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Author Topic: Equipment and Balance  (Read 7081 times)
Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« on: June 25, 2002, 10:38:41 AM »

First, this is a little fragmented so please bear with me.  This is not intended to be a discussion of what balance means, please hash that out elsewhere. The discussion can go off and discuss how different sorts of balance are impacted by equipment, but primarily it intends to dwell on the general relationship.

I bring it up because there is a dilemma that's had my attention for, oh, about fifteen years now. And it occurs because of Champions. Essentially, in Champions they introduced the idea that the equipment that a character carried was a part of the characters effectiveness, and therefor affected balance. Then they went right on to say that this only makes sense in superheroic genres and that for a heroic game you should have a system that allows for the player to accumulate equipment ad nauseum.

This seems odd at first, and after a while it starts to sink in why. What is happening is first that there is a distinction that is being drawn between the character's internal abilities and things that are somehow external. This happens on both the in-game and meta-game level. That is, there are rules in Champions (focus, for instance) that deal with the idea of externality. The logic goes that the more likely that a character is to lose an ability the less valuable it is balance-wise. This is very in-game. But there is also a concurrent discussion about whether or not the ability can be lost at all (despite appearances). Which is very metagame.

Let me give an example. A sword in Champions is usually bought with the focus limitation indicating that it is something that can be taken away from the character (he could be disarmed, for instance). But note that just because the sword can be removed temporarily, does not mean that the character loses it permanently. Oh, no, for that you need the limitation Independent, which reduces cost by far more. No, focus means that the item can be lost, but it can almost always be regained. In fact, a player is allowed to take another limitation, Only in Hero ID, to simulate a power that comes from an item that can never really be removed.

IOW, the player decides as he creates an ability just how "internal" a power is, game-wise. Very meta-game.

In the "Heroic" version, players are allowed to accumulate as much equipment as they come across. This is still worth points, theoretically, however, so it becomes the GM responsibility as in other games to ensure that the players don't come across equipment that is too powerful.

At this point let me stop and say that this discussion really goes beyond equipment. It addresses everything in the game simply asking if the thing is somehow part of the character's effectiveness, or will continue to be.

Now, in Champions you can lose any power. Despite the rules that say that you can't lose a power, you can. In fact there are a slew of powers that exist soley to reduce other characters powers. Usually these are temporary, but bought correctly they can be permenant. In any case, they are obviously at least temporarily capable of removing powers. So what are the focus rules about? Well, the focus rules just say that there are easier ways to remove powers. Take flight for example. If I have a set of mechanical wings, then taking that away will prevent me from flying. Similarly, if I have natural wings, then cutting them off will prevent me from flying. The difference? One is simply more difficult than the other.

What does this all mean? Well, all powers are temporary. In D&D you can lose levels. In other games you lose combat effectiveness as opponents attack you. And in the vast majority of games when your character dies he loses just about every ability. This means that the temporary nature of abilities is an important facet of RPGs (which we already knew).

So what does that imply for design? Well, it seems to me that if you can have rules for the temporary nature of certain abilities, then why not apply them universally? If a thing makes your character more powerful, shouldn't you only get it as a reward? Most games handle this by having the GM act as a reward giver, handing out equipment as he sees fit.

But rarely is this equitable, and fraught with all sorts of potential problems. For example, if I place a ring of mad spellflinging out there for he characters to find, the mage is gonna get more powerful. So I have to give the fighter something. Well, that's just going to get silly after a while. I should feel free to include whatever elements I want at wahtever rate I want. If I want a baddy to have a nasty magic thingie, I have to consider that potentially it'll fall into the hands of the characters if they defeat said baddy. What if I don't want that? Well, there are all sorts of ways that games have to enable it, like saying that it only works for the baddy. But there's a simpler way.

Simply consider equipment to be just like any other character ability. Make players pay for it with the rewards that they would otherwise spend on powering up in another manner. This is not to say that a character in such a game cannot piuck up a sword where he finds it. Just that if it makes him more powerful, he cannot keep it for long. Not without paying for it.

This strikes people as odd all the time. I know, it struck me as odd, and I was only able to buy it inthe form of the superhero genre limitation. But think about it. What makes these things any different in game terms from anything else? From a metagame standpoint they are identical. Yes, there must be an in game explanation for the convention, just as there are explanations for every other convention. Not at all unique there. I can't keep the sword? Then I lose it, or I give it away, or it breaks, or whatever. The neat thing is that the player can have a hand in deciding why the character doesn't keep it instead of he old GM trick of stealing it. Which seems high handed. If the balance mechanic is in the rules nobody objects.

This works just fine in Hero Wars, for example, the primary example of a game that does this today. And it still works in Champions. Why did they have the Heroic version? Because they were harkening back to D&D in Fantasy Hero. It just seemed that it would be too expensive to force players to take into account the cost of every scroll (despite always calculating the cost, interestingly). So they backtraked, a mistake, IMO. In every genre objects are either important to the plot or they are not, and so such mechancs make sense.

And incase you're wondering if all the accounting is worthwhile, having to have rules that figure out how much an object is worth to a character, consider that there are other advantages. It makes converting things easier, for example. How much is a 3 point sword worth? About 3 points of coins give or take. Thanks for showing us that, Clinton.

I can see very few places where it cannot work in a system. IOW, I can only recommend this sort of mechanic and viewpoint.

Mike
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Jared A. Sorensen
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« Reply #1 on: June 25, 2002, 11:00:10 AM »

I'd also look at The Dying Earth. You assign Equipment points to stuff you want to keep, otherwise it's GOING to go away, guaranteed. Good stuff.
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damion
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Posts: 198


« Reply #2 on: June 25, 2002, 11:32:55 AM »

This isn't really criticism, I'm just confused as to what your saying.
Not sure how this helps things. Instead of having to make up reasons the charachters can't get a piece of equipment, they have to make up reasons about why they can't use the Sword of MegaSlaying untill they go on a few more adventures and they already know how to use a sword.  

Having the charachters decide is a good idea though.
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James
J B Bell
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« Reply #3 on: June 25, 2002, 11:33:36 AM »

I have little to add other than "well said," and to note that I think this way of tracking equipment is the natural and obvious outgrowth of having a good currency.

--JB
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"Have mechanics that focus on what the game is about. Then gloss the rest." --Mike Holmes
Valamir
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« Reply #4 on: June 25, 2002, 11:48:29 AM »

Actually this "buy a thing" system works in just about any genre you can think of.

Take the action flick of your choice...where do all those guns go anyway...why does Arnold carry 57 different varieties of hand cannon in Commando and one by one they all disappear.  Why in The Mummy does Brandon Frasier not get pissed off when the comedic sidekick throws his empty revolver at the bad guys.   In game terms...they didn't pay for it with resource points, so it ain't part of their character.

Conversely Indiana Jones is so tied to his hat that in The Last Crusade (poking a little fun at itself) the hat mysteriously blows back into Indy's hands after he'd lost it in a manner that even he can't believe...why...because he paid lots of resource points for it.

How many treasures did Conan find only to have even mention of them entirely absent in the next book.

Why is it that some cowboys go through horses like kleenex but Gene Autry always has Champ?

Why is it that James Bond always has new gadgets...why when a gadget works don't they ever reissue it?

Why on Star Trek doesn't the super incredible means of getting the deflector dish to make pizza ever get used again?  Why do all of Giordi's great jury rigs never get incorporated into the design for good?

Where does all that great stuff Wyle E. orders from ACME go...?

Take your pick.  Its almost impossible to think of a movie or novel or TV show where characters accumulate stuff on the "Dungeon Haul and Equipment List model."

If its important to the story at that point and time, but isn't important to the character, then the item is almost certainly going to disappear without explaination or warning.  Only if its important to the character do we see it again and for those items, paying for it with character resources makes perfect sense.

I fully agree with Mike.  This is the best way to handle this in just about any type of game.

Even in "realistic" games.  Unless you are going truely over the top and rolling every morning to see if the character forgot his watch at home, the "list everything" on your character sheet just doesn't really make sense.
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #5 on: June 25, 2002, 12:35:59 PM »

This is a great topic.  It really gets at the heart of a lot of meta-design issues of gaming (my compliments to the author).

I can see two issues arising from the discussion.  Neither is specifically stated, but I feel both of them overshadow the whole thing.  They are ability and equality.

I have given ability a lot of thought.  I too recognized the implications in the old Champions rules.  (That was before they coined the limitation "Independent.")  Just by picking up a sword (or a gun or a power ring), a player's character's 'point level' jumped up.  But, as Mike says, it goes much farther than that.  When I first got my hands on Fantasy Hero, I was confronted 'in the face' by this effect.  I had really anticipated getting the 'fantasy supplement' for my favorite game for some time (I'd even flirted with designing it myself as a homebrew).  What I got really upset me; in fact I swore off Champions play to this day, I was so disappointed.

The funny thing is, after years of feeling sore about it, I realized they had little choice for exactly the reasons Mike describes.  Even though I haven't played Champions in all that time, I still think about it.  Long before I conceived of the split between in-game effectiveness (the points spent having an ability) and meta-game 'connectedness' (having to spend those points to gain the ability), it occurred to me that everything was like that.  It was truly one of my first 'game theory' thoughts.

To make a long story short, I settled on this model (about character abilities):
    Attributes (abilities possessed by all, mediated by effectiveness ratings) => Skills (voluntary abilities, 'defaults' are a restriction on effectiveness for usability) => Powers (includes really anything, superpowers, spells, psychic abilities; almost never allow 'defaults') => Tools (sometimes related to 'activating' skills, but many 'tools' can be used without) => Influences (what about getting other people to do it?)[/list:u]  Years later I see Ron referring to the inherent problem with the 'figured characteristics' in
Champions as "currency" issues and I laughed out loud.  Hard 'currency' is what allows you to purchase 'tools' and sometimes even 'influence.'

The application of this model came as I began simplifying Scattershot.  Since everything uses exactly the same die mechanic, I had to differentiate all the various abilities.  What makes a skill different from a power?  Or from an influence?  If you have the skill of Automobile Repair, you can fix a car right?  What if you used something like Technomorphic Recreation (or whatever you want to call it)?  What if you just paid someone else to do it?  Things like time, parts, availability and the like come up, but ultimately in the game, the car gets fixed, right?  (That's where the Universal Equivalency chart came from; it interprets the ability and the materials to fit all these into one die mechanic.)

But abstractly, what are we talking about here?  The ability of an in-game entity to affect its environment.  Be it attribute, skill, or otherwise, these are the things that make stuff happen.  Whether limited by character points, wealth, or accessibility, these stand between in-game entities and their goals.  And in choosing to partake of the game you are accepting these limitations.  (And before you get too far, this all works just as much on the meta-game level as well; those are abilities for direct player-action upon the game.)  So I think this is a highly interesting concept.

However, most of what Mike talks about all exists under one important unspoken caveat, equality.  Champions is notorious for going to incredible lengths to try an force some kind of efficacy equality on the players.  Any time there's a 'currency' resource 'managed' during character creation, it is strictly for some kind of equalization.

Why?  If you play in just one session and one player earns more experience than another, the equality it instantly lost.  If another character 'picks up' a tool not 'paid for,' however they are limited in terms of meta-game, the equality goes right out the window.  Further more, even when the points are exactly the same, the situations presented change the literal efficacy of the characters.  I'm sure anyone reading this can imagine situations where one character's skills and abilities are useless and another's shine; where's the equality there?  Certainly all games employing the 'resource-limited' equality principle talk about how to 'keep things even.'  It's mostly wasted text because it doesn't give much practical advice.  (Well, I may be off there, I haven't been able to afford any systems in the last ten years, but I hear the 'how to play' stuff is rare if usable.)  That's because they don't give the reason for this equality.  (And I have to as what is that reason?)

None of this ever addresses a central question I frequently ask.  Why go to so much trouble for something that can only be briefly equal and then add instructions on how to invalidate all those mechanics anyway?  Is 'balance' or equality really the best use of limiting systems like points?  Scattershot is designed to superficially look just like all those 'balanced systems,' yet is a formal attempt to explore other uses for such limiters.  So let me add to Mike's question, given the use of 'limiters,' is equality the best use for them?

Fang Langford
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #6 on: June 25, 2002, 12:40:13 PM »

Quote from: damion
Not sure how this helps things. Instead of having to make up reasons the charachters can't get a piece of equipment, they have to make up reasons about why they can't use the Sword of MegaSlaying untill they go on a few more adventures and they already know how to use a sword.


Yes. "How this helps" is that the player is no more powerful now than when he started the last adventure. At least no more powerful than he earned with points. And more information is created.

Yes this requires author stance. The character may want the item, but you as the player must put the character's motivations aside for a while and figure out why he isn't using it. Then, if you wish and it makes sense, you can retroactively assign a reason why the character did it. If it's stolen, or just dissappears between episodes, that's fine, and doesn't need a reason for the character. But creating a reason can be the source of inspiration.

For example, Bob has too few points to assign the Sword of MegaSlaying to his character Krognar. So he leaves it behind with the Priests of Gotor for safe keeping. Why? Bob says dramatically, "The Sword is too powerful for any one man to own, it must remain in the hands of the priests for when it's needed." Which will be two or three more sessions down the road (at when he'll have the points to pay for it), when it will totally make sense for Krognar to return to the temple of Gotor to retrieve the Sword of MegaSlaying to use against the dread demon Slastifuys who threatens to destroy the Tree of Light.

Afterwards, Krognar can go on a quest to destroy the Sword (realizing, after it caused him to take out three of his own friends, that it must be destroyed). When he finally manages to be rid of it, pitching it into the bottomless pit of Olenoch, he'll get the points back, and can spend them on something else, like a higher wisdom score for having realized the truth about such terrible weapons. Later, when he's in a dark period, and has the points to spend, perhaps he'll journey to the bottom of the pit to retieve the Sword yet again.

Isn't that a lot better than Krognar just keeping it and killing a bunch of stuff? All that story from just one object. All enabled by the currency system. In other words the effects of the system are causing events to occur, which is cool. Oh, and it remains balanced throughout.

Does that help, or did I misread you?

Mike
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #7 on: June 25, 2002, 12:58:21 PM »

Quote from: Le Joueur
None of this ever addresses a central question I frequently ask.  Why go to so much trouble for something that can only be briefly equal and then add instructions on how to invalidate all those mechanics anyway?  Is 'balance' or equality really the best use of limiting systems like points?  Scattershot is designed to superficially look just like all those 'balanced systems,' yet is a formal attempt to explore other uses for such limiters.  So let me add to Mike's question, given the use of 'limiters,' is equality the best use for them?

Well, that's outside the topic of this discussion. I said at the start that this is not about balance or types of balance. It only addresses how to balance a currency system with regards to equipment. The reward systems and other mechanics are not discussed here.

I will say that the assumption about equality is not relevant. You can have point based systems and not start equally, and everyone understands that better play gets higher rewards if that's in the system. All anyone is looking for is a level playing field, which you point out is provided by Scattershot, and I would contend by currency systems as well. You'd not allow one player to roll more dice than another just because he is that player. Neither would I want a player to gain more advantqage in-game than another player simply by GM fiat or worse, mistake. I've merely shown how that can be handled for all cases.

Mike
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #8 on: June 25, 2002, 01:55:14 PM »

Hey Mike,
Quote from: Mike Holmes
Quote from: Le Joueur
None of this ever addresses a central question I frequently ask.  Why go to so much trouble for something that can only be briefly equal and then add instructions on how to invalidate all those mechanics anyway?  Is 'balance' or equality really the best use of limiting systems like points?  Scattershot is designed to superficially look just like all those 'balanced systems,' yet is a formal attempt to explore other uses for such limiters.  So let me add to Mike's question, given the use of 'limiters,' is equality the best use for them?

Well, that's outside the topic of this discussion. I said at the start that this is not about balance or types of balance. It only addresses how to balance a currency system with regards to equipment. The reward systems and other mechanics are not discussed here.

I will say that the assumption about equality is not relevant. You can have point based systems and not start equally, and everyone understands that better play gets higher rewards if that's in the system. All anyone is looking for is a level playing field, which you point out is provided by Scattershot, and I would contend by currency systems as well. You'd not allow one player to roll more dice than another just because he is that player. Neither would I want a player to gain more advantqage in-game than another player simply by GM fiat or worse, mistake. I've merely shown how that can be handled for all cases.

I agree that the equality issue alone is quite outside the subject (and I'll try to spark a new thread if I get the time), but I don't see how you can talk about "how to balance a currency system," if you don't talk about why it needs balance.

Let me be clear, I'm not bringing up 'what is balance' or 'types of balance,' but 'why balance?'  I certainly agree that it is a very intriguing idea that you can create a larger meta-system that uses currency to direct the increase and decrease of character efficacy, but how would it be different if all values equaled 1?

You're right on target that 'starting equity' is outside this subject, but I think equality of another kind is important to discuss.  Why is the magic sword three points and the serf only one?  You could easily have all abilities, efficacies, ties, and responsibilities have equal currency value; so why make them different?  (I'm not saying different is bad, that would be speaking out of the other side my face, just 'what is the motivating factor - the design justification?'  'How can you make it support your design goals?')  The original reason historically was 'starting equity;' if we throw that out, what do we use?

And on the topic of the "level playing field," you tread dangerous ground simply equating "balance" with "objectivity" or "fairness."  I for one, didn't read it that way.   And yet fairness is what we're talking about here, isn't it?

And that answers my final question:

"Given the use of limiters," fairness is the best use for them.  I concur.  Can you eloborate?

Fang Langford

p. s. Just to clarify, Scattershot does the opposite of requiring 'starting equity' between the players' personae, it requires that no specific limitation is made other than informal player agreement.  However, I go to great lengths to make Scattershot's Mechanix as objective as possible.  So it's both not 'balanced' and 'balanced.'
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damion
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« Reply #9 on: June 25, 2002, 02:09:17 PM »

That sorta helped Mike.

Well, you can pretty much always come up with rationalizations of
why a characther does a certian thing with Pawn stance.
The thing is you have either all resources in the game be in this
universal currency, or you will have inconsistencies.
Suppose a group does a favor for the Duke and now has his good will, does the entire group now have to spend points on a minor patron/contact?  
Theoretically, PC's go down in points every time they stay at an inn, because they have to pay for it!
Also, you could have PC's rejecting resources becuase they want to spend the 'points' elsewhere.
I think the primary danger is that you could end of using alot of 'story time' explaining and justifying this resource balancing act.
Kronogar may not WANT to spend the time to go back to the temple to get the sword, also Kronogar may end up with items in temples all over the kingdom!

I guess to sum it all up, I think this adds book keeping, due to the caching of resources till they can be bought.  Also, your just changing the GM problem of saying why a particular resource is not immediatly available to a player problem of saying the same thing.
Why not have players just come up with reasons why they can't use the sword?

On the plus side this does allow nice exchanges. After an adventure one person can say 'I'm gonna spend some gold and get a bunch of new equipment'  and another can just level up.


I think Fang is right, balance is just an inherently difficult proposition.
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James
Bankuei
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« Reply #10 on: June 25, 2002, 10:45:17 PM »

I think what really is important here is the focus of the character, and how the character concept might be reinforced or destroyed by the gain or loss of equipment.  

For example, Iron Man is always about him and his suit.  He wouldn't be Iron Man without his suit.  It would destroy his concept to be without it for longer than a few comic issues.  It would also destroy Conan's concept if he gained possession of Stormbringer, and came to rely on it.

In both cases, the equipment is an important part of the concept.  In game, one can quickly gain or lose equipment, causing a major threat to your character concept.  In one game using Story Engine, our priest of Law began using a magical gun, and ended up becoming more proficient with it, than his own magic.  In other words, the artifact replaced his core concept.

And this isn't even going into deprotagonization(which is really violating character concept)...

Chris
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Andrew Martin
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« Reply #11 on: June 26, 2002, 01:17:15 AM »

Creations of the imagination are free and can be created in infinite quantity. Therefore, there's no need for an accounting system for them. For a generic game system, why should the characters need to account for an meta-game resource? Why not just simply let in-game reasons directly influence character resources? For example, the usual tradeoffs of:
    [*]spending time practising and studying under a hired teacher to improve a skill or attribute;
    [*]Needing magical/miraculous/technological materials and wizard/priest/tech to create items; and
    [*]the player's character concept forbidding character change in certain directions.
    [/list:u]

    By treating and expecting players to be responsible, you will get responsible behaviour from players, without needing the club of a "points system" or "meta-game accounting system". I know this to be true, because I get this behaviour from players, when I throw away meta-game accounting systems away. It's also confirmed to me by many human relations books, and by statements from philosphers, like Benjamin Franklin and Lao Tsu.
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    Andrew Martin
    Victor Gijsbers
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    « Reply #12 on: June 26, 2002, 01:47:55 AM »

    In this thread Mike and I were talking about this very same issue of the need to buy in-game-resources with meta-game resources; Mike claimed that this would work in almost every system, and I disagreed. Since it was off-topic in the other thread, let me continue the debate here.

    What is the use of letting players pay for in-game-resources with meta-game resources? As far as I can see, the only use is that meta-game resources are easier to limit to a certain amount, and eaiser to distribute amongst players in the way you want, than in-game resources. So the system being discussed here is only useful if the designer of a game wants to limit available resources. If he doens't want to this, the 'buy your equipment with Currency'-rule is useless.

    Nog in some games, especially Gamist-games, the designer might indeed want to limit the power of characters in some way. In games where there is an award like 'experience', this too might be the case. But in a game without Gamist-goals and without 'experience', why would the deisgner wish to limit the progression of character-effectivity?
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    Andrew Martin
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    « Reply #13 on: June 26, 2002, 02:13:24 AM »

    Victor clears it up more than I did: why "buy in-game-resources with meta-game resources"? It's better, I feel, for characters to buy/obtain in-game-resources through in-game methods/assets and so on.

    Players (who are inherently meta-game) should have meta-game resources, like tokens to influence desired meta-game outcomes, dice for random rolls, and card hands for building up meta-game resources. Of course this doesn't eliminate other methods.

    All in my opinion, of course.
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    Andrew Martin
    contracycle
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    « Reply #14 on: June 26, 2002, 04:19:34 AM »

    Quote from: Victor Gijsbers

    What is the use of letting players pay for in-game-resources with meta-game resources?


    IMO, it is that metagame resources are, well, meta and can be interpolated into a wide variety of in game effects.  This means that you don't need to worry about causality in the same way as you might if trying to extrapolate certain effects based exclusively on in-game action.

    Reverting to XP it may be deliberate to detach in-game behaviour from XP.  A game might consciously indicate that in-game action is a relatively small part of the characters life and hence it may be overzealous to base (for arguments sake) 10 years worth of learning based on the actions carried out in a single adventure covering those 10 years.
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