Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pointless Complexity

One of the things I'm interested in right now is the fifty-page-long list of weapons in tabletop games. Especially prevalent in futuristic RPGs such as Shadowrun, I find them fascinating. (Yes, I know not all those weapons are canon...)

The world builder in me says, "oh, cool, fifty different kinds of pistol!", but the game designer in me goes, "what the...? Why the...? Who the...?"

There's something inherently interesting about having this kind of variety. It lends a feeling of authenticity and gives you another little minigame: trying to figure out what weapon is best for your character/situation. This means that it adds both depth and immersion: good things.

But there's something inherently dumb as hell about facing a player making a character and saying, "okay, you have $10k, here's the giant list of all possible weapons. Go to it!"

A player experienced in the game will handle it okay: he's already figured out the puzzle. He knows he needs guns A, B, and C, and that he has precisely enough money to cover it. He handles it with aplomb. While that might seem okay, I actually think it's worse, in its way: there is no longer any challenge there, so there's no reason to have them anyway.

This is especially bad in games where the list of weapons is less a choice between tactical options and more a matter of buying the most expensive weapon you can find because its stats are simply better. This is a truism in video games.

Also, many weapons on these lists are dominated: you would never buy them, although it's possible you'll run across enemies armed with them. This is true even of games with much shorter lists: in most versions of D&D, there are half a dozen variants on "sword", and two of them are specifically better than the rest, although not significantly more pricey.

All of this got me thinking: is it possible to have a game (tabletop or otherwise) which features the benefits of this kind of situation without having the problems?

The basic idea is that the player needs to choose between various options, all of which are valid, although perhaps not tactically wise at the moment. Let's avoid dominated/obsolete weapons... and let's avoid price, which is basically just a system of planned obsolescence.

Instead, what we're looking to do is have a list which emphasizes the tactical difference between the options. For example, if we have two kinds of pistol, we'll know that pistol A is a high-accuracy target pistol while pistol B is more about cracking engine blocks from two yards away. There are a lot of factors we could discuss, including ammo use, speed, attack patterns, and affinities (fire vs ice attacks, or laser vs bullet). Weight could be of tactical importance, but only if it actually matters. Usually, any given object of the same class has more or less the same weight. Concealability is also potentially useful, but only if the game actually has a fair number of situations where that matters, which is, again, unusual.

The other issue here is availability. While an experienced player can look at a list of twenty different types of the same basic weapon and come away feeling happy, a beginner is going to get swamped. This is largely a matter of familiarity: an experienced player is much better at comparing stats, and he's familiar with many of the weapons on the list.

What I propose is to create a limited base set of choices - perhaps three or four of any given weapon type. And by this I do not mean three or four holdout pistols, three or four light pistols, three or four heavy pistols, three or four machine pistols... I mean three or four PISTOLS.

Now, if your player wants to be someone who knows his way around pistols, he can buy a perk or skill with character points. The perk will give him access to a wider variety of pistols and give him some customization options - attaching a laser sight or whatever.

This allows a beginning player to get his feet wet, but a more advanced player to have a full range of tactical options. The extra character points the beginner retains (not having to buy the perks) means he will be a more powerful character, partially offsetting the tactical limitations.

Over the course of the game, the player can either buy more access using character points, or he can take weapons from fallen enemies, or he can get an agent to buy him a special weapon he doesn't know how to obtain and customize himself... the GM can even add in supplements that the players can buy access to in the same basic manner.

This sort of system is similar in some ways to the restriction system in Shadowrun, but I'm talking about a whole different level. It's not just that you can't buy that restricted weapon: you have fewer customization options on the weapons you CAN buy.

Another option I like is the "growing market" option, where characters only have access to a few weapons because that's all that they can find. But, like a computer RPG, as they adventure they will find (or create) better shops with a larger variety. The two downsides to this method are that A) advanced players cannot choose to get hit with a whole list and B) the finding or creating of shops will be extremely prone to mismanagement on both sides of the table.

However, the growing market option is quite viable for either short games (4-6 sessions) or generational games (character resets every few sessions).

Anyhow, do you see what I'm getting at? Have you noticed this sort of thing?


Olick said...

I haven't noticed this in mainstream RPG's.(I'm sure you might find something similar in some sidelong sorts) However I HAVE noticed this in FPS's. Counterstrike has something similar, the guns are all generally balanced (although they tend to move to a few top tier weapons even though FPSers don't talk about tiers) only with a few obviously weaker ones, and in fact the most expensive one is considered awful. Its like they tried to make a traditional system, but the game wanted it to be more equal, so they designed it to match what worked best.

In terms of your ideas, if its a session game, I am in favor of giving them as much versatility as they want to pay for (or possibly just what they prefer), but if its a Crpg, or online game, I definitely like unlocking. But per account/player, not per character.

I've been recently thinking: whats the appeal of grinding? I enjoy a game that (if it can keep the repetitiveness away) causes me to build up a character, or a team if applicable. Even if its just grinding, both the process and the end is satisfying.

So I see nothing wrong with asking a player to go through this when they first play the game. But I also know asking them to KEEP going through it is asking for problems. Nothings more boring than leveling your second character to level 60.

Craig Perko said...

I am focusing mostly on tabletops, but on the topic of video games, I agree.

To me, the difference between a new player and an experienced player should be part of the game system. It's too important a factor to let slide.

Andrew Doull said...

Craig: Huh? "To me, the difference between a new player and an experienced player should be part of the game system. It's too important a factor to let slide."

Are you implying they give Grandmaster chess players more queens? I don't follow this...

Craig Perko said...

We're not talking about competitive gaming, here. We're talking about entertaining the players.

An experienced go player plays on a full sized board - even plays against multiple opponents on multiple boards simultaneously. He has mastered a huge number of details and maneuvers, and he can make his stones work well together.

A newbie does not play on a full-size board. He plays on a 9x9 board. The tactical and strategic options are reduced to something he can understand.

We're talking about the same basic idea: even if they use the same rule set, newbies are playing a different game because they don't really understand the rules on the level an advanced player does.

So, in essence, I'm saying that the rules of your tabletop RPG should probably take into account that there will be new players, experienced players, and everything inbetween.

Duncan said...

Another way might be to limit the choices for base type, say three for pistols (holdout, light, and heavy to keep with Shadowrun). Then allow the players to customize their weapon choices with tactically meaningful selections. Are you a grunt, then perhaps higher damage ammo? Assassins get mods for silence and concealment. Weapons specialists take Smart mods. As long as each customization adds a tactical advantage and comes with a cost or trade-off (other than price).

Then players can select weapons that they like from a generalist perspective, and easily add modifications that specialize to their desired style of play. These choices can then index back to the GM's master list of weapons, assigning attributes to models.

Advanced players can then go direct to the shopping list, larger in totality than the indexed list, and attempt to acquire specialist weapons that are harder to come by, but have fewer of the active trade-offs. Instead these weapons would require spending character points (XP, Karma, what have you) to gain specific knowledge and skills in.

Craig Perko said...

Yes, it's along the same lines.

Greg Tannahill said...

I like your point, but can I suggest a change? Weapons which are valid but tactically different is problematic as the player is investing in a weapon; if you have 6 weapons which each favour a different scenario, he'll typically dominate in one type, be crippled in another and be competent to mediocre in the remainder. If he knows which scenarios are coming, there is a right choice and five wrong ones, which is bad, and if he doesn't know what's coming then it isn't a meaningful decision.

Can I instead suggest weapons which are equally valid but support different play styles, which is largely the approach that modern RPGs have been taken to classes. Have a weapon that's about non-targeted overkill, a weapon that's about precision elimination, a weapon that's about bunkering down and taking pot shots, something up-close-and-personal, et cetera. And really personalise the things so that picking that weapon feels less like a stat comparison and more like a way of defining your character that's every bit as essential as race, class, background, etc.

If you need another layer of depth, you can then make those basic flavours of weapon moddable. Having chosen to be the wielder of dual six-shooters, you can now kit them out with increased accuracy, or ricochet shots, or suchlike. Limit the number of mods a weapon can carry (two seems like a good number) and make each one matter, so you can really tell the different between a modded weapon and an unmodded weapon.

Actually... *takes notes* Stay there, I'm going to go make this...

Craig Perko said...

That's what I was suggesting, I think... the only difference is that you favor highly mod-able weapons while I'm suggesting more unique models with somewhat less modification.

The idea is that the choices work together constructively - not just with your skills, but with your other equipment. Basically, I want "play styles" that are a lot more complex and multi-dimensional than usual, and the weapon choices have to support that.

Andrew Doull said...

How does this compare to say, Blizzard's modable spells that they are promising in Diablo III? I'm finding the idea intriguing while a lot of work at the same time... perhaps too much to duplicate easily.

Craig Perko said...

I don't know how it compares because I haven't been keeping up on the Diablo III news. However, given that Diablo III is an action game at heart, the kind of thing they're likely to do is an order of magnitude less tactically interesting: action games rely less on deep tactics and more on fast iteration.

Still, this is mostly a tabletop musing, so it's apples and oranges. Video games have a slightly different set of issues on this matter.

Duncan said...

Mods that you add to a weapon and a large list of specialized, but rarer, weapons are purely a cosmetic conceit. Both could conceivably be supported by a single system.

Whether you have a handgun that has slot for a laser-sight, or a "RX4-PS Precision Shot" Laser Guided Handgun is irrelevant. Both accomplish the same thing. They add a precision modifier to the weapon, and give it a tactical leaning towards single target elimination.

I favour Greg's emphasis in supporting play styles over forced tactics. However, this must be supported by the GM and the campaign to work well. If you have scenario after scenario that blocks the use of certain tactics, then the players will be unable to play in the style of their choosing. This is, perhaps, where modifiable weapons would surpass specific models.

In this case, owning a base weapon that naturally favours your play style would be ideal. You could then purchase a number of affordable mods that could be hot-swapped to aid specific situations. So long as the mods were such that having a broad selection was possible, the characters would still be able to select the play style and tactics that best suited them and the scenario provided by the GM.

Craig Perko said...

Hmmm, the two methods definitely have a different flavor, but I think I prefer the uniques method, and here are some of the reasons:

1) Bumpy strategies.

Using a mod-heavy system allows the players to adapt themselves to any tactical situation with relative ease. While they are limited by their overall play style, within that scope they can rapidly adopt any tactical stance.

On the other hand, using an equipment-intermingling system with fewer mods (IE, armor, smartlink, on-board AI, smart-eyes, pistol, sword, etc) you get the same basic level of tactical breadth, but the players cannot smoothly adapt: their options are more limited. This means that their long-term choices are given a bit more importance.

It's a matter of scale and preference, of course. Both systems could be stressed slightly to act in the opposite of the way I've discussed.

2) World building.

Unique weapons are not simply a tactical choice: they are an opportunity to add color and depth. It was always a lot of fun to read the random comments that fictional people left about various weapons/armor/vehicles/etc: it gave the world a living feeling.

More than that, however, equipment is built by particular groups of people. That's not just a big gun with a long clip, that's an Ares Predator, and Ares is a company you'll be interacting with fairly regularly.

This means that players will have a strong sense of what a given company will be armed with, but it also means that relations (between a player and a company, between two companies) are made that much more tangibly important.

Duncan said...

Unique weapons are not simply a tactical choice: they are an opportunity to add color and depth.

Quite true. However, new players have no sense of this deeper world. Which is where the weapons index comes into play.

All guns or similar type have similar base stats. Unless you have a particularly fine-grained system, most of the crunchy bits for the light handguns will be the same. So there could be several similar models from several similar manufacturers.

The index would be a GM tool that could have multiple purposes. Along with indexing traits, stats, mods, availability, and specializations, it could also list location, faction, and common association. This would help GMs outfit NPCs appropriately by location/faction/disposition/whatever, but also help to track down the gun for the new guy based on his location and associations. What is he likely to find on the streets of Seattle in a particular district? The index should tell you.

Now, the problem is that a lot of this world building is done by the players after the core rules are released. However, the core system of establishing the weapon bases, mods, specializations, and focuses should be compatible with building a game- or world-specific index of weapons, expandable as the GM desires. The more time he puts into it, the more life his world has, yet it retains an easy to access core.

PS - Now you have me thinking about Shadowrun again. Curse/thank you *shakes fist*

Craig Perko said...

I don't disagree with you, but I think that new players should be introduced to that color ASAP. An easy way to do it is the Shadowrun method of adding comments by other runners to the weapon list. When Bogart the troll says the weapon is too small for his big hands, that adds more immersion than you might expect, even though it doesn't affect the weapon's stats.

Similarly, this kind of commentary is an excellent way to give a new player a feel for the relative capacities of the weapon without having to be an expert at the stats. If someone complains that the gun did nothing to a full-conversion cyborg, you know that it's got less punch than you might like... and it adds flavor.

GregT said...

Your point about weapons being part of the world is a good one, particularly in the context of Shadowrun. Corporate branded weapons is a path I went down myself in a homebrew wargame.

I guess there's two solutions to that. One is simply to make the branded weapons have character. The Titancorp Eliminator isn't just a mid-rank semi-automatic - it's that bastard that always jams. The Stanton-Massive Blackhammer may by its stats be a run-of-the-mill shotgun, but it's the one that Johnny Danger uses in the Starkiller movies (it probably even has a signature quote).

The other method is to just chuck out the concept of the generic guard and make everyone a character. That's not Mitsuhama Bodyguard A; that's Avery Cole, lifetime corporate enforcer, and he's been polishing that little Saturday-night-special every day for thirty years in the hope that one day he's going to get to use it. "This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine."

I know I said two solutions, but option C just occurred to me, which comes out of the idea of weapons being a personality choice. You just make it clear that a Zaxis Ubershot with the explosive rounds mod is what badasses use; rather than seeing some intimidating guy and going, "I bet he's packing something cool," you can go in reverse and tell the players that the guy walking up to them is cocking a Zaxis and let them make the mental connection. Similarly, if the H&K Guardian with an stopping power mod has a reputation for reliability then no one's going to be surprised to see it in the hands of a corporate security drone.

Craig Perko said...

Good points, although making every character a Named Character is not advisable in a game where so many NPCs are basically cannon fodder.

Duncan said...

I just had a spin-off idea from GregT's idea about giving personality to the weapons. Allow the players to get better with a specific weapon/brand/mod/combination. In real life, the more you use something the better you get with it specifically. I can use just about any computer, but I have a whole skill-set that is centered on WinXP and tweaking it to work better for me.

In the same way, if you have a brand that you always use, you should eventually get better at using it. Be able to tweak, hack, or negate a minor glitches every once in a while. Take it a step further by reversing the effect for other brands/weapons that you've just acquired.

Craig Perko said...

In this case, it would probably be better to make the greater skill at particular makes of weapons affect the kinds of not-directly-die-related bits.

For example, if you can spend edge for free dice, make it cheaper if you're an expert in the weapon. That way, the weapon itself doesn't improve: your character improves at using the weapon.

This would keep the system from having the degenerate tactic of "I always use this weapon", because although you have an edge, it is not an edge that is useful in every moment of every combat. You'll still need to think tactically about what weapons to bring to the party.

Duncan said...

I was really thinking along the line of more free-form flavour. A couple of examples:

Your favourite gun, the SSX Freedom MK2, just locked. The trigger won't fire, and you need to take this shot. However, you've been using SSX weapons for a while, so you know a few things about them. And Jennine has been at your side for years now.
*Roll for the repair against the skills, modifiers for brand familiarity and weapon familiarity*
You have the firing circuit freed in a moment. A blow along the connector pins, back in and you're ready to go. You'll have to clean her proper when you get home, but this should do for now. And you've only spent a simple action, you can still take the shot.

You had to leave Jennine at home this time. She was an old model and still had a few metal parts, wouldn't make it past the scans. Fortunately, this is a run on a SSX installation, so the guards should have some newer kit. The plan is to take out a pair of off-duty guards and take their place. After a scuffle in the break-room, and a quick change you're all set. The Freedom MK5's have a heftier build, but seem to use the same auto-targeting software. You're correction scripts should give you the same edge on accuracy as they did with Jennine. Maybe you should give them to your partner too...

Craig Perko said...

Ah, you're talking about switching a large amount of the gameplay over to equipment handling.

That's an interesting choice... I wonder if you could make it fun? It would be interesting to try.