[Monsters we Slay] Design considerations

The new working title for my `quick tactical gamist' RPG is Monsters we Slay. It is somewhat less stupid than Looting the Labyrinth, isn't it? The core system is coming along nicely, though I can't judge whether it's going to be successful at this stage. Today, I want to talk about some of the decisions I have made.

Appropriate adversity

Several blogs on RPGs have recently contained posts about adversity and GM fiat. Especially relevant is Matt Wilson's post on inappropriate adversity. I quote:

See, and when I'm GM, I want to be able to throw everything I'm allowed to at the players without worrying whether or not I've crossed the line.
In a gamist RPG with the classical dungeon crawl challenge - survive as a group and defeat the Big Bad at the end of the dungeon - this is especially important. If the success or the failure of the party is dependent on the Game Master's decisions, the game fails. For this reason, I believe that D&D3E may actually not be a good dungeon crawling game. The GM in D&D is very much within his rights to declare that the players confront an enemy on a small ledge where they can only fight him one at a time; or to put a fountain of healing in the middle of a dungeon; or to rule that the dungeon is either safe enough or not safe enough to take a night of sleep in; and so forth. Although the encounter levels do go some way in ensuring appropriate adversity, the GM can still - advertently or inadvertently - decide the fate of the group.

This must not be possible in Monsters we Slay. Like Matt Wilson says, the GM must be able to throw everything he has against the players without this breaking the game. So how does that work?

Each mission in MwS consists of a series of fights. The level of the next fight is determined by the players (within certain confines); this level determines the total strength of the monsters, which the GM then chooses from a list of monsters. (It also determines how much XP the party will get and how cool the treasures can be that they may find.)

Then, the players roll three dice. These are distributed, a la Otherkind, among three categories: Tactics, Rerolls and Treasure. The die in Treasure determines how much treasure they will get when they win the fight. The die in Rerolls determines how many times during the fight they can reroll one of the dice. And the die in tactics is probably the most interesting one. It's values mean the following:

1. Game Master chooses place, special and monsters.
2. Randomly roll place and special; Game master chooses monsters.
3. Randomly roll place; Game Master chooses monsters; roll special.
4. Game Master chooses monsters; randomly roll place and special.
5. Game Master chooses monsters; players choose place; roll special.
6. Game Master chooses monsters; players choose place and special.
The 'place' is the shape of the arena, which has a lot of tactical significance - you don't want to meet a single strong foe in a narrow corridor, and you don't want to meet enemires with arrows in a huge room where they can shoot at you before you can reach them. The 'special' is a special effect that rules in the room, such as "Unholy aura: all non-undead get -1 to all rolls" and "Good cover: all ranged attacks are made at -2". The order in the table is the order in which the fight is set up; so the difference between 2 and 3 is purely on of order.

What this means is that, hey, the GM is sometimes allowed to make things really hard for the players - but it's always their own choice. And the basic difficulty of the fight is chosen by the players, so there is no blaming the GM if things go wrong. He should always push as hard as he can.

Medium-term dwindling resources

There is a strange thing in D&D and many other games, and that is that some character classes depend on medium-term dwindling resources and others do not. The point in case is that wizards and their brethern have a limited number of spells (or spell points), and thus become less effective the more fights there are between moments that this resource is refreshed. Fighters, on the other hand, are not dependent on such a dwindling resource*, and stay roughly as effective throughout dungeons of any length.

In Monsters we Slay, the moment of refreshing these dwindling resources is mechanically defined, because it should not come down to GM choice. Spell points (called Passion) are refreshed after each mission. A mission only ends successfully if the party kills the Big Bad, in which case the party levels up. If they flee before they kill the Big Bad, they don't get any XP at all, and cannot reattempt the mission - they must start another one. The strategic dimension of Monsters we Slay is thus that you have to be careful with your dwindling resources, because only if you make it to the end of the mission will you get any reward; you cannot refresh your resources in the middle and continue.

Ok, but that threatens to create an imbalance: if the missions are too long, wizards will be at a disadvantage. If the missions are too short, wizards will be at an advantage. But finding the golden middle will probably be very hard, as a game designer.

So I will make all classes dependent on dwindling resources. I currently have two, Passion for spells and Strength for physical abilities (cool combat moves), but I might decide to put them together in one single resource. (Not sure about that.) Anyway, that will hopefully ensure that the above problem will not manifest.

Although some classes may be a bit more dependent on their dwindling resources than others - after all, the classes should play differently! - I will make sure that none of them becomes useless when the resources are spent. Yes, that means that magic users will be able to kick ass in combat. As they should. Wizards with swords are cool.

* Well, there are hit points. But wizards have hit points too, and both their function and their effect is very different from that of spells, so the analogy doesn't go very far.


  1. Hey Victor,

    I dunno if you saw, or even if it would be that helpful, but I ran down some common adversarial patterns here, at my Game A Day Project.

    That said, this sounds fun. Here's a thought that's kind of out of left field, but I think it would be interesting if each class had a different medium-term dwindling resource, and the things it fueled were related to niche protection. So the fighter gets Strength, the theif gets Sneakery, whatever. Yes, it means more lists of stuff, and more effort to "balance" the effects, but it's instant differentiation between classes if the Paladins the only one that can spend Righteousness to curse evil enemies, or whatever.

    Of course, I haven't read anything about the game, so you might have something like that already. But it's something that popped in while reading your post.

  2. Another option (which you may have already considered) is to simply have no such resource for anyone. Give everyone a constantly-replenishing resource or something similar.

    Not necessarily a better option, just a different one.


  3. I'm Evil Gamist DM (TM).

    If you include the dwindling resources thing, including the text about how it functions, I will:

    - identify the player that will be the most annoying/convincing to the other players to stop the run once his resources are gone
    - target his specific niche of resource (through monster and other selection) every time, to run him out

    Not very friendly to player's fun, but playing hard.

  4. Good comments, people. I'll write a real reply tomorrow. (Right now, I should go and sleep.)

  5. Nathan, I'll take a look at your thread.

    I'm planning to have the only way to spend dwindling resources to be through using certain skills/spells that need them. So actually I could do with just a single resource, and have all the class differentiation in the skills/spells.

    Thomas, good point - thinking outside of the box is a great idea. However, I think dwindling resources add a good strategic component to an otherwise tactical game. But you know what you got me thinking about? Maybe I should have health refresh after each fight, so as not to make it a diwndling resource... That way, only your own choices, not your own unluckiness, influences your medium term effectiveness. Hm...

  6. Tobias - good! I want you as a playtester. ;)

  7. Hi Victor.

    I am really curious if this game will work out. I like strategic games and I am not against a little gamism in my RPGs, but if you want to be successful as a GM in a pure tactical way then you'll have to play very mean and I am not sure your players will enjoy that.

    You see the best way to win a fight is to take out the enemy one by one, focusing on one enemy at the time.

    I'll try to explain this by a simplified example and some simple mathematics.

    Suppose we have a party with 6 members all being able to do 5 damage a turn and 12 enemies doing 1 damage a turn. Both the party members and the enemies have 20 HP, the heroes are first in a turn. Let's examine two extreme cases:

    A) The Party divides hits as equally as possible. It will take 6 turns to bring them all down to 5 HP and after that 1 turn to kill half of them and then another 1 turn to kill the rest. The enemies will be able to do 6*12 (all of them alive) + 1*6 (half of them alive)=78 total damage. (and maybe even more if they manage to kill a party member, cause then the killing takes longer)

    Now the other extreme

    B) The party members focus on 1 enemy at a time.

    They will kill 1 enemy first round, 2 second round, 1 3rd, 2 4th, 1 5th, 2 6th, 1 7th, 2 8th.
    So it takes them 8 rounds to kill them all, just like in case A. But this time the damage they receive from the enemies is far less. It is 11+9+8+6+5+3+2=44.

    For GMs it's even more of an advantage to kill one first than for players, because characters usually are able to heal themselves between encounters, while dead characters probably can't come back that quickly.

    For the GM it is probably not much of a problem if the players use the B (kill one first) tactic. A GM doesn't care much about the NPCs he sends in battle, if the players device an effective way to fight the enemies he will just make sure to put in more of them to make it an exciting battle.

    It is totally different when the GM uses this tactic on players though. Because the player attacked will feel the GM is being unfair to attack him only and really cares about his character.

    That's why I think a true tactical RPG will fail.

  8. Rimke - your point is very good. But a successfully designed tactical game will ensure that teaming up against someone is not always the best strategy.

    In the current proto-rules, one of the actions a character can take is 'full defense'. This gives the character a +2 to defense, which effectively makes the enemies have 33 percent point less likely to hit him. (Enemies that had 50% chance now have 17% chance; enemies that had 67% chance now have 33% chance; and so forth.) Is it tactical to concentrate all your fire on one guy that is hard to hit, while all the other guys are beating you up?

    Even worse, there is, in the current proto-rules, an action called 'Concentration'. You can do this for up to three subsequent rounds, after which you can perform another action much better. (If you do it for three rounds, then do a melee attack, you could do 6 times as much damage as you normally would. 6 times as much damage in 4 times as many rounds - that's efficient.) The drawback is that you lose your concentration if you are damaged. But that means that if all the monsters are attacking one guy, all the other heroes can concentrate without being hit, unleashing terrible damage upon their foes afterwards.

    And, although I haven't written it yet, a character can always flee from a battle, returning to the party later.

    So here's the prospect: pit all your forces against one guy who does full defense while his friends are attacking you with more power than they could otherwise muster, while the guy you are attacking can always try to flee before you kill him. Sounds enticing?

    Maybe it is enticing - sometimes, if the party is really in need of one of the characters. But in general, well, I think there's enough there to give the GM second thoughts.

    But playtesting will have to show whether it is true.

  9. The problem with a "full defense mode" is that it only works for the guy who declares his actions last. After all actions against him are declared he can then make the decisision to go full defense if there where many attacks declared against him.

    If he declares to go full defense before the GM declared his actions then it would not work of course, because then the GM just attacks an other target and the full defense mode would just be a waste of a turn.

    If you make sure the GM always has to declare first then it might prevent the GM from teaming up against players, though for the players it would still be very effective to team up against GM controlled monsters.

    Still usually there are ways around this in most RPGs. Weaken a player by a spell for example and have him then smacked into smithereens when even a full defense will not help him much.

    In all systems I know which have an extensive combat system it works to team up in one way or another.

  10. Rimke, it will be among my prime design goals to ensure that teaming up is not generally the best tactical option. Thanks for pressing the issue, I appreciate that. Please keep an eye on my progress - I expect to post proto-rules soon.


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