Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Question of Scale: Size Matters

Those AT-AT pilots have a hell of a penalty to hit, but if they do connect...

So, I'm taking a break from writing about eight kilometer long spacegoing cathedrals to pound out a blog post today because, well, I need a break from the aforementioned spacegoing cathedrals. I believe I've made it perfectly clear throughout our time together that I have some very specific ideas about game design, especially when it comes to realism or the illusion thereof. Since I play a lot of sci-fi games, and those mostly dealing with giant robots, powered suits, and other powerful vehicles of war, something I've always been concerned with is the question of scale. No, I'm not talking about weights and measures or a C minor or something. I'm talking about the fact that some things are bigger than you, and bigger things are invariably harder to kill and more deadly than things that are your size. Would you like to know more?

It has always been my firmly held belief that scale matters in an RPG. It's one of those things that, when done right, immerses you in the action and makes you think your way through an encounter. When done badly however, which is the way it's usually done, it sucks you right out of the moment and destroys your suspension of disbelief. The idea is a simple one. If it's bigger than you it does more damage and is harder to kill. If it's smaller, it does less damage and is easier to kill. Not that small things can't be deadly, a venomous spider is every bit as deadly as a bloody great bear, but you get the idea. The problem is that most games either can't or won't deal with the idea of scale as a game mechanic, and when they do it's often hilariously atrocious. I'm going to give you examples of what I believe are the two ends of the spectrum, good and bad ways of handling, or ignoring, scale.

Rifts: Right, you all know where this is going. Rifts has no mechanic for scale. Everything is Mega-Damage and the 4d6 damage a laser rifle does is the same 4d6 as that from a 5" naval gun. It's is the kind of game where an infantryman with an energy rifle roughly analogous to an M-16 can go toe to toe with a thirty foot tall robot vehicle and expect to come out victorious. The game rules support tackling something heavily armed and armored and weighing roughly thirty tons with small arms and surviving without a scratch. Where's the jeopardy? Where's the challenge? Where's the fun? There isn't any, because Rifts is a game about winning all the time with no threat or consequences. It's playing RPGs on easy with the god mode cheat active.

D6 Star Wars: If Rifts is the example of bad scaling, and it surely is, West End Games Star Wars is an example of great scaling. The designers who designed the d6 system, which is an elegant little system that you should all be playing, knew they had a problem with scale. Making a game based on a movie in which, essentially, an F-15 blows up a man-made planet with a well placed missile has certain inherent challenges. The WEG designers handled it brilliantly though, and with one chart and about a thousand words came up with a scale system that should be required reading for every game designer. It does the lion's share of the work for you, and generally simulates vast differences in scale very well by altering to hit, dodge, and damage roles depending on what scale you and your opponent. Bigger things are easier to hit but harder to damage (going at a Imperial II class star-destroyer with a B-wing for example) and little things are harder to hit but much, much easier to kill (blasting a human with the blaster cannon of an AT-AT). It makes killing a starship with a fighter near impossible, forcing some quick and creative thinking (X-Wing/Death Star/Thermal Exhaust Port/etc.), and adds a certain level of lethality to approaching an AT-ST with a satchel charge.

See? It can be done gamers and game designers. It doesn't have to be complicated, you don't have to have an advanced degree in maths (I'm looking at you Hero System), and it adds a little, say it with me, verisimilitude to the game. Adding challenge and risk and jeopardy to a game can never be a bad thing. It fosters problem solving, quick and creative thinking, and forces players to make tough choices they otherwise wouldn't make while in easy mode.


-Mark said...

"Everybody I know who is right always agrees with ME" -Rev Lady Mal

I've long held the D6 system up as an example of scaling done right. Glad to see you're right.

A.L. said...

How do you feel about how Palladium did it with Robotech as aside from Rifts? In Robotech the big giant vehicles did MDC while the little weapons did SDC. 1 MDC was worth 100 SDC, but 100SDC did not do any MDC because it wasn't a single solid hit.

Aside from that, I do agree with you. Scale matters, and it should be paid attention to a bit better. I need to read this chart, as I never did get to play the D6 Star Wars game, a tragedy really.

Jason Marker said...

@A.L.: The ONLY time Mega-Damage ever worked was in Robotech, and even then not very well. There needs to be more gradation between 1:1 and 1:100, plus the idea that S.D.C. could never harm M.D.C. was ludicrous, and leads to conversations like, "My 700 mile an hour crash from 30,000 feet deals S.D.C., so me and my mecha are fine."

As for the scale rules in SWd6, do yourself a favor and pick up the SW 2nd edition rulebook second-hand. You shouldn't have to pay more than ten bucks for it. Either that or check out Open d6, I bet the scale rules are still in there.

Thanks for reading along!

Anonymous said...

I'm late as always (stupid work firewall) but here's the Jack comment (knew you were waiting with baited breath)!

Fully, totally, and whole-heartedly agree. As much as Rifts always holds a special place for me, the MDC scaling is fubar and irritating, and encouraged Munchkinism.

D6...while I had some specific irritants with it (such as overreliance on STR for all combat issues) I loved how it handled vehicle-PC scalability.

Another good one for scale was the ol' Spelljammer setting for D&D2E back in the day...or at least as I recall, I may be looking through the nostalgia filter here. It used "Hull Points" with 1 HuP = 10 Hit Points and had metrics for conversion plus invoking commons sense. You could shoot arrows into a ship all day and only do cosmetic damage, but fire or a suitable weapon like an axe would do 1 HuP for every 10 HP damage.

Jami said...

So did you mean to quote Starship Troopers when you said "Would you like to know more?" or was that sadly the 1st thing I thought of... :-)