25 January, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #5: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger

I’m going to quickly follow up with a second Game Mechani(sm) because my internet is running really slowly at the moment and I’m not sure if I’ll manage to get next weeks post out.

This is one that I’ve been pushing for a while on the forge.

The premise is simple: Every time you fail at something, you simply learn another way not to compete the task and you refine your knowledge about how it works. Every time you succeed at a task, you feel your knowledge is adequate and it doesn’t improve.

Beyond this simple premise I’ve had to clarify some points. These clarifications have arisen due to questions that people have asked me, and certain situations that have arisen where the basic premise just doesn’t make sense.

The first clarification requires that the character is actually able to succeed in their attempt in some way. A regular human, with no supernatural powers and no advanced technology isn’t going to be able to fly under their own power. They may be able to jump off a cliff or skydive to get the sensation of flight, but they aren’t going to be able to fly. They won’t gain knowledge about flight by jumping into the air numerous times.

The second clarification is that people often gain knowledge through other means. This could come in the form of reading books, observing others or other means suitable to the character’s setting.

So the development of a system for “realistic” character advancement should incorporate all of these aspects. This level of “realism” is tempered by the needs of the game, and there are a number of ways to incorporate this.

In many current games, experience points are awarded for being successful in a challenge. These represent a reward of some type; though I think that this is actually backwards. A well developed game world should have a system of rewards that exists separate to the acquisition of experience points. A character should acquire a bounty for showing off their successful skills, and within the setting they might acquire wealth, status or some other reward. But their experiences probably haven’t taught them a lot. They have used their existing skill set to reinforce their place within the status quo.

Conversely, a character who has failed in their attempt to prove themselves will earn embarrassment, ridicule and might even be force to pay some kind of penalty. This forces them to look more introspectively and work out what needs changing in order to prove more successful next time.

I guess this comes back to my desire for symmetry and balance. A character who takes a risk should get something for that risk, whether it’s improvement in their standing or improvement in themselves. This need not always be the case, and a string of failures could easily lead to depression, and this sort of thing could also be addressed in the game.

But a lot of games simply offer rewards if a risk is taken and forget the psychological impact of failure.

In the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons a series of mathematical formulas was used to determine a ratio between the acquisition of experience points and the requirements to reach a new level of power. Typically the game was designed so that character would face 13.333 encounters of equivalent level to their own before progressing to the next level. This basically means 13 to 14 scenes would pass before a character upgrade; since a scene typically takes half an hour (shorter for setting the scene, and longer for dramatic combat scenes or climaxes), and most sessions tend to last for 3-4 hours, this usually means that a character will gain a significant amount of improvement after every second session of play.

It seems to work fairly well.

There are other issues I have with D&D, especially with the 4th Edition, but that’s a whole other rant. This is just to highlight something that they seem to have gotten pretty right.

Conversely if you look at the Old World of Darkness by White Wolf, a character would be lucky to get 5 experience points after a session, and this is barely adequate to improve a single level in a single skill. It might allow a character to buy the first level in one skill, while also improve a rubbish skill at level 1 to an average skill at level 2, but it usually takes several sessions to accumulate enough experience points to improve a single attribute point or a supernatural power.

I’ve had plenty of players who got really frustrated with the slow degree of advancement.

So for this experience system of improvement with failure, there is a degree of fine tuning that can be done. How many failures are required before a skill improves? Do characters gain knowledge from book reading between sessions (or if they take the time out during a scene in the course of the game to read a book)? How much experience do they get from observation?

Players in a roleplaying game need to see rewards for their actions, but they can’t be allowed to devalue those rewards. Too slow and the rewards may not seem worth the wait, too fast and the rewards are simply added to the pile (coming too fast to be spent before the next encounter).

Every game a character should see some kind of minor increase, or every two to three games they should see a dramatic rise.

If we use the D&D formula indicated above, of 6 half-hour scenes to a session…and we assume that most players will use one to three skills per scene (averaging at 2). Then we’ll say that twelve skill uses spread across the entirety of the character’s repertoire occur in each session, many of which will be successful (so we’ll drop the number of potential XP earning results to 6). Characters are more likely to improve the skills that they use more often.

The problem I run into here, is that there isn’t much else described about the hypothetical game. How many skills are there? How many levels in each skill? What else can be increased with experience?

In D&D there are fifty or so skills, along with feats, level bonuses, attributes, class abilities, and more…each with different scales of granularity. In other games there might be as few as a half dozen things to keep track of each relating to a d6, and therefore having much larger steps between improvement levels.

Suffice to say at this point, one game might see a skill improve every second time that it is failed, while another game might require four or five failed attempts before a skill sees an increase in its success potential.

I’d also limit the benefits from reading or observing, to half the level that would be gained from actually performing the skill directly.

It all depends on the style of play desired, and the actions that the system is designed to reward.
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