Steinhauer’s Opinion: Threshold Restrictions, Part 2

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So last time we saw poor Gilran become a Warg chew-toy and looked at the not-so-wonderful world of threshold restrictions. They exist as a means of limiting low level characters from being overpowered with uber equipment. But the mechanic is a band-aid, arbitrary and artificial. Aside from having little precedence in real life, it kills the classic theme of little hero taking down the big villain. Furthermore, it sets some magical goal number as the key to sudden enlightenment. At Level 9, I’m pretty good with a plain iron longsword, but that iron sword of fire is beyond my ability to comprehend. Suddenly, in a moment, as I hit Level 10 the knowledge cascades over me and I know, I know! Yeah right.

So how do we fix it? Unfortunately there is no golden solution to this pervasive problem. This is because the need for the threshold limitation goes to the very heart of the game mechanics themselves: to the basic concepts of how damage is dealt in combat.

But even if the perfect rules are in place to resolve this problem, there is a crucial first step that must be taken: the basic acceptance that Jack will sometimes slay his giant. If that idea is anathema, then the band-aid mechanics must remain. If you can accept the long odds sometimes come true, however, then there is hope. The change comes when you shift your whole perspective on weapons and damage.

The second step of the fix comes by looking at what was called “To Hit” in classic board wargames jargon. The difference between a novice and an expert stabbing an orc through the heart is nonexistent, it’s the reaching the heart that makes all the difference. So rather than prohibiting a new character from wielding that high-power battleaxe, just make them have a hard time hitting with it. A thousand points of lightning damage don’t mean squat if you can’t actually hit your target. And that’s what level really means anyway, isn’t it? The same thing applies for armor. Anybody can put on a full suit of platemail (assuming it fits), but can everybody move effectively in it? That’s where training comes in.

To take this onto a side note, this is one thing that has always bugged me about D&D. You get a high level hero with hit points through the roof getting ambushed from behind by a bunch of punk goblins and surviving despite the fact that the hero becomes a pincushion. In other games, Cyberpunk comes to mind, it doesn’t matter how big and bad you are. A headshot from some punk kid with a pistol means you are rolling up a new character. But getting back on track, there is also the matter of weapon quality to look.

If you don’t know the first thing about swords (other than the basic rule: “stick pointy end in enemy”), then how much difference will it make for you to wield a crude bronze age broadsword versus a perfectly balanced katana that has been folded two hundred times? Probably not much. On the other hand, it will make all the difference to a weapon master. This actually allows a lot of flexibility in game design. You aren’t just limited by two warriors’ raw weapon and defense skills. Quality becomes a gradient too. Greater quality equipment yields minimal gains for a novice but exponential improvements for someone who knows how to take advantage of it.

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But no doubt you are saying the novice and expert stabbing the heart is a bad example, after all, not every wound kills. Of course you are right, and that is where the final step comes in: “To Kill.” Proficiency in weapons and warfare don’t just include the basics of how to break through an opponent’s guard and stopping the enemy from doing the same to you. It also includes where to hit the enemy that will do the most damage.

Someone without much skill will probably realize that a strike to the heart will kill, but that’s about it. On the other hand, a master understands not just how to use their weapon, but where, when and what to target. Do they want to wear down their enemy with small wounds here and there, or go straight to the stronger attacks? Perhaps it’s better to immobilize your opponent or even disarm them? In terms of game mechanics, the finer points of this concept are commonly used by making extra skills and moves open to higher level characters (such as disarm, shield bash, etc). I’ve seen some of other aspects of this begin to surface in some games as well. Rather than rolling a straight D8 plus strength (like in D&D games such as Neverwinter Nights), why not make the base damage grow as the skill grows? Oblivion uses this technique well. A low level character with 30 sword skill will do base 4 damage with an iron longsword while a character with 100 skill will do 11 base with the exact same weapon. Perfect! But now make this carry the full weight that thresholds do now. Don’t make it just apply to the basic weapon damage, but any special effects as well. Instead of that fire sword doing a standard 30 points of flame damage, make it vary from 5 to 40 depending on skill. The uber weapon in the hands of a newbie isn’t quite so uber anymore, is it? And yet the weapon itself hasn’t been changed and anyone can use it.

There are three basic steps to fixing the threshold dilemma. The first is allowing the possibility for low level characters to succeed (albeit ever so rarely) against high level opponents. Second, the focus needs to shift from the weapon itself to the character holding it. Can they hit, can they take advantage of the weapon’s quality, and how effective are they when they hit? In this way, low level characters are still prevented from being excessively powerful but it’s not done by preventing a novice swordsman from picking up a sword. Instead the novice swordsman has a harder time hitting than an expert, gains less advantage from quality weapons, and does less damage when they make contact. Just like real life!

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