Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Monitors: enumerating weapon balance

So I'm now trying to move on to creating a few representative weapons (which may well end up being 'all the weapons' - I'm not looking for an in-depth shopping experience from Monitors). In trying to work out the relative balance of weapon types, what I've ended up doing is drafting a quick spreadsheet. The idea is that weapons have (as discussed previously) a number of properties (range, damage, type of effect, bulk and so on) which present advantages and drawbacks. In theory, therefore, it should be possible to assign values to the benefit or cost to each instance of a property, and therefore guess at the relative value of a weapon as a whole.

By "instance of a property", I'm not deliberately being smug, I just can't think of a better term at 11.43pm after being on the go constantly since 7am. You will notice that this does not stop me from writing unnecessary blogposts...

A property here is something like Range, Bulk or Blast. An instance of a property is one of the possible values - but using the word value here would be confusing! So instances for Range include Short and Long, instances for Bulk include Hand and Heavy, and instances for Blast are Blast and -.

Feel free to point out more appropriate terminology. I'm sure there's a word for it in chemistry.

Value is relative to some arbitrary mean, determined subjectively by looking at the instances and picking one.

For interest and entertainment, I decide (after trying a few weapons I've used in examples already) to stat out every possible weapon in the system. Turns out this is serious business. There are at least 18000 possible values (gotta hate those multipliers) and that doesn't include at least one facet - gas weapons. Of course, some values will be nonsensical. I can't imagine Blast Melée weapons would make it out of testing, for one, and some weapon/visor values will make no sense. However, there are currently 790 possible weapons with a zero overall cost. This is some serious business...

Knocking things down (with some effort) to only those combinations that make any damn sense, I'm left with 4882 possible combinations. Now we no longer have explosive weapons designed for grappling, gas grenades with no blast effeect, photon weapons that target Mask or other anomalies. Most of these vary only in armour penetration, which has 9 possible values (from 0 to 16 in steps of 2). Only 233 are now zero-rated, and it looks like they do include some of every instance.

Unsurprisingly, the most expensive possible weapons are handheld weapons with Pen 16 and Strength 3 that target non-Armour defences. The cheapest are heavy close combat weapons with Strength 1 and no Pen that target Armour. What I'm actually mostly interested in are the zeros, because these should (allowing for the arbitrariness of my assigned values) be of roughly equal value on the whole when no special circumstances are taken into account.

Grenades, it turns out, are complicating matters. I gave them a high negative because they're single-use items. But nobody's going to take grenades as an alternative to a blaster rifle. They're a supplementary weapon. This spreadsheet is (very roughly) okay for evaluating the worth of weapons if you're gearing up for a mission and picking between them, but it doesn't really make sense to treat grenades that way when deciding how good to make them compared to other weapons. The end result is some very powerful grenades. I will tweak this value.

Post-tweaking (with a much lower grenade price of -2 rather than -5) grenades look a bit more normal. I change things around logically so that, rather than being a separate Type, Grenade is an emergent property of being both Thrown and Blast; anything else should be reusable in theory, at least in the next fight. This allows for both Hand (traditional grenade) and Heavy (two-handed) explosive weapons. It also allows for other kinds of thrown weapons; anything from daggers (Thrown Hand) to rocks (Thrown Heavy). I got rid of all Thrown Assault weapons (Assault being the 1-or-2-hand category until I have a better name) since I can't really think of anything it'd apply to. Generally, either it's small and throwable (Hand) or heavy enough you need two hands to heave it. I can't think of a single item that you'd be able to throw one-handed but be more effective with both hands, the physics just seems off.

Also as a result of this exercise, I decide to rejig the way soft attacks work. Rather than each having an assigned die size, I'll make them work more similarly to hard attacks, which have only a Strength value. Both types will inflict a number of Armour Saves equal to Strength to determine how effective they are against a target. However, for soft attacks, cumulative successes will increase die size, making the more powerful weapons both more likely to take effect and likely to last for longer. It also means that it'll be harder for a single good save to completely protect a target from what should be a powerful weapon, causing less swinginess.


Hmm. I'm suggesting using a system where more powerful weapons can roll more dice, and more penetrative weapons can punch through armour. But is there actually a meaningful trade-off between these two, in this system, or are these going to be different niches rather than rivals? It seems, intuitively, that extra dice are a very strong bonus because even with all other things being equal, they offer at least the possibility of taking down high-Wound enemies rapidly. Time for some maths.

Much calculating later... If I've got my statistics right, then it's not until you're hitting defences of 10 or higher than there is any numerical reason to take Penetration equal to that defence rather than more dice. On low Pen values (e.g. 4) the slight advantage of negating small Armour values (+0.2 probability) is hugely outweighed by the high likelihood of the target failing an armour save, which makes the second die a very strong bet (+0.8). There are some weird blips in the data because of the intersection of the two rules, so that Pen 10-19 grants a small advantage against Armour values in the exact same range, but at higher Armour values extra dice regain their benefit.

In short, the range of situations where it's worth taking Pen rather than Strength (extra dice) is extremely limited. As high Armour values are likely to be rare, it's a non-choice. Moreover, Strength has the secondary benefit that it can inflict more than one Wound in a single hit, which a single die with high Pen physically can't. So these are not going to be balancing factors, certainly not directly. The drawback of the unmodified Armour system I chose is that the value of high Penetration scales severely with enemy defences, whereas in a modifier system it would be a bit more static.

Arguably, at this point I should be considering whether I'm happy with the combat system, but frankly I don't want to open that can of worms again.

The straightforward response here is that I need to reevaluate the nominal price I'm putting on both Pen and Strength. Pen is currently massively overpriced, while Strength is rather undervalued. To begin with, I arbitrarily allocated a point of cost for every 2 Pen, and only a point for each dice. As the calculation above shows, this is madness.

Let's step back a bit and look at how I'm weighting the various properties.

Valuing properties


I decided that, for the most part, Range instances are a wash. Weapons each have their niche and work badly outside it, be it long or short range; a rifle lets you take on distant enemies, but a pistol is better in a room-to-room shootout. Moreover, RPGs tend towards quite short-ranged encounters, within either a room or a smallish area, which gives little scope for long-ranged weapons to really benefit, while the shorter-ranged weapons will be favoured. I made an exception for melée weapons, because not being able to work at range is a serious issue. These currently come in two categories, Close (your classic duelling range) and Grapple (wrestling, clawing, and general wrangling), though whether I'll keep that distinction I don't know. Under the current system, a pistol is usable with difficulty at Close range and with very great difficulty in a brawl, while you're basically never going to successfully fire a rifle in a wrestling match.


Weapons with a blast effect sound great, but in practice they're likely to be of limited use. Enemies aren't always going to form up in handy groups, and against single enemies they're of no benefit. There are also those situations where you or an ally would be caught in the blast, or something vital would be damaged. In contrast, a more powerful or accurate weapon is always going to help. So a blast is a plus, but only a smallish one, I think.


The classes basically break down into Wounding and soft weaponry. I don't think there's likely to be a massive advantage to one or the other. Soft weapons aren't (currently) able to defeat an enemy entirely, but they will inflict immediate and significant effects on the target, whereas Wounding takes some time to be effective against tough opponents. Either weapon will be able to take down minor NPCs in a single hit. Of the other types, Shock weaponry will be less effective against armour, but with special bonuses against robots, and gaining a Blast effect if fired into water. Chemical effects are the only one to currently incur a cost reduction, because they'll be ineffective against many targets - I'm probably going to change this later to have Gas and Toxin subtypes and apply the reductions to those instead, allowing chemicals like acid to function normally, especially for handling acid-spewing alien gribblies.


Short and sweet, all defences other than Armour cost slightly more to target, because they're less likely to exist. Only a subset of enemies will deliberately wear protective eyegear, let alone gas masks. However, some creatures (including robots, aliens, elementals and so on) may have innate protection against such attacks, while things like spacesuits and motorbike helmets will offer some protection. So a small increase in cost for now.

After some playing around, I manage to get an array of weapons that roughly fit my conceptions and are roughly balanced. Obviously this kind of arbitrary balancing exercise is no substitute for playtesting. I'm quite chary of some of the numbers, such as Blast being worth more than Strength - that's actually fairly unlikely and I should probably adjust it at some point.

Broadly speaking, the idea is that only zero-cost weapons are commonly used (though I've ticked a couple of lower-cost ones as backups, like knives, while a handful of higher-cost ones may be available in particular circs). This is a bit of a tricky concept because I'm used to the idea that you sometimes buy more "expensive" weapons and they're just more difficult to get, but the thing is that my pricing system is intended to incorporate indirect value as well as direct value. I'm trying to sound out what will make sense to use in play, not just what will be mechanically balanced. So allowing some weapons that are explicitly advantageous when damage, accuracy, effectiveness, social costs and convenience are taken into account would undermine the whole exercise.

Those flagged as Alien are items I don't intend for Monitors to use, but where I wanted to dig up a balanced example or two for what kind of weapons NPCs and enemies might have. Those marked as Improvised are items that aren't Monitor-approved, but that characters might end up using in emergencies. Naturally, enemies and NPCs may end up using weapons that vary on the effectiveness scale from those intended for PC use, and measures may be needed to keep these from being used by PCs - though I'm sort of hoping that the tone will encourage people to stick to signature weapons.

Oh, and for reference, here's the costs I'm using:


  1. Potential way to increase the value of Penetration relative to Strength - make Strength *one* save to avoid *all* the wounds.

    This cuts down on dice-rolling, and makes pen more useful relative to strength. Strength would be strictly better than Pen against unarmoured enemies with a lot of wounds. Pen would be strictly better than Strength against armoured enemies with few wounds. Against armoured enemies with many wounds it would vary.

    Thought on grenades. Since you aren't tracking ammo, you could price grenades per supply rather than per item. Of course that would make them *far* more useful.

    1. I'd have to look at the maths again there, but possibly. On the downside it would remove one of the advantages of Strength, which is that it gives very little chance of anyone escaping a successful powerful attack completely unscathed. It would make Pen more useful though (though whether that actually matters, I'm not yet sure).

      With grenades, I've been knocking around a couple of ideas. If grenades come as more or less infinite, then there's a certain risk that they'll just get used all the time because they do tend to be very good. It also throws up some logical issues, like where are you carrying an infinite number of grenades. I was basically pricing on a small supply, so you might have a handful to throw around but need to be careful with them - hadn't decided whether this would more likely be X grenades, or a sort of narrative supply where you refresh your limited supply at plausible intervals. If you take that away, grenades would have to be a ton less powerful to be... I'm trying to avoid the word "balanced"... but with usefulness in line with other equipment. Essentially an infinite supply of grenades would need to be about as useful as an infinite-ammo handgun, and because they generally have blast effects, and can be used in booby-traps, and are small and concealable, and all that, you'd basically end up with astonishingly weak grenades to compensate.

  2. I think it depends on what you want Strength to represent. If high Strength means "a really powerful attack" then logically a high Strength attack should also be good at penetrating armour (which is basically the system you have here). On the other hand, if high Strength means "an attack that will really mess you up" then there could be an interesting distinction to be made between attacks that reliably penetrate armour, and attacks that reliably injure if they penetrate armour.

    On grenades, I see your point. You could limit grenades on a "per encounter" basis, but that would seem overly mechanistic. I wonder if they wouldn't essentially limit themselves by circumstances anyway (since they have a very narrow band of useful ranges - it's not like you can use them in melee).

    1. Well, it's a sort of interplay between what Strength means and how Armour works, which annoyingly varies by weapon. A very nasty poison dart either gets through your armour or doesn't, and the same *might* apply to things like daggers. But for a lot of weapons, the realistic question is how much of the impact (or heat, or flare, or corrosive gas) gets absorbed by your protective gear. Not that it necessarily matters for mechanics, of course.

      A one-die system will I think tend to increase the value of armour, particularly good armour, and similarly will make penetrative power more valuable, as you say. A sure bet of one Wound on a hit is potentially better than a risky shot at three. On the downside it'll tend to increase swinginess, which will I suspect make life tougher for PCs, because you're more likely to fail one roll and be taken out in a single strong hit. Similarly it's more likely "boss fight"-type encounters will come down to lots of ineffectual hits plus one or two lucky big hits, rather than wearing anyone down.

      Ironically, it's possible you'd end up with a system where soft attacks are variable and hard attacks are more-or-less binary. So I'm genuinely not really sure where to go with this.