Monday, June 10, 2013

Don't Negate -- Focus on Matchups

So, let's say you are running a build-based combat system and you are getting bored with the combats. Your trip guy is tripping people left and right. Your disarm guy is making sure no enemy has a weapon. Your tumbler is weaving in and out of combat, flanking everyone. This is great, but there isn't much variation, and not a whole lot of challenge either. What do you do?

Well, you could make the enemies tougher, more dangerous and even more numerous to counter the awesome prowess of your PCs. This is fine, but it doesn't do anything to actually get the group out its combat rut. The fights will be longer, and maybe rougher, but no more varied.

A lot of GMs will rely on a tactic I like to call negation to challenge their uber-build PCs. Let's take our trip PC. This guy has trip weapons (whips, chains) and has a bunch of feats that allow him to trip opponents effectively and then either smash them when they are down, or get extra attacks against them when they get up. Against normal opponents, he is devastatingly effective because he either forces opponents to fight when prone (with him getting a bonus, or the enemy taking penalties, or both), or get up and take attacks of opportunity.

A negation GM will see that trip tactic being highly effective and counter with enemies that cannot be tripped, or enemies that fight from a prone position as easily as when they are standing. So, all of a sudden our whip-wielding fighter is going up against hordes of rat-men, spiders, ochre jellies and other creatures where tripping does not matter. Your trip fighter is now forced to battle without the use of his favorite maneuver... so all is right with the world, right?

Not exactly. If you look at it from the player's point of view, he spent a ton of character experience to become the master of that single maneuver -- probably to the detriment of another aspect of his abilities. By negating his go-to maneuver, you have invalidated all of the experience he spent. For instance, in D&D, some of those feat builds take a dozen levels or more to complete. After spending all of that time, it is not unreasonable for the player to expect that his character would be awesome.

So, if tougher enemies are out and negation is out, what else is there? Well here's the key, both of these tactics can be extremely useful when used thoughtfully and in moderation. As frustrating as some of these builds can be, the goal is not to defeat them, or punish the players for using the game rules effectively. The goal is to make the battles interesting and to get the PCs out of the habit of using the same handful of feats and spells over and over.

A great way to do this is to look at the entire group of PCs, mix up your enemies, and focus on the matchups that you present. Don't toss a bunch of dull, uniform encounters at your PCs and expect them to react with anything but the tried and true tactics. ("Oh, 10 goblins, each with a short sword and shield again?") Look at the PCs and try to determine what kinds of interesting things they could do in a fight and write your encounters to allow them to do those things.

As an example, let's say we have a group of 4 PCs, a fighter who is a master of trip weapons, an acrobatic rogue who fights based on mobility, a cleric, and a wizard. I have an encounter that calls for 6 bandits and I fear that as written, it will be a snooze-fest.

So, I make one of the bandits a big, hulking brute. He is a good fighter and does a lot of damage. This makes him very dangerous to engage head on, but a perfect candidate for the trip master.  If the brute stays on his feet and gets a few shots off, someone might get hurt, but if he can be rendered prone, he can be countered and killed.

Another bandit mirrors the PC mobility build and can quickly get around the fighters to flank, or strike at the cleric. He is also very agile, hard to hit and can't be tripped. This guy could cause serious problems by either flanking with the brute, or harassing the cleric or the mage. The spell casters have the key to defeat him though, either by casting area effect spells that auto-hit, or by focusing on his low willpower.

Another two bandits become skirmishers, spreading out, hanging back and pelting the spell casters with arrows. Combined with an assault from our mobile bandit, this could bring the mage down in a couple of unlucky rounds. However, their endurance is not great and our rogue can take them out, but he will have to use his mobility to get to dodge the other bandits and track down our scattered skirmishers.

Another bandit has a thrown net to go along with his normal weapons. The net will entangle whoever it hits, making movement, attack and spell casting impossible. Even worse is that once he entangles someone, he has no problem with stabbing the defenseless hero until he is dead. This guy is dangerous to pretty much everyone. No one PC directly counters him. The group will have to make sure that if he manages to entangle someone that help is forthcoming instantly.

The last bandit is given a small boost to his hit points and fighting ability, but no other special abilities. He is the leader and he gives the orders. If the PCs can recognize that fact, they can focus him down in a couple rounds, or use a spell to incapacitate him and this will cause the rest of the bandits to flee in panic.

You aren't directly negating anyone's cool powers, but if they end up with the wrong matchup, it could go poorly for them. The mage does not want to be captured in the net. The cleric does not want to face the arrows of the skirmishers. The rogue does not want to get hit by the brute. The fighter does not want to be flanked by the mobile bandit.

On the other hand, everyone has something to do or a matchup that is favorable to them. The trip fighter negates the brute. The rogue kills the skirmishers. The cleric and the mage work together to take out the net thrower and keep the mobile bandit at bay.

Or not.

These battles have a wonderful tendency to go off-script, forcing the players to react and make interesting choices. What happens when the trip fighter learns that he is up against an acrobat that tumbles away from his chain attacks? What happens when the brute gets into the back line? What if the rogue gets tangled in the net? All of a sudden, position and teamwork become critically important -- not just which powers you picked last time you leveled up. You have effectively dealt with your uber-builds without making them any less powerful or cool.

All with about 10 more minutes of prep... try it next time you are bored with your combats, frustrated with an effective character build, or tempted to toss down yet another boring encounter.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Where Do Your Organization's Ideas Come From?

Both in my line of work, and in my chosen hobby, I have run into a lot of "idea people." These are folks that have lots of ideas... grand, world-shatteringly, amazing ideas... they just need someone (else, usually) to implement their idea for them. The problem is that ideas by themselves are worthless; everyone has ideas. The key is having ideas and also having the skills, knowledge and organizational ability to implement them.

Having said that, I think it would be very interesting to understand where the ideas in your organization come from -- the real ideas, the ones that get implemented and have impact (good or bad).

If I could conduct this "idea survey", I would be hoping to learn:

Are ideas pushed down from executives, or are they bubbled up from the rank and file? I am guessing this would vary per company. Some companies have dynamic leaders who push ideas down the chain. Other companies would have more conservative leadership that would act more as a gate for ideas.

Do certain departments or teams generate more actionable ideas than others? I am positive that every company has teams that generate more ideas than other similar teams in the organization. I would endeavor to find out why these teams are so effective at creating and implementing ideas. Do these teams do things differently than others? Do they have less process, or a different process than the norm? Are these teams better staffed, or funded? Are they just better at their jobs, or is there something else going on there?

Are there teams that just NEVER implement any ideas? Is this because they have no ideas, or because they cannot implement them? Are they underfunded, understaffed, or swamped by an oppressive process? Are there groups or departments from which we just don't expect ideas (say a company that views HR as a purely administrative function), and should we change those expectations?

Can your organization recognize bad ideas? This is an interesting question by itself? I would guess that many organizations are terrible at recognizing (or admitting) when an idea fell short. Does anyone take an implemented idea after the fact and compare the outcome to its original expectations? Are retrospectives done on projects and do these focus on just the process of implementing the idea as opposed to the outcome of the idea? Does your company suffer from the "we met our deadlines, so... SUCCESS!" syndrome?

Where do the bad ideas come from? Are there groups that consistently implement bad ideas? How is this group supervised and by whom? What is the process for vetting ideas? If a group has a track record of bad ideas, who would be responsible for reigning them in?

What is the mean time between good ideas? Once one good idea is implemented, how long until the next one is started? A month, a quarter, a year, more? Can you think of any reasons for this number? Is there anything in place in the organization that sparks ideas? Do managers talk to one another? Do different parts of the business talk? How well do folks in software development understand what goes on in your marketing or sales force?

Now, I admit, I have no clue of how such a survey might be conducted (no, the irony of an unimplementable idea about a survey of ideas is not lost on me). I am doing a sort of thought experiment at my work, listing ideas and where they originated and their final result, but I understand that this experiment is limited by my knowledge of the company and my own bias. (I work as a software developer in a non-software company and so, I tend to think of ideas as software projects, features and improvements. I am not quite as up on the stuff that comes out of the sales department.)

Has anyone worked for a company that tried to track its ideas? Any consultants out there that do this? Any comments or suggestions?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Save vs. Monotony -- Let The Fight End When Its Over

We've talked a little bit about two different styles of combat systems, build-based and positional systems. Build-based systems focus on building and tweaking your character's abilities to increase his performance in combat. Positional systems rely more on tactical positioning and situational modifiers. Both styles have good points and thankfully, most game systems are hybrids to some degree, allowing choices made both before and during combat to matter.

However, both styles also have drawbacks. Often, build systems lend themselves to a "one-trick pony" mentality where players optimize to do a single trick in combat very well (trip or disarm for instance) and then try to pull the same trick every single battle. Positional systems can also fall into a similar trap when the group uses the same set of tactics over and over.

The key is that combat in any system can bog down in play, or become monotonous over the course of a long campaign. However, with a little creativity, we can avoid most of the problems and keep our fights fun and memorable. Here is one important tip that I think many GMs could use...

I learned this lesson many years back when I started to run games in chat rooms. I exclusively play games with rules-heavy combat systems and I am pretty good at keeping the action moving and resolving combats quickly. However, those skills didn't translate too well in the chat game. The slower pace of people typing their actions and the lag in communications led to combats being dull and dragging on for way longer than they should have.

I came up with a simple solution. After a few rounds passed, and I was convinced that the outcome of the fight was decided, I simply stated that the enemies fled into the woods and that the fight was over. The PCs were satisfied with their victory and the story had been move all in a reasonable amount of time. So, our first lesson is ...

Let The Fight End When Its Over

I recently GMed a combat where the group was fighting some heavily armored giant beetles. The early rounds went well for the party and they downed half of the giant insects. The remaining two bugs weren't really going to do any significant damage to the group, but as luck would have it, the die rolls turned a bit, and between luck and the beetles' hit points and armor, the combat lasted several more rounds... easily 30 minutes more.

This was a bad mistake on my part, because the fight was actually over in something like three combat rounds. The PCs had smashed two of the bugs and injured another. Had I made the last two beetles flee for their lives, the combat would have gone 10-15 lively minutes, the PCs would have felt like bad asses, and we could have moved on with the game. I had the beetles fight to the death and drew the fight out several more boring rounds.

There are times when the PCs are engaged in an epic, all-out battle for the fate of the entire campaign world and yeah, those combats ought to last a while and feel like all or nothing affairs. But when the party just happens upon a group of bandits robbing a caravan, or when the PCs encounter a group of goblin scouts, or when the enemy is just trying to send the PCs a message -- those aren't "final" battles, so don't be afraid to end them.

The leader of the bandits might yell for a retreat, drink a potion of invisibility, and take to the hills with as much loot as he can carry. The goblins might surrender as soon as a couple of them fall. The thugs sent to rough up the PCs might only fight for a couple of rounds before they slink back into the dark alleyways. Not only is there no logical reason why such groups would fanatically fight to the death, but doing so is likely to drag the fight past the point where it is interesting.

I call this point the Point of Decision. It is the point at which the outcome of a battle has been decided and the rest of the combat is a question of how the winner will mop up their enemy and how many more combat rounds will it take. I think a big key in keeping your combats interesting is to learn to recognize this point and not fight much past it.

Try this for your next set of encounters. For each enemy group, write down a circumstance under which they would disengage and flee combat. The goblins might flee once three of their number were downed, or the leader of the pack took a significant wound. The bandits might take to the hills once their leader gets to a specific sack of treasure.

This does three things. It shortens combats, and more importantly, it cuts off the less interesting parts of the fight. It keeps things somewhat realistic in terms of how creatures with any self-preservation instinct would approach combat. Finally, if your game has skills like combat sense, or tactics, it gives you more to do with those skills, since now players could use them to learn the conditions under which their opponents will try to break off combat.

This is not to say that every fight needs to end in the PC's enemies fleeing for their lives. Some enemies will be fanatical, or mindless enough to fight to the last man, and those enemies should strike dread into the PCs. Fighting ten bandits is one thing when you know that cutting their leader down will make them scatter. Fighting ten zombies that will mindlessly try to rend your flesh until you have cut them into pieces... that is a different kind of battle entirely.

So, if we are going to endeavor to make combats shorter by having enemies NOT fight until they are all dead, we need to figure out exactly how they are going to run away. Most games make it very hard for a combatant to disengage and leave the field of battle. Also, many players have been trained by years of gaming to think that winning a fight means wiping out the enemy.

My suggestion is very simple. When you feel a combat is done, tell the players, "I am pretty sure you guys have won this battle, and so are the bandits, so the remaining thugs scatter into the woods. Is that OK with you guys?" They might be worried about XP, or about the state of future encounters if they let any bandits go, so be prepared to answer their questions. If they seem unwilling to allow the fight to end, either let them play it out, or perhaps you can just rule that the PCs have mopped up the remaining opposition without any significant trouble.

And remember, use your judgement. This isn't for every battle. Your goal is to avoid the boring rounds when a fight can't be lost, but rolls have to be made. If the battle is exciting and going down to the wire, fight it out. But if it is a group of 6 against two injured but heavily armored beetles and the dice have turned and you can see interest flagging... The combat is over, so end it.