Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, January 02, 2013
 
Unsexy stat gains

I am currently preparing the character sheets for the next session of my 4th edition D&D campaign. There are a lot of changes, as the players leveled up to level 4: In 4E you get a bonus to just about everything of half your level rounded down, so every even level all your skills, attacks, and defenses go up by +1. In addition each player could choose a new talent, and increase two basic stats by +1. So overall a lot of numbers went up, and numerically speaking the characters are now measurably stronger if they would fight the same monsters again.

And there's the rub: You rarely fight the same monsters again. That isn't particular to D&D or 4E, but something that is also a regular feature of single- and multiplayer computer role-playing games: Your level goes up, and then you fight new monsters which are also of higher level. Thus my players treated the level gain like some sort of non-event. If your attack goes up, but the monsters defense also goes up, ultimately you don't hit any easier. And vice versa, your increased defenses are being overcome by the higher level monsters' increased attacks.

What the players found a lot more interesting was the previous levels, where at level 2 and 3 they gained new powers. They are looking forward to level 5, where they again gain a new daily power. A new daily power isn't a huge gain in power, because you can use it only once per adventuring day, which could spread over 2 or more game sessions. But unlike a stat gain a new power is a new option, a new tool in the player's arsenal. New powers are sexy, stat gains are unsexy.

And I think that is what the Blizzard developers also realized, when they changed the talent trees for the umpteenth time again in Mists of Pandaria. The unsexy stat gains are gone, and now the talent trees are basically a choice of a new power every 15 levels. But still most games like World of Warcraft or Diablo 3 are very much stuck in an unsexy stat progression, with the numbers ever increasing towards the ridiculous. I wonder whether one day role-playing games will just get rid of all those unsexy stats and stat gains, and just increase the options a  player has with level. The game I'm currently playing, Deus Ex: Human Revolution already works like that, and I'm not missing the stat gains at all.

Comments:
Is there a particular reason why the players can't fight the same monsters again? One of the more interesting sessions I had with D&D was defending a village against a Kobold horde. To make the DM's job easier, he abstracted away individual kobolds into groups, so he didn't have to spend 5 minutes each turn moving every single enemy.

Granted, with the way stats work in many games, the number of enemies would go up exponentially.

I do like how Guild Wars 2 solved this problem by scaling levels. So while a level 80 character would have many more skills than a level 1 character, stats-wise they would be similar in newbie zones. Assuming they both used the same quality and amount of items, that is. Generally, the higher-level characters have all of their gear slots filled with high-quality gear, so their scaled-down stats are higher as well. The high-level characters do feel powerful, but not overly so.
 
Single player games will find it easier to get rid of stats. Stats have the advantage of reliably offering incremental rewards while still allowing balance to be controlled. Optimising stat balance can be fun too, though not for everyone.

Still, the specific problem described by Tobold only applies to PnP games. In CRPGs, including MMOrPGs, DM time is not a scarce resource. So in most computer games players can plough through hordes of low-level 'windshield monsters' any time they want to enjoy the benefits of their increased stats.


 
In my 4E game, players wanted more encounter powers (attack or utility).
They could use these powers each encounter.

Stat gains are annoying if the PCs level quickly. The players have to print new character sheets quite often.

@Mika, I sometimes use lower level monsters as a large amount as minions.
It's fun to see the PCs mow them down.
 
[i]Guild War II[/i] also leaves a significant reward for going to lower levels: where a level 80 WoW player will get level 10 items and no XP for killing a level 10 mob, GWII still leaves a chance for level 50+ items and gives full experience and karma. On the flip side, levels are incredibly unimportant excepting at 7, 10, 20, and 30, or as a gating mechanic. The fundamental skills of a class aren't unlocked with level-based skill points to start with, and skill points can gained by completing challenges in the world.

[i]The Secret World[/i] does something similar: you can return to a first-level area, kill monsters for XP and even recomplete (most) quests. On the flip side, skill points and ability points are fairly valuable at early 'levels', where it every few AP unlocks another ability on the bar and SP is vital to being able to use the items that drop. Less so in the late-game, where it can start taking fifty or a hundred AP to get anything useful, or thirty-five SP to unlock an auxiliary weapon. ((A number of pen-and-paper games have similar issues : high attributes ratings tend to get stupid-expensive in Whitewolf games, for example, and the [i]Exalted[/i] line's Essence rating in particular I tend to just houserule as being GM-triggered rather than have people stuck banking a dozen session's experience worth.))

The increasingly cosmetic ding is an issue, though. Whether in GWII, TSW, or World of Warcraft -- where not only do talent points, but now skills come in fewer but more meaningful gaps -- there's a question of why even have levels of solely unsexy stats.
 
You're the DM, Tobold. Fix it.

Slightly more serious answer: you're the DM, they can fight older monsters again if you so choose. I've done that before. Every once in a while toss in an encounter similar to a memorable one they did 3 - 4 levels prior. I did this with bandits once. The first time they nearly got killed. 4 levels later and they mopped the floor with the slightly large group. They enjoyed having a fight that was ridiculously one-sided in their favor for once, and it was a good way to demonstrate their growth.
 
You still get stat gains and whatnot in compuer games because RPG grognards throw a hissy fit if there's not lots of stats and numbers and things to satisfy their OCD.

'Dumbed-down' is shorthand now for a game where the designers stopped and noticed that Making All The Numbers Bigger wasn't actually that interesting, and maybe they should provide meaningful choices instead of stat bumps. To judge by forums, players hate that shit.
 
It's a damn shame you couldn't get past the 'MMOness' of The Secret World. That's pretty much the most progressive contender I've seen in the realm of developing the sexy stats.

It's to do with the separation of skills and gear.

Don't get me wrong... the unsexy stats are still there, and they're tied to the gear. But the SEXY starts when you unlock abilities that have synergy with each other.

Digging deep into the shotgun skill tree to unlock the passive effect that all attacks in melee range inflicted 'hindered' on your enemy, then applying that ability on a melee character to unlock all sorts of chained effects that rely on the enemies being hindered, or boost you phenomenally whenever you inflict hindered?

It's like building a magic: the gathering deck.

Unfortunately for many folks, they couldn't get past the initial part of having to play with someone else's relatively flavourless suboptimal starter deck before being able to unlock the cool cards that work together.
 
So you are suggesting that an RPG will have 90+ abilities by the end? Even if that were not completely overwhelming to the player, how could a designer possibly come up with 90 interesting, balanced abilities that are all progressively more useful (lest higher levels become more boring)? More options is great, but only up to a certain point.

Of course, you can certainly put the level cap lower, like in D&D where it is 20-30 but many players hardly ever get past 15 (in my experience). But at that point either the "endgame" has to be especially lengthy, or the time inbetween levels lengthy. Or, I suppose, you can simply assume players won't play your game very often, just like IRL 1/week D&D sessions.

MMORPG designers focus on stat gains because it is the most rational method for incremental progression. Just because your D&D group doesn't seem to care doesn't mean they wouldn't care if they were playing D&D everyday. Or, hell, just gauge their reaction to a +2 Flaming Longsword as treasure, compared to their masterwork weaponry. "It's just numbers" until their new abilities/options start missing/failing/or otherwise not dealing enough damage to end the fight quickly.
 
There are two main types of progression. Progression of the characters and progression of gameplay.
Character progression is purely cosmetic. Characters become more powerful via stat increases and better loot and face tougher challenges (so the net impact is approximately zero).

Gameplay progression comes from adding new abilities. This advancement is less about improving characters and more about adding more gameplay options for the players (making it a meta progression).

My preferred method is to mix it up a little so both offer gameplay impact. For example,

Event 1
L1 player Vs L1 opponents
player wins, gets stat progression.

Event 2a
L2 player Vs L1 opponents (player feels strong)

Event 2b (Boss fight)
L2 player Vs L2 opponent
player wins, gets ability progression.

There is a third type of progression, being story-line based, but that only really works when you aren't busy turning the players into demi-gods via the other progression methods.

 
WoW finds its roots in MUD. MUDs and PnP RPGs were played by geeks who generally enjoy maths and fiddling with min-maxing (on top of RPing which is nowadays mostly gone in MMORPGs). A relatively small amount of MMORPG players enjoy the theorycrafting and number crunching. Even in the very high end, a top player isn't necessarily a theorycrafter or vice versa. The ability to run sims as well as spending time on beating content have the potential to be of more importance. Sims made stats largely irrelevant. That's why Blizzard came up with reforging in Cata, and VP upgrade system in MoP.

The other problem you mention is one of replayability. On one hand, you want players to feel their character becoming more powerful while on the other end you want content to stay relevant regardless of current level. What this boils down to is unlocking content (GW2 and TSW have this system; others have commented on this above). Had this existed in WoW, people would still be able to play old content like Black Temple and Ulduar in this day and age (akin to the ability to still do Herald of the Titans). Maybe post-nerf, but still, the content would still be playable. Because 2 shotting a boss is simply not playing the game because there's no challenge involved. It doesn't count, and does nothing in the brains.

The problem a game like WoW had pre MoP was too many abilities which did not matter, or too many which did. Warlock is a prime example here, as well as stance dancing on warrior. They were incredibly cumbersome to play. Warlock was solved by ditching old abilities (while keeping useless ones like eye of kil rogg which was useful in Warcraft RTS) but more so by making 3 distinct specs. Luckily, the macro system alleviated the problem for classes including the 2 mentioned ones. To fix this, Blizzard made the main rotation more complex, but watered down the amount of abilities and allowed the user flexibility via the talent and glyph system which was also completely adjustable on the fly (barring in-combat).

SWTOR had it worse. I remember having nearly (4 x 12 =) 48 keybinds there, no joke. It had tons of small, situational, and useless abilities. It did not even have healer CDs, and no macros either.

The end result of WoW is a "less is more" system. Less choice, but more diversity between the choices. It is elegant. People do not want to read huge amounts of text, or have 8521210 choices to make. They want choices which matter. Same in a democratic system, when deciding which phone to buy, and so on. For if the amount of choices is huge, there is still only a few which in the end matter and those are the ones people are interested in. See Diablo 3 talent tree builds. In this case, Blizzard discourages experimentating with talent tree system as well due to the valor stack system.
 
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