This is a bit of a companion piece to Support Roles. While that focused on direct combat roles vs. indirect combat roles from the psychological standpoint, this focuses on the tension from a design standpoint.

In many games, higher difficulty settings, endgame content, and post-endgame content have a tendency to make encounters harder through “fake difficulty” – In FPSes, player characters are more fragile, snipers have catlike reflexes and unerring accuracy, enemies psychically know where you are, mooks can keep fighting after three .50 cal shots to the face, etc. In RPGs, the boss has infinity billion hit points, takes three actions per round, and switches between an instant kill attack, a total party kill attack, and an attack that does max damage. In fighting games, you have the SNK Boss – never flinches, barely feels your attacks, and his taunt is powerful enough to take out half your life bar. In short, this design philosophy is “Fight harder, not smarter.”

Sadly, “fight harder, not smarter” is a legitimate approach. Especially at the higher difficulty levels and post endgame content, where few players actually venture, the development costs of more refined difficulty is simply unfeasible. With the unsustainable budget bloat that plagues modern games, many noble endeavors fall victim to the uncaring knife of cost-benefit analysis. Developing a truly robust AI that can outsmart a skilled player is a lofty and laudable goal, but also a massive time and money sink.

The real shame of “fight harder, not smarter” is that it is often self-defeating. If the game is difficult because it’s cheating, The players abandon any sense of fair play – it becomes assumed that you need to exploit bugs and AI flaws to defeat the harder enemies.

As with all my other musings, I’m using the very specific examples of video games, but I’m reaching for a concept that is more universal. The rule of thumb for D&D combat encounters is “more, or bigger.” It’s a simple approach that a larger scale makes something more difficult. On a more abstract level, it’s how we get narrative structures like DragonBall Z (Oh no! This guy is going to destroy the earth! We must pool all our powers to stop him! We finally beat him, but at an extreme cost! Now there’s someone even worse! The last guy you fought was like an insect in comparison!).

And this is where there is an intersection. Shockingly, there are a very few examples where utility effects are used to make an encounter more difficult. Even worse, immunity to the player’s support effects is considered not only as a legitimate, but also a desirable approach to make encounters more difficult. When enemies do use utility effects, it’s generally directed to be annoying, rather than lethal. Poison spiders roam the forest no so much to make it more dangerous, but to punish you for not buying antidotes.

We then find ourselves treading a very thin line – utility effects need to be effective and relevant, enough to turn the tide of a battle, but not game-breaking. Enemies should be vulnerable to debuffs, but, as a general rule, not be incapacitated by these effects. Player characters should be similarly vulnerable, but not incapacitated by the same effects. Enemies should make use of buffs and healing effects, and player characters should be encouraged to do the same, but there should be limits and opportunity cost involved.

In D&D, this is addressed primarily through combat maneuvers and magic. Wizards seem to get a pass with utility effects, so that’s not really broken. Combat maneuvers are presented in a needlessly complex manner (somewhat streamlined in some versions), loaded down with flowcharts and formulae. Things make sense once it’s studied, and it is perhaps a balanced system, but there’s very little incentive to bother with the Byzantine rules unless there’s an in-character reason for attempting these maneuvers. A character specifically designed to perform a specific combat maneuver likely has a strong incentive to use that particular maneuver. Otherwise, it’s a “shoot the moon” attempt, giving up your normal action for a (narrow) chance of getting a big effect. As a general rule, given the average players and GM, combat maneuvers only come into play when a specialist uses them or when a monster gets them for free. While that may be perfectly legitimate in that you want your player characters to perform actions for character motivations, it ignores the fact that D&D, as presented by the rules in the book, consists in large part of a grid-based tactical game. The presence of utility effects is not enough on its own – there must exist incentives for the player characters and their antagonists to both use them. And this is one of the better examples.

In many games, the utility effects are actually overpowered, giving the player characters an unfair advantage – they were balanced on the assumption that most players won’t even bother. In other games, there are utility effects available, but they are worthless to the players, so the only player response is “punch the poison spiders in the face.” Neither of these approaches are satisfactory.

Final Fantasy X is actually a good example of utility effects given more meaning.  Especially in the early game, the system is like an overly complex Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, but this extends to bosses, as well – they are vulnerable to debuffs, buffs make the players more effective, etc. Unfortunately, in the late game, things pretty much devolve into “punch it in the face harder,” largely because there’s little to no evolution beyond the initial RPScLSp system. An example of a game where utility effects matter more and more as the game goes on would be Treasure of the Rudras (not released outside Japan). In the early game, you could get by on brute force, but the later bosses were simply too powerful.  If you managed to develop a solid set of spells and strategy, focusing heavily on utility effects, however, the battles actually became possible. Similarly, the enemies had no compunction with using utility effects on the players, and they managed to make the battles more difficult, rather than more annoying.

Returning to a narrative example of this concept, to emphasize the applicability beyond video games, we have One Piece. Right from the get-go, many of the main characters are phenomenally strong. As the story progresses, their opponents get progressively stronger, but the threat is rarely a matter of overwhelming strength.  Most of the tension in conflicts stems from unorthodox styles, fixing the match to give one side an unfair advantage, and otherwise presenting situations where you can’t simply punch the problem into submission. Conversely, some of the main characters are relatively weak, and they manage to defeat superhuman opponents through ingenuity rather than raw force.

While it may be cathartic to solve problems with moar dakka and bigger guns, it’s more satisfying when brains are applied as well as brawn.