A primer on unpredictability and control in turn-based RPG combat

Last night was election night, which means that it was a pretty late night for me. Luckily, I still managed to finish up a pretty massive article I’d been working on concerning the uses and abuses of randomization as a way to create unpredictability in turn-based RPG combat systems. Here is a snippet:

A cunning opponent can be hamstrung by an overly simplistic combat system. Consider Tic-Tac-Toe, a deterministic game with (as games go) a tiny possibility space. Every turn past the first presents only a single optimal move. The only option for a clever opponent is to fight the player to a draw. (As Randall Munroe of XKCD puts it: “The only winning move is to play, perfectly, waiting for your opponent to make a mistake.”) Because the optimal counter to every move is predictable, there is no tension in fighting a clever opponent in a game of tic-tac-toe.

Chess and Go, by contrast, have massive possibility spaces. On any given turn, there are numerous viable moves; if there exists a single optimal move, it is obscured by the massive number of choices on offer and the unique state of the playing field. This renders the game unpredictable.

I choose to call this phenomenon second party uncertainty, since it concerns uncertainty about what the second party—the opponent—will do. Second party uncertainty differs fundamentally from the uncertainty imposed by randomized results, in that its tension arises not from whether the game will choose to nullify your commands, but from whether those commands are themselves good enough. To analogize to real-time games for a moment: second party uncertainty is the equivalent of playing a hotly contested match of Super Street Fighter IV and feeling out your opponent for weaknesses while trying desperately not to slip up. Randomized results are the equivalent of knowing that the game is going to occasionally not register your button presses. Both offer tension and unpredictability, but one is of a clearly superior variety.

You can read the full thing here.

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