Why Are You Doing This: Fighting Tyler Durden, Game Designer

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“Why are you doing this,” is a question I hear a lot. Especially when I’ve been forced to beat someone over the head with a Dungeon Master’s Guide to stop them from being an utter f$&%wit. But it’s not just something you ask someone who is currently and inexplicably assaulting because you don’t recognize it as a desperate attempt to dislodge your head from your rectum. It’s something YOU should ask YOURSELF every time you think about hacking the rules. “Why are you doing this?”

WHY?!

I’m not saying that developing your own rules and hacks is inherently a bad idea. It’s just that it is. Every new rule is inherently bad for the game. It takes an extra something to make it good. And if you’re not prepared to explain what that extra something is, you’d better back off. Like the people who try to stop me from beating people with rulebooks. Back. Off.

This article is a continuation of my series on hacking the rules. That is, adding your own rules and game content to role-playing games. Specifically, D&D. You should probably go back and check out the previous article before you proceed.

Hacking is Bad: Complexity, Cognitive Load, Imbalance, and Unexpected Interactions

First, if you’re going to proceed, you have to accept that ALL hacking is bad. See, despite whatever hyperbolic opinions you might want to hold about why a particular RPG system is “teh evulz” and is currently ruining the game community, the truth is most RPGs are very well constructed systems. They are also extremely complex systems. And they are put together by professional f$&%ing game designers. And if you’re reading this website written by an internet a$&hole with literally no game design pedigree, chances are you are NOT a professional f$&%ing game designer.

The point is, believe it or not, even the bad systems have been built with an eye toward good design principles. Yes. Even the games I hate and criticize. The systems have been designed to be approachable – to be easy to pick up and learn – to their target audience. Their target audience may not be newbies to the RPG space, mind you. Both D&D and Pathfinder are currently designed to appeal to preexisting gamers. You can prove this. Well, I can prove this. Trust me. I don’t feel like having this fight again.

Now, for a game to be playable and approachable, it has to do a couple of things. First of all, it has to minimize the complexity of the system and the cognitive load required to play it. Complexity is, roughly speaking, the number of different game elements you have to learn and understand in order to play the game. Cognitive load is the number of things you have to keep track of in your head to play the game. And these two things are related but they aren’t the same. The more you have to learn, the more effort you have to put in before you can start playing the game. And the more you have to keep track of, the more effort you have to put in while you are playing. Now, those two things limit the number of people who are willing and able to play your game. Some folks aren’t willing to work that hard for their fun. Some folks just aren’t able because they aren’t smart enough to grasp everything and they get frustrated. And some folks get fatigued or worn out by the complexity.

Balance is, roughly speaking, how level the playing field is for all players regardless of experience level or type of engagement in the game. A balanced game is one that allows new players and experienced players to participate mostly equally. And players are also able to participate mostly equally, regardless of which play options they choose and regardless of what types of enjoyment they get out of the game. Casual players, optimizers, and role-players can all enjoy the game equally if it’s balanced.

Sort of. You see, the concept of balance in role-playing games is actually very complicated. It’s so complicated that NO ONE knows what it really is. But everyone has an opinion. And I mean that. I don’t even KNOW for sure what it is. Game designers don’t know. It’s a huge mystery. Like dark matter or what racketeering really is.

Here’s the important bit though: balance refers to the connection between player skill and player choices and the likelihood of desired outcomes. It’s a slider you can set. Basically, if I want to build a very skill-based game, I can set my balance such that higher skill makes victory much more likelihood. Alternatively, if I want player skill to play less of a factor, I can set my balance such that skill has less impact over the likely outcomes. Damn I should do an article about this. Anyone want an article about the different types of game balance?

The point is that balance doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is on a level playing field, regardless of choices or skill. I mean, it does. But most games have a wobbly balance because they like to emphasize things like player skill, player choice during play, or metagame choices. For example, Magic: The Gathering includes a health amount of wobble and some disparities between different styles of play (that vary from set to set) to make a game out of deck building and to reward the players who focus their time and effort on paying attention to the shifting balance.

Now, imbalance is also tricky to design. But it comes down to this: imbalance occurs when the skills and choices of the players DO NOT affect the probable outcomes of the game in a desired or predictable way. For example, if less skilled players are actually more likely to win than skilled players, that’s an imbalance. Unless you wanted that. For another example, if there is no connection between the skill of the players and their likelihood of winning, that’s an imbalance. Unless you wanted THAT. See, that’s the tricky thing about balance. Balance is predicated on the game doing what you want.

Interactions occur when two bits of rules or mechanics end up affecting each other. For example, if you have one power that lets you reroll an attack roll any time you miss at the cost of reducing the damage and if you have another power that lets you increase the damage on any attack that hits, a player can use both of those powers freely to never miss and never do less than full damage. That’s an extreme example, but it’s also a simple one to understand.

Now, if you realized you had those powers, you might have been smart enough to create a limiting factor. Each one of those, for example, might require a resource that can only be spent once a turn so they can’t ever be used together. But if you don’t see such an interaction coming, it becomes an unexpected interaction. Unexpected interactions can be harmless, but they can lead to your game becoming imbalanced or literally not functioning.

Complexity, cognitive load, imbalance, and unexpected interactions are all impossible to avoid. Every system has some of each. And the bigger the system and the more things it can do, the more of each are going to crop up. More rules lead to more complexity. More systems lead to more cognitive load. More choices and options lead to more imbalance. And more of everything leads to more interactions and that leads to more interactions you don’t see coming.

In a well-designed game, the professional designers have balanced out all (or most, because nobody is perfect except me) of those things against the game experience.

And then you come along and you decide to add some rule or tweak some system or otherwise f$&% with stuff. And, guess what, you’re increasing the complexity, the cognitive load, the imbalance, and the unexpected interactions.

Now, obviously, you should try to minimize those things. But you can’t get rid of them altogether. Even professional game designers can’t. And you didn’t design the system you’re f$&%ing with. That means you have less of a grasp of the balance and interactions than the profession f$&%ing game designers did. And that’s why every time you hack the game, you make it worse.

The Trade-Off

So, why hack the game? Why f$&% with a good thing? Well, that’s a damned good question. In fact, that’s exactly the question I started with: WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?

You HAVE TO understand this. Every time you hack the game, you’re breaking it. So, before you break it, you’d better be sure that it’s going to be better than before. You need to justify your hack. I don’t care if all you’re doing is creating a new monster for a one shot. Before you put in that work and risk creating an unbalanced and broken monster, you need to have a damned good reason why THAT monster is any better than anything in any Monster Manual.

Now, I can’t tell you every good reason to hack the rules. But I’m going to try to tell you how to think about it. But before I do that, I’m going to tell you one very bad reason that you should not fall for. Ever.

More is NOT Better

So many – SO F$&%ING MANY – things get added to games simply because more is better. Classes. Races. Spells. Monsters. Feats. Optional rules and rule systems. Usually, the intentions are good. It usually starts with “you know what option would be cool that doesn’t exist in the game yet?” And then it spirals out of control. The hacker gets consumed with the work, hanging more systems and subsystems off the damned thing. Obviously, a new type of weapon – like guns – requires a new class to specialize in them. And some new feats. And the new class should have some interesting options. Maybe a new resource management mechanic. Like flair points or some bulls$&%. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

When you ask yourself “why are you doing this,” your answer cannot begin and end with “because it’s something missing from the game” or “because the game should have this option” or “because more options is better” or “because it would be cool if the game had this too.” You can’t STOP there. It’s okay if that’s your initial thought. But if that’s your only thought, stop.

Fighting Tyler

Okay, so how DO you evaluate your ideas and decide what’s worth hacking into the game and what isn’t? This is going to sound crazy, but I’ll tell you exactly what you have to do, you have to have a fight with yourself. You have to deal with the Tyler Durden of game design. And you can do it one of two ways: you can either argue with yourself. Out loud. Or you can write a letter to yourself.

By the way: spoiler alert, the character of Tyler Durden in Fight Club wasn’t real. He was a figment of the imagination of the main character. When Tyler Durden was fighting with the main character, he was actually beating the s$&% out of himself. Sorry to ruin a 15-year-old movie for you. The book was better anyway.

I’m not f$&%ing kidding. I do out loud arguments, personally. Because I like yelling. It’s much better now that I’m not living with family anymore and my girlfriend spends eight hours a day at work where she can’t hear me. But some people like to sit in front of a computer and type. Either way, it works the same.

Whatever your hack idea, start with the assumption that it is a bad idea that is too complicated and will break the game. Now, convince yourself that it’s worth breaking the game. DON’T convince yourself that you won’t break your game. Tyler Durden KNOWS you’re going to break your game. You have to convince Tyler that it’s going to be worth it. And Tyler has three questions for you: WHY are you doing it, WHY didn’t the game designers do it, and WHY is this the best way to do it.

And we’re going to look at those three questions…

And no. I am NOT kidding. You need to learn how to argue with yourself. If you want to hack your game in any decent kind of way, I expect you to verbally kick the s$&% out of yourself.

Why Are You Doing This?

This is the first and biggest question. Why are you doing this? And answers like “because the option should exist” or “because it’ll be cool” or whatever are cop outs. You need to explain how your hack will either FIX something broken, how it will ENHANCE a gameplay experience, or how it will CREATE a new gameplay experience.

Hacks that FIX something are the most common after the ones that simply add more options “because more is cool.” And that should make you very suspicious. Tyler Durden is VERY suspicious of fixes. If you want to tell him something is broken, you’d better be ready for a hard fight. Because Tyler will want you to prove something is broken. And how do you do that? First, you have to identify the way the game SHOULD work. Second, you have to convince Tyler WHY the game should work that way. And third, you have to convince Tyler that the game isn’t working that way.

For example, I recently claimed that the saving throw mechanic is a weird, broken mechanic. And to do that, I had to explain to Tyler first that the game is about choice, resolution, and consequence. That’s at the heart of the action resolution system. The player makes a choice, the player rolls dice to resolve the choice, and the result of the choice creates consequences. That’s the core assumption behind the ability check mechanic. Mechanically, that whole system creates a single rule that can be applied to any situation that a GM can easily fit in their head. Narratively, it emphasizes choice as the driver of action and it creates a good pacing curve of “choice, tension, resolution” that is mirrored in the actor rolling the dice. Saving throws sabotage all of that. First, they create a second rule that, mathematically, isn’t dissimilar from the first. Saving throws and ability checks use the same numbers and the same basic scale. Second, that rule is an exceptions-based rule. It is only used when the rules specifically say, “don’t use an ability check.” Which means it has to be spelled out every time. And it’s used in some seemingly arbitrary ways. Some spells have saves, some use attack rolls, some use both, some use neither. Third, by putting the die roll in the hands of the target of the action, it disrupts the narrative logic of “choice drives action” and the pacing curve. It disconnects the die roll (and the tension of the die roll) from the action itself. When I explained all of that, Tyler was satisfied.

And THAT is how you have to do it. If you want to FIX something, you have to convince Tyler that something is really broken. And that means spelling out what the thing is DOING, what it SHOULD BE DOING instead, and WHY it should be doing that.

Now, Tyler is very suspicious of FIXES. But that doesn’t mean he’s just going to let ADDING and ENHANCING fly without interrogation. Oh no. Tyler wants answers there too. And to answer Tyler’s questions, it’s important that you understand what drives “the game experience.”

See, “the game experience” is something people spew out a lot. It’s like “fun” and “engagement.” These are words people wield like guns to win arguments about game design. But, like a gun, those words should not be used by people without training. Tyler isn’t scared of guns. And he won’t accept words like “game experience” and “fun” and “engagement.” He expects you to go into detail. And when it comes down to details about game design. MY Tyler likes to hear about the eight core aesthetics of gameplay.

Let’s do a quick rundown. Because I wrote about that a long, LONG time ago. But they aren’t any less relevant today. See, those come from an academic principle of game design known as the MDA approach to game design. Basically, the idea is this. Game players are drawn to games because they seek various combinations of the eight basic types of game experience. Those are called aesthetics. Designers create game elements (both rules and story elements) that the players can interact with. Those are called mechanics. Those mechanics create the experience of gameplay, the gameplay dynamics. And those dynamics satisfy the players’ desires for various aesthetics. Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics. MDA.

In short, game designers create game elements in the hope of creating certain types of game experiences. And those game experiences can be broken down into one or more of the eight core gameplay experiences.

And understanding those is so useful to explaining to Tyler WHY you’re doing what you’re doing that I’m going to run through them VERY briefly here.

Challenge is the experience of applying your skills to overcome obstacles and challenges and ultimately to win. Challenge relies on a sense of fairness, that the player’s choices can affect the outcome.

Discovery is the experience of uncovering unknown and unexpected things

Expression is the experience of creating things are unique expressions of your imagination.

Fantasy is the experience of being a part of an imaginary world. It is escapism.

Fellowship is the experience of being part of a team, group, or social circle.

Narrative is experiencing a well-told, well-structured story. It is often confused with fantasy. But they are very different experiences.

Sensory pleasure is experiencing and appreciating things you can see, touch, hear, or otherwise perceive. If you like artwork, handouts, feelies, miniatures, and maps, that’s all sensory pleasure.

Subjugation is the experience of shutting off your brain and losing yourself in an effortless activity. Grinding through simple combats in video games or mining endlessly for resources? Those are examples of subjugation.

When you are talking to Tyler and trying to convince him you’re going to enhance the game experience or create a new game experience, Tyler LOVES to hear you talk about the design aesthetics. At least, he does when I talk to him. Because that shows a focus on the play experience.

For example, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about crafting systems in role-playing games. Those are systems whereby the players can gather raw materials and create their own equipment, including magical items. And they have become something of a Holy Grail for fantasy RPGs. Many, MANY people – ESPECIALLY players – seem to want crafting systems. But so far, no table-top role-playing game has managed to pull off a good one. And the systems that have been developed are overly complex and many GMs have become so fatigued regarding bad crafting systems that they’ve just given up hope that there will ever be a good one.

Anyone, because such a system would include a lot of complexity and cognitive load and it could potentially create a lot of imbalance and a lot of unexpected interactions, it has been tough to convince Tyler that it’s worth trying to develop one. Ultimately, he wouldn’t even listen until I could explain WHY players might even want one. In the end, I explained the following. Crafting systems appeal to expressive players by allowing them to create unique equipment and unique loadouts for their characters. Crafting systems appeal to challenge players by allowing them to prepare for challenges and manage resources before the challenges. That enhances their feeling like they can earn better outcomes through their actions and choices. Crafting systems appeal to discovery players by allowing them to seek out resources and also to discover ways to create new magical items. It gives them another thing to understand about the world and the possibilities it contains. And crafting systems appeal to fantasy players by allowing them to take on tasks they imagine their characters would take on in the world, further enhancing their feeling of living in a fantasy world rather than just playing a game or experiencing a story. Tyler was impressed.

And I’ll let you in a on secret. Identifying the core aesthetics you’re trying to appeal to? Later, when you’re designing your rules, they give you a good starting point for the design. For example, in video games, lots of crafting systems involve subjugation. The act of gathering resources through mining, picking flowers, and that sort of crap? That’s a mindless, grindy task that players just lose themselves in while their mind goes to sleep and they listen to podcasts or whatever. Table-top RPGs don’t handle subjugation well and few players enjoy that aspect in table-top RPGs. So, even though I COULD also say that crafting systems can appeal to subjugation players, I’m purposely going to try to avoid that.

But that’s an advanced topic. For now, I just want you to learn how to win an argument with Tyler by appealing to his understanding of game design aesthetics.

Why Didn’t the Game Designers Do It?

Now, this question is kind of tough to answer. If this is a good idea that belongs in the game, why didn’t the game designers do it already? And this question requires a lot of guesswork. And it doesn’t often have a good answer. Fortunately, if you don’t have a good answer for this one, Tyler usually won’t beat you up. If you’ve gotten past the first question, you’ve already explained that there is a good reason for your hack. And that’s enough for Tyler.

So why answer this question at all? Why try to? Simply put, it helps you identify some of the potential problems you hack is going to have. If you assume that the game designers had the same idea you did, but somehow talked themselves out of it, you’ll start thinking in terms of how your hack could go horribly wrong. And that’s good. Not because it will prevent you from hacking, but because it will help you mitigate some of those problems.

For example, I’ve talked about adding a stealth and infiltration subsystem to the game. Something that lets the players Metal Gear or Batman or Ninja their way into hostile locations, assassinate dangerous characters, steal, scout, sabotage, and so on. Now, I’ve already convinced Tyler that it will add new gameplay experiences that appeal to certain types of players. So, Tyler said “look, if this is such a cool and fun idea, why didn’t Mike Mearls already do it because he’s way smarter than you.” After punching Tyler in the face, I answered. The biggest issue with any infiltration or stealth subsystem is that it’s not something all characters can participate in equally. So, rather than a complex system of extended encounters, they went with very simple single-die-roll type uses of stealth. Sneak attacks, ambushes, scouting during overland travel, etc. If something is going to take up a big amount of table time – like an extended infiltration sequence undoubtedly will – it must allow all the players to participate equally. Also, I suspect the D&D designers had some kind of brain aneurism that made them completely f$&%ing forget that they had actually promised exactly these sorts of modular rules when they were trying to convince the world that changing editions of D&D after only three f$&%ing years wasn’t a disaster.

Anyway, that’s the short of it. I had a much longer conversation with Tyler during which I also proved that I am way more awesome than Mike F$&%ing Mearls. The point is, by answering Tyler, I identified a potential pitfall in what I was trying to do. Something I would need to design around later.

And that’s what you need to do. You need to explain why your brilliant idea isn’t already a part of the game. And the answer is NEVER “because I’m way smarter than the designers.” Assume they aren’t so you figure out what your rule hack is going to break.

Why Is This the Best Way to Do It?

Now, once you’ve convinced Tyler that there’s a good damned reason for your hack and you’ve thought through why it might be a terrible idea that other, smarter game designers never would have touched, there’s one more question to answer: why is this the best way to do it? Alternatively, this question can be phrased as “isn’t there another, better, smaller way to do this?”

Remember when we first started talking about hacking rules, I explained one of the tenets is to use the smallest rules you possibly could? Don’t add an entire class when you can add a feat. Don’t add an entire new subsystem when you can just rearrange the existing systems. Don’t add a new system of magic if you can just add a new class. And so on. Well, that’s because the more you hack, the bigger your hack, the more complexity you add. The more cognitive load. The more potential imbalances and interactions. Get it?

And that is why Tyler wants to know whether you could do this any smaller.

Honestly, this is the question that is most likely to change your mind about how to pull off a rule hack. And it SHOULD. Think of it like Tyler’s last stand. He can’t stop you from hacking the rules. You already have a good reason. And he can’t convince you that other, better game designers skipped over it for a reason and you should too. The only thing he can do now is hold you back from going overboard. And guess what? You should totally let him hold you back a little.

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve decided that the best way to show off the new firearms you’ve added to Pathfinder is to create a new class that is an expert in using guns. Tyler should say something like a “whole new class? Isn’t there a smaller way you can do it?” And you have to admit there is. After all, there is already a class that is an expert at combat with weapons and that tends to specialize in specific weapons. It’s called the fighter. And its main form of expression is through feats and feat trees. So why can’t firearms expertise be accomplished through a feat tree whose constituent feats are flagged as fighter bonus feats?

Now, you really need to beat yourself up on this one. When it comes to discussing this question, the first thing you need to do is identify different ways of solving the problem or creating the hack. Like feats or class builds instead of classes. Or schools of magic instead of magic systems or classes. And you really need to try your damndest. Don’t be all like “nope, can’t think of any, I’mma make me a gunslinger. Hahaha, sorry Tyler.”

Once you’ve identified alternatives, you need to convince Tyler that those alternatives won’t work. And this is also something that you really need to beat yourself up on. “Well, I can do it with feats, but it won’t be as cool as a whole new class” is a crappy answer. Because creating a class requires you to create pretty far and wide outside the original premise. One feat tree worth of archetype isn’t enough. You’re going to have to fill a level progression, creating build options, and balance all that s$&%. And “cool” isn’t a good reason. Just like “more” isn’t a good reason.

And honestly, the reason I call out Pathfinder here in my example is because the ridiculous class bloat in Pathfinder is the result of this conversation:

Tyler: “Why are you doing this?”
Designer: “More is better!”
Tyler: “Is there a smaller way you can do this?”
Designer: “Hahahaha, go f$&% yourself!”

Pathfinder is a fun game. At least it used to be. But it’s become ridiculously unapproachable. It is hugely complex, lumbering under the weight of too many options. The reason I don’t write about Pathfinder anymore is because I have neither the energy nor the desire nor the money to keep track of everything in that system now. Want to know why that article about monster building in Pathfinder never happened? THAT’S the reason. The designers kept yelling “go f$&% yourself” at Tyler and I got tired of buying books. And that means I’ve lost track of the power levels and balance in the game. It isn’t fun to hack Pathfinder anymore.

Anyway, the point is, you need to be better than Pathfinder. And the way to do that is to fight with Tyler. Every goddamned time you want to hack your game, fight with Tyler. And fight to win. And let Tyler fight to win. If you do it right, you’re going to lose. There are some ideas I thought were great ideas that I never pursued because I lost the fight with Tyler. And that’s how it should be. That doesn’t mean those ideas will NEVER happen. Someday, the fight might go a different way. Hell, some of the things I absolutely refuse to try to hack into D&D would also be the cornerstones of my system if I were designing a role-playing game. Because I’m totally not.

Hacking the game requires the same maturity as designing the game. Even if you aren’t a professional f$&%ing game designer, you have to pretend to be one. And that means confronting your ideas and kicking the s$&% out of them so that only the strong ones survive.

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33 thoughts on “Why Are You Doing This: Fighting Tyler Durden, Game Designer

  1. Sometimes I just start hacking because it’s fun to mess around. Recently I started thinking about how much I hate the one-stop shop that is Charisma, and I considered new ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Health, Willpower, Intelligence, and Intuition, then making the skill and magic system completely approach based. You show off your muscles? Make a persuasion, Strength check to intimidate. Trying to overpower another caster? Opposed Willpower checks. Of course, I never actually used any of it in game because it literally broke everything since hacking ability scores is like taking a sledgehammer to the foundation, but it was fun to examine how bad the unexpected interactions got.

    I play Pathfinder, and what Angry says is totally true. Way too bloated now. Bring on the Angry RPG that-he’s-totally-not-working-on. Can’t wait to hack that.

  2. You know, Angry, this article applies to game design in general. If you’re designing a game – any type of game – from scratch, the same challenge applies to every rule, component, mechanic, and (whatever else you can think of) that goes in to the game.

    What I find interesting is when I took some of my board game designs to a couple Protospiel events, very often, the suggestions from other designers and play-testers invariably want to ADD more rules. I find myself doing this when evaluating other peoples’ games.

    Of my game designs, the ones that work the best, are the most fun and the most challenging, are the ones with the fewest rules. More importantly, they don’t have “exception” rules that only apply to specific situations and were only created to handle those situations.

    In my two D&D groups, several of the players (myself included) work in the Quality Management department of our company. Every rule change/enhancement proposal gets this level of treatment from the players. What are the consequences? What are the interactions? How will this idea affect the game?

    This flies in the face of one of the RPG systems you never talk about: Tunnels & Trolls. Right there in the introduction, the author says that you’re not really playing the game unless you’ve hacked the rules somehow.

    *sigh*

    Good article, Angry. Thanks!

    • Well, Tunnels & Trolls seems to _ask_ for a rules fix really, really hard. It stalks you round the corner and begs. It’s beyond embarrassing… really. Get some dignity, T&T!

      Seriously. A monster mechanic that might require you to roll 100s of dice for higher challenge monsters? A combat system that constantly balances the odds so closely that you need to constantly take risks to actually, eventually tilt the combat in your favor? Etc.

      It seems like after about 8 iterations they still haven’t figured out how to fix basic design problems. Or how to sue the guy that floods the market with illegal reprints. It’s a big mess.

      Let’s compare Advanced Fighting Fantasy, another long-time system. Yes, it has flaws. But the basic combat and check mechanics are robust and product results much more reliably than T&T does.

      Some people argue that T&T forces you to get creative. But if every combat does that, something feels off after a while.

      • I’m one of the victims of that guy who reprints illegally. There isn’t squat I can do about it without spending a lot of money up front that I don’t have.

        And you’re right, T&T’s combat system is horrible. That’s because it’s designed as an abstract system, not as a tactical system. Every attempt to turn it into a tactical system has pretty much failed because of the reasons Angry offered in this article. It’s not that the designer is a genius. It’s because the core game mechanics can’t support a tactical system. To fix it, the hack has to go all the way back to character creation, and by that time, you’re re-designing the entire game.

        I know. I’ve tried. And I failed. The only reason T&T works the way it does is because its combat system is abstract. If you don’t like abstract combat, don’t play T&T. It’s that simple.

  3. “Anyone want an article about the different types of game balance?”

    Yes. Very yes. This is a discussion that so many people don’t understand. People who argue that balance shouldn’t be considered, etc.

    • I thought I did, and then I read the weird meandering thing about how games are only imbalanced in they’re doing something other than what you intend, and honestly, that’s not a definition that I think should be attached to “Balance”.

      I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make sure your game isn’t behaving, balance-wise, the way you intend, but that the way your game behaves relative to your intent isn’t its balance. That’s whether you’re getting the results you want. Balance is what Angry defined it as FIRST – how “level” the playing field is or how much you want to reward “system mastery”. The game doesn’t become more balanced because you decide you want to create a game that rewards system mastery and then do so, it becomes less balanced when you do that. But it’s okay because you’re doing it on purpose. But balance is still the scale, now how closely your position on that scale maps to your intent.

      • Except there’s a problem with this idea. And the problem is that RPGs include at least three different “types” of balance. It doesn’t follow the same rules as, say, a card game or a board game or a video game. Which is why I didn’t STOP where I did and explained how complex the issue ACTUALLY is. You’re just proving my point that no one really knows what balance is.

        There’s a longer response on this to the other guy below. But I also don’t expect anyone to agree with me. That’s why I said “no one knows what it is, not even me, but here’s the useful way I look at it.”

  4. I’m not sure I agree with your definition of Balance here angry (although the rest of it is spot on). In my conversations about game balance, it has never included skill as something being attenuated. Basically, Two evenly skilled players in a “balanced” game competing with each other have equal chance of victory, or if collaborating, contributed evenly to success (on average). The idea that a balanced game reduces the impact of player skill seems off. You say
    “A balanced game is one that allows new players and experienced players to participate mostly equally. ”

    But I would call that a random game, rather than a balanced one. The degree to which player skill allows new and experienced players to participate mostly equally is a measure of skill vs randomness, not a measure of balance.

    Examples:

    Coin flip is perfectly random, perfectly balanced.

    Weighted coin flip is perfectly random, imperfectly balanced.

    Checkers/chess (assuming random 1st player), is primarily skill based, perfectly balanced.

    I don’t think skill is relevant to balance directly. Basically, balance is a measure of whether the different options available to a player, on average through the whole of the game, are of roughly equal value. A fighter should be just as useful as a rogue, a subclass just as useful as a different subclass, a feat just as useful as an ability modifier, all averaged over the different situations where that choice is meaningful, or, at the least, every option should have a situation where it is optimal, and the amount it is better than other options should be roughly proportional to the rarity at which it is better. (for instance +3d6 against dragons is probably balanced with +2d6 against giants, as giants are slightly more common and, perhaps more importantly, have fewer hp).

    Anyways, I was wondering if you could tell me if I am reading into what you are saying incorrectly, because I seem to not be able to follow your logic, and I don’t want to miss something integral to the point you are trying to make.

    • Yeah, well, none of those is an RPG. Coin tossing isn’t even a game. Checkers and chess are competitive strategy games. But an RPG is not a competitive game. It’s a cooperative game.

      And, in point of fact, you have a very different definition from the person above who is also telling me how wrong I am. You say skill is irrelevant to balance. The person above says balance is removing skill from the equation.

      In point of fact, there are at least three different balancing points that I can count in an RPG.

      But at least I said “NO ONE KNOWS WHAT BALANCE IS, NOT EVEN ME, BUT HERE’S HOW I SEE IT.”

      It’s pretty funny that I literally said that no one gets it right, not even me, but here’s a way of looking at it. And I already have two people telling me THEY know what it is and I’m categorically wrong. And they don’t agree. And neither do many game designers who talk about balance. I’ve heard several different explanations from different professional f$&%ing game designers that are all quite different.

      The one common element: game balance is about how inputs lead to expected outcomes. That’s actually a USEFUL way of thinking of it.

      But here’s the thing: skill is absolutely a component of game balance. Ask Blizzard or Wizards of the Coast about that. Because they both take it into account when designing their games. You can argue whether skill is about MORE balance or LESS. Fine.

      In the end, though, take a lesson from a scale. You can balance a scale by changing the weight on either side OR by moving the fulcrum. Balance is something that only arises as the result of multiple forces and moments interacting.

      • I have to disagree that “No one knows what balance is”. Game balance is actually pretty well defined. The hard part isn’t knowing what it is as a concept, but achieving it in the design of a game and determining how to balance the game. Games can be balanced in different ways and for different purposes, but the basic idea behind balance is well understood.

        The idea behind game balance is to try to achieve a state in which every feature of the game has a useful application such that players are encouraged to use said features.

        Teetengee made a good example in saying that giving the player a choice between a high damage buff against a dangerous but uncommon enemy or a low damage buff against a common foe could be an example of good balance. The low damage boost will be used more often, and may rack up more total damage, but high damage against a more dangerous opponent may be desirable so the player can kill them quickly. If instead the player was offered the opposite, very little damage against an uncommon enemy or a big bonus vs the cannon fodder, the choice would be obvious.

        This sort of issue is encountered all the time when making feat/skill/spell/special power selections in role playing games. If one option is clearly useless and is never used by players, there is a good chance that it falls below the power curve and is not balanced.

        A very commonly cited issue in the old versions of Dungeons and Dragons is the power balance between fighters and wizards. At low level, fighters were more powerful. They had much higher hit points and the wizard had very few useful combat spells. However, as the classes gained levels the fighter progressed much slower than the wizard. At higher level the wizard class outpaced fighters, to the point that the fighter would start to feel irrelevant and the wizard would make most of the meaningful contributions to the battle.

        This issue is caused by an imbalance at most character levels. There is a small range where the relative power levels of the two cross, but before and after this level range they are imbalanced. This could be because the designers didn’t take balance into consideration when designing the game, but it could also be for another reason. The game could be balanced across the entire level range instead of inside each level. The idea behind this is that the swap is designed to average out to a level playing field if the character play across every level. This doesn’t work very well unless your campaign is long enough to take advantage of it or falls within that narrow range.

        Now, you mentioned player skill. Skill has a very well established place in game balance. It’s not about determining how much a player’s skill impacts the game, but about designing a game for players of all skill levels. Take my fighter vs wizard example. A player with low skill in D&D would probably be more suited to playing a fighter than a wizard. Wizards have a complex set of spell lists and rules to follow that fighters never have to worry about. The challenge of this sort of design is to create a game in which both players can feel like they are contributing in a meaningful way. So the design of the fighter can be balanced around a low complexity action set, while the wizard is balanced around high complexity. In a well balanced game both classes can be tuned to make meaningful contributions.

        The amount of impact player skill has on achieving a desired outcome is a separate component of game design. That’s more about skill based design than game balance. I see where you may have gotten that idea though, many companies design games for high and low skill players. Riot Games for example puts out a lot of articles on the challenges of keeping League of Legends competitive at high skill levels while also providing a challenge for new players. This is due to Riot choosing to balance for all skill levels. If Riot were to achieve their ideal balance, every character in the game would be played at all skill levels. That is the end-game in the balance of League of Legends. This is because balance is about making all options viable, not about making all skill levels equal. This is NOT the same type of balance you would want in a role playing game, but it is the same core idea.

        In a role playing game, you probably would want all skill levels to be much closer together than in League of Legends. This affects how you balance the game, but it does not change the fundamental definition of balance. Balance is still concerned about making all options viable. Some options might be more suitable to low or high skill players, but that is a concern of balance or a design goal rather than a fundamental principal of balance itself. Role playing game are often concerned with making a somewhat level playing field for all skill levels. Things going or working the way you want is irrelevant, it’s about making all options meaningful.

        I would like to add that Teetengee’s points about balance in non-role playing games actually do apply to role playing games. Game balance is a concept that is universal to games, not just role playing games. You even use Magic the Gathering in your own examples. Now, don’t get me wrong, the concerns that go into balancing a game are dramatically different between games and game types, but the basic concept of balance itself is useful for all games.

        “No one knows what balance is” is patently false. Balance is very well understood. How to balance a game and what type of balance you want to achieve is much more complex and nuanced. That is the part of balance that nobody really fully understands.

        • Since (I think) I agree with angry here, let me try a rephrase to clarify the point. There is no commonly accepted definition of game balance for RPGs. The more precise you make the definition, the more disagreement and exceptions develop.

          This is complicated by disagreement over the definition of a role playing game.

          In both cases, if we all agree on the definition and it is good, we should have less argument about whether X is an RPG or Y is balanced.

          But we do. Ipso facto.

  5. Very worthwhile article. Good process. I guess this process can applied to many other areas of GMing, at least those in the creative corner… like designing a monster. Is a new action/power really necessary? Can an existing monster be reskinned with less effort? Can an existing, predictable monster power be modified instead of coming up with a new (or old) mechanic? Etc.

  6. Sitting down and thinking about the type of fun is very important for understanding the scope of the project. I was dissatisfied with a vehicle combat system so I tried tacking on a few hit tables to make it more unpredictable. My attempts added a little variety but I wasn’t satisfied because I hadn’t really considered the scope of what I was doing. I wanted to create a challenge gameplay aspect by letting the players strategize with the rules and I wanted to create a discovery gameplay aspect where the players would try to learn about new equipment because of what it meant about their strategies. While those are achievable goals it wasn’t until later they were a lot more work then I had originally planned to bite off. So naturally the hacks I made were inadequate.

  7. I ask myself why did the game designers abandon modular designs? And instead give us that shit show of a DMG?
    It is the fallout of 4e and the moaning of dndnext. You’re right about 5e being for preexisting gamers, despite its growing success. A huge group of 5e players have very constrained and anal opinions about what D&D “is”.
    To the point that I’m about to dump my group because they won’t stop whining about the DMG variant rules I’m using.

    At this point in our game they can’t even come up with legit reasons for their displeasure. I let them voice their concerns in the beginning and patiently mirrored back their wild hyperboles then went ahead with what I wanted. No issues have come up.
    Yet, the whining persists: “I just want the rules as written, this isn’t D&D”, everything is straight from the DMG.
    “We should just use another system, this isn’t D&D”, because they would actually be perfectly fucking fine using the EXACT same rules so long as it isn’t called D&D.

    Those are the people Mike Mearls chose to deal with. I just got another connection here with something in your previous article about asking who your audience is when hacking or designing. WotC chose theirs. They want the most pedantic, insular, and stubborn collection of trpg malcontents. They made a game about adding more for the sake of more. The only choice in character creation in 5e is to make the most optimized character or willfully ignore it. Look at all the frothing at the mouth for that unearthed arcana.

    5e is like Oprah and Xzibit teamed up, “And you get a car, and you get a car, and you get a car in your car so you can car while you car!!!”

    Wow. I didn’t realize how sick of my group I was until ranting here.

    Thanks for reading my blog.

    • Did you get that all out of your system? Wow.

      Look, here’s the thing you’d better learn. Liking something is an emotional response. People like things or they don’t. And emotional parts of their brain decide that. And it is a snap judgment. Then, the rational, reasoning parts of your brain kick and in and TRY to figure out why you like or don’t like something. The key word being TRY. And then, if you are forced to explain, the other parts of your brain engage to TRY to translate the reasons your conscious brain THINKS it came up with into LANGUAGE other people can understand. Long story short: you can always absolutely trust someone when they say they don’t like something. They are right. But their reasons and their attempts to explain their reasons? Those are excuses their brain invented to explain their emotional responses. Whatever you are doing in your game isn’t working. Your players don’t like it. You’re wrong. Just because they can’t explain it doesn’t make you right. They are still not enjoying it. And, frankly, it’s your job as GM and game designer to figure out why.

      By the way: your reasons and explanations are also as likely to be right as wrong. That’s how brains are wired. Sorry. So get over it.

      • This. A thousand times, this. Angry’s reply here needs to be spread across the Internet.

        I’ve come across way too many haters (and occasional rabid fans) who think people who don’t share their opinion on entertainment and literature are defective lost souls who need to be indoctrinated into the correct way of thinking.

        It doesn’t work that way. If you love something I don’t, at most you’re going to talk me into giving it a second chance. If you hate something I enjoy, you’re not going to suck out the enjoyment out of it, except by being a jerk at me while I’m trying to enjoy it. There’s no accounting for taste, so live and let live.

    • I’d also like to add that you are imprinting a hell of a lot on those that took part in the D&D Next beta. You are labeling them as whiners and moaners because of your perceptions of 5e.

      Yes, 5e was built for preexisting gamers. That happens when you ask preexisting gamers consistently what works for a year and a half before putting your final product in print. There was a lot of bitching about 4e because the designers went in a completely different direction and people were suffering from shock from hitting the cold water so quickly. I’ve often said that 4th edition would be better received with a different name (even just calling it “D&D Tactics”). It was actually a solid system.

      On the 5e side, though, they realized that they NEEDED to make a game that the fans of every edition of D&D could enjoy as much as possible, or D&D would probably die as a game. 2nd, 3.x, and 4e were each so different that it took a LOT of hard work to find a usable product that balanced what fans liked out of each. Some stuff got missed, but overall, 5e was one that they have been very cautious with because they want to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that they have seen in the past. The bloat from 3.x and Pathfinder, the minis style focus of 4e (and its explicitly similar class design across classes), the ‘quadratic wizards, linear fighters’ issues of EVERY edition prior to 4th, the ‘balance’ of writing the mechanics with expectations of specific quality of magic items at specific levels in 3.x and 4th, the intense complexity that developed in 2nd and 3.x, etc…All of these things are issues that have received an ass-load of criticism in D&D editions passed.

      I think that the designers actually bounced their plans off of the players had a huge impact on creating a solid system that they designed to be able to be modular, even though it is hard to say that they have succeeded at this very well, as they haven’t released a large number of modular options.

      I won’t say that 5e is the best system, because that is absolutely based on nothing but opinion. I enjoy quite a bit about it, but I have enjoyed every version of D&D I’ve played in some ways and felt they needed improvements in others.

      All this said, there will ALWAYS be complainers…There will always be people who played 2nd and don’t think of any edition as being as good as second. Many of these refuse to even try a newer system with the D&D name attached. Some won’t even try a non-D&D title either. There will always be those who look at D&D and see only 3rd edition or even 4th edition as well. I have been running table-top RPG’s for over 20 years and in most cases. I have never had a player bitch about 4th edition being a horrible system with me running games. I’ve never had complaints about horrible systems when I ran in World of Darkness, D&D, GURPS, Star Wars, Shadowrun, Scion, Deadlands, or any of the other systems I’ve run in. I’ve had a lot of people ask questions about exactly how something works. From what I saw, the complaints were most often from people that refused to even attempt to sit down and play it or had a bad experience the first time (such as the TPK’s that happened with the release-day adventures for both 4th edition and 5th edition) and they decided they never wanted to play it again and went back to their old stuff.

      Yes, it may be time to look for different players. It may be time to sit down and hash out what you are trying to accomplish with the specific variant options that you are using with the group as well. You can either work with them, or you can push against them, but it is a cooperative game. For 5e, it is probably important to remind players that most of 5e is variants yet considered standard. The variant human and feats for ASI’s are perfect examples of this. Most people treat them as if they are standard rules, but throw out encumbrance as if it doesn’t exist. My suggestion is to work with your group and find out what they want (with a better explanation than “we want RAW”) or leave the group… Have them give you reasons to use a variant rule (or to avoid one that you use), but do it outside a gaming session.

      There seems to be a huge communication problem. Solve it or don’t, but I can tell you that regardless, the problem in your group is deeper than application of rules. It’s an issue of expectations and communication.

  8. This suddenly reminded me of a classic Angry GM rant from The Mad Adventurer’s Society (now, sadly, passed away). I’m talking about encumbrance (http://www.madadventurers.com/angry-rants-encumbrance/). Angry finished that post with ‘Alternatively, you can rewrite the whole damned system to make growth a thing like it used to be. Have fun.’

    Can you persuade Tyler, Angry? Because I would really like to see your take on a really good encumbrance system. I have been struggling with trying to come up with something that tracks which bag characters are carrying items in, limits the number of items (giving players the trade-off between supplies, travel pace, and room for treasure), but gives room for growth.

    My current system achieves those aims, but my players have complained that it is too complex, and, to some extent, I’m inclined to agree (I would probably agree more without the attachment I have to the system that I created).

    • I feel the biggest problems with encumbrance have always been the bookkeeping. Honestly, figuring out numbering and calculations isn’t even that hard. It’s people sitting and doing the work of it. It takes away from the actual play.

    • Over the years I’ve found that the system that works best is to kind of wing it.

      When you think about it, encumbrance is about bulk and weight. Carrying a 4′ x 8′ sheet of foam insulation isn’t problematic because it’s heavy. It’s all about the bulk.

      The current 5e encumbrance rules have a threshold that reduces your speed by 10′ per round, and another one that reduces it by 20′ per round, plus disadvantage on a bunch of things. Those sound like pretty useful thresholds.

      So track what fits in your backpack. If the pack is stuffed, perhaps it’s enough to reduce your speed by 10′ per round. With the tent, bed roll, pot and a pan, clothing, etc., etc. It’s not enough to affect combat perhaps (at least some military guys have told me), but it probably would impose disadvantage on a tumbling check.

      If you’re wearing a stuffed backpack, and want to add a 6′ longbow, quiver with two sheaves of arrows, a 4 1/2′ long longsword, a shield and you’re wearing mail armor with a breastplate? Yeah, I think you’d find it a bit tougher to do just about anything. So you’re probably heavily encumbered. Even if you’re strong, it’s all the stuff that’s in the way. On the other hand, you might gain a point or two to AC from the rear… Don’t talk to me about stealth, though.

      Picking up your armored friend that was just felled in battle to get him to someplace safe – does it really matter what your Strength is (provided you can carry him). Won’t you be fighting with disadvantage with a person draped over your shoulder regardless of how strong you are?

      If you get a sense that something is a bit excessive, then take a look at the weight and how it relates to the encumbrance rules.

      I do have some specific guidelines, like carrying something in a backpack reduces its effective weight in half. A properly packed and fitted backpack is more efficient than just carrying something. It’s really a matter of capacity and how much weight a pack can hold without rupturing.

      But most of the time we just go with what sounds reasonable. If we disagree with what’s reasonable, then we’ll take an opportunity (preferably out of session) to add up what the player thinks is reasonable, and check it against the rules, and probably some research as to what the military does.

      If you do get more into bookkeeping, then when you place treasures and such, make a note as to how much it typically adds to encumbrance. Then it doesn’t have to take time during the game.

  9. This article is excellent. I have lurked for some time, and I plan on getting into a fight with Angry just because I can (and because, even if you fight with Tyler Durden all the time, I think fighting other people some time can be at least as healthy). But despite all that.. this article is excellent.

  10. I truly agree with the whole Pathfinder bit. When I was first starting to /really/ get into TTRPGs, in like 2012 or so, I enjoyed Pathfinder and was excited by the new classes. “I get to play this game with these super special classes!” But around 2015 the whole bloat just got to be too much and I just stopped running or playing in Pathfinder games. Now I’ll really only go back if the game sticks to the core rulebook, imperfect as it is, and even then I’d say, “So why can’t we just play D&D 5th?”.

  11. This all sort of harkins back to an older article that I’ve kept to heart for a long time; http://theangrygm.com/angry-rants-semantical-nonsense/ The ol Complexity vs. Depth. Often, my players would like nice, shiny, custom items, armor, and weapons. And I’m okay with that. But then the bells and whistles start to drop from their mouths and it’s too much. Simpler is easier to remember. One dice roll vs 2 different for three different scenarios, etc, etc.

  12. I’d like the article about balance(s).

    It’s like security: I was working in a rail system company for a while, and noticed a tendency that to achieve more security we were losing efficiency. And of course there’s nothing more secure in a collision system than trains that don’t move at all.

    It’s a bit of them same here: if you want perfect balance then you can make everything the same for everyone. It’s balanced but it’s no fun. Like chess. Removing all balance is not the solution either, like trains all running around at full speed is not the most efficient either so there would be need for a balance of balance vs fun. I’ll call it the balance². Do you think that I will get a nobel prize for it?

  13. I agree with the bloat. While I see some things from either Unearthed Arcana or home-brew stuff, in general I’m finding that I don’t like the new classes or races and stuff. My hacking has pretty much been to bring the rules into better alignment in regards to supporting my campaign world and the actions within.

    One of the things I have been thinking about the last few days is how to make a “western monk.” I don’t like the eastern/wuxia feel of the traditional monk. And the more I thought about it, the more I questioned why I needed the class. Historically western “fighting monks” were the Knights Templar and Knights Hopitaller. For martial types, fighters or paladins work. For a more divine-based warrior, a cleric.

    If I wanted more of a friar Tuck type, I can just use a cleric with no armor and armed with a quarterstaff and feats to supplement unarmed fighting.

  14. I have a retrospective Tyler. Whenever I take my 2nd, 3rd, 21st look at my rule shit Tyler lets me throw it away, tweak it, but at least question it.

    Would love some not-definitions of balance from you though.

  15. Less is more, and bloat is why I don’t Pathfinder. Simplicity in game design takes hard work and/or genius. Tacking on more rules is a lazy way to solve a problem. Define the problem first.

    5e doesn’t need more UA and classes. But WotC needs money. This is a problem I can’t fix.

    Maybe we can ask them to rewrite all past and future modules using scene formatting. Maybe they could standardize how scenes/encounters are presented, making it possible for a dm to run what they just picked up. I’d pay for that. And I’d pay again.

    I’m doing this for my own game now, based 100% on this blog.

  16. I haven’t finished reading the article, and I NEVER do this, but I got really excited about the idea of an article on the different types of game balance. I just wanted to encourage that article.

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