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.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A victory of sorts

Last night at my Heroes By Trade session we said goodbye to Improviser and his character Kih.  Sadly Improviser is moving far away and so it was clear we needed to find some excellent way to send off a bizarre and often disturbing Ork.  Little did I know that Improviser would manage to vindicate my design choices in grand style.  It Was Glorious.

I have talked many times here about Epic Rituals.  That is, Rituals that are in the book that do all kinds of monumental things from raising the dead to summoning volcanoes to covering the land in darkness.  Just the sorts of things that make for tremendous stories.  One of the more maligned Epic Rituals I created is called Starbirth, which causes the caster to ascend into the sky in a fantastic display of light and become a new star, forever removing them from the game world.  People told me that this was useless and silly and it is easy to imagine why.

Our group has been hunting demons that were "accidentally" released from their ancient prison and results were mixed.  We certainly killed some demons but in the previous battle we managed to get a bunch of our mercenary followers killed and a player character died too.  Morale was low to say the least.  However, Kih told the rest of the group that he knew an Epic Ritual that could give us amazing powers in combat.  He would have to find a magic item that had been made magic by being used in an evil slaughter, smash that item, and then become a beacon of light for a day.  All of his allies that could see his light during that day would be filled with bravery and be extremely tough.  The only such item we knew about was sitting on Kih's head so he destroyed his magic crown to complete the Ritual.

Using the power of the Ritual we smashed the first demon camp we came to with ease.  However, Kih realized that his power was only extending to the people in our group and battles with demons may well be taking place all over, so he decided to help all people everywhere who might be battling the evil critters and used Starbirth!  He ascended into the air and the light from him was seen across the world, granting all those fighting the good fight tremendous fortitude for a whole day.  How many battles he turned, how many lives he saved, none can speculate.  What we know for certain is that he sacrificed himself in a way that you would normally only see in novels and we didn't even have to make anything up to do it.

So there you go.  Outrageous, seemingly ridiculous Epic Rituals changed the course of the game world and worked without any kludging required.  (Okay, totally minimal kludging.)

I am Fifty Feet Tall and Made of Steel.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

More clicking

I have taken up Clicker Heroes.  It seems that every so often one of my friends will blog about a new idle game they are playing (Cookie Clicker was my last) and now I am addicted again.  Clicker Heroes is a lot better than Cookie Clicker though because it actually has a lot of options in terms of how you play the game.  At the outset it is a simple 'buy stuff that gets you more stuff' setup but eventually you get to the point where you have to allocate resources to various Ancients that are extremely different from one another.

Both Sthenno and Ziggyny have been writing about crunching numbers on some of the Ancients but the best simple guide that I have found is this, which ranks them all from best to worst and gets it pretty well right I think.  The thing that has me interested is how there are a few different things you can do in the game and your choice of styles really changes your Ancient selection.

In the early going there is a big incentive to use the 'idle' strategy where you do short runs where you don't click at all and refuse to use skills.  The Ancients that boost that strategy (Libertas, Siyalatas) are cheap and you can get to a point where you do 30 minute runs for ~12 Souls pretty quickly.  You can simply stay on this path and keep on farming forever doing short runs that cover more and more ground as you improve your buffs but that isn't the only option.

There are good reasons to do a long run too.  To make it remotely efficient you need to cap out Vaagur and reduce your cooldowns by 75%.  This lets you increase your overall damage by 10% every 30 mins multiplicatively and that will overcome any obstacle given some time.  In this strategy you play a single run that lasts days or weeks and push really high levels to gather gilds and achievements.  The thing is that a long run like this is much worse for Soul farming than short runs and the achievements and gilds only come once for a given level so covering the same ground multiple times is terrible.

The optimal strategy I think is to alternate long and short runs.  Do short runs for a while to rack up a bunch of Souls, buy long term investments like Solomon and Atman with those Souls, then do a huge long run.  I went to 140 with my first run, then 199, then 300.  After a day of piling on short runs I set myself up for a long run that will probably ten days or so and I plan on going for level 800.  I figure 65 levels a day ought to be reasonable though I can push it higher if I am at my computer every 15 minutes throughout the day!

Thing is, there are a ton of Ancients with all kinds of abilities.  Want gold?  Get Mammon.  Want gold but are willing to invest in to two Ancients?  Screw Mammon, get Dora and Mimzee.  Using an autoclicker to generate enormous numbers of clicks?  Fragsworth and Bhaal are nuts.  The fact that your Ancient build is hugely dependent on your playstyle and the time you can put in is great.  Also there is some luck involved in which Ancients you roll - you can mitigate that by pouring in resources but that does have a cost you might not want to pay.

I also really like that as you play the game the gilds you get are random so people actually will end up with different numbers from one another.  You can eventually fix that by pouring in resources but the optimal solution for one person is not going to work for everyone and that makes it more interesting to me.  There is a good reason to figure out your own best strategy and you can't just use whatever the internet says - not exactly, anyway.

Clicker Heroes gets my stamp of approval.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ole' reliable

In making my new camping themed coop game I have gone back to the most common and consistent technique in my arsenal - Magic sleeves with a Magic card in them and a printout on the front.  Like so:

Years ago I ended up with tiny stacks of paper printouts for games I was developing and it was always a mess.  Shuffling was annoying, they were forever getting bent, crumpled, and marked, and they simply had terrible hand feel.  I need to be constantly flicking, shuffling, and manhandling cards I am holding and having a bit of stiffness and resilience is required.  Now this technique is my go to solution for nearly everything - FMB uses it, I constantly use it in roleplaying games, and now Camp Nightmare (the very not final name for my new venture) is using it too.

As far as Camp Nightmare goes, things are being excellent.  I finally got it all printed out and sleeved today and so I was able to do a couple of trial runs.  The game plays fine with just one player even though it is more designed for a small group.  I suspect that it caps out at five people as you could play with any number in theory but the gameplay would start to become pretty silly at six and above.  I got a completely outrageous draw on my first solo game and got a score of 25 which I don't know that I will be able to match again soon.  Wendy and I played together and had a much less favourable draw for a final score of 14 so I expect top notch players will be able to put up scores of around 20 on a regular basis.

Next weekend I am going to be doing a playtest of both Camp Nightmare and a new board game a friend of mine is developing called Animal Odyssey which is sort of themed around The Incredible Journey and similar stories.  I am already in love with my new game and I feel like it has a lot of potential in terms of deep strategy.  Some of that strategy is in playing the board as you see it, some is in knowing exactly what sorts of Disasters still lie ahead, and some is in reading your partners to try to figure out what they are planning.  A bit of computation, some memorization, and a dash of mind reading.

I am feeling really good about this one.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Once more unto the breach?

WOW has a new expansion coming soon.  The new mechanics are out for testing in the traditional 'nothing matters, try to break the game' phase.  All kinds of things are happening but unlike previous expansions I have really no idea what the gigantic list of changes means.  I skipped raiding in Pandaria nearly completely and though I used to be able to evaluate what a change meant for any class now I can barely figure out what the Paladin changes even mean.  I remember being really good at that, being a top theorycrafter for Retribution Paladins, and now I am a clueless noob.

It has left me feeling ambivalent.  For one thing the flexible raid sizes are a huge draw.  I want to recruit 17 good people and raid without worrying how many of them show up.  It sounds wonderful to be able to start raiding with 11, get up to 14 through most of the night, and still be able to continue even when a couple people leave early and I am back down to 12.  The idea of having challenging encounters that don't require me to constantly bench people and maintain a ridiculously tight roster is immensely appealing.  The consolidation of buffs and debuffs even further seems like it will help with that even more.  Raiding with less real life crunch... sign me up!

There are some things that really kick my excitement out from under me though.  First off the lack of realm first achievements this go around is a sad thing.  I know that going for the 'first to level 100' achievements were not good for me but I really enjoyed doing the profession firsts, largely because I could just be aggressive and rich and buy them because I want them more than anyone else does.  I want to get my fourth Realm First Jewelcrafter!  At least if they cancel them I will have a clean sweep on Vek'nilash server.  I know that they cancelled these because they felt that it promoted crazy behaviour but people are going to be lunatics anyway and people like me enjoy that challenge so much.

Part of my hesitation is that my life is more full now than it was last time I was a hardcore raider.  I have roleplaying on a regular basis and raiding a couple nights a week would play havoc with that.  I also just have more social things I do on a regular basis and I don't know if I can actually commit to getting back into it full on.  If I can't do it all the way I don't know that I will really enjoy it.  Even just in a pure gaming context I have lots of writing to do on Heroes By Trade and my new camping themed coop game I am grinding away on.  I don't have enough time for those so I don't know where I will find the time to play WOW several hours a day and do all the necessary theorycraft to play it properly.

Because you either do it right or don't do it at all, right?  I think I can live with using somebody else's spreadsheet to optimize my character even though it makes me feel all dirty to do so but I can't just goof off and not worry about it at all.  I have to know all the things that will let me play correctly and keeping up with all that isn't a small task.  I guess that is what is really making me hesitate - I know the level of play I have to achieve in order to be happy and I am not sure I can carve that out of my life again.  I desperately want the direction, the community, the sense of achievement that raiding gave me but I don't know that I want to pay the price to have that.

That an expansion for a game I don't play anymore can drive me into such an existential crisis is really ridiculous, but there it is.  I suppose once you have put your 10,000 hours into something it is forever a part of you.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Recruiting for playtesting

Right now I have an ongoing Heroes By Trade game going and one of our members is dropping out.  Apparently he is some kind of sissy and won't commute from San Francisco for game nights.  Weaksauce, right?

Anyway, we are looking for someone to join up in the next little while - we have a full roster for the next week or two but after that space opens up.  We play weekday nights near Lawrence Station in Toronto from 7:30 to 10:30 or so.  We try to play 2 of every 3 weeks.

If that appeals then send me a message and let me know.  (Email on the sidebar).  We aren't looking to pick up just anyone and will make sure you are a good fit for the group.  In particular you will need to be okay with the fact that we are playtesting and every six months or so the rules will undergo some changes as I work on the system.  The game is getting really good though and I think anyone familiar with fantasy gaming at all will be able to pick it up quickly and easily.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Getting dead

In the last Heroes By Trade session The Poet died.  We were battling a terrible demon that tried to defend itself by turning into a giant dark cloud but which was forced to fight us straight up because we blew up the roof and let the sun destroy the cloud of darkness.  You know the session went well when the party dropped the roof of a temple on the enemy!  Unfortunately for us the demon, when forced into physical form, was very nasty indeed and the clumps of shadow surrounded The Poet and bashed him into submission.  I tried some desperate maneuvers to save him but there was no getting around it in the end.

Here is the trick though: The Poet died with three Fate Points in reserve.  Fate Points are powerful 'get out of jail free' cards that let you do amazing things either in or out of combat.  They can be used simply to remove a Condition, gain some HP, turn a Miss into a Hit, or recharge a Power instantly.  The three Fate Points sitting there could, nay should, have been used to do something, anything, to desperately get out of that situation.  We hassled The Poet about getting dead without trying something crazy to survive, as one must, but it did make me think a lot about how Fate Points are working and whether my implementation is right.

Fate Points can be used to break the rules in very interesting ways that aren't predictable.  In the previous encounter I used one to augment my Intimidate check when some local people tried to join in against us in an ongoing battle.  The people in question were just ordinary folks and had been bamboozled into following the demons we were battling.  I ran up to them, screamed at them to leave, and used a Fate Point to make my Intimidate extra terrifying.  As I am already very good at Intimidate they all dropped their weapons and fled.  Much better than simply butchering them, I think, and worthy of a Fate Point.  In the fateful battle Naked Man used one to leap on his Gryphon and join the ongoing battle instantly instead of waiting a turn to make it happen.  Again, flying into battle with a desperate acrobatic maneuver is a fantastic use of a Fate Point.  Both of these are far more interesting than a simple "I gain some HP!" or "I hit!"

The trick is that some but not all people come up with all kinds of odd ways to use Fate Points in the middle of challenging situations.  I want to encourage that!  I like the idea of chandelier swings, marvellous coincidences, and other heroics and I think Fate Points are a good way to let people do that sort of thing.  However, some people clearly struggle to figure out when they can do something crazy and wonderful and aren't sure when to spend their Fate Points.  I have the basic and kinda boring things listed so that people who don't have that flair for the dramatic to get some use out of their Fate Points.

What I am wondering is if I should really force the issue.  If I write up Fate Points and say that what they do is let you break the rules but refuse to provide a numerical benchmark then people are going to have to sort something out.  Either that or just watch their Fate Points vanish into thin air since you can have at most three of them stored up.  Perhaps by providing the option to simply gain HP or land a successful Hit I am providing a crutch for people to not push themselves to do the awesome stuff that makes for long lasting memories.

In the case of The Poet I am not sure this would work.  He isn't much for dramatic gestures and tends to hoard his resources so I suspect no matter what the system is he will end up with his Fate Points maxed and still not spend them.  However, it seems to me that I might well do better with some other people.  Make it clear that Fate Points are for cool stuff and aren't about just hitting more and see if that incentive gets them thinking outside the box.

At least getting dead let us try one hilarious thing:  The Reincarnate Ritual!  Sadly for The Poet a six was rolled so instead of returning in a new but somewhat similar body he turned into a bear that got very grumpy at the party and ran off.  The mercenaries we hired that got blowed up fared somewhat better and four of the six of them ended up back alive as people - though a couple of them weren't the same species as before!  I am not sure that they will continue to follow us, and certainly the turtle will just have to make its own way in the world now.  The cat that remembers being a person is apparently going to come with us, at least until a fireball takes him out for good.