So I am, instead of my normal weekly post, going to write an entry in my development blog today. I might do this a bit more often – I seem to be echoing the words of the Oracle all too often lately!
I had a very interesting conversation with one of my playtesters after the last Era: Survival playtest we did, and I thought I’d share the dilemma we were discussing with you.
First, a bit of a framework. Era: Survival is a Survival Horror game. One of the primary factors that differentiates it from an action game, in my definition of the genre, is the massive risks involved in combat – people who constantly get into combat in a survival horror game should be dead pretty quickly. One of the ways a lot of games in this genre achieve this is to limit the utility of weapons – baseball bats break, guns run out of ammo, you know the type of thing. So you end up running around or away from zombies, demons or whatever, rather than fighting them head on, because getting bitten in hand to hand combat is very bad.
This was the basis of the disagreement – it was around weapons and how much they could be used. The playtester, who will remain totally nameless, felt that it damaged the suspension of disbelief that a standard sledgehammer would be damaged and need to be repaired after only 5 or 6 hits against an enemy.
In response, I explained that there were story reasons around this – the world that Era: Survival is set in is not at modern technology levels – it’s living off the bones of a once-great human civilisation. To make a metal hammer, they don’t mine metal, they get a chunk of metal, melt it and then pour it into a hammer shape. Impurities abound, the materials are not always the best for the job, etc. Therefore, it seemed to be logical to me that the hammer could become unusable after 5 or 6 hits, particularly if it hit something hard. It was agreed between us that if it hit something hard then that was possible, but what if you swing the hammer horizontally and take someone’s head off? that isn’t really on the same scale as hitting the ground.
And that’s where the interesting point lies: I had made the assumption that it always hit something hard, for mechanical reasons – otherwise, you instantly double the complexity of hitting something with a hammer – did it hit something hard or soft? if one then it takes this much durability damage, if another then this much. So why did I make that choice for the mechanics?
What happens when it’s neither hard nor soft, but average – surely that should be catered for as well? The rules will inevitably grow in complexity if you follow that line of reasoning: before you know it, you will have 10 hardness scales for targets and making a dice roll to decide how much damage it takes. I resist this in a rule set – I try to make the rules easy to understand and usable.
In the Era d10 Rule Set, I’ve had to make a few choices for usability that I am not 100% happy with on realism grounds. I have had to think very long and hard about where the line lies, though, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the real thing that destroys suspension of disbelief is having to look at a flow chart every time you hit something. You don’t just hit or miss any more in this scenario, you have to follow through a process and slow the entire game down by doing this, not just for the person swinging the hammer, but also for the other players, who have to sit and wait while that process is followed.
Okay, so let’s say that you hypothetically have chosen to do hard and soft and leave it at that. You now have two ways of swinging your Melee Weapon, so why attack in any way except that which means a soft target? So now people are changing their gameplay, their approach to combat, to keep their weapons going longer, so they can survive longer combats. Perhaps you make it more difficult to hit when attacking so that it is a soft target, to discourage that behaviour? Of course, that adds yet more complexity to Combat, which is the slowest part of any game’s process.
Hopefully, you can see that this is exactly the wrong direction for a Survival Horror game to be going – I want to discourage Combat, and to encourage teamwork and strategy (including retreat!) over running in with a hammer and hitting things.
Not only that, you automatically increase the power of Melee Weapons relative to firearms. Firearms, both in Era: Survival and in other Survival Horror games, have extremely limited ammunition. You’re always worried, always counting your shots and wondering if this is the best time to use the shot or whether you should wait. That edge-of-the-seat nervousness is something that I want to capture with this game, it’s a fundamental part of the genre to me. If anyone with a melee weapon can (say) last 20 Combat Rounds without their weapon breaking, while anyone with a firearm has perhaps 2 or 3, how is that going to affect the game? Everyone will become a melee combatant, and use their weapon as often as they like.
Finding the balance between reality and mechanics is one of the hardest things to do in ano rule set, not just Era d10. The key is to decide what you want from your rules. I am trying to be realistic but not too realistic, to provide enough complexity to keep people interested but not so much that the rules become hard for new players to use. It’s intended to be approachable but not as high-level as systems like FATE… and it is a very tough line to walk.
I stand by my decision to keep the durability low on all weapons for thematic reasons on this occasion, but I would not use this mechanic in the other game. I came up with various methods to explain it – the low-grade materials and poor construction, the fact that if Humanity is isolated from each other with no memory of modern technology, they might not know that hammers can last longer than that or expect better, the fact that an unusable weapon doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s snapped in half, the fact that the weapon could be nearly 100 years old in the setting… but none of these satisfied this playtester as reasons for the weapon breaking.
So what do you do at this stage? You take another long, hard look at what you want to achieve with this game. What do I want? A game where people have to think rather than rush in guns (or sledgehammers!) blazing. Did I make the right decision? I think so. Will it please everyone? Demonstrably not.
The playtester in question did 100% the right thing by bringing this perceived issue to my attention. It was a problem for them, so it will be a problem for others. And it’s a problem that I can’t solve without hurting my game.
So, you are probably wondering, in a game, where do you draw the line between mechanics and reality, especially in a situation like this, where a playtester has a negative reaction? The answer is simple: wherever you, as a creator, can justify. Follow the right feeling for the game you are creating and make it true to your vision – you really won’t go wrong. Just make sure you have a vision and a set of things you want players to do in this game, something you want it to feel like.
Also, always take playtester’s feedback very seriously and question why you made your decision about whatever they raise. Come up with an answer that satisfies you, both as a story answer and as a “creator reason”. It won’t satisfy everyone, but most of the people who ask the question will understand you had a reason for it.
In my case, I came back to the fact I simply don’t want melee to be more powerful than ranged – I want them both to have risks. I don’t want people to enter combat, so I want to discourage that. How? By making weapons last only 3 or 4 turns in Combat, so you either have to be a Human arsenal, or you have to be careful.