Monday, August 1, 2011

Perpetual motion machine

Edit: Fair warning I thought I could explain this better. It's a bit rantish as is.

Busy day today hence why I'm a bit late. Currently trying to adjust my sleep schedule towards the earlier part of the working day as well as looking a bit. So this may be a bit short but it's been a subject I've been wanting to talk about for a bit.

In game design there is a bit coined as "Action Economy". What an action economy is depends on how your game works. For the most part it's what you are allowed to do on a turn and at what cost or risk compared to other options and the opposing side. The most basic idea is that "slower", more costly, or rarer options should do more than "faster",cheap, more common ones. Failing to do this shows a design flaw as you're paying more to do less unless you have very good reason to such as niche design but that's another topic.

The most basic way to think of action economy is with chess. Chess you move one piece a turn, that's it baring special moves that rarely do anything. This is balanced between the players, they get to test skill without anything hindering them beyond turn order.Now imagine if you could move two pieces under restriction, like two pawns or maybe a Queen twice if you sacrifice a pawn. What if white could move two pawns and black could move a queen twice if they sacrificed a pawn, is this an equivalent ability for both sides? From there it gets real messy as to what is fair and if you should even bother with your standard moves unless desperate? That's the most basic idea of action economy though I'll go a bit more into detail in other aspects of it.

Most RPGs allow one action a turn to keep things simple and delegate any sense of action economy to the individual options. I'll get to some of those options but the more obvious problem is in pen and paper games. On the tabletop there are always a few ideas that some things should give more actions a turn and this can lead to some very odd results.

To start I'll take an example and use D&D  3.5. In this edition of Dungeons and dragons you have the free actions, swift action, move actions, standard actions, and full actions that can happen on the same turn. Free actions is usually talking and allowing for monologing villains to say something before they go down or party members to do the same. Swift action is like a free action and happens "instantly"but only one may happen on your turn. Move action you only have one of and allows you to move. Standard action is your bread and butter for doing anything though you may also use it as a move action. Full actions use both your move and standard action up for their effect, the easiest example is the full round attack which I'll get into in a bit.

If all the allowable actions were roughly the same there wouldn't be much of a problem. Though some older ideas made it into the game and thoughts of the old classic "time stop" and "Delayed fire ball" show the principal of being allowed to do multiple things on your turn can lead to bad things. Time stop allows you to move around with impertinent for up to 5 rounds, the catch is you really can't do much, you can't attack anything directly even with spells. Delayed fireball lets you cast an improved fire ball and allow it to be delayed up to 5 rounds. The combination is obvious as you just cast all the fireballs on a single target then have them go off after time stop ends. Effectively getting 5 turns worth of actions to obtain a devastating effect when comparatively you took one. There may be some systems where many turns aren't as effective but here the more turns you get the better chance you have of standing on top of things.

This is generally called novaing. You use all available resources for an effect that hopefully wins the battle, in the case above unless that slot for timestop allowed for a devastating spell like no other that wouldn't have you using most of the delayed fireball spells you would seemingly be out of luck. So those instances I could understand it for boss ending super weapons that make DMs pull out their hair and usually games don't have this, they commit some other minor sins. D&D 3.5 has a concept of "full round attack" where fighters can perform up to 4 separate attacks, In a second I'll get into a failure in some aspects of their idea here but multiattacks needs an entire paragraph on it if not an entire post later going on about it.

In theory this sounds very good, often multi attack systems break games. Being allowed at minor disadvantage to attack multiple times easilymakes it combat wise seem like there is a second character on the groups side for the price of them not being as "powerful" as the first. Many video games use the idea too and give "light weapon" characters multiple small damage attacks usually half damage than their one attack higher damage counterparts, mathematically the half damage weapons are better on the base level. Assume this is 50% chance to hit for single attacker and two hits attacker. The single attacker simply has a 50% chance to hit the target and 50% chance to not hit the target. The two hit attacker has a 25% chance of hitting with both weapons, 50% chance of hitting one weapon, and 25% chance of missing all together. As if that wasn't enough the averages are better for the two weapons if you were looking for that, but that is for another time. This is a disparity in Action Economy as clearly two weapons are "better" for it's actions, other factors could be taken into account such as damage reduction, critical, on hit effects, or a variety of other things and frankly has been argued into the ground a lot with how often it comes up. Unluckily for you guy I rarely visit forums so I'll come back to it again.

D&D 3.5 had the idea in there as a way for the fighter to show his prowess in combat. The problem is that it fails quite easily. D&D 3.5 works on base attack bonus where you are given a bonus to the dice you roll, the full round attack works by decreasing this for every attack after the first. At the highest "core" level you have 20 BAB. So your first attack gains a +20 to the roll, the second a +15, third a +10, and fourth a +5. Seems reasonable until you assume that the defenses you are rolling against are increasing at roughly the same rate. So if the thing you're attacking can only get hit on a roll of  10 or better for a single attack your second attack will only hit it on a 15 or better. This leaves your third and Fourth only hitting on a natural 20 which is an auto hit. This is great however for things that aren't actually a 'challenge' to your level as you'll easily have a shot to land all four attacks on them, everything else you do have a good possibility for 2 attacks though. Now not only the fighter gets this, but it's the one who gets it the best. Others don't generally reach 4 attacks a turn or +20 base attack bonus.

I'm not quite wanting to bash D&D on this as it seems like a good thought. It just doesn't have quite the execution I'd need to be to not have extra nearly pointless rolling. Maybe it works better in practice than my experiences show but considering once you hit melee range and aren't moving away it's expected for this mechanic to kick in. With it being the standard for higher end fighters a little more thought could have been given to it though out of all the multi attack systems that are inbuilt in the system it isn't the worst I have seen.

Other systems use some hoops to jump through to gain additional attacks a turn that don't have much penalty beyond what you have to do to get it. WoD comes to mind but it's been so long I can't remember the ways to do it. Effectively you just become two sources of damage with no way around it. You're better than everyone who hasn't done this or has a gimmick that allows them to keep up leaving you at a game warping effect. One system I know of called Cthulhu Tech has muti attacks built in and it seems like it should work until you get higher in your attack stat, in which case the penalties are meaningless for the extra action penalties you get. Also it's dice pool system is so widely swingy towards low results or high that if you're getting high it doesn't matter.

Though the end result is sorta the same. The more moves you can take the better, standard actions are just for people who haven't found a way to slap more on which seems to be a problem to me. Some systems run with the idea but give options all around.The problem comes up to which is "superior" or just flat out useless. Seeing that is really hard like with the chess example which is better? I wouldn't have a guess at that. A bit more thinking in things that change the amount of actions you can take in a game seemingly don't get much thought in my opinion.

A little longer than I wanted, and possibly a bit schizophrenic in nature due to re editing a few times. I'll possibly get into this later time in hopefully not a format that is easier to chew.


  1. Some multi-hit attacks can outright break an entire game's combat system, like the Genji Glove + Offering combination in Final Fantasy 6, which basically gave you 8 hits per turn. You have to keep things balanced, I say.

  2. I prefer to see the ability to remove an opponents defense to seeing multiple goes in one turn. It feels more fair.