MAKING MECHANICS WORK FOR YOU

Tips for applying a fair ruleset in your RPG.


Balance. Making sure your game is fair. Making sure it is enjoyable and fun. It’s one of the most fundamental and most important elements any game can have. Some people like to elevate balance as some kind of Holy Grail worthy of special attention, but this is a fallacy. Players expect your game to be balanced. Having good balance isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a special feature.

But balance can be hard. It can be difficult for developers to put themselves in the players’ shoes. They can have a hard time knowing what the player wants and expects. Veteran RPG players making an RPG might set the bar too high for a new player to grasp. They may think a game is fair when it is actually just frustrating.

There are, however, many ways you can turn game mechanics to your advantage, not just to improve your combat balance, but to improve your setting and characters as well! So, how can you improve your game mechanics? How can you use them to make your game enjoyable?


Knowing your audience

It may seem like where you go with your numbers largely depends on who you are making this game for. Is this game you are making meant to be played only by the elite hardcore RPG gamers of the ages? Is it meant to be a casual game that nearly anyone can blunder their way through without incident? Or something in between these two extremes?

This is an important point. You must know who your game is being “marketed” towards. Maybe your game is filled with deep, complex mathematical damage equations that you want your players to have to learn and pick apart. There’s definitely a small subset of players who would be into that, but most players are never going to look at their stat screen beyond a very superficial level and they’re never going to give a moment’s thought to the combat algorithms. They’re going to pick “Super Demon Death Ray” from the skill menu and expect everything on the battlefield to die.

Aiming for making a challenging game is fine. There is an audience for that. But it’s important that your potential players know what they’re in for. It’s important to know why it’s challenging. Please note that making a boss with 900,000 hp and maxed stats does not automatically equate to challenge.

On the other side of the coin, some players aren’t looking for challenge at all. They want to mash attack and just get through all the fights without rising above the superficial level of “push space bar, heal occasionally.”

But the problem here is obvious. Catering to only one of these crowds is going to be very off-putting to the other. The solution isn’t just to drag yourself and your game into the middle, not too easy, not too hard, to try to please everyone. The middle is where mediocrity flourishes.

Is there a way to please both sides?

There are ways to do this with difficulty. Difficulty options are becoming increasingly common in games as a way for players to tailor the game’s challenges to their particular level of skill. Another way is to include ultra challenging optional content for players seeking a good challenge. But these aren’t substitutes for making your game fun to play for everyone.

Instead of focusing on difficulty, you should try to make your mechanics engaging. Make the player want to experiment (and let them!). With a little work, you can make a game that lets the elite RPG maker number crunchers enjoy themselves while also making a game that can be accessible to everyone else.


Consistency

The most important thing you can do with your rules is to make sure that they are “fair.” But what one person considers fair might vary wildly from what another person thinks is fair. But in a lot of cases both of them are wrong anyway because they don’t have any idea what it actually means for a ruleset to be fair.

There’s a generalization that fair only has to mean “equal to both sides,” and that isn’t wrong, necessarily, but that is a maxim used mostly in competitive contests, and most of the games made here are not two or more players competing. There is only one player, and it is her against the game. It’s more important to make sure the game is fair to your player, as opposed to making it fair to the computer. The computer already usually has the advantage in numbers, strategy, and abilities over the player. It’s important to make sure your player has a chance to fight back.

The most important way to do this is to apply rules consistently. A specific input should always produce the same result in roughly the same circumstances. Human brains are pattern-seeking entities and will look for patterns to apply rules to. If blue enemies are often weak to fire, making a blue enemy that resists fire is tricking your player whether you realize it or not. If a specific ability always produces a certain effect, that effect should be reliable. Forget everything Final Fantasy taught you about bosses being immune to all status effects. If your player has access to status effects as part of her repertoire, making an enemy immune to them all is taking away one of your player's tools and that’s not fair.


Identifiably

The reason elemental affinities and weaknesses became popular among early RPGs is because they were easily identifiable and the player could remember and apply these tactics throughout a game. They player didn’t have to memorize entirely new concepts or cosmology to understand how these effects worked. Water puts out fire, so water is effective against fire-based enemies. Simple. The player learns something about how enemies work that gives them an advantage.

Some decry this extremely simplistic elemental weakness system as archaic, overly-simplistic, a holdover from the days of yore when games weren’t sophisticated enough to go beyond “use element x on enemy y.” And this is probably true. Games are far more sophisticated now and can go far beyond such one-dimensional strategies. But doing so might be confusing.

If your game world has four elements of Fire, Ice, Wind, and Earth, the player can probably deduce any number of potential interrelationships between those elements without having to be told anything. There are things that will innately make sense to them, and things that fly in the face of that (fire enemies resisting water) will strike them as strange and counterintuitive. They don’t need the game’s help to work this out.

If your game has the elements Spirit, Arcane, Mighty, and Couscous, you’ve just confused your player. They have no idea how those elements interact with each other without learning the possibly completely arbitrary rules of your game’s universe. An NPC might tell them that Mighty is strong vs Couscous, but the player might not be able to remember that easily.

You might have written up a whole mythology regarding the lore of your universe, and that’s all fine, but your player shouldn’t have to learn everything about that lore to be able to play your game. The strategies your player can apply to combat should be realistic and deducible using real-world logic, and should never be completely arbitrary and arcane.

Random Chance

Many people think random chance is the ultimate arbiter of fairness. Whether you succeed or not is determined completely at random with no outside influence. The problem is, your player probably doesn’t want their fate to be taken completely out of their hands and left up to some arbitrary dice roll. The player wants their success to be determined by their own actions and the consequences of their choices.

Random chance has been a common element in many games for a long time. Once again, older games had limited ways of allowing the player to interact with the game world, and rolling an internal die was one of the few ways to arbitrate outcomes. But games have evolved past that and any game relying predominantly on completely random factors affecting their input into the game is likely to just be frustrating.

Games are increasingly moving away from this model. Even modern pen-and-paper Roleplaying games where dice rolls are the main mechanic are looking at ways to reduce the influence of random chance on their players. Computer roleplaying games are moving away from it almost entirely. Putting the player entirely in control of their own destiny is empowering and exciting. Taking it out of their hands is frustrating and unfair.

Suppose you have a character who has an ability that can cast a Death spell that works 20% of the time. This is a useless spell. There is an 80% chance the spell will be wasted and most players will still not use it. So you compromise. You make it a 50% chance. Most players still will not use it because the prospect of wasting a turn is pretty unappealing and they’d probably be better off hitting it with a fireball or something. Spells that a player won’t use are essentially a waste.

Why not just make the Death spell work 100% the time? “Because that would be too powerful!” you cry! Well, make it a powerful spell then. Make it cost a prohibitive number of spell points so that the player will be reluctant to use it except in situations where they really need it. Give it a multiple turn cooldown so that the player cannot just cast it over and over. There are many ways to limit a player’s more powerful abilities than to simply rule that their powers don’t work. If the player has an instant kill spell in their repertoire that they’re never using, there’s probably a problem with how it is implemented.

It can be hard to get away from this mindset of reducing random chance because it is so ingrained in everything we know or understand about RPGs from the last twenty years. Almost everything from critical hits to evasion is influenced by random chance. Chance is one of the few factors you can directly influence about a skill in some versions of RPG maker. How can you help but use random chance in some of these cases?

Here’s a little tip: players rarely complain when the numbers fall their way. A reasonable compromise in this case is to make sure that random chance never hurts your player, it can only help them. If your player randomly scores a critical hit on an enemy, good for them! It can be kind of exciting if the fight is intense and every point of damage counts. If your player gets OHKO’d be an enemy getting a critical in the same fight, it’s likely to be devastating.

Limit how much random chance helps out the player’s enemies. The game doesn’t care if the numbers never fall in its favor. When random chance can hurt your player, try to eliminate it. But when it can help your player out, sometimes it can make their day.


Mechanics as part of your world

Anyone who has read a single sentence in any of my other articles knows that I am someone who values story as much as the vaunted “gameplay.” But these two things aren’t always separate entities. Sometimes they’re the exact same thing. This is how games differ from less interactive media. The events of the game are happening to you personally, and how you react to them influences how the game proceeds.

So how do your game mechanics tie into the game world? Unless your game has lots of branching dialogue options, you might be thinking “it doesn’t.” And you’re probably right. Many games treat their game mechanics as an abstraction that has no bearing on the plot. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

There are many ways that your game abstractions can influence the plot. There are a variety of examples in the Final Fantasy series. In Final Fantasy VI, espers are the game mechanic by which your party learns new magic, but it is also a plot element. Much of the game is spent with the Empire seeking to use espers magicite to destroy their enemies. Final Fantasy VII introduced Materia in much the same way. You use it to learn spells. But it too ends up being a plot point and about two thirds of the game are spent pursuing various types of Materia that could save the world or destroy it. In Final Fantasy IV and IX, summoners and the creatures they summon are plot points.

Stats, spells, and gear aren’t necessarily abstractions that your party just uses to get stronger. They might be able to play a part in shaping the game’s narrative and flavoring your world. It can add to your player’s understanding if they know what is at stake. It makes it seem more pressing that we stop the evil chancellor from collecting Kickassium Crystals if our main character just used one to one-shot a dragon.

Think about ways your game abstractions can influences the setting and the circumstances of your characters. Don’t treat them like game mechanics, and your player won’t either.

Posts

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author=Soli
It may seem like where you go with your numbers largely depends on who you are making this game for. Is this game you are making meant to be played only by the elite hardcore RPG gamers of the ages? Is it meant to be a casual game that nearly anyone can blunder their way through without incident? Or something in between these two extremes?

The article really peaks here. There are enough gamers in the world for a game to appeal to exactly one audience and commit to doing that well, to the point where developers don't really need to compromise their vision anymore to gain players.

For example, exceedingly difficult games like Demons Souls or Ninja Gaiden still receive critical acclaim despite their difficulty levels being along the lines of "fuck you". Similarly, games like Shadow of the Colossus or the SaGa series who break all the rules and don't care about it also manage to attract gamers who are looking for a more unconventional experience.

Yes, there are ways to make your game as marketable and playable to as many people as you reasonably can, and no, it's not cool to whine if people don't appreciate it if you have an odd idea, but generally, never compromise your vision to please the masses. If your game turns out to be some unseen ass shit but is still good in its own right, then well, good for you, man!
harmonic
It's like toothpicks against a tank
4116
author=Soli
Balance. Making sure your game is fair. Making sure it is enjoyable and fun. It’s one of the most fundamental and most important elements any game can have. Some people like to elevate balance as some kind of Holy Grail worthy of special attention, but this is a fallacy. Players expect your game to be balanced. Having good balance isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a special feature.


Heh, remembering one of the very old Misaos... balance was actually touted as a feature, including by yours truly. But, at the time, the medium was a lot less mature, and the concept of using numbering schemes other than the default paradigm was quite a novelty.
Isn't that same as saying your game should be good? I don't really see anything wrong with saying something like "my game has well done dialogue", I mean yeah if your game has story it's expected but it's just harmless empty marketing.
Good article. Lots of valuable tips.

I just don't agree with the Random thing. I think percentage events are nice, but I'd advise the percentage to be explicit, always. FFTA comes to mind. Whenever you set to do anything, the game tells you the percentage of success. You decide whether you want to try it or not. A 20% Death spell might be a fun thing to TRY when you're in a battle that you'd lose otherwise. Hoping it will work is interesting.

One thing I miss in your articles is examples, mentioning specific games. Because it seems like you're pointing common flaws in games most of the time, but I'm curious to know what games commit such flaws and how... and which games present good alternatives. Especially our (RMN's) games.
Because when you say something like, for instance, "If your game has the elements Spirit, Arcane, Mighty, and Couscous, you’ve just confused your player.", it's a tip that makes no sense if you have never seen a game doing this, would you agree? If you mention specific games, this article would also work as feedback of sorts. Just a suggestion.
harmonic
It's like toothpicks against a tank
4116
author=Darken
Isn't that same as saying your game should be good? I don't really see anything wrong with saying something like "my game has well done dialogue", I mean yeah if your game has story it's expected but it's just harmless empty marketing.


Missed my point.

author=harmonic
But, at the time, the medium was a lot less mature, and the concept of using numbering schemes other than the default paradigm was quite a novelty.


Way back in the stone ages of RPGmaker, when good balance was rare (lots of games had terrible difficulty curves) the concept of having a game that flowed properly was a novelty. No, it's not the same.
I was addressing your quote of Soli but w/e. Thing is you're seeing balance as something specific like overall battle mechanics. But it seems Soli on the other hand is looking at balance in the broad sense like how accommodating the mechanics in your game is to players... Which is pretty much equating to the quality of the game. I'm saying at that point it's pretty meaningless to basically say "your game should be good" when everyone knows that. Idk it's just a minor note...
The problem with a death-only spell (assuming it actually matters, you can't KO the enemy in 2 hits anyway or something like that) is that if you do make its random payoff good enough to use, it can become an uninteresting degenerate strategy. (Not to mention the perverse incentive it generates in terms of saving and reloading.)

IMO randomness tends to be more effective when things depend on the accumulation of several lower-impact events and not a few important all-or-nothing shots.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
17252
@Darken

The point of this article is less "your game should be good!!!1!!" and more "here are some ways I think can help make your game good."

@DFalcon

I will always maintain that a useless technique isn't particular engaging. The idea for the death spell is to make it useful without being overpowered, i.e give it a prohibitive mana cost. The death spell becomes a great tool when you're really in a bind, i.e. that enemy needs to die right the hell now, and not a "lol I cast death on everything forever" strategy. There are plenty of ways to control how powerful an ability is besides just having it arbitrarily not work.

A good example of this kind of mechanic is in Dhux's Scar here on RMN. One of the characters, Celliann, has a technique called "Unholy Prayer" which can kill anything, even bosses, in one shot. There is plenty of incentive to use this ability as many of your party members are quite weak and the bosses are absolutely brutal. Using it, however, reduces a finite resource, called P.E, which goes down as you progress through the game anyway. If you lose too many P.E. you can miss out on the game's "good ending" and if you run out completely it's game over. Thus, the player has a technique at their disposal to instantly destroy absolutely any enemy in the game, but is forced to be judicious about how and when they use it.
The point of this article is less "your game should be good!!!1!!" and more "here are some ways I think can help make your game good."

sdfgragagsagfsgas i wasnt talking about the entire article

w/e forget i said anything
Max McGee
My name is Legion: for we are many.
8344
I found this article disappointingly vague, wishy-washy, and content-lite.

Anyway, I wish that VX would work on my machine so that I could play around with computer RPG mechanics. Maybe one day. In the mean time I'll have to content myself with the other kind of game mechanics/balance.

Games are increasingly moving away from this model. Even modern pen-and-paper Roleplaying games where dice rolls are the main mechanic are looking at ways to reduce the influence of random chance on their players.

No offense, but you do not actually know anything about this, and hence should not talk about it. Naturally, there are multiple thoughts, but the diceless weirdos have always been a small, niche sub-community and the Forge crowd produce "game mechanics" that are a whole lot of tree hugging hippy crap.

Speaking about main stream, traditional TTRPGs, there is an entire community of very serious pen and paper game designers and RPG numbers geeks have pointed out that the major flaw of D&D 3E/3.5E for instance is that it goes completely OFF the RNG at higher levels. One of the most recent "breakthroughs" in pen and paper game design was D&D 4E which made the RNG matter again.

But the entire issue of pen-and-paper RPG game mechanics is very very very very complicated.

I could explain some more of this but, it's a different flavor of geeking out than RMN anticipates. And besides who has the time?
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
17252
I do know things about "this" and you perhaps should not assume I do not. In D&D 4th edition many efforts were made to minimize the influence of the RNG, such as lower skill check requirements and a large number of skills that have fail safes (if you miss the skill is not wasted, or the skill otherwise still has some effect even if it misses, or some skills that never miss, but have a large damage reduction.) These abilities allow the player to make strategic decisions that keep flukes of the dice from sabotaging them. Otherwise, the dice tend to be an early level party's main enemy, especially since Armor classes tend to be high and they have a very limited number of ways to influence the dice. A nice thing about higher level 3E parties is the RNG matters less because they have, at that point, acquired a variety of skills or enchantments to overcome these problems.

I don't doubt there is a subset of purists out there who prefer the dice to rule the player's destiny, but I think it's unfair to assume they represent a majority. Are there some who prefer things like that? Of course. But I think the casual player does not.
slash
And may these winds be always at your back
3739
I gotta say, I agree with the analysis of random chance. Randomness has a place and it can be fun, but the extent to which it controls many RPGs is too much. I've had people rage at D&D because they rolled three 1's in a row and then died. That being said, even positive randomness (like a critical hit) can be unfair to the player if they never get one when they need it.

When the latest Smash Bros game came out, the designers added a small random% chance to "trip" whenever he runs, which prevents your character from moving and makes him very vulnerable for a few moments. In a Smash Bros match, a random trip is more than enough to give your opponent the finishing blow. I'm sure you can imagine the typical player's reaction to this addition. I'm not sure why people still hold on so tightly to this tradition in RPG gameplay design - it's keeping the genre from evolving.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
17252
Actually, trips in SSBB aren't random. Certain abilities can cause you to trip if you get hit by them. That isn't to say they aren't very stupid.
slash
And may these winds be always at your back
3739
author=Solitayre
Actually, trips in SSBB aren't random. Certain abilities can cause you to trip if you get hit by them. That isn't to say they aren't very stupid.

This is true - many moves can cause you to trip and are balanced around that mechanic. Diddy's banana peels are meant to cause tripping whenever they hit. In addition, down-tilt attacks have a random % chance to trip a standing opponent on a hit.

However, there is also a small, random chance to trip whenever you SMASH the control stick, i.e. when running, using a side-special, or using a side-smash attack, and this is completely out of the hands of the players. The only way to not risk a trip is to never SMASH the control stick, which removes 4 abilities from your repertoire and your ability to run :P This seems like it falls right under your description of unnecessary randomness.
I would agree that randomness in battle is usually a bad idea. Randomness outside of battle can make for a great game. For example, every time you enter a dungeon a random number determines what obstacles you face. Even if it's small aesthetic changes it would add extra replay value to the game and give each player a unique experience.

The trips in SSBB are a horrible game mechanic for a fighting game, especially one so focused around movement.

author=Solitayre
Actually, trips in SSBB aren't random. Certain abilities can cause you to trip if you get hit by them. That isn't to say they aren't very stupid.


What data did you base this on? What ability other than banana peels forces a trip?
slash
And may these winds be always at your back
3739
Well, there are some items that make you trip (thrown Bananas, the Tingle Assist Trophy, Luigi's Smash Ball attack) and hitting an opponent on the ground with a down-tilt has a % chance to make them trip as well. Some specials have increased random chance to make you trip too.

Oh hey, a detailed list:
http://super-smash-bros.wikia.com/wiki/Tripping

You'll notice that besides the banana peels (and Wario's Gas attack?) that each attack has a completely random % chance to cause trips.

(scooby-dooby-doo)
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