Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Philosophical and Technical Questions

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

I'll save the discussion of what kinds of modifiers for ranged attacks we're testing to talk about something else today: Philosophical Questions vs. Technical Questions.

Testing Right Now
We'll get this out of the way. The simulator is cranking away on various kinds of Teeth. Teeth can do a complex bite, bite/grab, and bite-grab-worry chain of attacks. They tend to be close ranged weapons and attacking with teeth leaves you vulnerable (it counts as a "cross" strike making you at +1 to be hit and -1 to block until your next Round). There are at least three different sizes of Teeth and I'm testing away.

Philosophical vs. Technical Questions
We're using a computer simulator to test things but that doesn't tell us what to test against. When trying to figure out what precise test to run a lot of the effort goes into creating a sort of "controlled experiment" (you can read the previous notes to see how we've evolved our testing strategies. Even the strategy, however, won't tell you everything.

Right now we have a decent concept of a "Normalized Herd." Remember that's a group of 20 characters who are highly simplified and represent a range of attacks and defenses we think are "representative" of 'most games.' You get attacked by a sword guy, a gun, guy, a super-punch guy, and an energy blast guy. They have mixed armor and DP defenses. It's simple--but it's indicative.

So now we run into the hard questions that sort of come down to "what is the 'average' RPG combat like?' If you've played several different games for several years with different groups you can see how this would be a hard question. Here are some common types we've identified:
  • The Boss Battle. This is a "hard" combat of the group against one really tough opponent. The Boss has to be able to take a lot of incoming fire (the whole party) and dish out enough to hurt the characters but probably not obliterate them. We think these are an important part of Fantasy and Supers combats (although they can certainly exist elsewhere)
  • The Peer Battle. This is a one-on-one battle where you are facing an equal. We think that in a lot of games these are fairly rare in a lot of games but are common and expected in Supers combat. NOTE: there are some game types such as the modern-day 'cops' style game where we think this would be pretty much 'almost every combat' (since no one has many Archetype Points--although the PCs may be more combat capable than most). Those don't count for as much: we're looking for AP-based characters where we'd see "wizard duels" and the like.
  • Goon Battles. A goon is described as a lower point character who hits about as hard as a PC. A goon is a real threat although they seriously lack the staying power. An example might be a character who has spent almost ALL his points in offense so as to hit as hard as higher-point characters. D&D 4e's Minions are examples of this. We think this is pretty common in most games. It might be "the most common."
  • Mook Battles. A mook is simply a lower point character--usually so much lower that they, even a group of them, are not much of a threat. We think this is going to be common in a lot of games but not so important as to balance since the mooks are expected to lose with only minimal damage to the PCs.
  • Skirmish. For want of a better name a Skirmish is a battle where the PCs are facing a smaller number of opponents that are pound-for-pound tougher. A party of 5 PCs might face 3 Dire Cows or something. This is a classic fantasy-monster configuration.
If you look at these battles you can see that what we're thinking about is "where should a monster or NPC spend its points to try to create a certain type of experience." It also asks "what does "balanced" mean for a given character? If you are one of 5 PCs fighting a boss what is expected of you? What about if you are fighting goons: is it the same thing?

This leads us to the crux of both kinds of thinking. For the Technical Questions we can ask things like what happens when we fight a 2-on-1 battle against a character with low defenses? When we see that Damage Points are way, way less effective against 2-on-1 opponents compared to armor we can start making decisions about how to address that (solution: allow characters with no armor or Force Fields to buy "extra Damage Points" cheaply).

These are fairly easy questions. Although we have to figure out how to set up the simulator for that (in our case, I had to modify the code to handle multiple opponents) once that's done we can determine what kinds of rules lead to outcomes we like.

Philosophical, questions, on the other hand, are much harder.

Philosophical Questions
Philosophical questions are things like "how many attacks are ranged vs. hand-to-hand" or "how many battles are 1-on-1 vs. 1-against-many?" These are difficult questions as there is no right answer--not for a universal game system. Most of this is up to the group and the GM. Some of it will be up to the genre and the specific PCs (Luke Skywalker is more likely to get in a melee battle than Han Solo). 

This is important when dealing with things like:
  • Area of Effect Attacks. If you are fighting 1-on-1 at range an explosive attack can be good in that it doesn't miss but it has a whole new appeal when it can take out 10 guys who were going to fire at you next round.
  • Short Range Damage Fields. If you have a power like Electrified Body that hits people trying to hit you then it's really good against bare-handed attacks and won't score so well against guns or swords. If your simulator (as ours does) includes only 5 HTH combatants then the score for how good that defense is will be lower than if the simulator had half of the opponents come in bare-handed. On the other hand, if you are playing a martial arts game where all combat is HTH then the cost will be way too low (we doubled the tested value).
  • Attacks That Penetrate Armor. We assume that 75% of our combatants will be some-how armored. If an attack is good against armor (but doesn't hit much harder if the target is not armored--such as an Armor Piercing Attack) then in our simulator it's going to look pretty good: for a lot of those characters their primary defense (armor) is going to get degraded. However if you are in a game where many people are NOT armored (say a Chi Martial Arts game) then that extra bonus won't be nearly as good.
There simply is no good way to test all of these conditions--they're contradictory (if we assume most battles are 1-on-1 then attacks that can hit multiple opponents will be cheaper than they 'should' be in games where most battles are many-on-1). What we can do, however, is make some assumptions, publish them, and think about what the ramifications are. Here are some of them.

The 'Supers' Game Is Real Important
A Super-hero battle is probably the most important one for "full spectrum balance" that we can easily think of. Take for example the host of modern-day style games (horror investigators, cops/robbers, and military guys). If the PCs are not extremely high points the combat aspects of these will be less important than other ones. On the other hand, if you are playing a super hero you expect to have a cool interesting fight against a peer and not just get cheap-shotted or one-punched out of the scenario (exceptions, of course, do exist).

Armor Is Really Good
We know that armor is pretty much the only JAGS defense that doesn't degrade (outside of negative Damage Modifiers and Negatives to be hit). Damage Points, Ablative Damage Points, Force Fields, and Power Fields all degrade over attacks so armor is the most reliable form of stopping damage the game provides. It also tests the most expensive point-for-point. We need to keep this in mind when creating traits: PCs should have access to armor but if we don't want it to be overly dominant then we need to keep an eye on how it is being sold.


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