Monday, October 15, 2018

Castles in the sky

In my DnD game last night my group is about to assault a flying castle.  We were in the middle of an encounter where we learned the location of the castle and the time at which it would leave, carrying away its enormous hoard of treasure.  We were told that the castle was going to leave in a couple of hours, and it is a few miles away.

(Faugh, miles.  Real roleplaying systems use kilometers!)

The group looked at each other and quickly concluded that we weren't going to the castle.  We were all badly beaten and nearly out of spells and going into a difficult fight was suicide.  With no time to rest there was no hope - it was time to collect the spoils from our previous encounters and go home.  The castle would fly off and we would have to hope that someday it would come back.

Naked Man, the DM, looked at us with panic in his eyes.  He hadn't realized that we were so beat up, that our spells were so low, and that his timeline had left us no time at all to rest.  We were completely correct to run away, no doubt about it.

So he changed things.  He told us the castle was further away than that, and that it would be leaving in a day or so.  That would give us enough time to rest and replenish our strength before invading the castle in our endless search for more money.

This is a challenging decision, from the DM's chair.  It is hard when you build a campaign and have a bunch of important stuff to have the players simply walk away from it.  That is especially true when they are walking away because you gave them a relatively arbitrary answer to a question and only afterwards do you realize that arbitrary answer totally derailed your plans.

It isn't the decision I would have made though; I would just have accepted them walking away and moved on.  If I really wanted to have the characters invade that flying castle I would have brought it back later.  It flies around, so it could easily end up in our path at a later time.  I think that people realizing they can't do something and retreating is a powerful part of a story!  It establishes player agency, and allows them to feel like they can control what they do and that the world will change based on their decisions.

In the past I have let characters really mess things up a lot.  Sometimes they invade buildings by setting those buildings on fire and then the fire spreads to other buildings and then they have to cope with having started a major catastrophe.  Sometimes they have killed important people that I did not think would die, and the plot shifted dramatically because of it.  I really like that sense that I set it up, but the players choose how and when to knock it down, and then we all examine the pieces and figure out where to go from there.

However, I am not working from a written adventure.  I make everything up from scratch so if the characters choose not to go into a particular castle that isn't a huge problem - it isn't as though that is the only castle to go into.  When you are working from a written adventure though there are lots of places the characters *must* go, or nothing happens.  The world has some interesting places and the rest of it is blank.

In one of my previous games I set up a realm that was going through a revolution and the characters had to choose if they wanted to support the revolution, or defend the current order.  (They could have wandered off and ignored the revolution too, I would have rolled with that, but I expected them to pick a side, and they did.)  This changed everything - who was in charge, how the government worked, their command structure, and more.  You sure can't do that in a published adventure.

Naked Man is constrained.  He can't just let us make that big a mess.  But when I am in the command chair I LOVE messes.  I get a gleam in my eyes and cackle wildly when the characters do something destructive and they groan, knowing that their lives are about to get complicated.  I remember in the 2nd edition rules there was a section talking about giving monarchs more hit points so that some crazed player character doesn't overthrow your fantasy kingdom with a single swipe of their sword.... but overthrowing the kingdom with a single swipe of a sword sounds like a ton of fun, from both sides!  There are going to be consequences, often including the death of the character in question, but if you are allowed to do that you tend to think carefully about your choices, and I like that.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Charging off

Escort quests are a pain in the ass.  I remember many of them during my years playing WOW, and the old ones were always the worst.  The NPC you have to escort would always charge off into the middle of packs of enemies, regularly getting itself or you killed.  When the AI wasn't the problem, buggy behaviour would often step in and wreck your day instead, as the NPC would sometimes flat out ignore the fight that was currently going on and go back to walking along its path to find some new stuff to engage.

It turns out escort quests in Gloomhaven are just as bad.  Maybe worse.

(Spoilers for scenario 19 and two mini class ahead.)

My Gloomhaven group took its first legit loss last week as we did as escort quest where, Hail, the idiot NPC, walks towards the end of the dungeon, 2 hexes per turn.  At least in WOW the NPCs usually stop and punch the enemies as you engage them, but Hail doesn't even do that.  She rushes to the end of the dungeon as fast as possible, ignoring all threats to her health and well being.  She opens doors and walks into traps and is all kinds of stupid.

We had things seemingly under control in the third room when Hail walked into the doorway to room four.  All the monsters in the room activated and took their turns, instantly smashing Hail from full to dead, ending the scenario.

I had completed this scenario with my other Gloomhaven group previously so I knew how bad it would be, but I didn't want to give too many spoilers to the folks doing it for the first time.  I did tell them that this is by far the most difficult scenario I had found to date and that we would most likely lose, but Naked Man was convinced that I was simply lacking confidence.  The reason I won with my first group is that I am playing the Beast Tyrant class and thus have a card that swaps the location of any two figures on the board.  This allowed me to swap Hail back to the start of the dungeon once she was halfway through, and the extra five turns it took her to get back on track was key to surviving.  Without that card, we would have lost *hard*.

Even now that we know how the escort quest works and where the enemies will appear it isn't clear to me that we would win on our next try.  The internet has lots of stories of people who find this scenario to be heinously difficult, and I quite agree with that assessment.  Certainly this escort is drastically more difficult with 2 players because you can't block Hail from walking about as easily.  With 4 players you can devote a much greater amount of time to slowing Hail down just by taking up space, and that is an important advantage.  In WOW you can't do this sort of thing of course because NPCs will just walk through you, but in Gloomhaven you can keep Hail pinned in fairly easily, if you devote the resources to it.

Now the burning question is:  What do we do about this loss?  Naked Man thinks that we should roleplay it properly, which means never attempting the scenario again, because we lost it.  I don't get that, because if we roleplay it properly it means that Hail died, so we can't use her services as an enchanter again, nor can we do any scenario that references her.  That is ridiculous, and would break a lot of the game, so I can't get behind it. 

I figure we should just git gud and beat the damn scenario on our next playthrough.  We made all kinds of terrible mistakes and I think we can do it just fine so long as we learn from our problems and keep it tight.  However, the rest of the group seems to be in Naked Man's court here, figuring that once we lose a scenario we should abandon it.  Gloomhaven does have a lot of content, so we can probably do that for quite a while before it stonewalls us.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Many good options

I just finished my first game of Agricola with the newest expansion.  It has two key changes that both really improve the game - first, it adds a space that can be used as a sheep/pig/cow space at any point, or as a Family Growth from round 5 onward.  I love the extra FG in the game, particularly for the four player version.  I am not a fan of the way that the FG queue works in the old version and I dislike how important it is to gamble on start player into FG.  Having a guaranteed FG on round 5 makes sure that people can plan around growing, there is much less gambling on the timing of the regular FG tile flipping, and it also makes building extra rooms a lot more appealing.  There is so much more FG available that going up to four or five rooms becomes a lot more appealing, and I like that.

The second big change is the way the cards are designed.  One thing about the old Agricola game is that the best occupations and improvements are often the most boring and generic ones.  There are a bunch of improvements that require a number of occupations in play and give points and food.  For example, Swan Lake.

This is a good card.  It rewards you for doing something you probably want to do anyway, and is good with nearly any strategy.  Everyone wants points, everyone wants food.

But while it is a good card, it is not a good card for the game.  Everyone wants to grab Swan Lake and it works with everything.  Static value like this is boring.  What makes a game a lot more interesting is cards that are situational.  You want them to be good, but you want to make sure that they are good for specific strategies, and they should require you to have to alter your plans to best use them.

Clay Supports is a strong card and I like having it, but sometimes you don't want to use it.  You have to consider if you are going to want to build up to 5 rooms (or more aggressively, renovate to clay and build to 4 rooms).  This is an example of how cards should be made - high power level, but requiring you to think about how and when to use them.

The newer version of Agricola is full of cards like Clay Supports, both in terms of improvements and occupations.  There are all kinds of powerful things you can do, but they aren't just generic buffs.  They consistently need you to set up to make them powerful, or alter your game style substantially.  They really got away from the 'have a bunch of stuff'' cards, and that is a great thing.  In part this is great because it encourages finding interesting combos.  You really want to find cards that work together, that let you pursue narrow strategies.  With boring cards like Swan Lake there is no combo - they work with anything.  These new cards though you can't just make a tier list and draft from it - you have to carefully consider what you have and what sorts of things your cards are going to be good at.

The other thing that the new cards do is to shore up strategies that are generally quite weak.  One thing I found in Agricola classic is that grain and baking grain is not good.  The major improvements suggest that baking was designed to be a normal way to feed your family but realistically it is pretty garbage unless you have a lot of support for it.  The fundamental problem is that getting a single grain for an action is trash.  Baking is risky, and you can get blocked, so it needs to be powerful to make up for it.  In the new version there are a ton more ways to get grain and baking has a much better overall support base.  Simply put, the strategies people use to feed themselves are much more varied than they are in the base game, and I really appreciate that.

That isn't the only example though.  I got an improvement that gave me 3 food every time I took a grain, but only if the Plow space was already occupied.  3 food bonus on a space is huge, and is a good way to make a grain food plan work.  However, you have to use the grain space at specific times and you can get blocked, so you have to plan carefully around it.  This is a great card because it only works in certain circumstances, it supports some strategies but not others, but when it does work it is fantastic.

It does seem that the combination of better cards and faster FG really powers up the game.  In the game I played I tied for first in a 50/50/50/45 game.  The players were really top drawer, so high scores aren't surprising, but this is still huge even given that.  We had one player run a occupation strategy, one got 11 bonus points from a grain based improvement, and I did a fast reno to stone and played Manservant and Plow Driver to get my big game.  It felt to me like Umbra, who scored 45, didn't really have a particular *thing* that he was doing, and maybe that was why his score was lower.  (He also only needed a single plow action to get to 50, to be fair.)

(I admit, it is kind of funny that I got my big score in the new game with some cards that are in the classic game, but these are well designed cards from the classic game.)

I like a game where you put together a bunch of pieces to do big, cool stuff.  The new agricola seems like it does that, and I certainly hope to play it as often as possible over the old one.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Just me

Isaac Childres, the dude who created Gloomhaven is a pretty generous sort.  After the game did well he went to work and created a whole set of special solo scenarios for all the classes, and then he just released them for free on the internet.  I would totally have paid 20 bucks for those extra scenarios, and I suspect most other people would too.  But I gotta hand it to Isaac - he just gave it all away because he loves the damn game.  Mad props for that. 

I particularly enjoy the idea of a solo scenario because it allows the designer to make the game hard.  Mostly scenarios have a lot of give to them because the writer doesn't know who will be walking through that dungeon door, and the groups can even be of different sizes.  You can't make it too tight at that point, or some groups will just fall apart.

But when you have just one character of a known class, you can be a jerk about it!  You know exactly what abilities they have so you can set up a scenario that is really tough to beat the first time through, and which will tax their resources to the limit.  There is always some randomness in the game of course but knowing so clearly what the character can bring to bear is critical to keeping it tight, and making sure that all the challenges are winnable but that the character will be harshly taxed.

Going to talk about unlockable content here, FYI.

I won on my first shot with the two mini Beast Tyrant class, but it was down to my second last turn when I finally ended it.  I think I have a pretty much ideal build for the scenario but I drew kind of badly so overall it seemed right.  Extra special content should be rough, to let the hardcore folks have their fun!

I can easily see how the particular scenario I did would be super difficult for another build to handle.  The two minis are separated into two dungeon tracks, and anyone who was used to just letting the Bear kill everything now actually has to kill stuff with the Tyrant himself.  It is easy to imagine a normal build that doesn't even bother to include an attack for the Tyrant, and I think if you selected pure Bear build cards you could be effectively unable to complete the scenario.

I was mostly a Bear build so I had to really get used to actually killing stuff myself.  It took a lot of adjustment for sure.  I needed to get used the flow of cards and really balance whether I focused on Bear or Tyrant damage.

When I finally won, having ground through the game with a single loss card right to the end, I was extremely happy with the reward the dungeon gave me.  It felt appropriate - super useful, but not broken.  It makes me optimistic that the other solo scenarios will be really fun and thematic, even though they can't possibly do what I did in the Beast Tyrant scenario.

I like solo Gloomhaven.  It makes me wonder if there will be more work done on this sort of thing along the road.  

Death wasn't even a setback

InTheHat recently lent me a new fantasy RPG called Phoenix:  Dawn Command.  It has a really tight setting where the characters are part of a specific organization of special people with amazing powers who are fighting against encroaching evil.  The most original thing in the system is that there is no advancement system in the normal sense of the word.  Your character cannot acquire new abilities or skills or even get new or better equipment until death claims you.

But death, it turns out, isn't that bad.

The Phoenix in the name gives it away.  You die, you live again, and when you live again you get a bunch of training and come back more powerful.  Everyone gets to Obi Wan and become more powerful as the enemy strikes you down!

I love the idea.  It lets people feel okay about losing, and if everything goes badly and the whole party dies, you just rez up and go kick their asses with your newfound power and abilities!

There are limits, of course, because you only come back seven times and then you are gone forever.  Unlike most levelling systems this also corrects for people who get really unlucky.  Normally getting killed means you are behind everyone else, and often more likely to get killed again.  Not in P:DC though!  You die, you are now the big badass on the team.  Play super cautious and tight?  You are the wimp while your powerful friends smash faces!

The system also uses a randomizer style that revolves around cards in hand rather than dice.  That works fine as far as I am concerned, but it would take some getting used to.  I don't think I would want to play the game over and over though because the classes and abilities don't allow for much in the way of customization.   Of course with any roleplaying game you can make of it what you will, but the highly specific setting and the simply mechanics and limited choices mean the game is almost certainly destined for only a limited play time for me, at least.

But man, dying and coming back, more powerful than before?  That sounds like supervillain level powers to me!  I love that, and I would be happy to give the game a spin just to test that experience out for awhile and see how it works.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Yelling at a bear

I finally retired my Gloomhaven character.  (Spoilers ahead, for a specific unlocked class).  My quest was straightforward and its end happened to coincide with Wendy's quest ending so we unlocked two new classes simultaneously.  We unlocked two pet classes at the same time, the Beast Tyrant and the Summoner.  She chose to swap from Mindthief to Cragheart, which is good since our party had basically no healing, and I decided to drive a bear.  The Beast Tyrant is special because it has two miniatures, one for the tiny Tyrant and one for the Bear that the tyrant commands.

Go Bear!  Slay the enemies!

Most time in games pet classes are a huge problem.  There are all kinds of ways they can be a problem but the most common issue is that pets open you up to AOE effects, and so either the pet class is terrible because the pet dies, or they are too good because the pet always lives.  They often waffle back and forth between those extremes depending on how much AOE there is.

The Beast Tyrant is surprisingly solid in this way.  Bear is designed to live the entire time, and while you have to heal it through AOE effects it does output a small amount of damage by itself so it is certainly worth it.  Bear has lots of hit points so it won't die to a single screwup, and it has the basic monster AI so it won't kill itself on traps or anything. 

The numbers seem fine.  I do a ton of damage telling Bear to attack people, but I have extremely limited utility.  In fact the Tyrant just sits in the starting room of the dungeon while Bear follows the rest of the group through the dungeon smashing things.  How exactly I command Bear from so far away is unclear - can Bear even hear me from four rooms away? 

But one of the problems of pet classes does rear its ugly head - control.  When there are enemies Bear always runs towards them to eat them, which is usually fine.  But when there are no enemies Bear just stands there like an idiot.  It feels incredibly awkward to watch my party members run towards the next room while Bear just sits immobile, waiting for a new monster to be revealed so Bear can run and eat them in the face.  There are also real problems with specific objectives.  We had one dungeon where we had to collect 5 objects using loot actions, and getting Bear to an object and using Bear's loot action is *extremely* annoying.  If there are enemies nearby I can't do it because Bear runs away after the enemies.  If there aren't enemies moving Bear is a pain in the ass.

There are certainly dungeons where Bear is superb.  Any time there is a single room or otherwise limited movement required Bear is a damage machine.  Bear just keeps on eating people and its limited AI isn't an issue since it rushes to eat enemies each turn which is exactly what I want.  But when there are doors to open or tricky things to do Bear is terrible.

The Summoner class is even more extreme because their control over their many summoned creatures is worse, the summons are often nearly immobile, and those summoned creatures are more fragile so even a small screwup means they die.  They are even better in those single room scenarios, and even worse on large maps.

Pet classes are always a problem.  I will give Gloomhaven a ton of credit though; even if there are issues with the pet classes they do a great job implementing them.  The issues with pets are hard to get around and Gloomhaven minimized them.

Plus it is amazing fun to tell Bear to go eat the enemies.  I spend a lot of time yelling "Bear is driving car!" and mauling enemies to death and laughing about how my dude can't even see where Bear is but somehow I can command it to move and attack very precisely.  It is so much fun to tell my minions to slay my enemies while I chill out at the back like a boss.

So far I think the Brute is still my favourite class, but it is definitely fun to tell Bear to chomp people for the moment.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Get dead

We have had a spate of deaths in my DnD campaigns as of late.  In the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure we had 3 people die in a single session fighting in Cragmaw Castle.  Now we have a 4 person party containing 1 original character and 3 new ones that just wandered in to take the place of the dead folks.  It feels weird to celebrate rescuing a kidnapped person from a dangerous castle when we had 3 people die just to accomplish the deed...

Other people don't seem to be complaining about the fights that wiped us out, so I am wondering what is is that went wrong for us.  One major issue we had is that the dungeon has a bunch of enemies that seem like they are supposed to be easy (because they come in large groups) but which are insanely dangerous and lethal - hobgoblins.

These hobgoblins hit for 12.5 damage per swing, which is about half of the health of one of our characters.  They have a really high AC at 18, so we only hit about 40% of the time.  We had one room containing 4 of them that we walked into and we missed all of our attacks, so they replied by taking down our two toughest characters, thankfully only killing one character.  That isn't the expected result of course but when you have 4 monsters that hit for 50% of a character's health in damage, the encounter is going to be extremely lethal a lot of the time!

I wonder if any of the problems we are having are simply to do with the way the game is adjudicated.  Our characters are pretty well built and we have a broken Moon Druid in our group at level 3 so our strategy and numbers are solid.  However, the way that the GM decides what the enemies will do can have a huge effect on outcomes.  If monsters run away early to grab whole rooms full of allies fights can go from reasonable to impossible in a hurry.  If they focus fire squishy targets they can tear down the party in no time, while if they stupidly beat on the bear druid things go really well.

I honestly don't know if Naked Man is playing the game hard or easy or somewhere in between.  It is clear to me that sometimes the monsters make poor strategic choices for roleplaying purposes, and in fact I suspect we would have been TPKed several times now if they had played it smart on every occasion.  On the other hand I have had ideas to cheat out victories on a couple of occasions that got stymied and it seemed like a easygoing GM might have let me inflict ruin on the enemies if I got my way.  Maybe that means he is running down the middle?

I guess this is the trouble with having challenging encounters.  First level is a total mess of instant death attacks, but even at third level we regularly see our tough characters one shotted, and being taken down in 2 hits is a normal occurrence.  I don't see how you build tough but winnable fights with those kinds of swings.  Any time the monsters roll well for a round half the party is unconscious and bleeding, but if we roll well the entire enemy group just explodes.  This leads to exciting combat certainly but it also leads to expendable, faceless characters who know that death is just around the corner.

If instead the designers just make sure the party is not at significant risk then most fights are completely trivial.  We really need some kind of middle ground where monsters don't regularly kill half the party in a round but also present some kind of threat.  The solution, I think, is to have more hitpoints and higher chances to hit so that fights aren't so swingy.

On the other side of the game we have had some incredibly long fights in the higher level group that have taken multiple hours to complete.  I don't know most people have the same experiences I do with the game, but at the moment I am finding low level combat to be hilariously swingy and lethal, and high level combat to involve long, grindy fights.

I am enjoying building characters and figuring out strategy but I can't help but feel that there has to be a better way to design these things.  I like situations where things go badly and we have to respond to a serious threat, but when that threat is a character going from full to dead in a single turn there isn't much to react to and it doesn't feel like you have any control over the outcome.

When I designed Heroes By Trade I made it an explicit design goal to have fights last 5 rounds.  That gives enough time to respond to problems and threats, but it won't feel like any round is irrelevant or that the fight is interminable in length.  I tried to stay away from monsters that hit super hard but die to nearly anything - if it can kill itself in a single attack, that is a problem.  (Hobgoblins, which caused us so much trouble, hit for 12.5 damage and have 11 health.)

On the other hand having lots of deaths does give me opportunities to try out new classes, and it turns out warlocks can do some really fun stuff... so I guess one dead paladin isn't much of a price to pay!