Tag Archives: game design

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.


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