Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Defence Dilemma

Heroes By Trade is built on an assumption of constant use of cool stuff and that people won't run out of resources.  One of the things that worried me about this system initially was the concern that people would build very defensive characters and be unable to defeat one another.  If two characters are duelling and both of them use shields and focus on powers that regain HP instead of focusing on powers that smash enemies they could in theory go forever.  I wasn't eager to see that happen because I really didn't want to accidentally build a game where the optimal strategy was to build invincible characters and slowly grind the enemies down with no sense of danger.

There exists some kind of balance point in the weighting of offensive and defensive abilities that allows for a general offensive strategy to be the norm but has room for defensive moves in specific situations of extreme danger or when attempting to 'tank'.  For example, I want defensive moves to be useful when you are badly hurt and the rest of your team is not, or when the enemies are obviously trying to focus fire you preferentially.  I really don't want them to be the default move that is used all the time though, and as such I weighted abilities that regenerated HP fairly heavily.  Adding 1.5 damage to your attack costs the same as adding 1 HP to your own total.  Given that weighting players looked at the HP regaining abilities and pretty much ignored them.  A dead enemy inflicts no damage, after all!

I think this was an error.  First off, fights really are designed to be group vs. group rather than 1 vs. 1.  Standing around gaining HP is not a winning strategy if the entire group of enemies is pounding on you and certainly will not result in stalemates.  They will rapidly beat through your regeneration and victory will come down to which team beats the other down first which is what I wanted anyway.  When HP regaining powers are only 2/3 as good as they 'should' be they end up being used never instead of sometimes and that isn't the place I wanted to be.  HP recovery needs to feel like a good action and right now it doesn't feel that way.

If I do improve all the HP recovery it will probably lead to some degenerate cases where two defensive characters simply can't kill each other.  I think it is worth accepting those degenerate cases though if it improves the general case of groups of combatants trying to beat each other.  I really want people to look at defensive options and value them and having that be a thing is more important than worrying about what happens when two paladins stand there beating on each other for eternity.  Having decent HP recovery also has other benefits in terms of combat predictability.  When characters can defend themselves they are less likely to be blown up by the fickleness of the dice and will be better able to smooth over bad situations.  That will lead to less "I guess Joe McSword is dead" and more strategy, which I like.


  1. When two characters reach a defensive standoff, why not just end the combat sequence, and go to non-combat time instead? Once they're both too busy trying to stay alive to interfere directly with each other's actions, they should be able to act more or less freely -- until one or the other party resumes combat.

    Until then, let them talk, threaten, spout one liners, negotiate, back off, run away, offer up a truce, give an empassioned soliloqy, or otherwise interact in more interesting ways that remaining locked in a defensive stalemate.

    Doesn't that help to solve the issue right there? It's what I would try as a GM, and it allows for a lot of the middle-of-combat conversations that take place during comic books, plus it lets you introduce new players or NPC just like in the old classic stories where two opponents fight each other to a standstill, talk briefly, find out they like each other, talk more, and end up teaming up to fight someone else. (Robin Hood did this with Little John, Friar Tuck, and Will Scarlet, for example).

    I'd place a random limit on the number of mutual "defensive stances" both sides could take before combat ends; that way, players don't know when it will end combat, but they know it can.

    Just a few random thoughts. :-)

  2. You could just avoid raw, naked HP regaining abilities.

    If no power spends more than 40%-50% of it's "oomph" on regaining HP/defence, then stalemates are unlikely.

    Alternatively, defensive powers could be designed to scale with the number of attackers. Bonuses to defences that reduce the chance that each attacker hits you, balanced around being swarmed, is an example: in a one-on-one, it doesn't work well. And in a group, if everyone is using that ability, it is rather wasteful, as the enemy can only focus-fire *one* of you at a time.

    Another method would be high efficiency but imperfect. Suppose temporary HP ("buffer points") only soaked half of incoming damage with the remnant applying directly to HP. Then you could have abilities that generated "buffer points" at high efficiency, but while they could *extend* combat, they could not make it last indefinitely.

    This could be made less explicit, and require less division, if instead of "buffer points" you got a "soak die" (with a multiplier). A 1d12 soak die lets you soak 1d12 damage from an attack. Because of variance, it doesn't reliably prevent *all* damage unless the damage is trivial, no matter what its cost is.

    If numbers go up large in the system, instead of upgrading to 3d12 or 5d12, you'd upgrade to 1d12x3, to keep variance high. (10d6 pretends to be 10-60, but is really 24-46 19 times out of 20). Low variance eliminates half the point: the ability should only work efficiently on attacks strong enough to mostly blow through it.


  3. @afn

    You describe many of the defensive abilities already in the game actually. :) There are a variety of ways to defend oneself including raising soak values, raising defense values, giving the attacker penalties to their hit rolls, debuffing the attacker (Immobilize them and run away), and removing debuffs from yourself. I don't use your exact soak die mechanic but there are things that do that in a similar fashion. You are correct that those things never let combat go infinite (at most they stretch it out) and so might be a better option.

    At the moment I like having raw HP regeneration abilities in the game but if I did change them to all have a half and half attack / regen type function it would certainly work. The advantage of having pure defensive abilities in the game is that it smooths out the bad rolls and lets the players outplay their opponents but it does create a situation where the players are more likely to become invincible. Good suggestions, anyhow.


    Yeah, if two characters were actually in a stalemate I would definitely try to push them to negotiate. I don't think I need mechanics for that though - I figure that cinematic moment where two equally matched opponents determine that nobody is going to win is something that requires GM fiat rather than a rule. Basically if that somehow comes up and it works for the campaign then awesome but I don't want people thinking that designing a tank that can't die is the norm. As long as being tough is reasonable but being invincible is impossible (except against another singular tough person) then I have hit the sweet spot.