Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Killing Me Softly, part 4

So. I've been wrestling with soft attacks every so often, trying to get somewhere useful, and to be honest I think the most useful thing at this point is a quick summary and to move on. There are so many different things to consider, all of which play into other aspects of the game, that I can't usefully do much specific without actually creating a game from whole cloth. And that's more Dan's thing.

So here's the main conclusions I've reached.


The main thing, the biggie: how much granularity does the status system provide? It's not really about the attack, or the resilience, or the recovery; it's about whether you can be "blind" vs. "not blind", or whether you measure 10 different degrees of blindness.

Higher granularity means low swinginess, high scalability and a high tracking burden. Low granularity means high swinginess, low scalability and a low tracking burden. Anyone picking a system for soft attacks needs to decide which of those is the priority. The details of the system involved are really a secondary matter.

For a game without much in the way of levelling - the sort of thing where a new character is about as effective as a veteran - scalability is not an issue. In those cases, the decision might come down to other elements of the game. If it's supposed to be highly realistic, the cost of tracking might be acceptable - particularly as in such a game, quite a lot of tracking is probably already necessary: if you have to track damage to a number of specific locations, ammunition, energy expended, morale, fatigue and thirst, adding in blindness, sleepiness and stunnedness might seem perfectly reasonable. On the other hand, if it's a fast-paced game featuring "alive", "wounded" or "dead" statuses and very little else, nobody wants detailed tracking of blindness.

If the game has strong levelling, then scalability is important. Having low-level soft weapons that cripple high-level targets creates loopholes, cheap tactics and can undermine the setting. On the other hand, having high-level soft attacks that are often ineffective makes makes it not worth using them. There are ways around this other than granularity, though. If the attack rolls necessary scale with level, and the status effect isn't too severe, then a binary system may be acceptable.

Example: Scaly Monitors

In a new build of Monitors, skill is modelled by simple skill pluses linked to level. A modified roll of 11+ on a d20 is a success. Roj, a 5th-level iguana xenologist, has +5 Pistol and carries a tranq pistol to capture interesting fauna on the ice-world of Kraant, as well as a standard-issue blaster for self-defence. When his research group are confronted by a 5th-level cryoboar with +5 Stamina (which subtracts from his roll) he has to roll an 11 or better to successfully stun it, halving its action rate, which will make it easier to capture, kill or escape from. On the other hand, he could turn to the trusty blaster, which should kill the boar in five or six shots.

A little later, Roj runs into a cryophant. Oops. With a Stamina of 10, he needs a 16 or better to stun it. A lucky shot would make life substantially easier, but attempting to beat the critter would still be very risky. Once aggro'd, the cryophant's hit points mean it'll survive to reach combat sooner or later, at which point Roj may be wishing he'd gone straight for the blaster rather than waste turns trying to drug it, since he'd have to endure fewer rounds of punishing combat.

D&D seems to aim for this with its scaling attack rolls, defensive stats and DCs. However, the major status effects in D&D (stun, blind, slow and paralyse) are very powerful, and this means makes it viable to focus on stun-locking, or to spam soft attacks at a boss until once gets through, followed by unloading the party's most damaging attacks while it's vulnerable. While those are perfectly valid ways of playing, it can become repetitive and feel cheesy - and designers and DMs alike tend to compensate with immunities and very high defences.


Swinginess is amplified against small numbers of relatively powerful targets, since these are typically highly resistant to compensate for their numbers. With only "success" or "failure" results, a single soft attack can make the difference between a difficult battle and a cakewalk (depending, of course, how powerful the status effect is).

Penalties can vary in severity, in duration or both. The most and least severe penalties inflicted by a soft attack are a significant factor. Soft attacks with a weak maximum penalty can be allowed a high success rate without risking 'ruining' boss fights. Soft attacks with a strong maximum penalty need to rarely impose that penalty on powerful enemies, otherwise they become disparately useful. The duration complicates matters further: a minor penalty that lasts for a long time has limited effect, but may be a pain to remember, depending how the system models it. A severe penalty that also lasts a long time is more swingy as an individual attack, since a single good result can cripple the target for the duration of a fight; however, a severe penalty that's short-lived can be very powerful if it comes at just the right time, and otherwise has limited effect, so it's also swingy. There's probably not much to choose between 'em, to be honest.

Soft attacks should never be crippling, either by themselves or through synergystic effects. This, as Dan mentioned, basically allows them to circumvent the standard combat system. The only situation where I might be inclined to favour this would be niche games, where hard-attack combat isn't what you're supposed to be doing.

Example: All's Fair

For example, I can visualise a game about fey interlopers. You have a variety of supernatural abilities that allow you to beguile, bemuse, bewilder and bewitch NPCs that come between you and your goals. Striking people blind, sending them to sleep or rooting them to the spot fit perfectly well with fey folklore, rather better than hacking your way through hordes of guards. The smooth way to play the game is to slip gently through the NPCs you encounter, eliminating them with tactically-applied magic. Actual combat is a fall-back if you mess up, and something to be avoided. The tactical challenge isn't whittling down individual opponents, it's dealing with the situation as a whole, picking the right spells to use in a situation, and avoiding drawing down a whole crowd of enemies on your head at once. The only point where drawn-out combat occurs might be dealing with other magic-using entities, where arcane duels might take place.

Final Thoughts

For a lot of games, a highly granular soft attack system is not going to be appropriate, despite its advantages.

  • As we agreed before, a game with highly abstracted combat doesn't want very granular soft attacks, because it contradicts other aspects of the combat system.
  • For games that try to minimise the tracking burden, perhaps to create a streamlined and accessible system or to speed up play, granular soft attacks are also inappropriate.
  • For games that aren't especially concerned about "realism" or "fairness", the granularity may simply not be a priority. If the setting is full of randomness and arbitrariness, with luck and the whims of the powerful playing a significant part, then it doesn't necessarily matter whether blind spells are swingy, since just about everything else is too. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you die.

For most games, though, I'm inclined to feel that at least a three-way distinction is useful, with "semi-successful" sitting between "effective" and "entirely ineffective". This would reduce swinginess by allowing soft attacks to have limited effects on powerful creatures, without either rendering them useless or allowing them to stun-lock the big bads. Exactly how the result would be established would depend on the system as a whole.

The other thing is that any soft attack system depends on the frequency of soft attacks in the game. If only rare equipment can blind, stun or paralyse creatures, a relatively high-maintenance resolution system isn't too problematic if it gives pleasing results. If they're going to come up in every fight, though, the smoothness of play is more important.

And that's probably it from me, to be honest. I had thought of scribbling a bit more about recovery systems, but I'm not sure there's much point. So a rather desultory end to a rather confused project.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Trappery, part eight: magic

The next logical Trappery would be a fantasy setting example, but here we start running into complications.

What I've been doing so far could mostly be summed up as "de-abstracting" traps into something that has a bigger presence in the game than a couple of rolls. Once you're looking at fantastical settings, though, some new factors and assumptions come into play. These are:

  • Magic
  • Sufficiently advanced technology
  • "It's not magic, it's INSERT-THINLY-DISGUISED-WORD-FOR-'MAGIC'."
For simplicity's sake I'll generally refer to all these as "magic".

What does magic mean for traps?

Both magic and hypertech (and potentially some high-end current tech) introduce new possibilities into the game. Ultimately, they're quite likely to lead to having more traps, and more powerful traps, than are plausible in a real-world setting. The exact details will depend on how the game treats magic.

I don't know who you are or and what you do or and where you go when you're not around...

Forget fireballs and summoning demons for a minute. The first and probably most important possibility magic presents is discrimination. Magic can not only function as a trigger for traps, but identify all kinds of information about an intruder. Things like weight, height, species, alignment, religion, membership of an organisation, general intentions, blood type, complete genetic makeup or simply "identity" are grist to magic's mill. This means a trapper can create traps that are far, far more discriminating about triggering, and massively reduce the chance of a false positive.

As I've mentioned before, false positives are one of the major checks on the lethality or general unpleasantness of traps, and on their placement. People are very unhappy about working near dangerous traps, or even very painful but non-damaging ones. There's also the simple inconvenience of getting trapped for a few hours or having work come to a halt while some trap is cleaned up and reset. With near-zero false positives, though, these checks are removed.

Practically speaking, this will result in more traps because they can now be placed in high-traffic locations, in the Dark Lord's bedroom, and other sensitive places without much downside - and since traps have a lot of advantages as protection, it's a natural thing to do. It will also result in more powerful traps because the trapper isn't concerned about becoming a trappee, or about catching a loved one or sue-happy visitor by mistake.

'til the end of time

Another significant feature of magic is its longevity. Legend and fantasy fiction alike often present magic as everlasting, lingering even while creators and physical surroundings fall to dust. If this is the case in your setting, then magical traps will remain a threat longer than just about anything else. The clockwork guards and scything blades may be rusted to nothing, the crossbows' bowstings may have rotted long ago, the lake of mercury have evaporated and the poisons have turned into harmless dirt, but the curses and glyphs of day-ruining will still be around to make Nebraskie's life thoroughly miserable. From a GM's point of view, this offers a way for abandoned places to still have defences and present dangerous problems. It also, of course, allows magic-specialists to use some of their skills during an exploration.

Everything louder than everything else

The third change magic introduces is just how bloody weird your traps can get. There are, fundamentally, limits to what mechanical traps can achieve. Magic, on the other hand, can turn someone into a squirrel, detect their romantic preferences, conjure up another squirrel to meet those preferences, compel them to fall in love, teleport them to the Plane of Nuts and Birdfeeders, trap them both in a bubble of accelerated time while they raise an extended squirrel family, record the whole process on a crystal ball protected by impregnable wards, teleport them back, transform them back into their original form, and then threaten to send the recording to their parents, spouse and selected national media organisations.

Magic allows you to influence intruders' behaviour through enchantment or mind-altering substances. It allows you to use living creatures without worrying about keeping them alive in the meantime. It allows you to teleport intruders elsewhere - like right out of the tomb and into a nearby volcano, or a city gaol. It allows you to turn them to stone until the next patrol visits, or forever. It allows you to wipe their memories, or implant new ones. To induce horrific hallucinations, or send messages. To blind, deafen or paralyse. It can summon guards, and even teleport them in.

I can't think of a suitable Meat Loaf quote

Finally, magic is - at least potentially - invisible. It's just there. Unlike a trick flagstone, tripwire or big pit full of spikes, there's not necessarily anything to show that there's a spell waiting for intruders. This point needs careful consideration, because it risks leaving traps as the arbitrary die-rolling exercises that caused all this writing in the first place. A related point is that magical traps could end up as a problem exclusively for wizards - which isn't necessarily an improvement on being a problem exclusively for thieves.

Magical mechanics

When using traps in a magical game, it's a good idea to consider how you actually want magic to work. This will relate to how it works elsewhere in the game, so some of your work may be already done. Broadly speaking, I think there are two poles to the approaches, which I'll call esoteric and mechanistic.

Esoteric mechanics

Esoteric magic is not readily analysable. Spells are discrete and somewhat arbitrary things, entities in their own right. You can't probe the composition of a spell or expect it to combine with others in systematic ways. This is likely to work better in systems with limited magic and a fairly broad-brush, narrative approach to what it does. In this approach, a magical trap is likely to be a single spell that exists for that purpose. It will have one or more set countermeasures, so overcoming the trap is a matter of knowing those countermeasures, which may be entirely arbitrary, intuitive, or involve a terrible pun.

Example: Surloc's Bonecage

The Wizard of Saffron Waldren, fed up of apple-scrumpers, turns to his arcane talents. Drawing runes left-handed with powdered amber, incanting the names of the Nine Winds in reverse alphabetical order, and ritually burning a pillow and two Granny Smiths picked before dawn on a Tuesday, he invokes the dread power of Surloc's Bonecage to protect his orchard. The children of the neighbourhood are flummoxed. However, old Nanny Quiggin (who used to do part-time witching in Douglas) happens to know that you can break the spell by spilling the blood of a penguin not more than three foot tall over the runes, then walking backwards through the warded area wearing shoes on your hands and singing "One Man Went To Mow" until you lose your voice. As it happens, you can also break it rather faster by casting Tarah's Hungry Hound.

Mechanistic magic is basically something you can break down and analyse in a semi-logical and semi-consistent way. This is probably going to work better in a system with a fair amount of magic and reasonably detailed explanations of what it does. In this approach, a magical trap would be either a) a single spell that's designed for exactly that purpose; or b) a number of spells (and possibly mechanical components) combined into something that works as a trap. So a trap might involve a spell that detects intruders, a spell that sends water pouring across the floor, and a spell that sends 100,000 volts through said water a few seconds later. I would expect the latter to be relatively more common, and increasingly so as a system becomes more mechanistic in its approach (for example, a game where magic consists not of specific spells but of pools of abilities, and the important factor is the caster's mastery of each pool).

The mechanistic approach would tend to treat wizards like hackers or mechanics. They can analyse a spell into its component parts, and work out ways to take out part of the system, rendering it ineffective. They might even be able to take control of a trap, or change its parameters to trap someone else. This approach will treat magic-hacking a bit like combat: it will involve several rolls that go towards the goal.

Example: The Honey Trap

Lady Windemere, irritated by the plebs who keep wandering through her estate, decides to set a trap near the gates. Her Head Witch needs to combine several spells into a workable trap. A watchful eye detects trespassers, and can recognise members of the household to let them past. Once a trespasser has been found, instant excavator digs a large pit under them, while sweet summoning covers them with a lavish helping of honey. Finally, a simple attract insects draws the attention of twenty nearby beehives.

Anyone wishing to avoid the trap can target any or all of these spells. Removing the excavator would make it much easier to escape the bees, while cancelling the attract would leave them simply sticky rather than stung. They could remove summoning, which reduces the bees' incentive but still leaves them hanging around. Of course, the eye is the best target, but it may be harder to dispel. A blind spell would take care of the eye, a repel insects would counter the attract, a fill pit or raise hummock would counter the excavator, but there's no specific counter for sweet summoning. Of course, they could also turn invisible, impersonate Lady Windermere, or simply put up an umbrella to avoid the honey and then scramble out of the pit ASAP.

Of course, many traps are not purely magical, but include physical components as well. These allow much more scope for non-casters to use their skills.