Monday, May 23, 2011

Trying to halt the creep II

Welcome to part two.

Part one dealt with ideas around how we could stop power creep before it starts. Part two presumes that all the reasons power creep exists continue to exist, but how can we create a set of rules to minimize their impact. There are three main routes to managing power creep: emphasizing tradeoffs, efficient siloing, and minimizing the impact of changing the rules. This article introduces the concepts and they’ll be put to use in a future article when we actually begin to design a system.

Emphasizing tradeoffs
Emphasizing tradeoffs means forcing a player to choose between two competing alternatives. Both options can be exciting, both can help define a character, both can be desirable, but because you can only choose one, the impact of power creep is minimized. RPGs have emphasized tradeoffs since their inception by forcing players to select a single race, “spend” their level on a single class, pick from a finite set of skills, or whatever. These are all excellent examples of tradeoffs.

Emphasizing tradeoffs has failed when races or classes or skills or whatever are unequal. When they are unequal, an opportunity is created to capture an inappropriate amount of power. As the number of options increases, the probability that any given opportunity is accidentally created approaches one. So we have three solutions, create a system that reduces the number of arbitrage opportunities, reduce the number of additions to the system, or reduce the power introduced by any of these mechanisms. After all, if the total power of selecting “elf” as your race is the ability to make elven NPCs like you, that probably won’t break the game even if 90% of the NPCs are elves.

Of the three options presented, number one is the best. We want to introduce new material to the system and we want our decisions to have an impact on the game. The only real solution is to try and make sure things are balanced. Unfortunately, that pretty much brings us back to where we are today. Game designers already try to create balanced systems; it is just hard. That isn’t to say that we couldn’t do better, just that this isn’t a simple throw away solution. It would take time and effort and changes to the underlying mechanics of the game to introduce a more mathematically sound model for RPGs.

Efficient siloing
Creating efficient silos of rules helps ensure that changes in area A don’t disproportionately affect area B. To understand the importance, it is useful to think about how power creep impacts the actual play experience. Power creep is only an issue when two or more characters in the same group are disproportionately powerful enough that the DM cannot challenge both simultaneously. The combat is either too easy or too hard for at least one character. But it didn’t get to this point from a single power or a single rule, the variance between characters built up over dozens of small decisions. Each rule or power has a bit of oscillation to it; in some builds or situations it is more powerful and in others it is less powerful. By aligning powers that oscillate similarly, the little wiggle can add into a big, meaningful change. No one rule was enough to break the game and so there is no obvious culprit to just cut out and set things right.

Siloing helps put a buffer between rules so that make it harder to align the oscillations. A great example is the rules for stacking: you can get all the +1s you want, but if they are from the same source they don’t do anything to help you. The problem here is that stacking rules haven’t siloed enough. In a game where the totality of events are expressed from 1-20 (and it is most fun when success is somewhere between 5-15) and bonuses are expressed in integers, there isn’t much room for oscillations at all. Having 5-10 sources that stack makes it possible to be 5-10 higher than you ought to be. That is enough to break the game.

Siloing creates tradeoffs; it is a subset of the tradeoffs discussed above. A pure tradeoff is deciding between +1 defense and +5 hit points. They are both interesting and define the character in different ways. Eventually you can probably even have both if you spend the resources. A siloed tradeoff is deciding between a power that gives you +2 to attack and a power that gives your entire party +1 to attack. By ensuring that you can never do both at the same time, interesting tradeoffs are maintained and power creep is kept at bay.

Impact of changing the rules
This is something that has been brought up a handful of times already, but being able to go back and edit the rules would be hugely beneficial in combating power creep. No matter how hard designers try, they cannot foresee the range of play styles and builds that will emerge once the rules are published. No amount of play testing can account for the millions or play-hours that follow once the game is released.

So why can’t we change the rules? Two main reasons: format and fairness.

Format literally means how we publish rules with the main format being books. Same old argument: games need to be profitable, profit needs sales, books are a strong type of sale, and books cannot be easily edited once published. Even as we transition to ebooks, the mere hint that content will be updated and people will be reluctant to buy print books. As long as print is a source of profit (and I predict it will be so long as piracy is an issue) companies cannot risk losing that stream of revenue. Since we cannot go back and edit the old rules, that means we have to print new rules to fix the old, and that is even better since new rules and new content is profitable. It is a perverse cycle.

Fairness, in my opinion, is the more interesting of the reasons for why changing the rules has a negative impact. Most of that impact comes from the perceptions of persons impacted by the rule change. So if something is reduced in power, anyone who relies or was planning to rely on that rule perceives that something was taken away from them. If something is increased in power, anyone who does not rely on that rule perceives that the rules they DO rely on are now weaker in proportion or that had that rule change been in place at an earlier point in time they would have made different decisions. Either way, they perceive that unfairness has been introduced to the game. Unfairness is generally un-fun, games are supposed to be fun, and as a result, this is a problem.

This is particularly present in 4e because you are locked into the class you choose at first level. There is definitely the ability to tailor, but changing your mind generally necessitates a new character. So the minute you settle on “fighter,” you feel like you’ve assessed the variety of powers and options available to the fighter and accept that you will build your character with this chunk of the rules. If five levels later the rules change, you justifiably feel cheated. You invested five levels of time into these rules with the expectation of some payoff later and now that payoff has been removed. Unfair.

Third edition fared slightly better because the multi-classing rules made adapting to changes in the game easier. The downside was that because so many rules were useable in so many combinations, any given rule change impacted a larger portion of players (either because they planned to use it or would have planned to use it under its current form). On the other hand, because each rule contributed a smaller amount to the sum power of a character, the extent of the “unfairness” was also diminished.

Both editions (and most RPGs) suffer from the fact that so much is level dependent. There is a continuum of powers that you must travel down. From the minute you set out on that continuum, you feel a sense of ownership of everything that comes after. Any edit to the continuum is multiplied by your investment in the same. So because I am locked into a class in 4e, any edit to “fighter” is a big deal. An edit to a single feat is a much smaller deal because the entirety of the continuum is completed by taking it. However, a change to Whirlwind Attack in 3e after I’ve taken Dodge, Mobility, and Spring Attack is a much bigger deal because that feat has a longer continuum.  

A thought experiment proves useful. Two people sign up for a subscription service, one for a single month and another for a full year. The first month they are both disappointed in the service. The person who signed up for a single month probably elects to just let their subscription lapse while the person who signed up for a year probably demands a full refund and announces their frustration to all who will listen. This is because the second person is more invested; their continuum extends a full year and is 12x the cost of the first person. They both paid the same, were promised the same goods, felt the same disappointment, but the response was extremely different.

The solution, then, is to make rules less level dependent or otherwise shorten continuums (continua for the Latin guys and gals). If we could simultaneously transition to formats that made for easy editing and redistribution, power creep could be managed while still introducing a range of interesting new options.  

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