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.


Eldrad Wolfsbane said...

All I can say is Yeah! I agree!

John said...

Mike, last year there was an anti-grind house rule being talked about where folks in R&D were cutting monster HP, increasing monster damage - did that work out? I think some kind of formula like that is compelling - to increase the number of encounters in a night, and maintain a threat level - but I could see it increase the swinginess quite a bit too (suddenly monster crits become very threatening). Anyway, curious what are your thoughts

Oh, and I just heard the podcast - go JETS. Halfway to your prediction.

Noumenon said...

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 darkmantle stuck to his head.

I loved that sentence.

Anonymous said...


Our GM tried just that in our own D&D 4 game, and I think I will adpot it: Battles run a lot faster, are more intense and still are not too ... "swingy". I think there's a sweet spot you can hit and if you do, it's awesome!

Unknown said...

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).

I hadn't heard that term before, and I'm wondering how it applies more generally to game design (not just 4e).

Without any player choices between the roles, does it actually change anything in the game system?

For example:

d4 - roll a 4 or die! -- This is "swingy"
d6 - roll a 4+ twice or die! -- This is "not swingy" ?

You still have a 25% chance for success whether you're using the "swingy" or "not swingy" examples.

Does "not swingy" require that the player gets to change their course of action between the dice rolls to respond to the first success or failure?

Mike Mearls said...

johanrendt: I'm not familiar with that specific house rule, but the general guidelines I've seen people use is to drop hit points by 50% and give a creature a bonus to damage equal to its level.

Mike Mearls said...

Stuart: Almost every game has some swing to it. Even Eurogames with zero random elements usually shift or change options based on player choice. Puerto Rico and Agricola both feature that sort of mechanic.

So, in an RPG with a random element, getting rid of swing completely would be a bad idea.

I think you can mitigate swing, though, by giving a character the chance to do something about it. But again, you don't want to eliminate it. Swing is important to keeping the game interesting, IMO.

Up until 4e, D&D relied on players to take actions before an encounter to mitigate swing. 4e tries to move more of that into the encounter itself.

I think that change is one subtle area where 3e had problems. In earlier editions, you had to play smart to minimize your risk. Figuring out what awaited you on the other side of a door was an important strategy.

3e undermined that by trotting out lots of corner case spells designed to undo swingy events. Planning went from pre-encounter (what's behind that door?) to pre-session (what spells should I prep, and what wands and scrolls should I buy?)

Anonymous said...

It might be useful to consider that you've got two things going on:

1. Choice vs. Randomization
2. How much weight a single (roll, resolution, choice) has.

When people are complaining about foregone fights grinding out, it's that the "weight" of the remaining resolutions in the combat will not turn the tide- making both choice or randomization not worth the time and effort to play through.

At whatever point both the meaningful choices and the cost are foregone conclusions, the fun is done with that part of play.

Herobizkit said...

I'm the same Herobizkit that started the swingy thread over at EnWorld. Just wanted to come in, say hi, and thank you for commenting on the thread. :)