Lessons from Rogue-Likes: Consumable Items

As a follow-up to my earlier post about items and equipment, I wanted to spend some extra time to focus on something rogue-likes make extensive use of that I don't think most games exploit to their full potential -- consumable items.

The key trait of consumable items are that players can only reap their benefits for a limited number of times. It might be a one-use item, or an item with a limited number of charges, or even something that can only be activated so often (once a day, once a level, etc). When done right, they become a precious resource for the players to manage, a secret weapon to hold onto until the moment is right, or a last resort that might solve the current problems facing the party, but whose consequences might prove even more perilous.

Ace in the hole

The most common use for consumables in rogue-like games is as a sort of "get out of jail" card. There are potions that let you heal yourself, scrolls that let you immediately teleport out of danger, and wands which blast your foes with power far beyond what a character of your level would usually be able to muster. All of these effects are incredibly powerful, and would be terribly unbalancing in some circumstances if they were permanent or regular abilities, but because they have a limited number of uses they instead become things the player hoards until he gets overwhelmed, and then falls back on to catch his breath and hopefully (but not always) live to fight another day.

The fact that these powers are all limited means that they can't truly "break" the game -- yes they may trivialize a single encounter, but in the grand scheme of things that's usually enough to back out of one bad decision, or to brute-force your way through an otherwise difficult situation. After that, the player is left alive but unmistakably weakened -- his arsenal depleted. This balance of efficacy and rarity in the form of a "power reserve" serves an important role in rogue-likes as a sort of "buffer" for when the player bites off more than he can chew (or the random generator does something particularly malicious). In effect, the player has a sort of "overdrive" that the consumable items allow which lets them take on challenges that should out-match them, or makes escape and survival actually viable in cases where it's clear a head on fight would be hopeless. It makes the "fairness" of the content the game generates less important (in an absolute sense) because the player should have the tools he needs to survive -- provided he manages to ration them wisely.

The same is true for D&D. Giving players an endless stream of healing potions and one-shot items greatly reduces the difficulty of the game and makes consumables just another think to keep track of; however, making them precious resources (and making sure to push players occasionally so they need to use them) means that players must constantly evaluate whether they have it in them to push on, or if they need to burn some of their power reserve to win the day. Interestingly, Dungeon Crawl Classics incorporates a mechanic very similar to this by letting players literally "burn" various stats, sacrificing ability points in the long term for an immediate short-term boost in power. A fighter might make a desperate push at the cost of physical over-exertion, a wizard might channel so much energy into a spell that he risks becoming permanently warped, a rogue may... well, push his luck too much I guess. Still, the net result and impact is very similar, and makes not only challenging but dynamically generated content more viable by giving players the ability to deal with extreme difficulty, but giving meaningful consequence for using such a resource.

Planned obsolescence

The constrained nature of consumables gives the designer/DM a lot of freedom to be creative. With powers that can only be invoked once, the amount of harm that an interesting but potentially unbalanced item is tightly limited. Consumable items can be incredibly powerful, full of flavor or sub-mechanics that you want to experience, or a way of granting players a very limited "deus ex machina" ability without opening the flood gates.

For this reason, consumable/limited items make excellent loot, since they allow the DM to make them very powerful and memorable without risking them ruin his game. If you give the player a scroll of "Power Word: Kill" you should expect them to use it eventually, and expect them to feel really awesome when they do. Don't feel bad if they use it to thwart a choice encounter, just throw enough stuff at them that they have to really earn it by doing well enough to keep it in reserve until then.

Variety is the spice of life

Another interesting component of limited items in rogue-likes is that they're not interchangeable. Healing potions are the baseline way to add a little extra survivability, but they will be of little help when being chased down by a monster where you really need teleportation, or if you need to deal with a hydra or crystal statue that you dare not get close to and have no other good means of fighting besides a wand of disintegration. Instead of just giving players various flavors of "this flask of alchemist's X does 5 points Y damage in burst 1" you get a bunch of different tools that have very different functions. Healing potions give you a boost of survivability, teleportation scrolls give you a chance for escape, wands let you use abilities you might not otherwise have access too -- and all are called on for in different situations. 

By giving players diverse limited items, you give them extra power, but still preserve the sense of limitation. Players will be much more reluctant to use their last healing potion, or save that last charge in the wand of disintegration until they really need it, forcing them to vary up their own usages and strategies. Making resource management about options instead of limits makes it a lot more fun and interesting.

Limits come in all forms

Finally, limited items don't just have to be restricted to potions and charged items. As mentioned before, Dungeon Crawl Classics has an interesting variation involving sacrificing ability points. The rogue-like game Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup has an innovative take on magic items where certain effects can increase ones "magic contamination". The effects (invisibility, powerful buffs like haste, etc) are incredibly useful; however, if ones contamination rises above a certain level by using such effects for too long before letting the contamination fades, the player runs the risk of acquiring one of several harmful mutations (stat drain, growths that don't let you wear armor, other very nasty traits). If you feel that you're about to die it might be worth the risk; however, it's certainly perilous enough to discourage casual use. Such a system would be great in a low-magic setting where arcane magic exists but is feared, and dangerous. Mages are twisted not because magic is for the evil, but because magic itself twists you, and while you might be tempted to wear that +2 circlet of intelligence, doing so for too long could lead to your irrevocable corruption. This approach turns what would usually be a simple case of smashing the loot pinata into a grueling, soul-searching question of risk and reward.

And isn't that what role playing games are all about?


Lessons from Rogue-Likes: Equipment and Items

Like many old-school RPGs, half of playing a rogue-like is the experience of collecting loot and, provided you survive, building an arsenal with which to arm yourself for deeper and deeper delves into the dungeon's depths. The original Rogue was pretty light on the number and variety of items, while later games like Nethack and Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup include easily more than you're ever likely to see in a single play through (with the latter even including a randomized "artifact" system for generating new items from a list of existing properties).

You can't take it (all) with you... 

For the most part, the way equipment is managed in rogue-like games is interesting, but common to most RPGs. You've got a limited number of equipment slots, and you have to pick and choose which items you want to equip in them based in their properties and your needs. In this sense, rogue-like games are fairly standard.

Where they get interesting is that rogue-like games also usually make a big deal of tracking your weight and encumbrance, causing you to not only make choices about your big ticket items like armor and weapons, but also among the smaller things. How many potions of healing are you willing to sacrifice to have room for that Wand of Fireballs? As you delve deeper, you are continuously finding tools that could be crucial to your survival, but also constantly weighing the cost of adding it to your already carefully balanced kit.

This isn't merely a matter of aesthetics, or maximizing an AC or DPS or total available healing. This approach is interesting because, often, the items themselves (and how they interact with the world) are interesting as well. There are a broad set of circumstances the player can find himself in as he descends, and thanks to the open style of gameplay each can be solved in a variety of ways. If a player has no good way of dealing with a hydra, keeping hold of a few wands of fire is probably a better idea than any number of healing potions (although the healing potions are probably going to be more broadly useful if you get into troubled). Scrolls of Teleportation are a crucial "get out of jail free" tool, but less useful for a wizard who can already cast blink. A Wand of Digging is a great way to get around problems rather than going through them -- provided that fits your character's skill set. 

In general, the key is that the items act much more like pieces to a dynamic puzzle the player is attempting to solve rather than just temporary boosts. The effects are big and dramatic and let players do things they simply wouldn't be able to do otherwise (rather than simply doing standard things better). To some extent, the abilities granted by items play more like character powers that the PCs have to choose from a limited pool.

Unfortunately, rogue-likes are able to get away with this largely because they are computer-based, and so can keep track of weight very easily. On the tabletop, encumbrance rules are usually the very first thing to get chucked out the window (either intentionally or through laziness) because it's just too much work to keep track of. Still, there are things a DM can do to encourage a similar type of aspect to their games. One option is to present players with a choice of rewards (Wonderous Items or Boons work great here) but only allow them to select a single one. Another would be to present players with a set of interesting items to buy, but keep cost as a limiting factor so they have to choose what they take with them because they can't afford it rather than because they can't carry it all. Of course, if you can find a way to make tracking inventory manageable then you've got a whole array of interesting emergent options out there. Your players will almost certainly end up kicking themselves at SOME point for leaving their 10-foot pole or door spikes at the inn so they could carry that extra Potion.

You delve with the loot you've got, not the loot you want

The other key element about equipment in rogue-likes is that it is (for the most part) completely random. You may find a worthless rusty orcish axe inside a locked chest, or a suit of crystal plate mail on the first level. However, the rub is that as often as not these items are not immediately useful to you. What do you do when your wizard finds the plate mail? What if he's about to descend into the toxic swamp, and it's the only source of poison resistance he's found so far?

The key to random generation is that with enough time the player will discover the things that seem useful to the "ideal" of his character; however, at any given time he is likely to never have exactly what he or she is looking for, and so has to adapt his strategy somewhat. In the above example, the wizard simply doesn't have the skill to make wearing the plate-mail worthwhile; if it was a chain mail shirt with poison resistance, though, he might have to consider whether the added difficulty for casting spells is worth the extra survivability (at least for the near term). By throwing in useful but not ideal items, you present the player with interesting choices that can serve to validate otherwise suboptimal character builds (like a wizard with armor training or high strength, or a fighter with above average dexterity). The randomness does not necessarily remove the "system mastery" aspect of character development, but it does provide an incentive for adaptation and flexibility which moves more of the interesting decisions away from the pre-game stage of designing a build and back to the moment-to-moment decisions at the game table.

In this spirit, I try and make sure at least some portion of the loot I hand out is random (and rarely do I try to target it at a specific character). I don't necessarily select from the entire set of possible items -- usually I keep a running list of things which strike me as "interesting" rather than just powerful or good for a specific build, and will select randomly from that list. I like giving my players quirky tools to play with and watching them try to figure out how they work together rather than just giving them a +1 along the character track they decided upon a dozen sessions ago when the campaign began.


Lessons from Roguelikes: Prologue

In the beginning...

The year was 1980. Deep within the bowls of a computer lab at UC Santa Cruz, three intrepid programmers toiled away at a UNIX mainframe on a project that would forever change the face of how roleplaying games and computers interacted with one another. Kinda.

It's like a family tree, but with cockatrices
Rogue was a computer RPG built for UNIX terminals that was designed to recreate the tabletop experience of exploring a dungeon which would grow ever more hostile and dangerous as one delved deeper, in order to acquire treasure and glory -- or at the least, treasure (the game is called Rogue after all). Though cryptic and unforgiving, the game captured the essence of what these gentlemen thought Tabletop Gaming was all about, and did so well enough that it spawned a very vibrant (if small) cult community that has thrived and grown these 30 years later. Today dozens (if not hundreds) of games exist which all bear the mark of this hero of ludic myth -- the roguelikes.

Since it's debut three decades ago, a bevy of better-known games like NetHack, Moria, ADOM, and Dungeon Crawl (a personal favorite) have taken up this mantle, iterating on and refining the core principles of their forefather while at the same time remaining strikingly true to its original intent. While it's true that some apples have fallen a little further from the tree than others (you might have heard of a small indie title called Diablo) the truth is that roguelikes as a genre reflect a view on what roleplaying and computer gaming experiences should be like that is almost completely unique. And they got it straight from D&D.

An Elegant Game from a Less Civilized Age

At the time of its creation, Rogue was intended by its creators to serve as a sort of endless dungeon, where players could continuously throw adventurers into a pit of almost certain despair in an attempt to test their mettle. This was role-playing in the oldest-school, Tomb of Horrors sense -- deadly and unpredictable, where discretion was almost always the better part of valor. Of course, anyone can create a game that is arbitrary and difficult. What Rogue did, however, was put the player in a difficult situation (limited food, limited light, able to fight but quickly outnumbered) with a pretty open-ended set of tools for interacting with the world. It's true that the dungeons were generally just simple boxes connected by corridors filled with monsters and occasional loot, but the flexibility and core ideas for hardcore, old-school gaming have persisted.

Unlike contemporary RPGs, roguelikes focus on a few key principles: completely random dungeon generation, filled with monsters that could as likely be cannon fodder as hopeless threats one must avoid or flee from, magic items that exist for their own sake and not simply because it fits exactly what the player wants (leading to a necessity for adaptiveness), an open ruleset for interacting with the world that encourages creative problem solving rather than "designed" solutions, and -- most importantly of all -- that death should be a very real and very permanent threat. Roguelikes are deadly and unpredictable, but the god of random numbers could be your salvation or damnation at every turn -- provided you know how to play the odds right. It's a design totally at odds with the expansive narratives, balanced encounters, and high fidelity renderings of modern computer RPGs that it at the same time feels anachronistic and fresh by comparison. In a way, roguelikes are the Fourthcore of the computer-RPG world.

What's Old is New Again

And so that's the thing -- with all the revived interest old-school RPGs and fantastic efforts like Fourthcore, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Adventurer Conquerer King, and so on, I think it's worth revisiting how the strain of gaming that Rogue seems to have captured in a bottle has matured and fermented over the years, and what (if any) lessons the roguelike genre can teach us about making games more challenging, unpredictable, open-ended, and yet still keeping a coherent sense of fun about them.

So over the next week or so I hope to put up a few small articles discussing individual elements that tabletop DMs and players can keep in mind when planning their own adventures. Stay tuned!


DM Resources and House Rules!

I took the time this morning to add some new pages to the blog. At the top, you should see a bar with three links: Blog (this page), DM Resources, and House Rules.

DM Resources contains a brief list of websites, tools, and accessories I've found to be helpful in my gaming experience. I'll be adding things to this list as I come across them, but if there's anything you think I'm leaving out that would be a great addition, please send me an e-mail!

House Rules is a listing of all the various rules additions I have come up with for use in my campaigns. Not all of them are necessary, but they serve to give me additional tools and flexibility to make the game play just as I want it to. I'll be expanding this in the near future, and I plan on writing some posts about the intention and design of the rules that are already on there so stay tuned.


Saving the Saves: The House-Rule!

As a follow-up to my previous post about saving throws in 4e, here's a simple modification to balance out die rolls around the table that lets players roll the die some more:

For DM-run characters using NAD attacks,

  1. Add +20 to the attack bonus to determine the DC
  2. Roll damage for the attack and set aside
  3. Have each target roll 1d20 + Target Defense
  4. If the target result is less than the modified attack bonus the attack hits; Otherwise it misses.
  5. Resolve any "Effect" text for all targets.
For player-run characters, attack as normal.

This basically just shifts the math for the attack so players can roll the dice. If you find it easier, you can have the players subtract 10 from their rolls and compare it to attack's bonus directly instead. Short and simple! I'm going to give it a try in my campaign and see how it feels -- if anyone gets a chance to use it, I'd be curious what they think!

Saving the Saves

With D&D 4th Edition, Wizards of the Coast made a lot of changes to the old model in the name of speeding up combat and making the game simpler and more fun for all types of characters. A lot of these changes were good ideas, simplifying rules and streamlining combat. Others traded one form of complexity for another, to questionable effect. One that always kind of bothered me, though, was the the elimination of saving throws in favor of Non-ADefenses, or "NADs" -- i.e. your Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.

What Was Changed?

To those not familiar with older editions, it used to be that when a character was struck by some sort of non-weapon attack (like a fireball being flung at them or being exposed to poison gas) then they were told to make a "saving throw" versus the type of attack. Depending on the edition, this took different forms -- older D&D used a basic roll, and characters had specific bonuses given the circumstances -- for example, being more resistant to poison would mean you got a bonus for "saves vs poison". In 3rd edition the throws were unified into three general categories -- Fortitude (physical resistance), Reflex (reaction and quickness), and Will (mental or spiritual toughness). Instead of a "Save vs Poison" a player would roll a "Fortitude Save" -- rolling 1d20 + their Fortitude Save Bonus. This was great because it simplified the number of potential modifiers the characters needed to keep track of, allowed the classes to advance at different rates (so fighters were more resistant to physical effects, but your rogue had a much better chance of dodging that fireball). Often the Save DC was a slightly complicated calculation based on the attackers Caster Level and relevant ability score.

With 4th Edition, WotC changed the system again. First, they moved the die roll from the defender to the attacker's side -- now instead of being hit by an effect and rolling the appropriate save, the attacker just rolls to hit your non-AC defense directly. If an attack had secondary effects, the defender would roll a "4e Save" -- roll 1d20, with you saving on a 10-20 and failing on a 1-9. Secondly, they essentially eliminated the varying scales at which different classes gained NADs in favor of mirroring the progressive gain over levels that you get with 4e Armor Class (10 + 1/2 Level + Ability +Misc  Bonuses). They even go a little further and group the attributes, so instead of CON/DEX/WIS determining your Fortitude/Reflex/Will, it's the largest of [STR/CON], [DEX/INT]. and [WIS/CHA]. This tends to flatten out characters a bit more (since now your wizard might be just as dodgy as your rogue and your wisecracking Bard might be able to resist vile suggestion as well as your stalwart Cleric -- better perhaps than your Paladin!); however, I don't know that that flattening is too much of a problem, because to some extent this happened indirectly in 3e because the class-based bonuses tended to be such a big factor. Besides, a lot of the more "Charismatic" people I know tend to be pretty pig-headed, so maybe it makes sense for them to have a high willpower.

What Was Gained?

First and foremost, you can definitely appreciate the aesthetic impact of having all of a character's attacks use the same model of "Roll to hit, roll for damage" regardless of whether they are basic AC attacks or more sophisticated attacks versus other defenses. I would be pretty darn hesitant for a player new to D&D to sit down and play a 3e Wizard, but with 4e it certainly seems a lot more accessible. This is doubly true when you consider the complexity of determining the save DCs for various effects. It could be simplified and automated even under the 3e model, but you have to appreciate at least somewhat the convenience of having them up front and easily derived.

This change also eliminates what I would consider one of the most well-intentioned but poorly-executed aspects of 3rd edition -- Touch AC. In 3e, some attacks (like a wizard flinging a lightening bolt) still required an attack roll to connect, but wouldn't be blocked by armor. Basically, the character could "dodge" the attack but not block it. Unfortunately, this had to be different from Reflex saves because to-hit, AC, and Save bonuses scaled differently. This involved players basically recalculating their AC, but only counting some sources. It was a pain and, while neat from a simulationist perspective, always tended to grind play to a halt while players recalculated everything because they never bothered filling out that part of the character sheet. Refreshingly, this just becomes an Attack vs Reflex in 4e -- short, simple, and narratively equivalent.

What was Lost?

First, I think that the simplification of attacks vs NADs has lead to a much larger number of such attacks in 4e. In some cases this is personally reasonable -- touch attacks become attacks versus reflex, forced movement often becomes attacks versus fortitude, etc. I do think, however, that there's been a bit of "uniqueness creep" in attack powers that target NADs simply because it's easy or for balance purposes (since such defenses are lower) without a really good justification. It makes it much less special when such attacks happen, and also can tend to devalue investments that players put into their mundane defenses like Armor. Attacks versus Will should be a "Gotcha!" for the usually impervious armor-clad fighter, not an "Oh no not again" moment.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, rolling dice is fun. Moreover, it becomes more fun the more weighty the effects are, and in general the types of attacks that target non-AC defenses can be some of the most interesting (at least narratively). So while players no longer experience the frustration of having the monster save against their big spell and neutralize their greatness, they also lose the sense of suspense and agency that comes with rolling themselves to see if they resist the Vampire Lord's charm or just barely dodge that fireball's blast in the nick of time. I think to some extent 4th Edition tends to err on the side of focusing on players deriving investment from rolling big attacks and doing awesome things, but I think there is a lot to be said for players reacting to the world around them and taking ownership for what it does to them as well.

Moreover, while moving the attack resolution from defender to attacker streamlines things somewhat when the player is attacking, it can also slow things down if the DM is using something like an area-of-effect attack that now needs to roll individually against all the players. Given that the DM often has enough on his plate to keep him busy, I'm not certain whether this is a net gain for play speed or not. Plus, having players roll their saves during the DM's action gives them something to do and keeps them engaged with what is happening which can mitigate some of the problems with longer combats. I personally think it's a better balance.

Finally, a lot of sustaining effects in 4e rely on players making a succession of "4e Saves" and, as a result, many player abilities that would act to support other players take the form of granting additional save rolls (with bonuses). The save mechanism (especially combined with the condition system) is simple and unified, but I'm not positive that it doesn't lose some expressiveness. If we look back to pre-3e D&D, the idea of having a generic "save" with situational bonuses allows for a lot of more flavorful and specific bonuses than 3e's more generic saves. It's true that 4th edition does allow for bonuses to saves versus attacks with specific damage keywords, but that can be kind of inflexible once you start talking about effects that don't just do damage. Actually, it seems a lot closer to how skills worked in the latest D&D Next Playtest -- a general ability roll with bonuses only if you have a specific skill or trait. Something like that might be a good compromise.


Save mechanics are hard to build both simply and expressively because they are almost by definition a kind of "catch-all" for things that fall outside the domain of basic combat. Since they are more generic, I think that they need to be as derived from basic attributes as possible. I also think that we should pay more attention to what kind of attacks actually require saves -- they should be exceptional and dramatic, not just the same thing with different numbers. Finally, we should consider the real psycho-social effects of whether a player or a DM is rolling the dice, and what the optimal balance around the table really is.


Damage Dice, Part Deux

Some follow-ups to my previous post that sprung into my head:

Comparison to Standard Procedure

For reference, the stock DMG damage expressions for a level 10 monster are 2d6+5 and 4d8+5 for normal and limited/encounter medium damage, respectively; high/brute damage takes those to 3d6+5 and 4d10+5. Those all pre-date the Monster-Manual 3 damage guidelines, so they're a bit on the low side. Sly Flourish's DM Cheat Sheet give us a more "modern" set of number at 2d8+9/2d8+13/2d8+17 for Medium/High/Limited damage. The spread for 2d8+17 is definitely a lot wider than 1d6+24 (+/- 27% versus +/- 8%).

While nice and simple, the amount of variance you get using the "Perkins Method" seems to change significantly across levels. I wonder if you couldn't get most of the way to a decent middle ground by using replacing the d6 depending on level -- for example using 1d4 for 1-5, 1d6 for 6-10, 1d8 for 11-15, etc. You'd still only have two dice, and you'd do a better job of keeping the variance constant relative to the total range (although I'm not certain how noticeable this variation would be). It certainly seems like a decent compromise, at the least.

Why Roll Damage At All?

One question The Id DM asked which I forgot to address (which may have been rhetorical) was "Why have damage rolls at all?" The answer is basically because D&D lacks a true "Margin of Success" system (hacks onto skill-checks such as using multiple DCs notwithstanding). Basically, hit tests are binary -- when you roll a hit, there's no obvious way to translate how much higher you were than the target's AC into a tangible result (assuming that would even be meaningful). If beat the AC by 1 or by 10, you still roll the same damage dice.

D&D combat in a nutshell.
Lots of other systems like Shadowrun, the Vampire/Storyteller System, and FUDGE work around this by using pools of dice and various mechanics for determining not just whether you succeed but by how much, and translating that directly into the result (in the case of combat, the damage done with the weapon). This has the nice property of requiring fewer rolls (although it's certainly debatable whether dice pools are actually "simpler" than d20) and getting rid of the weird artificial barrier between how good you are at hitting with a weapon (attack bonus) and how good you are at doing damage with it (damage bonus). Usually you see if you have any successes, and if so you count them up (and possibly multiply by your weapon's damage factor) to determine damage.

D&D on the other hand uses separate to-hit and damage rolls, kind of double-dipping into your character's statistics. First you hit to determine success, then you roll again to determine the "margin" of success. In one sense it's less intuitive ("I rolled a 30 vs 15AC but I only do 3 damage? WTF") but it does also give the designer a lot more flexibility with combat mechanics. For a fighter, increasing your STR mod by +1 means you're going to be more likely to hit, and when you do you'll hit harder; however it also allows for things like Weapon Finesse that let you increase your chances to hit by using your DEX modifier without necessarily turning you into a DEX-powered killing machine by letting you add it to damage as well. It's more complex on the surface, but also less "coupled" below the surface, helping to avoid unintended consequences.

Of course, none of this means you can't just use a constant amount of damage on a hit. But there is something to be said for accommodating the possibility of just barely hitting as well, and that starts to get harder to work in without some sort of decent MoS system.

What Would Gary Do?

Through all of this, I've been reminded of a discussion Paul at Blog of Holding recently shared resulting from his playing OD&D with  one of the OD&Ders, Mike Monard:
What do hit points represent? Over the years, there have been a lot of ex post facto justifications for hit points, some by Gygax himself. In the end, as Mike says, "hit points are something to make combat go the way Gary wanted." That's a good thing to remember next time you find yourself tempted to jump in an internet argument about the subject.
In other words, if it's doing what you want it to do and everyone is having a good time, go with it. 
Seems like good enough advice to me.