All right, kids, here’s the deal. Due to a computer f$&% up, a couple of documents were lost. One of which included the feature for this week. You’ll still get it. I just have to reconstruct it. It’ll be up on Friday morning. Meanwhile, as a consolation prize, here’s a special edition of Ask Angry with three questions answered from the queue.
Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.
Triple A Asks:
You wrote in an Angry Rant that the sunk cost fallacy and bad movies had inspired your GMing by reminding you to cut your losses. I would like to know what, if anything, books have inspired in your GMing career. What are the best lessons you think GMs can draw from video gaming? How can the more open-ended tabletop RPG steal from and improve on the video game RPG?
Wow. I’m actually shocked because this is an actual good question about inspiration for once. Usually, when people ask about “where you get your inspiration,” they are usually asking “where do you rip off your characters, settings, plots, and other story ideas from.” And, while I can rattle off a list of books, movies, TV shows, and videogames that I’ve stolen various story elements from as readily as anyone, that’s hardly useful or instructive. It is a lot more instructive and useful to talk about lessons about how to run better games.
But that’s also a super complicated question. See, running games and writing adventures and designing campaigns and building house rules? Those all involve a lot of different skills, talents, and bits of knowledge. Running games is partially a matter of active game design, balancing adjudication and engagement, narration, acting, improvisation, and pacing. Writing adventures is half story-writing and half game design and involves understanding motivations, both player and character motivations, and also story structure, themes, and a variety of narrative tricks. Building a campaign involves the same bits as writing adventures plus learning how to develop a setting. And developing a setting involves understanding themes and tone but it also involves verisimilitude and consistency and so it relies on understanding how a world works. And those are just the basics. Because you can tack on any additional disciplines you want. A keen grounding in science or mythology can help you develop your world. Understanding economics or psychology helps you understand how people make decisions and allocate resources. Game design theory helps you understand how challenges are constructed and how to build engagement through interaction.
So… that said: what books have inspired my GMing career? Pretty much everything I’ve ever read. Especially non-fiction. I’m a consumer of non-fiction and I read a lot of s$&% on a variety of topics. I love hard science, but string theory and quantum physics rarely come up in RPGs. I love social science, especially day-to-day psychological and economic analysis. How people think, how they interact, how they make decisions, and so on. I just read Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy” and Ori Brafman’s “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.” I’ve also read everything in the entire Freakonomics series and I’ve just started a book on game theory (the branch of math, not on video games). I also recently read a book about the history of the video game industry in, like, thirty vignettes: “All Your Base are Belong to Us” by Harold Goldberg. Syd Field’s “Screenplay” and Stephen King’s “On Writing” are also invaluable. Also, check out “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. And, of course, “The Hero’s Journey” by Joseph Campbell. It’s cliched, Those last few are excellent analyses of story structure. But that’s just a quick, slapdash list of things off the top of my head.
The thing is, so much is applicable to some aspect of GMing that it’s almost easier to say “everything you read has value.” Even fiction has value if you read it critically. That is, if you analyze why the fiction is constructed the way it is, how it’s put together, and pay attention to the patterns.
And the exact same thing is true of video games. Every video game has something valuable to teach. Even bad games teach you what not to do. But only if you play games critically. Only if you train yourself to think about why the game designer did this or that. I’ll give you an interesting example. I had a conversation with someone recently about Final Fantasy X. I said that it had the best gameplay of the Final Fantasy series. And he disagreed.
Basically, in Final Fantasy X, like all previous FF games, combat was turn-based. You took your turn, selected actions like “attack” or “spell” and then the enemies took their turn. You had a party of, like, eight characters. Only three were active in combat at one time. The rest were not involved. That’s not unusual for FF games. You frequently had a larger party than could be active. And each game had various ways of explaining their absence. FFX though allowed you tag in different members. All of your allies were there, just off-screen waiting. One of your active party members could retreat to the back line and let a different member come forward. I thought this added a lot to the combat system. He disagreed, saying it didn’t serve any purpose and it was just a waste of time.
I pointed out that FFX was much more character driven than previous FF games and, more importantly, it was really about the relationships between the characters and how they worked together as a team. It was about their feelings for each other. Unlike previous games, the characters never split up. They were on one journey together, each experiencing it their own way but also experiencing it through the eyes of the other characters. So, there had to be a way to have all the characters able to participate at any time.
In addition, when characters swapped in and out, they often had small bits of dialogue they would share. They would banter, joke, and rib each other. And that further drove home their relationships. They weren’t just allies in combat, they were friends. And that was what was most important. And because each character had unique skills that allowed them to deal with certain combat situations better than anyone, the system encouraged you to constantly cycle characters in and out. Unlike previous FF games, you couldn’t just have a favorite party and play the game just with those characters, forgetting the rest. Everyone was ALWAYS part of the game.
And that’s what I mean about playing critically. Here’s a mechanic. It’s different from other games. What does that mechanic do? Why that mechanic? Why not any other? How does it relate to the rest of the game? And that sort of thing takes practice. It takes a lot of reflecting on the game you’re playing. At the same time, anyone can do it. With practice.
That said, I find a lot of GMs take the easy way out when looking at video games. They get wrapped up in the idea that the only thing of value in an RPG is freedom of choice and therefore only video games that exemplify that are worthy of analysis. Those people point at games like Mass Effect and Bioware RPGs as pinnacles of GMing lessons. But Mass Effect is almost worthless because the choices are so limited and most of them are fake. Pretend choices. Tabletop RPGs can do choice infinitely better. Trying to learn about choice from Mass Effect is useless.
I’ll give you another example. I’ve recently been showing off Dead Rising 2 on my occasional Livestreams as an example of a game that handles choice wonderfully. The reason it handles choice so well is not because it has multiple-choice dialogue boxes. Instead, you have a limited resource (time) and a number of different goals (rescue survivors, find medicine for your daughter, explore the world, build better weapons, fight zombies, and prove your innocence of a crime) each of which is desirable for different reasons, and you can’t have them all. That’s a dilemma. And it’s far more interesting than just picking a motive from a list. And it is so wrapped up in gameplay, people don’t even realize they are struggling with the choice.
And THAT is a lesson that’s useful in RPGs. Give players multiple goals, desirable for different reasons, and make it impossible to have them all.
Could you elaborate on the idea of a “death spiral” and how those types of HP/damage mechanics affect a game, and how you would use them in your games?
I’m going to answer this just briefly because I have a couple of longer articles in the offing about rest and hit point mechanics.
For the uninitiated, a Death Spiral mechanic refers to a mechanic whereby, once you start to fail, it usually becomes harder and harder to succeed. A perfect example occurs in Savage Worlds. In Savage Worlds, as you become injured, you suffer greater and greater penalties to everything you do. That means, as you get hurt, it becomes more and more difficult to succeed at anything. That usually includes recovering from getting hurt.
You can contrast this with what TV Tropes calls Critical Existence Failure. That is, you are completely healthy and totally fine until you lose your list hit point. Then, you are dead. D&D and Pathfinder basically function under Critical Existence Failure. If you have 100 HP, you can lose 99 of them with no problem. But that last HP will kill you when you lose it.
Now, there are arguments for and against both models of HP.
The Death Spiral model is arguably logical. And logic is important, to some degree, in a role-playing game. Remember, we are trying to create the illusion of a real world with real people in it because that drives the decision making process. The world has to make sense to us as a world in order for us to be able to role-play properly. But logic isn’t the only advantage of the Death Spiral model. I’ll get back to that in a second. Because, the major problem with the Death Spiral model is that it causes the difficulty of any challenge to increase as the players fail. That is to say, the more trouble you are having with the game, the harder it gets.
Imagine playing a video game like that. Imagine you’re having trouble avoiding the goombas on level 4. And, every time you die, the game adds a few more goombas to the level. Basically, it’s punishing you for not being good at it by making it harder. That’s a very frustrating difficulty curve. In fact, a satisfying game is one that adjusts the challenge to the ability of the players. So, as a player struggles, the game helps them a little bit. Not enough to trivialize the game, but enough so that the player’s ability matches the challenge.
Critical Existence Failure, on the other hand, doesn’t create that increasing difficulty. Which is good. Ideally, you don’t want that. Because it leads to frustration and it also means that small errors snowball. It decreases the margin for error.
However, Critical Existence Failure does have a couple of issues of its own. First and foremost, it’s extremely illogical. It leads to the idea that any injury that isn’t deadly is trivial. And, that’s tricky for a game that includes living beings who have a survival instinct and an understanding of their own mortality. It also leads to a weird disconnect. Did you ever have a story in a D&D game where a character had a specific injury, like a broken leg? How does that fit into the Critical Existence Failure model. Yeah. It’s weird.
But apart from that, Critical Existence Failure also encourages the players to push their luck and prevents them from recognizing emergencies until it is too late. In D&D, for example, it’s very unclear to most players when their character is in trouble until the moment they actually go down. The fact that injuries do not hurt the character in any way keeps the characters fighting long past the point where they should recognize there is an emergency and consider a defensive strategy or a retreat or surrender or some other way to get out of the fight. Death Spirals encourage the players to make survival-based decisions before they are on the brink of death. That’s part of why PCs always seem to fight to the death. And why parties never seem to agree on when it’s time to retreat even if they are willing to do so. There’s nothing in the system that motivates you to remove yourself from the combat until it is too late to do so.
Personally? I really wish I could have a system somewhere in between. And when I first heard about the Bloodied condition in 4E, I was hoping that would be it. But Bloodied didn’t do anything. I’d love to have a system that encouraged the player to remove their character from combat or make defensive decisions before they passed a point of no return. But, at the same time, one that didn’t lead into a full death spiral.
Imagine, for example, if at 0 HP, you didn’t fall unconscious and start dying. Instead, you remained conscious, but you could only move. If you took any action at all, you had to make a save to stay conscious and not start dying. But if that action was to recover yourself, you could recover. That way, your character still had some options but absolutely couldn’t fight usefully and if the character tried to fight, they knew they were screwed.
Just a thought.
As to what I’d do if I were writing my own RPG? Well, I’ve thought a lot about this problem. And I think I have some potential solutions. But I’m not ready to talk about them yet.
What is your opinion on having players roll for their Ability Scores? What is your opinion on handing out “+1” items to players? Really, the crux of what I’m asking is, what is your opinion on preserving “game balance”?
Frequently, I see people on the internet trying to tell other DMs to never let their players roll for ability scores, and to never hand out “+1” magic items. They argue that these things will ruin the game balance (they don’t, typically, expand upon how that will cause players to stop having fun, so they must assume that balance is a thing that must be preserved on its own?).
This makes me frustrated.
From where I sit, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to not want to roll for Ability Scores, and plenty of legitimate reasons to not want to hand out +1 items – but breaking the balance doesn’t seem like one of them.
First of all, no matter what these internet-people are saying, a +1 here and there is tiny. There is no way they are running fights so finely tuned, that a rogue dealing 15 damage instead of 14 is going to throw things off. More importantly, people seem to assume that in the absence of these things, the game will somehow be perfectly “balanced”?
I included almost the entire text from this e-mail because I find it hilarious. By the last paragraph, Patrick is already having a hypothetical argument with the answer I haven’t given yet. Do you want my answer, Patrick, or do you want to lecture me about why yours is right? Because, let me remind you, you don’t need my permission to run your game any wrong way you want. If you’re coming to me for validation, you’re in the wrong place for the wrong reason. Just run your game. I don’t care.
But let’s talk about game balance. I’ve never personally heard anyone say “don’t give out +1 items, it’ll break the balance,” but I do know that lots of people (myself included) do advise against handing out mechanical bonuses willy nilly without considering the balance in the system. A +1 bonus in D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder certainly isn’t going to break anything. But it definitely has more impact in 5E or 2E or 1E. Just because of the way the numbers line up. I’m not saying your 5E game will get broken by a +1 magical sword. But an entire party with +1 swords and +1 armor at very low levels in 5E would definitely be noticeably unbalanced.
But what does that MEAN? What IS game balance? Well, in this sense, game balance refers to how likely the party is to succeed at a given task or challenge based purely on the numbers without regard to the decisions they make. That is, you can say that if a person has an attack bonus of X and a damage of Y and AC of Z and HP of Q, they will probably last this many rounds against that foe and take this manage damage before the foe is dispatched. What use is that? Well, it allows the GM to set a baseline level of difficulty for the game. And D&D and Pathfinder even provide tools to help the GM set that level of difficulty. Of course, those tools assume certain mechanical numbers.
Now, the impact of any given deviation from the expected numbers varies from system to system and deviation to deviation, as I noted. Some are minor. Some are major. +1 swords? Pretty minor. Rolling for ability scores, though, can be pretty major, because those ability score bonuses and penalties determine the baseline odds of success for absolutely every die roll in the game. Of course, even rolling for ability scores, it’s unlikely to get any extreme deviations. But the right mix of minor deviations throughout the party can add up to a problem.
In addition, game balance also ensures that each of the characters in the party has a similar impact on a given challenge. That is to say, none of the characters is wildly more or less powerful than any of the others. And that’s important to GMs because, again, a single underpowered or overpowered character can disrupt your ability to create meaningful challenges and predict the likely outcomes. And, again, the delicacy of that balance depends on the system and the deviation. It varies.
So, why is any of this important? Well, it’s important that the GM creates a game that is neither trivially easy nor frustratingly hard. Basically, the GM needs to provide the right level of challenge to satisfy the players. BUT… how important that is varies from group to group and player to player. Some players and some groups value the challenging aspects of the game. They like to be challenged and to feel like they’ve achieved victory through their own good decisions and their own character’s abilities. In order for that to work, the challenge level needs to be pretty finely tuned. For those players, if the level of challenge is too low, the game is boring. Players who are less interested in challenge can tolerate the difficulty being too low, but if the difficulty gets too high, they tend to get frustrated. That means that every group of players has a sweet spot that defines the proper window of difficulty. And, for some groups, it can be a very narrow window.
Meanwhile, there’s some things true of all groups. First of all, no one likes to feel useless. And this is where the ability score thing tends to come up a lot. If someone rolls particularly low ability scores, they will tend to fail a lot at various tasks compared to the rest of the group. And that can lead to sense of worthlessness. Moreover, the group will tend to rely less on the low-ability-score character, marginalizing them. And then, of course, there’s the possibility that low ability scores make the character more likely to die. Which is no fun for anyone, really. On the other hand, if someone rolls particularly high ability scores, that can lead to the rest of the group feeling marginalized. And both of those situations make it more difficult for the GM to design appropriate challenges that fall in the “sweet spot” discussed above.
That said, there’s no rule that game balance has to be perfect. In fact, game balance is rarely perfect and some imbalance actually improves the game. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. Me? I don’t worry too much about minor bonuses, but I don’t allow for rolling ability scores or hit points anymore. And I also make sure I understand how the system is balanced before I start f$&%ing with it. The last thing I want to do is frustrate, bore, or murder my PCs because I f$&%ed up. I want those things to be intentional.