Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Gear, Balance, and Feel

My apologies again for the late post today. Not 100% sure what happened with my yesterday, but it was gone in a flash. Anyhow, gear is one of those sections of RPGs that some games don't really bother with and other games seem to take a specific delight in bolstering to the gills. Amusingly enough, in my experience the difference between which kind of game you get is often determined by how mechanically crunchy a system is. Meaning that the more gear options laid out before you, the more crunchy the system is. With that in mind, keeping your gear balanced around its cost can be an easy thing to let slip by. Unfortunately, this can negatively impact your game, and not just because one player now does more damage than another.

A Min/Max'ers Delight
The term Min/Max has something of  a negative connotation in a lot of gaming circles. The concept is simple. A Min/Max'er is a player who basically makes his character incredibly deficient in one area in order to be super efficient in another. Most commonly this is a player dropping their social skills/abilities to the floor in order to completely max out their combat efficiency. Sometimes this is because the player feels like they can make up for weak social stats with good RP, sometimes it is because the game is going to be short or very focused in that one area, and sometimes it is just someone looking for a particular kind of feel from a game.

Whatever the reason, gear is often a section that this kind of player will spend a lot of time. Afterall, finding out the most efficient gear to build around, or how to build your character around a specific set of gear, is an important step to the process. Despite what fantasy art wants to show us, and what the game designers may even be hoping for, swords aren't often the most efficient weapons and when they are, it isn't the traditional sword/shield combination that gives the player the most power. Which is where problems can come in.

Gear Controls Feel
Let's say for a moment that you're running a game with a heavy action element to it. You and your players decided long ago you're going to let the dice fall where they may, and while RP and stories would happen one of the key focuses of the game was going to be combat. This isn't even that unusual. D&D is based on this model, as are other games - like Deathwatch for the 40k line, and any Wall campaign in L5R. Now, depending on your rules for incoming PCs, the players are fairly heavily incentivised to build their characters to last. Afterall, who wants to be a few levels behind in a game with heavy combat? Often this leads to the person who died once dying again while the PCs who manage to stay alive amass more and more power. You see where this is going?

If not, to be blunt, you end up with large groups of adventurers that come in kitted out with very specific weapons. Instead of fighters wearing chain vests with a sword and shield, they're all springing for banded scale male - red dragon scale of course - and dual wielding pick axes with a back up war hammer. You see this once, and it is an interesting quirk for a character. You start seeing it again and again and the feel for the universe can be broken. The worst part is the player isn't even doing anything wrong. They just want their character to live so they can see more of that character's story, and this is the best path for that to happen on.

Gardening Tools > Weapons
The weird thing about how this comes up is that it is often tools that make better weapons than weapons. Often this comes from the designers trying to represent what the tool does, and then being confined on the negatives by the nature of the game's mechanics. The pick-axe example I gave above is one case of this - though I forget what edition/game it was true for. A more modern example would be the "Breaching Auger" in Deathwatch. This is a tool meant for knocking down doors/walls and it serves this purpose well. However, it is also, bar none, the most cost efficient deadliest piece of melee equipment you can slap onto a space marine. For the cost of 18 requisition and the use of one hand - many of the weaker but similar powered melee weapons cost more and also take one hand out of use - you get to do truly ridiculous amounts of damage to your target with easier damage scaling on a magnified scale. It is an item that you are almost stupid for not taking if you're expecting to get up close and personal and can spare a hand for the mission.

The Solution
The solution to this problem is simple. Mind the costs and the benefits of what you are putting into the game with the feel you want the game to have. If you are making a samurai game and want people to use their katanas then give them a reason to do so. Not just with RP, but mechanically. Give the weapon an edge that is very tempting to have. If you don't want PCs dual wielding pick axes into combat, then give them a reason to not to. Sure, it can still be a viable choice, but it shouldn't be the only one. There is a reason that humanity didn't mass produce pick axes for combat over the sword, spear, and other weapons. Would a pick axe be a  deadly weapon in the right hands? Sure, but it also has weaknesses (top heavy, unbalancing, slow, etc.) Just keep those in mind as you go forward.

Often times you can reflect the items special purpose use with special rules. You want a pick axe to do extra damage to stationary objects but not people? Then give it a mechanic to do so. You don't want every space marine in the jericho reach using breaching augers? Then don't have it be so effective against everything when the purpose is to have it knock down walls. And before you go there, understand that with many groups "rp concerns" are not the balancing factor you want them to be. Groups where those works are often not the kind of groups that need game balance in the first place anyhow, and the other groups just don't care.

In The End
In the end you want to be careful. gear can be a slog to go through. I still have nightmares about going through the gear section on my own game - which I totally need to get cracking on production stuff for. Still, it is also one of the key areas for controlling feel since it controls the visual equipment characters will have, as well as the look and feel of how they fight. The mental image for someone dual wielding knives is a lot different than for someone wielding pick axes. Just keep that in mind and shape the game to tell the story you want the game to tell.

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