Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Challenge Twists

Recently I've been thinking a lot about the kinds of challenges games present you with. I'm not happy with the way we think about challenges these days, the various clumsy categorizations and forced pigeonholes. Originally, this was a bit of a rant about that, but I'd much prefer to talk about ways of making challenges interesting. This applies to both video games and tabletop games.

Let's start with the idea that combat has a certain complexity. Complexity is a combination of how hard it is to predict, and the importance of predicting.

For example, at first glance "Superman vs 50 thugs" seems complex because there are a lot of moving pieces. But the truth is that it's very simple: no matter how well the thugs do, the outcome is going to be the same. It may be hard to predict exactly what each thug will roll, but it's easy to predict what the outcome will be.

Most games focus on bringing the enemies into the same power category as the players. Superman doesn't fight thugs, he fights Bizarro Superman, or Brainiac, or something. This works well, but only as a basic patch: it doesn't add to the challenge, it just makes the challenge a challenge.

Sometimes a game will bring the players down to the enemies' level. Superman fights 50 thugs, sure, but beneath Lex Luthor's Red Sun Lamp, which makes him very weak. This is generally not recommended as it negates a lot of the player's built-up agency (statistical character development). However, if the player chooses to have such a weakness, abusing that weakness is fair game, since the player's agency is being expressed rather than negated. Still, it's often quite difficult to work into a game without being irritating both in terms of play and emotion.

A third option, one that doesn't get enough attention, is to change the goal condition. Superman fights 50 thugs, but the 50 thugs are all brainwashed cops. There's nothing in the rules that says you can't tear them apart and burn them to ashes, but you're going to want to limit yourself anyway. Or there are 50 thugs, and you have to beat them all in 5 rounds or a bomb goes off. Or any number of other goal-shifts.

Most tabletop games have two distinct categories of challenge: combat and everything else. It's pretty rare for a game to have rules for goal-shifting within combat: normally shifted goals fall under "everything else" and are resolved using the much simpler and less interesting rules for that sort of business. It's worth considering goal-shifted combat explicitly, as it takes the dense combat rules and puts an interesting twist on them.

I need to stress that this really isn't something you can retrofit. D&D rules technically allow for GMs to make a horde out of brainwashed cops, or give you only a few rounds to beat all the enemies, but the rules aren't really structured correctly to make those challenges complex. In order to shift goals in nearly every combat, you need to approach combat from the perspective of achieving those goals, rather than achieving the kill-or-be-killed goal. At the very least, you need your heroes to have combat capabilities that take radically different lengths of time.

The other problem is that goal-shifting feels a little bit cheaty at first. If you goal shift just once in a while, it feels a bit epic, that's fun. But if you goal shift all the time, it can feel cheap. This is simply because we're used to it feeling epic, so if we encounter it all the time, it might feel like we're trying to be epic all the time. However, if we build a system specifically to do this, and make it clear that every combat is goal-shifted, it can simply become part of the tactical terrain.

This is very similar to adding externalities, such as "if you kill these guys, that city will hate you". In fact, it's so similar, we're going to pretend it's the same.


Challenges also involve some amount of time-shifting. Or, um, risk-pushing. I need a better term. Let's call it "risk projection".

Basically, as a player fights, he uses up resources. Some of these resources are almost instantly refreshed, such as the basic "your turn" resource. Others are refreshed fairly fast, such as HP in a first person shooter. Some take some time to refresh, such as rocket ammo in an FPS or HP in a tabletop RPG. Some require significant long-term effort to refresh, such as potions or levels.

You don't need to put absolutely everything you ever see into this framework, but the guideline here is that players will want to divide up the risk they face so that it is least risky over the long run. This means they will usually tend to lean on short-refresh things as much as possible, unless they know that a refresh point is coming up for a particular other resource or there is a threat to another, more expensive resource (like HP).

Randomness is critical to this kind of system, as the whole idea eventually boils down to whether a player is willing to risk the slightly weaker "basic stab" or whether he decides he needs the stronger, only-twice-daily "kick to the groin" attack. I know it makes no sense for that attack to be limited to twice a day, but that's the way it works in our stupid little game. And D&D 4.

You can also project risk in dimensions other than time. For example, you might choose to send your army to attack a stronghold, or you might decide to attack it yourself with minimal support. One puts the risk on you, the other puts the risk on your army. It's the same basic idea: allocate risk where it is least likely to kill you in the long run.

The idea of risk projection is one that is usually all but ignored, especially in modern video games. They restore you to complete health and ammo after every fight. I think this is one reason why modern video games feel so incredibly shallow to me.

Risk projection also functions backwards to a degree, when players decide what they will bring on a quest or what they'll take on a level up. Instead of trying to preserve resources until they need them, they instead try to figure out which resources they will need. While nearly every game does this to some extent, in most there is a clear dominant strategy for any given set-up, so it hardly counts.

It's also worth mentioning that risk projection (both forwards and backwards) integrates quickly and easily with secondary play types. For example, equipping yourself and using up equipment (did you bring enough healing potions?). Making political allies and enemies based on the side effects of your fights (did you burn the town down killing those goblins?).

When determining secondary play types, I usually try to integrate them into both the primary play (this sword does more damage than that sword) and the risk projection (this sword breaks on a botch, that sword doesn't).


Some games also use some kind of elemental sting. If the player is a fire-based character, they'll hit you with an ice level where you take huge amounts of damage, or they send people who are immune to fire against you, or whatever.

This is just an extension of the classics: sending the fast character up against the tank, sending the slow character up against an archer, sending the archer against a horde, etc, etc. In any rule set, you'll want tradeoffs and strengths and weaknesses. If you can't identify very many of them, your system just isn't good enough.

Taking the "elemental route" is a quick way to establish strengths and weaknesses. I'm not sure, but I think I feel that it is a cheap way to do it. Anyway, it is fundamentally the same kind of thing as just making monsters with the right stats to go up against characters with particular stats.

What I mean is that you can certainly challenge the ice-based players by sticking them over a lava pit and making them fight magman. But you can get the same kind of challenge by poisoning them and making them fight a jailer, or by making them fight a troll during an earthquake, or any of a hundred other situations. There is nothing statistically important about it being elemental. It's just an easy way to do it.


Anyway, those are the basics of challenges, in my mind.


Ian Schreiber said...

"The other problem is that goal-shifting feels a little bit cheaty at first."

Depends on the system. One thing I finally understood this summer (after how many years?) is that the design of an RPG is all about where you put the die rolls. D&D makes you roll a few hundred dice per combat, and everything non-combat-related is a single d20 skill check, so you can tell that the emphasis here is on hack-and-slash. But another system (say, one based in the James Bond universe) might have a dozen die rolls in a conversation to see if you can get the girl to go to bed with you, so that you're spending as much time flirting with NPCs as you do shooting at bad guys. So combat-centered RPGs may be the "standard" but it doesn't have to be a given.

In this context, goal-shifting feels like a hack to you because you're using it in a system that doesn't support it. I think the epic feel comes, at least in part, from the fact that you're grafting a new mechanic onto an old game, so the mechanic has this novelty to it. In a system where combats ALWAYS have goals other than "don't lose your HP" - perhaps a Superman RPG would work that way - these secondary goals would feel more commonplace and you could get away with them more often.

"The idea of risk projection is one that is usually all but ignored, especially in modern video games. They restore you to complete health and ammo after every fight. I think this is one reason why modern video games feel so incredibly shallow to me."

You seem to ignore the very good reasons why games do this. We used to have more "resource projection" and it was painful.

Like the time in one CRPG where I was maybe 80% of the way through the game, had used up my permanent resources (no more healing potions and an injured party), saved just before a boss fight... and found I didn't have enough HP to survive, but I had also walked through this one-way door so I couldn't run away. Oh, and one save slot, no backups, because that's how we did things in the old days. Forced restart from scratch. Whether it was my own damn fault or not, that did not feel fair. It's why I've refused to use consumable items in every RPG since, Just In Case.

Even without the forced-restart problem, going through a level when you're down on HP and not sure when you'll find another healing kit can be really frustrating. It reduces your options, because you find yourself running away from most fights (because you have to) instead of a fight-or-flee choice. This is great for a game that WANTS to put the player in a position of perpetual fear, like a Survival-Horror game, which is why those games tend to be really sparse with their ammo/health pickups. But for a run-and-gun shooter, it can just be frustrating... especially if dying means having to replay the same sections of the level that you already beat earlier.

There's a place for inventory management and risk-reward choices, but a high action game isn't always one of them :)

Craig Perko said...

For once, I completely agree with everything you said, with no reservations.

However, I also believe that we've gone too far in reducing the resource/risk projection. I think the reason it comes off as irritating when implemented is because of the rigidly linear structure of even "nonlinear" games these days.

In a game where there is one specific path, not having enough resources to complete the path is bad. However, in games where there isn't so much a path as an environment, it's not such a bad situation. And, in fact, it can add a lot of agency to the game.

On the other hand, if you have a wide-open world with few set linear quests but you DON'T make heavy use of resource/risk projection, you end up with just skill challenges and samey areas. So that's the other half of it, I guess.

Craig Perko said...

(Obviously, tabletop RPGs don't have quite the same problem in either situation.)

Isaac said...

Have you seen Diaspora? Your description of goal-shifting reminds me of it's FATE-based implementation of social conflicts. Even the combat system is designed to leverage this. I suspect that you'd find the aspect-based resource system interesting, if you haven't seen it before.

Isaac said...

I also agree that a nonlinear environment without risk-projection = samey areas.

Craig Perko said...

Buying it now...