Gaming Gab: The Damage Paradigm

For many roleplaying games (be it digital or analog), combat and the damage taken therein is represented as an abstract concept. Dungeons and Dragons is the most famous for this, using hit points as a measure of heartiness, fighting skill, luck, and even divine/infernal blessing.

When playing/running D&D, I’ve always gone by the conceit that the first hit die a character rolls represents the amount of physical trauma he can take. Everything after is that is skill and fate. The high level fighter may take a nick one round, pull a muscle turning a killing blow aside in another, and so forth. You can accurately represent the individual injuries a character takes, but that takes the combat away from abstract and more into realism. Earlier versions of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG are an example of this. A charcter has a small pool of wounds (aka HP), but once those are gone, he starts taking critical hits, which can lead to injury or messy death.

I’m bringing this up because I’ve noticed a shift in CRPGs handling damage — not so much in the receiving but the giving. For further clarification, I’m not referring to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or City of Heroes. This concept got it’s start in that genre of games and has begun to creep into games like Dragon Age 2 and Dungeon Siege 3. If you’ve played any or all of these games, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Damage per second, or DPS, is the latest unit of measure of combat effectiveness. It’s a basic “at a glance” value that tells you just how damaging a weapon or spell can be. In WoW, a “Battle Tested Blade” has a DPS of 4.4, while a “Harpy Wing Clipper” has a DPS of 5.

It’s not a bad measure for MMOs like WoW et al, because in combat the basic attacks are assumed to hit while you use your special abilities to stack the odds in your favor. What I’ve noticed, though, is games like Dragon Age 2 and Dungeon Seige 3 using DPS as the sole measure, and that’s a problem.*

In WoW, you can see where the DPS comes from with a simple mouse roll-over. The Blade in my previous example has a damage range of 6 to 13 with a weapon speed of 2.1 seconds. Let’s compare it to a bastard sword that does 11 to 33 points of damage but has a speed of 5 seconds. Both have a DPS value of 4.4. Which is better, fast light hits, or slow heavy slams?

There’s more things that DPS doesn’t take into account. What if one weapon has a special ability that sets enemies on fire, while the other slows them down with cold. Also, DPS doesn’t take into account an enemy’s ability to heal or mitigate damage. Yeah, it’s nice that I can swing for 40 DPS, but if his armor reduces that by 20 percent then the fight changes significantly.

Even with that, there’s one critical item that MMOs handle that CRPGs don’t seem to consider. What if I miss?

Most MMOs assume the basic attack will hit and do damage, while special abilities do things to give a player an edge. In CRPGs, you have to point your character at an enemy while pressing a button for each and every attack. This means if your aim is off, you could be flailing like a muppet at air while your opponent flanks you.

It’s the sort of obscura that can lead to lazy game design, something Dungeon Siege 3 is very guilty of doing. If all we have is DPS, how do we know if the firey weapon is better than the icy one?

Do I see this translating into pen and paper RPGS? I don’t think it’s even possible — not unless it was a massive redesign that was more oriented to narrative-style play. The mechanics involved in a CRPG are a bit more complex than what goes on the table top, and in terms of raw math it’s something consoles can resolve very well. Plus at the table, there are nights where dice can get hot… or cold…

In summation, the DPS mechanic is not a bad thing as long as it’s not by itself. Developers need to note this and make sure their players are able to see what’s going on under the hood.

*Dungeon Seige 3 makes it even worse by hiding their game mechanics behind a veil of obscura so you have no idea how they even come to the results they have.

Btb=6-13,2.1 hwc=9-17,2.6 rodentia ssw=7-14,2.3,4.4dps

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