Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Game Design 101: The Wave Battle

The wave battle is an integral part of a NERO weekend. For those of you who are not NERO regulars, the wave battle generally consists of groups of NPCs attacking en masse. Generally the NPCs are "crunchy" meaning that they fall within the range of easy- medium for the player level of the weekend. The wave battle allows everyone to be involved and with the proper wrapping it can allow everyone to directly effect the story. I am going to look at a couple of ideas to make the wave battle better, a couple of things that you should not do and a few ideas for future growth of the concept.

Lets start with making it better. The escalating wave battle is a permutation of the wave battle which works well, particularly in a mixed level event. This battle begins as a standard wave battle, after the first few waves, some distinctive costume change or call sign change should alert the players that this next wave is different. The waves can the get progressively harder culminating in a boss fight or triggering a module. The best example I ever saw of this was many years ago, we were fighting rats and the rats continues to get bigger and bigger until eventually the ground collapsed ( I assumed from the giant rat tunnels) and we all fell into a dungeon crawl rat infested adventure. This type of iterative battle with a goal appearing at the end is wonderful for immersion since the action leads to the story and the story solidifies the action.

Another popular wave battle concept is the split wave battle. This concept allows for higher and lower level players to interact with the NPCs on their own level. Generally, the plot director will geographically split the players into two distinct groups via an NPC or plot controlled pc, the groups will then face a wave battle that is challenging for them without being over scaled. This idea is necessary at events that have a large level divide, when the range gets too far away from the average player level, something needs to be done to keep everyone entertained.

Cautions for plot people regarding wave battles. It is an excellent idea to have different types of monsters in each wave. This can make the battle more strategic and fun if the players take the time to figure out the patterns. The different types of monsters must be distinguishable from one another to make this concept work. If the death knight looks just like the skeleton archer, some poor new player is going to get smoked.

Wave battles can be fun, but they need to be scaled meticulously if you want them to continue for long periods of time. Too easy and the players will get bored, too hard and the players will get dead. There exists a sweet spot in every event where everyone is entertained but no one is getting hammered, finding it requires experience and a good reign on your NPCs. The most important party of appropriate wave battle scaling is a strong staff team, staff controls the NPCs, they can tell them when to go harder or easier, they set the tone for use of skills. It is imperative that your staff is skilled without being bloodthirsty, competent without showing off. A good staff can make or break the whole weekend.

Evolving the concept of the wave battle beyond just a grinder fight that goes until some predetermined time is really the next step in weekend design. Wave battles should have a reason for happening, they should have a trigger and an endpoint both of which are under PC control and they should have an impact on whatever story you are telling about the local area. For instance, a local noble moved his troop of horsemen into a valley driving out the band of gnolls who live there, PCs should be involved in scouting for the lord and they should know that the gnolls have been driven out. The gnolls attack the town because they are hungry, the lead gnolls are scouts and smaller and faster ( dodges) the larger better fed gnolls follow behind them, waiting for word of food. The gnolls may continue to attack until their cheif appears opening the possibility for roleplay, or the PCs may need to find some mystic, gnoll repelling, drum either way the PCs should be the reason that teh gnolls stop not just some timer.

These are my thoughts on wave battles, some of them are well formed, some are more free form, what do you guys think?


  1. Mark Henry ~MariusMarch 22, 2011 at 12:17 PM

    I love wave battles, the only thing I love more are unique wave battles with a twist.

    I've been contemplating some different concepts for larger battles.

    One in which PCs need to take and hold 3 points on a battlefield. Perhaps the points give some benefit or be the way the encounter is complete. This type of battle would divide the resources and give more PCs a chance to get involved. It also allows staff to hit points harder or lighter depending on how well each group is doing. This would probably need to be a NPC heavy option though.

    Another interesting type could be a flank fight. You got a big scale battle but there is a pressing need for a group or groups to break off to complete sub-objectives. When i was a rogue I ran with 2 other rogues during a few field battles. The amount of chaos 3 rogues can do behind enemy lines is crazy but can also be disastrous. If we had an object say set a trap at place X, it would have been epic.

    I like the split wave battle, but I feel the lower lvl ppl need to feel like they are valuable as well. Perhaps waves of goblins need to be stopped from destroying the catapults, while the high lvl guys fight a dragon. The catapults are needed for the extra damage, but assigning the high lvls to it will make the encounter potentially fail cause they are needed for the dragon.

  2. Good notes! I think that wave battles are very important in weekend events, they are one of the only times that all the players are doing the same thing at the same time. They walk away with a shared experience. These common reference points are the building blocks of a group identity or culture, and are therefore really important to making your players feel like they're part of a community with a common history.

    Wave Battles are also one of the most common places to have the "snapshot moment", the dramatic experience which you will be talking about for years to come. This is for two reasons: (a) because they are a focal point of the weekend, wave battles often have a good production value, and (b) everybody's watching! If you take a big risk and have an action-hero moment, everybody sees it and will be talking about it later.

    Atmosphere is really critical in wave battles, I reccommend a sound track. It's amazing how a well-picked song can put everybody into the same headspace and helps them share the dramatic moment.

  3. Ok, I can't help but point to the larpcast we put up yesterday about ways to make interesting fight mechanics. ;)

    Anyway, more constructively, there is something about all encounters that I think is often overlooked when planning them, and field fights suffer from it the most. Very often I have seen staff neglect to plan, with attention to details, the following elements: How The Fight Begins, How the PCs Know There Is a Fight (if they have to go somewhere else, this involves a hook of some kind), How The PCs Get To The Fight, How The PCs Know What They Should Do In The Fight (to the extent that you ant them informed of anything), How The Fight Ends, and How The PCs Know The Fight Is Over And Should Go Argue About Treasure.

    It sounds a little silly, I know, but these basic questions are often overooked int he rush of planning out the fight mechanics and, at the last minute, some staff member jobs up to people wearing a white headband and jury rigs something via side whispering to random PC who has a Wave Battle Transform or whatever. Sometimes the figth ends and PCs don't actually know they can go home. Sometimes the *NPCs* don't know they can stop recycling. And so on.

    Clear answers to the above issues are a vital way to make wave battles more smoothly intergral to the weekend and not jarring and immersion breaking.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with Mickey - planning is essential. I have been on both ends during my NERO career of organizing great battles and poor ones, and the primary difference is definitely planning and forethought. By the time it happens, the plot and staff team should have gone over it so much that it's second nature.