Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The puzzle balance

In reading over a lot of RPGs I have begun thinking about crunch and fluff in new ways.  The paradigm I am using at the moment is to think of RPGs as having a puzzle value.  That is, the ratio between how much of the game is focused around the players trying to think their way out of situations with concrete rules and how much is them just making cinematic decisions and the GM making something up.

Combat is the easiest venue for making these comparisons but it isn't limited to that.  Some games have the players making decisions in a matrix of rules and numbers such that they could actually play out combats by themselves without a GM.  DnD is definitely like this, as is Heroes By Trade.  There are surprises much of the time but it would certainly be possible to list exactly how the fight will go and what the enemies will attempt to do and run it as a player quite comfortably.  Whereas I remember a description from Numenera where the players were fighting a giant robot and due to something the players did the giant robot suddenly got a flamethrower.  It didn't have one before, and that result wasn't planned... the GM just made it up.

Personally I find the puzzle aspect of such a thing completely lacking.  If I have no idea what my actions will accomplish and encounters just go along until the GM arbitrarily decides they are over there is no optimization.  I often take a sub optimal route of course, because once I know what I should do in the puzzle I need to figure out if that is what my character would do and often those are not the same thing.  Without concrete rules to follow though the joy I get in sorting out a puzzle and finding the perfect solution isn't there.  Heroes By Trade has a very high puzzle value in combat, possibly the highest I have seen, and certainly higher than most of the new wave of fantasy RPGs that focus on fluff more extensively.

That actually applies throughout RPGs including things like exploration and negotiation.  I know the GM has to make everything up as they go but I want them to craft a world and then let me cut loose in it rather than have a blank slate.  I like the idea of exploring the dread forest to find out what is there rather than the story simply happening no matter what it is I choose to do.  Clearly the world isn't fully built when I step into it but I want to feel as though it is; I want a simulation as well as a narrative arc.

It is a tricky balancing act.  In a pure simulation of course I would end up dead, eaten by direwolves in the dread forest.  Either that or wander for days finding nothing of note!  However, games that have too low a puzzle coefficient end up feeling pointless and contrived, like my decisions don't matter and thinking about things is irrelevant.  I want the sense that the GM is simply letting me know what happens rather than that they are making it all up on the fly.  I need the puzzle value to be high even when I do get a few nudges in the direction of something interesting.

I am by no means the extreme outlier in this.  Naked Man is constantly pushing for poison tables, weather tables, and precise counting of coins.  He wants to note that he has fourteen silver shillings, two golden dragons from the Free Counties, 87 brass pennies from Traevas, a ruby worth 80 silver shillings, and a golden statue of unknown value.  For me this is simply too much because we never ever do it properly.  If we were actually playing an economics simulation I would happily record gold and silver and such but we always end up fudging the cost of stays at the tavern or bribing the guards.  Inevitably we spend time haggling over utterly trivial sums and hauling daggers from slain foes to sell for pennies, or we simply ignore the small expenditures and lose the simulation feel anyway.  I have many times found a wonderful simulation feel for combat, for exploration, for discussion, but never have I found money to actually work that way.

Heroes By Trade is the game you would expect from me.  It is crunchy in combat and has lots of interesting tactical decisions.  It does not have a concrete money system and instead plays that fast and loose.  It controls player magic and abilities reasonably tightly and does not simply let people make up things on the fly and hope the GM is generous.  I want to have a list of resources in front of me and a problem to tackle.  I want that puzzle to solve.


  1. This is an interesting concept I'd like to think about more.

    Would you say that HbT is crunchy in combat, but not elsewhere? You want to know that if you do X in combat, Y will happen. You don't seem to like uncertainty. But if it comes to weather, poison, or anything outside of combat, it's up to the GM or a vague set of skills.

    I get what you mean by exploring an existing world instead of one being made up as you move from hex to hex. I'm 100% in agreement on that.

    I like the details because I want to suspend disbelief - I want the simulation. Yet you mock me for wanting realistic rules in a world with fireballs. A world where everything is abstracted doesn't feel real - it changes the game from an RPG to Chess. I don't expect my Queen to be more effective when attacking the Rook from behind, but that's because Chess isn't anything like melee combat. When my fighter isn't more effective from behind someone, it's jarring.

    I keep raising the topic of money because we earn no money, have no access to our past welath, and yet can pay for everything. It's silly. Maybe if we needed money we'd have motivation to find adventure! Right now, I'm not clear on our motivation and that makes it less interesting.

    Normally I'd only care about money at early levels where it has an impact, but even at high levels, if money has no meaning, then there is no excitement in finding treasure. And the rules don't allow me a second of the extremely rare magic items so those are out too.

    I'm also taking advantage of the lack of encumbrance rules by doing ridiculous things with gear. But by doing so it feels more like we're playing a cartoon game than a real game. That's not a good thing.

    1. There are encumbrance rules - you are choosing to ignore them. I won't take the blame for the player refusing to play by the rules and then blaming the rules!

      You are right about money though. There isn't much of a motivation to gather money when you can't buy magic items... which is the way I want it. In fantasy stories people don't gather money to buy magic gear, that would be ridiculous. There are fortune hunters of course, but they are usually in it for the thrill of the hunt more than the actual cash. However, our current methods of accounting aren't very functional because we aren't near our home base and never take time off from adventures. Wealth works well when characters have homes and income - when they just have the gold in their pockets it doesn't. Would you truly enjoy the GM coming up with costs for every single meal, every stay at the inn? I think it would be tedious, and when I have tried it in the past it definitely was. I don't have a good answer though but I do admit currently things aren't ideal.

      As to poison - there are poison rules. Go look at them. Weather, you certainly have me. There aren't tables or rules for that. Maybe you could make some that reflect what you want? I don't have a sense of what would be useful there.

  2. I've never used money to bug magic items. And I don't think any player I've GM'd has ever done so either. Money is kind of a way to keep score. But it can also be used for other things - buying castles or servants or inns or ships or renovating a dungeon. It's for hoarding - you have to spend it to protect it.

    Trivial expenses only matter when money is tight. If part of the adventure is that we've got 3 gold between us and need to cross the continent to get to the quest, then we need to come up with some income generating ideas. If we have a thousand gold onus, I'm not going to fret over living costs too much. But how is all that gold being carried? Can someone steal it?

    Magic items are reasons to adventure and get excited. Finding magic swords in hoards, or powerful staves. Maybe a flying carpet or boots.

    I'm not ignoring the encumbrance, the GM is! I think I can carry what I have from a weight perspective, I'm just not sure where I hold it. Of course, what kind of game has naked humanoids as a primary race? They'll never be able to carry anything! Perfect for a world without treasure I guess...

    I don't actually push for weather too much. Weather adds flavour, and I happen to have a vessel that predicts the weather. I think it's an underutilized tool in general - every combat and travel seems to be in perfect weather for nearly every game (that's not a HbT-specific flaw at all).

    I also didn't mention poison, I mentioned facing. I know you won't budge on that one you minimalist partisan! :-)