Fighting system in a slow-paced game

By   January 26, 2016

I wanted to write a bit more about diversity, because I find this a broad subject having a lot to do with the current game problems. I have no idea what I should focus on currently, so I think it’s better to leave this topic instead of going back and forth.
When thinking about the main problems of the Cantr environment I put the economy and the fighting system on top. So I’ll describe the second issue.

In the discussions from time to time there’s been more interest on the issue of imperfection (to put it mildly) of the Cantr fighting system.
And it’s all despite many smaller and bigger attempts to improve it, which usually tried to solve only some of the problems. It’d result in leaving some old exploits and introducing new ones. The only changes of the fighting system were the introduction of the near-death-state and the possibility of pulling objects and people from buildings.
I warn you in advance that this post is not a proposal of the fighting system reform, it’s just an attempt to list all the problems and doubts which need to be addressed by the perfect fighting system.
Maybe my post will encourage you to think about it and you’ll find some complex idea, but, again, I warn that even a really good idea has little chance to be introduced, because many players assume that such attempts are just a waste of time. And some like the current exploits or just don’t like changes.

To start off, we need to notice that in Cantr there’s a drastic division between two types of actions: ones that require time (projects) and immediate ones. The difference between them is really huge and that gap makes the fighting system so unbalanced. Moving another action from the “immediate” bucket to “deferred” creates another gap and brings even more value to the immediate actions.

1. When you say “fighting”, you think “dragging”
Because of the disastrous fact that dragging is an immediate action while normal attacks are limited to one per day, the real fights in Cantr usually exploit the dragging mechanism.
Dragging is immediate, almost free (2% tiredness :|) and guarantees success (the victim usually notices the dragging attempt once it’s already happened).
Fighting with weapons is allowed once per day, doesn’t guarantee success (one can miss or get blocked by a shield), requires 15% tiredness, and, after the first attack, the victim can potentially have time to react, for example by immediately hiding in the building. Another problem is the possibility of dragging weak characters by a single attacker, which makes very weak people almost defenseless and can be killed at any time by a single madman. I thought Cantr is a social game…

2. Cantr is slow-paced. Fighting in Cantr isn’t
Cantr is aimed to be a slow-paced game, but this doesn’t apply for current fighting system (dragging). Trying to attack in line with the game idea is almost a guarantee of failure. Giving the enemy time to react and resigning from the immediate extermination of the enemy means the enemy has a chance to make use of the immediate actions. That’s why conflicts in Cantr, if they ever happen, usually must lead to complete destruction of one of the groups. If you settle for forcing enemies to subjection, then – even if they are in theory much weaker – they will be able to organize a surprise “night attack” and kill everyone in a few minutes. It discourages role playing, because it means giving initiative to the enemy, who will most likely not do the same.

3. Number of the combatants doesn’t matter
It’s related to the previous problems. When three people are hiding in a building and ten people outside are trying to pick a lock, then the people inside still have an advantage. It’s enough to have a few lockable extensions, so defenders can run out of a building and drag a single attacker in a few seconds to be isolated in a locked cell. The group will be separated and defenders will be able to kill attackers one by one. There’s another trouble caused by overvaluing dragging – dragging somebody will make them separated from their companions and it makes them vulnerable to attacks without a chance to react (another breach of the slow-paced game rule).
The same thing, but from the other side: two pirates attacking a city can drag the leader to a cargo hold and sail away. When they undock in the right moment, it’s absolutely impossible to catch them.

4. Too much healing food
What beyond the already mentioned problems makes imprisonment so terrible? No access to a vehicle or other cargo space, where tons of healing food are waiting to be used. It turns out (surprise!), that every man wants to be prepared for the worst, but everyday use of healing food is quite low. So piles of healing food (just like everything else) are growing, waiting for an occasion to be used.
Attackers are aware that normal fighting till the end of healing food would take many years. That’s why it’s even more important to drag the victim to a cargo hold and prevent access to healing food. So it turns out that usually these piles of healing food have absolutely no meaning. But even after reducing efficiency of dragging and restoration of weapon-based combat it’d be impossible to finish any fight in a reasonable time.

5. Inadequacy of other game features
Even if we found some way to solve all the problems regarding attacking, dragging and healing rules (probably by introducing some time restrictions or delay), then we’ll face lots of actions in the game which just won’t fit this slowed down mechanic.
And I’m not even talking about things like: the possibility of running from the harbour after being dragged by a pirate, who is waiting to be able to continue dragging a victim onto the ship. I assume that this is something that wouldn’t be ignored by a developer of the dragging system overhaul.
There are equally serious problems, which are much harder to solve:
– the possibility to immediately call for help using a radio – it’s another important reason why pirates have to defeat/imprison the defender immediately (does it look like there’s no aspect of the game which isn’t hurt by radios?)
– the possibility of fast travel – when you are attacked while in a car, it’s easy to depart just before the land travel tick and be out of range of the attackers in a few seconds
– the possibility of immediate undocking – just like mentioned above, it’s possible to undock right before the tick to be sure that any pursuit will be unsuccessful

6. Focus on crossbows and battle axes
If we enforce real attack-based combat, then it’d be even more painful to see that the damage system ruthlessly promotes the use of the best weapons and shields. Specific weapon types have no differences except for the only important parameter. With the current state of the game, the production cost of different weapons has absolutely no meaning (I’ve mentioned it in previous articles). But going back to damage… currently, trying to hit somebody who has an iron shield with one of the weaker weapons doesn’t make any sense, because (I’m simplifying it a bit) the damage of the attack is the base damage subtracted by the shield defense. It means that weak weapons’ damage is usually zero, while an axe or a crossbow will inflict huge damage. It could be better, for example, to make the defense parameter a percent value, so different weapons will cause different amount of damage, and at the same time, it’d make it possible to avoid the situation where weak weapons are useless.

7. Everyone is a warrior
Strength and fighting skills are set upon spawning, which means that either the baker, sailor, woodcutter or guard could have similar abilities to use weapons and shields. A group of experienced pirates has no advantage regarding skill, so they must exploit the strategy of surprise attacks. A “fair” fight (without dragging) would always lead to disaster. It doesn’t promote any specialization: the combat ability of a group of random people is based mostly on OOC knowledge of game mechanics and the reflex of players playing their characters. Are there any ideas about how to solve these problems? Decrease unused combat abilities? Make spawning as an expert fighter impossible? I don’t think these things would help.

As said before, the most important problem is the chasm between immediate actions and other actions. Let’s think about what the consequences could be of fixing each of the problems individually:
If we get rid of the possibility of immediate dragging – it’ll become almost impossible to kill somebody, because a character will be able to run away and hide somewhere.
Even if we solve the problem of running away, then a character will have enough time to call for help before being dragged from a building with a radio. As a result of slowed down combat and the possibility of fast travel – the aid from other towns on the island would be able to reach the destination before a single fight is finished.
Slowing down (I have no idea how) all fast game elements having any impact on combat would mean that fights would be carried out to the end of healing food.

I’m not planning to prepare another proposal for the fighting system change. Because of a variety of problems (some are hard to notice) I think it’s practically impossible to find a solution which will please everyone, and I wouldn’t like to spend weeks wondering which will be wasted in the end.
On the other hand, I’m ready to introduce ideas which will be commonly accepted and which I’ll find worthwhile at the same time. I must warn you: it’s a time-consuming and ungrateful work, but I encourage you to do it nevertheless, because a large number of small ideas can combine into one solution able to solve all important problems.
Designing systems like that is similar to solving a puzzle. It consists of many small elements, every one of which needs to fit with the rest or it will give chance for a completely new exploit. It’s necessary to remember that if there’s any exploit that can potentially be used, then it will definitely be used, so foreseeing all the consequences is an important part of the idea, which usually takes the largest amount of time and attention.

I’ll describe a few small ideas, which have appeared across the years, and have aimed to improve the combat system. Maybe merging and implementing them could bring the game something positive:
– attack cooldown – an idea which says that there should be a cooldown between consecutive attacks of different people against a single victim. A cooldown would take between 3 to 12 minutes. The idea is to prevent killing a person in a few seconds and to give at least a theoretical chance of using healing food. The main disadvantage of this (accepted) idea is the fact that it ignores the dragging problem, so this idea would bring almost nothing new except slowing down the extermination of characters imprisoned in cells or cabins
– pulling stuff from buildings while outside (implemented) – makes barricading buildings impossible; that is, sitting in buildings which have so much stuff inside that nobody else can come in. It was implemented and even if it’s not ideal, it solves most of the problems regarding this exploit (being part of point 3 in my list)
– guarding – (probably accepted) the possibility of starting a continuous project of guarding some other character, which means defending them both in case of normal attacks and dragging (bingo!). In the case of dragging, the strength of the guard would be added to the strength of a victim, so it would be much harder for an attacker to drag an important character. At last, this idea tries to do something about points 1 and 3. But it’s necessary to see that it doesn’t touch the essence of the dragging problem, becasue two strong attackers would be able to drag the guardsman away and then start dragging a town leader. But it’d be a big help for weak leaders, which must be afraid of assassination committed by even a single aggressor.

In the end I’ll also post an answer for Joshuamonkey’s comment regarding these issues:

I think the attack cool down would help significantly because people would just have to be inside a locked building or vehicle to not get dragged away, and this would mean they can’t be instantly killed.

It would mean it’s possible to avoid risk of instant death in condition of staying in building/vehicle all the time (most of assaults are done in form of surprise attack). When it goes to a locked building with a window then it’s already fully protecting against immediate death – person locked inside cannot be attacked nor dragged. But continuously being inside limits character’s abilities (interaction, gathering resources and observing the central area of location), so usually it’s too high cost which prevents playing the character in a way you like.
Considering that the most risky thing in case of attack is dragging, this sole change wouldn’t have any serious impact on the game. With one exception: it’d make sea battles slower, increasing changes of defenders to hide themselves in cabins and cargo holds, which would result in fighting till breaking the cabin’s lock or end of healing food.

And with guarding, two characters could guard each other (with the cost of not being able to work on other projects).

It’s true that it’d significantly increase security of two characters supporting each other, but only in case both are quite decent fighting skills. In case of strong guard which protects a weak leader, the benefit of guarding the guard by the leader (ignoring the fact it doesn’t have any in-game justification) wouldn’t help much. In case of increasing number of guards only one of them could be guarded by the leader and the number of the guards wouldn’t matter – it’d be possible to drag them away one after another completely independently from the rest. Maybe evolution of this idea solving the problem would be possibility of creating a special group, whose members would protect themselves against dragging and attacks (all for one).

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