One of my gaming buddies has, to my understanding, tried out the new Star Wars MMO. While the story he told was interesting, I’ll admit that I wrote off the game before I knew anything about it. Not just because it’s being developed by Bioware, not just because it’s an MMO, and not just because it’s yet another cash-in on the Star Wars franchise. None of those things, actually.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about, that’s just some background for what I do want to talk about, which started with the seed my friend planted, and, was nurtured by this post over at Kill Ten Rats, “Mob Action.” Area-effect powers and single-target powers. Cooperative powers and solo powers. How do you make a player character effective both in a party against a single target or mob, and also effective while they’re alone?

The answer is probably in giving players a few (but not all) viable tactical options that are useful in many (but not all) situations, and then making sure that each of those situations is equally represented and those options remain viable in those situations. You know another good place to start? Offer cheap and easy cooperative powers.

Another answer is likely in making cooperative play more rewarding than solo play, but in a way that’s different from solo play, and that doesn’t diminish playing by oneself. I mean, there are already inherent advantages to playing alone versus playing in a group that should be immediately obvious. In a group, there’s someone else to watch your back and mitigate the threats to your character.

When someone else is with you, you can risk adventuring longer, going deeper into the dungeon and facing more enemies. The effect is almost exponential, in fact. But there are still advantages to working alone. First of all, missions that require stealth are almost always easier when one person is responsible for themselves and no one else. It eliminates the “extraneous variables” that may bring about failure.

The Law of Conservation of Ninjutsu (see above link) is undoubtedly based on a fallacy of some kind however. It defies common sense that a large group of highly-skilled individuals should be less effective than a lone individual drawing from the same pool of knowledge and skills. In the case of zombies, it’s more feasible that a small group of survivors might evade the shambling masses.

(Zombies tend to come in larger groups than ninjas, however, and it should be less reasonable that a small group be able to evade them, because there are just more undead and therefore a higher chance for outliers. Uncoordinated as they are, it should be more likely that a random encounter leads to the loss of the survivors.)

So, what makes sense for making characters more effective in a group, as well as being alone against a group? Well, my thought is that many powers could well have a cooperative component that allows some degree of interaction if, and only if, another player is present to capitalize on it, something like Chrono Trigger’s dual techs. As I understand it, Guild Wars 2 will incorporate a system for combination attacks.

But that still doesn’t address the problem of making a player more effective against a group of opponents, and for now, I’m going to admit I’m stumped. Powers changing their behavior when the character is alone versus when they’re in a group is probably too much work for a tabletop game, and makes immersion more difficult. Scaling encounter difficulty to match the number of players faces similar problems.

There might not be a good answer to this question, but you can bet I’m going to think about it until I come up with something. At the very least, some kind of workaround.