Saturday, 9 November 2013

Monitors: weapon balance, with extra musing

So I'm reasonably happy with the rudimentary weapon table, and now need to think about that actual weapon balance thing.

A significant issue is what (if anything) should be assumed to be the default. I don't know how much attention this idea tends to get in general, but I think it's important. I keep finding things I'd never thought about that seem important... this one is a hazy and tenuous idea, but I wanted to talk about it anyway and see if there's anything to it.

So my thought was that that games that feature significant amounts of combat gravitate towards what I will for my own amusement call an Unmarked Representative Weapon, or URW for a handy pronouncible acronym. This is the weapon that doesn't really need mentioning. Unless specified otherwise, people will carry one of these, making them Unmarked. The difficulty of a combat is calculated largely (though not, hopefully, exclusively) around the URW. Game mechanics are balanced around their capabilities and weaknesses - although these weaknesses are generally only weaknesses-by-absence (WBAs). It's assumed that these are the weapons the party are using, and if they deviate significantly from this they're likely to experience game balance issues.

While there's often one weapon that best embodies the URW and that players tend to prefer, an URW may essentially stand for a collection of equivalent weapons (making it Representative). They may have very minor narrative or mechanical differences, but in practice there's very little or no difference in how they play.

In some systems, PCs and NPCs/monsters may have different URWs for various reasons. Perhaps it's a matter of smooth running for the GM; perhaps there's a power gap between the two and the weapons available fit into that. Or monsters may vary very widely from combat to combat in style and power, leaving more room for variation. Nevertheless, Call of Cthulhu aside*, I suspect they'll generally end up with similar weapons in systems where PCs and monsters are built in equivalent ways.

* Call of Cthulhu has three fundamental power levels: Dangerous, Another Hit And You're A Goner, and Splat.

I suspect there are two main subclasses of URW: the Generic URW (GURW) and the Optimal URW (OURW).

The GURW is an URW because it's an optimal compromise between the game's major factors in weapon choice - typically availability, damage, accuracy and defence. It's not likely to be stand-out in any particular regard, but puts in a good all-round performance with no weaknesses worth noting. This is the archetypal URW. It's likely to be a staple weapon of the genre the game draws from.

The OURW is ubiquitous because it's good. Rather than simply a solid compromise, the OURW is above-average in many respects. It isn't likely to be the very best at anything, but it's no stout yeoman either. There are other choices you could take to get better performance in particular aspects, but many weapons are categorically worse than it, and only to be used in very niche situations or emergencies. There are very few situations where the OURW isn't a good option. It must also be easy to get hold of, otherwise it's unlikely to actually become ubiquitous.

Example: D&D

In much of D&D, the default weapon is baaaasically the longsword except where something enforces another option (like rogue backstab weapons or pre-3rd ed. class-based weapon choices). Hit points, enemy damage and so on are coordinated around the idea of about 1d8 damage plus some stuff. It's assumed that shields are a sensible and common option. If everyone instead adopted either daggers (much lower damage) or greataxes (much higher damage and no shields) then I'm fairly sure problems would erupt.

In practice, people will take weapons other than the longsword, such as spears and maces. In most circumstances, though, these are functionally identical to longswords: identical or equivalent damage, one-handed and requiring no special training to use. The longsword Represents them. You don't tend to get a lot of people taking daggers, whips or bastard swords that are substantially different in effect and repercussions.

All that being said, D&D characters deviate from the URW because the class system - and often, the rules that specifically restrict choices by class - tend to push characters into particular equipment choices. Rogues are pushed towards light weapons, barbarians towards double-handed ones, fighters and clerics towards board and sword. On the whole, though, both PCs and monsters tend towards a 1d8 weapon, though as level increases that damage die becomes decreasingly relevant.

Example: Deathwatch

Deathwatch's URW is the bolter, and it's an OURW all right. While there are loads of other weapons around, there's very little reason to take most; a large number of potential weapons are poorer in every single respect, while a handful are slightly better in very specific situations. This is linked to power levels and canon. Space Marines canonically are superhuman killing machines with weapons far better than ordinary mortals, and the availability of special ammunition in Deathwatch lets them customise the bolter with an array of special tools that let them fill every niche from grenade launcher to armour-piercing sniper weapon.

There's a slight complication from the heavy bolter, which is really very good and tempting. Nevertheless, "class" abilities and niches, plus general fluff, seem to discourage everyone from taking a heavy bolter everywhere. A Deathwatch campaign where everyone carried heavy bolters would probably wind up somewhat overpowered, while one where everyone took laspistols would be very short. There's a certain tendency (in our games at least) to carry a backup weapon for niche situations, like dealing with Hordes, but that basic bolter damage of 2d10-and-a-bit is the benchmark. The classic melée weapon, the chainsword, officially deals 1d10+3-and-a-bit, but in practice the Marines' bonuses from Unnatural Strength and power armour tend to mean they'll end up with about a +10 to that for about 19 damage, which is close to the bolter (I can't honestly be bothered to run the numbers for dice-drop-lowest, critical hits and margin of success right now). Because Deathwatch is so lethal, the balance of weapons and using them tactically seems very important. I haven't played it enough to say much more, though.

There's also a very specific level of defence, in that Space Marines wear armour, and it's exactly the same armour. This is significant because enemy offensive power has to be calculated against this value, and of course anything that strips the Marines of their armour tends to make things far more deadly (not least because armour in this system directly reduces damage rather than anything more statistical). In my (limited) experience, enemies that aren't Hordes seem to be about two-hit kills - and to have the same effect on Space Marines.

Example: Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu isn't really a game with lots of combat. Nevertheless, I think I can argue that it tends towards the handgun as its URW. This is mostly because it's a lot easier to carry around a pistol (and to justify having one) than anything heftier, while most Call of Cthulhu settings don't really lend themselves to melée weapon skills. The shotgun is probably the best-known weapon, but both game and many Keepers discourage people from carrying one. However, this game is sufficently unmechanically-balanced that I don't think you can learn that much here. There's cultists to fight, sure, but once you get onto any kind of gribbly monster, everything's basically either a ghoul (handgun), a byakhee (shotgun) or invulnerable (run screaming).

One reason is because it's very easy for Investigators to end up attacking each other. Another is that actually most people in the 1920s didn't walk around with shotguns, or even own one - yeah, I know! It's also partly because the combat system and the shotgun rules produce a ludicrously massive gap between shotguns and all other weapons, to the point that a shotgun at close range is liable to obliterate just about anything that isn't actually an alien, while a pistol bullet is unlikely to kill anyone and even a rifle is a bit chancy. This is officially made up for by the loss of power at range, something which I've never heard of anyone actually remembering to factor in. Call of Cthulhu isn't really a game where you fire at things more than twenty feet away anyway.

I'm not sure this is really going anywhere, but I found it mildly interesting. Time to move on.

Back to the point

What sort of weapons should Monitors be assumed to carry in normal circumstances? Pistols, suitable for secret agent work? Rifles and swords, for expeditions and enforcement? Heavier weapons, used to battle tough creatures and break through fortifications? The last seems a bit excessive given the game's premise as more like troubleshooters than warriors, so I don't want to encourage tooling up.

On the whole, I think there are probably two general levels. For investigations, crime-busting and subterfuge - stuff in relatively civilised places - small weapons are the norm. For exploration and pirate-fighting, more military weapons may be expected. Any kind of heavy weapon really ought to be an unusual choice for specialist situations where serious opposition is expected. I should therefore try to make those the natural options, and try to balance things around that.

What is balance?

How, exactly, am I going to balance weapon types - inasmuch as they need balancing?

The first thing to note is that I don't intend to try and make (for example) a small pistol and a shoulder-mounted missile launcher mechanically equal in combat. That would be silly. Each weapon is good at the thing it's good at, and the issue is using them effectively.

A pistol is good because it's portable, quick to draw and aim, has minimal recoil, is relatively quiet, concealable, can be used effectively against targets very close up as well as more distant ones, and you can do other things while holding it. Its most obvious weaknesses are its relatively limited effect (which is to say, although perfectly effective at killing a person, it won't punch through armour, tear through a crowd or kill an elephant), its limited effective range, and a lower threat value than larger firearms.

A heavy blaster cannon is good because it's effective at long range, can blast an area rather than a single target, is very intimidating, punches through most kinds of armour, and hits hard enough to take down a monster. On the downside, it is heavy and inconvenient to carry, kicks like a mule, makes a lot of noise, is virtually impossible to conceal, is very hard to aim at nearby targets and dangerous to the wielder at close range, and requires both hands to stabilise.

Most of the time, weapon choice should be dictated by logic. It's not really sensible to wander round with even a rifle all the time, because it's a pain, even before you think about alarming civilians and so on. People don't like having other people around with weapons. It scares them. If you want a weapon to keep with you, a small gun or even a lighter weapon is a better option.

Knuckling down

Okay, so, rules stuff. The major balance points are going to be:

  • Size
  • Manoeuvrability
  • Preferred range
  • Penetration
  • Effect
  • Subtlety

Pistol-type weapons will be lightweight, easy to aim and fire, one-handed, and easy to conceal. They have limited stopping power.

Rifle-type weapons will be middling weight, really need two hands to aim and fire accurately, and bulky enough that they're hard to conceal. You can't even walk around with one and not attract attention unless it's in a golf bag or something. These are designed for actual combat and so are good at penetrating armour. Most are pretty noisy.

Heavy weapons will be very heavy, and can't be used one-handed. They can't be concealed on your person, but must be smuggled in somewhere. Doing anything else while carrying a heavy weapon is difficult. Some kind of servo-assisted battle armour may alleviate these issues but produces new ones. Naturally, they are very powerful. They're difficult to aim quickly and poor at tracking nearby targets; many also have area affects that make it unwise to use them close up.

Wounding weapons (physical, shock and force) cause actual Wounds. These are good for bringing down targets, but tougher targets may weather a Wound or two with limited penalty. Also, it's common to have some level of protection against Wounding weapons.

Blinding weapons immediately restrict a target's ability to succeed at anything requiring senses. The duration of the effect is uncertain, though some tend to last longer than others. It's unusual for non-military targets to have defences against blinding, though some creatures weather it better than others. They hamper targets, but don't stop any but the weakest ("minion" class creatures).

Slowing weapons immediately hamper a target's ability to act, though this doesn't necessarily reduce their competence. The duration of the effect is uncertain, though some tend to last longer than others. They hamper targets, but don't stop any but the weakest ("minion" class creatures).

Photon weapons inflict Blind and are silent - though most produce enough light that their effects can be spotted. Most creatures don't wear eye shielding, but some (including robots) may adjust rapidly to glare.

Physical and force weapons just hit things. This is straightforward and generally effective, but easily resisted by armour. Some physical weapons deliver non-Wounding effects, particularly hyperdomic toxin weapons.

Shock weapons produce a burst of electricity. This is particularly effective against robots, but it's hard to produce a strong charge over distance so these are weaker than force weapons. In many cases, though, the difference is irrelevant because targets are only lightly armoured.

Gas weapons mostly affect biological targets. They're pernicious and may linger, but most creatures can muster some kind of defence against them by holding their breath or improvising a mask. They're fairly quiet and tend to hamper targets' ability to raise the alarm for fear of breathing the gas.

So, for example:

  • A flare pistol is a short-ranged photon weapon that inflicts limited Blinding damage. It's easy to carry, and its ease of use and immediate effect makes it a good choice for an infiltrator expecting trouble, or someone who always wants to watch their back. While it's unlikely to take someone out of action, it's effective against many targets that might shrug off a blaster shot and gives a moment's respite to run like hell. While it won't necessarily pass a frisking, it's pretty discreet and offers some chance of evading a casual search.
  • A shock rifle is a medium-ranged shock weapon that causes a Wound. It's bulky and fairly blatant, and very difficult to conceal. It's reliable, powerful enough to take out most non-military targets, and especially effective at disabling robots (and some other devices). Carrying this thing is a pain and will freak out civilians, and if a creature jumps you your best best is to try and club them with it. Anything wearing heavy armour, or with a resistant physiology, may present a problem.
  • A suppression cannon is a long-ranged force weapon that's designed to flatten groups of targets. It isn't great against armoured targets. It's huge, heavy and as manoeuvrable as a king-sized quilt - and don't even think about pulling off any stunts while you're hauling one around. Firing at anything close-up is a mistake: firstly, because they can dodge faster than you can aim; and secondly, because if you do hit you'll probably get caught in the blast.

Actual actual rules

  • Each step out of the preferred range imposes a penalty. This means that pistols can be used with difficulty in melée, while long-ranged weapons will suffer a large penalty and are essentially useless.
  • A pistol is average-rated for any attempt at concealment. A rifle-sized weapon will be one step higher, and large weapons will be at least two steps.
  • Creatures with any defences will tend to have several points more of Armour than of other defences. Exceptions might include specific species, and individuals who can get away with shades but don't want to attract attention by wearing armour.
  • Pistols and similar weapons can be drawn rapidly and stored in pockets without encumbering the wielder. Medium weapons offer fewer storage options and generally take up at least one hand except when slung. A heavy weapon always takes up at least one hand. This increases the difficulty of tasks where two hands are really wanted (such as climbing) and slows down others (such as typing).
  • Firing a medium weapon one-handed will increase the difficulty step once. For heavy weapons, twice.
  • Carrying a heavy weapon, or any other Unwieldy item, increases the difficulty of physical activities where balance is important. This stacks with the penalty for not having free hands.
  • Most weapons risk attracting enemies. The risk generally scales with weapon size, as this also affects their noisiness. A few weapons have the Stealthy property and do not attract attention.
  • Obviously carrying a weapon will tend to impose penalties on social interactions. It makes them nervous and less inclined to chit-chat. It also tends to make you noticeable and may lead to other law enforcement officials interfering to see what's up. There will naturally be situations where they simply aren't permitted, but that's a GMing issue.

From what I can see, this would seem to support the desired outcomes. Small weapons are weak but convenient, and good for covert ops. Medium weapons are effective, offer occasional inconvenience if you're engaged on tasks where having a rifle ready is a sensible precaution, and are moderately inconvenient in situations where that's excessive - but (I hope) not to the point where it would ruin the reality-light adventure vibe I'm aiming for. Heavy weapons are really very inconvenient and are best restricted to tactical use against heavy targets at relatively long range.

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