Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The right fix

This past week I spent a good deal of time playing Sentinels of the Multiverse with Hobo out in Nova Scotia.  I have written about this game before - it is a cooperative game where each player picks a superhero and then all of the players try to fight the supervillain together.  The heroes, villains, and locales for the battle all have a variety of mechanics so the games are pretty varied.  Naturally after playing it a few times we spent hours sitting around trying to make it better.

The problem with the base game is that two of the heroes are notably underpowered.  Both Bunker and Absolute Zero are truly wretched characters, to the point that they often feel like they simply aren't playing on the team at all.  We came up with a way to make Absolute Zero passable but it was brutally kludgy (increase max health from 29 to 39, change power from "Shoot myself for 1" to "Shoot myself for 1 and any other target for 2") and I don't generally like playing with heavy handed changes that ignore lore and game feel.

Bunker, on the other hand, went through two stages of fixing that ended up in a really good place.  Bunker's issue is that he is supposed to be a dude in a big mech suit that shifts back and forth between various modes - Recharge mode, Upgrade Mode, and Turret Mode.  That is all fine and good but the problem is that the Modes are hilariously bad.  Recharge Mode makes Bunker tougher and lets him draw more cards but it prevents him taking any actions at all while it is active.  Using it for 3 turns nets you 1 extra card over playing normally but requires you to not do *anything* for those 3 turns which pretty much means giving up the game.  It is hard to imagine a turn based combat game in which an effect reads: "Skip your next 3 turns.  Draw one card." and have that effect be usable.  Bunker's other Mode cards aren't quite as abysmal as that but they are punishing enough that actually using them is pretty much a joke.  All of them have a very nice benefit and all of them have a disadvantage so crippling that you can't play the game.

Our first fix was to take advantage of Bunker's other theme which is discarding cards for useful effects.  Bunker has a couple ways to do this and so we tested out a version of Bunker where the player always draws an extra card every turn.  It worked pretty well as Bunker was able to dig to his decent cards much more efficiently and then discard all the rubbish to power his cannons.  Bunker really felt like he was a part of the team with this fix but there was still a problem - the feel was all wrong.  Bunker's discard pile was always full of Mode cards because that whole chunk of his deck was still garbage.  It might be balanced to draw loads of trash so you can discard it but it doesn't feel like it quite captures the morphing mech suit idea.

Our second attempt at making Bunker workable was to simply remove all of the penalties from Mode cards.  At first glance it seems like removing the text "You may not draw cards or play cards" from an effect *must* result in it being overpowered but Bunker's Modes are so bad that this makes them good but completely reasonable.  Playing Bunker with this setup meant that it was great to drop out a Recharge Mode early to collect some cards and find other combo pieces, swap into Upgrade Mode to play out all the stuff you have drawn, then swap into Turret Mode to gun down the enemies.  You don't have to do it that way of course but not only did this change make Bunker a hero I would want on my team, it also made him feel right.  Bunker felt like a dude driving a crazy shapeshifting robot suit that could do all kinds of things competently.

That is exactly the feeling I am shooting for when I hack games.  I used to be far more willing to just make the numbers work and just go with the a fix like the first one we tried with Bunker but these days not so much.  Now I work a lot harder to make the solution elegant rather than purely effective.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Something to shoot for

Naked Man and I have been going back and forth on comments in my previous posts about how exactly an RPG should be made in terms of how levelling up works and how characters gain power.  There are a few different models to consider, like the 2nd edition DnD model where characters hit huge breakpoints in power that really changed their game.  Fighters getting an extra half attack at level 7, for example, is a huge step up in efficacy.  Mages hitting level 5 and suddenly being able to cast Fireball increased their offensive capabilities to an incredible extent.  The other extreme is something like World of Darkness where every session the characters got a little bit of XP and it could be spent on absolutely anything - no abilities were based on overall character advancement.  Right now Heroes By Trade is very much the second way because you get new things when you level up but a level 15 character does not have substantially different choices than a level 5 character.

Some people really hate the design where some levels are good and other levels are dead - that is, a design where you don't get to do something interesting every time you level up.  Naked Man, on the other hand, dislikes that HBT doesn't have those huge levels where you suddenly become vastly more powerful than before.  He wants something big to look forward to, something that unlocks at a certain point that you could not access before.  Feeling more powerful because you get a big numerical increase is possible but I really don't like it much.  A level that simply makes you do 50% more damage doesn't make combat more fun or grant interesting choices and it does create a scale of increasing power that is a much higher slope than I want for the game.  However, it is possible to create things that require a substantial investment to acquire but which mostly add options rather than raw numbers.  For example, I could have Rituals come in trees and require that people learn 5 Rituals in the tree before learning the most powerful one.  That would create a longterm sense of accomplishment without necessarily blowing the scaling out of whack.

Personally I don't feel that big bumps in progression are necessary for my enjoyment.  I am really excited to pick a new thing each level and that new thing doesn't have to make me extremely powerful compared to what I was before.  Just moving along my list of things I want to do to get to the vision I have for my character at max level is great fun for me.  I know the complaints I have seen about leveling systems have mostly been complaints about dead levels rather than about not having enough cool stuff to do so perhaps Naked Man is really in the minority here and most people just want to get something new and interesting each time and aren't so worried about saving up for a particular thing.  I think I will investigate ways to add in cool new stuff in ways that requires substantial investment and thus can pay off later on and see if that feels good.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Doing cool things all the time

I have completed a pretty substantial change to the way people use Powers in combat in my beta version of Heroes By Trade.  My old system worked by letting people use low ranking Powers at will but if they wanted to use Powers of a rank higher than their Vigour things got tricky.  The Power would still work but using it would Fatigue them and each turn after that they would have to roll to see if they recovered from Fatigue and could use another Power or not.  The higher the rank of the Power you had used, the harder it was to recover from Fatigue.  The system was perfectly fine in terms of balance because players had the choice between using weaker effects consistently or stronger effects occasionally.

Balance isn't what it is all about though.  What the game came down to was people would roll 1d6 on their turn to see if they were going to do something cool or something boring.  Roll high and you get to select an action from a big list of interesting Powers, roll low and you just make a Basic Attack.  What it came down to is that people don't really enjoy rolling to see if they get to have fun this turn.

"Roll to have fun!"
"I failed the roll."
"Haha, no fun for you!"

Rolling to see if you hit is fine.  Rolling to see if you have fun, not so fine.

My new implementation changes this somewhat.  You can still use any Rank of Power you like up to your Vigour.  If you want to use a Power of greater Rank then you have to spend resources to make up the difference.  If I have a Vigour of 8 and want to use a Rank 12 Power I need to spend 4 Focus.  The key to the bit is that Focus is both my Hit Points and my attack resource.  I can use outrageous Powers that do crazy things to the enemies but I will use up my Focus and if I get pounded on I will have nothing left to defend myself with.  This means that no matter what I did last round I can always do something interesting this round and I never end up unable to do anything fun for most of the fight through poor rolling.

This means that people will be allowed to burn themselves out doing incredible things if they want or play it safe if they want and they can switch it up from round to round or fight to fight.  It also means that if they players ever feel like a fight is just taking forever and they aren't worried about losing they can start burning away their Focus like crazy to end things quickly and I like that as a safety valve.  Plus we avoid having one mandatory die roll at the start of each player's turn (which they constantly forgot about!) and we also don't have to remember which Power was used last.

The best part about it I think is that my design space for writing Powers got huge.  Now I can write things that have ludicrous effects and let people burn away all of their defences casting them if they are in the mood for that.  The old limitations on Power effects were fairly stringent because they only went up to Rank 14 but now I can write things at Rank 28 if I am in the mood and that lets me really do some wacky stuff.  I am glad to provide players the opportunity to go all Tellah casting Meteo ("So be it!  Let me life fuel the spell that ends his!") and blow the enemies up good in the name of an epic story.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Complicating things

I have fielded a variety of requests to alter Heroes By Trade to make the strategy more complex and add elements of realism over the time I have been building it.  Most of the recent requests have come from Naked Man and they have been all over the place including things like poison tables, facing, flanking, zones of control, imprecise locations of AOE attacks, support for hex grids, and more.  The other thing Naked Man has advocated for is faster combats that are resolved in much less real time.  Unsurprisingly these two things are very much at odds with one another.   Many of his suggestions like support for hex grids have been spot on and have already been implemented but the others aren't so workable.

Strangely adding in support for hex grids instead of the default square grid setup was really easy.  I had figured that a tactical game would be extremely different on a different grid design but all I had to do was design two sets of AOE effect shapes that could be usefully described with a single set of words.  I eventually settled on the following:

Area 2:  A 2x2 set of squares or a set of three hexes in a triangle.
Area 3:  A 3x3 set of squares or a circle of hexes three hexes across.
Area 5:  A 5x5 set of squares or a circle of hexes five hexes across.
Area 7:  A 7x7 set of squares or a circle of hexes seven hexes across.

Simple enough, and now the game can be played on either a square grid or a hex grid with no change needed in the text.  It isn't a perfect translation but it does allow those purists who hate the fact that diagonal movement is wacky on a square grid to play on hexes and have slightly less mathematical inconsistency.  Slightly.

The rest of the requests have been trickier.  The trouble with adding in facing is that I don't feel that it adds anything to realism.  People standing, frozen in time, waiting while somebody else runs around behind them to stab them in the back isn't realistic any more than not having facing is.  The important question to my mind is whether or not facing adds interesting strategy to the game without making everything take longer.  I don't think there is any way to avoid increasing combat duration because if attacks are more successful from behind a target then every attack must be calculated with an additional input.  One of the core principles of HBT design is that figuring which action is the best should be complicated and very interesting but once you decide what to do it should be very quick to resolve.  Adding in facing definitely increases the complexity of the choice process (good!) and also increases the time to resolve any given action (bad!).

Imprecise locations of AOE attacks have similar issues.  AOE attacks being difficult to aim sounds pretty cool but it would be a brutal slog to play with.  So, you tried to aim at three enemies and just barely miss three allies?  Time to make a whole new extra roll for every one of those targets to figure out if they will actually be affected.  Most likely what this means is that AOE effects simply aren't usable except against groups of enemies that are far away and while it strikes me as reasonable that you don't set off huge explosions near your friends it certainly increases resolution time while adding little to strategy.  I have definitely played with players who would always cast Fireball and end up hitting their friends and players that would never cast Fireball if there was even a chance of hitting a friend and both tended to frustrate people to no end.

Zones of control and flanking were standard in DnD 3.x and while they did have their advantages I think they created more problems than they solved.  Flanking is a pain in the butt to define and explain to new players and has the same problems as facing in terms of constantly altering the math for every attack.  I can't get behind a mechanic that means that melee characters are bad without a teammate and which slows resolution down tremendously.  Zones of control on the other hand have a huge variety of implementations, some of which are good and some of which are a disaster.  Currently HBT uses zones of control but the only thing they do is penalize ranged attacks.  Using a DnD style mechanic where moving past a creature entitles it to a free attack pretty much means you either have a way to negate that attack or you simply never move past a creature.  If I could find a very easy to resolve mechanic that didn't come down to 'never provoke an attack of opportunity ever' I would be interested in using it but so far nothing has come to mind.

Poison tables are actually a thing that doesn't have this sort of tradeoff.  You can have a big scary table with tons of poisons on it that is rarely used and that doesn't hurt anyone else at all.  As long as a feature doesn't bog down the standard game I don't have any issue with it and making a list of poisons and the ways in which they can be stopped is not the sort of thing I was really aiming for the HBT but it is entirely harmless.

Feature creep is the thing I struggle most with when it comes to player feedback on my games whether they be RPGs, board games, calculation tools, or computer games.  The great majority of feedback comes down to 'add this list of extra features' that all sound great but which extend the playtime of the game substantially.  (The second most common request is 'make the game play faster'.)  I actually design my games to a particular timeframe and that means constantly rejecting new feature requests on that basis.  Not that I object to new feature requests - many features like hex grid support can be added with no downside.  Telling people that the thing they want is never going to happen is tough, especially when it sounds cool to me too.  I have to keep my focus though as there is no shortage of very deep, incredibly complex games that absolutely nobody plays because they are brutal to get into and take forever to play.  The world has more of that then it can ever use.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A degree of freedom I had not considered

I have been mulling over how to present systems of measurement in the default world of Heroes By Trade.  Initially I thought I would default to the Imperial system just because it is familiar from DnD but my raw, unabashed hatred of it would not allow it.  I then simply went with metric because it is better but I always felt strange about a fantasy world with such a sensible system that was derived from a relatively precise measurement of the Earth.  For one, one ten millionth of the distance across the Earth's surface from the equator to the pole is not going to be the same distance on a fantasy world for any number of reasons - maybe the world is flat, or bigger, or made of waffles.  My hatred of Imperial waged a long and terrible war against my sense that feet and miles had a more appropriate feel.

I could of course simply make up a totally new system but that felt like it would be clumsy.  As Hobo pointed out, the GM is going to be describing things in terms of yards or meters anyway so if I make a system of measurement that doesn't use a familiar sized standard unit people will be confused and annoyed.

"So, the wall is fourteen dinglehoppers tall."
"Ummm, how high is that in feet?"
"Right, so the wall is eight feet tall...."

This really wouldn't get me anywhere.  I had considered making the standard unit equal to the height of a human (or more likely a satyr, but those are actually very similar) because that would correspond reasonably to two meters / two yards but it would still end up with everybody doing conversion in their heads to a unit they were familiar with.  It would be better, particularly since that would mean that the length of a square in combat would be equal to one unit, but it still isn't ideal.

Then I realized I was being entirely silly.  This isn't a realistic model of the medieval world.  There is a race of creatures called satyrs that were literally created by a being embodying Learning.  Of course they would spend their time creating excellent, consistent, easily learned and remembered systems of measurement.  Even if they didn't, the Being itself could have, nay, would have handed that knowledge down to them manually.  The satyrs don't have the tools of modern science but they do have the desire and discipline to create and enforce a system of measurement that would supersede the whims of monarchs.  After all, the children of those monarchs will be educated by a satyr!

However, I won't have the standard unit of measure be a fraction of a measurement of the planet.  Nor will it be a distance travelled by light in a vacuum in a specific amount of time.  It will be equal to the length of a bigass hunk of adamantium that is so thoroughly magical as to be nigh invulnerable.  Hell, maybe someone will even try to dastardly plot to steal, destroy, or alter the Standard Bar and the characters can try to foil them to preserve the sanctity of the world's system of measurements.  Of course the Standard Bar will be exactly one meter long.

Suck it Imperial!

Monday, July 28, 2014

The words

I wrote a little while ago about a problem in Heroes By Trade - that a mook with a crossbow was simply no threat.  The system has simple hit rolls to make combat quick and does not have instant kill effects so a single enemy ambushing the characters has almost no chance to inflict real damage.  One of the troubles I am running into in this regard is the way people view damage dealt to characters.  People have two ways of taking damage:  First off they have Hit Points that regenerate quickly after combat and represent effort, exhaustion, determination, and focus.  Secondly they have Wound Points that represent actual cuts, burns, and other trauma.  Damage is applied to HP first so it acts as a buffer that prevents serious harm.

Hit Points unfortunately have a history in gaming and that history is a problem.  In particular DnD never really managed to figure out what HP represented with the books talking about it as if it was simultaneously meat damage and fatigue.  In early editions saying that being down 40% of your HP was only exhaustion was ridiculous though as a good long sleep would not cure the damage and magical healing was necessary.  If I am just tired why do I need a cleric to fix me?  Fourth edition with its powerful personal healing was ridiculous in another way - even if I was beaten into bloody unconsciousness and on death's door everything is fixed and back to normal after one night's slumber.

I think this confusion over what Hit Points represent is a good reason to ditch that terminology completely.  It comes loaded with so much baggage from video games, tactical games, and other tabletop RPGs that no matter what I say it represents people are going to end up bringing their own ideas into the mix and that makes the mook with a crossbow problem even worse.  When we aren't even completely sure what losing 15 HP means (Did I dodge?  Am I bleeding?  What is even going on?) then the whole mess becomes much more challenging to deal with and resolve in a manner that is narratively satisfying.

I am thinking I should change the name of HP to Focus.  Hopefully that makes it abundantly obvious that it isn't meat damage and you aren't bleeding, rather you are desperately blocking or bearing down mentally to negate attacks but that doing so costs you.  Eventually you just become too exhausted to lift up your sword to block that incoming swing and it actually does meat damage when the blow connects.  The numbers are very important in a system but sometimes names and framing of concepts can accomplish what numbers alone cannot.

What I wonder is whether or not I should try something crazy to get away from the whole concept of an HP bar that is an integer that simply soaks up damage.  Rewriting the basic damage model at this point is a pretty daunting proposition but I am really enamoured of the idea of running far away from that basic concept to try to make it clearer that people aren't just standing there eating swords to the face and being okay with that because they are powerful.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The big shift

Awhile ago Val introduced me to the game Six.  They were looking for somebody to test their skills as most of their opponents weren't able to put up much of a fight.  I think they weren't trying terribly hard in the first game or perhaps I was just lucky but either way I got through the midgame and then realized that there was an opportunity to get a hard lock on them in the endgame.  The first hard lock I found turned out to be against the rules (which was a good thing, it was ridiculous) but I found another one quickly and won the game.

Val ended up beating me something like 6 games to 4 because they are much more practised at finding the geometries that force wins than I am.  They expressed some dismay at what I had done to the game afterwards though - I have apparently ruined Six for them.  The game originally was all about making trying to arrange tiles to form one of the winning structures and after playing against me it was suddenly about something else entirely.  In order to win Val suddenly had to play a new game that just wasn't as much fun and once you see that new dimension to a game it is pretty hard to ignore it later.

This same sort of transition has happened to me many times.  In particular I remember it happening when playing WOW.  After going through a raid with a huge number of people and getting shiny and amazing gear I just couldn't feel the same way about killing dorks and levelling up by myself.  The challenge and reward of raiding was a whole category up from the rest of the game and once you have tasted that the simple things just lack something.  That transition happened again when I lead raids.  After directing forty people to do complex tasks and having to see everything everyone was doing all at once just taking orders and bashing faces paled a bit in comparison.

You can't go home again.  Except with dragons, and shiny loot.

You can't go back to the giant pile of purple armour soaked in blood in the dragon's lair?

That lacks in panache, I think.  At any rate I apparently wreck games in this way.  Val is happy to play games well but doesn't invest in breaking them the way I do and as we have seen once a game is broken in that way it doesn't get unbroken.  It isn't true of just me of course - many or even most of my friends from university do this same thing to some extent or other and we spent many an hour doing it with each other taking games to whole new levels.  At this point it is a reflex, done automatically.  I can't not see the breaking points and playing a game without trying to win is unsatisfying.  Sadly it means that there are some people I can't play games with because I either have to refrain from breaking the game which makes it no fun for me or I break the game and then it is no fun for them.