Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Truth and Beauty II

Read this blog from the first post up or it won't make any sense.

I'm still trying to figure out the implications of yesterday's revelation (in the meantime I'm running tests to get the values for a bunch of other 'configurations' that we think will be valuable for certain character/game types (that's another post). Here's what I think may result from the observation that it's perfectly balanced to have a Level +1 of an attack added to a Level +1 of another attack and still be balanced.

Different Kinds of Extra Attacks
My first thought as I work through this is that there are several different "kinds" of attacks a character may be interested in. They will be handled differently. Let's enumerate them.

  • Multiple Standard Attacks. The first kind is entirely unlike attacks (super strength + plasma vision) which fall into the "standard" category (fire as often as you can, every Round, for a standard REA cost). In this case both attacks are theoretically to be brought from "the ground up" (remember that the "Level 1" 8 AP investment yields more damage per AP than each +1 Level--look at the chart from the last post). Our theory is that to encourage this you should only pay 1 AP per each additional attack after pay full points for your most expensive. NOTE: one of the reasons we're so positive on this is that generally the character must choose one or the other (as they both cost REA and the amount of REA is limited)--so having more choices (especially if they all do similar kinds of damage) doesn't make the character that much better, just slightly (pleasantly) more versatile. 
  • Standard Attack With a Unusual 'Chaser.' In this case we have a character with a Level 1 attack of some kind (Power Blast) and possibly several +1 Level (8 AP) investments. They then, as we saw in the last post, buy some additional +1 Levels of the same basic kind of attack but a different Rate of Fire. So the example is Power Blast (standard) of 3 levels (for 24 AP) with 2 extra levels (16 AP) of 2-Round-Charge-Up (so every 3 rounds they can fire a "mega blast"). It turns out this is balanced. We can, it seems, treat this entire attack as a standard attack despite the fact that the "mega blast" has a non-standard rate of fire.
  • Resisted Attack Back-Up. One model I haven't gone into much is the Resisted Attack Back Up. This is a case where the character has a standard attack of some kind (super strength?) and then purchases a Resisted Attack (sleep ray) as a back-up to be used on targets where the normal attack isn't being all that effective (such as against characters who are too armored to hurt with the super strength but might still be effected by a sleep ray). This model is suspect: if you can get the sleep ray for +1 AP, who wouldn't? Also: if the profile of how these attacks take down opponents is very different would the ability to get one for +1 AP mean everyone had to in order to be able to properly face a range of opponents?
  • Backup Power Attack. In this configuration I have a high-cost Standard Attack (super strength) and then want to pay 1 AP for a charge-up "mega blast." The 'mega blast' is limited so that its damage output is MUCH higher but the cost is the same (or lower) than the standard attack. This model is suspect: if anyone can have a high-damage attack for 1 AP, however it is limited, it becomes very, very advantageous to do so.
What To Do?
I think that the first two are provably fine and reasonably balanced, the second needs some thinking, and the third needs a rule that prohibits it. What might this look like?
Resisted Attack Back-Up: We don't want to force everyone with a sleep-ray to buy it up from scratch along with a normal attack. Some (quick) analysis shows that it's more efficient to put all your points into one or the other. On the other hand, 1 AP is too cheap because it becomes an 'opportunity cost' not to have the Resisted Attack ("I'd have beaten him if I only had invested 1 AP in a sleep ray!). Maybe for those kinds of attacks we can have a minimum cost of something non-trivial like 2 or 4 AP?
Back Up Power Attack: We are already tagging powers that have unusual Rates of Fire so that we can have special rules for them. The most likely thing is that those just won't get the 1 AP treatment: if you want a 'mega blast' you buy +1 Level (8 AP) or maybe half that (4 AP) and add it to whatever attack you already have.
We need to carefully monitor how these rules would create characters and look for unintended side effects.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Truth and Beauty

Read this blog from the first post up or it won't make much sense.

It's said that Maxwell knew his equations for light were correct when they were mathematically beautiful--and that he knew something was wrong when they were ugly and kludgy. While I love the sentiment I'm not sure it applies to reality and I'm not optimistic enough to think it'll always apply to game design (of all things). However, today, the Truth = Beauty theory is doing pretty well. Here's why:

Attack Strategies
As you've seen from previous entries we are looking at questions of how a character with a X AP attack might add a Y AP attack that has an unusual rate of fire. An example would like like this:

  • 20 AP Standard Power Blast (25 IMP Damage). Fires twice a Round every Round.
  • 4 AP Charge-Up Power Blast (30 IMP Damage). Fires twice a Round but only on odd numbered Rounds.
The "most obvious" way to do that was to declare that a 4 AP investment in a Charge-Up-Blast would yield 30 points of damage. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Mathematically, using the simulator, we have determined that a 4 AP investment in a Charge-Up-Blast is worth more like 13 IMP damage, not 30: if the character designer said "Screw the standard blast, I'm puttin' all my points into a charge up blast!" it would deal something like 180 IMP damage and the character would be way, way too good.

So we had a problem: we liked the way that some unusual rates of fire interacted with standard attacks but we could not come up with a "cost per point of damage" that worked out.

Until last night.

Staring At The Numbers
Before I can go to the solution, let me explain how the cost-per-point-of-damage thing is actually working out. It's more complex than you'd probably think. In order to determine how much "one point" of ranged, standard-fire, Impact Damage was worth I took 3 Herds (16 AP, 32 AP, and 64 AP) and spent half the AP of my test characters on a ranged blast.

I then increased or decreased the amount of damage it did (from what it was "supposed to do" based on our testing with the 'Balanced Herds') until I had my group of 4 test characters winning an average of 50% of their battles with the same Power Blast. This gave me this result:

These are the numbers that came in around 50%: when I took an average of the damages vs. the costs (the AP cost for each blast was half the Herd Cost) it came out to 1 AP = 1.40 Ranged, Standard Impact Damage. This was handy. It was also wrong.

Using that (average) value and plugging in the actual AP's, for example, the 8 AP blast (the 16 AP Herd) would do 8 x 1.40  = 11.2 (rounds to 11) Impact Damage. That's 3pts under what tested at 50%. In the simulator a 16 AP Blaster armed with an 11 IMP damage Blast won under 40% of the time. If a player went with that strategy they'd be screwed. On the other end of the spectrum the 64 AP character (32 AP invested in the attack) wound up doing 44 Impact Damage (32 AP x 1.40 = 44 Impact Damage) instead of the slightly-too-high-anyway 36 Impact. That meant that at the upper end of the point scale Power Blast was a freakin' great deal.

I wasn't happy with that (never mind that at the middle of the road the 32 AP character would wind up blasting for 22 IMP damage instead of 21 which was close enough). But there didn't seem to be much of a solution. I did, however, wonder what the heck was up with that.

What Was Up With That?
Some examination and some thinking led me to this: a JAGS character is a combination of "normal guy" built with Character Points (CP) and a suite of "special" abilities bought with Archetype Points (AP). The 16 AP character gets a normal guy's worth of toughness (he starts at 14 Damage Points and a 12 Constitution--our guestimate as to what a PC-build would be like) for 0 AP.

Now, all of the other Herd characters get that too--but at the lower-AP levels the in-the-door investment has to overcome the 0 AP's worth of toughness the basic character has. That means that in order for the 16 AP guy to win 50% of his battles with a blast weapon he has to be doing at least enough damage to fairly hurt a normal man who also has some extra armor or a force field or whatever on top of that.

This "free normal guy" effect means that the first few points spent on Power Blast have to give you more damage "for the money" than every AP spent thereafter (once you are dominating the "normal guy"). This is why the damage-per-AP investment tapers off after a while and if you still keep paying the average price (1 AP = 1.40 IMP Damage) it eventually becomes a really, really great investment: that cost is factored partially (1/3 of its value) from that starting point).

So What's The Solution
I decided that a potential--and reasonably palatable--solution was to simply give you more damage for the first 8 AP invested and then give you a flat rate for each 8 AP after that. How'd I decide that? Well, 8 AP is a "magical" value in JAGS. It's how we think of "levels" of character (so a 32 AP character is, to our thinking, Level 4). We've costed things in terms of 8 AP and it's worked elegantly for us.

I did some analysis and came up with this chart:

This is complex but bear with me a moment. Down the left are different "types" of Power Blast. The first one is the Standard Blast (fire every round for 5 REA). Looking down you can see things like Cool-1 (that means it can fire every other round, starting with the first round) and Charge Up-1 (meaning it can fire every other round starting with the second round). There's other stuff too and that gets even more complex (Breath is what we factor for Fantasy-beast breath weapons).

The Orange Level 1 column is what our 8 AP tested at: that's how much damage the 16 AP character (with 8 of those AP invested in Power Blast) needed to win about 50% of their battles with the 16 AP Herd.

The Orange +1 Level Column is how much extra damage was added to bring the character to about 50% victory against the 32 AP Herd. 

The Orange Delta 64 Column is what happened when I added the +1 Level amount of damage twice more and compared that total-damage to the 50% win value against the 64 AP Herd.

So for Blast (Standard) the 8 AP investment scored an awesome 14 IMP, the next 8 AP would bring it up to 21 IMP damage, and two more levels (16 more AP) invested would give us 35 Impact Damage where as the value my tests said was good came out to 36. That was just about perfect!

I then proceeded to test everything else I'd run and I got the purple column: I adjusted the +1 Level number slightly so that when I added it 3 more times to the Level 1 number I got as close to the 36 AP number as possible. I was able to get very close. Elegant!

So Then What?
Well, I'd sort of figured this out yesterday and was still testing it when I re-examined the idea of having an "extra damage" blast like the one discussed at the start of this entry. I realized that the extra damage (even if it was 1x every other round) was effectively ADDING to the standard blast you already brought.

What, I thought, if I just let you buy +1 Level for some other type of Power Blast. This would mean that a character with 32 AP to  spend on an attack could go to that list above (using the Purple Numbers) and go: "Hmmm ... I'll spend 24 AP on a Standard Blast. That'll get me 14 (Level 1) + 7 + 7 = 28 Impact Damage every round as many times as I have REA to fire it (usually twice) and THEN I can spend my remaining 8 AP on ... let's see ... a Charge Up-2 Blast. That 'power-blast' will take me two Rounds to 'charge up' before I can fire it but it'll hit for (checks table) an extra 14 Impact Damage! Hey, I'll take that."

Testing proved this to be workable ("m still testing but it looks good).

That's elegant.

Beauty & Truth!


Monday, June 28, 2010

Low Damage [LD] and Very Low Damage [VLD]

Read this blog from the bottom up as each of these posts build on each other.

Early on I was testing an Archetype Trait (a power) called 'Speed.' It granted the character +4 REA or, in English, +4 Reaction Speed which means he could generally go before normal characters and could make an extra attack with his primary weapon.

My back-of-the-envelope thinking showed that this was worth about 8 AP and, lo and behold, in early tests that seemed about right. However when I got to the "balanced" herds I discovered to my consternation that the guys with Speed were winning around 85% of their fights. That was a lot. It was somehow clearly worth more than 8 AP. What had happened?

What Happened
What happened in the early testing was that I was sticking to "speedy characters" when I tested speed. These were ninja assassin types who tended to hit weakly but hit a lot. I tested martial arts masters, blade-armed lithe cyborg types, and so on. In the hands of those characters it was fairly balanced. In the hands of someone who had spent almost half their points (minus the 8 AP for Speed) on their attack, however, it was a disaster.

When I tested those guys for balance it turned out that it was worth more like 24 AP. That was: a 48 AP balanced character (50% defenses, 50% attack) who invested 8 AP of their attack points (or, even worse, 8 AP of their defense points) in Speed would wind up around even with a 72 AP character.

I immediately sat back and wanted to understand what was going on. I couldn't charge 24 AP for Speed--that was way too much for the "good" characters I'd tested it with. But how could I prevent other characters ("bad ones") from buying it?

Some analysis showed that the problem was how many AP's the character had spent on their attack compared to their total points.

Balancing Speed
If, it turned out, a character had spent no more than 1/4th of their total AP on their attack? Then for 8 AP, giving them an extra attack with it was, in fact, balanced. I ran this at several AP levels and it held. Now, against heavy armor, those characters did have a big problem: they lost a lot against the "full armor" (50% of AP spent on Armor) but if I factored those out they were often slightly above 50% (but under 60%) in percent-chance-of-victory. This was good: a fast character who was rated for Low Damage for their AP level had a profile that they were a little better against characters without heavy armor but had real problems against characters with "Full Armor."

That seemed like a reasonable strategic trade-off: in your group of PCs you might want a few of those guys but they won't overshadow the heavier (slower) hitters.

We then tested 1/8th of your AP spent on an attack and called this Very Low Damage. These guys had a hard time against "Mixed Armor" (roughly 1/4th of AP spent on Armor) but got two extra attacks for their 8 AP. If you wanted to play a lightning quick character, that was a good way to do it.

Speed And Unusual Attacks
This brings us to the question of how an attack like a Charge-Up blast applies to this situation. In a play-test game E. one of our guys (T.) had a winged character who's wings were knife like. He was fast and agile but hit weakly. E. felt that in a lot of the battles T. didn't have a lot to do since he could hit like six times but usually got nothing through (part of the problem was that K., who suggested the parameters of the campaign had specified that we could all get "free armor" on top of whatever else we paid for--so the characters in this game were almost all heavily armored).

When we played a second game, he designed several weapons to have a Low Damage profile but, once a combat, fire a super-blast that did a lot more damage. E. felt that this let people "play in the game" without "breaking" their Low-Damage "promise" that allowed them to get Speed for much less.

Was this actually true?

Testing Normal Damage + 1x Attacks
I have numbers that are balanced (50% Chance of Victory) for a character at the 48 AP level who has 24 AP "to spend on attacks." He comes out balanced with 24 AP spent on Power Blast. NOTE: These characters were NOT fast or speedy. Just normal. Let's see what happens with some combinations:

  • 24 AP (29 IMP Ranged) and NOTHING ELSE: 52.64%
  • 20 AP (25 IMP Ranged) on a Standard Power Blast, 4 AP (36 IMP Ranged) on a 1x-per-battle blast: 49.96%
  • 20 AP (25 IMP Ranged), 4 AP (30 IMP Ranged) on a 1-Round-Cool Down blast (can be used 1st round of combat). 49.52%
  • 20 AP (25 IMP Ranged), 4 AP (33 IMP Ranged) on a 1-Round-Charge-Up blast (cannot be used 1st Round of combat): 49.43%
From this we can see that if the person goes "plain vanilla" they hit for 29 IMP per Round--but taking a 4pt of damage per round hit (the standard attack now hits for 25 IMP) they can get damages up to 36 IMP for a one-time hit and still be balanced.

This means that, yes, a LD or VLD character should be able to "punch above their weight class" (hit harder than 1/4th AP in an attack should allow) so long as we get the pricing and the rule right. Unfortunately this comes at the cost of hitting less hard the rest of the time. For a character who already hits pretty weakly, how bad is this?

Testing Speed + 1x Attacks [Low Damage]
I ran two tests with Speedy characters (3 attacks per Round): for the first I took an 12 AP (18 IMP Ranged) attack--a legal Low Damage blast--and paired it with a 4 AP 1x-per-combat attack (similar to what E. had done). This character is over spent on attacks for a LD character: he has spent 12 (1/4th his points) on a blast and then gone and spent another 4pts on a 1x per combat attack. I didn't expect the character to balance but I wanted to see how far he was off.Victory was a too-high 65% vs. everything but full armor (I'd allow 58% or even 60%).

This means that for a 1x attack the damage would have to be somewhere lower than 36 IMP. I'm not yet sure how to calculate those numbers.

On the other hand, the second test I did was more promising: The LD character has 12 AP to spend on attacks however he wants. I spent 8 AP on a standard blast (14 IMP) and then spent the remaining 4 AP on a 1x-per-combat (36 IMP) blast. If the system were working this should theoretically be balanced as the character has spent the "proper" amount of points (1/4th their Total AP) and no more. In fact the character won a reasonable 54.21% against everything but Full Armor (and was above 50% even with that). 

It meant that the basic thinking is probably right.

Now I just have to figure out how to make this a rule.



Read this blog from the bottom up: it's sequential and it's the only way it'll make sense.

Before I can get to Low Damage characters I need to talk about "A-Cost." A-Cost stands for "Attack Cost" and, at its most simple, is the number of AP that you paid for an attack. Here's a dirt simple example:
9mm Handgun: Cost 3 AP, 6 PEN damage. A-Cost: 3 AP
There? Simple. Of course like everything else, it gets more complex as we dig into it. A-Cost began its life when we were putting together cybernetics packages. Remember the rule that you only pay full cost for your most powerful (standard) attack. Right? So we're creating cybernetics packages and they look something like this:

Cyborg Body: Cost 12 AP Per LEVEL, A-Cost 4 AP. Gives: +8 Damage Points, 4/16 Armor, 6/12 Coverage 3 Plates, +1 CON, +5 BLD, +9 STR
I've bolded the part that increases hand-to-hand damage: that's the "attack part" of the cyborg body (everything else counts as a defense). This means that of the 12 AP for the Level 1 Cyber Body, 4 of those AP are devoted to the attack. So let's say you're combining Cyborg Body with Cyber-Mounted Machine Gun (Cost: 18 AP, A-Cost 18 AP): in this  case you ought to pay a little less for the Cyborg Body since the points you spent on BLD and STR are a much less potent attack (at least at Level 1) than the machine gun.

So what happens when you combine them is this:

  1. You pay full price for the most expensive attack (Machine Gun, A-Cost 18)
  2. You pay 1 AP for each less powerful standard attack (Cyborg Body's STR and BLD)
  3. You pay normally for the rest of Cyborg Body.
This comes to: 18 AP (Machine Gun) + 1 AP (for the Level 1 Cyber-Body's attack) + 8 AP (remainder of the Cyber Body's defenses) = 27 AP.

Anything Else?
As we'll get into, there may be some additional complexities. For one thing, it may be possible for a "pure attack" (that is: an attack that is not bundled with other things like the Cyborg Body is) to have an A-Cost that differs from its AP cost. We think the reasoning for this might be for determining how very limited attacks (such as an attack that takes 3 rounds to charge up) interact with special defenses. It's also possible (as we'll get into) that certain types of attacks might "add" in some unusual ways and maybe A-Cost can help with that. These ideas are not fully formed enough right now to get into but I wanted to touch on them here first.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Attack Profiles II

You have to read this blog from the bottom up for it to make sense.

Here's the second post on Attack Profiles (a quick one because I haven't much time). I ran some numbers on different potential approaches that were "hypothetically equal." These were:

  1. 20-20, 20-20 (20-20): the character (a 36 AP Energy Blaster) makes 2 attacks each Round for 20 Impact Damage each.
  2. 10-10, 30-30 (10-30): On the first round of combat the character hits for 10-10 twice but on the next round (and every other Round after) the character hits for 30-30.
  3. 30-30, 10-10 (30-10): On the first round of combat the character hits twice for 30 damage each hit and on subsequent (even numbered) Rounds the character only has a 10-10 blast.
Against a "wall" with no armor the damage, 80 IMP each two rounds, works out the same for all of these. However, they don't all have the same percent chance of winning.

20-20's Profile
The "basic profile" gets a 51.92% chance of victory against its peers in the 36 AP Normalized Herd. This is close enough to 50% for us to call it balanced. A character with this profile is assumed to have gotten his money's worth.

10-30's Profile
This guy comes in at 47.34%. It's a little low but not that bad. While we don't do exact costs based on %-wins we might assume that this guy comes in at maybe 35 AP instead of 36. That's a little generous.

30-10's Profile
The guy who hits twice on the first round for 30 damage twice wins 59.52% of the time ... basically 60%. We consider this "too high." In other words, he should not be considered "the same points" as the other guys in our perspective. He might be 40 AP. Maybe (we don't do exact values based on % wins).

I suspect the reason this is the case is because of the way JAGS's damage system works. Here are the factors:
  1. Minor Wounds. When you take a lot of damage all at once it's considered a 'Wound.' A Minor Wound is 1/3rd your total Damage Points so a normal man has 10 DP and a "Minor Wound Value" of 3. When this guy takes 3 or more he must make a Minor Wound roll which can Stun, Daze, or even knock him Unconscious. The higher damage numbers are more likely to result in Minor Wound Rolls for the targets.
  2. Damage Over Armor. Armor removes incoming damage and many characters will have at least a little of it. We believe that "for characters likely to have armor there are some common assumptions you can make as to how much they will have at a given point total." This gives us an "average armor." Damage below that level is worth much less than damage above it (as the damage above it is what the character will actually take). Put another way, in a high armor environment a hypothetical 1-Point-Of-Damage handgun is worth no more than a 0 point of damage handgun as the effect will be the same.
  3. Limited Number of Rounds. In real battles as opposed to hypothetical ones there is a limited number of rounds ... often 2.6 to 3.X. This means that if an attack is useful once "every other round" and it is NOT available on Round 1 of the fight then it may only get one use as opposed to two. This is of key importance to understanding why the 30-10 blast is worth a good deal more than the 10-30 one.
I'm not 100% sure yet however I think what all this implies is: (a) as our testing shows the different Rate of Fire is worth a different amount. We need to keep this sort of thing in perspective when determining how to sell these things to people. (b) The big question is how these rules intersect with the Low Damage rules (I'll go into those in a little more detail later). If a LD character (think a very fast agile character who does poorly against heavy armor) can have a limited number of higher-damage attacks without making them over-powered then it gives that character something to do in heavy-armor environments rather than just watch.

Finally, understanding this is going to be key to other game types. Take for instance our Fantasy game where we envision dragons that "turn on" their breath weapons once every few Rounds forcing a flurry of defensive action. It will be important to understanding our Chi Martial Artists who may charge up Chi Bolts or have to re-gather their strength after a taxing move.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Attack Profiles

I probably won't have time to update this over the weekend so I'm doing a second post today that's "right in the middle of things."

The question on the table is: In order for the game to work properly and be interesting we want combinations of Standard Attacks (which the character can always do) and Unusual Attacks (which may have limitations on Rate of Fire and such). We want these to work out correctly and be balanced. We want this kind of design to be a viable (interesting) character strategy.

The Concept
The problem is this: imagine a 32 AP character who has decided to spend 16 AP on attack powers. Furthermore, let's say that they want one standard attack (super strength) and one attack that takes a round to charge up and can only fire once (plasma vision). The player presumes that when the character is fighting in close they'll use their strength but, against ranged opponents or against really tough characters they'll go to the plasma vision since it hits harder.

We like this and, even if the character always uses their plasma vision when it's available (we don't stop people from firing ranged weapons at point-blank-range generally) it still results in a more interesting action profile than punch-punch-punch-punch-punch-punchpunchpunch-punch ... punch.

The Problem
The problem is this: given the points the player has to spend (16) according to our testing, the most likely divisor looks like this:

  • Super Strength (12 AP): 20 IMP Damage Hand-to-Hand (Short Range)
  • Plasma Vision (4 AP): 14 IMP Damage Ranged
Now, this isn't bad: the split gives the player reasonable damage with both attacks and some versatility (the ability to hit at range). The problem comes in when the character compares himself to other builds:

  • Super Strength Alone (16 AP): 27 IMP Damage Hand-to-Hand (Short Range)
  • Plasma Vision Alone (16 AP): 21 IMP Damage Ranged
In both cases the character hits significantly harder for their single investment. The cost for versatility is roughly 14 IMP per turn in either case. That's no small deal. Furthermore, because the character will be facing armored opponents, the damage that is dealt "above armor" is doubly valuable. This means that small damage amounts (the 14 IMP Ranged Blast) diminish in value more than the linear difference in values would indicate.

Why Not Pump Up The Damage?
Ideally the 4 AP Plasma Vision would hit for, let's say, 32 IMP Damage. That's more than a full investment in STR. The character's Standard back-up Super Strength is underpowered but, once every other Round, the character can really blast someone. The character would be trading constant damage for less-often extreme damage. We think that's reasonable.

We can't do that.

Why not? The reason is that absent some other rule that we haven't discovered yet (watch this space) the cost multiplier for the One-Time-Every-Other-Round plasma vision is something like AP-Cost/.57. That's what's balanced if the person put all their available points into the plasma vision. If we "pump up" the effectiveness of plasma vision so that the split character works the way we'd like it? We get this:

  • Plasma Vision Alone (16 AP):  128 Ranged Impact Damage
Our simulator says that even firing once every other round this guy would win like 80+ percent of the time against his peers. So that's not an option.

What Else Is On The Table?
Right now the solution seems to be to allow very effective investments in alternate attacks so long as the amount of AP you get to invest is restricted. For example, suppose that we had a rule that said "you can double the damage of a once-every-other-round-one-time-around attack so long as you invest no more than 1/3 the points you have in your most expensive standard attack (round down)?

We could do something like that. It would confuse people and be rules-heavy and complex but it might work.

There are a few other things to take into account that I'll hint at here--but they'll be explained later.

Low Damage Characters
Right now if a character has spent no more than 1/4th their Total AP on attack powers (and we have a slightly more sophisticated way of measuring this) then you can get some special breaks on things like extra speed, being really hard to hit, and having a lot of extra Damage Points (actually The Ablative Damage Points, ADP, that we discussed earlier).

We need to determine how things like "extra damage" for limited attacks effects this. If the guy above spends 6 AP on Super Strength and 2 AP on plasma vision, he has spent only 8 AP and "qualifies" for the Low Damage defenses cost-break. But does he really? We're not sure.

Resisted Attacks And These Rules
Resisted Attacks (think "Sleep Ray" or "Poison Gas") are very good for characters who want to be able to have unusual attack profiles. Although they do work based on how many Damage Points the target has they don't (always) care about things like how much armor they have. This can be very handy if you are facing a character who has all their points in armor and none in DP.

We want to encourage versatility to a point where the characters are interesting. We don't want everyone to have a sleep ray just in case they run into Mr. Armor. While we can simply give you "no cost break" on Resisted Attacks there might be a better way. Can we find some adjusted cost that allows you to take a Resisted Attack (or more than one) without paying full price if you have already invested in other attacks? Or will we forever force characters contemplating them to go "all in" (wherein they spend a majority of their points on the Resisted Attack since, as it's pretty much all they've got, they need to ensure it'll work as often as possible)?


The Herds

Before we get to the actual numerical analysis of different attack strategies it's important to understand what our testing methodology is. At it's most basic it is:

"Make a character and run them in the simulator against a bunch of other guys of 'approximately the same power level' and record the number (%) of wins and the amount of time (number of Rounds) the battle takes. If the percent of wins is around 50% and the number of Rounds is 3+ then we call that a 'balanced character build and a good battle.'
In case some of that needs clarification. If our test character (or, as you will see, characters) wins 50% against his same number of points then we assume that he got his money's worth--but no more. If the battle (really, an average of 5000 battles) takes more than 5 Rounds or less than 2 then we assume it's "too long" or "too short." Too long is better than too short because "too short" usually means that it's coming down to who fires first and is, in any event, more bloody than we like our roleplaying to be on the average.

The Herd
The group of guys we run the character against is called "the herd." We have numerous herds at differing point levels so we call them a "16 AP Herd" or a "64 AP Herd" and so on. What, exactly, this group of test-opponents consists of has changed significantly over time.

The Initial Herd
When I first got the simulator I simply built 'character's and threw them all into the mix. There were ultra fast cyborgs, clawed mutants, super-strong bullet-proof guys, and a build that was little more than a big gun and a high chance to hit. This was in no way scientific and it showed us several things:

  1. Over a decade of play-testing hadn't led us entirely astray. So long as the characters existed with in certain boundaries they were, in fact, "reasonably balanced." An example of this was that the hyper-fast cyborgs had to keep to very low damage attacks. When a fast character with multiple strikes got an attack on par with their slower peers they beat almost everyone. There was no rule that encouraged fast characters to have weaker attacks ... so there is now.
  2. Outside of the limits where we usually played things broke down ... weirdly. We later learned that the "tested values" of even basic attacks shift in their effectiveness as the point-scale changes. Combinations of certain things (extra CON or AGI) actually changed with point-scale dramatically. Example: Extra Constitution (CON) is, it seems, properly worth some fraction of your total points rather than a specific cost. For a 100 AP character to get +2 CON for the same price a 16 AP character would pay is such an incredibly effective purchase that everyone would do it.
  3. There was a correlation in our builds between "number of AP" and Damage Points but it wasn't consistent. This did, however, lead us to the conclusion that we could generalize about "how much damage" or "how tough" or "how armored" a "standard character" might be based on their total AP. This was important later in codifying the idea of "levels."
The Next Herd: The Blanks vs. Achilles 
I created the next "herd" experiment when I was trying to test bio-weapons (such as claws or spiked tails). I reasoned that many of these weapons were "valued" based on who had them (i.e. the totality of the attacker). I wanted to factor that out of my experiments because if I just, for example, gave armor-penetrating claws to ultra-fast characters that might give me one value. When I then put those claws on super strong characters where the armor piercing damage gets added to by the strength numbers the weapon might be valued very differently.

In order to "factor that out" I wanted to create a herd of "blanks"--characters with a standard weak attack (a 9mm handgun) and a single basic defense (each blank might have a little more of it). The guy with the weapon was dubbed 'Achilles' because he had 1 MILLION damage points and therefore never lost. He had no defenses (unlike the real Achilles who was indestructible--but hey) and attacked relentlessly with whatever weapon I gave him.

The intent was to determine (to keep stats) how effective that weapon was against a range of opponents. They'd never win so I just recorded how long it took them to die, how much damage they took during the dying, and how much damage they inflicted during the fight. The last was interesting: I reasoned that if an attack took a while to kill them--but had the effect of incapacitating them during the battle it would come out in how much damage the blanks were able to counter-strike with.

The problem was that I had a hard time turning these numbers into AP costs. It gave me (I think) a good relative value of the weapon but it seemed that when we actually tested real characters with this the results were slightly haphazard.

The Balanced Herds
E. came back with a solution: he created a herd of 16 characters. Each group of four had Powerful Fists, a Sword, a Gun, and a Power Blast. Each of the four groups had: Nothing But Armor (FULL ARMOR), Nothing But Damage Points (Full DP), a Mix of Armor and DP, and Ablative Damage Points (ADP).

Each of the combatants was painstakingly tweaked to come out to as close to a 50% win against everyone else as they could. This, in theory, gave us a perfectly balanced gun, sword, fist, and power blast. It would also show us the perfect values for armor, DP, ADP, and a mix. This was brilliant: we'd take our test character, throw them against the herd, and when that guy won 50% of his fights against everyone (on the average) then he was "balanced."

We could test the "totality" of the character in a controlled situation.

This had three problems:
  1. Upon examination we found the fights were fast sometimes just 1.X Rounds on average. This was overly bloody. It also had the flaw of seriously undervaluing things that took a few rounds to deploy. If something was only useful every other round (as a lot of our attacks were) in a "real battle" during an actual roleplaying session the attack might get two or three uses (or more). In our simulator it was lucky to get used once and therefore the "adjusted value" of it was much higher (the Sonic Shriek would test at needing to hit WAY harder in the simulator than it would be balanced for in a longer battle). Finally, in these fights, everyone was taking serious wounds all the time which did things like over-value CON.
  2. The progression of costs for things was not exact: the 32 AP Herd was NOT just a double of the 16 AP Herd. It was 'close' but it was not exact. This meant that our "AP Values" were not exact but instead an average. Worse, because of the way the values shifted to keep to 50% victories a lot of the herds could not actually be built by real players.
  3. The inclusion of ADP proved to be a problem. ADP is a special kind of Damage Points that come off when hit (unlike Armor which is around forever) but don't cause the character to suffer "wounds" that can daze or stun them. It was developed for big monster battles and we found uses for it in normal combats. However: it wasn't common and in the bloody 2-round environment of the simulator we discovered that its special properties weren't really being shown much (not taking wound effects early on in a fight doesn't help much when "early on" is the first attack). We did a lot of testing with these herds before we discovered this.
  4. I'll also note that we left out stuff like Negative Damage Mods (damage divisors), Cyber-Dodges (which also make you take less damage), Force Fields, and so on. There were a lot of attacks we did not include because we felt they were uncommon and testing attacks against them rigorously might skew the values of them badly.
Normalized Herds
This brings us to the Normalized Herds. We used the (copious) amount of data we got from the balanced herds and set about building a new set of opponents. Here's what we did:
  1. Everyone Is Built Using The Rules. Rather than "tweaking" to 50% and using those numbers we, instead, built a slew of real characters using the point totals we'd derived from the testing of the Balanced Herds. If some build won more than 50% of his battles? So be it (if it was winning or losing too much, we changed the rules, not the numbers)
  2. No More ADP. We got rid of ADP and put in another DP/Armor mix which we felt was more representative of real gaming.
  3. 2-On-1 Battles. The simulator has the capability to simulate a 2-on-1 battle so we now have a set of four characters who are pairs of half-price attackers. We get to see how our test-build will work when beset by two lesser opponents instead of just fighting peer after peer.
  4. Slightly Less Aggressive Spends. The Balanced Herds spent "50% on attack" and "50% on defense" (the truth is that they didn't "spend anything," but rather that they were designed in such a way that we could determine mathematically what the hypothetical 'spend' was.) Our new herd did 'spend its points' and spent about 1/3 of the points on the attack and 2/3rds on defense.
  5. Four Test Cases. Instead of just testing one character against the herd we have four candidates (and they also fight each other). Two are armor mixes, one has nothing but damage points, and one has a force field. We take the average of all of these to determine if the weapon is "balanced" (they need to come out winning 50% of their battles against all their peers).
Where We Are Now
Using this methodology I am testing a "suite" of attack types (starting with the generic Ranged Impact Damage Power Blast) and a number of "profiles" (Standard, fires once a round, close range only, cool down after use, charge up to use, etc.). For each of these I'm determining what the listed "multiplier" is (does the attack that's only useful 1x a round balance when it hits twice as hard?) and collating that data.

I'll post about that next.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

More on Unusual Attacks

Let's look at a real life example: in one of the more recent games I ran a player J. had a character named Amandine. The character was a shape-shifter in a modern-day magic game who could transform into winged fey-type. In her transformed shape she had:

  • 'Mystical' Escrima knives that she dual-wielded. 
  • A 'Sonic Shriek' that was a ranged kinetic blast that only fired once per Round AND had to recharge (take a Round off) after every shot.
The knives were a 'Standard' Attack (use as often as you like for 5 REA each--Amandine could strike three or four times a Round as she was very fast). The Sonic Shriek was what would qualify as an Unusual Attack: It fired only once a Round and wasn't available every Round.

In the book of powers we were using at the time Sonic Shriek was both pretty powerful and very cheap: it cost about 4 AP and was rated at the damage of (about) 16 AP--that's a bargain! 

The Good Thing About It
As a game designer I liked this build for a few reasons. The primary one was that it was interesting. The character did close in lethal (PEN) damage with her knives but the hits were comparatively weak. Against fleshy opponents they were devastating (especially the number of them she got) but if she ran into an armored opponent or one that didn't take PEN damage (like undead) they were comparatively less effective for the points.

On the other hand, with her Sonic Shriek she could (once a Round, every other Round) blast through heavy armor: that meant there was a greater spread of opponents that she was still "in the fight" against. Furthermore, her ability to fight at range (if not all that well) combined with her flight gave her yet another potential tactical option to use.

A Question About Effectivness
I don't recall if we, at the time, with that build of the rules, charged her only 1 AP for the Sonic Shriek (because it was less expensive than her knives). I suspect we did. I think that the value of having the Shriek was worth well more than 1 AP and probably the full 4 AP that it was costed at in the rules. This example was one of our reasons for questioning the "you only pay full points for your most powerful attack" rule.

The reason I think that the Shriek was worth full points was because it was quite valuable: the ability to do larger amounts of IMPACT damage, even only once in a while, gave the character a chance to deliver a knock-out blow to targets that her knives sometimes couldn't. In other words, if looking at raw combat effectiveness of two Amandines, one with JUST the knives but +1 AP spent making them hit a little harder and the other with the knives AND +1 AP spent on the Sonic Shriek the Sonic Shriek build would be considerably more effective against many if not most 1-on-1 fights.

THAT would mean that any player concerned about effectiveness would virtually need to spend the +1 AP on a limited-use coup de gras attack. While I liked the way the character played out, I wouldn't want EVERY character to have to imitate that.

A Question About Versatility
On the other hand I would not charge the full cost because the Amandine build that J. came up with was versatile. The fact that she could (a) fight at range (a little) or (b) face more heavily armored opponents and still have some attack options were, to my thinking not worth the full cost. If that was all she had gotten--if the character's % chance of victory against many potential opponents was NOT increased, for example, if the ranged attack had simply done the same damage as her knives but was adjusted (minorly) for Impact so that it went through slightly heavier armor? Then I would be way more hesitant to charge her a lot for it.

The reason is that versatility, while definitely a tactical advantage, is also and often more-so a benefit to the role-playing experience in a way that improves it for everyone. If the knives-only Amandine can't face armored opponents at all then the GM has some decisions to make around what he or she thinks the player experience will be if there are several of them in a scenario (does the player just sit them out? Do you give a constant mix of fleshy and armored types so there is something for them to do? Do you "not care" and risk a degraded but less 'calculated' game?)

These are all potentially valid responses (and the last one--where the chips fall as the GM thinks they 'really would' is one I happen to like) but if the game mechanics provides some simple solutions (such as the character build we saw) then I think that's a bonus. I don't want to charge an arm and a leg for that.

So What Does This Mean?
It means that when we are constructing the Version 2.0 set of the rules we need to figure out what these limited-use attacks will be combined with. What do we want them to be combined with? What are the ramifications of these intended combinations. We'll look at that in the next post.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Additional Attacks

One of the foundational precepts that we've decided on for JAGS Revised Archetypes is that if you buy a 'standard' attack power (using points called "Archetype Points" or AP) and wish to have another 'standard' attack power of the same or lower level you can have it for just 1 AP.

This was originally described by K as the "Rifle/Pistol rule." He argued that a character who paid for a rifle should get a pistol for free--even though the pistol is more easily concealable, might conceivably be silenced or what-not.

We expanded it further with some thought experiments around a hypothetical character with "super strength" and "laser vision." In this case the guy is more versatile (he can operate at range or, say, in a grappling situation) but if he is equally invested in both of these attacks he'll be doubly effective if he invests all his points in just one. Unless the situations of the game really encourage a mix of ranged and very close combat encounters he's probably much better off just picking one and doubling up. This is even more clear if he often gets to decide what range he'll fight at.

What Is A Standard Attack?
In order to make this work we had to determine what we thought a "standard" attack was. Clearly super strength and laser vision both counted--but why? Would a sleep ray count? Would a 'super blast' that could only be used once in a while? We had to do some thinking. Here's what we originally came up with:
A standard Attack is one you can fire as many times you want in a Round for some amount of REA (Reaction Speed Points) each time (most characters have 10 REA and most attacks cost 5) and does "normal" damage (being Impact or Penetration--not 'sleep ray' damage or 'teleport the guy to the bottom of the Atlantic' damage).
Things that didn't qualify:

  • Sleep Rays and Teleport-Guy type attacks
  • Attacks that can only be used 1x a round
  • Attacks which can only be used every other round
What About The Fact That Ranged Damage Is Better Than Close Damage (and Penetration Damage is Better Than Impact Damage)?
M. (an MMO player) brought up, immediately, the question about whether or not we should allow a character with ranged and hth attacks for such a cheap (1 AP) cost. His MMO online-game experience told him that ranged characters had a decided advantage if they could keep that range going (to the point where the game made them very vulnerable to close in combat).

Here's the answer: We agree and our powers costs takes this into account. We think that if you start at range projection attacks are a better attack form even if you can't keep running and gunning. If the other guy has to waste time and take incoming fire closing with you that's an advantage (the same way that penetration damage, like swords, is better in JAGS on a point-for-point basis than blunt Impact Damage like fists is). 

Our simulator takes care of this and our "point costs" for these types of damage reflect it. A character with close-in "super strength" damage will hit for more damage for the same AP cost than a ranged character. If the close-combat guy does blunt Impact Damage and the ranged guy does Penetrating damage (like a gun) then the spread will be even greater.

What About Those Sleep Rays?
In JAGS Revised a "sleep ray" (and probably Teleport Attacks) is a Resisted Attack with a 'spread' of effects. It usually doesn't just knock you out--it could 'daze you' or temporarily knock you out, or maybe put you into a deep comma. How effective these are against you depends on how many "Damage Points" (a measure of your character's toughness) you have so they're kind of like 'normal damage' in that respect.

The work with our simulator suggests that we can, in fact, model these things like Standard Damage. If this continues to be true--if the odds of being taken out by a sleep ray are comparable to the odds of being taken out by a power blast--then we can include them back as standard attacks. This would mean, however, that EVERYONE with super strength could get a sleep ray for +1 AP.

We don't want that so we need to decide how to limit it. Maybe we'll charge 2 AP? I'm not sure.

The Problem With Non-Standard Attacks
This brings us to the end of this post and the purpose of it: a lot of cool attack forms and combat strategies can be created by players if the line-up of attacks they do can change from round to round. This can come from "using up" special attacks or simply from having an attack that recharges after use for a little while. We like this and can build things like interesting Fantasy monsters with it and so on.

But the problem is this: if an attack fires only every other round or just fires once a round then mathematically for the same points in an attack that fires EVERY round (or several times a round--or both, like all 'standard attacks' do) you have to do MORE damage. Put another way, the attack that fires half as often hits twice as hard. That makes sense.

The problem here is that these don't exist in a vacuum. A character with a once-every-other-round Super Blast isn't going to stop there: they'll have some kind of standard blast they use when it isn't working (or use along side it when it is available but they have the actions to do several more attacks). 

If every character could have the super blast for +1 point over the normal blast, not only would they, but that +1 point would make them FAR more dangerous (compare to the optimal 'sleep ray' scenario where a character has both Power Blast and a Sleep Ray but both are about as likely to take out a serious opponent--they'll just do it in different ways).

So we're figuring THAT out.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Energy Attack Powers

The section I'm working on right now is Energy Attacks in the Innate ("Bio-Powers" or "Mutant Powers") chapter. The chapter itself first came into being in JAGS Have-Not (2003, I think--won an Indie RPG award for best supplement). It's a set of rules that would let you build a wasteland mutant, an animal (I remember TMNT's After The Bomb book very favorably), or some kind of human/animal hybrid. We also included a bunch of weird/wild abilities and and some very dysfunctional stuff inspired by Warhammer 40k's bizarre mutation list.

Today the chapter is currently named (unispiringly) Innate Abilities and it will also be the basis for super hero abilities. 

Energy Attack Powers
The Energy Attack Powers section started life with powers like Breathe Fire, Freeze Ray, and Power Blast. A lot of these powers were given their character based on their Rate of Fire (Sonic Shriek could only be used once a Round and had to "recharge" for a round after every use). Others were given character by their damage characteristics (Freeze Ray would try to 'freeze you solid' if it hit well--it also did damage). Many were done by both (Plasma Blast had Rate of Fire of once a Round and had an Explosive effect).

When going over this we realized that the Rate of Fire (as well as some things like Range and the ability to maybe hit multiple targets with like an explosive effect or something) were characteristics that might well apply to ALL attacks. After all, if you could have a disintegration beam might someone want a Disintegration grenade? Or Disintegration Touch? Something like that.

Now, we're dedicated to trying NOT to rebuild Champions. Firstly, Champions (which has one power "Energy Blast" and then a bunch of modifiers you can mix and match endlessly) is so good we're not going to try to match it. Secondly, we didn't always like how our groups wound up implementing the Champions (ok, properly, Hero System's) genius. A lot of players just to 10d6 of "Energy Blast" and called it Fire Bolt. Others would take the same basic ability and put in all kinds of things like "not under water" and "Starts fires" and otherwise trick it out.

We wanted to have some "built in flavor" for Fire Damage vs. say, Electrical Damage. So we started by defining our list of effects.

Secondly, there's the issue of the Simulator.

The Simulator
At some point, I think about 16 months ago, E (with a bit of work by me--but it's almost all him) built a java-based combat simulator. This thing is fairly tricked out: it reads characters from Excel spreadsheets and then creates a character object and then runs a combat. It uses almost the full suite of JAGS rules and the characters follow a basic "attack pattern" created for them. It tracks stats and tells us who wins more often, how much they win, and how long the battles took (as well as other things). 

It's complex but we can use it to simulate many, many different builds and attack types. 

This has given us a 'mania' for correctness. Over the first 2.5 years of JAGS Archetypes we would keep careful files of our thinking on just how much better an explosive attack was than a normal one. After all, we'd reason, it was less likely to miss ... it could hit more than one person ... it could maybe hit you if you fired it too close ... it wasn't something you'd want to use in your own house if you could avoid it, and so on.

Then we'd do the math for everything that was mathematical (if the explosive bolt is more likely to hit, we'd do basic statistics and determine how much better, mathematically, that was) and we'd debate the philosophy of everything else (how many fights, on the balance, did you have in your own home or with innocents around?). We'd keep notes on this and try to eek out a number that summed it all up. 

With the simulator we still have to have the philosophical debate--but we can now test the actual mathematics (and some of them are very, very complex ... at least for us). Furthermore, we can run a matrix of battles with various kinds of opposition and track the entire exercise, mining it for data.

This is an awesome tool--but it takes time. It's complex--and it's deceptive: the philosophical questions may be far more relevant and its much harder to test them (how many fights do the characters initiate vs. the GM--it matters if you have modifiers on your power that make it take time to deploy).

So today I set up and ran a series of tests. These take several hours and run in the background while I work. The tests look like this:

Power Blast + Some Rate of Fire Modifier (such as "fires only once a round" or "short range") run against groups of opposition ("herds") of various strengths. The attack power is in the "hands" of 4 PC builds who mix various relevant defenses to see how they perform. We take the average and then tweak the power-level of the attack until the characters are roughly "balanced" at their point level.

Once I am finished with the 'basic' Power Blast (Ranged Impact Damage) and all the (10-20) different ROF modifiers then I will start working on other enhancements (such as Ignores Armor) and repeat the process.


Welcome to the JAGS Blog

JAGS (Just Another Gaming System) is my generic/universal pencil and paper tabletop roleplaying game. We've won a couple of indie-rpg awards and come in second for every category we've entered. I'm reasonably proud of that.

It's been about 4 years since I've published anything for it and here's why: I realized after doing JAGS Revised (a published book of the original basic rules) that I needed to do the same thing (revise and refine) all the "unusual abilities" (so-called Archetype Abilities). When I begun this (around 2007 or late 2006) I had an idea that it might be complex. I, to be blunt, had no idea.

What happened over the next few years (of almost constant work--although it's not my day job) was a process of learning things about the system I'd (and others--it's not a one-man-show) had created. What happened was that we changed our whole concept of what the book was supposed to be. We went from "a bunch of cool powers" to a refined vision of what might be possible for us to achieve.

Now, years later, with hundreds of electronic pages created, imported into InDesign for layout, and even soft-published, I'm finding myself with a long way to go. I'll go into the history in later posts but I wanted to draw this introduction to a close with my intent.

In order to keep myself focused and keep my effort up, I think the best way is to capture my thoughts here, as I work on them--to have a daily journal about what we're working on so that I can track where I think I am.

I don't expect this to make a whole lot of sense to a casual reader: I'm going to do my best to properly frame discussions but I simply don't have time to go into detail on the big picture stuff. We'll see how it works out.