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Backporting design from FF6 to Tabletop

December 1, 2020

I’ve been saying for years that the design theory/analysis in videogames is light years ahead of tabletop RPGs and often when I post stuff here related to videogames, it’s because there’s good crossover to bring back to tabletop. In this case, I recently picked up Patrick Holleman’s Reverse Design: Final Fantasy 6 book, which goes over some rather useful stuff for folks into tactical combat RPGs.

First, all the caveats; the book is mostly useful for people doing videogames – only a couple of key points are good for bringing back, and I’ll summarize them below. The book is both short (64 pages) and pricey – it uses small font so it’s denser than it appears. Still, this is probably one of the best examples of game design analysis I’ve seen.

Fight Duration and Real Durability

One of the key points is the way in which combat is built over the course of the game; the expectation is that most combats go for a consistent amount of time for the player – that is, most will be about X number of rounds long. Which means, as the party gains levels, the current encounters should match in defensive/offensive ability to last a similar number of rounds. The average number of hits a monster can take is it’s “Real Durability” – regardless of the specific numbers on the stats. Whether this is exactly mapped out by most turn based JRPGs or not, it becomes a defacto design logic; you can see the same in many other games as well.

Now, in tabletop, as power levels advance, we tend to see combat tends to either drag out, or shorten drastically. For games like D&D, this is usually the double pitfall of hitpoint inflation and instant incapacitation, respectively. Likewise, another problem is that a lot of games choose to cause the gap in specialized strengths of a character/monster type vs. the type of resistance by a non-specialized type to grow so much that it becomes a game of who can fire off their their attack first. In all these cases, real durability isn’t really considered at all.

This is why you see stuff like people taking D&D and limiting it to “sweet spot” levels, like the E6 hack (PDF link) – the issue of keeping play within certain bounds can be done by simply excising the later levels where the issue becomes worse.

Now, to be fair, the way in which you apporach Real Durability in a tabletop must be considered a little different than a videogame; players come up with clever solutions, the math isn’t as complex as videogames to create the perfect bell curve that allows for more consistent calculations, the number of combats for a TTRPG is thousands which means averaging matters more, and Class/Role convergence (see below) typically has to be well dressed up for players to accept it (at least in mainstream TTRPG culture).

AI over number inflation

One of the things I found intersting to discover was that the endgame enemies in FF6 didn’t have a lot better stats than prior monsters, what they had was better AI that caused them to pull out better attacks earlier. I have found this is generally a true issue in games in terms of how dangerous you can make a monster with the same stats.

Now, of course this idea isn’t surprising to any long standing GM, but it’s worth considering how many TTRPGs rely on stat inflation as the default. And again, not just “numbers go up to stay in line with the PCs” but rather the numbers go up fast enough that fights suddenly start either dragging out or getting very swingy and short – Real Durability swings.

Usually when I see game advice about making combatants smarter in tactics, is either based in Simulationist “realism” or those old vindictive “how to be a killer GM” kind of books – not as a measured, considered set of advice for Gamist play based directly into the existing rules. Consider if your monster stat block had 3 challenges, and different tactical instructions, maybe an extra power or something, but mostly the same stats which played much differently based on the challenge level.

Class/Role Convergence

A key point for FF6 is that the large cast of PCs, and how often the game has you playing with a split up group, means that they had to try to bring more of the characters to a closer range of ability to keep encounter balance reasonable (and Real Durability similar). What this means is that as characters advance, they become more similar in damage output/defense so party makeup becomes less an issue.

In tabletop RPGs that use a “balanced party” design, the problem is that class role is often tightly silo’d by making those differences stronger, not weaker. In turn, this means fights tend to be more swingy depending on how well the optimal folks can do their thing (or not at all) and that the balance of encounters gets much worse once any character is incapacitated – often leading to the dreaded ‘death spiral’. This is also why the classic D&D rule is “never split the party”.

A secondary issue is that the expectation of a ‘balanced party’ means new players are expected to have enough system mastery to even know what that is supposed to be for the game to begin with. Ironically for all the complaints that D&D 4th edition “made the game like an MMO”, the fact that classes became more alike meant you didn’t have to lock in exact party compositions as tightly as other editions; that is, one of the big things you have to do in MMOs.

Game (re)design is hard

If you’re designing a new RPG that uses combat, these are things you can apply to build a more robust design that has less rough spots. Unlike a JRPG, you don’t have control over encounter composition and moment to moment experiences other groups have, but you CAN pull out the swinginess and build in more meaningful tactical changes.

If you’re playing an existing game, you probably can see how much of these issues tie down to a structural problem in the system. Upping opposition tactics for higher difficulty is probably the easiest one to bring in, but the other issues around role differentiation and combat consistency are deep system structures that effectively require a full redesign.

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