18 June 2017

Breaking habits

Seeking fresh ideas … Hum!
Accomplished creators will sometimes say something to the effect that one needs to master the formal conventions in order to bend them and innovate. (In the arts, I suspect there is some deeper truth about the historical transition from Romanticism to Modernism, but I digress as always).

When I first started making LoSt, the idea was for a small 7DRL shooter with card based mechanics and no hit points (getting hit was game over). That didn't scale well, however, and was gradually transformed into the current combat system.

Wounds UI
Health: Actors have a number of health levels (HLs), each with a number of bruise levels (BLs). If an actor spends a turn not getting hit, they regenerate one BL. Once a HL reaches zero, however, it won't heal naturally, and the player needs to rest at a saloon or hospice.

Initiative: All events have a speed value, with actions performed in a fixed order each turn. Melee precedes missile attacks, which in turn precede movement. If you're next to an enemy, you can back away, but giving your enemy a free attack. Also, actions can be "interrupted" by incoming attacks. The idea was to give melee an edge in close quarters: If you're wielding a knife and facing a shooter, your best bet should be to get up close and stab your foe before they get a chance to shoot you.

Randomness: The system is mostly deterministic. Attacks have fixed damage, and there is no probability "to hit". Instead, melee sometimes deal grazes (half damage) or critical hits (effect depending on weapon). Firearms have a chance of going wild, depending on conditions like cover and skills.

Game changer
This may sound good on paper, but I've been vexed by the fact that melee in particular doesn't work well in practice. There was a problem of getting ganged up on, since taking more than one hit in a single turn almost invariably depletes a whole HL, something that should be avoidable with clever tactics. On the other hand, the rapid bruise regeneration means the player often has to land successive blows to properly wound the enemy, in turn taking as many hits himself. Likewise, it doesn't make any sense for instance to stab once and then spend some turns to wield and cock a gun, since the stab wound will be fully healed by the time you pull the trigger.

There's also been a problem with balancing damage. Comparing a club and a knife, they both deal 2 BLs, but the club spreads the damage over several HLs, whilst the knife puts all of it in a single HL. At the end of the day, the knife is almost unambiguously better, since it has the chance of depleting HLs more quickly.

However unbearable I find the current states of affairs, this system has been in place for years now, and me stumped as to how to fix it. Should I try to make something different altogether? Introduce a standard hit points system? God forbid! I'm giving the current rules another chance, and started by just tweaking the existing values.

Here are some of the changes I'm trying out currently:

Damage output: I made mostly everything deal a little less damage. I figured the lower tier weapons (bowie knives, tools, whips) can deal just a single BL in damage, and still be better than unarmed fighting, since unarmed fighters are unable to score critical hits. Increasing the player's health might also be an option here.

Bruise regeneration: Bruises now regenerate every second turn, and healing the last BL of a HL takes another extra turn.

Interrupted actions: I've disabled this almost completely. If an actor gets hit right before carrying out an attack, that attack is no longer blocked, but rather guaranteed to be a graze/wildshot. At point blank range, a wildshot will hit the target about 50% of the time.

This already works better than before, even if it's basically the same rules. For one thing, a couple of angry animals won't kill you in a single turn, even though it's still bad to get surrounded. The slowed regeneration rate means that there is more time to apply actual tactics, like spending a turn to reposition, without all bruises being reset. The fact that the last bruise in a HL takes an extra turn to heal also gives an advantage to weapons which deal damage over several HLs. A weapon dealing 2 BLs to a single HL still has an edge when it comes to quickly whittling down your enemies HLs, whilst a weapon dealing 1 BL to two separate HLs is less of an immediate threat, but will give an advantage a few game turns down the road.

I may still have to make some more fundamental changes to how combat works, but it's refreshing just to see the game work slightly different from what I've grown accustomed to.

Props unbound

Inspired by the moderate success with switching around combat rules, I'm also trying some changes to the inventory system. Again, some pretty arbitrary principles had grown out of the original game (some of them outlined in an earlier post). For instance, I felt that limiting actors to carry only six items at any time was pretty neat, since dead dudes would just drop all their loot in a nice circle around themselves.

Now, I've upped the inventory cap to 12 items, which really just lets the player carry more trash around (although balance issues may arise later). Secondly, props are now dropped and picked up from adjacent hexes rather than the one you're currently occupying.

The effect on gameplay is minimal, but I may keep it this way, just because it offers a solution to a problem I've been having: how to give props to NPCs? I didn't want a separate "give" command, so instead I implementing a heavy-handed system for offering NPCs stuff by dropping it in their field of vision. This is how you currently collect bounties from judges, by plopping the severed head of a goon in their vicinity. God only knows if a single player has yet picked up on the fact that this is a thing, as it's only vaguely hinted at in the dialogue. But if props are dropped onto the hex right in front of to you, the system pretty much gives itself: Simply invoking the "drop" command when facing an NPC should make for a pretty intuitive and smooth interface.

Current shop layout, and more spacious mockup
D=door, s=shopkeep, c=counter, p=props
I'm slightly concerned that some veteran RL players may find this counterintuitive. It's still possible to pick up items you're standing on, but that has the disadvantage of not properly teaching how it "should" be done. Players who fall into the habit of walking on stuff to pick it up, will in effect be wasting a turn as opposed to players who fall naturally into using the new system. There are some possible ways to fix that, either by making it a free action to pick something up, or even let props on the ground block movement. This last solution would mean some pretty drastic changes to tactics, but might even work when I start making everything a bit more spacious, which is something I've planned in any case.

Come what may, it's always good to break habitual thinking by changing the rules around a bit. Every dead end explored is a step in the right direction.

As always,

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