Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Resource tracking vs activity tracking

What your game tracks as stats influences how well the game can be balanced.  The amount of values is not so important as the significance of those values.  To explain this I'll coin two terms before going on.  One is resource tracking and the other is activity tracking.  Resource tracking concerns itself with tracking values that are the requisite for an activity.  For example mana for spells.  Instead of tracking exactly what spells can be cast in a day we track the resource required to casts spells.  On the other hand activity tracking concerns itself with tracking the actual activity to be done.  For example having two sleep spells available today.   Another example is the paladin curing disease two times per day.  You're not quite sure what powers that ability it just happens.

Dissociated mechanics are clearly based on activity tracking.  You're not actually focused on keeping tabs on the power, force or energy that grants that ability.  The character just happens to have it.  A resource tracking version of the paladin's cure disease would be : the sun god grants you 200 faith points.  Then your character is granted a power called cure diseases that costs 90 faith points.  The character then does a cure disease and feels his body depleted of the all mighty sun god's faith, but he still feels strong and capable of doing yet another cure.  Progression in faith points is what allows the paladin to cast 3 cure disease per day later on.  It's not that it happens overnight when he reaches 12th level.  He's been working on it, increasing his faith, he can feel it closer.  He even tries prior to 12th level, but fails.  He feels confident, but something is still lacking.  Those extra 10 points that the player and GM know are missing.

What does all this have to do with balance, and why is resource tracking better than activity tracking at determining balance?  Well for starters if you compare two characters resource wise you can say this character has more power in a field than the other.  For example mana.  Two characters with equal mana are similar.  They might have different spells, but the same potential.  This is in the understanding that mana cost per spell is relative to spell strength.  If one has twice the mana then there is an imbalance.  Activity tracking also has the disadvantage of bien susceptive to context and settings.  If you have two sleep spells and one charm spell memorized and you meet a creature that is not susceptive  to sleep or charm your effective strength is cero.  On the other hand if you have a resource of 100 mana points and 8 spells you can choose at that moment something that is useful.  You're 100 mana points are still worth something.  The paladin's cure disease power is only useful if there are sick characters, but 200 faith points can be used for other paladin powers that rely on faith.

Resource tracking also helps to decouple game elements.  Decoupling means disconnecting the effects of changes to one part of the game from affecting another.  Imagine each resource as a currency.  You can assign a cost to each thing based on its impact.  Spells for example have a mana cost that can be adjusted in the same way the price of a product can be adjusted.  Activity tracking doesn't allow for that.  All 3dr level spells are accessible once you attain 3rd level spells.   Even if some are stronger than others.  Resource tracking is like going to the cookie isle in the supermarket and seeing the cookies.  They're all cookies.  They're all in the cookie price range, but some are more expensive than the others so you choose based on cost.  Activity tracking is like going to the same cookie isle and getting to choose two packages.  Which do you choose?  Well in my case I'd choose the expensive ones with more chocolate.

With resource tracking if you find a spell is being abused you can just increase the mana cost for it.  You don't need to change its level.  That is a very specific balance adjustment done on the spell.  The spell is effectively decoupled from the rest of the spells and the magic mechanism as a whole.  With activity tracking you have to move the spell to another level or remove it from the list because the rules say I have two third level spells and I want that one.

If you want a setting with more or less magic all you need to do with resource tracking is devaluate the coin to make magic scarce or revaluate the coin to make it abundant.  With activity tracking things get harder.  You can't have one half spell slot for first level.  Should there be no magic for 1st level wizard?  See how it begins to get complicated.

Resource tracking has the benefit of requiring things to have a cost and thus a value.  This will be covered fully in the Balance dilema Part 2 article.  Enough to say for now that this allows you to put a real number to the character's strength.  A numeric value that can be compared to others on a more objective way and to do so during the game session to get real time balancing of the game.
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