Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Game Design (V): Character conditions

You are lying on the ground. You can’t move. You can’t see. You have been turned to stone. Character conditions add a lot of variety to the tactical gameplay of D&D 4E, providing a nice catalogue of ways for adventurers and monsters to get temporarily crippled while they try to kill each other. In a handful of keywords, the game codifies common and evoking combat effects, which can then be conveniently combined with other simple mechanics like bonuses, penalties, and forced movement to make up the thousands of powers and monsters in the game. Today I will discuss character conditions, why I think they are good for the game, and what is wrong with their current implementation.

The importance of Disruption

At it’s core, D&D combat is about adventurers and monsters hacking at one another to reduce their opponent’s hit points to zero. That could get boring very fast, so the game adds some additional elements like movement, resource management, and the subject of this article: character conditions.

If one goes over the list of conditions and their associated rules, an evident theme emerges: character disruption. First and foremost, conditions are about hindering certain actions from adventurers and monsters, or preventing them altogether:moving less, or not moving at all, getting weaker attacks, or being unable to react. The main purpose of these mechanics is to prevent characters from doing what they want - and, strange as it may sound, this makes battles all the more fun.

They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and this is particularly true in D&D 4E. No matter what you intended to do when the combat started, after a turn or two, chances are that an enemy attack left you unable to move within range to your target, or too weakened to use your big daily power at the right time, or incapable of blocking opponents from moving towards your fragile allies. You need to reevaluate the situation every turn, adapt, and prepare a new plan, which is likely also doomed to a short life. And it works both ways, so that both heroes and monsters are subject to this. When the system works, you get varied fights, great strategic depth, and tons of fun.

When the system doesn’t work

So far, so good. Unfortunately, there is a catch: though restricting player actions and forcing them to adapt can be a fun and interesting experience, it is certainly possible to go overboard and cripple characters to the point that they can’t really do anything of significance. And there lies the real problem: skipping turns is the opposite of fun. And under the current condition framework, making opponents skip turns (or virtually skip them) is often too easy and, to make things worse, extremely rewarding, from a strategic point of view.

It boils down to this: the strongest conditions (stunning and dominating) are way too powerful, to the point that you will be hard pressed to find a competitive alternative to a power with these conditions whenever it is available. As a result, these relatively rare game effects will turn up in way more games than you’d expect given their rate of appearance in powers. Also, it is not too hard to replicate the effect of a hard stun through a combination of conditions or penalties: some common, yet extremely efficient combos include daze+prone (to neutralize melee characters), or blind plus any attack penalty.

The solution, in my opinion, is to tone down the strongest conditions a bit, while limiting the impact of multiple milder conditions.

Other issues

Aside from the one big flaw that I find in the condition system, there are other lesser issues that, though not game-breaking, could do with some fixing. They are the following:

  • Domination, apart from being inherently the most powerful thing you can do in the game, has very exploitable interactions with opportunity attacks and marks, as discussed in this article.
  • The marked condition interacts oddly with its spiritual successor, the Defender Aura mechanic. Also, the game doesn’t handle well parties with multiple marking characters, nor marked characters making multi-target attacks that are not bursts or areas.
  • I think that stacking penalties are bad for the game. Some very common attack penalties come from conditions.
  • Gaining combat advantage is too easy for my taste, and this is in good part due to the many conditions that grant it. I’d like to cut down on that, too.
  • The grabbed condition is trivial to neutralize through forced movement.
  • The deafened condition is a joke. It should have some substantial effect, or be removed from the game altogether.

All this, and more, will be dealt with in my following article: Character Conditions Rewritten.

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