One of the main challenges when working with a tactical combat system is ensuring that players remain engaged and interested until the end of an encounter. In our last article, we discussed how the number of active combatants interacted with player fun, arguing that the current system is prone to relatively long phases of late game grind,and suggested some rules to counter this trend. However, the game model we used in our examples was still incomplete, and missing some important elements - such as characters using different kinds of attacks and resources each turn, and from one encounter to the other. Today we will take a look at this.
Simply put, the availability of expendable resources (as currently implemented) makes the first rounds of a combat even more important and, conversely, causes the later combat phases to take longer and become less exciting. From a strategic point of view, there is no incentive to save resources for the end of an encounter, so whatever special powers a player intends to spend in a given combat will be blown away as soon as possible. As a consequence, most characters will be dealing a disproportionate amount of damage right at the start of combat, and be left with subpar offense later on - which, using the terminology defined in our previous article, will shorten the Optimal Zone and increase the Grind Zone.
A typical combat
We will begin by providing an overview of how attack resources are usually allocated. Generally speaking, a player character will prefer to spend attack powers in decreasing order of effectiveness. This attack priority could be codified as follows:
- If needed, spend an action point on the first turn.
- If needed, spend a daily attack on the first turn.
- Use encounter attacks, from strongest to weakest, until they run out.
- Use at-wills for the remainder of combat.
This is obviously a simplification, and there are common exceptions to these rules. A negative condition (like weakened or dazed) may discourage the use of stronger attacks for a turn, or prevent it altogether. Players may feel the need to use action points or dailies mid-combat to recover from a string of bad rolls. Some powers are situational, and will be used when a specific condition is met (e.g. enemies are properly grouped for a burst), rather than at a fixed order. An optimized, coordinated party may prefer to delay their best powers, spending the first round setting up enhancements and positioning for a lethal turn 2. But, more often than not, this is a fairly accurate description of how a character is played. More importantly, it is how the game rules encourage players to behave.
An anticlimactic conclusion
My main concern with the dynamic described above is that it leads to unsatisfying combats, from a narrative standpoint. Everybody starts off doing something truly awesome, then continues with more mundane movements, and ends up using their puniest attacks. Even worse, if the fight is somehow not over by the time everybody has used up their cool toys, we can expect a series of long, monotonous turns where not much of interest happens.
This is not how combats usually turn out in fiction, and with good reason. It’s much more exciting to have some back and forth, to have desperate heroes draw from inner reserves, to end with a bang, rather than a whimper. The question, then, is how can we change the game system to make this the common scenario?.
My preferred solution for this is one that does not involve many changes, but that may be a hard sell for players: to impose restrictions on power usage. By preventing action point usage in the early turns of a fight, forcing a turn of recovery between encounter attacks, and limiting daily attacks per encounter, I believe we can greatly improve the pace and feeling of combats. On top of that, we would minimize the chances of ending a fight in the first couple of turns, make the game easier to balance, and actually encourage the use of daily attacks, or even second wind. The drawback, though, is that we are reducing character effectiveness and party synergies, and overall taking toys away from adventurers, which can understandably make some players unhappy. Nevertheless, I think the benefits are well worth the effort.
The time for action
Of all the resources available to players, it is the seemingly innocent action point that has the most damaging impact in encounter rhythm and balance. It basically allows characters to take two turns in a row, which is a very potent tool in the hands of any moderately coordinated party, and it virtually ensures that one or more monsters will have dropped by the end of turn one.
I am a bit torn with this issue, because I really like how action points have been implemented (they are simple, elegant, intuitive, and exciting) except for their power level - and any solution I introduce for the sake of balance will detract from this. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the game as a whole will improve with such a change, even if action points themselves end up with slightly clunky rules.
There are two factors that, in my opinion, push action points over the top: the ability to use them early, reliably, and in coordination with other party members, and their use to dish out multiple encounter attacks (or even multiple dailies) in a single turn. To address the first one, I propose the following rule:
Action point usage: Once during each character’s turn, that character can make an Action Point Check. This is a d20 check with a DC determined by the current combat round (see table below). If the check succeeds, that character can spend an action point that turn, unless he has already spent an action point this encounter.
If a character is allowed to spend an action point outside of his turn (e.g. from a paragon path feature), he makes an Action Point Check. If the check succeeds, the character can spend the action point that way. A character can never make more than one Action Point Check per round.
(Note: A character cannot spend an action point unless he has succeeded in an Action Point Check that turn).
Round- Action Point Check DC
1 - Impossible (no check)
2 - 15
3 - 10
4+ - Automatic
A bit heavy-handed, but it does the job. Note that this means that first-turn action points are completely eliminated from the game, and that action point usage is initially dependent on random chance. Coordinated use of action points is still possible on later combat rounds, where it is much less problematic, and in fact can help parties recover from unfortunate encounters, or speed the cleaning up of the last few monsters.
As for the use of action points to chain multiple encounter or daily attacks, it is addressed in the following sections.
As I explained above, in a usual encounter, a character will go through all his encounter attacks, from stronger to weaker, and then resort to using at-wills over and over. While functional, this divides combat into two very different phases: an initial phase where characters feel powerful, get to use lots of different tools, and plow through enemies, and a late game where weakened characters struggle to kill each other through repetitive maneuvers. I think it would be much better if we mixed it a bit.
Consider adding a new rule that prevented characters from using more than one encounter attack every two turns. With this restriction in place, combatants would alternate between strong and weak (encounter and at-will) attacks, making encounters more varied and introducing new strategies: controlling effects could be timed to coincide with enemy ‘strong’ turns, for example, and ‘weak’ turns could be spent on (currently) rarely used maneuvers like Second Wind, or repositioning. We could implement this rule as follows:
Encounter Attack Usage: A character that uses an encounter attack power becomes Fatigued until the end of his next turn.
Fatigue: A fatigued character cannot use encounter attack powers. Certain types of powers can also be affected by the fatigued condition.
Attack powers not causing fatigue. The following powers do not make a character fatigued, and can be used by fatigued characters:
- Racial Powers
- Channel Divinity Powers
- Magic Item Powers
Non-attack powers affected by fatigue. A character using any of the following powers becomes fatigued until the end of his next turn; these powers cannot be used while fatigued:
- Backstab (Thief Utility)
- Bladesong (Bladesinger Utility)
Augmentable psionic powers are affected as follows:
- A character that uses the most expensive augmentation of an augmentable at-will attack becomes fatigued until the end of his next turn.
- The most expensive augmentation of an augmentable at-will attack cannot be used while fatigued.
- Any other augmentations or unaugmented powers do not make a character fatigued, and can be used by fatigued characters.
This clearly needs playtesting, but my impression is that it should play pretty well. An important point that could be considered a drawback, is that the rule prevents characters from using all their encounter attacks in a typical combat - if we are aiming for a ~5 round fight, any encounter powers beyond the third will often remain unspent. The upside, on the other hand, is that when you do get to turn 7 in an encounter, you still have a potent attack to finish off enemies. Also, this could be seen as an opportunity for players to pick more situational powers, and experiment more with character builds.
Another side effect of this change is that you can no longer use two encounter attacks in a row with an action point, which further reduces the effectiveness of APs.
One More Daily
Though you wouldn’t tell from my efforts to bring their power level to the ground, action points are among my favourite mechanics in the game. The main reason for this is that they are a limited character resource that just works. It’s easy to understand, has a significant impact in a combat and, most importantly, it is set up in such a way that players use it a lot. Key to this success is the fact that there is no reason to hoard action points: a hard limit of 1 action point means that you don’t need to save them for a hypothetical Last Big Fight - the most efficient course of action is usually to spend them at roughly the same rate you acquire them, a point every two encounters.
Compare this to how daily powers are played. Now, party dynamics and player strategies may vary, but the fact remains that the game encourages players to leave daily resources unused. In the vast majority of encounters, the players are expected to win, and the only remaining question is how handily they defeat their enemies. In practice, this margin of victory is measured by resource expenditure: how many non-renewable resources has the party spent, by the end of an encounter? It turns out that there are only two such resources in the game, healing surges and daily powers (also, to a lesser degree, action points, but using too many of these only matters in the very short term). Furthermore, player ability to reduce healing surge expenditure is limited at best. On an average encounter (i.e. one that favours players), aggressive usage of daily attacks may somewhat reduce player HP loss (that is, surge usage), but it’s far from a direct conversion. On the other hand, in a harder fight where player victory is not so clear-cut, using more dailies can make all the difference in the world.
In a player’s mind, then, each adventuring day can be structured as a series of easier encounters that don’t defeat adventurers but wear them down, leading to a climactic final combat against a challenging foe. The challenge in these initial battles is to win while spending as few surges and dailies as possible, so that there are enough resources left to fight the Final Boss.
There is a problem with this approach. On the one hand, the metric for victory in easy battles is, primarily, the ability to not use the most awesome powers available to a hero. On the other hand, the exciting final battle (when it actually happens, since it’s perfectly possible that a day will end without one) will usually be won or lost based mostly on how players have performed previously (do they have four dailies each to annihilate the dragon, or are they out of powers and surges and basically screwed?), rather than on what they actually do against the Big Bad. It really doesn’t look like a fun dynamic!
All of this leads, of course, to the following rule change:
Daily Attack Usage: A character can only use one daily attack power each encounter.
Exceptions: The following powers do not count towards the limit of one daily attack per encounter:
- Magic Item Powers
With this, dailies become much more similar to action points, with the advantages stated above. An added consequence of the change is that character performance in an encounter is much easier to predict, due to the reduced variability in daily power spending - and thus, much easier for me to create a solid and balanced mathematical framework for the game.
I have introduced a set of changes that sacrifices a bit of player freedom in order to improve the flow of combat. A side-effect of the new rules that I haven’t yet discussed is the fact that it results in a serious disadvantage for player characters, compared to previous scenarios. This will eventually addressed when I get to the full overhaul of the game math, but for now, a game master interested in trying out these ideas should take care in reducing encounter challenge a bit.
In my next article, I will suggest new rules to handle healing and dying. In the meantime, I may post something about the updated game model, though I’m having a hard time writing a compelling text on the topic - in fact, much of the delay in finishing this article has been due to unsuccessful attempts to talk about my formulas and spreadsheets. At any rate, if anyone is interested in checking out the latest version of the sheets, it can be found here.
So, what do you think?