Thursday, October 20, 2016

Overly attached

In the current version of Heroes By Trade I have a system that controls how people use magical items called Vessels.  Characters can attune to Vessels to gain access to their abilities and benefits.  This Attunement process is different from Vessel to Vessel - an executioner's axe might require you to chop off the heads of people guilty of treason, a jewel might require you to wear it in your necklace for a year while signing a song to it every day, and a roc's feather might require you to save birds from danger.  In this way characters have quests and stories that unfold as they get access to greater abilities.

How many Vessels you can Attune to is regulated by the Presence stat.  Presence functions much like Charisma does in DnD but I like the name better because this stat also determines how powerful your influence on the world is, and thus how many Vessels you can control.  This all worked well, as far as I am concerned.

A couple days ago In The Hat emailed me to suggest that this system might be used to allow people to have familiars by using their Attunement slots on the familiar instead of a Vessel.  Wizards having magical pets or rangers having animals that follow them around is a constant trope in fantasy, so it seems quite reasonable to allow this in some fashion.  I haven't so far though because as a class function pets are a real problem.  They never end up balanced in combat and always end up being broken one way or another.  Sometimes they just die to AOE effects and then are useless, other times they are invincible and end up being able to block hallways and doors in ways that just shouldn't be.  In extreme cases they end up more powerful than other characters.

However, if a pet or familiar comes into the game using this system it isn't going to be a powerful combatant.  It might provide combat bonuses to the character, but mostly it would act as a scout, have magical abilities, give access to skill bonuses, or something like that.  It could be really interesting and it would be easy to figure out how good the pet should be by looking at the guidelines for Vessel power.  I really like this idea.

I think the idea can be further expanded though.  Rather than Attunements being about Vessels with an exception for familiars I think they should be much more broad.  For example, if there is a battlefield where a horrible magical battle took place and the battlefield is magical and/or haunted, a character could Attune themselves to that very place.  This could grant them substantial powers that are related to the battlefield and which mostly apply only if the character is there.  Think of a druid in a sacred grove, a paladin in a holy chapel where a desperate defence against undead took place, or a warlock defending their tower.  In these places these characters often manifest special abilities and are much stronger than they would be otherwise.

I wouldn't necessarily expect a lot of players to choose this option because players usually move around a lot.  However, having that be a thing would make it possible for the GM to build opponents that truly are terrifyingly dangerous in their lair and not have it wreck the game world otherwise.

Probably the best way to approach it would be to have players Attuned to places gain a small benefit that goes with them, perhaps half of the normal benefit of a Vessel in power, but have a massive benefit worth double what a Vessel normally is that only applies when in the area that the character is Attuned to.  This way it doesn't feel worthless under most circumstances but it is truly amazing when that character is in their home base.

This also opens up the possibility of having characters Attune to other things.  Rather than pitch Attunement as being about controlling Vessels I could simply say that it gives you power over the world and make controlling Vessels, places with special magic, and familiars as three examples.  That gives the GM freedom to decide what other possibilities might exist and a framework for figuring out how powerful those possibilities should be.

I find this especially appealing because it makes Presence awesome.  I love the idea of people having this gravitas, this potency, that others can detect and having that be part of the world.  For all of Naked Man's criticism of Presence I don't think even he could resist stacking a lot of it if he could see all kinds of really cool stuff you can do with it.

Possibly I should also change the way I do Attunements.  Right now they are set up so that you get one Attunement at 3 Presence, 2 Attunements at 7 Presence, 3 Attunements at 11 Presence, and 4 Attunements at 15 Presence.  However, instead I could just assign each Vessel, familiar, or magical place a value and say that it takes that much Presence to Attune to it.  All current Vessels would convert to taking 4 Presence points to control, but I could easily create new ones that are extremely powerful and require a lot of Presence, or relatively trivial ones that take less.

So many grand new ideas to play with!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Heal me

Years ago I got myself in a lot of hot water fighting about healing in raids.  At the time I was a retribution paladin in WOW and the fight was about whether or not I should reduce my damage dealt in order to provide healing to the raid.    I was advocating for the use of Glyph of Divine Storm that randomly spewed healing onto the raid to the tune of about 3% of a healer's output, which required me to give up Glyph of Exorcism which increased my damage by about .5%.  There was much disagreement and shouting and gnashing of teeth.

That debate has come again.

This time it isn't even close.  I am totally right.  But people don't seem to believe it, even still.

The details are the talent choice for Retribution paladins at level 75.  One choice is a really piss poor attack that is basically only useful for levelling early on and solo world content.  The other choice is a spell that is only good when you are being attacked in melee... so really only useful for levelling and solo world content.  The third choice is Word of Glory, a very powerful heal that is comparable to big healing cooldowns like Tranquility or Healing Tide Totem.

And the professionals basically all say you can just take whatever because none of them are any good.

The thing is, Word of Glory requires that you give up damage to use it.  You replace a usage of your best finishing move with a Word of Glory cast.  To evaluate how good this is, I figured out over the course of a raid how much each ability would do.  If I use Word of Glory as often as possible I will output about 18% of a healer's total output.  Each usage is about half as powerful as a major healing cooldown, but I can use it a lot more often and I can use it twice in a row if I want.

Doing this costs me about 4.5% of my damage.  That isn't nothing, but it means that I am actually outputting a serious amount of healing that can potentially change the course of the encounter.  In the original debate years ago I was getting a better ROI - I got six times as much healing per dps (3% from .5%) whereas now it is only about four times as much healing per dps (18% from 4.5%).  The big difference this time though is that the healing is controllable.  Word of Glory has a 1 minute cooldown and can accumulate up to 2 charges so I don't just spew out healing randomly, I save it for when something terrible happens and then pump it out.  This is basically the best kind of healing because I let the healers do their thing for most of the raid but when disaster happens or the one really awful ability hits I can step up and deliver a really serious amount of help.

This to me seems like a no brainer.  You don't have to cast Word of Glory on any given boss if it isn't going to be helpful, so taking it has little cost.  If healing is being solid, you can just keep on doing damage.  However, the ability to pound out a really big chunk of healing on demand when the situation calls for it is extremely powerful and raids really ought to be taking advantage of it.

The fact that Holy paladins don't have a good big healing cooldown like this is a real factor, but people don't seem to have noticed that you can just get a Ret paladin to do that in many circumstances.  If a healer didn't bother to talent for a great healing cooldown (especially when the alternative is pratically irrelevant) they would be pilloried, but apparently Ret paladins aren't expected to.

This all goes back to arguments about raid slots years ago.  Hybrids like paladins were often brought on raids for their utility and they had lower damage to compensate.  Eventually Blizzard decided that this was a poor design and they decided to give everyone comparable damage and utility instead.  Getting there took a lot of crying from hybrid damage dealers, and there was a huge pushback against the idea that they should sacrifice damage for defence or buffs.  I get that.  It sucks to be a damage dealer and to see everyone else dominate you on the meters.  It feels good to look at your numbers and see that you are keeping up.  Some people can feel good about protecting and buffing, others not so much.

But this mindset of 'damage dealers should ignore healing' is not ideal for pushing the hardest content.  At some point you absolutely have to figure out how to squeeze the absolute most out of your raiders and when you have the option to bring some really powerful stuff to the table at a cost of damage you have to consider it.  Sometimes it is the wrong move, certainly, but other times you give up a single offensive cast to have someone in your raid live instead of die and then it is a massive win.  People are just letting themselves get too locked into the idea that healers do healing and dps do damage instead of thinking that there is damage to be done and healing to be done and you just have to figure out the best way to cope with that.

Yes, it sucks to give up damage and lose your spot on the damage meter.  Yes, noticing when the raid takes damage is annoying because you only want to focus on dps.  But at some point you need to realize that you win when the boss is dead, not when you are on top of the meter, and this means that you absolutely need to use tools like Word of Glory.  It isn't a small thing, it is really powerful, and ignoring it is a real waste.

Monday, October 10, 2016

More damage

Last night I was playing WOW and ended up in a guild group going to do Mythic Court of Stars Rank 4.  I was not optimistic about our group's ability to beat the timer, but I figured we would at least pick up some loot.  This was largely because the dps requirement to beat this dungeon is fairly high and we didn't have enough people who really crank it out.  Nonetheless we finally found a healer after sitting around for quite some time and off we went.

It was messy.  We made it through the first chunks of trash but there were some wipes, largely due to accidentally getting two groups at a time.  The healing was a mess and our healer was constantly out of mana so I ended up healing the group up a lot between pulls even though I was specced for damage.  I was amazed at how hard the trash hit, because people were just dying too much.

We downed the first boss without that much difficulty and moved on through the dungeon.  A few pulls after the first boss we wiped again and somebody asked

"uh, wait, who is healing?"

So we all looked at the party and realized that the 'healer' we had added in as our fifth was in fact specced for damage and hadn't been healing at all.  He thought *I* was healing.  Then I looked at the damage meters and realized that yes, there are clearly five people attacking and nobody healing.

You might think that at this point since we had three people in the group with healer offspecs we would be fine.  You would be wrong.

Unfortunately all three damage dealers who had that option had no practice and no gear for their healer setup.  I am set up as dps/tank and the other two only dps.  Undoubtedly it would have been easier to do the dungeon with a bad healer than no healer, but not much, since all the enemies would die slower.

We all laughed at ourselves a lot.  "These enemies hit hard" we had said.  "This dungeon is brutal" we had said.  But nobody wondered why they dipped down to 10% health and then just sat there!

We ended up just giving up.  I feel okay with this because it was hilarious and silly and it made me laugh a lot.  How can you be bitter about such an absurd outcome?

So to everyone out there - You can do difficult dungeons without a healer.  People will die a lot.  It might be really fun.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


I have been playing a lot of Castles of Mad King Ludwig lately.  Most of my games have been with people who don't know the game and so there has been a lot of teaching.  Castles has a lot of complexity to it so I find that teaching the entire ruleset ends up being too much for people and they suffer from analysis paralysis.

The trick for me was to figure if it made sense to teach the entire game to new players or if instead I should cut corners to make it simpler.  I don't want to teach them bad habits or strategy by cutting out rules, and I don't want to make the game trivial.  I am hunting for a way to teach the game to people so that they understand how it plays without having so much to think about.

I ended up making two changes to the game and I think they are the right ones.  The first change is to bonus cards.  Normally at the beginning of the game you get three bonus cards and keep two of them, and then sometimes during the game you gain two more of them and keep one of the two.  I decided to just deal out the cards to people without choice - instead of three choose two, you just get two.  Instead of two choose one, you just get one.

This basically keeps the gameplay the same but means that players don't have to start picking cards and making choices before they have any idea at all what those choices mean.  It also means that I don't have to explain all the cards to everyone ahead of time - they can just muddle through and get their points at the end.  It does make the game more random but since they are playing against *cough* the second best player in the world *cough* that is good for them.

The other change I made is the random ranked bonuses that happen at game end.  In the base game four tiles are chosen randomly, each of which gives a particular type of thing that will grant bonus points at game end based on which player has the most of them.  What I did with my training version of the game is simply keep those ranked bonuses hidden.  At the end of the game we flip them over and lots of people get bonus points but people can't actually work towards them during the game.

This also pushes rules explanations to the end of the game which is a thing I like.  I often find that games that start with an enormous rules speech are frustrating for everyone when people really just want to get in there and start doing things.

Again the game gets more random with this change, but I think it helps make things simpler for the newbs and gets them into the fun of building a castle without quite so much calculation.  In their second game of course I would play by the standard rules.

If anyone has other ideas for teaching Castles or any other game please do feel free to comment, as is is a thing I am curious about.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Reduce, Recycle, and

Legion, the newest WOW expansion, does something that the game really has never done particularly well before - reusing content.  It used to be that you killed some mobs in Westfall, finished the zone, and then basically never went back unless you really wanted some obscure achievement.  In doing so you also levelled past multiple other zones at the same level so there was always a huge amount of content that you never really got to experience unless you played multiple characters.

In essence the things that Blizzard created were usually really limited in use.  It is far simpler to create content this way because it requires little planning and design can be clunky and inelegant.  However, you spend a lot of effort making big zones that see limited use.  Sloppy, but simple.

Legion is quite different.  Blizzard is working really hard on making the content reusable to a large degree.  One way is the way that the zones all scale with your level so that max level players have a large area they can usefully be in.  Blizzard also added tons of world quests with important rewards so players spend a lot of time running into each other on the map instead of chilling in town or doing instances.  This is all really quite good, to my mind, and definitely lets them get a lot of content in without building more areas.

The other thing they have become good at is stuffing more things into a space by using three dimensions.  Legion is chock full of caves and cliffs and reasons to go up and down.  In Suramar city they level this up even more by having lots of encounters on ledges and rooftops, and there is plenty of hopping from beam to beam to trying to collect treasures and mana bits.  You run around the city a bunch, then eventually realize there is another whole level above you that you need to pay attention to.

It must have been a pain in the butt designing all of that!  Figuring out which things are part of quests and which things are also being used for end game content and fitting it all into the world is a challenge.  So many puzzles pieces going together means you really need good communication on the design team.

It feels a lot like the way I was taught to code back in the day.  You can build a new piece of code for every situation, but it is generally far better to build it in reusable pieces instead.  That way you can be a lot more efficient overall.  It requires you to plan ahead more but in the long run building reusable code saves you a huge amount of time and is so much easier to work with.

Building worlds is complicated.  I think Blizzard has taken a lot of their lessons from the old days and really put them to good use, and it shows.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Walkin' it back

When I heard about the changes coming to WOW with the new Legion expansion I was hesitant about one thing in particlar:  Zone scaling.  The newer zones change based on your level so that they keep pace with you as you level up and as such you can do them in any order you like.  Also they scale with each player's level independently so even if there is a big disparity in levels between two players they can play together easily.  It turns out I was wrong in my initial impressions - these changes are great.

I was worried that this would lead to things feeling wrong somehow - monsters immediately scaling up in power when you level seems like it should erase any sense of progress and impede immersion.  I think those effects exist to some extent, but they are dwarfed by the benefits of this change.  While it is nice to feel monsters getting easier, that makes combat feel trivial and silly.  It is good at points to really get a sense of character progression but I think there is an optimal difficulty while levelling that you lose when monsters fall behind.

Plus it is just so great to be able to play with other people who aren't at your level!

Wendy and I played together despite there being a five level difference and it was totally smooth and seamless.  Normally we can't play together at all because I always end up rushing ahead of her in progression so this change was most welcome.

That isn't all though.  This change means that the world continues to be relevant after levelling.  Legion does a fantastic job integrating the zones you level in with the endgame content and that is wonderful.  Endgame in WOW has in the past mostly been about instances for a long time and I really love the new change in philosophy.  Having tons of quests scattered throughout the world that constantly change and refresh (and those quests being very relevant) anchors the endgame in the world that you explored while levelling up.

In short, while there is something lost by having zones scale, the gains are so much greater.

You can't just make every zone scale from 1-110 though.  Much of the content and quest lore makes no sense under that system.  You basically have two choices here.  First is to make all vanilla zones scale from 1-110 so any characters can play together, but keep the higher level stuff that came with expansions gated behind the levels that they have currently.  Under this system Elwynn Forest, a starter zone, would be 1-110 but Northrend, the second expansion, would be available for 68-110 characters.

That system makes playing together easy for basically any characters, but it does mean that high level people don't have trivial zones they can ignore.  Maybe that is a good thing though.

The other option is a small amount of scaling that makes questing and grouping easier in general but lets high level characters have their absurd power level.  Under this system you would make Elwynn Forest scale from 1-30, for example, and Northrend would scale from 68-80.  You still get to outlevel zones but you won't outlevel them while playing through them, and you can play with anyone close to your level.

It is hard to say exactly which would produce the best overall experience but I suspect the first would.  I didn't like the scaling in theory but I love it in practice.  I would be all for trying this new system in a big way and seeing if it made the world a better place to be.

And by world I mean the world of warcraft.  Which, right now, is better than ever.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A good fix?

Hearthstone Arena drafting is getting some changes.  They are good changes, aimed toward a goal I approve of, but without knowing exact mechanics it is hard to say just how effective they will be.

The problem in Arena that they are trying to solve is that some classes are so much better than others.  Mage and Rogue in particular are absolutely a tier above everything else and that is frustrating.  I would like to play other classes regularly, but I hate selecting a class knowing it seriously penalizes my chances of winning and my card acquisition rate as a consequence.

There are two reasons for Mage/Rogue dominance.  First off in Arena there is a real lack of AOE and other control resets.  This means that the game revolves around minions beating each other up.  Against most classes the ideal situation is you smash minions together so that the opponent's minion dies and yours is left with 1 health.  This doesn't work well against Mage and Rogue, because they have by far the best hero powers for doing 1 damage.  Against these two classes you can't effectively make awesome trades and they can, so they dominate the 'minion trading' part of the game, which is most of the game in Arena.

The second reason for Mage/Rogue dominance is just card quality.  I think Mages in particular have it so good in this department - they have tons of common removal spells that are absolutely top tier.  They have both multiple common AOE spells but also single target removal.  Rogues get worse cards generally than mages but they still have a fantastic selection, better than other classes do.

Changing the first problem is a massive undertaking at the least.  It would require a total overhaul of how Arena works, or a serious game redesign, both of which are things I think are not happening.  However, changing card quality isn't actually that hard and doesn't need to do anything that would confuse a new or returning player.

Blizzard has decided that they want to move forward with this, so they are banning several top cards for Mage and Rogue and also banning a ton of terrible cards from weak classes.  They correctly chose which classes were underperforming, and honestly the cards they are set to remove are mostly so terrible they saw little play anyway, so I think this is a good direction to go in.  They can't get rid of the overpowered hero powers that Rogue and Mage have, but they can use careful banning to try to narrow the gap.

There is a real trick to this though.  If those cards just vanish, then all the weak classes will end up with less cards to work with, and as such will be stuck more often with neutral cards.  Neutral cards are weaker and less thematic so this is not ideal.  It is still an improvement, but it isn't all it could be.  If instead of just getting rid of the bad cards Blizzard added on an extra multiplier to the remaining class cards they could really make things better.  So imagine that of 20 Priest cards 5 were removed.  If they increased the occurrence rate of the remaining 15 cards by 33% then Priests would still get class cards at the same rate, but they would all be good ones instead of 1/4 of them being rubbish.  This is a much more powerful change that would help maintain theme and increase the buffing effect of the banning.

However, given that Blizzard has said that right now they can only do on/off for cards, and can't subtly alter their rate of appearance, I suspect that they are stuck with the basic option which isn't as good.  It will still help, but hopefully their tech improves over the next while and they can help even more.

I don't ask that classes be perfectly balanced in terms of win rate.  These things shift with new releases and depend on who is playing, but right now it is so obvious that Mage/Rogue are the best that it feels sad to play other things.  I don't want everything perfect, but I do want them in the same ballpark.  It is a weird bit of balance - I don't mind individual drafts being wildly unbalanced, but I do mind class choice being that way.  I think it is because I like to make all of my choices optimally, and if I play optimally right now I see only a small fraction of the cards and decks that are possible.  If the classes were balanced I would win the same amount, but I would have much greater variety of decks and experiences while getting those wins, and that is highly appealing.