Sunday, July 6, 2014


Sometimes the gaping chasm between what an ability's description implies it does and what it actually does leaves me shaking my head.  In particular I am thinking of the Bladesman perk in Skyrim.  The description is:

Bladesman Rank 3:  Attacks with swords have a 20% chance of doing even more critical damage. (+50% crit damage).

So what does critical damage mean?  The default assumption people tend to go with is that a critical hit does double damage.  Since there are no in game ways to get clear numbers in Skyrim you need to do a ton of controlled testing to find this out and since you can only do that testing after selecting the perk permanently that isn't much help.  If you assumed that critical damage means that the damage is doubled you would be wrong - it is in fact 50% bonus damage which makes this ability extremely weak.

But there is more.

That 50% critical damage only operates on the base damage of the weapon.  For example, a daedric sword does 14 damage so the perk above gives a 20% chance to do 10.5 extra damage, or 2.1 damage per hit.  My regular hits counting all of my ludicrous multipliers end up putting my attacks at around 13,400 damage.  So I can spend three points on Bladesman to add 0.015% to my damage.  Given that perks often add 10% or more to overall damage these three points adding 0.005% each is a teensy bit underwhelming.

This is something that has gotten me thinking a lot about how games write up abilities.  The Skyrim perk above is obviously coded wrong - nobody was intending that it be 2,000 times worse than other perks at endgame.  However, reading the perk really tells you nothing about what will actually happen when you use it.  It reminds me a lot of old versions of DnD and other RPGs that use vague descriptions which require tons of houserules and adjudication by the GM because the writeup simply does not tell the reader what happens in a clear manner.

4th edition DnD was a huge departure from that because they made it extremely clear how abilities were used, what their area of effect was, and exactly what they did to the enemy.  Everything is listed in a fixed order and figuring out what an ability does is extremely simple - little to no adjudication is required.  I loved it when it came out because I always found poring through pages of text on abilities to figure out how they worked frustrating as it dragged the action to a halt.  When I wrote up powers in Heroes By Trade I wrote them very much like 4th edition powers with italicized flavour text and rigid, clear structure to describe the mechanical impact.

The trouble is that even though this newer system is much more clear and avoids rules conflicts it somehow lacks a style that people want.  When I titled an ability Flying Smash and its flavour text talked about leaping across the battlefield people were bitter that it did not in fact allow you to fly short distances.  They wanted to be able to defy gravity at will once they learned this ability and that was clearly a terrible idea since it is available to a starting character!  People have mentioned that they don't like the clear separation of flavour and crunch in the powers and want things to feel more seamless.

Thundering Charge

Rushing headlong across the battlefield you build up energy and crash into your enemies with a thunderous boom.

Rank 9
Effect:  Take a Move.
Target:  One creature adjacent to you
Hit:  Physical damage +5.

Augment 3
Make the Hit Roll against two additional targets: one before the Move, and one after the Move.

It is a tricky balance to strike.  I love that I can talk about opponents being staggered in the flavour text but have the power simply knock them back two spaces without having to worry about people trying to figure out if staggered means something in particular.  I want to talk about people being set on fire without everyone being confused as to whether or not their equipment is destroyed and don't they have to run away in a panic now?  (No, because it doesn't say they are Afraid so they aren't!)

I don't want to roll things back to the good ole days where when someone casts a spell nobody really knows what the result will be.  I also want the game to feel viscerally satisfying and have descriptions of powers be exciting and engaging.  I think what I am going to end up doing is loosening up the writing constraints I placed on myself for the crunch section and try to just write a descriptive paragraph more than a set of bullet points.  Hopefully it is possible for me to make the powers sound more exciting and feel more natural without making them unduly confusing and unclear.

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