Right now I’m just bug-fixing the pre-alpha, which is torturous and tedious, so I won’t blog about that. Instead let me talk a bit about types of gameplay complexity.
Good Complexity versus Bad Complexity
My game doesn’t shy away from complex systems, but that doesn’t mean I’m implementing arbitrary complexity. Far from it! For instance, when I was coding the ability for werewolves to eat corpses, Sandra jokingly asked, “Can werewolves eat skeletons? They don’t have any meat on them!” and the answer was… yes. Yes they can eat skeletons, and it’s just as nutritious as a tasty gazelle. They can also eat fungus monsters, fire demons, and golems made entirely of brass.
[Editor's note: My immediate response was "Right answer!" - Sandra]
The reason? If I made it so that werewolves can only eat “meaty” things, it would hamper my ability to create content. The corpse-eating mechanic is supposed to be a quick-heal for werewolves. So if they don’t get it, what are they supposed to do? All they can do is stand around waiting to heal naturally. That’s no fun… and what’s the up side of this realism? Nothing.
But on the other hand, there’s very similar situations that I’m fine with. For instance, if you’re a Fire Mage, it’s going to suck fighting monsters that are resistant to fire. Should I remove those? No, because that down side is part of how group combat works. I want groups to encounter diverse gangs of monsters with different strengths and weaknesses, so each fight feels a little different. Sometimes there will be some fire-resistant monsters in the mix; sometimes there’ll be fire-weak monsters. I wouldn’t make entire gangs of fire-proof monsters, because that would be tedious and un-fun. But some mixed in regularly? Sure. That’s a kind of complexity that helps me achieve my goal for combat.
Now, it’s true that if I cared enough about werewolves only eating meat, I could make sure that every group encounter had a certain percentage of meaty corpses. But I’m planning for this game to have a ton of different abilities, and corpse-eating is just one of many. If I made each system as realistic as I could, I’d never be able to make content: the requirements would be too nightmarishly complex.
So I have to carefully choose my complexity. In the end, realistic corpse-eating isn’t important enough. It wouldn’t make anything more fun, nor does it lead to interesting decisions. It’s not good complexity.
Group Combat Composition
Speaking of group combat… I’m taking a tack from 4th edition D&D, where “having a fun fight is more important than explaining how every monster ended up in this dungeon.”
When I started DMing 4th edition D&D, this irked me a lot, announcing to my players, “You round the corner and see a mummy! It’s flanked by a pair of orcs, and behind them lurks a creature made entirely of gibbering lips!” You would think the first question they’d ask is, “How did these creatures end up working together?” At least, as a DM that was my first question. So I worked out complex back-stories for these random assortments of monsters… but frankly my players didn’t much care. Occasionally they would wonder aloud about particularly weird combinations, and I would drop a trivial explanation in somewhere, like “the orcs are here fulfilling a tribal obligation to the mummy’s ancestors.” That sort of thing.
In the big picture, this was a good change. It just required changing the realism of the fantasy world. In earlier D&D worlds, monsters tended to be clannish and loners, but in this world monsters tend to cooperate more.
Once I was able to swallow this new kind of realism, it opened a lot of doors to interesting fights. No more did I have to say, “well it’s a gnoll cave, so of course there’s more gnolls around the corner.” Now I could throw a lot more surprises at them.
This has other ramifications, of course. In earlier D&D where you had to pick your spells in the morning before going off to adventure, it was very important to be able to predict what sort of monsters would show up. Otherwise you’d memorize the wrong spells! But 4th edition did away with most of this, which is a mixed blessing, but I definitely think one of the up-sides of this design was the diversity of combat.
You may be asking, “why not just make diverse monsters of the same race? Why not have eight kinds of gnolls, each filling different combat roles?” Well, I definitely do lots of that. But doing too much breaks the rule of identification: experienced players should be able to guess how an enemy is going to behave, and to do that they need to be able to identify the enemy rapidly.
In my prototype, I’ve got goblin healers, goblin spear guards, goblin lightning mages, goblin skirmishers, goblin archers, and goblin bosses, to name a few. (Can you tell what artwork I installed first?) But I can’t use all these goblins in the same area. Even though they each have some visual differences, in the chaos of combat it’s too tough to instantly distinguish them all.
In my prototype dungeon, I don’t use the goblin archers or goblin skirmishers. Instead, I use skeleton archers and skeleton swordsmen for those roles. Skeletons are easy to distinguish from goblins, and players will have already encountered these skeleton combatants earlier, so they’ll be instantly understandable. (Building on previous knowledge like that also helps players feel like they’re learning how the world works… because they are!)
The point is not to worry too much about why skeletons and goblins (and some other monsters) are all working together. The point is to make combat feel fun.
(Having said all that, I have to admit I’m still not happy with group combat yet. But I decided I need some actual people playing the game… and, you know, grouping… before I spend any more time on it!)
The next time I’m trying to avoid doing more debugging, I’ll blog about alternate gameplay modes, such as pacifist characters.