Like last week’s, this post may actually be more applicable to playing RPGs than Designing, but I feel there is something to learn on both fronts here. Anyway, I was thinking about RPGs and the RPG market the other day. Depending on who you ask, the market ranges from “Never better!” to “A nuclear wasteland littered with the corpses of dead companies.” Either way you believe, there can be no doubt that RPGs are facing some competition. But this competition comes not from CCGs or Minatures or Boardgames. It comes from MMORPGs (Massive-mulitplayer Online Roleplaying Games). Games like EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and DnD Online. I know Mike Mearls has talked about these things once or twice, but I thought I would add my observations.
To me, there is something very important MMORPGs can teach us. First, people don’t need to be sitting in the same room to enjoy an RPG. I salute Code of Unaris for recognizing this and making that a centerpiece in its design. Second, is that games with a Gamist slant (which include MMOGs), hit points are a character’s key feature. They are far more important than DPS (damage per second or how much damage characters can do per round) and the breadth of his repertoire of spells or abilities. This is true for both online games and for tabletop games.
I generally prefer Gamist style games and really look for the best strategy in situations, especially combat. When I examined all the resources available to me during combat in Gamist-leaning games, I came to a conclusion: Hit Points are the most key resource. Not to my surprise, this was backed up by Jonathan Tweet in this article.
In essence, you can really boil combat down to this statement: “You run out of hit points, you lose; your opponent runs out, you win.” Speaking in absolute terms (ignore retreat, capture, etc) that’s the bottom line for victory in combat- the winner is the guy who ends up not running out of hit points.
Victory does not go to who deals out the most damage. That may seem odd, but you have to take the victory conditions into account. You can dose out insane amounts of damage each round in a game, but if you can’t get your opponent’s hit points to zero, you will lose. If your opponent starts out with more hit points than you, can heal himself, pick up extra hit points, or reduce your net damage, then your DPS won’t matter. He has ways to counter it.
So what does that mean? Well, if you’re designing a game where combat is strategic, violent death is a likely outcome, and hit points or something equivalent is involved, be mindful of how you design other aspects of your game. A lot of things that typically go along with hit points such as healing, damage spells, character enhancements (buffs and enchantments), and equipment can inadvertently and radically affect how victory is decided.
Take for instance healing spells. In my mind, these are very powerful spells. They prolong a fight, in fact they can prove the clincher. Even if you only got 1d8 hit points per spell like back in DnD, it made a major impact on the game. If your opponent doesn’t have access to the same spells, the impact is even greater. This is why, if you ask anyone who has played a game like oh say EverQuest 1, clerics are the most vital class to have. They are not the ones who kill the bad guy, they are just the ones who make sure the good guys don’t lose.
So now what? Heh, if you are playing a game where combat and hit points are important, look for feats, skills, and rules that help you not lose hit points. Things like cover, armor, spells and so forth that grant additional defense or hit points should be high on your tactics list. Things like weapon enhancements, fireball, criticals, and so on should be farther down. From my experience, it is better to have strategies to not lose a fight than it is to have strategies to win a fight.
From a design standpoint, designers should think carefully about how you want combat to begin and end and how long you want it to last. The more hit points (or wounds or whatever) a character can amass, the longer an instance of combat will take. Especially if the characters have access to hit point saving strategies like healing, buffs, armor, etc.