Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dark Souls, Monster Design

I promised I'd write this for Brendan. So, here you go. It's entirely possible that this is of interest only to Brendan.

If you could give a shit about monster and encounter design in Dark Souls (a video game), then you can skip to the B2 stuff.

Dark Souls, Monsters, Attack Routines
Basic monsters in Dark Souls are pretty dumb. Most ranged attackers have two states: passive or attacking; furthermore, ranged attackers wait for you to flank them, don't usually close to engage in melee when you get close and don't back away from incoming attackers to keep ranged. Melee attackers have the same two states, but when passive they just wait for you to walk into their aggro range (usually pretty small); when aggressive they just move to close range, don't use cover (except their shields, if they have them) and only the "intelligent" ones try to flank you. Melee attackers tend to have an attack routine composed of one-three different attacks, usually composed of attacks, layered one on top of the other, in combos.
Standard, Long Attack Routine
1st attack: weak front attack;
2nd attack: combo: weak front attack -> a weak sweep;
3rd attack: combo:  weak front attack -> a weak sweep -> a strong lunge attack;

Boss monsters often function similarly with the following exceptions: they deal considerably more damage than standard monsters, have much better damage mitigation than standard monsters, move and attack more quickly, and, most significantly, tend to have a flexible/contextually aware attack routine (if target mid-range, use attack x, if target far, use attack y).

Dark Souls, Rhythm of Play, Difficulty, Learning
Non-boss play in Dark Souls follows a pretty consistent rhythm established at the start of the game.

Rhythm of Play in Dark Souls
a. explore a relatively linear path -> b. encounter an enemy -> c. figure out its attack routine/behavioral limits -> d. kill it and continue exploring -> e. encounter more enemies like those encountered in b., often with variations or scripted actions/positioning that leverages the environment or the enemy's attack in its favor, or just novel orientations/positioning -> f. kill them and return to a.
Early in the game, c. is often the most challenging as the only way to discern an enemy's behavior is to engage the enemy in combat. This splits player attention between trying to read enemy behavior, keep their character alive and avoid any major blunder (falling off a cliff, accidentally pulling more enemies when evading the current enemy). 

The game maintains this difficulty by (a) keeping enemy damage output high, (b) introducing new enemies with new attack routines, (c) increasing larger or smaller enemies that force the player to adjust the way they handle character defense, (d) clever enemy positioning, (e) novel combinations of known enemies, (f) minor scripted variations in enemy behavior, and (g) leveraged map design in concert with enemy attack routines. Accordingly, successful play early in the game usually requires a conservative, deliberate play style.

Eventually, the player is sufficiently skilled in both reading enemies and defensive play that the initial difficulty called out in c. of the above breakdown of game rhythm is minimized (and on subsequent playthoughs may even feel trivial) and this totally re-orients the player's style of play: having "mastered" the game, the player is no longer wed to what has often felt like a frustratingly cautious and plodding play style. What inevitably happens is that the player, free to push their character to the limit of their ability, now creates or finds their own challenges. Later game play styles often revolve around hyper-efficiency/speed runs, character builds that maximize damage/killing speed and mobility at the cost of damage mitigation, or builds suited to a very particularly player taste.

As a representative sample of D&D I've taken B2, Keep on the Borderlands and Moldvay Basic as I want to give a concrete example of both monster and encounter design.

Basic D&D, Rhythm of Play
There are two rhythms established in Basic D&D: Exploration (B23) and Combat (B24). Both follow a basic question and response pattern: the GM asks what the players want to do, the players respond and either the GM narrates the events of the turn or announces a twist/wrinkle/etc. This simple back-and-forth feels similar to the back-and-forth between player and game in early game Dark Souls.

Basic D&D, Monster Design
--Moldvay Basic, B40

Basic, Encounter Design
"B. ORC LAIR: Upon entering, the party will see that the wall 30' to the north is decorated with heads and skulls (human, elven, dwarven) in various stages of decay. These cheerful greetings are placed in niches which checker about 100 square feet of the surface of the wall. Close inspection will show that one is orcish (see g. below). Sounds of activity can be heard from the west, but all is quiet to the east.
Area g: This narrowing area is a guard post, the watcher (Orc: AC 7 HD 1, hp 5 #AT 1, D 1-6, MV (40'), Save F1, ML 8) having a small, window-like opening from which he can observe the entrance to the lair. A piece of gray canvas gives the impression that the guard's head is another of the ghastly trophies which decorate the wall. If adventurers enter, he will quickly duck down, slipping a goblin head into the place his own was, and alert the Orcs at 7.
7. Guard Room: 4 Orcs: (AC 7, HD 1, hp 5 each, #AT 1, D 1-6, MV (40'), Save F1, ML 8). These guards are armed with spears. Each carries one for hurling and one to melee with. These have d8 electrum pieces each. When alerted, they will rush to engage intruders, raising the alarm when they see them. There is nothing of value in their chamber, there being only pallets and shabby clothing hanging on pegs.
8. The Watcher (g.) will alert the 4 guards here (exactly as in 7. above) who will rush west and then south to flank or surround intruders threatening area 7. or 9. or approaching their own quarters."
--Keep of the Borderlands, Gygax (page 15)
--Keep of the Borderlands, Gygax (map)

Basic/Monster Description
Beyond the basic stat block, we learn five things about how to "use" Orcs in actual play: that Orcs fight at a penalty in sunlight, have a special leader, are nocturnal, are human-like (which I take to mean, "are fairly intelligent"), and are afraid to fight anything larger than they are. The majority of the entry focuses on seeding Orcs in your game, not how to "run" Orcs in an actual dungeon. 

B2/Encounter Description & Map
Per Gygax, Orcs in this part of the Caves have an attack routine (throw one spear, attack with the other), tactical maneuvering and positioning (Orcs in 8 moving to flank or surround). 

Moldvay's monster description in Basic presents some mechanical/play considerations for use when actually running an encounter with Orcs in it but is preoccupied mostly with how Orcs fit into your game more broadly. What does their lair look like? What do they look like? Who do they work for and where might they be found?

Conversely, Gygax's encounter description in B2 is almost purely interested in presenting how the Orcs act and how they should be run in this particular part of the Caves.

That is: Gygax prioritizes attack routines, positioning and behavior while Moldvay prioritizes orienting the monster in the broader context of your game world. 

All of which makes perfect sense: Gygax is writing a narrow thing and Moldvay is writing something for anyone to use anywhere.

Maybe we should use the term, "monster design," when describing the broad monster manual-style description and employ, "encounter design," when describing what the monsters do in a dungeon?  Is that too fee a solution?

More Practical Examples.

Here is the Asylum Demon, AGAIN.

Asylum Demon Huge, Fat, Awkward Flying, Massive Reach Weapon, Immunities
HD 10, 43 hp, AC 5, 2 Attacks, slow, ML 10; skinnable, huge club
Attack priority & Weaknesses
a. sweep/2+ visible in melee b. smash/1 visible in melee
+10 to hit, d6 dam, front 180° smash for 2d6 dam
c. fly&flop/nothing in 
melee range
d. rampage
Uses whole turn to fly and flop onto largest cluster of targets for d6 dam (Save vs Breath to avoid) If everyone is dead and/or hiding/fled, will smash bodies, toss things around the room for d4 turns before napping
neck +2d6 dam (can't be reached from ground)
shank +d6 dam
Is studded with arrows, immune to mundane ranged

Will first engage without its club, using its fists, striking for d6 damage. When first damaged, will fly up to the platform at x to seize club, knocking loose a portion of the platform, which can now be scaled up to x and roaring, exposing the soft flesh of its neck. Next turn, will use fly&flop to return to the ground. Its fleshy, sagging shank is exposed for any behind it to see. 

(how this is supposed to work is: if the conditions for a. are met, the monster does a., if the conditions for a. aren't met, but the conditions for b. are met, then b. occurs, etc. [this is probably super obvious if you've ever taken a course in Logic or else done some programming])

More Orcs.
Here is the  Orc entry from Moldvay re-cast:

OrcAggressive, Intimidated by larger enemies, humanoid, chaotic, human-like, weak in the sun
HD 1+1, 5 hp, AC 7, ML 8, AL C; leather armor, weapons
*Prefer to live underground and -1 to hit in sunlight
*Orc leaders gain their positions by fighting and defeating (or killing) the others and have 8 hp and deal +1 dam, leader death reduces nearby Orc moral to 6.
*May work as low-cost soldiers, esp in Chaotic armies and seek out positions that let them kill and burn as much as they
*Tend to wield swords, spears, axes, and clubs and eschew mechanical weapons (such as catapults), as only their leaders understand how to operate them.
*Tribal, with tribes usually on bad terms, and 1 leader/trib. Each tribe has as many females as males, and 2 children
("whelps") for each 2 adults. Tribal leaders of is a chieftain with 15 hp, attacks as a 4 hit dice monster, and + 2 on dam.
*1 in 6 chance: 1 Ogre in tribe/20 Orcs in a tribe

Here it is again, recast in the encounter style:

OrcAggressive, Intimidated by larger enemies, humanoid, chaotic, human-like, weak in the sun
HD 1+1, 5 hp, AC 7, ML 8, AL C; leather armor, two spears
Attack priority & Weaknesses
a. throw spear/2 spears, target in range
d6 dam, rng 5-20/21-40/41-60
b. stab/target in meleec. flee/after half force lost or Leader dies
d6 damcheck: ML 8
-1 ATK in sunlight
-2 ML if nearby leader dies w/in sight

Wall opposite entrance decorated with niches of heads and skulls. The turn after it spots the party, the Orc at g will cover peephole niche with goblin head & will alert the 4 Orcs at 8, who will then move to block further ingress into the dungeon while the Orcs at 7 move in to flank the party.

Give monsters an attack or attack/move routine, with priorities as well as weaknesses and immunities. Conditions for each action in an attack routine should be simple and most, if not all, should be player-triggerable. Everything should be player-triggerable, like nearly always and forever in D&D.

I still don't love the idea of routines. Practically, it kind of solves the wall of text issues you find in encounters in most adventures written for 1e AD&D and beyond where the designer spends a ton of time telling you how an enemy will behave (it also solves it in a way very similar to 4e, without relying on the idea of discrete powers/abilities, but also has the same issue as in 4e where it makes the stat block feel a little unwieldy).

Consider the merits of including the routine, giving special consideration as to whether or not it really adds much of anything to the fight. The B2 Orc encounter I've recast above contains elements that feel preferable to the original but also other elements that feel much less desirable/not as good as the original. There's nothing really there that's player-triggerable in an interesting way (throws spears/closes to attack is interesting if its going to be a broader pattern established because then it can lead to the players coming up with interesting strategies for dealing with subsequent Orc encounters (tower/riot shields, having a back row throw the spears back, or passing them to the front row to set for the Orc charge?). This seems most closely aligned to what is most interesting about Dark Souls combat: employing the enemy's consistent attack patterns to "push back on" the game.

Crucial for this to work it all over the long term of the game is GM flexibility and awareness of the monsters and their overall intelligence and likely behavior. If the players are able to leverage a relatively intelligent monster's attack routine against them and at least one monster survives the route and informs their allies, it's not just understandable, but I think, necessary, that the monsters now drastically modify their attack plan. (This isn't shocking - it's certainly in keeping with Gygax's repeated insistence in B2 that surviving monsters will hunker down, re-enforce defenses, seek out allies and otherwise react to past failures).

A benefit, maybe, is that it can help make explicit to the GM where they're being boring/makes clear the merit of Zakum's Razor, "if someone else could do it, much less do it better, why include it?" 

Frankly, I think it boils down to the rhythm of play. If all eyes are going to be focused on just a few enemies, then I think the use of a routine makes sense and, frankly, is consonant with how those sorts of encounters are already written. If, on the other hand you're dealing with a bunch of enemies or even just a few enemies but each of different type, I can see routines feeling very unwieldy.

image attributions: Kouryakubo, Demons Souls
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