Friday, January 22, 2016

Mechanics Talk: Ghosts of Mechanics Past

So, we were going to have a post this week about the Egyptian version of the Devotional Domain, but then we got a giant winter storm slam-dunked on our area and lost power for a bit and a bunch of other semi-exciting messes, and it fell by the wayside. I'll get that post to you folks later, but while I still have laptop battery, how about a quick look into some past failures during the design process? These are things that we realized weren't working in a large, major enough way that we had to totally redo some of the system itself, and they might shed a little light on the process while we're at it.

Failure #1: Combat Episodes.

We mentioned in last week's post that there are different types of Episodes in HJ, and that they have different mechanical frameworks and effects. You'll hear some more about at least one of them next week, but one of them, back in the day, was the Combat Episode, which was automatically triggered as soon as hostilities broke out during the Heroes' adventures. Combat Episodes had specific rules about how to get out of or end them, as well as about character movements and actions within them, all of which were designed to help make sure that combat was streamlined and clear, and that rules from other types of Episodes that might have gotten in the way were replaced with better ones.

This all sounds totally great... except that it completely did not work. Not because the ideas of all that weren't sound, but because combat triggering a new Episode in the midst of whatever else was going on didn't work in the larger context of the game's resource system. HJ uses resources based on narrative chunks of time, including the Episode... which meant that all the Heroes immediately regained all their Episode-based resources the second combat started. Which sounded great if you were a fighter, because you were always completely topped off and ready to rumble the second things got rough, but wasn't fair to all the other character types possible. Characters that were about, say, social interactions, or intelligence-based puzzle solving, had to be vigilant about their resources and spend them wisely, knowing that they might overspend them and run out at a crucial moment, but fighters knew that they could pretty much screw around constantly since anything they really needed their resources for would come with a fresh new helping of them right away.

Also, and most glaringly, if people ran out of resources, they could just go punch someone in the face, especially someone they knew they could take out easily, and then get all their resources back immediately. And then as soon as the fight was over, a new Episode would start again, and again everyone would be at full, even if they spent resources on the combat itself. Complete design failure.

We turned them around and upside down for a while, but in the end, we just ended up writing Combat Episodes completely out of the game. Combat now occurs as an event within Episodes, not as a separate Episode in and of itself, which makes combat-oriented characters need to manage their resources just as carefully as everyone else, and removes the instant-refill button of starting a bar brawl from the equation. A combat situation still triggers a lot of the old specialized rules from the Combat Episodes of old - movement works differently when you're in combat, for example - but now nested within the greater Episode architecture.

Failure #2: Sphere Roll Bonuses.

As you've seen in the webs, there are a lot of bonuses to be picked up to various Talent rolls. A savvy web-traveler can find some bonus successes to, say, Streetwise or Art, to add to their rolls, making it possible to super-specialize in their favorite stats. Spheres don't have these bonuses the way Talents do, mostly because you don't roll Spheres in order to take actions over the normal course of your adventures, just when you use their specific powers.

Unfortunately, awesome though this is, we realized partway through the process that this caused a fundamental mechanical imbalance: you couldn't get a bonus to your Sphere rolls, but the people you wanted to use your Sphere powers on could get bonuses to their resistance stats. This meant that if other PCs stacked their resists, they could become literally completely immune to their fellows trying to use any Sphere powers on them that involved a resist, which was not exactly the balanced universe we were hoping for. (Being really good at resisting stuff because you invested in it, sure! Being literally unstoppable, not quite as great in a big-picture sense.)

We talked about fixing this problem by reworking the Talent webs to add Sphere bonuses... but oh my god, that was so much potential work, and so many numbers that had to be updated and changed and redone and rebalanced. John almost cried a little at the idea - not that he couldn't do it, but that the current setup had been so carefully calibrated for mathematical balance that starting over felt super bad. So instead, we looked at what Spheres were even doing, and how they could be balanced without the problem of heads-up roll vs. resist imbalances making them sub-par. Sphere powers were rewritten to have effects that didn't rely on resistance rolls (although they still do rely on various other stats and attributes of other characters, so they don't go back the other way into being unbalanced).

This actually turned out to be a good thing overall, because it helped us develop a distinct difference in the flavor of Talent Blessings vs. Sphere Blessings, without making resistances any less important to the average character. So a silver lining on that one!

Failure #3: Pain Penalties.

This one was an example of design realities not living up to the conceptual ideas that we wanted them to be based on. We're a big fan of interesting consequences and effects in combat, and one of those is the idea that being in severe pain and/or heavily injured takes its toll on a character. To that end, we designed a system of pain penalties, in which how much damage a character had taken could affect them, levying penalties on them when they began to sustain serious injury.

This was a neat idea in theory, but it broke down completely in practice. Based on the amount of health a character could get, the averages for each level of character, and the damage amounts and types that they could or might sustain in combat, John worked out that the correct distribution would be for a Hero to sustain a one-success penalty to their rolls for approximately every four damage that they suffered. I'm sure everyone reading that sentence immediately sees the flaw in that plan; making players keep track of their current damage divided by four to get a penalty number, and then watching that penalty number constantly change based on damage taken or healed, was a complete nightmare. We tested it out for good measure, even after realizing this, but it was exactly as obnoxious and unwieldy in practice as we thought it would be. No one could ever remember to do it, it slowed everything down to a hellaciously pitiful pace, and anything we might have gained in terms of a feeling of mythic desperation in combat was way overwhelmed by the difficulty and frustration it caused.

Obviously, that got scrapped pretty early on, and we replaced it with various other more simplified system to play with the idea of injuries affecting combatants, the current iteration of which (a single injury penalty that kicks in when the Hero is below half their total amount of health) is still in testing. But jeez, what a total garbage mechanic that was. The best-laid plans.

These aren't the only times we've designed something only to realize later that it totally didn't work; a whole game system is a big thing, and sometimes something that we built that made sense in a self-contained context didn't work in the larger game framework, or something that sounded brilliant in a certain situation was totally torpedoed by another one. But these are some of the most memorable failures - just, the WOW, these were designed by CLOWNS failures. We've had less hilarious or important ones that get noticed and fixed along the way, but I think I've shared enough to embarrass us for now.

Next time, we'll talk about things that do work. In the meantime, stay warm, everybody!


  1. The Sphere Blessings thing intrigues me...I'm curious as to how that pans out.

    Also, you can totally add Ethoi to the list of things I'm happy you decided to dump :)

    1. Ha, oh man, yeah. Ethoi not only didn't work very well mechanically, but they were also just not a good idea in concept, either. Glad we got rid of those suckers early on!

  2. Thanks for the glimpse behind the scenes! When you are "just" a player, you really don't see all the work that goes into balancing out the rules that you are using. My hat is off to you for the effort you put in, and for showing us what didn't work.