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The Numbers Game

by Michael "Talien" Tresca

Congratulations! You have managed to hobble together a coding staff, your mudlib actually works with minimal bugs, and you have a decent-sized player base. Your mud has been around for a few years, and players are slowly creeping up in level.

One day, the highest level character, let us call him Bob, figures out a way to kill your most powerful monster, Anti-Bob. Bob kills Anti-Bob with a Fabulous Blazing Anti-Bobslayer Truncheon +50. That is okay, Bob is a powerful character, he had the right tools, and it was a fair fight. Anti-Bob lost, but monsters are supposed to lose most of the time.

Over the course of the next few weeks, something strange happens. Bob begins, through no actions of his own, a cult-like following. Lower level players beg to join his adventuring parties, ask for handouts constantly, and attempt to imitate their hero. When Bob says something sucks, nobody uses it. When Bob says something is great, everyone uses it. Even if the Fabulous Blazing Anti-Bobslayer Truncheon (FBABT) is not of any value against any other monster, every player wants one, pays ridiculous amounts of gold for one, and spends most of their time trying to get their hands on one. Against all logic, these players are following the leader.

Welcome to the new cult of personality. This is no longer your mud. It is BobMUD.

Putting out a fire with water

Will the Pyromancer or the Cryomancer win?

This scenario happens to a lot of level-based Multi-User Dungeons (muds). It is often unavoidable because, unlike role-playing games where players are in a relatively isolated environment controlled by a Game Master, muds have multiple users. These users tend to congregate in social groups. Because level systems are usually linear, it becomes very clear "who is the best" and "who is the worst." People make all sorts of social judgments about the game and each other, especially if the game mechanics are hidden from players. This leads to some very unwise choices based on seemingly arbitrary decisions such as "What Bob did." How do you stop the trends?

Dynamic and fluid changes are critical to a mud's development. Players do not want their characters to die, so they make every effort to find a method that works, and stick to it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can ultimately strangle a mud's growth if an established way is no longer an individual approach for each player, but an approach that can be duplicated and repeated for every player on the game. Soon, they all have a Web Guide to beating your mud, and your game no longer offers new challenges. Of course, you can remedy with an attentive coding staff. The problem is, muds are usually open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Providing that dynamic experience all the time is nearly impossible without some balancing factors coded into the game.

The Damaged Damage Types

On RetroMUD, we have 13 different Damage Types, and countless ways that the effectiveness of those Damage Types can be impacted, including:

With this much variety, you would think that Damage Types would be the most unpredictable part of the game. Unfortunately, players quickly determined that the only two Damage Types of value were Electrical or Fire. Since undead were vulnerable to Fire, this made it a useful Damage Type for most situations. Electrical bypassed armor resistances and few monsters were immune to it, which made it even more appealing. Since Bob focused on these two damage types alone, the rest of the mud followed suit.

We happen to believe in variety being the spice of mud-life, so reducing the many factors that influence Damage Types was not an option. Hard-coding in resistances merely to find the trends rather than use logic (e.g., make the yeti immune to electricity just so players would stop using it) seemed like a cheesy approach. We needed to curb "popularity contests" of Damage Types will providing an incentive to use the Damage Types that are not being used enough.

A Solution

Asheron's Call, a place where Bobdom runs rampant, has a solution: Whenever a spell is cast, it adds to the pile of spells previously cast. The more the total player populace uses a particular spell, the less effective it becomes. Similarly, unused spells become more effective. The end result makes the magic system less predictable and more dynamic.

This Number System is a built-in check and balance against trends. By creating an invisible balance of two opposing concepts with a sliding scale in between, your mud will naturally react to the ebb and flow of your players' choices. No longer will your game be merely subjected to player whim, but instead gently but firmly guided by a positive and negative reinforcement system.

Number Economy in Action

On RetroMUD, Rayzam, one of our administrators, took this concept a step further by creating an Elemental Damage Economy. Whenever something inflicts damage, be it through a spell, through the Damage Type of a weapon, or through the Damage Type of a monster, it is checked against the balance of elemental Damage Types. If more damage was done with opposing elements, it gains a bonus to damage (up to 120%), making it do greater damage. If that Damage Type's element is over used, it will do less damage (down to 60%). This is how we set it up:

Water (drop) which includes Asphyxiation, Cold, and Illusion damage, opposes Fire (flame) which includes Acid and Fire damage. Earth (land), which includes Acid and Poison damages, opposes Air (wind) which includes Asphyxiation, Electrical, and Illusion damage.

When an element is affected, it affects ALL the Damage Types. Some Damage Types are affected more than others are. For example, the use of Fire impacts the Fire Element more than Acid, which is considered both a Fire and an Earth Element.

Player activity is positively and negatively reinforced through a reward and punishment system. Trends quickly lose their tangible benefits because there is a very real downside to doing what everyone else is doing. Instead, players are forced to decide on what Damage Type best applies to a situation, rather than focus exclusively on what Bob is doing.

Elemental Damage Explained

Acid (flameland)
Asphyxiation (dropwind)
Cold (drop)
Electrical (wind)
Fire (flame)
Illusion (dropwind)
Poison (land)

If there is a preponderance of Asphyxiation (drop) damage being used on the mud, Fire (flame) and Earth (land) would increase in power, while Air (wind) and Water (drop) would decrease. Since Asphyxiation (dropwind) is across two Elements, it would take twice as many Asphyxiation spells to impact either Element as it would for Cold (drop) damage to change the effectiveness of the Water Element (drop), or for Electrical (wind) damage to change the effectiveness of the Air Element (wind).

The Downside

There is a downside to these kinds of Economy systems. While we have made it so that following Bob's example may not be effective, players who did not give a damn about Bob are now impacted by his cult of followers. The Pyromancer (flame) who does not give two figs what Bob is doing will find that his fire spells are less powerful. Of course, our starting Mages always have access to other spells, so the Pyromancer would never be completely at a loss. But it could certainly cramp his style.

The good news for the Pyromancer (flame) and his archnemisis, the Cryomancer (drop), is that monsters are affected too. If monsters are affected, that means this elemental balance can be used to the player's advantage. After all, if Fire Damage is not working for the Pyromancer very well, it is working equally poorly for Flashfire the red dragon. So our Pyromancer may decide now is a good time to go after the dragon he could never kill with fire spells anyway.

Conversely, it may be a very bad idea to fight Frosty the white dragon, whose cold breath weapon may be working up to 20% more powerful than before. Remember, this applies to Damage Types, not just spells. So the Fighters who insist on hoarding the "perfect equipment" may find that their Flame Brand is not nearly as valuable when fifty other Fighters are using precisely the same weapon.

Why Would You Do This You Cruel Bastard?

Area development is an imperfect art. Volunteers create their vision. This vision may or may not be duplicitous on some basic level with other areas. If I create the City of Brass for the Efreeti, and someone else creates the Red Dragons' Volcano, both will rely heavily on Fire damage. Worse, those areas may go into the game simultaneously, or they may even be the first two areas created on your new mud.

In this instance, it would make perfect sense to use the Cold Damage Type against the monsters in those areas. And since players are, by their very nature, a conflict-avoidant lot, they will use what works. That means the Cold Damage Type just became the best means to routinely slaughter everything in your area.

The easy answer is to make your monsters immune to Cold damage. But does this make sense? Is it fair for a baseless immunity to be the barrier to this monster's destruction all the time?

Ultimately, the issue is not that the monster has a vulnerability. Monsters should have vulnerabilities and strengths that players capitalize on. The problem is that players will target a monster's weakness and then pound it home with a nuclear warhead. With the rate of a mud's area development often being uneven, there are inevitable imbalances in "what works" in overcoming the challenges of an area. The players may be right -- it may make sense to only use Electrical Damage exclusively and ignore all other Damage Types. But if this method becomes a norm, your game rapidly becomes a boring "kill, get all from corpse, kill" routine that has little appeal even to die-hard hack-and-slashers.

The Elemental Damage Economy also adds value as a statistical tool to measure the effectiveness of areas. If players seem stuck in a rut, and stick to a Damage Type no matter how weak it becomes, it raises a red flag. Perhaps you have too many monsters vulnerable to that Damage Type, perhaps there is too many of a particular weapon that inflicts that Damage Type, or perhaps other game factors that impact the Damage Type are too prevalent. While the Elemental Damage Economy is far from perfect, it provides a convenient and effective means of curbing flagrant imbalances in your game system. Best of all, the Damage Economy system provides a simple and easily tweakable filter for changes that impact player characters and monsters.

Other Applications

The Number Economy system can be applied as a balance to any situation in which player choice is involved. We have a Slayer System (also coded by Rayzam) which keeps track of how many monsters have been killed. The more monsters of the same type are killed, the less experience points characters receive for killing them. The monsters that are not killed as often subsequently have their experience points raised. The positive and negative balance is reinforced and harder areas that are inevitably visited less have the rewards for visiting them increased.

Consider applying the Number Economy to anything where rote and predictability could adversely affect your game: races, guilds, skills, spells, mounts, food, the list goes on and on. It is the built-in balance that monitors the crazy trends that sway your players and keeps some semblance of order when you can not monitor your mud twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.


Michael is an administrator for RetroMUD (http://www.retromud.org), staff writer for Gamers.com (http://www.gamers.com) and reviewer for Rpg.net (http://www.rpg.net).