Tag Archives: game design

Q&A: What You Can Learn From Weapon Triangles

Hello, I could have sworn you’ve answered this already, but I can’t find the post, so I’m asking anyway. Is there any validity to the weapons triangle from Fire Emblem? Swords have advantage against Axes, Axes have advantage against Lances, Lances have advantage against Swords. I understand that reach is very important so Lances “beating” Swords makes sense, but I feel like the other two are arbitrary.

I know we’ve touched on this in the past, but it’s probably been years. The answer is, “kinda, sorta, not exactly.” These kinds of simple triangles tend to be more about gameplay, and less about reality.

There are specific weapon priorities. A classic example is polearms offering an extremely effective counter to cavalry. Historically, cavalry dominated forces frequently had serious difficulty when fighting against foes who prioritized spears as their main infantry units. Similarly, cavalry are extremely effective against most melee infantry. So we have two parts of a triangle… except, it doesn’t really close. Sword infantry doesn’t dominate polearm infantry. You can bring archers into the mix, and they will be more effective against unshielded infantry than shielded infantry. Your sword infantry are likely to be using shields, while your spear users are less likely to be doing so (though, this isn’t always going to be the case.) So, you start to have a four sided priority “triangle.” Except it doesn’t work that way, because your shielded infantry is going to get stuck in the tarpit of frontline melee, so, if the archers are significantly behind the lines, they’re more vulnerable to skirmishing cavalry, not the infantry they’re less effective against.

Oh, right, and those spear infantry that are so effective against cavalry? The best tool to deal with them is, ironically, cavalry. Get the polearm fighters tied up in melee with friendly infantry, then get your skirmishing cavalry around behind them, and charge into their rear. (This is why protecting your flanks and keeping skirmishers from getting behind your front lines is so important. Once you have skirmishers, especially fast moving ones, loose behind the lines, it’s over.)

If the above borders on impenetrable, that’s why many games use much simpler triangles. It’s not replicating reality, but it is replicating the concept that certain kinds of units serve different functions, and a battlefield is about getting different units to operate in tandem with each other.

A famous quote from Sid Meier holds that, games are about making a series of interesting choices. That’s the point of the triangle. It’s turning strategy into a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Without any kind of priority, it’s very easy to create mono-unit forces that will steamroll anything in their path. Ironically, some of Sid Meier’s Civilization series are guilty of this. But, I’m also specifically remembering the armies of six Terminator squads, with Assault Cannons in one of the Dawn of War expansions. (I don’t remember which one had no recruitment limits, it’s not Dark Crusade.)

Introducing priority systems (even if they’re a natural interaction of unit stats) can go a long way towards forcing players to make “an interesting decision,” when assembling their army. It’s not enough to just load up on super heavy infantry, or cavalry, and roll the map without a second thought. Now you need to consider what enemies you’re going to face, and set up your army accordingly.

The irony is that, Sid Meier’s advice works for writing. Stories are a series of interesting choices made by your characters. The idea of a triangle is simple, but it’s also good advice for building your characters, if your character excels against one kind of foe, it stands to reason there are other threats out there they’re unprepared for. If your character is some kind of hotshot cavalry officer, putting them in a jungle fight would be an absolute nightmare. If your character is an archer, putting them in an overrun fortress, fighting to escape in close quarters, really plays against their strengths.

Triangles may be simple, but they are an abstract concept you can adapt for your writing.


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Followup: Damage Decks and the use of Playing Cards in RPGs

Wait what is the “damage deck” rpg called?


I was thinking, specifically, of two games. One was the FFG version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the other was Decipher’s Star Trek: Customizable Card Game. Both games are out of print, (The Star Trek: CCG went out of print nearly 20 years ago, and FFG lost the Warhammer license back in 2017.)

With Warhammer, I misremembered how the damage rules work, and it’s something of a hybrid system. Damage inflicted becomes “minor wounds,” which are tracked by face down damage cards. Under certain circumstances, a minor wound can become a “serious wound,” by flipping the damage card over, and at that point it has a persistent effect until the character is healed. The primary way minor wounds become serious ones is if the character is knocked out, in which case, one of their minor wounds will flip face up.

It’s a little unusual to see a mechanic like this in tabletop RPGs, but the mechanic of taking a persistent debuff after being downed in combat is significantly more common in CRPGs. Both the Dragon Age series and Pillars of Eternity use that exact mechanic to penalize characters who have been downed in combat.

It’s also worth pointing out that FFG is primarily a tabletop game publisher. This is very apparent in their Warhammer RPG, which features a lot of items you’d normally associate with a tabletop game, rather than an RPG. Player characters, their items, their skills, and the things they’ll fight are all tracked with cards. Keeping track of player characters between sessions was accomplished with custom tuck boxes. There are also a mountain of tokens for tracking many other things. So, in that environment, the use of cards to track damage isn’t that strange. It’s also why the box was nearly $100 USD when it was still in print. It’s beefy, and there’s a lot of stuff in there.

The Star Trek: CCG was one of the first imitators of Magic: The Gathering, and significantly, one of the first to really depart from the game structure of Magic. Where M:TG is about dealing 20 damage to your opponent before they do the same to you, Star Trek’s victory condition was acquiring 100 points from completing missions. Combat was not a primary focus of the game, and there was no direct victory condition through combat.

Over the years, Star Trek reworked its ground combat to be almost passible, but ship combat got a significant rework with the Blaze of Glory expansion. This saw the introduction of the “Battle Bridge side deck,” constructed from Tactic cards. Tactics had two parts to the card, the top was a combat modifier that you would select, and the bottom was the damage effect. Ship combat occurred once per turn, with your ships having the opportunity to attack your opponents, at which point, both players would draw the top two Tactics cards from the BBSD, select one, place the other underneath the deck, and then both players would reveal them at the same time. Tactics had varying effects, frequently increasing attack and defense values. If your attack was greater than the target’s defense, that was a “hit,” and if your attack was greater than twice the target’s defense that was a “direct hit.” At the same time, your opponent would make the same checks with their attack against your defense value.

Tactics cards would define what you did on a hit or direct hit. The default was to deal the top two tactics from your deck to your opponent’s ship on a hit, and the top four on a direct hit, but there was some variation. For example: One Tactics card (“Maximum Firepower,” I think), would deal the top three cards on a hit (if you were using one of a small subset of ships), but also had a defense penalty instead of a bonus. An entire subset of tactics (“Target Weapons/Shields/Engines”) would direct you to deal the top card off your deck (or top three on a direct hit), but was also placed on the target as a damage card when used.) (In the case of Target Shields, it would be applied even if you didn’t score a hit.)

As with Warhammer this is, technically a hybrid damage system. Each Tactic card’s damage section had a small text box which indicated what it did to the ship, this included disabling systems (such as the transporter or tractor beam), killing a crew member, causing the ship to be vulnerable to boarding parties, ect. It also applied penalties to the ship’s stats, and applied a “-%” to the ship’s hull. If the cumulative damage exceeded -100% hull, the ship would be destroyed. So, there is a health pool, but it’s gated by cards.

Now, significantly, this was not in the RPG that Decipher developed for Star Trek.

The use of cards as a game component in RPGs is pretty rare overall. The most prominent example I can think of is Deadlands, which used cards during character creation, and also when casting spells. Though, that was with a (mostly) standard 54 card poker deck. The only unusual element was the Jokers which were distinct from one another, and one had a special significance. Including, if I remember correctly, killing the player character if it was drawn during character creation.

The reverse is also unusual. You don’t often see card games which trend into roleplaying territory.

The (also, now, long out of print), Babylon 5 card game actively encouraged players to roleplay as their various characters during sessions session, and many of the cards in that game are primarily only useful as roleplaying aides. (There is a serious difference between competitive decks and casual ones.) However, there is no persistence between sessions. The game (unsurprisingly) has a card based consequence system, but, damage is just points assigned against a character’s highest ability.

FFG’s Arkham Horror card game is the inverse of B5 in many ways. You’re not actively encouraged to roleplay at the table, but your characters (or at least their decks) are intended to grow and change over the course of a campaign. Additionally, the game structure is more in line with an RPG, it’s cooperative between the players, with, “self-playing,” scripted scenarios that you work together to overcome. As with B5, there are persistent card effects that can linger on a character, but damage is simply measured against a health pool. (Technically two distinct health pools, Health and Sanity, but, this is H.P. Lovecraft inspired title.) (Also, there is an Arkham Horror board game. Same publisher, same setting, most of the same characters, but it is a different game.)

Now, my background with board and card games is not absolute, so I could easily be missing some other examples. (In particular, I haven’t played the board game version of Arkham Horror.) But, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Star Trek CCG’s ship combat are the two examples I was specifically thinking of when I mentioned that system.


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Q&A: Games as Inspiration

When you talk about video game stats not translating to real fights, is the assumption usually that both fighters are ordinary Homo sapiens and that things like magic potions and “Clarke’s third law” tech aren’t factors? Or does that vary depending on the exact scenario and what “stat” you’re referring to? Example: Would an elixer that temporarily halves the amount of calories you burn with any activity (so a stamina boost) give you an advantage in a fight?


So, stats are a complex subject, and I’ve been dancing around this for a couple months. I thought there was a comprehensive post on the subject already, but I don’t see it, so it probably doesn’t exist.

The short version I usually go with is, be careful about trying to translate stats into fight scenes, and this is part of why. If you’re making a game, it’s reasonable enough to say, “yeah, this consumable increases your stamina by 3 points.” However, when you’re trying to use that as a narrative device, it can become harder to justify. “Why would an elixir that modifies the speed at which you get hungry increase your hit points?”

The stats you create for your story are abstractions for much more complex topics and mechanics, distilled into (hopefully) an easy to manage format. It’s fine to sit back and say, “okay, my character has a Combat stat of 5, the other fighter has a Resilience stat of 2, so, I’ll deal 3 damage when they ambush them, leaving them with 2 health,” and go from there to write a fight scene where your character ambushes another, leaving them in a wounded state as the fight proceeds.

It’s not a terrible idea to stage out the fight on a map. Move your characters around, see what other characters might observe the fight, and think about how those bystanders would respond.

This only becomes a problem when you start focusing on the rules, or when the rules you’re relying on start to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

I think I’ve used this example before, but let’s look at D&D. (Specifically I’m looking 3.5 Edition, some of this does carry forward, some has been changed.) A 7th level fighter could reasonably have 66hp. (I’m using a dice rolling site right now.) If they’re critically struck by a character using a longsword, they’ll take 1d8 damage, doubled. So, up to 16 of damage. This means your character can be stabbed in the chest and shrug it off. This isn’t an example where the blow doesn’t connect. D&D does, explicitly, allow characters to suffer superficial damage to explain how they’re getting hit without it seriously affecting them, but crits are supposed to be the hit actually connecting.

Now, it’s possible to write a scene where your certified badass hero suffers a mortal wound, and keeps on fighting until they collapse. The problem with the example above is, that Fighter isn’t mortally wounded. They took a blow which would outright kill a human without dying. If their armor held, or the blow was glancing, it wouldn’t be a critical hit. (In fact, a glancing hit off the armor occurs when you manage to clear their Touch AC, but don’t beat their full AC. Armor in D&D is both simple and stupidly complicated at the same time. If you don’t understand, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.)

So, it allows for a character who takes what should be a mortal wound to then shrug it off.

Having just trashed that, you can make a compelling scene from that scenario. Your fighter gets hit and they’re seriously injured, they’re fighting what could easily be a losing battle. Afterwards, if they survive, they can address the injuries. Maybe with a health potion, maybe with help from a healer.

What you want to do is remember that hit points are an abstraction, and that as your character is injured, those injuries will pile up. Maybe they can keep going for a little while if they have the will to keep fighting, but they’ll bleed to death and die. Strength is an abstraction. Your character really knows how to fight, and is probably a fairly solid combatant. The rules you have facilitate this, and can remind you that your character isn’t invincible, but also lead you into a situation where you forget your character just took a blade to the intestines, and probably isn’t doing too well right now.

So, I’ve been talking about how not to use stats, let’s flip this around and talk about how stats and rule systems can be incredibly beneficial to you as writer.

Games tell stories. I don’t mean in the sense of a written story presented to the player. I’m not talking about passively consuming cutscenes, and for the most part I’m not talking about the writing itself. I’m talking about the systems, and what you can extract for a story.

A cliche, and remarkably difficult example is chess. The game itself tells the story of a conflict between two equally matched forces, with the overt structure of an iron age battlefield. It’s cliche due to overuse. Writers (who use it) will frequently drop literal chess games into the background of their story. It’s also difficult because chess is extremely abstract even in the context of an infantry skirmish. However, it can open your eyes to a world of strategic possibilities. You probably don’t want to cue the audience in to each piece individually, but when you sit back and look, you can see the king (who must be protected at all costs)/queen (who is far more mobile, deadly, and ultimately expendable) structure repeated all over the place in pop culture. (Though you’ll rarely see eight fleshed out antagonists with cannon fodder to go up against eight protagonists with their own minions.)

When it comes to blocking out stats for characters, the kind of story you’re telling is the most important thing. You don’t need to (and realistically can’t) account for the entirety of a person in a brief stat block. So you choose the factors that are most important for the story you’re telling. D&D has a standardized stat block of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The stat range is nominally 3-18, with 10 as “average.” That’s a fairly nice general collection of stats. But, doesn’t know the kind of story you’re telling, so it tries to pull in everything. This is where things get strange as Charisma mixes in any social skill along with appearance. Wisdom is your character’s perception, their willpower, and their skill in medicine. Because Medicine isn’t an Intelligence based skill. Because, in D&D, medical training is not about what you know, it’s how self-confident you are. Right.

Okay, let’s pull an old counterexample out. The out of print Babylon 5 Card Game had three stats, (technically 5, but I’m not going to worry about that.) You had Diplomacy, Intrigue, and Military. The game didn’t bother tracking any of the D&D stats, because any combat would happen within the context of other actions. If you attacked someone with diplomacy, it was (probably) an attempt to get them removed from treaty negotiations, maybe it was a court case or an op-ed. In rare cases it might have been a formal duel. If there was an attack in intrigue, that might have been a blackmail effort, or an attempt to expose the character’s contacts, or it could be violence. Military was ship to ship combat. Fleets would engage with one another. In rare cases military conflicts might be non-violent, but there was always the fear that you were one action away from someone opening fire and turning the entire situation into a shooting war.

Note the difference: D&D is attempting to systematize the person. Each character is a piece on a fantasy battlefield. B5 was interested in systematizing the person’s influence. This is how effective a character is diplomatically, this is how well they play the spy.

There’s no right answer for this. If you want a story where you’re focused on ground level combat, you’re probably going to want a physical stat block. However, if you’re more interested in a free flowing story, you’ll benefit far more from tuning your stats to mesh with the story you’re trying to tell.

If your setting has magic, maybe that should be a stat. If you have a heavy political theme, maybe that should be a stat. If you’re not going to be distinguishing between ranged and melee combat, you probably don’t need Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution.

The important thing is, no one will see these stats, so you can be as abstract as you want.

There’s also no hard rules about what a specific number needs to mean. If you want to calibrate stats between 1 and 10 (like Fallout), you can do that. If you want to mark a character’s stats from 1 to 5, (like World of Darkness), you can do that.

The only guidance I’ll give on stat ranges is: “Be consistent.” If you have an upper cap, do not break that without a very compelling reason. Make sure each value has a specific meaning to you; one you understand. The stats are meaningless if you cannot turn that into a description without tipping your hand.

Incidentally, for creating stat blocks, if you want to use a system you’re comfortable with, have fun. For example, I would not create characters using D&D, because I find it has too much tedious bookkeeping. However, that’s me. If you want to prototype your characters in D20, it’s your pencils, have fun. (Also, on the specific subject of D&D, character level is a stat. That has meaning, it tells you how far a character has traveled from being a rookie adventurer into a wandering demigod.)

With that said, there is another major thing about games. The systems themselves can forward narrative concepts. I’m going to explain this one with examples:

In 2001, Decipher Inc. got the license to the Jackson Lord of the Rings films. The card game they produced had a very novel cost system. The player controlling the fellowship could play as many cards as they wanted (until they ran out of cards.) However, each card had a “Twilight” cost. The player controlling the forces of Sauron paid for their cards using that “Twilight.” So, the structure that resulted would encourage Fellowship players to inch forward, and cut corners wherever possible, because anything they played would give the Shadow player more resources to hunt them down and kill them.

In a broad structure this meshes with The Lord of the Rings. Theoretically the Fellowship had almost unlimited resources, but they’re traveling light to avoid detection. Armies could be rallied, but that would bring Sauron’s attention, and massively increase the risk of The Ring corrupting someone.

It’s a simple mechanic, but if you’re writing a story about characters who are being hunted by a powerful foe (or foes), it’s a concept that can be adapted fairly fluidly. If anything you do will draw attention, you’d need to plan very carefully, to ensure your actions had the most effect.

Another mechanic that comes to mind is a ticking bomb. This one isn’t exclusive to a single game, I can think of many variants. The short version of this is, “you have X (time) until something bad happens, and you need to prevent that.” This a common narrative device as well, as it puts pressure on the protagonist to keep moving forward. The reason you see this is, it works. Timers prevent characters from sitting down and waiting it out. If you find a game with a good timer system, like XCOM2, you might want to take notes.

If you’re going this route, you want to become conscious for how the systems affect play, rather than just going, “okay, here’s a thing.” As with stats, you don’t, usually, want to be overt about systems you pick up. (Though a looming deadline could easily be something characters would know about.)

When you’re looking at systems, look for rules and mechanics that tension against one another. I didn’t go into detail with it, but the timers in XCOM2 do exactly that. This is a game where slow, methodical, deliberate play is vastly superior, so timers are added forcing you to act more aggressively, and take risks you’d otherwise ignore.

The short version of this is, a game experience can tell a compelling narrative. It can also produce a jumbled mess of events. As a writer, you can extract those moments where everything came together, smooth it out, and run with it. However, the real danger is getting into the weeds with how the rules function, instead of how they affect the story being told.

The worst thing you do is try to apply the rules over the story. This includes the potion suggestion above. You have a potion that allows your character to engage in physical activity for far longer than they would normally. Cool. It doesn’t need a rules explanation. The reader doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) know that potion grants +3 Stamina for the next 8h. It doesn’t mean a consumable like that couldn’t exist in your world. It doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t affect their stats. It just means that you do not want the audience cued in on that. The advantage of magic (and Clarke’s Law tech) is that you don’t have to explain why it does what it does. “Why would a potion that is intended to reduce fatigue also make you more durable in combat?” Who knows, that’s just how the magic works. Same reason you wouldn’t ask, “how does a health potion heal a punctured kidney?” or, “how does it replace all that lost blood?” Doesn’t matter, all we know is that it does that.

Stats and game systems are one of the best lies you can learn as a writer. If you’re careful, and you let them, they will keep you honest, and help engineer creative situations.

Stats and game systems are one of the most dangerous practices you can pick up as a writer, because there will always be a temptation to game the rules to the expense of your story.

Have fun, be careful.


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Q&A: Low DPS

I have a fanfic where a character has a whip as a weapon for Evil Overlord Aesthetics. She thinks she’s in a video game, and when she realizes she’s actually in a dangerous situation she ditches the whip for an improvised weapon (sharpened rebar) that’s easier to kill with. Is this a plausible change, or is it easier to kill with a whip than I assume? While fear is affecting her judgment, if you can kill with a whip and she knows how at least in principle, maybe this isn’t a leap she’d make.


You don’t need to justify a character taking a poor weapon choice into an encounter in a video game. There’s plenty of reasons you might take garbage gear into an encounter. Achievements, grinding unlocks, because individual weapons and attacks level up from use. This is before we get into novelty, thematic, and RP builds, which is what you’re talking about.

There’s a legitimate point in games, where you can start screwing around with non-optimal setups. You’ve gotten comfortable enough with the mechanics and the game cannot punish you for abusing it. Usually, this is due to system knowledge, it’s not just, “my reflexes are so good.” When you know how a game will behave, you gain a lot of freedom.

This should be obvious, but, the rules of a game do not have to mimic reality. In many cases, they won’t. What did you find was the most realistic element of Skyrim? The ability to yell at people so hard they’d vaporize? Being immune to hypothermia? Becoming a vampire? The ability to recover from near fatal wounds by freezing time and instantaneously consuming one-hundred-and-forty-five carrots. Owning your own house? Games operate under their own rules; rules which can get away with barely paying lip service to the real world. When you’re writing in a game world it is very important to create (or understand) how those rules work, and the effects they’ll have on player behavior. After that, the real world doesn’t matter.

This is part of why the, “she’s in the real world but doesn’t realize it,” doesn’t play for me. Something like Star Trek‘s holodecks not withstanding, video games are nothing like the real world. Even hardcore simulation games tend to have weird idiosyncrasies. Before we talk about graphics or the interface.

Because the rules are artificial, new players will try things that don’t work, but look viable. The technical term for this is a, “noob trap.” Generally speaking, these are regarded as poor design, but they still happen, and experienced players learn to navigate around them.

Some games will actively encourage you to swap out your gear, sometime for less optimal choices. The logic is fairly straightforward: If you let a player simply run the same loadout for 20-60 hours, they’ll get bored. To quote Soren Johnson, lead designer on Civilization 4 and Offworld Trading Company, “Given the opportunity, Players will optimize the fun out of a game.” Players will take the most risk averse, tedious, approach to a game, and then blame the game for their choice to play it that way.

There’s a number of ways you can counter this: Including gradually aging out existing items (either by providing a drip feed of better gear or by causing existing gear to decay), a focus on situational weapons. This can result in situations where you’re best option is use something that would normally be sub-optimal, because it’s the best option in the moment. In the right circumstances, that could include your character’s whip.

Developers will also implement mechanics designed specifically to counter this kind of play. An example close to Johnson would be the Firaxis reboot of XCOM, and it’s eventual sequel. Players used overwatch, inching forward with soldiers covering one another as they moved up. This somewhat mimics a real military tactic called a staggered advance, where soldiers will cover each other as they move forward. However, it also slows the game down and trivializes a major risk; charging into a pack of aliens you didn’t see. XCOM2 addressed this by using mission timers aggressively. You couldn’t advance slowly and methodically, because you only had X turns before very bad things happened. Similarly, the spiritual successor, Phoenix Point, tied its overwatch mechanic to a depleting resource. Again, invalidating the optimized strategy.

Here’s the problem: Low damage isn’t fun. As a concrete example: This is the problem with high level combat in Fallout 4. Enemies continue to level with you. Your level is uncapped. But your maximum damage output caps off at level 49. You, and the enemies, continue to get tankier, as your health pools grow, but you will never hit harder than you could have at 49.

Why do I bring this up? Few things in video games kill the fun like low outgoing damage.

Few players would choose to take a very low damage weapon simply for the aesthetic. (Note: “Very” is the operational word here. Everyone has slightly different tolerances for what they’ll accept. However, if the character is considering using an improvised weapon, clearly the whip is well below what they’re happy with.)

Either their whip is a valid weapon choice, or your character’s decisions leading up to this moment don’t make a lot of sense (even from the perspective of being in a video game.) There are whips in games that are legitimate options. For example: Bloodborne’s Threaded Cane, or the Vampire Killer from Castlevania. If it’s something like that, then the whip will still do its job. (Unless, the real version is nothing like the game counterpart.) However, if that’s not the case, your character is taking fetish gear into a fight. That’s going to be messy and unpleasant for her.

If you have the room to use it, the whip is a good defensive tool when dealing with unarmored opponents. So long as your character doesn’t need to kill their foe in this scene, the whip gives them a lot of options to create an opening so they can break and run, or buy time for reinforcements to arrive.

If she wanted to kill people, she would have brought a weapon to achieve that. If she’s using a whip is for fun, bringing it to a fight won’t be. I would think she’d have learned this before now.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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