Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Not a nerf, promise

Diablo 3 has been all about Demon Hunters for a while now.  The thing about the game is that right now the endgame is utterly dominated by insane set bonuses.  You know things have gotten a big nutty when people say "So, how about a make a build that casts big spells at the enemies?" and everybody laughs at them.  The idea that anyone can accomplish anything of note by just attacking the enemies is a joke.  Demon Hunters have a set that lets them drop several invincible pets that each spam the best Demon Hunter attack spells.  Once the pets are down the player doesn't even have to be on the screen and they can go hang out in another room while their ludicrous pets mow down the enemies like grass.

Blizzard has decided that this playstyle is both overpowered and boring.  I tend to agree on both counts, and the fact that Demon Hunters are obviously crushing other classes in achievement and popularity supports that hypothesis.  However, Blizzard doesn't want to just say "We are nerfing you guys TO THE GROUND" because people will scream.  Instead the latest patch notes try to claim that they are changing the offending set bonus to something else without it being a nerf.  Essentially the change is that the pets only fire when the Demon Hunter fires, forcing Demon Hunters to actually attack and manage resources and such instead of just hiding.

As they are currently listed it seems completely clear that the changes are a huge nerf to Demon Hunters.  Not because their numbers will go down in the land of spreadsheets but because in practice the enemies actually attack you.  Having pets that do all the work while you hide is insanely powerful because it lets you ignore defensive stats and go pure beatdown.  In the new model Demon Hunters are going to have to spend a lot of time attacking and being in line of sight of the enemies and that liability is crushing.

All this is a good thing in general because it will make the Demon Hunter playstyle actually respect the enemies a bit and bring them back into line with other classes.  The interesting thing to me is how Blizzard is trying to present this as a neutral change and avoid the perception that it is a big nerf to Demon Hunter power.  There is a huge amount of politics involved in this sort of thing because players do appreciate it when their favourite class is competitive but once they have switched to the flavour of the month they get pissed if it gets nerfed TO THE GROUND.  I think Blizzard's strategy is a good one though ultimately I don't know if it will work, or indeed if anything would.

You can claim that their changes are neutral when the opponents are trivial but everyone knows that after this happens there will be a mass swap away from Demon Hunters to other classes because their absolute dominance will be at an end.  Toughness and mobility matter and when a change suddenly destroys your ability to stay alive it doesn't matter if your theoretical damage is the same.  The conclusion that this is a nerf is inescapable.

Sometimes though you have to do the best you can even when you know you can't win.  I suspect Blizzard is in that boat right now and they know it.  They will claim these changes aren't a nerf to preserve plausible deniability and go ahead and do it because it is the right thing to do.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The end of clicking

I hit the wall in Clicker Heroes.  At some point playing the game you get to a spot where there just isn't anything relevant you can do to get better and I finally got there after buying 21 of the 28 ancients.  I could farm up 40k souls very efficiently just one shotting monsters but the only useful thing left to do was slowly increase my current ancients in power - the remaining ancients were so pathetic in terms of return on investment that it felt sad to buy into them.  (Thusia, Chronos, Khrysos, Pluto, Energon, Kleptos, Juggernaut)  The last round of ancients I bought to increase my clicking at the end of a run didn't even feel worthwhile and these are much worse.

Unlike Cookie Clicker I can't just let the game farm up more stuff and slowly make progress.  In order to accomplish anything of note I have to sit there and click on things regularly and when there are simply no more interesting decisions to make I can't see the use in sitting at the computer constantly pushing buttons to just make the numbers bigger.  I do like numbers getting bigger, don't get me wrong, but Clicker Heroes has hit the absolute worst style.  I can't click all the time but I have to be at the computer ready to click every minute or so.  This means it is impossible to get into flow and yet it still keeps me from doing anything else.  Yuck.

The game was fun and I liked doing the research to figure out the optimal line.  I also enjoyed testing out new effects and seeing how buying various ancients changed the way the game played.  Unfortunately unless new things are added in there just isn't any compelling reason to keep on Clicking.  Cookie Clicker isn't really grabbing me either, but at least all I do is buy one more prism every day as I wait to get to 200 prisms - it doesn't stop me from doing all my other things.

I am very interested to see what sorts of idle games come out as time goes by.  There is clearly a market for these things and I have a real interest in their evolution but I won't claim to have a good sense of how exactly they should be designed.  It is still too soon and my understanding of how and why people play these games is not well developed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

When I wasn't looking

Recently I got frustrated with managing all of the different documents associated with Heroes By Trade.  It was starting to drive me crazy because having multiple versions of a variety of files is a nightmare when you have links embedded in all of them pointing to the other documents.  It was high time to combine everything together into a Word doc for easier editing and version control.  When I finished slapping it all together I had a single spaced document 188 pages long.  I wrote a book when I wasn't looking!

So now I face the task of bulking it up a lot.  There is a lot more that needs to be added, mostly in the fluff department.  I need tons of examples of the various races and classes to provide background and inspiration as well as huge stacks of enemies for the players to smash in search of that sweet, sweet loot.  I don't actually have any sense of how this size a document translates to a finished product - how many pages would this be if it were printed like a normal roleplaying manual in terms of size, font, etc?

One thing I have been looking at is the way in which I present character Powers.  This is an example of the current wording of the Bird of Prey Power:

----------------------
Rank 7
Effect:  Take a Move.
Target:  One creature adjacent to you
Hit:  Physical damage.
Effect:  Take a Move.

Rank 17
On a hit the target is Stunned for 1 round.
----------------------

This is a very precise Power that makes it easy to adjudicate in combat.  However, if I wrote it as follows:

----------------------

Rank 7
You take a Move, make an attack, then take another Move.

Rank 17
If your attack hits the target is Stunned for 1 round.
----------------------

The second one just *feels* better.  The first example is much more like DnD 4th edition and like that system it is very straightforward to know exactly what happens and when.  The second is more like earlier editions of DnD where people need to exercise a little more thought.  It feels more organic, more like a description of a combat move than an entry in a spreadsheet.  There are definitely more complex examples out there and the wording of those may get trickier but I do like the idea of adding in a bit more fluff to the extremely crunchy Powers sections.

It is all well and good to have absolutely unambiguous descriptions but unless people want to use the ability in question it doesn't much matter how clear it is.  I think I need to lean more towards making everything sound cool and a little further away from making sure the descriptions are tight.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Helping yourself

In Camp Nightmare I initially designed cards around two styles.  Either the card helped everyone, like Saw, or it just helped you, like Axe.

Saw

All players gain +3 Wood when they Gather Wood.

Axe

You gain +4 Wood when you Gather Wood.

The thing is I want this game to work with any number of players from 1 to 5 so Axe wasn't really going to work as is.  In a 5 player game you would often not get to use your own Axe before it got trashed anyway and at most you would get a single use out of it.  To get around this I introduced the concept of Borrowing where players would pay 1 Energy to use someone else's equipment for a turn.  That worked out all right but it ended up being a serious balance concern because games with a lot of players poured *tons* of Energy into Borrowing and everyone had to keep track of which items were universal and which were personal.  It worked, but it was clunky.

I decided that a different approach that wasn't so strongly based on number of players was in order.  The new design has gear that just helps you but it does so based on what other people do.  Essentially you have selfish gear that doesn't diminish in power based on how many players are in the game, like the Hammock below.

Hammock

When any player Naps you gain +3 Energy.

This way you can actually use cards that act on you personally and forward your own strategy without worrying that you won't get a turn to use them.  Of course your allies will need to work with you and take the Actions that activate your gear but the game is a cooperative game so that makes sense.  Of course a lot of the cards are more complex than the examples give above and take a form more like the Flashlight or Camp Chair where they are a hybrid between selfish gear and group gear.

Flashlight

When any player Rummages they gain +2 Energy and you draw 2 cards.

Camp Chair

All Food cooked on a Fire gives +3 Food.  You gain +3 Energy when you Nap.

The new design has the pleasant side effect of removing the need for the concept of Borrowing completely.  I take great pleasure in hacking out chunks of the rules because one of the signs of a good rulebook is brevity.  Take everything out that can possibly be taken out.  The easier it is to get new players in to the game and the less that needs explaining the better your design is.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Handiness

I found a great post on one of my favourite topics:  How to deal with what characters are holding in their hands in RPGs.  The post talks at length about the history of this particular issue but is light on solutions.  That is expected largely because this is one of the most tricky areas of RPG design I have come across.  In particular it is extremely difficult to balance the need for three things:  Cinematic flexibility, simplicity of rules, and preventing twinking.

I have often seen situations come up where players want to do things like fire a longbow one round, next round attack with two swords, then fire the longbow again.  I would ask "So, where exactly did that longbow go in the middle round?"  and they would answer "I stash it on my back."  Somehow the idea of a two meter long bow that is strung magically hovering above the character's back, cemented in place by nothing but hopes and poor bookkeeping never ceases to amaze me.  While these players weren't trying to break the rules or do something unfair they certainly were willing to think of the character like a hero in a first person shooter who carries around twelve different assault rifles, eleven of which are simply invisible at any given time.  For these players I really want the rules to be simple.

Then there are the twinks who use move actions to swap in a shield after they attack, get the benefit of the shield for the round, then use their move action next round to stow it and draw their weapon so they can make a regular attack.  It is a thoroughly ridiculous sort of thing because you can't even imagine a combatant doing this in a movie - nobody regularly swaps a shield in and out like this except to try to game the system.  When these players are on the field you need rules that prevent twinking in this way.  Most systems rely on the GM saying "Oh, you are doing *that* again?  Fine, the ogre hits you for 97 damage.  Make a new character, and try for one that isn't a pissant."  I could simply go with that system of abuse prevention but I would really rather the rules accomplish it on their own.

Thing is, there are players out there who really do want to sheathe their dagger, swing across the room on a chandelier, draw the dagger again, and stab the baddie in the back.  This is the sort of thing that is fun, makes for great stories, and isn't abusive.  I really want a system that lets people do this sort of thing because the mechanical "I hit for 12" bit of combat isn't nearly as entertaining or memorable as a chandelier swing.  That cinematic flexibility is great.

I haven't found a lot of good solutions to maximize all of these things though.  In Heroes By Trade at the moment people can rearrange their weapons with a Move so the shield swapping shenanigans described above are possible but costly.  Constantly swapping from a bow to a sword is feasible but you can't do it on the run - which I think is a fair tradeoff.  I tried a lot of systems to try to allow more cinematic moves and quash twinking but in the end I really just swung towards simplicity.  I have a nice out in terms of cinematic combat though in that players have Fate Points they can spend to do outrageous things and break the rules if they want to so they have only their own spendthift natures to blame if they aren't able to swing from a chandelier at the perfect moment.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Showing it off

My new game, tentatively titled Camp Nightmare, is now available for your viewing pleasure.  I have posted the current rules, cards, and pictures so you can take a look at what I have built or even print it out and make a copy of your own.  As usual you are free (and encouraged!) to read, share, or build but not to alter or sell the documents.

You can find the link on the sidebar with my other games.

If anybody has any suggestions for a better name I am all ears - I love the game itself but a name that really wiggles my waggle hasn't come to me yet.

The new version using coloured cards to represent Day and Night cards seems a lot better and I am really pleased with how it is coming along.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The rules

This weekend I did a playtest session for my new camping themed coop game and Animal Odyssey, a game that Improviser and some collaborators created.  The playtest illustrated the difference in the way I approach building a new game and the way other people do it.  The main difference between the two endeavours was that my game had well defined rules that made it very clear what the players could do and Animal Odyssey had at least a half dozen situations where the rules simply didn't exist or weren't clear.

I build games that can withstand a rules lawyering bastard who will twist wording, take advantage of inconsistencies, and abuse good faith rules in a ruthless quest for victory.  I can't help it.  Every time I build a rule I immediately think about how I am going to push past it, work around it, or otherwise maximize my chances of victory.  I am not a perfect engine of deconstruction but it is fair to say that if I take a game and simply can't find a way to break it that 99% of the population won't have a hope of doing so.  I am good at breaking games and I build games that I can't break.

Other people don't do this.  For example, in Animal Odyssey there was a rule to prevent people backtracking in order to stop them from just going back and forth between trivial challenges farming resources.  The trick was that nobody was quite sure what that entailed.  Does that mean if I go from A to B I can't go to A again?  Does it mean that ABA is okay but ABAB is not?  How about if I go AB, try C, fail, and want to go back to A?  Is ABCABC okay?  Nobody knew.  This rule was clearly intended to let people know that they shouldn't do abusive ABABAB tactics but it relied on people having a sense of when they had pushed it too far.  I quickly came up with a half dozen nasty strategies that might potentially be stomped by this rule... depending on what the rule ended up being.  I don't want to guess when I have broken the rules, and I don't want to feel guilty for doing something effective that might be a violation of the rules but might not.  Just tell me what I am allowed to do and let me be as effective as I can!

From looking at games that people other than me have built this seems like the norm.  People have a gut sense of what would constitute an unfair strategy and build rules to stop that but never take the time to actually look at every strategy in between Horribly Broken and Normal Play and make sure that the rule clearly and unambiguously draws a line.  It is fine if you get the rule in not exactly the right place (especially in a coop game) but it is important that the rule be clear and consistent.  I am not arguing for byzantine rulesets but rather comprehensive ones.  Some of the suggested rules about backtracking in Animal Odyssey were incredibly complex and most people would have found them impenetrable.  Especially for a game themed around animal adventures that children might want to play it is critical that the rules are simple.

One confounding factor is that Animal Odyssey has multiple creators.  It is always trickier to make these sorts of decisions when you don't have a single person that can just make a call and have the team push forward with that in mind.  When a group of people are contributing to a project they bring a lot of creative energy, which is great, but without firm direction it can be very hard to ever get the numbers right.  You can't sort out the difficulty level of the tiles until you know how many cards people will draw, you can't know that until you know how people can move, and you can't know *that* until somebody decides what the backtracking rules are.  It is easy to keep on producing content but you won't know if that content is built in a way that supports the rest of the design without making some hard choices.

I like the idea of having collaborators on my games but it would be really hard to give up control of the numbers.  If they want to rewrite Trolls in HBT, card names in my camping game, or unit titles in FMB I would be perfectly content.  But if they wanted to make chain armour give +3 Armour instead of +2?  Go to HELL.  The number is TWO.  I think this is a big part of the reason I end up building games by myself and that they are tight on numbers but lack some of the thematic breadth that I would like.