Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Monsters

I have settled on a format for my monster presentations in Heroes By Trade.  I did some digging to see what various DnD editions used in terms of organization and I am pretty pleased with my final design.  It is tricky to walk the line between so much information that the important things get lost and too little information to run the game properly.  Here are the entries for three monsters, the first two of which are examples of different monsters with similar overall Encounter Strenth (20 and 17) but with wildly different stats and tactics.  Will O The Wisps are outrageously fast and use long range attacks and high Dodge value to rarely get hit.  When they do end up getting hit they explode almost instantly.  Giant Crabs on the other hand are very tough, massively resistant to weapons, and are big slow thugs.  Both monsters have specific skills that they are particularly talented at that are noted at the bottom.  Of course no monster list would be complete without a Dragon!

Giant Crab
ES    20
Size  2
Reach  2
Speed  3
Dodge  16
Armour  5
KO  110
Powers
Double Claw:  +6 Hit, +12 Damage against two targets.

Clumsy Rush:  Move, then +6 Hit, +12 Damage.
Traits
Tough Shell:  Resistant to Physical damage.

Swimming:  Normal speed while under water.
Aspects and Skills
Str       Dex        Con       Int        Will      Pres
 10         4            4          1           4           1
Hiding:  9
Might:  18

Giant crabs are aggressive carnivores who rely on their incredible natural armour to keep them safe from enemies.  They are as tall as a human but very wide and tremendously strong with claws that are half a meter in length.  These claws have terrifying strength and can crush or smash nearly anything in the crab's way.  They generally move slowly but can move much more quickly in short bursts.  These creatures are happy to attack anything that moves and which appears to be a significant sized meal.  They usually stay on shore or under water and are remarkably skilled at camouflaging themselves despite their great size.

Will O The Wisp
ES    17
Size  1
Reach  -
Speed  10
Dodge  22
Armour  2
KO  20
Powers
Disrupt (R):  +12 Hit, +12 Lightning Damage and Confused for 1 round.

Seizure (R):  +10 Hit, Stunned for 1 round.

Vanish (R):  +10 Hit, +12 Lightning Damage and Will O The Wisp is invisible for 1 round.
Traits
Immunities:  Lightning.

Flying:  Speed 10 flight, can hover.

Construct:  Destroyed when KO.
Aspects and Skills
Str       Dex        Con       Int        Will      Pres
  1         12           4          8            4            4
Alertness:  13

Will O The Wisps are glowing balls of electricity somehow imbued with intelligence and purpose.  They are malevolent and destructive and seek to maximize the carnage and discord they sow wherever they go.  They can hover and are incredibly fast and as such they favour ambushes in terrain where their opponents will be unable to maneuver properly.  Will O The Wisps love hit and run tactics where they dash in and out of range using their speed and ability to be temporarily invisible to confuse their opponents.  Normally Will O The Wisps are solitary but sometimes they will cooperate to attack some particularly difficult foe.

Dragon
ES    100
Size  5
Reach  3
Speed  6
Dodge  16
Armour  13
KO  250
Powers
Elemental Breath:  Blast 7. +14 Hit,
+20 Fire / Cold / Lightning damage.

Savage Bite:  +14 Hit, +30 Damage + Persistent.

Tail Swipe:  Blast 3.  +14 Hit, +20 Damage + knocked Prone.

Terrifying Roar:  All targets within 5 spaces of the dragon.  +14 Hit, Afraid for 2 rounds.
Traits
Flying:  Speed 20 while flying.

Elemental Resistance:  Resistant to Fire / Cold / Lightning damage.
Aspects and Skills
Str       Dex        Con       Int        Will       Pres
 24         2            6           8          10           9
Intimidate:  17
Magic Theory:  13

Dragons are one of the legendary threats in the world but are rarely seen as they generally live far from civilization.  They are incredibly intelligent and usually have knowledge of a great number of Rituals and other secrets.  They have four legs, a long tail, and huge wings that allow them to cover enormous distances at high speeds.  Because of their size dragons find it difficult to take off and require a decent and uninterrupted run to take to the skies.  They cannot fight effectively while flying and must land to engage their enemies. 

The most famous dragons breathe fire but there are other types that breath cold or lightning using their Elemental Breath.  Each dragon is Resistant to the damage type that their Elemental Breath deals.  Fire dragons are red, cold dragons are blue, and lightning dragons are yellow in colour. 

The stories tell that all dragons are unnaturally attracted to valuables, with yellow ones liking gold, blue ones liking silversteel, and red ones liking adamantium.  They often hoard treasure in their lairs and sit in total bliss, mesmerized by their finds.  Those that can kill them and take their hoards can expect to be well and truly rewarded for their efforts.

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

There are of course many monsters that are much simpler than the ones shown above.  Lots of the creatures I have designed are basically just thugs who bash people's faces and don't have a ton going on in terms of mechanics.  I think this is a good thing to have, particularly for the new GM who doesn't want to deal with a ton of weird rules and options.  Sometimes all you want is a bear or a zombie who can lay on some beats.

Brown Bear
ES    18
Size  2
Reach  1
Speed  7
Dodge  15
Armour  8
KO  100
Powers
Rend:  +7 Hit, +10 Damage + Persistent.

Charge:  Move, then +7 Hit, +10 Damage.
Aspects and Skills
Str         Dex        Con       Int        Will       Pres
  8           5             4          2            4            1

Bears are usually uninterested in humanoids and will avoid them in most cases.  They generally subsist on berries, grubs, or fish.  If a bear is particularly hungry, rabid, or protecting its cubs however it will attack and eat people.  Bears can run very quickly and climb trees so they are exceedingly difficult to escape from when they do decide to attack.

Zombie
ES    2
Size  1
Reach  1
Speed  5
Dodge  14
Armour  3
KO  20
Powers
Teeth:  +4 Hit, +6 Damage.
Traits
Undead:  Immune to Afraid.  Falls to dust when KO.
Aspects and Skills
Str       Dex        Con       Int        Will      Pres
  4          3            4          2            2           0

Zombies are remains of the dead, animated using a Shadow Ritual to mindlessly serve their masters.  They obey the last orders given to them by their creator but unless kept under close supervision they will attack and kill any living creature they happen across.  Zombies cannot make use of weapons and simply claw or bite at opponents with sharp bony fingers and teeth.  Zombies only last 1 month and after that they crumble to dust.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Know your role

As one professional wrestler so regularly informed his enemies, it is important to know your role.  This is particularly true when you are part of a team and there are a variety of tasks to perform that require different sorts of talents.  While people often want to work with others just like themselves there is a huge benefit in having a broad spectrum of abilities, skills, and even approaches to problems when facing an unknown challenge.

This past weekend I was involved in a pair of escape room challenges.  This is a puzzle composed of a number of rooms with many stages that is tackled by a small group of people - in my case 6 and 8 individuals for the two respective games.  The first was themed around the idea of a diamond heist where my group had to break through a series of locked doors using keys, codes, and odd puzzles of all sorts.  The second was set in a mocked up Japanese house that had been the site of a variety of horrible deaths and was filled with plenty of scenes that would fit in nicely in a horror film.  In that one we had free run of the house and had to solve a large number of puzzles in any order to advance to the final challenge.

It was *amazing*.  Not the cheapest entertainment around as it was $40 for two hours but so worth it for the experience.  There were some folks in my group who genuinely found the horror elements of the second game difficult to deal with because the company that did it (Escape Games near Downsview station in Toronto) did a great job on the aesthetics and ambience.  Unsurprisingly I was so engrossed in trying to win the game within the 1 hour allotted I barely registered any emotional reaction to the scenes except to note that they were well done.

In nearly all random groups of people trying such a task I would be the puzzle nerd.  I would expect to be tasked with sitting down grinding out codes or working out interfaces.  However the group I went with had a huge number of hardcore game geeks with strong technical backgrounds so there was no need for me to play that role as it was thoroughly saturated.  I looked around at those playing with me and realized that in this particular group I people I was the physical one, the person who should be running around, yanking on things, bashing myself into objects, and generally trying to solve all of the meatspace portions of the games.  I took to this role so thoroughly that whenever I encountered a new piece of an intellectual puzzle I almost universally handed it to the nearest person and ran off to go push on some other piece of the environment.  As Sthenno put it when I described it "In that group you were the jock!"

It worked beautifully.  I was the one who leapt into the tunnel on my belly, scooting forward under the laser.  I yanked furniture, found secret tunnels, spun wheels, slid things, discovered hidden materials, and jumped into dark, mysterious holes to see what was there.  It was glorious.  So while I feel I played the game pretty well the thing I am most pleased about was how I played the metagame.  There were definitely times when I was just wasting my effort poking at random stuff that had nothing to do with anything while my team solved puzzles but all the things I did do pushed us forward.  When you are taking a specific role in a game like this it is important to accept that sometimes you will be the hero and sometimes you will stand around being useless and you must keep focused on doing what you are good at rather than hunting for all the glory.

I highly recommend this genre of games in general, and Escape Games in particular.  If you do give it a try I definitely suggest going with a group with varied skills and talking about each person's specialties so that everyone can know their role.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Budgeting for complexifimication

I have been busy rebuilding my monster list for Heroes By Trade.  One of the things I have been wrestling with is just how complex I want monster stat blocks to be.  There is a tricky balance to achieve here between offering detail and flexibility of design on one side and ease of use on the other.  As an example I have randomly yanked a monster from DnD 4th edition that is of moderate complexity for that system and I will compare it to a moderately complex HBT monster.

DnD 4th:

Aboleth Lasher Level 17 Brute
Large aberrant magical beast (aquatic) XP 1,600
Initiative +11 Senses Perception +14; darkvision
Mucus Haze aura 5; enemies treat the area within the aura as
difficult terrain.
HP 200; Bloodied 100
AC 29, Fortitude 27, Reflex 25, Will 25
Speed 5, swim 10
Tentacle (standard; at-will)
 Reach 2; +20 vs. AC; 2d8 + 8 damage (4d8 + 8 damage against a
dazed target), and the target is dazed (save ends).
Combat Advantage
 An aboleth lasher makes an extra tentacle attack against any
enemy it has combat advantage against.
Alignment Evil Languages Deep Speech, telepathy 20
Skills Arcana +19, Dungeoneering +19, Insight +19
Str 26 (+16) Dex 16 (+11) Wis 22 (+14)
Con 20 (+13) Int 23 (+14) Cha 17 (+11)

HBT:

Bone Hound
ES    5
Size    1
Speed    6
Dodge    14
Armour    4
KO    25
Knockdown:  +4 Hit, +6 Damage and knocked Prone.

Ravage:  +4 Hit, +6 Damage and Stunned for 1 round.  Only usable on Prone targets.
Undead:  Immune to Afraid.  Falls to dust when KO.

The Aboleth definitely has a more complex stat block than the Bone Hound.  Part of that is the fact that it has more defensive stats to deal with but also there is a bunch of extra information packed in there.  The Aboleth has listings for combat role, stat and skill bonuses for resolving noncombat situations, languages spoken, XP, and slightly more complex combat interactions.  Some of these are junk that I don't think should be in the system at all such as combat role and XP but I am on the fence a bit about things like stat bonuses and skill numbers.

I definitely feel like DnD 4th was too heavy on the preparation required for combat.  Monsters simply had too many options and too many numbers to keep track of.  HBT has much less combat option bloat and that is a good thing in my mind.  I want the GM to be able to figure out if hits land very quickly and that is much easier to accomplish in HBT than DnD 4th.  Also there were a huge number of monsters with all kinds of reactions that took place during opponent turns and abilities that triggered off of hitting the Bloodied health number and such.  Keeping that all in mind for a half dozen enemies at once was just too much of a pain.  HBT monsters have less wacky stuff going on which is unfortunate in that an omniscient GM has a little less to work with but it is an overall gain because combats flow much more quickly and new GMs aren't completely overwhelmed.

They also had completely bizarre stat blocks that made no sense whatsoever - I can't imagine why every high level opponent would have the mind of a transcendent genius even when it is just a big brute that punches players with tentacles.  I think I may want to include Strength, Intelligence, etc. scores in HBT stat blocks because I do want people to think of alternate ways to engage with monsters aside from murder but I really do want to avoid excessive information on the page.  Everything I add in makes it more difficult to find the most useful information quickly.  I definitely want to avoid having every high level monster have enormous mental scores for no appreciable reason.  On the other hand I am pretty okay with gigantic beasties having massive Strength scores!

Of course there is a lot more to a monster entry than just the raw numbers.  I want to have sections that focus on the social structure, language, culture, and biology of the various creatures I describe.  Fitting in all kinds of neat extra stuff that places the creature in the world organically instead of just as a combat obstacle makes things feel a lot more real for everyone involved.  The combat block has to be maximally functional for a GM who wants to quickly and easily run a combat with the creature but the rest of the entry needs to support world building, particularly when players read the monster entries just for interest or entertainment.  I want it to feel like an ecosystem rather than a game structure as much as I can.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Heroes By Trade version 3

I have pushed out a new edition of Heroes By Trade, my fantasy roleplaying game.  We are currently playing version 3 and so far I am very pleased with my changes.  I have switched over to a gigantic spawling Word document instead of a series of interlinked Google docs and I am so glad to have done so.  The transition was a bunch of work but it is so much easier to deal with now.  I wish I had done that from the outset!

HBT Version 3.0

Feel free to check it out and use it and do please give feedback in any case.

My next tasks are twofold:  First, a rewrite and expansion of monsters.  I need to add a ton of different sorts of foes into the game so that GMs have more to choose from.  As part of that I need to clean up the monsters file and get them all on board with new mechanics that streamline the GM's turns in combat.  Version 2 was good but there was too much bookkeeping for the GM when fighting a bunch of monsters at once and the new style cuts back on the unnecessary complexity on that end while keeping the strategies for the players as interesting as ever.

I want to make sure to keep the monster descriptions and text compelling too.  I remember very fondly reading through monster manuals for DnD back in the day and learning all about lammasu diet and mating habits, ogre social structure, and the clothing styles of frost giants.  I do want to get some of those nuggets in there to give players a sense of the world I have built in my head.  Unfortunately I can't imagine I will include anything like the detail that those old 3 ring binders did because I can't possibly justify a full page for every monster in a book I would like to print.  I will just have to make do with small but information dense snippets.

The second task is to bulk up the various racial descriptions with stories.  I am stealing this technique from 4th edition DnD because I liked it so much there.  They put stories right in the racial sections and I think it helped a lot to give people ideas about the sorts of things that they should consider about their characters.  It is all well and good to list what dwarf society is like but I think it will be really useful to put names and backstory together in a way that ties it all up.  For example, dwarven names are all reused and a name's history is of great importance.  A dwarf who carries a particularly valuable name would find that leaving their family was an event of almost catastrophic grief and loss just because of the loss of the prestige of the name itself.

The ways that I have set up nonhuman societies are quite different than most people are used to so this seems like a good way to get that across.  As an example, if you don't read the sylph section carefully you might miss that they are completely sexless and incapable of reproduction (they are born by falling out of the sky and glide to earth on their small wings), or that orkish males are not usually involved in heterosexual relationships and partner up mostly amongst each other (females are 10% of the population and partner up with males if and when they feel like it to produce many offspring).  These situations are so out of the human norm that I think giving people some context for how such a hero could have lived in and left such a society is necessary.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Analizing the format

I did the first test run of Heroes By Trade 3.0 last night.  It is always a bit of a nerve wracking prospect to go into a game session knowing you will have to rebuild characters to new rules before you can play but things went quickly and smoothly and that was a pleasure to see.  The game rules aren't really that different in most cases and the numbers conversions are simple enough but I still fret over this sort of thing a lot because usually there is something key that I have missed.  This time the thing that needed fixing was not a number or an explanation but simply the extraordinarily messy document that people were working from.

I sometimes forget that other people reading my documents aren't familiar with the contents the way I am so I don't worry so much about formatting.  I had all kinds of issues with individual Rituals and Powers wrapping across columns and pages, tables being broken up across sections, and a million other things that made the giant wall of black and white difficult to read.  This is something I often run into in my games - the point where my compulsive need to fix the numbers gets trumped by other people's desire to be able to figure out what the hell my numbers *are*.

So now I am doing the part of game design that isn't so much fun and rewarding but is extremely necessary.  I am spending time reading help files on Word to figure out all the little ways that I can make my document work the way I want.  Also I am spending a ton of time and energy on actually coming up with coherent systems for structure and thinking about things like font size, colour, and organization.  This is something that a lot of people don't think about when they encourage me to sell my games... that if you go commercial you end up spending most of your time doing the annoying administrative stuff instead of the fun game building stuff.

However, I do like the results when I put time in to try to improve my game writing so it is worth it in the end.  I know that how much people like a game is a lot more related to formatting than it is the perfect balance that I work so hard to achieve.  Fiddling with settings in Word isn't entertaining so much but it is a very necessary step in order to get all the stuff I have created out there to the people who might want to make use of it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A helping hand

I have been getting a bunch of testing in on Camp Nightmare this past week while I am visiting my parents for Christmas.  There is a pretty varied set of people that have played with me from a few pretty serious gaming geeks to older relatives.  As you might expect the gamers found it straightforward to pick up but some people really struggled with the mechanics.  It is tricky because I have to be very careful not to try to please everyone.  The people that really want Go Fish and Pictionary aren't going to enjoy the same thing that the players of Agricola and Advanced European Theatre of Operations are.  Pick your target audience and make the best possible game for them, I say.

The trouble with testing the game by playing it with people is that I don't get to see what sorts of mistakes people make on their own.  This manifests itself in two ways:  First, rules explanations and basic understanding of mechanics is always smooth because any misinterpretations are squashed immediately.  I can also leave pieces of the rules explanation out until the appropriate time comes for them to be explained which lets people get a sense of how the game plays without being submerged under endless rules at the start, often rules clarifying mechanics they don't yet understand.  To figure out if my written rules are good and if text on cards in clear I have to step back and watch without playing.  This is hard because I love to play the game!

The second trick is that I don't get to see how people misinterpret situations and individual cards.  It can be very useful to know what sorts of strategies people will try and how those strategies will fail spectacularly.  The simplest example of this is the card called Telescope.

Telescope
Any player may take a Stargazing Action in place of their normal Action.  Doing so costs them 6 Energy but gains 3 Fun.

Everyone who has drawn a Telescope seems hell bent on slapping it down and trying to use it even when doing so is a disaster.  The Telescope is powerful but situational - it is amazing at turning excess Energy into Fun but people often misunderstand how much Energy they need in order to have any to spare.  I have definitely used it to devastating effect but most of the time it is not the best card to play.  For new players though its appeal to efficacy ratio is way too high.

There is also the issue that players lead off with the idea that they should play a card every turn.  They drop down cards that improve Gather Wood actions and then nobody ever bothers to Gather Wood because they are so busy playing their own exciting cards.  Oftentimes they end up playing cards to zero effect because everyone is busy trying to be the hero instead of playing on the team.  This isn't a big issue long term because it rapidly becomes clear that you have to use your resources carefully instead of spending them like water but it is good to know how exactly this sort of thing happens.

One general thing that is completely clear is that new players who just read the rules and go for it will end up with absolutely miserable scores.  I expect a lot of starving to death in the wilderness while people figure out how to deal with all of the Disasters the game throws at them.  Good players will rapidly ratchet up their scores though and I think a group that learns the game together will have the great experience of slow but clear improvement as their mastery increases.  That is one really nice thing about coop games; rather than playing better against opponents that also improve you can actually see your numbers go up to mark your progress over time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Expanding

Sometimes I really get ahead of myself.  I have not yet taken any particular steps to publish Camp Nightmare and yet I find myself extremely involved in planning new expansions for it.  I feel like I have to pour out my ideas somehow, to turn them from buzzing noises in my head into cards and tokens and real things I can touch.  I know that one of the things bad game designers are most guilty of is sticking absolutely everything into their games so I must hold myself back and leave the base game alone but the ideas must go somewhere so expansions it is.

There are some real tricks to expansion design though.  In Camp Nightmare there are plenty of different Disasters and they vary widely in how terrible they are.  Crunch Oops for example is usually pretty innocuous while Poor Planning is really nasty.  Also Disasters determine the length of the game since you have to use all of them.  Given that I can't just print more Disasters and add them in because it would throw everything completely off.

New and more interesting Gear cards is another possibility and it is easier because the size of the Gear deck is not so important and Gear cards are all balanced.  Unfortunately this still constrains my design pretty seriously because the game is based around certain effects being available.  I kind of expect people to get a card that increases their Wood production, have access to a lot of Food cards, and have ways to boost Energy.  Unfortunately if I just create a bunch of new random cards to add to the deck people are often going to lack some of the standard effects and that will throw the game off.

Sleeping Bag
When any player Naps they gain +3 Energy.

For example, I have the card Sleeping Bag which lets the players regain Energy from Naps very efficiently.  I need cards that increase Energy production so I don't want to remove it entirely.  I also don't want to just replace it with an identical card from an expansion called Blankets or something like that - Sleeping Bags are iconic!  I could just make a list of cards that always stay in and put Sleeping Bag on that list but it is a giant pain in the ass to sort through all the cards before each game.

The other difficulty is that some Gear cards interact directly with specific Disaster cards and if I change either deck both of them cease to work as well as a unit.  Dull Blades causes the players to lose 1 Fun for each Axe, Saw, Knife, or Kukri in play and that doesn't work if those cards don't exist!  Unfortunately the only way out of this dilemma seems to be to rebuild both decks completely and in tandem with one another.  Essentially this would mean replacing all of the cards in the game with new ones which unfortunately requires either abandoning a lot of the flavour of the original game, having a big list of cards to take out and put in, or having many of the expansion cards be the same as the original.

The best way around it as far as I can see is to make expansions that include standard cards like Sleeping Bag but which are completely self contained.  The idea would be that you simply choose an entire set of decks before play, either the standard game or one of the expansions.  In theory they are balanced the same as the normal deck but in practice that would be very difficult to achieve precisely.  Not that perfect balance is necessary in a cooperative game mind you but it is definitely something I would like.

My current plan is to make a horror expansion where the players are not only trying to survive mosquitoes and food shortages but also a maniac in the woods who wants to kill them all.  After that it is time for alien invasion and a new mechanic where the players have to keep the aliens from getting a fix on them or they risk being pulled up into a UFO for some bad times.  I can't imagine anyone else playing a camping game with aliens tacked on top of it is going to take the balance as seriously as I will but that has never stopped my obsessions before so I can't see why it would now.