Combat RNG in RPGs and MMORPGs

This weekend I played a good amount of D&D (3.5/Pathfinder) and I was reminded of the amount of randomisation in the game. Skill use, attacks and damage are just some of the elements of gameplay that are influenced by polyhedral dice rolls. That’s not to say of course that I mind this amount of randomness, it’s pretty core to most roleplay games that you have elements of chance spicing up the action.


But comparing RPGs to MMORPGs the randomisation seems very hidden away or minimised by the mechanics especially in combat. You may see varying damage numbers popping on screen or in a damage meter but that’s rather different from what I’m writing about here.

In the pictured game my D&D wizard character has several “ranged touch” spells that either hit or miss based on a dice roll. The spells are quite powerful but that power is mitigated by the chance of missing altogether when casting.

Imagine that same situation in a MMORPG context – in my probably somewhat limited memory of the various games I’ve played, this kind of “hit/miss” randomisation isn’t so common. I imagine MMORPG players would get frustrated if they were to miss as often as low-level D&D characters tend to! Having a specific stat on your gear to mitigate against miss chance has been a thing in various games, WoW used to have ‘hit’ as a stat at least for heroic dungeon and raid content. So if you started seeing “miss” coming up when attacking you knew your character needed a gear upgrade.

Does the visibility or lack thereof of randomisation in combat matter to your MMORPG gaming?

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3 Responses to Combat RNG in RPGs and MMORPGs

  1. Sylow says:

    Actually i think that we still see way too many numbers in our games. I know that game mechanics need a lot of numbers and should have them, but why do we players have to see so many of them?

    As this answer will become a long text, i’d rather first post the TL/DR section:

    By doing what i describe below, you can eliminate numbers from the game, without loosing the feeling of power and progression. At the same time, the absence of numbers according to my experience from old-time MUDs very much reduces elitism (if you don’t have DPS numbers at hand, nobody can demand you to have X DPS or you’ll get kicked from the team) and makes online worlds feel more like worlds and less like “combat-by-excel”.

    Now after the TL/DR the wall of text:

    To explain where what i mean, i have to dig into my gaming history. Once upon a time, when MMOs were not hear of, there were MUDs. Text-based online games, where people played together. When MMOs then came around, they actually were just MUDs with a graphical client, so the combat and character development systems were very equal, only the descriptions of world, weapons and everything else were replaced by graphics.

    Unfortunately the first MMOs were based on MUDs which showed their numbers, so MMO players got used to seeing numbers and it stuck to the genre. But there were other MUDs out there, where numbers were very much invisible. I have played a few of that kind in old times, in one MUD family the rule was that any number you saw in game give information about the in-game world. So you could know it was the 3rd day of the week, you had 5 arrows in your quiver and you had 3 gold coins, some silver and many copper coins in your purse. (And you could count the coins where you had “some” and “many” to get the exact number. )

    The only exception several (but not all) of these MUDS was that you were able to set the distribution of your XP, where you could assing which percentage of the XP you earn in the future will be assigned to strength, dexterity, etc. This was something people often only chanced once a year, so it didn’t really interfere with the game. Whatever you then did and gave XP just increased your attributes accordingly, but again you did not see something like “500 strength” but you would just read “You are powerful”. (Or “You are weak” on a new character. )

    Combat worked the same, when hitting an enemy the strength of your hit was displayed as “tickle”, “graze”, “hurt”, “smash”, etc. In turn when taking damage your health status would change from “feeling very well” to “slightly hurt”, some steps later you’d be “in bad shape” and end up at “barely alive” and “at deaths door” if things went really bad for you.

    I could now go on forever, explaining how evaluating weapons and armours worked, how stuff like “increased crit chance” was hidden in a weapons description, etc. but i think i covered the principle well enough. At the same time, i am aware that the graphical interface of MMOs disallow a good portion of what i described, so i think i also have to say how it could work in MMO form:

    – You don’t have any numbers on your character screen. All you get is strength from “very weak” to “extremely powerful”, with a number of steps and scalings in between. It should be accurate enough to allow a rough evaluation of your characters properties, without allowing an too exact comparison to other characters.
    – Weapons and armour similarily display “mediocre damage” and “fast attack speed” or “massive damage” and “slow attack speed”, without giving numbers. Increased bleeding damage or critical chance can be described as “inflicts bleeding cuts” and “seems very good in removing limbs”. Resists on armour can be described in a similar way. (I know somebody will now say “but who has the time to read all of that?”. And my answer is: anybody who has the time to study and evaluate current weapons in MMOs, with often 5 to 8 different numerical attributes attached to them, can read and evaluate a textual description with more vague information much faster. )
    – Health bars don’t have numbers. Some MMOs already don’t show numbers on them, so that doesn’t seem to be such a big deal.
    – You also don’t show numbers on hits. The combat log may just list “weak hit” to “extreme hit”, without showing numbers, and there’s no “flying numbers” around your enemy. Graphically you rely on your animations and effects, and whenever you hit a enemy, you don’t just reduce the bar but rather have three colors there: green for current health (as we all know it), red for “damage taken with the last hit” on your own bar or red for “damage taken with the last hit you did” on an enemy, and black for the rest of the bar, just as it’s now.

    This way you could eliminate all numbers from a MMO, while still giving the player an impression on how effective his character is, while at the same time gaining all the advantages i described in the TL/DR above.

  2. Aywren says:

    I’m actually OK with missing in MMOs to an extent. If I’m underleveled and undergeared, I really shouldn’t be beating the crud out of something 5 levels higher than me. It could actually a be good thing to indicate when you’re getting in over your head. It’s also realistic.

    I know that FFXIV does have a miss mechanic in this instance – when I’m underleveled and trying to take on FATES with creatures higher than me, I miss quite a bit. But I know once I level up and improve my gear, there’s something I can do to address this issue, so it’s not frustrating.

    In the case of an on-level battle with proper gear and missing lots of attacks: if it’s not a gear thing, or if it’s not an enemy who is strong against whatever kind of attack I’m using, then I’d might get frustrated.

  3. Jeromai says:

    I think the major difference is that tabletop RPGs use RNG for dramatic narrative purposes – at least, the ones I’ve been gravitating toward and reading about / watching others play over Youtube. Many of the indie RPGs, stuff like Stars Without Number, Dungeon World, etc. make sure that when someone rolls a dice, something narratively meaningful happens either way, hit or miss. Especially the miss. Which removes some of the pain because it’s really dramatic failure that drives the story forward.

    If there is nothing exciting or life-complicating that can arise from failing the roll, the idea is not to even bother asking the players to roll and just grant success and move on to a situation that can be interesting, pass or fail.

    Often, the most fun things happen when the player rolls a borderline pass/fail and the GM gets to offer a modified choice dilemma. “You can succeed at what you want here, BUT this other thing will happen.” Maybe they don’t succeed fast enough, maybe they succeed but their enemy gets to know about what happened, maybe they have to sacrifice something that hurts in order to succeed. Dramatic tension arises because now the player has to make a meaningful choice on behalf of the character – what are they willing to give up or risk, and what will they -not- compromise on and rather take the hit from failure?

    Even stuff like D&D and Pathfinder are sorta kinda on this road, because a miss in combat may mean that someone gets seriously hurt or killed further down the line. But they can also go down the road of “You hit, you miss, you miss, you miss, you hit” meaninglessness (which I must guiltily confess I did quite a lot of this style of combat when I was younger and consequently watched without much comprehension the boredom on my players’ faces.)

    The big problem comes computer game-wise when they grab this mechanic from tabletop RPGs without really understanding why it’s there, and then speed it up so that a hundred dice rolls happen in a couple of minutes. Sure, the combat rounds go fast, but suddenly each miss becomes even more meaningless and irritating, just another sentence of spam.

    Then of course, the most irritating use of RNG in MMOs is the loot roll. Singleplayer RPGs tend not to rely on this as much. I’ll grant that the RNG provokes drama here, and the casino addiction that all MMOs want their players to indulge in (so they either keep subbing or spend on lockboxes) but it’s really more of a one-sided benefit and not for the good of the players.

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