Tag Archives: Game Design

On Headshots and Dynamic Content

I used to spend a lot of time designing RPG systems with my friends. This hobby was born out of both frustration with the existing systems we had for various genres (so close! yet so far away!) and a genuine enjoyment in tinkering with games. We’d write up a set of rules, run a few play tests, tweak, and repeat the process. Sometimes we’d move the system we came up with over to different genres and see how it fared; other times we’d try completely off the wall ideas and just see what worked.

One of the questions we always asked was how to deal with the gun-at-the-head problem. This is a simple problem to phrase, but not always simple to answer within a RPG:

What happens if you put a gun to a PC’s head and pull the trigger?

The very first RPG systems, based around miniature gaming, didn’t deal well with this kind of question. If you took a sword to someone, the rules stated they did a certain amount of damage. If the person had more hit points than the weapon could do, they would survive. As characters gained hit points, the percentage loss fell, making them effectively invulnerable to a single attack, no matter how it was presented. It doesn’t matter where you hit them or how you hit them.

Much of this problem was ameliorated by having a reasonable game master, of course, but it exposes a fundamental problem with the concept of increasing health in a game and realism versus gameplay. Realistically, human beings can get one-shot by all sorts of things – falling pianos, automobiles, knives, guns, poison, elevator shafts (only on soap operas, though) – without adding fantastic elements into it like dragons and spaceships and aliens and mutant radioactive cowboys. But within the context of a heroic game of any kind, we have to suspend realism – a bit – and make up the concept of being able to handle those kinds of events.

The great thing about RPGs is that there’s no right answer here to how you proceed with this suspension disbelief – it all depends on the game you want to play. AD&D explained Hit Points as a combination of many different survival factors – luck, ability to avoid blows, skill in defense, maybe magical defenses – that allowed for characters to fight dragons and survive. Twilight 2000 took a far more realistic (and fatal for PC) approach, with detailed combat hit tables that could spell a head shot. I couldn’t even conceive of getting too attached to a character in that system; I swear I rolled a new one every game session. White Wolf’s Mind’s Eye Theater had a very elegant staged system (before the Revised edition came along and required PDA-based combat) that emphasized that combat was a terrible idea, because you could die really easily if you hadn’t designed your character to survive it. Paranoia gave you six clones and assumed they would all die in hilariously gruesome ways.

Does your character die, or not die, when that trigger is pulled, that is the question.

Game Master discretion played heavily into a lot of the highly fatal game systems. Most (but not all) look at the game and tell the GM, if this death doesn’t make sense, don’t let it happen. If it does make sense, let it happen.

In the World of Warcraft there are no Game Masters, no judges you can appeal to for character survival or death. The computer is your master, All Hail the Computer.


I bring up the gun-to-the-head question because it brings to the forefront a real problem when talking about WoW – is it really an RPG? I think it’s safe to say it’s not a traditional RPG, though you can comfortably role play within it. There’s a spectrum of immersion that goes from complete (detailed character histories, interaction, all actions are taken in character) to practically non-existent (arthasdklol), but even within the most jaded anti-RPer’s experience are role playing elements. There’s art, there’s story, there’s questing. There are different worlds to play in. Raids are not abstract exercises – they are a digital simulation of an environment. You are not just playing a digital object which has properties and affects other digital objects through predetermined routines – you’re playing a hunter, a priest, a mage. You’re raiding Ulduar or Firelands or Trial of the Crusader.  The RPG elements are always there.

But there are many concessions to the truth that this is a computer game based on gear acquisition that break RPG immersion. I’m not talking about things like language barriers or profession limits, unchanging zones or any of the other things that are design decisions, or part of being an MMO. Warcraft’s systems are set up to drive you to acquire more and better gear.

1. Levels introduce artificial barriers to encourage leveling.

What is to stop a young Tauren brave from wearing the mighty gear of his elders? Get your head out of WoW for a moment – what is to stop him from putting on the physical garb which conveys these great bonuses? What prevents him, exactly, from picking up an epic mace dropped by Deathwing himself and smashing opponents around him? Okay, let’s say the mace isn’t from Deathwing. Why not a level 60 mace? Or a level 35? How does that work, exactly?

Plenty of games encourage leveling through the promise of more power. You get more skills, you get more points to assign to abilities, you get more talents or feats or whatever. WoW has a lot of that – riding, flying, professions, etc. – but it differs in that it uses gear as a motivation. Other games give out better gear as a result of more challenging opportunities – you can take your level 2 characters in to see an adult red dragon, but they probably won’t come out alive – but they don’t explicitly limit gear to levels.

The Hit mechanic is another example of this kind of artificial barrier used to prompt players to level. It’s interesting playing with a level 19 twink who has more health than most mobs in level 30-40 zones, who does enough damage (at level 19) to tackle those zones, but to be unable to effectively function because everything misses. There’s no real reason Cynderblock can’t hit the raptors in Arathi Highlands, except that the rules say so to promote the idea that leveling is important.

(Also, Crushing Blows can bite me.)

2. Levels grant abilities, but require better gear to maintain the same level of effectiveness.

In AD&D, a +3 sword is a +3 sword, no matter what level the wielder is. More powerful characters have more magic items (and more powerful ones) but there is no scaling in efficacy. WoW is radically different: as your character levels, that +3 sword becomes less and less effective. All combat stats decay; Hit, Haste, Crit, Resilience are obvious examples of this (you need more points to achieve the same percentage at higher levels), but even straightforward things like a weapon’s DPS will indirectly decay due to higher health pools of opponents. (e.g. If you used a 5.0 DPS sword to kill a wolf in Northshire, each swing takes off a certain percentage of the wolf’s health. Using that same sword to kill a wolf in Northrend would result in a far weaker attack.)

If you don’t acquire gear as you level, you will quickly find yourself unable to function effectively. The Ironman Challenge is a good example of what happens if you continue to wear white-quality clothing throughout the leveling process. It gets really hard, really fast.

3. Endgame content releases are designed around increasing gear power, not character power.

It’s strange to write it that way, because it’s such a fundamental part of what WoW’s endgame is. But there you have it. The endgame removes the acquisition of additional abilities, talents, skills, and replaces leveling with additional tiers of content. There is no fundamental difference between a fresh level 85 character and one who has been playing at 85 for a year, except for their gear.

And that gear will determine what content they are able to participate in.

In a tabletop fantasy RPG this gets handled differently. It’s hard to set aside the idea that you don’t gain experience for actions in AD&D, but let’s try for a moment. Let’s say you hit the end of a campaign and the big confrontations are happening. You’re level 20 and stuff is epic. You might realize that you need a specific magic item to tackle the final challenge, or that you’re not strong enough and need to recruit others. Or it happens without you being able to prepare for it – you go in with your wits and your sword and your luck and hope for the best.

You don’t sit there and say, I need to go grind out points in dungeons so I can tackle the dragon.

4. Gearing/leveling make all damage, and therefore encounter difficulties, relative.

The ultimate nail in the coffin of the gun-to-your-character’s-head scenario is that the combination of gear and levels make every encounter highly relative. Realism gets thrown out the window when you can’t even sit down and say “a gun does X amount of damage.” Which gun is it? What level is the person wielding it? What are they wearing? What about the person getting shot, what level are they, what are they wearing?

Warcraft makes it so that you can’t make statements like, a punch does 1-2 points of damage modified for strength, a gun does 1-6 modified for dexterity, a sword does 1-8, which in turn means you can’t evaluate that and say, yeah, a gun could kill an average person or not. No. In WoW a gun might do 10-35 damage or 4000-5000 points of damage, and the target might have 100 health or 150 million health. A punch from a level 85 character could kill half a village in terms of raw damage.

This kind of system suspends realism in favor of in-game power.

It’s interesting playing through a lot of the revamped leveling zones in Cataclysm. The presence of elite Forsaken and Gilnean troops in Silverpine brings to the forefront that while these mobs are badasses for your level, they’re still like… level 25 elites. Objectively, they’re not that tough. Level up a bit and come kick their asses later. But doing so breaks the immersion of the story – you might be Sylvanas’ most trusted soldier, but let’s face it, a level 60 Forsaken with decent gear could beat the entire Gilnean army without breaking a sweat.

I think it’s even more interesting when Warcraft suddenly decides that it’s going to follow realistic logic. Nobody gets one-shot in World of Warcraft by a gun to the head, right?

Well, right up until Sylvanas gets killed by Godfrey in Silverpine Forest, that rule pretty much makes sense. But suddenly she’s dead, and you’re like, wtf, can’t you move out of the pistol barrage?

And then you realize, no, the most powerful Forsaken on Azeroth just got one shot by a pistol. Anyone can die at any time.

(As long as they’re NPCs in a cutscene.)

We need to keep this in mind when we talk about level-appropriateness of zones.


Kleps over at Troll Racials Are Overpowered had an interesting article today about how level 85s shouldn’t do low level battlegrounds. It’s an interesting read, and though I had a couple of knee-jerk reactions this morning, I sat down and thought about it for a while. And it’s an interesting proposition, even if I don’t agree with it.

I tried to step back from my position that battlegrounds having the highest replay value in the game and really see what Kleps’ is saying, how battlegrounds and dungeons are handled in such radically different ways.

  • Dungeons get easier as you level and acquire gear.
  • Battlegrounds remain more or less the same as you go.

This variability of difficulty doesn’t have anything to do with the inherent nature of either dungeons or battlegrounds. While there are some abilities which make different maps easier (having mounts for large terrain expanses), generally none of them render a map unplayable. It’s nice to be able to mount up and run in ZF or AB, but you can run LFD without it. You can play AB without a mount.

But there’s an interesting kernel in here, this idea that we outgrow content. That, at some point, Wailing Caverns becomes too little, too wee, too small. It’s in the past, it’s in our history, it’s not appropriate for us to run anymore. We aren’t young heroes any more, we’re saviors of Azeroth, freeing a druid from the Emerald Nightmare in the Barrens is beneath us. There’s no challenge in doing it (except getting lost, and the map is no longer the hardest boss in WC.) There’s not really any reward, unless we’re tying to find some purple and green gear for a mog outfit. It’s appropriate when we are leveling through the Barrens, but not afterwards.

Most dungeons are, indeed, like this. Outland and Northrend dungeons make sense only in their relative contexts, and only provide challenges there, too. As you level up, your potential gear grows, and you become more and more powerful relative to that old dungeon.

Battlegrounds don’t really make sense – have never really made sense – in this context. How could you have a bunch of level 85 characters fighting over Ashenvale, when that conflict zone is for levels 20-30? It’s not appropriate. Neither is level 35 characters fighting in Netherstorm – the leveling problem goes both ways here.

It’s easy enough for me to say, listen, PvP is entirely relative. It’s not about how much health you have, it’s about how much health you have relative to the damage your opponents put out. It’s not about how much damage you put out, but how quickly you can deal it during periods when defenses are low or healing is unable to address it. This is why battlegrounds work. This is why they work from level 10 all the way up to level 85 – it is about the relative challenge. Yes, there are issues within each bracket. Yes, burst is too high in some. Yes, health is too high in some. Yes, there are too many/too few counters in some.

But perhaps the easy response is not really the right response. Perhaps it’s not that battlegrounds are broken, and that their design needs to be defended – but rather that dungeons are broken.


Increasing health as you level makes no sense. There are a lot of things about leveling that don’t make sense when you really think about them, but the increases in health are a big one. It’s a construct of the RPG genre, a gameplay element that helps you feel like your character is progressing.

That progression is completely divorced from the story. Look at many of the successful early zones in Cataclysm: Silverpine, Westfall, Darkshore, Barrens. You are interacting with the story on a heroic level in these zones. It doesn’t matter that you are only level 16, you are interacting with your faction leaders and named lore characters. You are taking on challenges with significant lore-based ramifications. Your actions shape nations.

And your level doesn’t matter.

It’s not just leveling zones where we see this, though. Leveling dungeons have plenty of hugely significant events. It’s tempting to trivialize some of them because of their low levels, but you discover important facts about the origin of the dwarves, kill Therazene’s daughter, bring down the remnants of a troll empire, kill the Dark Iron Emperor and bring Moria Bronzebeard to power. You free druids and dragons from the Emerald Dream. You counter the Defias threat to Stormwind.

All of these things are important for the story of your character, and are pretty heroic on their own. But because they’re at lower levels, we tend to dismiss them as invalid or unimportant. But they are!

The more I play, the more I think this is the real, fundamental flaw behind MMORPG storytelling. There has to be a way to say, hey, make the gun to the head matter. Make this content relevant to me. Make it appropriate for the story, and appropriate to my character. If it’s supposed to be a challenge, make it a challenge, even if it’s Wailing Caverns and I’m level 85.

This is one area where I think PvP outshines PvE by a longshot. For all of its flaws, PvP in Warcraft allows the content to be relevant to you no matter what level you participate in it. Alterac Valley is as much of a challenge at 85 as it is at 70 as it is at 51 because other players make it so.

When talking about game design I often refer back to the FUDGE Scale – a relative measure of the quality of something in a RPG. Instead of increasing without limit, character abilities get defined relative to base standard. So, for example, I could be playing a starship engineer who is a Poor pilot, but a Great mechanic. If I attempt to make a repair with a Good difficulty, I’m probably going to be able to make it. If I try to make a starship maneuver with a Good difficulty, I’m probably not.

You can think of the FUDGE scale as fuzzy logic applied to RPGs – it’s how we tend to think about actual characterization, abilities, the gut check to make sure that the numbers and the system work right. It helps us describe problems like the problem of Cataclysm 80-85 leveling – you go from a Superb character to a Poor character over the course of this journey, and then back to Superb through the course of Cataclysm’s raiding tiers. It’s a disconcerting journey to take a character through – I went from faceroll tanking Northrend content at 79-80 to getting my ass kicked in the Throne of Tides at level 80, struggling to stay alive and wondering what I was doing wrong. It’s simple – my relative power level dropped, dramatically. That’s okay, but disheartening.

What if we could adjust this, though? What if we could turn around and say – make it easier. Make it harder. Three levels of content difficulty – leave it the way it is, make it easy for your level, make it hard.

Gee, that kinda sounds like Dragon Soul raiding, doesn’t it? Only instead of three tiers structured with absolute values, create them with relative difficulties: as they were (“at-level,” “normal-mode,”), easy for your current level, and hard for their current level.

Heck, get rid of levels as a gate of content. Allow people to try content at any level, just normalize the content for their current situation. (“Level 10 twinks raid Dragon Soul, down Deathwing, film at 11!”) Take a page from SW:TOR’s PvP and make it so that levels are irrelevant – gear and abilities are normalized so that level 10s can fight level 40s. Expand that to PvE, make it so level 40s can get together and raid Ulduar – skill trumps leveling.

Gear could even be reworked in this kind of a model – instead of providing constant increase in power, we’d seek out gear that had certain special abilities. Perhaps it’s elemental slaying gear for MC and Firelands, undead slaying gear from ICC, and you raid so that you get gear with special abilities which carry you on to other raids.

Instead of obsoleting Battlegrounds because our characters outgrow them, why not make Dungeons more relevant throughout the leveling process? Make it so that you pick a raid not upon what’s current content, but on what you enjoy or has gear you actually want?

It’s a very different world to consider.


This isn’t going to work.

As a system, relative difficulties make a lot of sense. If you design a RPG so that difficulties are Easy / Normal / Hard from the ground up, you can go ahead and ensure that your content is fresh and valuable no matter how your leveling system works. Characters wouldn’t outgrow the story. You could take your 85s through Silverpine and Darkshore and have those be interesting experiences, instead of 1-shotting your way through everything. A MMORPG designed around dynamic content difficulties would be a lot of fun to play.

But that’s not the World of Warcraft.

WoW is a game of gear acquisition. That’s the fundamental premise of the entire game. You get good gear, it will become old and crappy gear as you level up. You’re going to need better gear every few months at the endgame. You’re going to need it with every new expansion.

If you take the importance of gear away, you remove many of the motivations people have for playing WoW. Characters don’t level to get better abilities, don’t run dungeons and raid to get better gear. They don’t subscribe month after month trying to get the newest latest best gear; they run through the content, enjoy it (all of it), and then go do something else.

Conversely, battlegrounds stand outside of this. While gear is important, it’s only important relative to your fellow players. Gear as well as you can for your opponents. This rule works from levels 10-85! Your opponents will always be dynamic. Having a static set of maps allows people to master the game-within-a-game of each individual BG, but they aren’t tied to specific levels. There’s nothing in them that really refers back to the PvE zones which they live in – they’re just maps. Timeless maps with high replay value that the developers don’t have to mess with while they create new content for PvE to consume – and outgrow.

Changing the foundations of WoW makes for an interesting thought exercise.

But ultimately – headshots will never kill your toons.

(Except in a cutscene.)


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual