Thursday, August 10, 2023

(Rant) The Incredibly Persnickety Dicey Dungeons Nitpick

So running with the theme of talking about video games (and not tabletop games) on this blog- I have yet another indie Roguelike style game that I play from time to time. This one is Dicey Dungeons. I quite like this game; basically it has turn based battles where you get a collection of randomly rolled 6 sided dice (and they are always six sided die) and assign them to your moves/equipment to win fights and move deeper down through the dungeon. Probably the most interesting thing about this game is the unique characters- there's a witch who assigns each face of her dice to spells in her spellbook, a robot which can determine whatever rolls it wants, a fighter who can grow dice or a rogue who can shrink dice- with extra mechanics sprinkled in. Like you use a "+1 to dice value" card on a die that's a 6, you'll get ANOTHER die at the value of 1, since the game can't give you a die of 7 value, and so on. It's got decent mechanics, and has some really cute visuals. I especially love the personality of the enemies, the host, and the music is great. Overall, good game, though it is really hard. Often feeling unfairly so.

Sneezy is the best monster in this game and I will
fight you if you disagree.

One of the best things about the game is how monsters and equipment (your attacks) are designed. Monsters use equipment cards like you- and they are activated in different ways. Some will simply do the amount of damage equal to the die's value placed on the card. Others will have a drawback or limitation, such as only taking Odd or Even dice. Some have "countdowns", which means the value placed on the card counts it down until it reaches zero, which it then activates. Pretty much every mechanical concept you can squeeze out of a six sided die is used here- which is good.

However, I have one little nitpick. One incredible little thing- not even a complaint really, more of a "missed opportunity" that the game developers no doubt knew about and didn't think it would be an issue or annoyance to anyone- anyone except for me that is.

So Dicey Dungeons has some really fun mechanics for status effects. Since dice are your primary means of attack, defense, and healing- status effects primarily influence your dice. An example is your dice can be lit on fire, meaning if you use them they deal some unavoidable damage to you. Another good one is frozen- if your dice are frozen, it means the highest value die you rolled will be set to a one. For some characters and loadouts this is a death sentence, but for others it doesn't matter as much.

On top of this, this game has elemental damage. Certain cards deal elemental damage when used; the usual suspects are here. Fire, Ice, Shock, Poison, and Weaken are all damage types. Some enemies are weak to these damage types, taking more damage, where as other enemies are strong to them, and take less damage. This is very common in games and makes thematic sense; like a Yeti being strong vs ice. Makes sense. The issue for me is that these "elemental" attacks are the primary source of the elemental-themed debuffs, which can very specifically trivialize some encounters in the game. The elemental damage or resistance of an enemy just feels like a tacked on secondary mechanic which belies the usefulness of specific abilities against certain enemies.

What do I mean by this? Let me use the Aurora as the example. The Aurora has one of the most straightforward by interesting designs. From the picture above, you can see her abilities. She has a very specific AI- every turn she rolls four dice and ALWAYS uses them on her storm or weather-themed attacks, which deal elemental damage + apply debuffs. Then, when all the attacks are used up, she'll spend her last dice on the "Mood Change" and switch to a new element, but still having 3 attack cards with a countdown of 5. Mechanically, despite how simple it is, it gives the character a lot of personality- a weather-goddess figure going through wild mood swings and having low but consistent damage while applying many powerful debuffs. Simply put, its one of my favorite fights in this game.

Here's the thing though; the Aurora isn't weak to any elements, nor is she strong to any elements. She takes regular damage from everything. But she gets absolutely destroyed by the Freeze status effect. 

Because of how freeze works, each point of freeze converts your highest rolled die into a roll of 1. This works on enemies too, and since all of Aurora's cards are countdowns, it means that turning her dice into ones means she can barely use her cards. I once had a run as the Witch with a strong debuff deck with multiple elemental attacks; and I found myself using tons of ice to stack multiple Freeze debuffs on the Aurora, making the fight trivial.

The thing that bothers me here is that the elemental-themed status effects, which are fine and thematic, are already assigned to the elemental damage flavored cards. Cards that burn enemy dice or freeze enemy dice are going to do Fire or Ice damage respectively; meaning that the debuff and the elemental damage type are one and the same in practice. My issue is that because of the design of the enemies always being the same; meaning you can plan and predict how dangerous an enemy will be based on your build, it makes these thematic choices and blending of debuffs and attacks along with the enemies less strong. In other words, I don't want elemental damage to exist, but I want the Aurora to be known to be Weak to Ice because of the effect ice-cards have on her because of her abilities and moves.

There are more ideas. Because of how the Burn status effect works, it burns a die and deals damage to you if you want to use it. Enemies in this game will always use burning dice unless if it defeats them (I think) so this status effect is just bonus damage. But I really like the idea of fire-themed enemies who are Strong to Fire simply having more dice then other enemies, but only use a few of them. Such as an enemy who rolls three dice, but can only use 1 or 2 cards maximum. Then, if a die is burnt, they can avoid using the burning dice and use the other die instead, thus, making them Strong to Fire. On the flipside, there are some enemies who have decent or strong attacks but only roll one die- limiting what they can do each round. Under this paradigm, these enemies would be Weak to Fire.

My other annoyance with this disconnect is that there are several enemies in the game who almost fit with this scheme. It's like the developers went halfway to making the game designed this way, having roll mechanics and enemy designs that are themed around these debuffs and status-effects, but gave up halfway. A good example of this is the Snowman and Fireman, two mid-level enemies which both have status effect cards of Ice and Fire respectively. The annoying thing here is, as I was playing the game, I noticed that they were "strong" against the elements of their type because of their design; the Snowman has four cards that are all Odd-only attacks, and throws four dice. Meaning freeze would just let them use more of their cards- turns their die into 1s, an odd number. But Freeze in this case is still useful as it makes the amount of damage less, since each card deals the amount of damage equal to the die put in. If the game was designed to make it more fitting this concept, then the Snowman's cards would deal flat damage as long as the die put in was even, so every freeze you put on them just makes it more likely a big 6 or 4 will turn into another 1 roll for them to use. The Fireman is similar; rolling 4 dice, but only having two cards, meaning two of their dice are superfluous, and only uses even number dice to attack. My issue here is that these enemies have elemental typing; Snowman is "weak to fire" and Fireman is "weak to ice", despite them also being "Strong vs Ice" and "Strong vs Fire" from the status effects. Enemies also only have one typing, so even though I personally think snowman is "Strong vs Ice", he has the "Weak to Fire" element- and its worse yet because, theoretically, he actually isn't that weak to fire since he throws four dice and only uses the Odd ones- any Even dice he gets that are on fire won't do damage to him, since he won't use them.

Shouldn't this guy also be "Weak to Ice"?

I understand that this tiny nitpick isn't an issue; it barely even sounds coherent, plus it opens up another door- why is the developer telling you what an enemy is weak or strong too? Shouldn't you be figuring that out on your own?I think there would be perhaps a greater value in the game if there wasn't elemental damage types; just the themed elemental debuffs, with the enemies of the game matching the element in their design and equipment. So if there is an enemy that benefits greatly from pairs or low dice- then they'd be Strong to Freeze, since it makes ones more often. Therefore, you would design any enemy that has these traits as being winter, ice, or snow-themed. Enemies who would be "Strong to Poison" would be enemies who have some form of healing in their equipment to offset the small but consistent damage that poison does- but wouldn't that type of enemy be good against ALL types of damage too? See, this is where the problems crop up.

Secondly; the game doesn't have quite enough dice mechanics to justify building that many status effects. A good example is the "locked" status effect, which just makes one random dice you or the enemy rolls unable to be used for anything. It's actually a really strong status effect- but throwing multiple dice (especially if the enemy has few cards to actually use and just throws multiple dice to try and get high rolls or pairs), could be a counter to this. However, the same counter would also be good against burning, since once again, that means more dice the enemy doesn't have to use on their turn. Another status effect, Shock, is also countered by many dice. Shock is like a stun; it just locks your equipment for that round, needing a die to be spent to open it up to be used by another die, so enemies with many dice are the counter to this. Are you then going to thematically limit the look and design of every enemy in the game? If every enemy who threw many dice, and was therefore strong against Fire, would also then theoretically be Strong against lightning too, since having many dice counters both. I mean shit, having a lot of dice counters every status effect, since all of them rely on attacking the enemy's dice.

Hopefully, if you read this nonsense, you get what I'm picking at. It's a nitpick.

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