Friday, November 16, 2012

Game Design (III): Combat pacing, resource usage

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:

  1. If needed, spend an action point on the first turn.
  2. If needed, spend a daily attack on the first turn.
  3. Use encounter attacks, from strongest to weakest, until they run out.
  4. 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.

Tiresome Encounters

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? 


  1. Hmmm, interesting thoughts from a balance perspective, but wouldn't the encounter - at-will - encounter - etc. paradigm simply become a different "formula" for combat? It may solve some of the problems that you talk about, but it could arguably make combat even MORE same-y. There's still just an illusion of choice, and players will always use their strongest powers when they can; they just have to keep the framework of restrictions in mind. It just doesn't strike me as particularly organic, and I'd rather not take away a player's ability to play his/her character.

    The Action Point check does have potential, however. It could represent a PC taking advantage of an opening in combat; fail the roll and the opening didn't present itself.

    On a related note, are you familiar with 13th Age? That system uses an Escalation Die, which is simply a D6 that you place on the table after the first round with the "1" face up. Each round (unless a specific game mechanic interferes) you turn it to the next-highest face. The number on the ED is used as an attack bonus by PCs and the more powerful monsters, as well as certain specific abilities for some classes.

    This mechanic definitely discourages players from busting out their big guns in round 1; especially since 13th Age monster defenses are set at 1 higher than they otherwise would be to account for the impact of the ED. This causes fights to build up in momentum, but it also introduces an interesting choice. Eliminating (or controlling) enemies as quickly as possible is ideal because of the way that HP loss doesn't decrease effectiveness until it's down to 0, which is exactly why frontloading offense is so popular in 4E. With the ED, that strategy needs to be balanced against the fact that the longer you hold off, the more likely you are to hit with your big guns.

    The Escalation Die would be extremely easy to adapt to 4E.

    1. Regarding the "combat formula". I agree that the proposed system still lends itself to a pre-defined power rotation, so it’s not really much more varied than the original rules. That said, the point here is not so much to encourage variety (though that would be great), but to prevent players from blowing up the world by turn 2, and then get bored because they are left with nothing but at-wills.

      As for the escalation die. I’m vaguely familiar with the concept, from some early preview articles on 13th Age. That said, I haven’t had access to the game rules, so I don’t know any specific implementation details. Going by your description, it sounds like a cool mechanic, particularly when integrated with the rest of the game. Since it covers the same purpose as my desperation rule, I’ll stick to that for now, but I’ll keep it in mind if desperation turns out not to work well in practice.

  2. If you want to limit bursts of powered power usage, maybe make it as "buy it". Each round you get one point, daily costs 3, encounter 1 an you start with 2 (or whatever number fits statistical analysis). To bookeep you could use some dice.

    I suspect the problem is not with launching all in a first round, but in first 1-2 rounds. If so, then allow use daily in first round to make impression, but make penealty on other used this/next round.

  3. I just want to say that I'm a really big fan of this project; I think you're introducing a lot of smart ideas and I've already started borrowing some of them for homerules.


    I don't know how I feel about the Fatigue system; I agree that it feels like you're taking toys away from the party. I don't like the turns at the end of a combat where players and monsters swing back and forth with pathetic at-wills but this system sounds like it will just make those lame turns come earlier.

    Rather than punishing encounters, I'd like to see basic attacks powered up to encourage using them earlier. Maybe if you hit with a melee/ranged basic attack (or maybe any at-will), you can crit on a 18-20 on your next encounter / daily attack. (I'm actually planning on playtesting this one, I'd love to see at-wills have a bigger role than attacks-you-use-when-you're-out-of-encounters)

    That all said: I've found that the Desperate system (which has been excellent with my group so far) that you introduced in the last post does a good job making players think twice about how early to use some of their more powerful attacks.

    Wojciech's idea is definitely more along the lines of what I was expecting to see as I read the premise of this post, but I don't like the idea of bringing even more bookkeeping to a game that's already pretty saturated with keeping track of numbers (which isn't to say that I think it's a bad idea, just that I don't think it's a good fit for my specific group).

    *Action Point Checks*

    If my party abused the action point system more I'd definitely want to use a check system like the one you described above; I think the group tends to forget that action points recharge until about halfway through a fight.

    *Limited Dailies*

    Phew, this one is tricky. I do love the goal of spreading out dailies so you get to see them in different fights; this is why I'm a big fan of dailies that are stances / polymorphs / rages. Maybe instead of using a hard limit, punish players for using more than one daily? Have them pay half-level health or receive a -2 penalty on additional daily attacks used in a battle?

    I'll admit that the solutions I'm proposing don't lend themselves as easily towards spreadsheet optimization but with a certain amount of playtesting we'd be able to see how they change pacing.

    Regarding the Escalation Die system:
    All in all, that mainly sounds like something that accomplishes something similar to the desperation mechanic that was in the last post; between the two of them desperation feels more organic to me. That said, I do really like the idea that players have to balance waiting for a big attack bonus with taking out monsters before the monsters get a big attack bonus (I'd definitely like to try throwing it in as a gimmick for a series of encounters).

    1. (and I'm sorry, my alternative to the limited dailies idea is basically identical to Wojciech's; I didn't mean to steal that)

    2. Regarding Desperation vs. Escalation Die, Desperation might feel more organic but it could potentially be a pain to track. For the monsters not so much, but how many PCs are bloodied, dying, etc. will vary during the encounter when healing powers, including self-heals and second wind, are used. I can see having to ask every round "ok, so how many of us are still bloodied and/or dying?"

      The Escalation Die, on the other hand, doesn't require any thought on behalf of the players; they simply look at the die and see which number it's on. It's also more predictable since it goes up every round. If the party never takes much of a beating (or can generate a lot of THP) then Desperate might not go into effect, in which case why not just blow dailies early on in the combat anyways?

    3. I've been playing with Desperation for about a month now, and my experience with it has been that the party gets excited when they realize that they're desperate (and with only a four person party desperation happens fairly easily); keeping track of whether the party's desperation is active is almost never a problem for us. Monsters are indeed a lot easier to keep track of than players, just because once monster desperation turns on it almost never goes off (I did ignore the part of Perico's last article about allowing more monster healing, I like the flavor but it feels too much like I'm just undoing what the players do; I like to treat healing as the players' edge in battle).

      One non-organic part of this is that it makes players have to think about whether they'd like to receive heals that bring them above the bloodied value and lose that bonus. I'll agree that it does feel finicky sometimes but I've already seen the Desperation system make the end of combat much more interesting.

      (That all said, I'm sure there's a much larger group of 13th Age players that have seen Escalation Die put together some awesome encounters; I'm just digging Desperation for my group right now)

    4. JDV, Re: Fatigue. To be clear, I do not think that using at-will attacks, weak though they may be, should be a bad experience. My problem is with how the game is set up so that, when a character starts using at-wills, that’s all they have left for the rest of the encounter. Turn after turn after turn, if the dice roll badly and the encounter doesn’t finish when you want it to. That, in my experience, sucks. On the other hand, alternating stronger and weaker attacks doesn’t sound that bad to me.

      On limited dailies: In this case, power level is only a secondary consideration: the priority is to encourage players to spend their dailies, and for that, I need to eradicate the hope that hoarding lots of powers for the mythological Great Boss Encounter could be a good idea. If we introduce soft limits like you suggest, people will still want to save up a couple of dailies, just in case.

      About keeping track of Desperation. Note that, as written, there is no backtracking for the Desperation condition. Once a character goes Desperate, it lasts until the end of the encounter, even if the party heals so that the condition is no longer met. That said, if it turns out to be too much bookkeeping, I could see changing the rule so that Desperation is evaluated at once for the whole party, rather than on a per-character basis. We could go as far as to check only at the beginning/end of turn. I wanted to try the current implementation because it slightly favours Desperate characters, by granting them an attack with bonus before the defense penalty kicks off.

    5. I still don't know how I feel about the alternating system / hard daily limit, but I'm looking forward to hearing how the playtest goes.

      I'll definitely try out removing backtracking for Desperation; that makes sense.

  4. JDV: it's not mine - probably a tons of ppl proposed something like that ;-)

    Another proposal to dailies and encounters:
    - reuse existing monster recharging feature - just start players with used encounters and dailies - this would limit usage but at benefit of triggering multiple times during encounter. This could divide powers on more and less often used too...

    1. Hmmm... Maybe let's combine JDV proposal with escalation dice nad mine one and limit bookeeping:

      Each player starts with Escalation Dice set to face 6, each round it is decreased by one (second will be 5, 3rd will be 4, etc).
      If user want use power, he/she needs to roll not less than current Escalation Dice. After use Escalation Dice is reverted to "6 side" and is decreased by one each round.

      Bookeeping is limited to additional dice that stays on table, players memory is not burdened with additioanl information, etc.

      What do you think?

    2. Another alternative would be to keep the ascending Escalation Die (which would preserve the increasing attack bonus), but introduce a "Daily check" that adds the current ED value to a D6 roll. So say you need a total of 6 to use a Daily. On round 1 that's only a natural 6 on the die, but on round 2 it's a natural 5-6, etc. Maybe do the same for encounter powers but start them off at a lower DC (4?).

      Of course the problem with a system like this (or any system for randomly deciding when to use a power) is that it reduces the tactical value of some powers. Say you have an AoE slow; while that could be moderately useful in round 1, it's virtually useless in the middle of combat most of the time. So I guess I'm arguing against the suggestion I just offered? Lol.

      Another option similar to JDV's suggestion would be to allow 1 "free" Daily per fight, and if you use another it costs you a healing surge.

      I also like the idea of turning basic attacks and at-wills into "set-up" powers. Maybe houserule a +2 bonus to attack and/or damage with encounters and dailies if an at-will was used in the previous round?

    3. Healing surges are a really smart way to charge for things, I like that idea.

      I'm glad to hear you like the set-up at-wills; I'm still working on trying to make them tempting enough to use sometimes, but not a requirement. My current thought is something along the lines of doubling the crit chance on the next encounter/daily (because crits are fun) and also giving the next encounter/daily the "reliable" keyword (which if I remember correctly would mean that a missed use of the power doesn't actually spend the power). I'd want to incorporate a couple of simple exceptions, along the lines of: you have to target the same monster with both attacks, non-straightforward uses of at-wills don't get this enhancement (charges are good enough already), encounters/dailies that have miss effects can't become "reliable", etc.

      In the end I'm just hoping that players that want to optimize encounters will have more options than Perico's "typical combat" described above.

    4. Some considerations about different schemes for using encounters and dailies.

      For me, the main goal for any alternate power scheme would be to make sure that characters get to use one or two at-will attacks in the first five rounds of combat, ideally with one at-will in the first two turns. Anything else is gravy.

      I'm suspicious of any system that requires additional checks each turn. As is, I already dislike the fact that I'm rolling dice for action points, but I couldn't think of an alternate method that yielded a satisfying distribution. At any rate, anything that requires multiple rolls per character per round probably shouldn't be used.

      Schemes that attach costs or benefits to specific types of powers can get out of hand quickly, complexity-wise. On the one hand, you are making the decision process for each turn even harder and, on the other, you are adding more small bonuses to keep track of...

      That said, the discussion about mechanics for using powers is an interesting one. For what it's worth, my approach is usually the opposite of what you are suggesting: start with the desired result (how do I want encounters to look like?), and then look for mechanics that achieve that.

    5. I'm also suspicious of any system that requires additional dice rolls. More die rolls tend to slow down encounters and often don't encourage extra role playing.

      This is why I think action points shouldn't be tied to a die roll, rather characters should start all encounters with 0 action points, and gain 1 the first time they are bloodied.

      As for ED vs desperation, it sounds like the ED might do the job almost as well as other systems and has the least bookkeeping and/or takes up the least player's time while doing such. Sounds good to me.

  5. By the way, thanks everybody for the amazing feedback. I'm glad you find these articles interesting, and I only wish I could write the material at a faster pace.

  6. RE: Action Point Check

    Instead of adding the mechanics of the "Check," have you considered implementing a simple rule that a character must be bloodied to spend an action point? That delays action point usage to the later rounds where the moments should be more dramatic, and also should add to ending the combat quicker during the "grind" phase.