Godlike Rodents: Rule of Thumb for Balanced Encounters

Discussion in 'Game Mechanics Design' started by Retrophile, Oct 19, 2012.

  1. Retrophile

    Retrophile Villager Member

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    [​IMG]



    A Narrative Introduction

    Allow me to set the scene: You've just started up another user's self-proclaimed "masterpiece" project. The story introduction has sucked you in, you're digging the characters, and the dialogue is so natural, well-written and funny that you find yourself wandering the town just looking for NPCs you haven't spoken to. The visuals are unique and well-realized; the music is well composed and memorable to the point that you find yourself humming it during your bathroom break. You wouldn't have minded throwing the creator a few bucks for this kind of quality.

    After an hour or two, you've raided the local shop and are armed to the nines. You wander out into the wilderness just outside of town when you hit your first encounter: three bandits demanding a toll. Forgoing diplomacy, not only do you slay these highwaymen, you mow them down into quivering cubes of jelly and dance on their corpses - and as you do so, you strike a pixilated pose, loot their bodies, shout vulgarities about their mothers at your screen, and strut away like a boss.

    A few steps later, another encounter rears it's head: It's a rodent. You're not so intimidated by the furry little monster as you are, well, pointing and laughing. You make a joke about pest control, draw your weapon, and traipse gallantly into battle.

    And the rat tears your face off in the first turn.

    A few seconds ago you were Vashon, Bard of Legend, a man unequaled in swordplay, song, and sexual history. Now some rat is going to poop you onto the floor of whatever shop owner's cellar he ends up infesting. As you exit the game and move it to the recycle bin, a single thought passes through your mind: "Stupid internet. Maybe it is just for porn."


    System Overview

    With few exceptions, balance is a make-or-break issue for RPGs - console, tabletop, or otherwise. Unfortunately, the average RPG Maker user (or DM, for that matter) isn't going to spend much time in the nitty-gritty of hit points, mana, and attack rolls. That is an awful lot of numbers, after all.

    Here's a breakdown of my Rule of Thumb system for balancing enemy encounters. Don't let the masses of text frighten you, it's a fairly simple operation when you get used to it.

    The RoT system is broken up into two stages: Preliminary and Advanced Stat Builds. The Preliminary Build is comprised of simple math to help you conceptualize your encounters, and the Advanced Build is an expanded and more precise look at how the numbers stack up.



    Preliminary Build

    When creating your first basic stat build, you want to focus on standard melee combat. Most RM games have a generic "Attack" command available. This is the core of your combat, so don't worry about Skills, Spells, Buffs, or Items just yet. We want to be sure that your player can't just spam the attack and potions commands to simply wade through every battle.

    Let's start by setting the damage output of your frontline fighter character at first level, and thanks to the introduction we'll call this character Vashon the Unfortunate. Your frontline fighter is the character whose primary function is to deal melee damage. In your preliminary stat build, use basic math. I mean double digit basic. As an example, let's place Vashon's damage output at first level in the 3-5 range.

    Frontline Fighter "Vashon" Damage Output: [1.5] 3-5 [7]

    The numbers in the boxes are for an expanded formula that includes damage alteration for critical strike [7] and botched attacks [1.5]

    (a situation where the character misses his attack roll so badly that he actually injures himself or another player, this rule is an optional addition). Keep in mind, you don't want to overpower your player characters just yet. They'll be getting skills and spells and such later on, remember?

    Next, let's set Vashon's Hit Points for first level. If Vashon were fighting himself, how many strikes would it take for True Vashon to down Pseudo-Vashon? I would say, for example, that it would take Vashon 7 to 8 strikes unopposed to down himself. Therefore, let us multiply 8 strikes by the low-level damage output [3] to find his base Hit Points.

    Frontline Fighter (Vashon) Base HP: 24

    Now, take a look at your first standard enemy type: In this example, we'll use Vashon's arch-nemesis "Rodent". When designing an enemy for an encounter, always think of them as another player, and build the fight from both sides. This will allow you to create more balanced, paced, and organic enemy encounters. Now, as a player, how many strikes would you expect it to take for you as a first level frontline fighter to take down a low-level Rodent in a one-on-one encounter? Personally, I would expect to take down a Rodent in two to three strikes. So, let's say three strikes from the low end of your damage output [3] will slay the Rodent, and two strikes from your upper damage output [5] will also slay the Rodent. Three strikes at low impact will total 9 points of damage, and two from the high end will total 10 points of damage.

    Before we set the Rodent's hit points, here's another thing to consider: Critical strike. As a player, would you expect the Rodent to fall after a critical strike? I would say a critical strike would put the Rodent at limit break health, say 1-2 points from death. So for the sake of example, lets set the Rodent at 8 HP. That way, it takes three weak strikes, two strong attacks, or a critical strike to hobble and any other attack that makes contact to down a Rodent in one-on-one at first level.

    Enemy "Rodent" Base HP: 8

    Now, let's check things out from the Rodent's point of view. Again, in a one-on-one with Vashon, how many uninterrupted strikes would you expect it to take in order to down the bard? Personally, I'd see my fuzzy self tearing Vashon's face off after a minimum of say 8 blows and a maximum of about 12. So, let's take the value of Vashon's HP we set earlier (24), and divide that by minimum acceptable strikes (8) and the result is 3. As this is a minimum of acceptable strikes, let's set 3 as the Rodent's critical strike value. If we divide Vashon's HP by the maximum number of strikes (12), the result is 2. So:

    Enemy "Rodent" Damage Output: [.7] 2-2.5 [3]

    When you're finished setting your preliminary stat build, you can then make it more dynamic and adjustable by multiplying every stat by a single value as a rule of thumb. For the sake of simple math, let's choose 10 (though you can also multiply by say 8, 12, or even 12.35 if you're feeling fancy).


    Advanced Build

    So, as per our example, applying our rule of thumb to our preliminary stat scores results in: (I've included an example skill for both characters)

    Frontline Fighter "Vashon" - HP: 240 - Attack Damage: [15] 30-50 [70] - Crude Ballad [Target's ATK lowered by 10-50% for three rounds]

    Enemy "Deceptive Rodent" - HP: 80 - Attack Damage: [7] 20-25 [30] - Not the Face! [Rodent attacks first and, if it connects, strikes at the character's face for an automatic Critical Strike]

    Now comes the time consuming part: Playtesting. Run your fighter and enemy against eachother over and over again. If you're finding an encounter too easy, consider slightly boosting your enemy's HP or damage. If the encounter is too difficult, do the opposite.

    From here, you can move forward by creating base values for your other player characters by comparing them to Vashon. Don't be afraid to slightly imbalance player characters a bit with skills or spells, but make them comparable when it comes to base damage and HP. You can do the same for further enemy types by comparing them to the Rodent.

    When you are feeling comfortable with the balance of the encounter, start crafting your skills, spells, buffs, and items. Ramp up these skills as the game progresses, just as you ramp up your enemies. If you're finding a skill so powerful that it throws off the balance of an encounter, consider toning it down or making it very costly to use. If you find you're not using a particular skill or spell very often, consider boosting it or dropping it all together. The player will most likely run into the same problems as you do, so put yourself in their shoes when playtesting.


    Altering Your Stats

    It is important to note that it is often a good idea to tweak your enemy stats based on how many player characters there may be in a given party. If there are three characters in your player's party, then an encounter against a single Rodent is a throwaway battle. If the player encounters a weak enemy set one too many times, they may become frustrated or bored. It's one thing to pace your story with persistent encounters, but it's quite another to waste the player's time due to poor planning.

    In addition to altering enemy encounters by number of players, I find it helpful to alter enemy stats using an archetype based on player experience. I use the levels Prologue, Greenhorn, Apprentice, Journeyman, Master, and Legend. For Prologue I start off by making the enemies 6%-15% less powerful than normal; Greenhorn 0%-5% less powerful than normal; Apprentice 0%-5% more powerful; Journeyman 6%-12% more powerful; Master 13%-20% more powerful; and Legend 21%-50% more powerful. Note that I only use Legend for very important NPCs that I don't want the player fighting, but give them the freedom to engage anyway, or for engaging secret bosses and in-canon dieties. I then alter the stat values based on geography, meaning the further the player gets from the starting town, the more powerful the enemies become. For example, the wilderness around the starting town would be Greenhorn-level, while the plains beyond the wilderness would be Apprentice, the unkept trails that lead to the foot of the mountain would be Journeyman, the trek through the mountains on the way to the Temple of Legends would be master, and the Monks within the temple would be Legend. Meaning you really really shouldn't fight the monks, but if you're going to insist on having your ass handed to you, have at 'em x]


    Rewards and Loot

    So, what do you do when it comes time to reward the player? What amount of XP should be awarded after combat? What should the enemy drop?

    In terms of XP, you can use the same logic we used to set the Rodent's HP and damage. You're a level one fighter: How many Rodents would you need to kill before you felt like a real man? Ten? Twelve? For example, if it takes 100XP to reach Level 2, award 10XP for each Rodent. Leveling up too fast? Split the reward between the party members. Leveling too slow? Add a multiplier for proper skill use or switching up tactics for specialized enemies. And as always, don't forget to playtest.

    How about loot? An RPG without loot is just unnatural. Many RPGs just allow the animals to drop gold or weapons. If you'd like to be a bit more realistic about it, you can have them drop their pelts so that the player may sell them for gold in town. It's adding an extra step, sure, but people aren't going to make the same joke about giant enemy crabs dropping gold when playing your game. Hell, you can add some utility by allowing the player to craft or repair armor using the dropped pelts and make it less expensive than paying for the priviliege in town. Brainstorm, my friend.


    Additional Suggestions

    If you're having difficulty balancing statistics in an encounter, find a creative way to level the playing field. Make it so that certain enemies never appear without an ally or two. Or perhaps a certain creature is dependent on another creature to appear at all. If you spot a baby bear, the mother can't be far off, right?

    Throw a unique spin on your skills and spells, and don't be afraid to try something new. You can even make everyday skills unique by putting a story-based spin on them. Using our earlier example, you could give Vashon a skill referred to as Crude Ballad, where he sings a disparaging song to affect the enemy's morale, lowering their attack rolls for a few turns. It's just an everyday status effect, but because of what we know about Vashon, it gives the skill a bit more sting in terms of narrative than it otherwise would. However, how an insulting song would affect a rodent is video game logic at its best.


    Epilogue Post

    Of course, these are just some of my general Rules of Thumb. The most important thing you can do as a technical developer is playtest, tweak, and playtest some more. That's how you find the greatest balance. And in contrast, the most important thing that you can do as a creative developer is to find ways to put your personal spin on the conventions of the genre. That's how your game finds it's true identity.

    If you have suggestions to help improve or simplify this tutorial, let me know. Nobody benefits from an idea that isn't shared.
     
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  2. Elements

    Elements 7th Stratum Veteran

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    I think these are pretty useful standards to follow when creating encounters, probably better than just throwing random numbers into the database and mindlessly test playing.

    I'm sure everyone has their own guidelines for this kind of thing, thanks for sharing yours ~
     
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  3. bassfire

    bassfire Newbie Scripter Veteran

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    A suggestion for an edit, or possibly a next tutorial. What about mid-line and rear-line characters?

    For example, our magic-users, archers, and not-so-adept-at-fighting(ers)?
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 20, 2012
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  4. Mouser

    Mouser Veteran Veteran

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    Ahh, the dreaded Vorpal Bunny (FFXI actually has this supermob in one of the early areas).

    I'll just say that probably the single most time consuming part of developing my project so far has revolved around balancing the attack skill. I think I've finally got it about down (including directly related things like weapon and armor stats), so I can go back to things like eventing, mapping, and dialogue. Then I can start to look at thing like why MEV seems to be nullifying healing potions. Then maybe even start to add in some actual skills for the players to use other than attack and drink the aforementioned sometimes effective potions.
     
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  5. Retrophile

    Retrophile Villager Member

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    Yea, bassfire, I'm doing additional research right now for another guide that will deal with stat alteration for classes. I have to double check how RM uses it's stat values before I write up the tutorial. Some of the statistics have odd usages. I already have my own ground-up RPG system design, but it'll need to be molded for application to RM before it'll be of any use here.

    No problem, Elements. I've seen a lot of users greif themselves over balancing encounters, most often due to the fact that there is no one way to write up stats - plus it's very rare for the stat balancing to ever be the focus of a project. Most people just want to write their stories and let RM worry about the math.

    And Mouser: Yea, the first time I ran into an unbalanced encounter in an RPG was the Headless in Ultima Underworld 2. I beat up on those dayum things for over an hour, and when I looked up what I was doing wrong, I was told by some douchewaffle that I was an idiot because I was meant to pass over them and return to them later. That's BS. Since when is it ever the player's instinct to pass over an encounter, especially when it's the first thing you fight?

    I'm writing three more guides at the moment: One for skill design as an extension of this guide, one as per bassfire's suggestion for class-based stat alteration, and a third for creating an organic economy and social ecosystem. I was going to write an extra tut for Armor and Weapon design, but the way RMVX Ace handles equipment is disjointed. They don't wear, and can't be damaged in combat (by default), so material, quality, or rarity isn't all that important. They're just applied as permanent stat variations to the commands you're setting as Attack, Skills, and Spells. Because of this, Mouser, I'd suggest waiting on equipment design till you finish designing your skills. Otherwise, it's very easy to accidentally undo all the balancing work you've already done.
     
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  6. Mouser

    Mouser Veteran Veteran

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    I've already done the work of divorcing equipment stats from player stats, and using one or the other for different combat formulas. If I was going to stick with the way RM handles things by default, then yes, I would probably do skills first, then look at equipment. The way I have it though, I've got to get the equipment sorted so I can balance a basic attack, then I can look at adding in other skills one at a time.

    I've got attack down, now I'm working on "healing potion". I've gotten them to stop being blocked and evaded, but they heal for way too much. Somewhere in there is either a parameter that's off or something being calculated twice.
     
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  7. Retrophile

    Retrophile Villager Member

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    Mouser: Yea, check your item parameters, and your Features settings (special parameters like Recovery Effectiveness and Medicine Lore specifically).

    If it ain't the item itself, move to characters and check for the same parameters. If it's happening for all characters, check your equipment formulas. Try removing your player's equipment and then playtest.
     
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  8. MyLordRobinson

    MyLordRobinson Emperor of Carnelia Veteran

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    I LOVE IT!
     
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  9. Daijou

    Daijou Chocobo Rider Veteran

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    This is actually a fairly nice guide for how short it is. It gives a great starting point to making encounters and having them be far less boring than the default settings. I'm hoping more people will stumble upon this to be honest, because whenever I play a RM game, and that stats seem familiar, I know how it plays out. Most stuff dies in one hit, and if I'm given a spell, it's likely to be overpowered. While editing and testing all of the encounters is time consuming, it gives off a refined feel to the game which makes it all worthwhile.
     
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  10. jelle

    jelle certified lunatic Veteran

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    this sounds like i should give it a try, it's better than my 30 point system XD
     
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  11. AeonSpark

    AeonSpark Veteran Veteran

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    This is an amazing guide for someone just about to do a massive overhaul on stat balancing! 

    Thank you!
     
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  12. CWells

    CWells Storyteller/Artist Veteran

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    #12
  13. Korimax

    Korimax Architect of Procrastination Veteran

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    I am afraid I just don't understand how to apply these numbers to my game it looks very useful but I am afraid I just don't know how.
     
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  14. Retrophile

    Retrophile Villager Member

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    Hey there, RPGM users! It's been quite a while since I've visited, thanks to my Windows 8 installation clearing a partition it was not meant to overwrite and taking all my RPGM installs and documentation with it. I'll be getting back in to writing guides and game pitches in my down time, but in the meanwhile, I wanted to stop by and thank you all for the continued positive response to this guide.

    For those of you who aren't sure how to apply this guide to your RPGM project, you're not alone. This Is not so much a technical tutorial on balancing enemies within a specific RPGM engine as much as it is a conceptual introduction into balancing encounters in a general role-playing environment. As I've posted before, the way RPGM's vanilla stat systems are built makes them disjointed, from standard RPG game systems, tabletop systems, even from other RPGM releases.
     

    When I get my engine documentation back, I'll begin writing guides specific to the different RPGM engines, starting from VX Ace and working backwards.

    Until then, I've got a few new projects and guides in the works. So keep an eye out!
     
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