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Josh Sawyer Explains: How to Balance an RPG
Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Fri 22 August 2014, 21:00:40Tags: J.E. Sawyer; Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity
In these days when his professional aptitude as a system designer is under attack from certain quarters, Josh Sawyer has made the interesting choice of publishing an extensive guest editorial over at Kotaku. The topic? How To Balance An RPG. It's actually a highly technical treatise, which should be of interest to all of you prospective RPG developers out there. I'll quote a fun snippet from the introduction:
It is now 2014 and, friends, I am here to tell you that trash options are bullshit.
In a computer RPG, any trash option that goes from designer's brain to the shipped product has probably gone through a few dozen cycles of implementation, testing, and revision. In the end, the trash option is the proverbial polished turd. Any seasoned RPG veteran that looks at it in detail realizes it's terrible and avoids it. Those who don't look closely or who aren't system masters may wind up picking it for their character under the mistaken impression that it's a viable choice. In any case, it's a bad option that the team spent a bunch of time implementing either for misguided schadenfreude or simple lack of attention.
While big RPGs always let a few of these trash options slip through unintentionally, the best way to avoid the problem on a large scale is simply to ask why well-informed players, acting with eyes wide open, would want to pick any given option over a different option in the first place. There should be a good conceptual/aesthetic reason as well as a good mechanical reason. If one of those falls short, keep hammering away until you feel you've justified their existence. Sometimes, it's not possible. In those cases, at least you've had the good fortune to realize you're stuck with trash early in development — whether it doesn't fit aesthetically or doesn't work mechanically — and can justly dump it before more effort goes into it.
As an example from Pillars of Eternity, we have maces and padded armor, two things that generally get short shrift in a lot of RPGs. In most RPGs, maces are slow and do poor damage with few elements in the "+" column. In Pillars of Eternity, they don't do any less damage than other one-handed weapons and they have the advantage of negating a portion of the armor on the target. Swords can do a variety of damage types, spears are inherently accurate, and battle axes do high Crit damage, but maces are a viable mechanical choice among their peers.
Padded armor suffers even worse in most RPGs: in many games, there are literally no worse options than padded. The suits are often aesthetically ugly and mechanically awful—the quintessence of a pure RPG trash option—and if players are forced to wear padded armor at the game's opening, they'll gladly ditch it as soon as anything else becomes available. In Pillars of Eternity, padded armor actually offers reasonably good protection. It can easily be argued that our padded armor is more protective than is realistic, but the first goal is not verisimilitude, but justifying the player's interest.
And, while heavier armor absorbs more damage, the heavier a suit of armor is in Pillars of Eternity, the longer it takes a character to recover from making an attack or casting a spell. A character in mail armor can absorb more damage than a character in padded, but the character in padded armor will perform more actions over a given period of time.
This fundamental tradeoff is both easy to grasp ("take less damage vs. do things faster") and has universal implications for all characters. All characters perform actions, and performing actions more quickly is always better. All characters also need to be protected from damage. A tradeoff like damage reduction vs. movement speed would have dramatically different implications for a melee-oriented barbarian than a long-range wizard.
We also intentionally avoided the classic RPG armor tradeoff of damage avoidance (i.e. dodging) vs. straight damage reduction. While it's easy to grasp conceptually, it's mechanically uninteresting and unengaging unless you get into spreadsheet-level minutiae of how the damage reduction curves play out over time. Spreadsheet gaming can be enjoyable on its own, but there should be a more obvious tradeoff that the player can directly observe in-game for the choice to feel meaningful.