Tag Archives: game design

Q&A: Writing Dungeon Treasure

In my WIP, my characters find a shield left in a thousand year old ruin. Are there any metals that the shield could be made out of so that it might still be useful if preserved properly in a locked chest or something? I immediately counted out iron because of rust, and maybe copper and bronze corrode too much. I was contemplating gold because it seemed to be the most durable age-wise, but maybe it’s not that useful weapon-wise?

Gold won’t corrode, but it’s far too soft for use in combat. Bronze, iron, and copper will oxidize. This doesn’t mean they can’t be preserved for thousands of years, but they wouldn’t survive in an ancient ruin’s chest.

As a bit of trivia, when copper and bronze oxidize, they turn green, not brown.

So, this whole thing builds off a fundamental world building problem of challenge/reward structures in games. This is relevant for writing, because it can affect how you build parts of your world, and you should consider the reasons behind your choices. So while I’m talking about game design for the moment, think about how this applies to writing.

If you’re asking the player to fight through an extended dungeon sequence, you need to give them something at the end. That doesn’t need to be a physical reward. For example, Skyrim’s word walls which provide tangible abilities the player as a reward are fine. In a more abstract sense, information can be an entirely valid reward. That’s fine. It’s also true to life, somewhat, because the real treasure of most ruins is information about the people who built it and lived there. There’s also a boss chest in there with a random assortment of items, that makes no sense.

The problem with the boss chest that awards random, level appropriate items, is when they player is the first person to walk those halls in thousands of years. Any tangible weapon, would have rusted, or rotted away. Skyrim is an excellent example of this, as the various tombs, ruins, caves, and other dungeons exist in a weird kind of suspended animation. No human (or elf) has been in that ruin since the Metheric Era (at least 4500 years ago), but the candles are still burning, and there’s a chest with Dwarven gauntlets that are thousands of years more advanced than the ruin’s builders. What?

This works for a game, because as a player, you’re looking for that dopamine hit. You get a cool item, you feel good about it. It’s reductive to boil games down to a Skinner box, but in this case, the comparison is apt: Push the button; receive treat.

This doesn’t work in writing. There’s a lot of pieces to why, but the short version is perspective. In a game, you are the protagonist. In a story, you are witnessing the protagonist. So, when the player gets a piece of junk gear that’s marginally better than what they’re wearing, that’s a dopamine hit. It’s something cool you can use, and you will get the opportunity to play with it.

In a story, you don’t care if one of the characters finds new leather gloves in a ruin, unless there’s something special about those gloves. You’re there to see them grow as a character, and their gear is incidental to that. If that gear facilitates new options, or spurs character growth, then you’ll care. If those gloves belonged to someone the character knew, and they’re a hint to what happened to them, then the reader will care. If the gloves have special properties which can help with a challenge the character is already facing, then the reader will care. If the gloves offer two extra points of protection (whatever that means), the reader will not care.

A thousand years is a long time. If you’re talking about today, a one thousand year old weapon might be a low quality steel sword. A thousand year old shield may have been wood, which would have rotted away unless carefully preserved. So you’d be left with the iron frame for a shield. Or, you might have a low quality iron shield.

Many fantasy settings exist in a kind of technological stasis. I mentioned Skyrim a minute, so let’s look at that. The games span a little under a thousand years (Elder Scrolls Online takes place 952 years before Skyrim). In that time, there’s been no meaningful technological development in the setting. This also not even an egregious offender on this front, Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Star Wars are also guilty of this, with, literally, thousands of years of history where no meaningful technological advancement occurs.

Contrast to the real world where the last thousand years saw the development of civilization from fractured city states into unified nations, the development of mechanized transport, near instantaneous worldwide communication networks, and space travel. Most of that, in the last century.

When you’re sitting in the moment, looking at the past, it’s easy to see things as static. “Yeah, people fought with swords for thousands of years,” but, when you start looking at the details, you realize, nothing is static. The swords taken on crusade in 1096 were substantially better than the swords the Roman Legions were using in 96. And those Roman Legions were terrifyingly well equipped in comparison to the Greek Hopolites in 404BC.

There are settings that can justify long periods of technological stasis. In Warhammer 40k invention is seen as religious heresy in almost all cases; this is an example where technological development would stall out. This is further reinforced because of how jealously the Machine Cult guards their technology, while still viewing it in religious terms. There’s something sickly amusing about the idea of a religious cult that would worship a toaster, but, it could explain this kind of stasis.

Post-apocalyptic settings (including 40k) have some justification, because the people who knew how this stuff worked are dead, so the survivors have to play catch-up. Insert a religious order that blocks technological progression, with the political power to enforce it’s views, and you’ve got some justification for technology lying fallow.

This is where the boss chest makes sense. (Sort of, anyway.) If the world has fallen from some forgotten golden age, it’s possible that whatever’s at the end of the dungeon could be weapons or armor made from some lost alloy, that survived the millennia unharmed. It’s even possible it was stored in a climate controlled armory, rather than in a wooden chest that should have rotted away centuries ago.

Golden age gear can also work as story hook, on the idea that this stuff is significant enough to be an important step in preparing your characters to face whatever they’re dealing with. It’s the rare moment where you really can get away with a loot hunt in a non-interactive story.

The other possible payoff to all of this is a shaggy dog. Your character goes through all of the effort to get through the ruin, and they find a ruined artifact. They put hopes and dreams on this chunk of corroded bronze because they believed it was their key to victory, and now they have nothing to show for it. Remember, your reader isn’t here for the loot, they’re here for your character. How your character deals with that, how they move on, that’s the reader’s payoff. That’s what they’re here for. There’s nothing wrong with screwing your characters over, so long the result is interesting to read.

I’ve said this before, but your job as a writer is not to make life easy for your characters. Your job is to make their lives interesting.

-Starke

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Q&A: Breath of the Wild, Game Design, and Combat Animations

How realistically/accurately does Link use swords/spears/greatswords/axes/bows in Breath of the Wild. I want to use his fighting animations as a visual reference for my fight scenes, but that only works if he’s a viable reference. Thank you!

The short answer: It’s not.

There’s some quick caveats, the spear usage isn’t, “inaccurate,” so much as incredibly basic. The bow draw is, “awkward;” it may be fine, but something looks off about it, to me, and, at a glance, I’m not sure what.

This is one of those times where I’ve got a vague sense of deja vu. I know I’ve addressed this with other games in the past, but I don’t remember if I’ve talked about it explicitly in the context of Breath of the Wild.

Games are, by their nature, not reflective of the real world. In some cases, you may seek to simulate elements of reality either because that’s the point of the exercise (most tabletop wargaming, and flight simulators are examples), or because you’re attempting to provide a sense of verisimilitude (weather effects that don’t affect gameplay, would be an example of this).

Game designers need to achieve many goals as part of their process. This includes reliably informing the player on the overall state of play. This includes considerations like what the other players are doing, or what options the player has to work with.

In a traditional poker game, the information the player has is restricted to the cards in their hand. They’re then asked to make assessments of the other players, and to evaluate their behavior. The state of play is the card combinations they can make, as well as the card combinations their opponents may posses.

In contrast, a game like chess provides the player with a clear, open, state of play. Both players have a clear, unobstructed, view of the board, and full knowledge over every possible move that can occur. The player is then asked to make assessments on their opponent’s potential strategies, and act accordingly.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with combat, the answer is simple, depending on your goals as a game designer, either approach is entirely valid for your game. Combat that is difficult to read, and hard to predict can create a sense of unfairness, but it can also result in far more tension during combat. In contrast, if you create a combat system that is easy to read, you can produce a more generally entertaining experience, which the player feels they have more control over.

Breath of the Wild is going for accessible combat. At any given moment you have a clear idea of exactly what the enemies are doing (assuming they’re not out of frame), and what your character is doing. This is actually accentuated by the art style, which keeps the visual noise down, and makes it significantly easier to track movement on screen. (To be clear, the art design serves other purposes as well, but we’re talking about the combat systems.)

In order to make the combat easier to read, Breath of the Wild uses very exaggerated strike patterns. This is true of pretty much all the weapons in the game. Link swings them around in massive arcs, which makes it much easier to know what’s happening at any given moment. Even with the spears, it’s taking a basic concept of that weapon, and playing it up to a borderline comical threshold.

This may sound like I’m being dismissive, but Breath of the Wild has a kind of cartoon aesthetic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and if you’re going for an anime or classic cartoon infused style of violence, then the game is absolutely fine as reference material. However, an important part of taking inspiration is understanding why your subject made the aesthetic decisions it did, and what those choices mean for the material as a whole.

In the real world, combat abhors the idea of large movements, like you’ll see in Breath of the WildSkyrimDark SoulsDragon’s DogmaKingdoms of Amalur, Darksiders, NieR: Automata, or any number of other action games. There’s two (major) reasons. First is inertia, and the second is because of how the human brain processes objects.

When you look around, your brain parses objects by finding the outline, and then extrapolating the object from its edges. If you remember back to Jurassic Park and the whole, “hunts by movement,” thing, that’s how some animals track objects, with humans, we’re looking for the edges and then our brain fills in the rest. This means, when you can’t clearly find an object’s outline, it becomes much more difficult to accurately determine if it’s there or not. This is also the basic issue with camouflage, the idea is to break up the silhouette, and as a result the brain has a much harder time saying, “yeah, there’s a person there.” Your brain does track movement, but finding the outline is absolutely vital to making fast assessments of, “oh, they have a sword.”

When you’re fighting someone, you want to keep your arms, and weapons, inside your silhouette whenever possible. Yes, you can see someone’s holding a sword or a gun, but it’s easier to see it, if it’s held away from the body at a clear angle.

For example: when someone raises their arm, and they’re holding a sword over their head, preparing to strike. All of the information is clearly presented in a nice, clean, profile, for your brain to parse, and it will, fast enough to respond.

When someone holds their sword, pointed at you, inside their silhouette, and prepared to thrust, you’re not unable to see they have a weapon. This isn’t some lizard brain malfunction, where, “oops, I thought they had a thing, but I guess not.” However, it’s much harder for your brain to process what they’re doing with the weapon. Again, not, “you can’t see something’s happening,” but your brain is going to need a few more moments to keep track of what’s going on, and in that time you’ve just earned a few new holes from their blade.

The other part is inertia. It’s easier, and faster, to make small, precise, movements with a weapon, than it is to make large arcing sweeps. There are times when a large swing is appropriate, particularly with axes, but even then, the way Breath of the Wild uses them is more for visual feedback than combat practicality.

I’ll say this again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using something like this as an artistic base, so long as you’re not worried about realism. However, if you’re looking for brutally authentic fight scenes, then you’re better off looking at HEMA or classic training manuscripts.

-Starke

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Q&A: Glass Cannons

So is a “glass cannon” (i.e. Somebody who can dish out a lot of damage, but can’t take much in return) really possible? Or can you really not cause significant impact if you aren’t physically strong/conditioned enough to take a hit?

Not really. It might be more accurate to say, humans are, by nature, glass cannons, but I’ll come back to this in a second.

For those unfamiliar, a glass cannon is a build, usually from RPGs, where you minmax a character to have a very high damage output at the cost of any defensive options.

The problem is, that’s not how people really work. You can’t trade outgoing damage for durability in the real world.

RPGs, and storytelling in general, tend to exaggerate the differences between people. Yes, one person may be healthier or tougher than another, but not to the point where they can shrug off bullets.

So, let’s look at why this exists at all. Combat in games is, at best, an abstraction. You’re working with a specific amount of hit points or some other concrete limit to the amount of damage a character can take. If everyone is forced into playing the exact same way, that will result in an uninteresting experience, particularly in a game where you’re including multiple players simultaneously.

Supporting distinct builds to aid with unique play styles can go a long way towards keeping combat interesting, and under the best circumstances, ensure that everyone can contribute and that they should have some unique options based on their choices.

This kind of game design can easily lead something called, “the trinity.” A trinity is three (or more) players, split between tanking, damage, and support roles. Tanks draw the attention of the foes. Damage (or DPS (Damage Per Second) in most video games) actually kills the, now distracted, foes. Support heal and otherwise enhance the other participants. Depending on game design, there’s a lot of opportunities to blend across these roles. For example, the Tank may also have the ability to buff other characters, or the Support may have additional crowd control options. But, the short version is, it’s built around the idea of having a character who can take a beating, and a cadre of fragile characters focused on dealing significant damage.

(Yes, I know the trinity is usually expressed as Tank/Healer/DPS.)

This is where the glass cannon excels (and the only place it really exists). Even without a tank, you’re still dealing with an abstract combat system, where you’re trying to reduce the opponent’s hit points to zero before they do the same. In many games, saying, “screw defense,” and stacking damage output is a viable (if sometimes difficult) strategy. So long as you can reduce the opponent’s HP to zero before they can do the same to you, it’s a win. (This practice is sometimes called a Damage Race, in case you’re wondering.)

In fact, with some games, forgoing defense can result in massive bonuses that, in the hands of a skilled player, can be substantially more valuable than the sacrificed defense. This is especially true of games with multiple defensive systems, where you’re trading one form of defense for another while still increasing outgoing damage.

The problem is, when it comes to real combat, none of this matters. You’re not going to be dodging bullets, or hitting eleven times as hard because you’ve got a flanking bonus. You’re also not going to be five times tougher than someone you’re facing. If your opponent collapses your lung with a well placed sword strike, that’s it, you’re down.

This is why these kinds of abstractions exist, by the way. When you’re in combat, knowing what’s been injured is what matters. Even blood loss which, I guess, you could argue is, “kinda like,” HP, is still an injury, with its own effects. Trying to calculate realistic injuries with a D20 at 3am just isn’t going to be fun, so instead we get an abstract, “damage,” value. That’s far easier to manage on paper, and since all of the combat is an abstraction anyway, the players are allowed to tell their own story with it.

Fast forward 40 years, and we’re now crunching numbers on computers. It’s way easier to calculate realistic injuries, but we still don’t because, “hey, this is more fun than realizing your character is hemorrhaging internally, will be dead in under an hour, but you can’t actually do anything except hope someone swings by and helps.” Characters suffer damage, and we get on with our day. It also fits with the kinds of heroic fantasies we’re buying in to.

When you create a glass cannon, you’re playing a character who’s hyper lethal, but is still inhumanly durable. You’ve chosen that instead of a character who’s traded some of that extra lethality for even more resilience. Really, strip the surface off of most RPGs and you’re playing a superhero (or villain). (Yes, even in high fantasy settings.) There’s nothing wrong with that per-say. It’s an aspect of the genre since the beginning; whether you trace it back to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Lieber, or Tolkien.

If that was the question, “can you have a superhero who’s a glass cannon?” Yes. Absolutely. You can create a character who has offensive powers or capacities, but has no enhanced defenses. Arguably characters like The Punisher would fall under this header. If you have a setting with superheroes, any of your non-powered characters will be glass cannons by default. They can’t soak off a bullet and keep on going, but the firearms or martial arts they use can absolutely mess up their foes.

Getting punched through a wall, or shot in the head will put them down, however.

Humans are incredibly resilient creatures; we’ve just gotten very good at killing one another.

-Starke

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