Monday, February 8, 2016

The Other "M" Word

With the recent release of games such as Tharsis, XCOM 2, and Darkest Dungeon I feel like talking a bit about RNG (again).  The term "risk management" gets thrown around a lot, but I think a more accurate way to approach these kind of games would be "risk mitigation."

Take Darkest Dungeon for example, one of the fundamental strategies revolves around character positioning because it effects what abilities can be used on a given turn.  With the exception of one class (the Leper) everyone has abilities that can be used regardless of where they are.  Of course pretty much every character has an optimal position where they can use their most useful abilities.  Sounds great, but characters can only have four of their seven abilities available for a given combat.  So what do you do?  Inexperienced players will make sure all four abilities can be used from the position they've chosen for each of their characters.  It's a decision predicated on the assumption that Lady Luck is going to stick by their side.  Here's the thing though Lady Luck has a sister named "Fate" and she is a harsh mistress.

Because of RNG, it's a statistical impossibility that things will go your way forever.  So what do you do when bad luck inevitably rolls around?  Sadly, a non-trivial numbers of players throw a temper tantrum and go online to decry how unfair the game is.  A better approach would be to make some contingency plans.  Specifically they should have at least one ability that can be used even if their group of adventurers are not in an ideal configuration.  It's unavoidable that at some point in the back row healer will get pulled to the front while the front line fighter will get shoved to the rear.  This could spell disaster, but if the player prepares for this potential outcome they can still put up a decent fight.  Some of the abilities they are forced to use might be sub-optimal, but remember that they least optimal thing you can do is a simple formation shift because you're not buffing your team, de-buffing the enemy, or dealing any damage.

Another example of risk mitigation for RNG games comes from Tharsis.  The way repairs work, it's an all or nothing situation.  Rather than using up the last of your dice rolls reducing the number of repair points needed down to 1 or 2, why not use those points for something that will provide some insurance down the road?  Assists, research and food are all great examples of ways to prepare contingency plans for when the dice just won't behave.

Similar to the repair mechanic in Tharsis, the enemies in Darkest Dungeon are designed around the concept of critical existence failure.  It doesn't matter if a foe has full health or only one hit point left, their ability to fight remains undiminished.  So when presented with an opponent who can't be killed before their next turn (baring an unlikely critical hit), what do you do?

The basic instinct of most players is to deal maximum damage in order to soften up the target for later.  Regrettably, this isn't the best choice because the enemy will still get to attack unhindered.  Stunning, de-buffing or moving the target so it can't attack effectively are all better strategies.  Status effects such as blight and bleed are also potentially useful because once an enemy is  whittled down to their last few points of health it might be possible to ignore them since the blight or bleed will finish them off on their next turn.  Hence, your characters can focus on other targets or restorative abilities for themselves.

XCOM 2 also has this concept to a degree in that it might be wiser to use a smoke grenade or suppressing fire in lieu of a low-chance-to-hit attack, especially if the target is unlikely to die from it.  Other examples of risk mitigation in XCOM 2 include sticking to full cover and only engaging one group of enemies at a time.

It has suddenly occurred to me that XCOM 2 is a lot more straight forward than the other two games I've mentioned.  That might explain why it is by far the most popular of the three.  Regardless, I think both Tharsis and Darkest Dungeon are fun games even if the player is at the mercy of RNG more than XCOM 2.  Ultimately it's still about mastering the game mechanics via risk mitigation.

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