On the dice vs. no dice thing…
One of my favorite games to bring up in a discussion of this topic is a game called Battle for Wesnoth. It’s a free game, and a strategy game at that. Like Battle Brothers, it has RPG elements, but its focus is more on the strategic side whereas I’d argue Battle Brothers is more on the RPG side. In Wesnoth, you get a unit that usually has a couple random modifiers (like “quick” or “strong”), and a lot of units have alternating level-up paths you can choose. Each unit has attacks which deal flat amounts of damage but often make multiple iterative attacks in a series of strikes. You use melee attacks to respond to melee attacks and ranged attacks to respond to ranged attacks. If you lack one, you can’t do it. And each unit has a certain defense stat – a percentage – which clearly shows what your likelihood of being hit is based on where you’re standing. I.E. Elves have high defense in forests, dwarves have high defense in mountains and hills, etc. If an elf’s defense is 70% in the forest, that means an attack (without abilities like Magical or Marksman) only has a 30% chance of hitting the elf.
You can probably see a few similarities to Battle Brothers and some very stark differences, too.
So, let me just start listing reasons why RNG is actually GOOD in a strategy game.
1. It forces the player to adapt.
Now, I love Wesnoth, but once upon a time I thought the RNG factor was so stupid because I could be attacking a guy with 20% defense and miss four times in a row. I used to imagine that as happening all the time, too. One situation I recall pretty vividly is when I had an elf archer attacking some unlucky dude who got caught off-guard in the water. I had 4 shots with my bow, and I just needed one hit to wipe him out. One. Period. If he survived, however, he’d get enough XP to level up. That would be that.
Guess what? I fired four arrows. Whiff, whiff, whiff, whiff. No damage, no kill. Guy levels up, and later I lost the game and I blamed it on that there RNG.
But then I played more games. I found myself on both sides of the coin, sometimes winning or losing after the match. And I began to realize something: I didn’t lose because I had bad luck. I lost because I didn’t know how to work the system.
The real reason I was losing matches was because I didn’t know how to position my soldiers properly. I didn’t take advantage of weaknesses in the enemy line, nor did I utilize the terrain right. I bit bait every chance I got. I would over-dedicate and over-extend my forces. Most importantly, I didn’t do enough “worst case scenario” planning. I was always figuring that a 70% chance to hit = I should hit. After all, it’s the most likely outcome. Why shouldn’t it have happened? But that’s just not how the game works.
So, I started doing things like having units in reserve, moving my guys into defensive positions rather than throwing them at the enemy – some of this must sound elementary, but I tell you it’s damned tempting to launch a suicide attack when the enemy’s toughest units look pretty beat up and all you have to do is break through part of the front line and kill the healer in the back. I learned to always prepare for the worst outcome. I tried not to take actions that my whole game depended on, but instead took opportunity shots, picked the best possible terrain, tried to keep my enemy out of his terrain… In other words, I learned the system. And through learning the system, I started winning more in the games I’d play with people.
Battle Brothers operates on similar principles, although the risk is perhaps a little higher. You have to play every battle like you could lose everything. Use strategies that involve minimizing risk, and if you’re REALLY scared of a certain fight? Run away. The edge of the map is always there. Back up, back out, and just accept that not every battle can be won.
2. It actually simulates situations that would come up in real world strategy.
IF I’m a great fighter, there’s no 100% chance that I’m going to win a duel with a rookie swordsman who’s missing a leg. Let’s face the damned fact: in the real world, that guy DOES have a chance of winning that fight. It doesn’t matter how many accolades I have, how long a history of experience in war I’ve got under my belt, how quick I am or how impenetrable my manly thighs are. My blow can bounce off his shield at just the right angle to knock me off balance, or he might make a dumb move I didn’t expect that catches me off-guard, or maybe I’ll just make a good ol’ fashioned mistake. Whatever it is, I can lose the fight. I can miss, I can get killed, whatever.
Hell, did you know the U.S. Civil War might have been a Confederate victory if a Confederate messenger hadn’t, by chance, dropped letters outlying the ENTIRE CONFEDERATE BATTLE PLAN which the Union was then able to use to absolutely destroy General Lee’s army? He had to drop those letters, and they had to be found by Union forces. That’s what happened.
And that’s where RNG comes into play. RNG represents all those little things that happen in the real world summarized into a simple dice roll. It’s not always elegant, but it’s much better than assuming that strategy involves everything working exactly as planned. Which brings me to point 3…
3. Strategy is about overcoming obstacles.
Sometimes, things won’t work your way. Your charge is crushed. One of the flanks breaks and runs due to morale failure. Reinforcements don’t arrive. You get surprised and ambushed by archers you didn’t know were hiding in the trees. Suddenly, everything is topsy-turvy and you’re at a disadvantage.
However, you have not lost control. In a strategy game, you still can bring the situation to your advantage. It’s just a matter of figuring out how.
This ties back to point #1. RNG forces you to adapt because RNG presents obstacles. You CAN’T predict what every outcome will be, which makes you think of alternate solutions before you even attempt to solve the problem. You pick the best option, you ready the backup plan, and you proceed with your motions.
Battle Brothers has that element of presenting you with obstacles. Your enemies don’t play by the same rules as you. In fact, it’s unfair the advantages they have, sometimes. They have necromancers, orc warriors with massive HP, fallen heroes who can be resurrected by the aforementioned necromancers, goblin shamans who can entangle whole swathes of troops all at once… They’ve got numerical advantages (12 vs. 30), they’ve got gear advantages in the early game, they’ve got abilities you will NEVER OWN… You’ll be ambushed, and wolfriders will outflank you, and otherwise the point is you’re at a disadvantage in actual troop comparison in a lot of cases. Even the RNG will at times be an absolute asshat to you.
But you have the advantage of being able to develop strategies beyond the confines of what the AI can. You also can build your Brothers to specialize in different roles that make them really good at X or Y. You can get wardogs or hire throwaway characters to use as sacrificial lambs. You can minimize your risk, and you can make the numbers swing in your favor.
Can you still have your outcome decided wholly by the RNG? Certainly. But by and large, it’s strategy that wins Battle Brothers, and RNG is just the obstacle you have to overcome.
Now, with all that said, I do think there are a few things that could be done that could reduce RNG without removing it. And I think they’d be fair.
1. Give us Miss Damage. Make misses be glancing blows that deal puny damage, but at least do SOMETHING. Even if it’s just 10% or 5% of what a hit would be, it’d be nice to have, and it’d actually solve the problem of the Nimble Fighter ruling the battlefield in a lot of ways. Maybe couple this change with an ability to slowly regain HP lost due to Miss Damage? (Turns spent doing nothing at all?)
2. If you wanted to change the system, I could see having more attacks per turn for less damage each. The more dice you add to a simulator, the better a bell curve you’ll get. (This is partly why I love Perfect Focus: I can get 4 swings or shots in a single turn, giving myself more chances of hitting.)
3. Perhaps make shields grant slight damage reduction as well as defense?