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Player Rewards and Runaway Victory

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Desprez
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Joined: 12/01/2008

I'm trying to find a way to reward players without leading to a runaway victory problem.

This is actually for a dungeon crawl style co-operative game with separate self-contained encounters.
There is a somewhat randomized element for choosing encounters. The issue is that as players progress though different difficulty zones, they may find that some encounters will be tougher than others.

Now, I don't want players to come to an insurmountable challenge, but at the same time, if things are too easy the game would become boring.

One way dealing with this, is each encounter can have an optional challenge or 'hard mode'. Weaker parties may elect to do the standard encounter, while stronger parties can try the challenge.

Except the challenge needs some kind of reward, or what's the incentive?
Right now, the only things to reward with are treasure(equipment) or new abilities. Both of which could lead to a problem where the more rewards earned make getting more rewards easier, and this leads to a balance issue.

I may need to add a new game element, but I'm wary about adding complexity.

Another reward type is a 'key' to effect future encounters or unlocking other content, but again, what's the eventual incentive?
Maybe they can get access to 1-use items? (scrolls, potions) The idea being that the don't permanently overpower the players. Or maybe the challenges give advantages to only select parts of the game?

kos
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Joined: 01/17/2011
Winning condition

The runaway leader problem is inherant to most dungeon-crawl games, because the nature of the game is "kill little things to get more powerful so you can kill big things." In my view the root of the problem (and also the root of the solution) is in the winning condition.

Munchkin mitigates the problem through a "take that" mechanic -- you can play cards to make another player lose an encounter. This inevidably leads to the first player to level 9 being beaten to a pulp because everybody has been saving their best "take that" cards for just such an occasion. Personally, I'm not keen on the "take that" mechanic as a solution to the runaway leader problem.

I think that a better solution to the runaway leader problem is through a different choice of the winning condition. I.e. have a winning condition that is tangential to (or even opposed to) the "kill things to get more powerful" mechanic. Many recent deck buildings games use this concept in that Victory Point cards are worthless (other than for winning, of course), so the closer you get to winning the weaker your deck becomes.

Take for example a dungeon crawl game where the game ends when the players have collectively looted all 10 pieces of the Mystic Garments of Magica. The player with the most pieces at the end of the game wins. The catch is that the Mystic Garments of Magica are worthless, and you can only wear one of each type of equipment at a time. So if you already have a Belt of Giant Strength when you find the Mystic Belt of Magica, you have to ditch the Belt of Giant Strength (no, you don't have a backpack). In this way the more VPs you earn the worse your equipment becomes, so there is a natural catch-up mechanic. The catch-up mechanic becomes even more pronounced if you include a donation mechanic whereby whenever you discard a piece of equipment you must give it to the player who is losing.

Another example would be a dungeon crawl game where the game ends when a player reaches 10 Fame points. On each encounter card the player can choose the "easy" encounter or the "hard" encounter. Winning the Easy encounter grants you treasure. Winning the Hard encounter grants you Fame (but NOT treasure). Fame gives you no benefits other than winning the game. This gives the players a meaningful choice between getting more powerful or winning the game, but they can't do both at the same time. If you spend too long collecting treasure, another "weaker" player might manage to get the Fame before you do.

Another example would be a dungeon crawl game where the players are each trying to collect loot for their respective Guilds. The game ends when one player donates 1000 gold pieces worth of equipment to his guild. The catch is that you can donate at most 1 piece of equipment per turn. This gives players a meaningful choice between keeping the good stuff for themselves in order to get more stuff, or donate the good stuff to win the game faster. If you wait too long to start donating another "weaker" player could win before you have time to offload your equipment, but if you donate all your good stuff you limit your ability to get more loot. (In a game like this, secret scores would be preferrable to add a level of uncertainty and bluffing.)

Just some ideas to get the creative juices flowing.

Regards,
kos

Desprez
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Joined: 12/01/2008
These are all interesting

These are all interesting ideas. However, each is only relevant for players that are competing with each other, and the primary mode of this game is co-operative. (That's not to say that there won't be competitive modes as an option) So the players aren't going to be hurting each others' progress or be 'in the lead' in a strict sense. Rather, they are fighting the game itself (And the game is very story-driven, including story before and after each encounter, all they way to confronting various bosses. The game ends typically by defeating the last boss encounter).

So the runaway aspect is vs. the game. The difficulty of the encounters is sorted by zone, and also some difficulty scaling due to the number of players. But it is harder to scale vs. player level, and feels more artificial anyway.

The basic progression mechanic works like this:
Players enter zone 1. They do a couple encounters and gain better equipment and level up in order to be powerful enough to defeat the zone 1 boss.
Then they are good enough to take on zone 2. They progress through more encounters, gaining more skill and equipment, and take on the zone 2 boss.
Then enter zone 3, etc.

So each zone is calibrated to the expected level of character power. The problem is that players that end up doing all the 'hard modes' might end up with significantly more power than expected by the time zone 3 comes around.
But zone 3 still has to be able to accommodate weaker groups that didn't win any of the challenges, yet still provide a challenge for the stronger groups.

Orangebeard
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Joined: 10/13/2011
Degree of victory?

Hi Desprez,

A couple of thoughts came to mind that might work with your co-op style of play...

Could the players have various levels of victory? For example, if the players finish the game, they receive a rating of 50 out of 100. If they win with no player deaths, then they are 60/100; killed the boss in 3 turns? 70/100 and so on...

This would give the players a "reward" for doing well without introducing too much new stuff.

If you are looking for something more tangilble, perhaps the players could be rewarded with information or "clues" about the next encounter? For example "Trosh the Mighty fears all things shiny!" or "When they open the Ark, don't look!"

Sounds like you are working on my favorite type of game - good luck with your design!

kos
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Joined: 01/17/2011
Scoring system

Ok, I think I understand better now.

It reminds me of the Lord Of The Rings coop game, which uses a scoring system to determine how well you played the game. Players have access to a limited number of special abilities (the Gandalf cards), but using them reduces their score at the end of the game. Similarly, during the game players can choose between focusing on the main track or 'detouring' on the side tracks. Detouring on the side tracks potentially offers more points but at a greater risk of failing to win the game. So throughout the game (in fact, almost every single turn) there are a series of risk-reward decisions to be made. Most of the player interaction (in my experience) comes about because different players have different thresholds for "acceptable risk". The "skill" of the game is in better understanding both the risks and the rewards in order to make good choices.

Once again the key is in the winning condition. Either the players fail or succeed in destroying the One Ring, but if they succeed there is a score to tell them how well they won. It is the fact that there is a scoring system that drives most of the interesting choices during the game. Without the scoring system, the game would have less appeal and less replayability.

Your game is quite different in its mechanics, of course, but I still think that the key to solving the problem lies in the winning condition. You need the winning condition (and/or scoring system) to be based on something that is independent of loot collected. As long as your winning condition is linked to loot (either directly or indirectly) you will have a positive feedback loop.

For example, a rudimentary scoring system would be number of turns/encounters -- the objective is to win the game in the smallest number of turns/encounters. This can be disguised through various means without substantially altering the mechanic. For example, in the above quoted LOTR game, every turn you have to draw a tile from the bag, of which about 20% have very bad effects for the players. So the players can't just sit around doing nothing for too long or The Bad catches up on them. In your game, maybe the players have to defeat each Zone boss within a certain number of turns otherwise they lose the game, with their score being the number of "spare" turns they had left.

Another example of a scoring system would be "Fame" points. Your bonus challenges grant Fame points, while also presenting extra risks. Make it so the players can choose between the "safe" or "dangerous" path to maximise their score but at the risk of losing the game. In your game, this would work if the number of encounters in each zone is fixed (so they can't choose to skip encounters or do extra encounters) but they can choose the easy or hard version of each encounter. Still, I would make the hard encounters give Fame but _not_ loot, to emphasise the choice between loot or fame (otherwise it is a positive feedback loop again).

Yet another way would be a score based on an XP system like AD&D, except that players get reduced XP based on a comparison of their level vs the encounter difficulty (assuming you have an easy way of categorizing both). This is assuming that the players have some way to choose between different encounters to attempt in each zone. If a Level 3 player wins a Difficulty 3 encounter he gets 100 XP, but if he was Level 4 he would only get 50 XP, etc. That way the players would naturally seek out difficult encounters to maximise their XP (i.e. score) at the end of the game, rather than just steam-rolling over the easy encounters all the way(*).

(*) As you alluded to, automatically scaling encounter difficulty based on player level is, in my opinion, cheesy. I've player several computer RPGs that use this technique ("you get attacked by a level 17 goblin"), and I don't like it. However, I find that scaling XP is a natural way of achieving a similar effect, but it is better because it is player-driven not game-imposed. It is also a natural catch-up mechanic.

Regards,
kos

Desprez
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Joined: 12/01/2008
Interesting ideas. My initial

Interesting ideas.

My initial impression was that a score in a co-op game wouldn't be too enticing. I mean, you aren't trying to impress your opponents, and your accomplishment isn't posted on-line or anything. But based on the replies here, maybe that's a mistaken assumption. I should probably take another look at that.

Another idea I though of in the meantime is this: Crafting.
Here's what I mean. I always wanted something for the players to do in between zones. And I considered adding some kind of crafting element, but it seemed like more complexity than the game needed.
But perhaps this could be used sort of as an optional rule, where most crafting reagents appear from the challenges.

In this manner, new players aren't likely to mess with the challenges too much, and thus won't do much crafting. And won't have to mess with that rule set.
Whereas veteran players would probably welcome the challenge and the added game depth.

So what would be crafted? Maybe potions and scrolls as mentioned earlier. Upgrades to individual gear pieces. Possibly even some high end gear, but I'd have to be real careful with that. These items help the players win but these players are also likely doing as many challenges as they can, too.

Additionally, individual monsters might even have a built-in "hard way" to kill them that yields reagents. And this could even be in addition to any encounter hard modes too. For example, zombies are vulnerable to fire. But maybe if you don't use fire, you can collect the necrotic tissue reagent, which would be useful for something.

Anyway, about XP. I initially had an XP point system for leveling, and the higher the level the more XP required. In practice, this had a scaling effect, as you needed to fight tougher monsters to reach higher levels in a reasonable amount of play time.
The thing was, is that I was designing monsters and encounters so that every couple of encounters would be about a levels worth of XP. If that's the case, then why not cut out the middle-man and just say you gain a level every two encounters? So that's what I've been currently working with.

Orangebeard
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Joined: 10/13/2011
Desprez wrote:...If that's

Desprez wrote:
...If that's the case, then why not cut out the middle-man and just say you gain a level every two encounters? So that's what I've been currently working with.

I have wondered why this doesn't happen more often. I like earning XP, I REALLY like going up a level! Maybe you could combine ideas for something a little different in term of leveling and success. Imagine a traditional dungeon crawl with a standard 10 level dungeon. When the players complete a level, they are given a success rating for the level and automatically move up a player level. During the "level up" process, the players make some decisions about how they want to improve their abilities. Assume that there is some flat amount that they will definitely improve and the previous dungeon may reward them with reagents, information, or equipment that can be selected for the next level.

By limiting the number of things they can select at each level, it should be possible to stop the players from steam rolling the dungeon after a few levels. In addition, it could be balanced by having some "crafted" items that can be used any time in the future and some items that are more powerful, but only function in the next level.

MarkKreitler
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Joined: 11/12/2008
Tried and true...

Like Orangebeard says, people like to level. They expect to do it in dungeon crawl games. So, one straightforward solution is to allow it, and to express encounter difficulty in terms of player level. In other words, your Orc Encounter card goes from this:

Each player must defeat 2 orcs with Attack = 2, defense = 2, and 5 hit points

To this:

Each player must defeat 2 orcs of Attack = level / 3, defense =level / 3' and 2 * level hit points.

Another solution is to give out only 1or 2permanent treasures (e.g., fighters can have only a magic weapon and a magic shield, wizards can only have a magic ring and a magic scepter, etc). Everything else is an expendable item (potion, scroll, wand with charges, etc). Once players amass enough items in the current difficulty zone, they can make a run at the next zone, but doing so will cost them most of their items. Never fear, though, for there are better items in the new zone...

In the second model, the base character strength doesn't increase much over the course of the game, but by amassing and using expendable items, groups can tackle increasingly powerful foes. The play loops becomes, "Farm easier encounters for items to attack a hard encounter, horder that loot, repeat until the loot from the harder encounters supports defeating a *much* harder foe, etc."

EDIT

You can also handle this with "elemental" loot. By dropping items that make players powerful against a certain class of enemy, you preserve the difficulty associated with all other classes. Often, games do this with elements, but any classification system can work.

For example, while clearing out the "Shrine" levels, players find items useful against undead, which helps when clearing the "Catacombs," but doesn't help much in the "Keep." This approach has the advantage of making final boss tuning fairly easy. If the final boss is immune to all "elemental" effects, you won't have to worry about how much wealth the players have accumulated. The boss can always spawn elemental trash mobs, which gives the players a way to use their awesome artifacts to feel powerful.

Also, all the above suggestions about decoupling loot from player power work, too.

In the end, some combination of approaches will probably work best. For example, loot can come in the form of:

1) Cash/gold -- players accumulate this to purchase consumable items from the "shoppe" between dungeon raids.
2) Consumables -- as good or better than the items in the shoppe, these consumables support forays into harder areas.
3) Elemental items -- weapon and armor that have increased effectiveness against certain classes of foe. Players can only ever equip one weapon and suit of armor, so they must choose carefully before throwing away what they have for the shiny new stuff.
4) Victory Point items -- maybe players are collecting shards of a gem required to defeat the final Beast. Maybe they need keys to unlock dungeon doors. Whatever it is, it doesn't make players stronger, but it somehow advances the game.

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