It’s almost Thanksgiving, and one thing I am grateful for is the bounty of SFF games and books within my reach.
Dominions IV continues to engross. I studied up a little bit last week on some of the game’s mechanics, but the manual is 454 pages long. So now I’m mostly just enjoying it as I play. At the moment I’m fighting a two-front war against the Japanesey demon army on land and the Triton kingdom at sea. So far the Tritons are weak sauce; I didn’t even need to summon up any water armies or forge water-breathing equipment to march my legions into the depths. I just recruited a ton of amphibious mermen weanies from one of my shore provinces and told them to take a dive. After getting a foothold, I gained access to some much more scary units. Shark riders are as awesome as they sound.
I’ve finished Sign of the Unicorn and moved on to the fourth Amber book, the Hand of Oberon. So far I’m alternatingly entranced by these books and frustrated with Zelazny’s semi-psychedelic writing. The politics, the cliffhangers, and family dynamics – all excellent. The periodic stream of consciousness, dream-like descriptions of shadow walking and layers of reality – meh.
I’ve also been reading Fred Saberhagen’s first Berserker book. I had heard mixed things about it from the SFF crowd online, but I think the general consensus was that the first book isn’t that great and then series picks up after it. If that’s the case then I’m going to love these stories, because I’m about halfway through the maligned first installment and I’m really digging it.
So far, this is a collection of short stories about Man’s war against a fleet (?) of semi-autonomous, intelligent, world-sized machines that fly around in space trying to exterminate all life. These machines, known as berserkers, are clever, cruel, and unpredictable, and seem to have been unleashed upon the universe by a race of militant conquerors. And humans are the only space-faring race with the nads to put up a fight. Great stuff. So far the stories remind me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation stories, with more action. Each one features a human or humans pitted up against the dreaded berserkers. So far the humans always prevail in some way – by outwitting the machines, defeating them by sheer determination, or perhaps being strategically spared only to kindle a resolve to FIGHT.
While we’re on the topic of fighting, there were a couple of interesting posts last week on defending in games.
Alex at Cirsova encountered a mechanic in a particular game that helped him realize the intended purpose of parrying and similar defensive mechanics:
With an active defense vis a vis Parrying, a Fighter character can potentially lock down a much tougher opponent longer without sustaining damage to give thief classes more opportunities to backstab. As strong as a fighter’s attack is, a Thief’s backstab is ALWAYS better. Depending on the system, you could easily be doing 3-4 times as much damage per hit with a bonus against the enemy’s AC. The high dex parrying skill negates that huge attack advantage monsters tend to have over PCs and classed NPCs so that a fighter can go toe to toe against something that could very well cream him otherwise for an extra round or two. Yeah, he may not get his chance to do 1d8 damage, but the Thief is almost guaranteed to get 4d6 damage. As long as the DM is abiding by proper melee rules, the Fighter can always keep one baddie locked down so as to ensure that the Thief can get his backstab on.
I think the “defense” skills have been very poorly done over the years. In pen-and-paper games they could perhaps at times be used creatively by players to some effect. But such skills largely sucked in their base forms. I remember playing D&D 3.5 and trying to find situations to use actions like “fighting defensively,” but they never seemed particularly useful. -4 to hit for a +2 dodge AC? Meh. Not an even trade!
In most RPGs as far back as I can remember, you usually have some kind of standard “Defend” command in battle. It reduces damage taken if you’re hit, but (1) you usually don’t know who’s going to be targeted and (2) you don’t know how much damage/reduction you’re getting. So you usually wind up wasting a turn. With the ubiquity of “phoenix downs” and other such items, it’s usually worth risking death or else just using a heal. Why defend?
Games that have implemented telegraphed attacks (usually by bosses) have provided more incentive to Defend. Still not really a fun mechanic, but at least not useless. If you can out-damage an enemy with normal attacks but get wrecked by special moves, the game needs to provide you with the means to block those abilities and to know when they’re coming.
Really the best use of Defending presents in the form of counter attacks and taunts. One of my favorite classes in the recent iOS game Guild of Dungeoneering was the Bruiser. He had a natural passive ability that would inflict damage upon an enemy whenever its attacks were fully blocked. This works well for this particular game because you can see what attacks are coming and thus you can plan accordingly to use your blocks when you know there’s a certain type of attack on the way. Offense by defending.
Other game genres (or RPG battles that are more actiony and less turn-based) are perhaps better mediums for counter attacking. The MOBA comes to mind for me pretty quickly. The League of Legends “duelist” character, Fiora, possesses a potent counter-attack ability called Riposte. Back when I used to play LoL, this was a lot cheesier, but it still looks pretty effective. Essentially you’ve got an ability that must be timed correctly. When you’re about to take damage (hopefully a lot of damage), you pop it. Not only do you block all that incoming hurt, but you give some to your antagonist.
MMORPGs like World of Warcraft have long been using the “taunt” formula. Tank characters combine damage-reduction talents and abilities with the ability to draw enemies to them, allowing DPS characters like rogues and mages to deal heavy damage unmolested. In these cases, it’s important that there be a party present to synergize with the taunt. Otherwise you’ve just got a warrior doing crap for damage and taking crap for damage. Tedious at best.
That’s also why it’s important to provide “tank classes” like warriors with the ability to do some damage, or to “spec” into such roles. Imagine this – you want to be a badass with a big blade, so you roll up a warrior…only to learn a few hours into your game that you’ll never be as big a threat as the guy with the butter knives or the chick with a stick and dunce hat. Lame. Unless tanking is your jam, I guess. Then you win!