Friday, January 27, 2017

Quantum Difficulty in the Sandbox

I continue to be impressed by the open world nature of Skyrim (a popular console video game); there are 350 or so discoverable locations in the wilds, and 150 hand crafted dungeons waiting to be explored.  Because it's an open world, the designers can't control the order in which you encounter the content; you could find a nearby dungeon early on, when you're low level, or keep missing it until you're powerful and skilled.  If they lock in the content to a certain level, they risk boring players of powerful characters when they waltz through an early dungeon that was discovered later than expected.  And they certainly don't want to block off certain dungeons by putting a sign out front, "low level monsters inside, wussy characters only..." or vice versa.  The designers need to ensure players get their money's worth and have a chance to encounter all of the setting content in a player-determined order.  Enter a concept I'm calling 'Quantum Difficulty'.  The difficulty level of a certain dungeon isn't fully "locked in" until it's observed by a player that discovers the dungeon and enters it.  Until that point, the dungeon exists in a realm of possibility, fluctuating through various potentialities until fixed in place by direct observation.  This is a technique we can borrow for our table top games.

First let's loop back to an earlier concept I called "the sandbox triangle".  I've done a lot of project management in my career, and traditional project management texts use a term called 'the iron triangle' - on a project, you can't adjust time, scope, or quality, without making changes to the other points of the triangle.  You can't build a bigger house without increasing the duration and cost, for instance.  It's similar to an axiom in product development - the product can be good, fast, or cheap, pick two.  It can be applied to RPG sandbox creation, the sandbox triangle.  You can make a very detailed sandbox right from the start (high quality, with a big investment of time).  Or you can do something sketched out at a high level, with a fraction of the time invested.  But the relationship between the points is inexorable.  You can't have high quality or high detail or give the players total freedom, without investment of a lot of time.

Many referees do "just in time" development.  They figure out where the players want to go next week at the end of the current session, and use the time in between game sessions to prepare "just in time".  Overall scope is kept down, and time invested up front is also kept down.  It's a pay as you go mentality; you can't cheat the triangle, but you can manage it.  The alternative is to invest a lot of time developing detailed locations, and then pushing the players to encounter the content so the time isn't wasted.

Quantum Difficulty provides a way to develop more content up front than pure "just in time" development, without falling into the trap of having to throw stuff out later that no longer fits the character levels.  It means planning in advance how you might scale a location to be an appropriate challenge for higher level characters.  It could be as simple as scaling the number of opponents, or use a more 'video game style' where the actual monsters change based on a hierarchy.  For instance, Skyrim has weapon-wielding Norse zombies called draugr; as you become more powerful, you'll run into restless draugr, then draugr wights, and finally draugr deathlords.  It's a bit corny, but works.  4E had shades of this style of monster scaling, whereas 5E's bounded accuracy makes it easier to just add on numbers to the encounter and scale horizontally instead of vertically.  5E clearly has quantum difficulty in the foreground - I've picked up a few 'Adventurer's League' adventures recently, and they provides explicit guides on scaling each encounter based on numbers and levels of the participants.  The adventurer's league provides guidelines on scaling the adventure within a narrow range of levels - scaling from a party of 2nd level characters to 4th level characters, for instance.  Quantum difficulty anticipates scaling across much greater ranges.

There are some important caveats to ensure this new power of "quantum difficulty" is used wisely.  First, it can't violate game knowledge or established facts.  There should be places established in the game world that are dangerous and deadly right from the start, and if low level characters choose to go there, they'll get squashed.  The vampire's tower, the demon-haunted ruins, and the dragon's lair, should still be fatal to low level characters.  Choices have consequences and quantum difficulty won't save the players from themselves. The key to having an engaging sandbox is sharing information so the players make informed decisions about where to go and what to do.  Quantum difficulty can't undermine this core principle.

Quantum difficulty shouldn't scale everything, either.  Bandits are still bandits, and the players need to be able to smash weak opponents and feel a sense of real progress as they level up in the world.  "Bosses" and key encounters can get scaled to provide appropriate challenges, but mooks are still mooks.  Games where 15th level characters run into 15th level town guards drive me nuts.

However, the pros outweigh the cons.  You should populate the typical sandbox with 30-40 or so points of interest, and can pre-build maps and adventure sites, confident that you have a method for adjusting the difficulty when the players decide to visit the locale, without violating any principles of fair play.  It also lets you put more locations right on the initial map for the players to consider, and that's a powerful draw for me.  Particularly with more casual gamers, I like providing a detailed wilderness map with points of interest right on the map; using game time to make the players draw a map is one of my least favorite activities, since it's a 1 to 1 discussion between ref and mapper, and gives other players a reason to drift or get sucked into side conversations.  I try to limit it to dungeon exploration only.