2012-08-15 Unbalanced Encounters Are Fun

People use the word fun a lot when talking about role-playing games. What do we mean by that? Which elements of a game are responsible for people having fun? That is, which elements that we can find in the rules compared to the elements we can find at the table such as props, people, decoration, lighting, music. I’m going to assume that “having fun” results players in coming back session after session and I’m going to assume that this can be explained by behavioral psychology. It seems like a good starting point to me.

My starting island A long time ago, I was interested in a play by email game called Atlantis. I decided to learn how to program and translate the game into German. I ran German Atlantis for a long time. I learnt to code, I learnt about Free Software, Emacs, Geocities, HTML, web pages, mail servers, shell scripts and many other things.

Atlantis had regions, units, ranged weapons, melee weapons, a simple resource economy, and so on. It also suffered from a design flaw: as your faction kept growing, preparing your turn turned out to be a chore. It took hours if you had thousands of units!

Later, I wanted to write a new game. It’d be limited to a single person per player. It would have magic items such as swords. The swords would record all the owners that had ever owned it. Improving the sword would need ingredients. This would be the economic part. I thought about it, made some notes, and after a while I discovered that the resulting game turned out to be bland and boring.

What had I missed? To bring the topic back to role-playing games: what is it about the games I don’t like?

I don't like bennies. I don't like simple, predictable systems. I want changing gameplay over time.

I think the key here is that what brings me back to the gaming table is the same thing that makes slot machines addictive. It’s called the variable ratio reinforcement schedule: a reinforcement schedule in which the number of responses necessary to produce reinforcement varies from trial to trial, according to Wikipedia. Apparently, the variable ratio reinforcement schedule results in a high and stable rate of responding with the greatest activity of all schedules. I guess that also explains why I’ve been playing Pinball Arcade on my tablet for so many hours. It’s a simple two-button game. How can it be so addictive? It’s the variable ratio reinforcement schedule: sometimes, when you’re skilled and lucky, you amass incredible awards and it makes you want to come back.

In terms of role-playing games: some monsters are tough, some monsters are pushovers. Some treasure is great, sometimes no treasure can be found. Sometimes the lucky dice save your butt, sometimes treacherous dice kick your butt.

Every player wants to win fights, find loot, gain levels and all that. But for the players to experience maximum reinforcement, for the players to be into the game like addicts, for them to come back week after week, for them to exhibit the behavior we would describe as “they must be having fun” the referee should use a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. I’m claiming that unbalanced encounters and a high variance in treasure found result in a more addictive game.



I’m not convinced that unbalanced encounters and high variance in treasure are connected. Presumably you could have the second without the first, and it would be just as addictive as a slot machine (consider Diablo and World of Warcraft).

I also enjoy unbalanced encounters, but I think they scratch a different itch, which is the desire for a sense of wonder while exploring the campaign world.

Brendan 2012-08-15 18:16 UTC

I agree, the two don’t need to be connected. I was just considering “surprisingly weak monsters” and “surprisingly much gold” two different kinds of unexpected rewards that act as reinforcer.

It’s quite conceivable that the encounter difficulty is not viewed as a reward in this sense but rather as an indicator of a living and breathing world.

Based on what I’ve seen at my table, however, I suspect the two reinforce each other. If a small tribe of lizardmen ends up guarding a treasure worth many thousands, if two mind flayers are all that stand between the party and a spelljammer ship of their own, then that seems to be perceived as an extra bonus.

AlexSchroeder 2012-08-15 18:48 UTC

If I understand your example correctly, it’s the obstacle/reward ratio that has to vary time to time, isn’t it?

– Ynas Midgard 2012-12-21 11:57 UTC

That seems like another way to phrase it.

AlexSchroeder 2012-12-21 13:14 UTC

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