Monday, January 18, 2010

Swinginess and Balance

There's a thread over at EN World where a poster asks what "swingy" means in terms of D&D. Here's the definition for it that I use:

A swingy system is one where a single bad or good die roll dictates the outcome of an encounter for a player or the entire group. If you roll a 1 on your save against a ghoul's paralysis, you're out of the fight unless the cleric has the right spell to get you back on your feet. As with almost everything in RPG design, a swingy mechanic has its strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest problem with a swingy game is that it produces outcomes that crowd out the rest of the system. 3e had a huge emphasis on pre-fight buffs and spells taken specifically to counter rare but catastrophic outcomes. It really favored players, because it was far more likely that they could plan and optimize to take advantage of the system's swing rather than fall victim to it. The reverse was true for DMs, who have multiple critters to manage and villains to create from scratch.

However, swing has a huge benefit. It makes every die roll tense and dramatic. It drives players to the edge of their seats and keeps them there. If you look at 4e, with its efforts to reduce swing, you see a common criticism of overly long fights and battles that are decided long before they finish. Some of that might come from encounter design, but at its root the critics are pointing out the lack of swing in the game.

Personally, I like tense die rolls, but I don't want all my rolls to have that tension. For instance, gnolls in 4e get a big damage bonus if they gang up on a PC. In one fight in my Temple of Elemental Evil game, the gnolls spread out to engage the characters. Once the fighter was bloodied, though, the gnolls used their next turn to move over to him (taking opportunity attacks along the way) and wallop him from barely bloodied to below 0 hit points. That had exactly the tension I like. When the first gnoll hit for a lot more damage than normal, the players all leaned in to watch the next two attack rolls. In 4e, that swing is moved from a single die roll (Save or die!) to a series of die rolls (If two of these three gnolls hit the fighter, or if you blow your next two saving throws, it's lights out).

Oddly enough, while balance and swing may seem like polar opposites they go hand in hand. A perfectly balanced system would be dull and a wildly unbalanced one leaves players and DMs essentially inventing their own game. By the same token, a wildly swingy game might as well use a coin flip to resolve entire battles, while one without any swing is as fun as watching paint dry. Both are boring.

Balance establishes a level playing field between characters and gives a DM a clear sense of a critter's strength compared to the PC. Swing steps in and throws all that stuff out of whack on a session by session basis. It determines that in this fight, the rogue is the hero who leaps over the crowd of orcs and skewers the evil priest with his rapier, while the fighter stumbles around with a dark mantle stuck to his head. It lets the 6 Intelligence cleric spout out the answer to the Lorekeeper's question on arcane theory while the wizard sputters and flails. It makes for memorable moments, because it produce rare, interesting, and big moments.

Balance sets the stage for swing. In a well-designed game, the players cannot control or eliminate swing. It's the wild card that reminds them that the best laid plans sometimes fall apart, while even the most hopeless struggle can turn on a die roll or two. It's the unpredictable element that makes games exciting.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

How to Lose Players

Riffing off James Raggi's idea.

Here's one for 3e/Pathfinder DM's:

The local temple known for selling wands of cure light wounds has been infiltrated by a cultist of the death god. The wands seem to work as normal, but 24 hours after receiving his first heal from it, a character takes 1 point of Constitution damage per cure he received from it in the prior 24 hours.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Issue of Game Balance

Game balance is the hobgoblin of the D&D designer's mind. It's a shiv to the ego's gut, a reminder that even the best design will spring a hole. While balance has always been an issue, it's really important when you look at D&D post-2e's splats and skills and power. That's when players had enough choices, and enough control over those choices, that they could easily build huge gaps in power between them. You could build broken characters in earlier editions, but the DM (by design, IMO) had a lot more power to reign things in. It's a lot easier for a DM to say "Your wand runs out of charges" than "The wand is out of charges, you can't buy it anymore, and that feat you're using is gone."

A lot of gamers really don't care about game balance, and that's OK. A lot of DMs have learned over the years to fiddle with the game to keep things even, and that's a godsend to many designers. Your audience is trained to forgive mistakes!

There are also plenty of players and DMs who have no use for game balance. If things are out of whack, their playstyle is such that it doesn't matter. Who cares if the berserker can kick anything's ass in melee, if the campaign is a mash-up of Romeo and Juliet crossed with The Longest Yard. Fighting isn't the point, so all those unbalanced fighting abilities the berserker uses don't matter.

If you do like combat, though, then game balance is very important. A DM needs the system to provide some framework for building encounters, or at least judging their difficulty. If each class has wildly different combat abilities and the game doesn't account for that, the system falls apart and the DM's judgment and experience have to take over. That probably means lots of trial, lots of error, and hopefully a patient enough group that a DM learns to balance the game using his own set of metrics. Of course, if a few PCs die and classes rotate in and out of the group, the balance act starts all over again.

So, some players and DMs don't care for game balance, but others want and need it. In fact, a lot of people want it. And the really nice thing is that a well-balanced game doesn't take anything away from people who don't care about balance, while making people who do care about it happy. The key is making the people who don't care about balance happy, and that's another bundle of trouble.

A well-balanced game means more than simply making all options equal. A well balanced game offers a lot of distinct choices and vivid options, without *needlessly* restricting them. That's really the trick - where does that needless line rest? 4e catches a lot of heat for this. For some people, wizard spells that obviated skills were bad because they replaced rogues in those critical situations where the rogue had a chance to shine. Others didn't care, or rarely had rogues in the party, or had enough chances for the rogue to shine that the wizard didn't steal them all.

It's a tough line to draw, because D&D is really a large number of games placed under one umbrella. Some people like lots of combat in their D&D, others enjoy free-form roleplay with teh occasional die roll. To attempt to distill D&D down into one experience that makes everyone happy is difficult.

In a way, though, game balance has to draw lines and partition things. Game balance exists at least in part within the context of a specific campaign. When you try to balance the game, you have to create a sort of platonic ideal of a campaign and work from there. Do some people think it's cool that wizard spells make skills worthless? Sure, but that might not be the baseline you design to.

Balancing D&D is hard and boring. Few people will thank you for it when, by some miracle, you get it right. Everyone will tell you how you've messed up, either by nerfing things, making things bland by balancing them, or taking away toys they liked playing with. It's precisely the job that designers are paid to do so that individual DMs aren't stuck with it.

At the end of the day, though, if you balance the game just right everyone's happy. The guys who don't care about balance get lots of options and toys to play with, because you picked the right lines and didn't take away stuff they liked. People who like the challenge of breaking the game work harder to bust the game's math. They have a steeper mountain to climb! The players in the middle get to have fun picking options based on what looks fun, interesting, or that fits a character concept. You're not stuck with a lame character because you think it would be fun to play a samurai. DMs get to run engaging campaigns without taking on too much work that the designer left for him.

So, that's why designer should keep tilting at the game balance windmill. It's hard, rarely rewarding work, but that's what we're paid to do. We take on the tough, boring tasks so DMs can spend their time doing the fun work of running a D&D campaign.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kill the Planes: The Abyss

While I realize that the planes have a long tradition in both fantasy and D&D, I don't particularly like them. The idea of going to another world is interesting and all, but why bother setting all that interesting stuff somewhere else? Why not just cram it all into the world?

For instance, the Abyss is a scary place. It's filled with demons and extends far below the normal planar realms to who knows where. The thing is, though, by placing it into this planar structure you rob it of some of its value. Clear out part of your setting, punch a huge hole in your world, and voila, there's the Abyss.

That may seem like a bad idea. After all, what stops the demons from overrunning the world? When you think about it, though, you face all the same questions if you anchor the Abyss in the planes. The frame of reference shifts, sure, but the basic concept is the same.

Instead, the Abyss is a yawning pit one hundred miles wide. It drops deep into the earth, far deeper than anyone has delved. It cuts into the Underdark, and demons emerge both there and at the surface to kill and maraud. A number of ancient fortresses watch over it, but few of those are still manned by the orders of paladins that built them. Today, many are now occupied by renegade wizards, necromancers, and demonologists.

As one travels down the narrow ledges that circle the Abyss's outer rim, one can see great spires of black rock that rise through the Abyss's central void. Here, demon lords battle for territory along narrow, stone bridges and within the chambers and caverns that honeycomb the spires. Here and there, gates along the Abyss's wall lead to massive caverns warped and changed by the Abyss's influence. These layers are shaped by the demon lords that claim them and range from howling, frozen wastes to verdant jungles. Miniature suns hang in their skies, creating proto-worlds within the stone of the earth.

Luckily, the mightiest demons need the aid of mortal spellcasters to leave the Abyss for any period of time. It is a place infused with great magic, and without it they would die like a fish removed from the water. Still, legends tell of a time when a great, red comet will split the sky and herald the rise of demonkind. According to the legends, this comet is the Queen of Chaos, the mother of all demons banished in eons past by the gods to the outer realms of the sky. When she returns, she will lead her children on an endless war of conquest across the world.

The lands near the Abyss's rim are demon-haunted and mostly abandoned. Cultists, wanderers, and madmen make their homes there, as do many gnoll packs that can reach the size of armies. The gnolls will forever remain a thorn in the side of the realm, as even the most ardent paladin would think twice before leading an army into the Abyssal lands to slay them.

The Underdark is so dangerous because, by whatever strange laws govern the Abyss's power, the mightiest demons can enter it through the Abyss's lowest precincts. This makes travel there perilous at best, and it also provides the drow with easy access to demonic aid.

Placing the Abyss in the world opens up a lot of potential for adventure. What if the Abyss's influence starts to grow? What secrets are in the fortresses that once watched over it? Low level characters can venture into the twisted lands around it and maybe even its uppermost layers, while a journey into the Underdark can turn into an excursion to the Abyss with one wrong turn.