Monday, January 25, 2010

Mechanical Balance? Teamwork? Why not teamplay? Why not narrative focus?

So, this is going to be the first official rambling rant on here I think, and probably a bit more geared towards MMOs, though it also applies to table top and other RPGs, especially as they've also shown signs of taking what I'm talking about, so bear with me a bit on this, but maybe you'll also find something useful in it.

Excuse me, wtf are you talking about?
So, what I'm talking about here is essentially I want to attack what has become known as the Holy Trinity of MMOs, and by this I of course mean the Catholic holy trinity The Father (the Tank), The Son (the debuff/buff), and The Holy Ghost (DPS). Joking aside, the concept of Tanking/Support/DPS is about as old, and over-used as a means of helping people to settle combat as Rock-Paper-Scissors, and while it's not necessarily bad, it kind of makes me sad to see that we are sticking to this format in so many games, and some groups seem incapable of even conceptualizing leaving it.

For those that don't know, the way it works (at it's basic bones) is the tank will go into a fight first, after they have drawn enough agro (aggression, or the focus of the NPCs attention) the others will join in. The DPS (damage per second) will deal damage, being careful to not draw attention away from the tank, while the Support (buffs and debuffs) will either weaken the NPC or strengthen their allies to make the fight easier.

Now from the onset, this is a basic but good game structure, or at least it was, and why? Because it encourages teamwork. The tank doesn't do damage, he takes it, so he can't efficiently kill the NPCs on his own though he can stand there all day and take a beating. The Support can't really kill the NPC or take the hits, but he can vastly weaken the NPC or empower the other PCs and thus make the fight go a lot easier and quicker. The DPS can hurt the NPC, and can even kill it (and quickly) provided that he can survive the hits, which they generally can't, and even if he can he'll have more downtime in between fights thus decreasing their efficiency to the point of 'why bother' anyhow. Individually, all of these can theoretically take out most NPCs in a game, just slowly, but working together in their roles. The tank holds the damage, while the DPS and Support help the fight end quickly, there is little to no down-time in between fights and the three (or more) go on through the area killing monsters, looting treasure, and gaining the XPs at a furious rate while leveling up.

The problem? Well, as I much as I am all for team work, what if I don't want to or can't find a good/balanced team at the time? What's that you say? I'm S.O.L? Well that sucks, because I really wanted to play this game right now. Another problem I have is that the names don't necessarily add up, at least not for me.

Let's start with the most obvious, the Tank. I don't know about you, but what I described above doesn't sound like a "Tank" to me, it sounds like a shield. Tanks can take hits, sure, but I've never heard of a Tank in the real world that couldn't also dish out the pain just as well as it got, if not more so. Look at the default image of a tank, a heavily laden slow moving metal box with a big cannon on the front. When you made me this "tank" for your RPG, why'd I lost the cannon? Sure it might not be the most accurate gun out there, or the most steadily firing, but what it hits it generally destroys.

For that matter, why can't the support guy win a fight on his own? What, he can jack up the tanks resilience, the DPS's damage, and lower the resistance of the enemy, but he can't do this to himself? Mechanically, I guess yeah, but why can't he? There is an opportunity being lost here for a player, using tactics, knowledge of the game, and skill to have a really fun balls to the wall Batman-esque fun time here that is being lost because of the rigidity of the Holy Trinity and it's impact on gaming. This is true for buff/debuff classes in MMOs, console/PC, and table top RPGs.

Finally, we have the DPS, most often portrayed by the Rogue, a sneaky, agile, dangerous person who knows when and where to hit you to make it hurt, or the Mage, a learned scholar and master of the arcane who bends the fabric of reality to do his bidding and destroy. I guess my question here is, with all those fireballs and lightning bolts why doesn't the mage know any defensive spells? I mean, this is magic we are talking about here. Surely the mages have fights on occasion, surely the need to defend themselves from those 50' tall demons they keep summoning has come up. Why are they as helpless as a newborn kitten once the bad guy growls at them? For the rogue, all that agility and skill, generally smaller, can go hours at a time without being seen. Hell, he probably lifted your watch right off you with that hand shake, you're telling me a guy this good at reading the battle field, this skilled at knowing just how to get to where he needs to be to hurt someone can't also see where not to stand? All that training in sneaking, and being agile and fast, and he doesn't know that he should duck when that giant sword comes flying for his head?

So, what is the solution? Or at least a solution, well honestly, and surprisingly, it's going back to the roots of these games. By that I don't mean we go back to the table top strategy games that RPG comes from, but the other root. The stories that inspired the worlds that gave us the games. Go back and take a look through your old comic books, your old fantasy novels, rewatch some of your favorite action movies. Go on, I'll wait. Really, once posted this article isn't going anywhere so you have a few hours to days to go and do this. Alright, notice anything? Because I sure did. Here is just a small list.

#1 The guy who can take a whole lotta hits, is also the guy who ends fights with just one. Maybe two. Rewatch the Princess Bride, Andre the Giant is the tank, he takes a lot to go down, and accidentally gives some guy a concussion because he hits too hard while he is holding back. Conan the Barbarian is another one, look at those muscles and tell me that man don't hit hard. Going back to action movies, there is usually a fight, especially when the hero is particularly fast, where he fights the large bruiser. The bruiser shrugs off most of our hero's blows, while his attacks are avoided, but those missed blows we're shown would shatter concrete if they actually hit. This leaves the question then, why did we take this away from our tanks?

#2 Unless he's the hero, and even then it's generally true, the fast guy can not take a hit. Sure he's fast, and he's going to hit a lot, hell he may even hit hard at times, but generally one or two solid hits and the fast guy is down. This is generally more shown in anime where you are more likely to have a team of people with one being the lightning quick glass cannon that just can't take a hit. It's not as prevalent in western lore where we tend more to focusing on the lone hero who has to be resilient and push through it all to keep going, otherwise the movie/story ends right there. Even still, there is a reason that fast hero is dodging while the large bruisers are shrugging off hits, and the answer is simply because they can not just shrug off the hits.

#3 Catch the creative guy off guard or flatfooted and he goes down quickly, don't do so, and he'll probably destroy you. That is, once again, unless you're the hero, at which point you'll find a way through the trickery to get the man himself. Alternatively, the hero will come prepared as well and do something that catches the guy off guard, thus taking him out of this element.

Now what do those three things mean for the trinity? Well, for one thing they provide a way to shake things up. Even better, put together the three things are still something that are greater than the sum of the parts. Even better than that, the way they combine encourages teamplay not teamwork. The difference can be small, but the difference in fun factor in my experience is rather high.

So what do we do?
Well, for one thing, let's relook at some core assumptions that a lot of game makes. I'm going to approach this from the Table Top RPG side, because in the computer/MMO area it's a bit harder to pin down some basics. In general, I'm going to go off of the D&D inspired model which seems to be the basis for most of these games in the first place. Please excuse me as I reuse the numbering from above.

#1 Why does Strength represent both my damage in melee as well as my chance to hit? In my limited experience with fighting, as well as everything I have read, and conversations with people who have vastly more experience with fighting, the more power you put into a blow the less likely it is to hit. Why? because the more power you put into the blow, the slower and more telegraphed it is going to be. This means against a decently skilled opponent they're going to see it coming and avoid it. This is why the jab is so important in boxing, it is a light but fast punch that stuns the person for a second thus enabling the heavier blow to land and do real damage.

#2 Armor, western style at least, shouldn't be upping how hard you are to hit. It should be decreasing how much damage you take. Think about it, if you block someone from hitting you in the face does it not hurt at all? Sure it does, it just hurts somewhere else, somewhere less important than your face. Armor works much the same way, while the shape of armor and shields may make it harder to land a clean blow on you, they also slow you down and make you easier to hit. So why did people wear armor when it made them easier to hit? Because it made those hits hurt a lot less. Armor, is in game terms damage mitigation not damage negation. You can still feel the blows, they just don't hurt (as much). So why not reflect this in the game?

Enacting this isn't hard, and you can actually drop a lot of the physical parts of a fight into 2 stats easily, while staying true to stories and legends. Instead of strength, let's have Toughness. Toughness is a combination of your strength and your resilience to damage. It is how much you can hurt others, and how much pain you can take before you actually start to care or feel it. The big strong guy generally has a high resilience anyhow, so lets reflect it in one go with this. The other stat we'll call Quickness. This is how fast you react, and determines your reflexes and agility, it is how hard you are to hit, and how good you are at hitting others.

Balancing it honestly isn't all that much harder. The guy with the higher Toughness can take twice as much damage and hit twice as hard as the guy with the higher Quickness. However, he hits 1/2 as much, and gets hit twice as often as well. The quick guy is just the inverse, he hits and avoids being hit twice as much, only he does and can take only 1/2 the damage. They're perfectly balanced, and which one you like would really come down to play style. Armor can be added to the Quick guy for increased survivability at the cost of some of his defense, while it can be removed from the Tough guy to increase his chance at avoiding a hit at the cost of his resilience.

This applies just as much to the MMO world as it does to everything else by the way.

So, now that you've read this far, let's re-look at how the Holy Trinity could be.
Lets start once again with the tank.

The Tank is the big bruiser, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Even better, his blows are incredibly powerful, the downside being he's not particularly slow or accurate. For joke stats lets use this: The Tank can take 20,000 points of damage, has a DPS of 10,000 (5000 damage per 1 second) with a hit bonus of 5, and a Defense Value of 10

The Finesse Fighter (DPS) is quick and agile, capable of hitting fast and often, but not too good at taking the blows. Luckily, he doesn't get hit very often due to that speed and agility. The Finesse Fighter can take 10,000 points of damage, has a DPS of 5,000 with a hit bonus of 10, and a Defense Value of 20.

Now, ultimately these two characters are balanced. The Finesse guy takes and deals 1/2 as much damage (again, it's just easier to show this way) but he is twice as hard to hit, and hits twice as often. Meaning that their damage should even out in the end, with the only real difference being that if the Finesse guy gets hit, it's going to hurt him a lot more than if he were a tank. Also notice though, that neither of these two is an actual DPS or Tank, the choice comes down to Burst Damage and endurance for the long fight, or Sustained damage but the risk a lucky hit will end the fight faster. Which one a player chose would really be up to them.

Excuse me, you forgot the Support guy
I didn't actually, but now that you bring him up we come to the crux of why the Trinity may be around. That is, it's easy. Balancing a support guy that can stand on their own, along with Survivability w/ Burst damage and Sustained Damage w/ high defense, is a lot harder than just "this guy takes the hits, this guy gives the hits, and this guy makes them better at their job while making the NPC worse at his". However, gotten right I think it would really do well, and stand on it's own as something separate from the mold. Especially if you could get the increases right and then give the players the freedom, within this balanced system, to make the person they wanted for increased variety. Keeping that balanced by limiting just how much they can branch out, and letting people choose how much to specialize, and how much to be a "Jack of All but Master of None".

Or in other words, I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you think it through, and make a truly fair and balanced system, you can give people more freedom without fear of breaking things because it IS balanced. It just takes work to get that right, and it doesn't seem like anyone is both interested and capable of putting that work into something right now.

Either way, Happy Gaming.

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