Work Smarter, Not Harder

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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.

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Support Roles

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And now for something completely different…

A popular mechanic for many games is a class system, giving a sense of variety and tactical decisions. Each class excels at a certain role, applying the principle of specialization of labor.  In theory, this specialization also allows for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts – after all, specialization of labor is absolutely integral to the basis of civilization and the manufacturing revolution.

There is, however a tension between classes, as classes can fall into two general categories: Soloable roles and Support roles.  The Soloable class is often the Fighter, able to take a hit and dish out a solid blow.  They don’t need anyone else.  Support classes tend to be things like the Tank (indestructible, low damage output), the Artillery (massive damage output, glass jaw), and Utility (low damage output, fragile, but dirty tricks).  A support class trades core competencies for greater aptitude in other areas.  Depending on the precise system, Tanks and Artillery are semi-soloable, with Tanks being slightly more soloable inclined.

Leaving us with Utility.  While Tanks and Artillery get some of the Support stigma, their value is readily apparent, as is their soloability. Many Utilities are capable of soloing, but they lack the survivability and damage output to do it as fast and successfully as soloables.

Many people dislike Utilities, whether it be playing with them or playing as them. People of course appreciate healing effects, but that usually means that anyone with healing talent is reduced to “Healer” regardless of other competencies. Or “Useless,” if their healing isn’t terribly effective.

Utility tends to work behind the scenes – their role is “make the others feel more awesome.” They trade in making allies more powerful or making enemies weaker. They also tend to be extremely good at this, to make up for their terrible offensive and defensive capabilities. This tends to be a thankless job in many settings, as fanfare is delivered for striking killing blows or making phenomenal saves.  Everyone cheers for the Quarterback, while the Linebackers, at best, are praised as a unit.

As a general rule, then, it tends to be a certain class of people that gravitate toward Utility roles. The stage crew often gets as much satisfaction from a successful play as the lead roles. The editor takes pride in turning a gifted author’s work into something readable and less fraught with cliches. These are people that don’t seek – and often don’t want – the spotlight, though they do appreciate the occasional shout-out, or even just a nod of appreciation. Interestingly, many of those naturally inclined toward Utility actually find themselves bored by the more Soloable roles – Utilities often take a wide-angle approach to a given situation, while Soloables take a narrowly-focused, more personal role. If someone’s used to being a chessmaster, they resent becoming a single piece, even if that piece is the Queen.

Which leads to a growing trend, which is somewhat distressing – the attempt to “fix” Utilities.

From a demographic standpoint, many more people want to be Soloables than Utilities. As stated, they find Utilities worthless, frustrating, or simply a headache. So people petition the designers to make the Utilities more soloable, because they want variety in their choice of soloables. The designers are then compelled to increase the soloability of Utilities, consequently weakening their utility.

Examples of this abound throughout games. In Team Fortress, the Medics are fragile and have relatively weak attacks. This is balanced by allowing healing to be counted for assists, as well as providing them with the only submachine guns in the game. In City of Heroes, Controllers had their hard controls weakened, in exchange for “containment” – an ability that dramatically increases their damage output. These are relatively good examples, as the classes remain Utilities, but aren’t quite as helpless when they’re alone.

For a less beneficial example, we turn to an unfortunate example – unfortunate because it already gets enough grief on the internet as it is.  I am, of course, referring to Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, or D&D 4E (and the coming 5E). In previous editions, there was quite a range of power level, especially if you’re talking about everything falling under the d20 umbrella. Generally, there was a balance between Utility and Soloability, with the ever unavoidable exceptions, and many of the less combat-capable were extremely useful outside of combat. Alternately, their value in combat was less for their own combat capabilities and more for making their allies better.

But that was not to remain the case. As one of the most popular D&D memes is “Bards Suck,” the designers decided to start from the perspective of the Soloability proponents. Thus, all classes were developed to be nearly interchangeable with balance – different classes meant slightly different flavors, but everyone worked in a relatively similar manner. Healing was reduced to a short-term concern, an d particular effort was made to ensure that no class would be a “heal bot.” Control effects were lumped together with light artillery – maintaining perhaps the greatest degree of utility, but still focusing heavily on damage output.

There are largely three problems with “fixing” Utilities. The most obvious drawback is the fact that there are people that truly enjoy and desire Utility play.  “Fixing” utilities simply drives them away, as the implication is that they’re not really wanted. The second issue is similarly apparent – at best you end up with a variety of fruit-flavored fighters, at worst you end up with Frankenstein’s monsters that aren’t very good at anything. Finally, you have the intangible – the primary role of the utilities is to make their allies feel more powerful. When utilities are weakened, it can lead to everyone feeling less powerful.

So, even if Utilities aren’t your thing, let them live. There are people who love staying out of the spotlight, especially when they can do more from out there. Besides, it’s more civilized. Utilities allow for a team to work together – a group of Soloables is simply soloing in tandem – there is much less need, desire, or appreciation for cohesion.