to melee and shoot, they were again unfun and to balance had to cost more in points making them unwieldily for their intended purpose.
Out came the razor, and then it was made that they couldn't be active in any combat (can still be hit or shot, but can do it back) why? Where's the narrative for this?

Again this was simple: First Law Programming! These babies are hard wired to be unable to hurt people!

Straight away we have two rules which were created to maintain the presence of 2 cool pieces of equipment, but keep the balance of the game, all the while having an understandable explanation beyond simply 'balance' or 'reasons'.


Now you may be wondering why I have brought this up? What possible motivation could ol' Loxley have for talking about this, his fundamental principal in game design?

Simple, and the reason is the most common reason why I bring up anything... because someone has ground my gears!

In this case we are talking Steamforged Games(SFG).

So a number of days ago SFG put out an announcement about their upcoming game Dark Souls the board game which included the following rule change:
Player Death
If any member of a party dies, the ENTIRE party is transported back to the Bonfire to rest, and a Spark is consumed. You still refill and regain everything and all Encounters reset.
sounds pretty simple, but does this comply with the narrative razor ideology?

This rule is pretty simple, and it is a valid way of dealing with player death, but where is the narrative? Under what circumstance would cause an entire party to reset and respawn because a single player died?

I have queried with others who agree with this rule as to why, the reasons given are 3 fold.

1). It's like the video game where when the host dies, all 'summoned' players are kicked from the encounter.

2). It was implemented to stop people suicide running, where they would front load their attacks to put out damage and after they are killed, the rest of the party mops up the boss.

3). SFG are professional game designers, therefore I trust them.

Let me give you my take on those 3 points:

1). Yes it is like what happens in the video game when a host dies, but what about when a summoned player dies? Nothing happens, the fight carries on leaving the host and the remaining summons to deal with the boss. Therefore to argue it is 'just like' the game, it is equally valid to argue it is 'not like' the game.

2). We are assuming that either this tactic is a problem, or that the numbers are fixed.
A). Is this actually a problem? People say that the reward for playing Dark Souls is the feeling of achievement when you down a boss. If that feeling is lost due to 'gaming' the system, then surely the only people loosing out are the players? And therefore in future games they will be less likely to do this tactic as they will be getting diminishing returns on their reward.
B). If it is a problem, then that would suggest that actually the numbers are wrong, that front loading your damage is too effective, or that the boss has too little health. To balance this, you don't remove the possibility of it being a tactic, but you make the tactic less viable by making damage output over a long fight better, with spike damage being lower, or stack on more HP to the boss meaning that even if they do this tactic, then the boss will still have too much health left for the 1 or 2 surviving characters to down it.

Notice, I am not adding additional rules, I am suggesting you balance the existing rules of the game. This is how you use the razor for game design. It also follows a narrative in that the players are not being magically transported away for reasons.

3). Just because SFG have made Guild Ball and are an established company, does not mean they are perfect at creating rules. I can name countless games by even more countless companies who have been in business for decades, and yet their rules are not infallible. Blindly trusting that they will produce the perfect ruleset is why we have problems with certain fans of certain Workshop based Games companies which results in frankly untested and terrible rulesets.

In short, what we are looking at here is a game defining rule, which if followed to the letter results in situations that don't make sense, pull the players out of the experience, remove tension while encouraging defeatist attitudes, and is frankly a lazy rule to compensate for a problem that in all fairness will sort itself out in time.

And anyway, if people want to play the game on 'EZ-MOAD' what's wrong with that? Especially when the videogame itself has such a thing by allowing you to summon other players to kill bosses for you!

Anyway, long rant over. Stay safe and be excellent to each other!

- Your friendly neighbourhood Doctor Loxley

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