In Episode 3 of the Nerdlab we will talk about the second building block of encounter and combat design. Last week we identified how to ask dramatic questions to our players by creating interesting conflicts and real decision points. This week we will talk about fireballs and crushing blows. In other words: how to design the tools tools our player’s will need to answer our dramatic questions.

Short Tip

This is the first episode since I really published my podcast. Therefore I would like to take the time to thank you for the great feedback so far.
If you start something new, invest a lot of time and then share it online, you are always afraid of how it will be received by the community and by people you value. Especially if you don’t do it in your mother tongue. You know, the trolls are out there.
So I personally expected the worst. But instead of getting downvoted or flamed because of my bloody german accent I got some really incredibly comments. Thank you so much. That definetly gave me an energy boost to keep pushing forward!

One specific feedback that I got is that people value my project management background. And probably there are more topics that I could transfer to the game development area than I previously thought of. Maybe this can indeed become an aspect of my podcast that makes it unique. We will see.

Today I want to use this feedback to give you a very short tip on how to improve your mental capability. Sounds great doesn’t it? Just imagine that you can buff yourself and increase your intelligence attribute with this simple trick.
When I’m done with a game development working session , I can’t just switch off and stop thinking about it when I leave the Nerdlab (and yes the Nerdlab is a real place. Even if it just a room in my basement).
Every one of us is creative and creativity is an important aspect of game design. New ideas to improve my game are popping up and shooting through my head all day long. Although this is great, it also comes with two problems.
First of all, the limited RAM in my head is being written full and I suddenly have too many ideas I’m thinking about at the same time that I’m not really able to focus on my main design challenges anymore. But it’s these essential questions that are crucial to making progress with the Minimal VIable product.
The second problem is that it keeps me from living in the moment. When I am spending time with my family I want to enjoy that time and don’t be mentally in my own gaming world.
But I don’t want to lose the ideas I have.
That’s why I’m using a concept called inbox. The concept comes from the book getting things done by david allen. Many of you will know the book. For those who don’t know it yet, here is one aspect I’ve adapted for my Daily Game Design Work. Instead of carrying all my thoughts and tasks around in my head, I immediately write every idea into my inbox. This should be as easy as possible and don’t take longer than a few seconds. In my case it’s a OneNote notebook. Every new entry gets a new page. No ordering, no tagging, nothing. The goal is to get it out of your head as soon as possible. This creates space in my head, prevents distraction and gives me the mental strength to focus on the essential issues I am working on in that moment.
What’s very important is that you have a system in place you can trust. That means you need a fixed appointment where you empty your inbox and put the topics in your design document or design diary or a kind of backlog for later. You must trust your system so much that your subconscious mind is willing to completely forget the thought you had for the moment.
There is more to these kind of technics but this is for another time. Now we want to dive into the main topic for today.

Review of last weeks episode

Let’s recall what we discussed last week. An Encounter is a resolution of one or more conflicts to achieve a desired outcome by using a variety of different interactions.

Components needed:
Create a hook (to make players care about the encounter) and Ask dramatic question, which is a the player’s objective phrased as a yes or no question. → scenario book
Enemies, NPCs, objects to represent interesting conflicts
Triggers to introduce new decision points

Last week was about creating conflicts. Today’s episode is about tools to resolve these conflicts.

How Can players resolve conflicts?

Currently there are 4 resolution possibilities that come to my head:

  • Combat → Kill the dragon mother to capture one of her eggs
  • Social Combat → Convince the dragon mother to surrender and hand over an egg to the players. (Probably not gone happen, but at least you could try 😉
  • Skills (Sneak past the dragon and steal the eggs)
  • Decisions (Decide to pay the greedy dragon mom to sell you one of her eggs) (Possibly not a real option either)

In principle, all of these resolution possibilities are Controllable Character Behaviors. And that is exactly what most RPGs are about. Controlling the skills and abilities of a character and behave in a way you typically wouldn’t in real life.

What experience do I want to create with my character control system?

When I was thinking about the character behavior the players are controlling, I thought of the following aspects and experience I would expect from a character control system.

  • Players want to feel clever
    • Give players the ability to make clever choices
      • use the right abilities at the right time (during deckbuilding or during actual gameplay)
      • Find the right combination of abilities
    • Give the players the ability to develop a tactical plan
      • Need the ability to anticipate the next actions
  • Players want to socially interact with their teammates
    • Support social Interaction in the team by promoting teamwork without getting into the alpha player problem.
      • Shared resource (e.g. Elements in Gloomhaven)
      • Actions that influence other players (e.g. manipulate the turn order position of allies in Aeons End)
  • Players want to solve conflicts with different play styles
    • Support different roles and these roles and characters should play very differently (since we create a co-op game I think diversity between characters is more important than balancing)
    • Characters using different resources (e.g. cardquest computer game does this very good → Archer has arrows as ressource while mage has some kind of mana or energy and the warrior gains a resource from taking damage
    • Characters fulfilling different roles
  • Players want an evening full of fun to relax from their daily life and not participate in a math lesson.
    • simple and fast paced resolution mechanic
    • A puzzle that can be solved with an optimal solution can be fun, but can also be mentally challenging. I personally prefer a system with at least some kind of randomness and/or hidden information so that players cannot find an optimal solution.
    • However this randomness often comes with a cost as well.
    • My first prototype had a roll for chance to hit, a lot of modifiers, a roll to determine whether the opponent could block, different types of damage, armor and saving throws. Combat resolution took not only ages it also required some mentally challenging thinking. In my next prototype this will be massively reduced.
      I would like to create a system where the planning of character actions takes longer than the combat resolution.
  • Players don’t want to have to many down times
    • As mentioned before my game should have many decision points → Therefore the resolution mechanic must be simple. But we also cannot give to many options to our players. Otherwise the decision making takes to long. You have to remember that different players need a different amount of time to process information and to make their decisions.
    • A good example for this problem can we find in Magic the Gathering. Image you are playing an aggro deck that wants to kill your opponent as soon as possible. Your decisions are probably very easy. Play all your creatures, turn them sideways and attack. Repeat. When you now play against a control player that always has a lot of cards in hands, meaning a lot of options. There is a high chance that you have way more downtime than your opponent. The same can be true for co-op games where one player has 2 options and the other has 10.
    • So we need to support different play styles (such as aggro and control). And this will definitely lead to a difference in complexity when it comes to decision making. One goal should be to equalize the complexity to some degree in order to minimize downtime. Not an easy task.
    • From my experience 3-5 real options are a good place to start.
    • Other ways to reduce down time and decision making time could be
      • timers (as done in the xcom board game) or prevent players from being allowed to discuss every single decision.
      • If one player always needs more time than others it would typically be solved within the social group itself.
  • Players want to be rewarded for good actions and to see progress.
    • Everyone likes to be rewarded.
    • We need a leveling or progression system
    • Skill trees from computer RPGs come to mind where players gain access to new skills every level.
  • Players want variation
    • They don’t want to use the same spells or skills over and over again.
    • New and exciting content
  • We have to make sure our system has enough design space for new skills and character behavior.

The list of expectations of a character control system that I have come up with and that by no means claims to be an exhaustive list is:

  • Players want to feel clever
  • Players want to socially interact with their teammates
  • Players want to solve conflicts with different play styles
  • Players prefer fun over complexity
  • Players don’t want to have to many down times
  • Players want variation
  • Players want to be rewarded for good actions and to see progress.

We have to keep these requirements in mind when we think about creating our skill system. Maybe the experience you want to achieve for your game is different. But make sure to understand what experience you want to achieve with the tools you provide to your players.

This brings us to the question:

How can we achieve these expectations when we create the skills for our game?

I think we need to make sure that our skills are composed of 3 different things:

  • Variety
  • Uniqueness
  • Trade Offs

Therefore, we need to create design space and make sure our core mechanics are able to support a large variety of different character behaviours.

The path I have chosen is the following. My first goal was to figure out how I want my characters to solve the conflicts I present to them. This resulted in the following 4 points I mentioned earlier.

Step 1: Choose actions players can use to resolve the conflicts we confront them with

  • Combat (attack with a sword or cast a fireball)
  • Social Combat (attack with words or diplomacy)
  • Skills (disarm trap)
  • Decision (Trade off)

Step 2: Then I determine the different characteristics of the individual actions and determine their min and max values

Step 3. Add Risk vs reward trade offs
Now we have to add some trade offs. This means we also have to apply kind of negative aspects to our skills.

This is how you create design space. Let’s say you have some kind of initiative system. If your fastest action is initiative 0 and your slowest action is initiative 10 you have created a design space between 0 and 10, If you now combine this with let’s say melee vs. range attack you already have 22 different possible skills. And we did not even take into account damage or any negative asptects.

Matching Enemies and Character Abilities:
One point to keep in mind is that we want to design player’s abilities that match our enemies and obstacles. Let’s use an example to make this clear.
We have two different enemies in our example:

Stone Golem:
High Amount of Melee Damage
Very High Armor
Tactic: Move fast and kite the monster. Range Attacks may be good, but they may not be strong enough to pierce through the stone armor. Maybe the players need some kind of damage over time effect or other sources of true damage to ignore the high armor value.

Goblin Archer
Multiple Ranged attacks per Turn
Low Amount of Damage
Low Armor
Tactic: A low initial damage attack with damage over time is probably not the best option here. And also applying a negative effect that makes the opponent unable to move seems rather useless. Instead players would maybe prefer to engage the goblin in a melee fight to make sure it doesn’t attack the mage that prepares a spell that could be interrupted.

The player’s abilities can be differentiated in many ways. For example, designers can add special attributes to some of them: stun, regeneration, damage over time.
The second point to keep in mind is to design. Each enemy has to offer a specific challenge which will push the player to use a certain type of ability to defeat him.

Remember that this is all about determining the core abilities of the characters. Special abilities, which differ between classes, will be added later.

It was easy for me to define the core combat tactics and their risk reward trade offs. But it is still very hard for me to find the same depth for the other areas like social combat or the usage of skills. Is a skill just a selection of a skill plus a random number that determines success against a target value? Or how can I generate more depth here? I have some ideas but this remains a design challenge for the future at the moment. What I like is that this approach showed me that my current ideas for social combat and skills do not have the same depth as combat and there is some work to be done.


Before we finish this episode today I want to give credit where credit is due. There are two articles that inspired me to do this encounter building series. The first one is an article from the angry GM with the title: Four things you’ve never heard of that make encounters not suck. ANd The second one is a Gamasutra Article from Sebastien Lambottin about the fundamental pillars of a combat system. You can find the links in the sho notes.

Today we defined the experience we want to achieve with our player actions. Then we narrowed it down to different action types and their core characteristics. With help of their min and max values we created a design space we can use to create new skills and abilities. In order to create interesting trade offs we also added a list of potential costs or negative effects.

I know, everything I talk about is still very much from a bird’s eye view at the moment. But I think it is important to understand the process of good encounter building.

From my point of view, one of the most engaging feelings a player can experience is to feel smart and proud of his or her cleverness. And a well designed encounter system is the perfect tool to let the player experience this feeling.

That’s it for today. If you want to get in contact please send me an email Contact

I hope you learned something today or got some inspiration for your game .If so, I would be incredibly happy if you would leave a short rating for the podcast on iTunes. This will help other designers to find the podcast and increase my reach. Thank you so much for listening and until next week keep shooting for the moon and nerd like a boss.



Gamasutra Article

The Angry Gm