29 June, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #25: The Sweet Spot

About 18 months ago, I was given a copy of the preview developer notes for the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. The friend who gave me the copy was really upset for two distinct reasons; first, he was upset that the bard wasn't a standard class in the regular Player's Guide, second, he was upset that neither gnome's nor halflings were considered a part of the basic set of standard races.

I found quite a few things interesting in the document, even if I didn't like the idea that they were turning the game away from characterization and roles, and back to statistics and rolls...back to it's one-on-one wargaming roots.

I've just tried to find the booklet, but couldn't...I was planning to quote something that struck me when I first read it. I'll just have to paraphrase.

I read something about a sweet spot in D&D 3.5. If I remember correctly, the basic idea was that many players found the third edition of D&D to really hit it stride at levels 4-10, considered the game's "sweet spot". At the lower levels, the characters can't compete with monsters very well and they have to take things really carefully. At the higher levels, characters overcome things too easily and the game loses it's risk.

The 4th edition of D&D was specifically designed to eliminate this "sweet spot", and it was basically done by dividing the game into three tiers. I haven't played the new game at all, but the way I understand it, this effectively gives three "sweet spots". Each tier caters to a different style of play by modifying the rules within each tier system.

It seems a bit of an ad hoc solution to me, but I've seen it before.

It reminds me of my days in the Camarilla, White Wolf's live global game. But instead of specific rule changes, the differences in the game levels were more organic. When you start the game, it's more important to do things for the local authorities, complete small tasks and become valuable to the local communiy. As you become more valuable, you ascend to the regional game; perhaps picking up a local title (prince, primogen, sheriff, pack alpha, sept alpha, fey noble...etc.). Once you move up to this game, you can give orders to the new players and characters, but your own agendas have to move to a grander scale because none of the locals are worth fighting any more.

Here's a table that might give an idea [Giving fun scales of 1-10].
Game LevelNewYoungDevelopingMatureElderLeaderTrue Master
Local scene81086420
Regional scene46810864
National scene02468108
Global scene01357910

(Yes, I know that this table is very subjective...I'm just trying to get a point across).

The sweet spot for the local game matches characters with a bit of experience under their belt. The sweet spot for the regional game suits characters who have been in play for a moderate length of time. The sweet spot for the national game suits older characters who have developed quite a bit. The sweet spot for the global game suits only the oldest and most powerful characters.

It doesn't force play styles, but players naturally congregate at the levels matching their characters...players attempting higher levels are asking for suicide, players focusing on lower levels are ridiculed by their equals or simply find the challenges boring.

But do games really need sweet spots?

I'm a bit undecided on the issue.

How do you define sweet spots?

That's difficult. Certain game mechanisms combine with other game mechanisms, for example hit points combining with other combat values in D&D provided it's supposed sweet spot in the third edition. Different levels of emphasis on different game mechanisms provide the sweet spots as indicated in the Camarilla.

I don't think you can specifically design a sweet spot, because everyone will play a game differently and place their own influences and spin on situations. That's one of the reasons why I think the specific attempt to design this into 4th edition D&D isn't relly the right direction for the future of gaming...but allowing the levels to naturally develop (a la Camarilla) is actually a step in the right direction. Then actually evolving the game based on the interactions of the players.

(Which is another bone of contention with White Wolf...why destroy the old world of darkness just when things were getting interesting?...but that's another rant entirely).

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