Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Perils of Synergy

This post is about game design.

When you are designing a ruleset, or some homebrew stuff for an established ruleset, you should consider how much synergy you want in your game.

Let's define synergy.

Let's say that we are designing 3rd edition DnD.  Everyone knows that elves are smart, and orcs are dumb.  So we give them some racial modifiers like this:

Elf: +2 Int (plus other stuff)
Orc: -2 Int (plus other stuff)

That's a kind of simulationism.  We want to simulate a world where elves are smart by giving them a +2 bonus to Int whenever they're rolled up.

So we've just made a strong piece of synergy between elves and wizards.  And you may be nodding, because your world is full of elvish wizards (and no orc wizards) and that Feels Right to you.  It matches your internal expectations of what a fantasy world is like.

But by promoting synergy, you've actually stomped down on player choices by making players choose between Character Concept and Combat Efficiency.

No one wants to suck at their job.  So when a player thinks, "I want to play a wizard, I wonder what race I should be?", they'll be attracted to elves.  And if they've decided to be an elf, they'll be attracted to being a wizard.  So there is a high correlation between elves wizards and elves, because you (the game designer) have chosen to reward it.  Via synergy.

And so there are lots of elven wizards and half-orc barbarians.  And while this is great for conforming to tropes, it's not great for diversity.  7 races x 11 classes could be 77 combinations, all equally likely.  But instead we get a level of diversity that's more like 20 combinations plus outliers.  

Consider instead, a system with 0 synergy.  That is to say, that no part of the character sheet touches any other.  Strength doesn't influence your Climbing skill, race doesn't influence your stats.  In this case, you really would get a greater diversity in your characters.


The big reason to give elves +2 Int is in the interests of simulationism.  We want the rules to reflect the expectations of a world where elves are smart.

But here's my food for thought.  Simulationism doesn't have to extend to character creation.  You can have a world where elves are smarter than humans, and all NPC elves have 15-18 Intelligence.  That doesn't ruin the fiction of your game world.

You can remove synergy from your character creation if you want.  Players will still be attracted to elvish wizards and orcish barbarians (because they're awesome), but they are not restricted to them when designing a character.

This degree of simulationism extends throughout all elements of character design.  Sometimes this is good and necessary.  Like, do you want wizards to be as capable as fighters?  People have expectations.  Perhaps they expect orcs to make superior barbarians than elves.

But on the other hand, the 0 synergy system gives the maximum amount of player freedom when they are designing their character.  I'm sure there are some characters that would love to be an elvish barbarian, all blood painted and killing wolves with a broken rapier.

Anyway, just a thought.


  1. Perfect diversity isn't very interesting though. When everyone has an utterly equal chance to be anything they want, then there is no tension inside any choice. The result is bland.

    When peoples choices force them down a particular path then the decisions they make to make the most of it, or to react against it have meaning. Being an Elf barbarian is brave and interesting becasue they are not suited to being barbarians, being a half-orc wizard is an energetic choice becasue you must force youself against what the world is trying to give you and that takes effort and imagination and skill.

    Weighing one completly fair choice against another completely fair choice is more boring than facing a weighted choice. Fair isnt fun. If it was, more games would be more fair.

    1. That's a worthwhile point, but I don't think it's a counter-argument. The choice to be an elf can still be loaded with meaning, either mechanically or in the setting; Arnold is just arguing against the case of giving race and class have such obvious synergies that 'elfiness' practically spends its entire payload of meaningfulness during chargen. After that, it's just a reminder of how you got your stats, or comparable to writing 'purple eyes, silver hair' as your character's description. (Cute, next.)

      Then again, maybe you're saying that having clearly non-optimal choices creates options for people looking for a challenge? (And also makes them uncommon, a sort of reward for avoiding cliche.)

    2. I think that the tension should come through during gameplay, not during character creation. Character creation should just be "Pick whatever you want and let's play." I'd be terrified if I was a newbie in a game where it was possible to fuck up before we began.

      Being an orcish wizard is still interesting within the fiction of the world, even if it isn't penalized mechanically. And how penalized would you like your orcish wizard to be? 80% as powerful as the elfish counterpart? 30% as powerful? If a player wants a handicap, there's no shortage of other ways to do it (e.g. a vow restricting their spellcasting choices, social stigma among orcs and wizards).

  2. What Pat said, but additionally, pretending there's no 'synergy' by allowing all characters to be whatever they want doesn't really do away with min-maxing in favor of player freedom, it takes synergy out of the rules and puts into into the hand of the min-maxer. If there are any bonuses and such they will be stacked and broken (if possible) by that player who enjoys this kind of game.

    If you heap all bonuses and such onto class then player species means nothing. Personally this is why I like race as class. It's restrictive, but it isn't sneaky about it.

    1. Well, yeah, you want a little bit of synergy in there. I'm not arguying for that.

      How would you feel about class-as-class + racial abilities that didn't benefit any class in particular? Like elves can talk to plants and dwarves can detect hidden doors. Those things would benefit every class, so min-maxers would have nothing to latch on to.

    2. I think that' what 5E is trying for - but then you get weird synergies like the armored, axe wielding Dwarf Wizernaut, and to deal with this it seems 5E may have clamped a few limits on things like AC and damage potential that creates a sort of sameness to all classes (You all get ACs from 13-16, you all do an average of 6-10 HP damage per round). I like variation, but to me this is what setting does i.e. in setting X there are no elven wizards, only gnome wizards, elves are thieves. This is why I like racial classes, you can push the bonuses and disadvantages further. Like the ASE Moktar, it's not balanced, but it's capped at like 5th level and AC isn't going over 15/5 very easy. One could have a Moktar race and barbarian class but then the synergistic min-maxing would come into play. With a race as class the GM knows what you get.

      Like B/X elves - they are ''the best" right? Well sorta, but with almost twice as much XP to advance they are not getting that fireball spell until the wizard has had hers for a long long time. Likewise that D6 HP is going to mean they will never stand up in a fight as well as a D8/D10 HP Fighter. Everyone knows this though going in and the player can then be whatever kinda elf they want within those mechanical confines.

      Another aspect is where does one want player choice to be located? Is it all in character creation? Sure customization and the ability to come in with a concept are cool - player can say "I am an elf space pirate with non-functioning fairy wings" but therre's going to be a lot more pushback when this snowflake expires in the giant rat infested crucible of Old School play, as opposed to when Pointy the Elf gets it in room 3.

      However, if pointy lives through several session, I bet it (elves should be sexless androgynes in more games) will have more flavor then the stunted winged space pirate, and moreover that flavor will feel like an accomplishment.

  3. Another issue with that kind of synergy is it's boring. Giving the elves something cool and weird is more interesting than a crappy stat boost.

    I also agree it leads to boring decision making. You either play to your strengths or against them, either way you're being dull. People use the elf barbarians or thoughtful orcs as anomalous examples, but I'd wager every group has had a player in it that thought they were blowing everyone's mind by doing it.

    However, I play in a system that has stats rolled in order, so we get plenty of swimming against the tide as it is. Maybe it's less applicable to those more severe games but back in D&D 3 stat synergy was a fun vacuum.

  4. "Has that problem come up in actual play?" More to the point, "Is this something that necessarily harms the play experience?"

    I say No, it's not necessarily a thing. I've played plenty of 3.x, and I've seen far more human wizards than elvish ones. (And nobody playing any half-orcs at all, but that's probably psychological: the shadow of Tolkien saying "orcs are bad!")

    In other words, whether "synergy" impacts “diversity” has less to do with the rules than with a group's play style. The internet is full of limited "builds," yes, designed to squeeze maximum efficiency (usually in combat) out of a PC. But this tendency is a play style, not a necessary consequence of design, and is mostly encouraged by what Justin Alexander called My Precious Encounter adventure design. So if your wizards are all elves and you feel a bit bored, it's probably more the DM's fault than "synergy." If you want diverse and interesting PCs, then don't worry about the mechanics or even about race: think about how to encourage creativity. I do this first by telling the players I'll be giving less XP for combat and more for skill-based overcoming of challenges, which leads to greater diversity in skill selection, and second, by making all combat optional and of variable deadliness, sandbox-style - so they don't need minmaxed combat monster PCs to survive.

    "Play style" is also the key to a deeper counterpoint I have to your argument. You hold up "diversity" implicitly as a good, and focus on the example of equal distribution of race-class combinations. There are three things wrong with that. 8^P

    1. Some players are going to find an archetype or a play-feel they enjoy and stick with it: the guy who always plays a wizard no matter what. Neither "synergy" nor lack of it will keep them away from their ideal character - which, if they're having fun, is fine. As I pointed out with the Tolkien thing, other factors will ensure that you never get a completely flat distribution of choices. And... how many groups ever get the chance to make a full 77 characters, anyway?

    2. You overlook the impact, not just of DM style as detailed above, but of setting. Lots of RPGs or settings are human-only. Some offer a variety of nonstandard races, perhaps without any humans at all [cough, cough]. Either of these factors will clearly have a deep impact on the number of elven wizards.

    3. The focus is on diversity in race-class combinations, but in working toward that, you move away from diversity in play styles. Some people just enjoy tinkering with the numbers. They like feeling that they achieved a level of system mastery that lets them be extra good at stuff. By cutting out "synergy," you cut out that play style. It reduces the diversity of approaches to the game available to your players, in the name of encouraging more wizard orcs.

    There's nothing wrong with encouraging certain play styles in your own campaigns, of course. But add up all of the above, and what I recommend is that the encouragement be done on a level other than system design: leave synergy in for the groups or campaigns or players that want to take advantage of it, and downplay its impact for those that don't.

    I get that your post is "just a thought," so I don't want it to seem like I'm straw-manning you into an argument that you didn't make. And I thank you for bringing up the topic for discussion; that's always useful when done respectfully. I just don't feel like the "problem" you raise is necessarily a problem and must necessarily be dealt with on the system design level. Nu?

    1. The links in the post above are kind of hard to see, so here they are explicitly:

    2. I'm not so much saying that "Diversity is good" as I am saying that certain character concepts shouldn't be punished.

      Imagine sitting down to learn a new ruleset with your friends with a character concept in your head. But as you explain your idea to your friends, they tell you, "No, no, no. That race/class/feat combination sucks. Your character concept would be mechanically useless."

      And this does happen, to a larger or a smaller extent in different games. I'm not arguing for no synergy, I'm just pointing out what you are sacrificing in a game system when you create synergistic elements.

      I agree that there is an entire class of player that looks for combos and synergy that he/she can exploit to build a mechanically effective character. And there's nothing wrong with that. I've had fun min-maxing, too. I'm just pointing out that "appeals to min-maxers" is mutually exclusive with "let's players realize their character concept without punishing them mechanically". These are two different goals that a game designer needs to balance.

      And I realize that anecdotes are not the singular form of data, but in my games I've had two half-orc barbarians, two elven wizards, and none of the switcheroo versions of either. (Plenty of human everythings, though.)

    3. Thanks for the response! I think I get where you're coming from. On the theoretical level, though, I'm not convinced. As you say, anecdotes ≠ data.

      I feel like there are two things going on: first, a confusion of what constitutes "punishment," and second, friends who are kind of jerks. 8^[

      Lack-of-X isn't the same as opposite-of-X. Just because a given combination isn't pushed toward minmaxage by the rules doesn't mean the rules are "punishing" that combination. Having a wizard a little stronger and dumber than you otherwise would have isn't what I would call a "punishment"; it's just... a thing you roleplay. Back when stats were 3d6 six times, in order, that sort of thing happened all the time and you just, pun intended, rolled with it. If there's a 3.x-style rule that "punishes" certain character concepts, it's the one that caps castable spell level based on ability score; that one specifically punishes failure to min-max in high-level play (although it can be circumvented to a degree with stat boosts that come with leveling and with magic items).

      Meanwhile, I still really feel that the problem you describe is at the DM, or the person, level rather than at the system level. To be honest, it's kind of a jerk move to say "No, that sucks, your concept is useless." (Literally of no use whatsoever? Really?) A better friend would say "Okay, that's interesting, let's see how we can make sure you have fun with that." The best kind of friend, of course, would just make sure you had fun with it and not need to talk about it at all!

      And probably a big part of ensuring that people say/do the latter instead of the former is, as I said, the DM using setting, adventure, and encounter design that doesn't demand maximal combat effectiveness - and nothing but. A better DM move would be to make sure that all play styles, and all character builds, present at the table can be fun and rewarding. (Yes, even bards!)

      For example, even without moving toward lower-synergy old-school-style character building, it should be simple enough to move toward old-school-style >play, in which player skill has a greater impact on the game than character stats do.

      TL;DR: I'm not convinced that synergy and creativity (or "concept realization") are mutually exclusive. They can be made that way by abusive misinterpretation of how the system works, yes... but unsupportive friends, and/or DMs who don't communicate with their players about keeping the campaign fun for everyone, are going to make for a punitive game experience no matter what rule-set you play with. 8^(

    4. You're right, it does depend on how the DM crafts encounters for the party (which carries its own negatives) and gameplay that rewards skill instead of stats.

      But stats still matter. The *degree* to which they matter varies a lot from system to system. If you were playing a 4e game and everyone built suboptimal characters, they'd likely find it impossible to play through published adventures, because the fights are too hard. And sometimes the DM just wants to run a published adventure, because it takes a lot of time to invent an original one.

      It is fair to say that each TRPG expects a certain level of PC ability. Look at what is expected of them in the published adventures.

      Anyway, 4e is an extreme example (and probably an unfair one). It is has lots of little synergies that (mechanically, tactically) good players learn to exploit (and that's often where the fun comes from, in 4e). But this same synergy is present in other systems, just to a lesser degree.

      "I want to play an orcish wizard who was exiled from his clan, and has had to be a thief, so I'll make Dex my highest stat and take thief skills." <-- This breaks a lot of stereotypes about orcs and wizards, and so it is punished mechanically. But the degree that it is punished varies from system to system. (And game to game.)

      Punish = make the game so hard (in an average/published adventure) that it becomes less fun to play. This varies between GMs and players, but it's still a trend that we can discuss.

      In 4e, that character would be gimped, horribly, especially in the context of his fellow PCs, who might be perfectly optimized. In older editions and adventures, the difference might be minimized, or become negligible. But this is exactly what I'm talking about when I'm talking about how synergy affects a system, and why game designers should think about it.

      You said that the problem is at the DM or the player level. I say, yes, but the problem can exist at the system level, too. And this essay is about that design consideration at the system level. DMs and player foibles are outside the scope of this essay, because: Just because good players and a DM with a lot of free time *can* work to make a game fun for any player with any goal doesn't mean that the particular game is well-designed for that particular player's goals.

  5. This is one of the reasons I'm not crazy about the multiple overlapping systems of character differentiation in D&D (stats/classes/races). I think I'd favour a humans-only setting on the one hand, or a class-as-race system on the other, possibly coupled with a no-humans setting (or one where humans are something other than a generic baseline).

  6. Orc MagiicUsers havee to bathe in the blood o the innocent or they don't regain their highest level worth of spells.
    Dwaf bards are mushroom addicts.
    Halfling rangers have a profound weakness for pipeweed.
    Elf barbarians are spirits are trapped in a wild animal and they fear all memebers of that species.

    Throw a little flavor in and each race/class combo becomes its own thing and noy just a big noisy mess.