Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Tabletop lessons from Borderlands 2

I've played a lot of Borderlands 2. In fact, my XBOX 360's main purpose in life is as a Borderlands 2 device. Well, and it's a better DVD player than my 17-year old DVD player, but still.

I realized the other day I learned a lot about playing tabletop RPGs from Borderlands 2. Also, that lessons I learned from tabletop RPG GMing applied well to playing this video game.

Count Shots that Hit, Not Shots Taken

I mean, in the sense of, your main concern should be hitting, not making every shot count. A shot that misses isn't a shot that's wasted. It's just a shot. Don't worry about it. Fire it and think about getting some more ammo later.


- getting a shot downrange.

- making it count.

In that order. The time to make individual shots count is when you're down to last round, not every single one. Taking single aimed shots is great, but only if you're hitting with a lot of them.

In tabletop games this is pretty much advice to make sure you're concentrating on the job at hand (killing monsters, defeating the foe, etc.) first and economizing the cost of doing so later. If you start worrying about the economy, you risk not getting the first done. Throwing 3d Fireball spells built up one point at a time for free in GURPS is great. But not if it leaves a target alive to do more damage (or get away, or expend its consumables you could've looted, etc.) than if you'd plunked down a 9d and paid for it. Do cost-benefit if you must, but don't worry only about cost and call it the main benefit.

Don't die with consumables.

I've seen this in tabletop games. Famously, we had an effective TPK (everyone dead or captured by slavers) where the PCs inventoried their stuff after. Here is this strength potion I didn't drink, this healing potion I didn't use, these magic doodads I didn't expend.

We had one campaign nearly end with one-shot divination items I'd handed out left unused. I think they got used up the next-to-last session just to use them up.

When my health bar is running low in Borderlands 2, I pretty much start mashing the grenade button. Got 6? Throwing 6. Got 12? Throwing 12, if I can. I'm not going down without grenades on the way out. I don't stop shooting - no one ever died with a pile of ammo and said, great, at least I had all of this ammo when I died. It would have sucked to have died anyway but used up some ammo in the process.

You can see this in Gamma Terra - I throw grenades, fire full-ROF when I need the bonus to hit for laying down a carpet of lead, and otherwise use, use, use combat consumables. I fire them like mad because I'm not going down because I didn't put down enough death to keep from getting killed.

If things are looking bleak, I've learned, use up everything.

Oh, and don't save your weakest attack for your backup. If you're keeping a card up your sleeve, it better be an ace. All too often I've seen people hold back someone weak-but-consumable and then use it when the game is on the line. "We're losing to this army of vampire lich-trolls? Damn, time to throw down my Onyx Dog and crack this statue that summons an orc!" If you're not sure if the one-shot Item of Destruction is a nuke or a firecracker, assume it's a firecracker. Players in my games will recall the Black Javelin, which was unidentifiable but everyone that checked it out said, "This is really potent. No idea what it does. But I'd say throw it far when you throw it." That one was for all intents and purposes a nuke.

This has fed back and forth between the tabletop and the game for me.

Game Design Should Encourage the Game You Want

In Borderlands 2, you pretty much fight things and loot them. It's not even remotely possible to get through the game peacefully. Most missions involve killing ("murder" is how it's appropriately labeled), destruction, and combat. The ones that don't explain backstory that will want to make you destroy and kill. Not only that, but the game rewards moving towards the action.

So what happens when you run out of HP?

You go into "Fight for Your Life" mode. You start to die, you slow down, the screen goes dim . . . but you're not dead yet.

You have a timer before you actually die and re-spawn (which costs in in-game money to pay for the respawn service.) If, before that timer goes off, you kill something - you snap back to halfway healed and full shields. This means when you are nearly dead you are strongly incentivized to run to combat instead of from combat.

As a game-design element, Second Wind is brilliant. The game encourages you, when things get rough, to get rougher. I've actually tactically let myself die so I can get full shields back when I kill the next guy. I've left a weak foe alive so I could have it in reserve to Second Wind off of. You don't even take damage in this mode, so yeah, I keep the heaviest, nastiest rocket launcher I can on tap and use that at point blank range to Second Wind.

I'm not saying, steal that outright for tabletop games, but you could. The main thing I learned is that game design gives you the flavor of the game. If getting killed was final, I'd be a lot cagier and careful. I'd take less risks. When hurt, I'd move away from combat instead of towards it. You want your game rules slanted towards encouraging people to do the things that make the game interesting. It doesn't have to be risk-free (GURPS makes combat risky, for sure) but it does have to give the players a positive reason to do it (GURPS combat is interesting and rewarding to play out). Putting treasure in the dungeons with the monsters the original example of this. Why go into dungeons and fight monsters? Well, it's fun, and the in-game rewards you need are in there! It's a twofer.

There, I just justified all of that time I spent Gunzerking.


  1. "Throwing 3d Fireball spells //built up one point at a time for free// in GURPS is great."

    You allow that? I'm not sure it's RAW, but that's not how I do it:

    I ruled Mages get FP Reduction when they cast the spell (ie roll to cast and pay) and when paying to maintain. And since enlarging is neither of those...

    1. You're right, according to the FAQ, but then there is no reason not to make the spell as big as possible right away, and building up is only useful for Missiles cast at higher than your Magery. So we went with "per turn" discounts for Missile spells built up over time. It provides a real tradeoff, instead of just a way to make a bigger spell. It's significantly game-changing, though, so keep that in mind before you use it.

  2. If I were to run a straight DF game I might allow it. How else would Insanely Overpowered Fireballs ever get cast?

    Xue reference: http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/189.html

  3. This is one reason I advocate using Item Cards in RPG's. That potion, or other nifty magic item is just a line on a sheet, and get's overlooked. But, if it has it's own card, sitting there, lined up in front of you, it stands out. It stops being a boring statistic crammed in to too small a space, written in smudged pencil, and becomes a force all it's own, yelling "Use me, Pick ME!!!" the whole night.


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