Thursday, March 24, 2022

Systems for systems sake

When a new WOW patch comes out there are always new systems and currencies.  It isn't necessarily a problem to introduce these things as people do like having new stuff to do, and you need to gatekeep your new material to some extent.  If you don't, people will stockpile resources before the patch, buy all the new stuff in the first 10 minutes, and then complain that there is nothing to do.

Sometimes, however, they miss the mark badly.  In the latest 9.2 patch a new currency was introduced that is called Cosmix Flux.  CF is acquired from everything - dungeon runs, raids, treasures, rare monsters, pvp, all these things give it to you.  It isn't rooted in lore anywhere either, it just rains from the sky for no reason.  I like stuff that is rooted in the world - silverleaf is an herb found in a few starting zones, has a particular look, and is used for particular things.  I like that.  CF, on the other hand, comes from everywhere and has no lore or meaning.  Given that it totally fails from an immersion standpoint, it needs to be excellent on some other front.

It is not.  The main issue is that there isn't much you can do with it.  In the first week of the new patch I determined that I would need at most 12,000 CF for the near future, and that might rise to as high as 20,000 under some odd circumstances.  By the time I had calculated this I had already gathered 10,000 CF without making any attempt to hunt for it.  At the current moment I have 30,000 CF sitting around and there is literally nothing I can do with it.  I can't specifically gather it and it has no use - why does it exist at all?

If a new currency is rare and is useful for something specific that can be a good thing.  People enjoy hunting for ways to build new stuff or acquire cool toys.  A generic currency that is worthless is a total waste though - it irritates veterans as it is just one more damn thing I need to scroll past, and new players get overwhelmed by new systems.  For a system to be worth learning it has to have redeeming value, and this one has none.

Last week I concluded that Blizzard would end up using CF to patch up mistakes they made in this new patch.  Anything that was too hard to get and which players complained about would simply be put on a vendor with a cost of CF so that people would be able to get tons of it (but not infinite amounts).

Lo and behold Blizzard just announced that two old currencies which people were complaining about got added to a vendor for a cost of 3,000 CF.  It feels extremely kludgy and immersion breaking to me.  They screwed up the values badly, added a pointless currency and system creep, and now are trying to fix other issues they created (which could have been neatly solved in other ways, I might add) using their screwup.

One thing about systems in games is that every system has cognitive overhead.  To justify this overhead you absolutely must have a good reason that the system exists.  Just adding in stuff to be adding in stuff is a terrible choice, and one they should stop doing.  My currencies tab is already bursting with one hundred old, pointless currencies, and we don't need to be adding a few more every couple months.

A game is complete when there is nothing left you can trim out, not when you have added every damn thing you can think of.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Big armies

In my DnD session lat night we had a gigantic battle.  The scenario was us defending a small fortified keep against a swarm of zombies.  I think the people designing the scenario thought we would try to defend each entrance separately and prepare elaborate traps and such, but we decided on a simpler plan.  We sat in the highest room in the tallest tower that had a single trapdoor as an entrance and waited for the zombies to come up the ladder one at a time.  That seemed like the easiest possible way to smash a mindless swarm.

Of course this would be a terribly boring battle to run.  It is an excellent plan in terms of winning, but not much of a plan in terms of being entertaining.

Thankfully even though my character is excellent at coming up with tight plans, he has a tendency to throw away the plan to PEWPEW some enemies.  I flew away through the air and chased down some zombies with fire spells, and the combat became the chaotic flowing mess through the keep that the designers had surely intended.

One issue with this sort of combat is that it can involve way too many combatants and have a lot of boring math.  Our side summoned eight giant owls, and we could have spent hours rolling attacks for the owls and the zombies as they slowly clawed each other to death.  While this would have been correct by the rules, it would have been a tragic waste of our time.  Sometimes Naked Man has run fights on a big scale like this and we have gotten bogged down in endless slogs between summons and enemies that simply aren't fun or interesting.  This time though he nailed it because we refused to roll and came up with a decent approximation.

We decided that given the stats on the owls they would do about 45 damage a round, which is enough to kill 2 zombies.  The owls flew over a pile of zombies and every round 2 zombies were removed.  This solution is quick and accurate enough to preserve the flow of advantage in the battle.

Shoving this sort of thing off to the side is quite useful.  Some of the zombies were fast and deadly, with weapons and special powers.  Rolling out the combats between those zombies and us is worth it, because each attack is meaningful.  Naked Man managed to set up the fight so that the owls and slow zombies had a huge battle off screen (helped by a fireball or two), and the real fight against the tough, interesting opponents got to take centre stage.

This sort of thing is not the easiest to manage.  The game doesn't provide aproximations for these sorts of things, but they are a key component in having a big battle and not having it be a chore.

In the end it was an enjoyable time.  Still, if I were building the game, I would find more ways to make enemy turns quicker.  Fixed damage and singular attacks would definitely figure into the list.  If only somebody had made a game like that... oh wait.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Blizzard goes communist

Over the past year in WOW I have spent some time boosting people.  In the beginning I sat in channels advertising, and that was a terrible experience.  It took a long time and I got constant hate messages from people who were outraged that I would do activities in the game for gold.  Actually doing the boosting was generally fine, but the sales part of it was the worst.

Later on I stopped trying to be an entrepreneur and joined a corporation.  Lots of people realized that, just like in real life, you can be drastically more efficient by specializing and organizing.  My boosting group had bankers, managers, salespeople, and actual workers.  I did the actual work and was quite happy with my cut, though I am sure the people doing the awful sales part of the job made more money with less skill required.

Capitalism sneaks into everything, it seems.

At first glance this seems harmless enough - why not let people organize?  The issue became that all those salespeople sat in trade chat constantly blasting out "Get boosted by us, bring gold" messages all day.  Anyone joining the chat would get multiple messages a second posted by these boosting salespeople, and anyone else got drowned out.  The group finder was also infested with them, making it annoying to use for everyone else.  Just like in real life where billboards get in your face, capitalism in WOW has its downsides.  There were ways to avoid this - I had a mod to get rid of all the boosting posts in my interface - but your average new user would not know this.

Blizzard decided that unregulated capitalism like this was bad.  Time to give back some power to the workers!  They banned all large boosting groups like mine in an attempt to stop the endless spam.  It is still fine for someone to pay me to beat a dungeon for them, but operating across multiple servers in a large group is no longer allowed.  Take *that*, capitalist pigs!

This has good consequences, but also bad ones.  The good is that chat channels are going to be way less infested with advertising.  The bad is that people buying boosts are no longer buying from a large group that has a reputation to protect, and which polices the behaviour of its members.  I couldn't screw over somebody when I was boosting them from my group - I would get my gold taken away, and eventually banned.  But if I just find a random person in chat and take their gold, I can just walk away with no consequences.  Blizzard can't and won't enforce me running that person through a dungeon.  

People don't love big companies and their customer service people... but they are a lot better than getting totally scammed with no recourse.  There is an advantage to doing business with someone who cares a lot about public perception.

The other big downside is that people who want to buy boosts are now restricted in who they can buy from.  It used to be that these big communities would work across many servers, so even if you were on a small server you could buy a boost from top players on a big server.  Now you are stuck buying from whoever is on your server, and if nobody there is willing or skilled enough, you are out of luck.  This results in more people ditching the little servers to play on the megaservers, which exacerbates an already troubling trend.

I do find it funny that a big company that is thoroughly entrenched in capitalist ideology would so blatantly strike back against capitalist trends in their games.  Much like in real life, capitalism creates extra problems, but it also solves problems too.  

In any case, there is no way I am going back to sitting in chat begging for customers.  I just have to get used to being poor again.  A natural entrepreneur, I am not.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Send in the animals

Last time I talked about the DnD spell Animate Objects, where you attack your enemies with chairs.  This time I want to look at Conjure Animals to see how that spell stacks up.  Conjure Animals is a *lot* more complicated because it gives a similar choice betwen a few big summons or a ton of small ones, but there is a lot of variety in the summons.  Animated objects always have the same stats, but a wolf is not the same as a giant wasp!

The two spells share the same fundamental flaw - the game is balanced around the idea that attacking once for 15 damage is about the same as attacking twice for 10 damage, which is about the same as attacking 8 times for 6 damage.  This idea is patently absurd, but all the summon spells and indeed the entire Challenge Rating system is based upon it.  Yesterday we saw that animating a ton of small objects is vastly superior to a big one, and with animals it is the same.  Pick the big one, you get a huge, tough critter than hits for 10 damage / round.  Pick 8 small animals though, and each of them hits for 5 / round.

Conjure Animals lets you summon 1 CR 2 animal, 2 CR 1 animals, 4 CR 1/2 animals, or 8 CR 1/4 animals.

Animal              CR     Dmg/animal   Total damage

Giant Elk             2             11                11

Brown Bear         1             9                  18

War Horse           1/2          7                  28

Wolf                    1/4         5.5                 44

You see the problem.  Sure, swarms of animals are at risk of being Fireballed, but they deal preposterous damage.  A fighter at level 5 swinging with a big sword probably does about 20 damage a round, and we don't want summon spells to completely replace fighters.  Given that, I think summoning a Giant Elk that is worse than a fighter but has a ton of health is a reasonable thing.  It lasts a full hour, has as many hitpoints as any characters in the group, and some animals have special abilities like flying, tracking, swimming etc that you can leverage.  It is a spell I would happily cast.

However, summoning swarms of weak animals is a huge problem.  If you max out on stuff like wolves your fighters are going to feel utterly useless.  The wolves do several times as much damage as they do, and if the enemies do decide to start chopping through the wolves that is *great*.  The wolves have 88 HP total!  They will still do a ton of damage and save your group a huge amount of incoming damage too.

The solution here is simply to nerf the number of animals you get when you go for lower CR ones.  Instead of doubling the numbers each step down, I would change it from 1,2,4,8 to 1,2,3,4.  Nice and easy, and it actually works out well with the damage numbers.  The CR 2 is the worst still, but at least the others all deal similar overall damage.

The other issue with this spell is that it is extremely overpowered when cast at higher level.  If you level up Fireball from 3rd to 5th level, for example, the damage goes up 25%.  However, if you level up Conjure Animals from 3rd to 5th level, you get *double* the animals.  This is a problem!  It makes all higher level summoning spells a joke compared to Conjure Animals, and uplevelling spells is supposed to be a way of filling in spots, not invalidating high level spells.  The way I would fix this is to make the spell summon 1 more animal of CR 1 at level 5, or one extra CR 2 animal at level 7.  This is still worth doing, but leaves room for actual high level summon spells to compete.

Even after both of these nerfs Conjure Animals is still better than any other summon spell in the book, I think.  At 5th level it deals more damage than the Bigby's Hand or Animate Objects spells, and it makes Conjure Elemental and Mordenkainen's Sword look like ridiculous jokes on multiple fronts.  Even after my suggested nerfs, I think you have to make the types of animals that are summoned be determined by the GM, and have the GM pick weak animals.  I tried to pick the best animal types for my numbers above, but if you instead pick randomly the spell is a lot more fair.  Many of the animals have worse attack routines than the optimized ones above, and that would reduce its power level reasonably.

I like the idea of summoning animals to attack your enemies.  It is also cool that their abilities are based on the abilities of the base creatures.  As usual, the theme is good, but the math sucks.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Send in the chairs

The Animate Objects spell in DnD is thematically great.  You are in the middle of a fight in a workshop, and you cause the bench, a couple of crowbars, and a table to rise up and bash away at your enemies.  You could also use it to help carry people, break stuff, or accomplish other tasks.  Awhile ago MattInTheHat came up with a *fantastic* plan for the spell - he threw some coins at his enemies, telling them to buy some better insults, then animated the coins and bashed them with them.

This was a great dramatic moment.  The coins were marvellously effective.  I eventually picked up the spell myself and paid for a bunch of small metal pieces with my character's initials on them so I could toss them at my enemies and do similar things.  This is all well and good, except that it is hideously unbalanced.

The way the spell works is that you get 10 slots of objects.  The bigger the object, the more slots it takes up, but the more damage it does.  However, tiny objects are a huge outlier in terms of their damage per slot.  Consider the chart below, written against AC 16.

Size    Slots    Damage  Hit      Total Damage  Dam/Slot/Round

Tiny    1          1d4+4     +8              4.225        4.225

Small   1          1d8+2     +6             3.575        3.575

Med     2          2d6+1      +5            4               2

Lrg       4         2d10+2     +6            7.15          1.789

Huge    8         2d12+4      +8           11.05        1.381

The problem is obvious.  The thing that really matters is the damage per slot, and tiny things utterly dominate that metric.  Large things hit hard, but there are so few of them that they do terrible damage.  It feels to me like you ought to want to animate big stuff if you can, but the opposite is true.  You might think that coins are perhaps too small to work, and that is reasonable.  (The spell does not specify.)  However, you could always just have 10 daggers on a bandolier or somesuch, if need be.  

The real thing we ought to figure out is how good *should* the spell be?  I will use the spell Disintegrate to benchmark just how absurd Animate Objects is.  Disintegrate is a single target 6th level spell that does 75 damage with a save to avoid.  Animate Objects, if up levelled from 5th to 6th and used on Tiny objects does 78 damage with attack rolls - quite similar.  However, Disintegrate is a single action, and Animate Objects does that damage every round!  Also Animate Objects uses many attacks that can all smash enemy concentration and also will take attacks of opportunity if they enemy tries to move.

It is clear to me that Animate Objects on tiny objects is completely busted.  It is the best single target attack, and is as powerful as a fighter, but the spellcaster can cast other spells while the objects beat down.

So how do we fix this?  There are two basic approaches - first, to restrict how often you can use it, and second to change the numbers.  The first one would entail insisting that tiny objects be of highly specific sizes.  You could insist that they be the size of a sword, for example, so that having 10 of them on your person is extremely difficult, and thus you could only use Animate Objects under specific circumstances.  Unfortunately there are ways around that - I would probably have a summoned minion carry around a box of swords for me to animate in that case.  This approach also doesn't fix the issue that large objects are terrible.

The other approach is to fix the numbers.  Generally small things have the problem that they have low strength so they do little damage, but these small things have massive dexterity and use dexterity for their damage rolls.  I don't see any reason why we need to shackle ourselves to the listed strength and dexterity numbers.  The tiny object get many attacks, which is especially powerful against casters, so their damage should be the weakest overall.  Large things are harder to come by and are often restricted by their size, so they should hit hard.  Here are my suggested new values:

Size    Slots    Damage  Hit      Total Damage  Dam/Slot/Round

Tiny    1          1d4+1     +5              1.75           1.75

Small   1         1d8          +4             2.025         2.025

Med     2         2d6+2      +6             4.95           2.475

Lrg       4         2d12+3    +7             9.6            2.4

Huge    8         4d12+5    +9            21.7           2.713

These new values look a lot better.  If you have a bunch of small things they are still fantastic at bonking spellcasters many times to disrupt casting.  Their damage is still good, and definitely worth casting.  If you animate big stuff it is worse at disruption, but hits very hard.  (But still not nearly as hard as the base version of the spell on tiny objects.)  Tossing coins at people is a fine thing to do, animating swords does better damage, and finding chairs or tables or anvils to punch people with is better yet.  That feels way more appropriate thematically, and stops this spell from being quite so brutal.  

Having some spells be better than others is fine, but you have to keep the best ones from dominating everything.  Fireball, for example, is so overpowered that it is often the best thing to cast in a single target situation, even though it is obviously designed for AOE.  That is a problem.  Animate Objects, as written, is similar.  It is supposed to be a spell you maintain over many turns, but it is actually the best one shot single target attack.... and then it keeps doing that every turn.

Next I may tackle Conjure Animals, which has many of the same problems that Animate Objects does.  Summoning a horde of wolves or bears delivers absurd damage in the same way, because the game is designed around the idea that 4 attacks for 10 each is about as good as 1 attack for 20.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Climb on my back

In the past couple weeks I have been doing a lot of carries in WOW.  The ways it works is I am in a bunch of discord channels and an advertiser posts a run.  Boosters like me reply if the post suits them, and then we gather into a group in game and carry someone through a dungeon.  The ad will tell us how much we get paid, how difficult the dungeon will be, and who they need.

This pays extremely well.  I make 4 to 10 times as much gold carrying people as I would doing anything else in the game.  It isn't trivial to get that gold though, as you need to have a high level of skill to do dungeons with one or two people in your group who are incompetent or even afk.  The value of the gold I earn means I am being paid between 4 and 10 dollars an hour depending on the run, which isn't a great hourly rate, but I am being paid to play WOW, so I can't complain that much.  In the end though it isn't like I convert this gold to dollars, I use it to pay for all the potions and food and other junk I need to play as well as my monthly subscription.

The booster community is an interesting place.  People seem to think that I mostly get paid to carry totally incompetent people to rewards they don't deserve, but that hasn't been my experience so far.  Mostly it is people starting off a brand new character who want some good gear but who don't want to spend months trying to work their way up.  They pay some money to get carried to a bunch of good gear so they can get into the content they actually want.  The others are people who are able to do the content but who struggle to find groups.  They don't want to spend hours trying to find people to run with and then have the group fall apart.  

Instead they pay 15 bucks so that a group of friendly, highly skilled people show up and efficiently beat the dungeon with them... and at the end, the buyer gets all the loot!  I can see people looking at it like a movie ticket, where they pay a modest sum and get the experience they want.

I am not interested in buying a boost at all, ever, but I can understand people who do.

There are downsides to boosting though.  The main one is that you need advertisers who sit in trade chat and group finder and constantly spam advertise their services.  I could apply to be one of those advertisers, but I would be miserable.  Even if the gold per hour is better, and I am sure it is, I am not interested.  However, the constant spam does annoy and frustrate players who want to find groups the normal way, without paying for the service.

That spam doesn't affect me.  Trade chat is useless, and is just there for people to post memes, chuck norris jokes, and political diatribes.  I have it turned off.  I have a simple mod that blocks all of the advertisers in group finder when I am looking, so I don't even see that.  For me boosting is all upside.  I don't care if other people buy boosts in general, and I like it a lot when they pay me stacks of gold to do fun activities.  I play the game to do challenging stuff with my buddies, and I don't care if somebody else buys an achievement I worked for by opening their wallet.  The important part is the striving and the improvement, which a buyer misses entirely.

Mostly the people I run into while boosting are a lot like the people I run into anywhere else.  Generally we get along and things are fine, but occasionally I run into a jackass who annoys me.  

One thing about boosting that I often see is people complaining that boosters are giving Blizzard money, and that any new and difficult content is just Blizzard cooperating with boosters do make tons of money.  The idea is that if something is hard, buyers will purchase tons of subscription tokens for real money, sell them for gold, and use that gold to pay me to boost them.  

This makes zero sense.  If there are 1 million players who never buy boosts, Blizzard makes 20 million dollars a month.  If most of those players are buying or selling boosts, Blizzard makes 20 million dollars per month.  No amount of boosting can change that - everybody buys exactly 1 subscription per month.  All that happens if lots of boosting is occurring is that the best players don't pay for their subscriptions because they get subsidized by the buyers.

Boosting is here to stay, and I think we all ought to just get over it.  Focus on playing the game your way, and don't worry about what everyone else is up to.  If you don't boost, then nothing the boosting community does affects you.  Those top skilled players were not going to show up for your run anyway... if they weren't getting paid, they would just be doing something else entirely.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Cash money

Naked Man and I often lock horns about money.  Not real world money though, just the currency that we use in our RPGs.  Recently we have been talking about how our characters interact with gold and how we would like for it to work.  NM loves the idea of gold mattering to characters.  He is a big fan of them seeking out treasure to buy the things they want, keeping track of expenses, and budgeting.  In his ideal world we would each keep track of exactly how many coins we have of each denomination and have fun collecting old and obscure currencies that we can then try to convert into more useful coinage.

I, on the other hand, built a whole roleplaying system where player wealth is described simply by Destitute - Poor - Professional - Landowner - Mayor - Royal - Monarch.  What level you are at tells you what stuff you can buy and what you can own.

I often give NM trouble because in our DnD game I do a lot of rounding of money and don't bother to keep meticulous track of it.  I also complain about pricing of things when those prices don't make sense to me.  For example, early on we ended up in a big city and I wanted to learn spells.  The prices seemed ludicrous to me, because to learn a single level 1 spell was 1000g.  1000g could buy me a decent magical item, so the idea that it cost 1000g to just look at someone else's spellbook for an hour seemed absurd to me.  Who in the world is paying those prices?  The person selling the spells doesn't even expend anything when they make a sale!  These strange prices often come up because we are combining sources from a variety of editions, some of which are decades old.  This leads to some strange situations.

For example, in our last session we suddenly got rich.  Up until this point we had accumulated roughly 30,000g between all of us.  About half had been spent on various things like spell research and magic items, and the rest we were carrying around in cash.  In this session we sold a bunch of items we had gotten in our recent adventure for a total of 70,000g.  50,000g of that was in just 2 items that we were selling because they weren't much use.  It makes sense in the lore of the world that these items would be valuable and sought after - they had a history and were completely unique.  Unfortunately that windfall makes it hard for us to take money seriously otherwise.

How do you make yourself worry about small change when you randomly stumble upon single items worth as much as all the loot you have ever seen?  I think DnD has always had this sort of problem because as you level up you find more and more expensive and powerful things, and this leads to out of control inflation from the perspective of characters.  

It is hard to worry about spending 100g on something when you will randomly open a box and find 10,000g in it!

This trouble is exascerbated by our current campaign style.  We are on the clock trying to save the world from apocalypse.  Adventurers that take long breaks and choose their missions based on monetary rewards can interact with world economics in fun ways.  Do we go fight the ogres, which is easy, or do we delve into the lich's tomb, which is dangerous, but probably much more rewarding?  That is a good question.  However, our adventures are often part of saving the world and so we don't have a lot of choice.  Chasing ogres for cash isn't happening.  I suspect that interesting monetary dilemmas are extremely hard to maintain in a race to avoid armageddon.

One thing NM has wanted is for spell components to be expensive.  He likes the idea of spells that have expensive components that we have to either find or pay for as a way to bleed off some of our money.  That works for me, but it is a tricky balance to strike.  Recently I came upon a bunch of spells, some of which had expensive components.  However, the spells were extremely weak, much worse than other ones that didn't have any extra cost.  That isn't going to make for any interesting decisions - why would I pay 1000g to cast an inferior spell?

After some back and forth NM decided to improve those spells and suddenly there were some interesting choices.  A few of the spells were decidedly more powerful than similar free ones, or at least offered a unique perk.  I like that situation, as it lets me choose between free spells or spending cash on something new and exciting.  I have to decide what to prepare each day, so I face the challenges of figuring out when I will need the big guns and getting ready to spend resources on them.

There are ways to make gold interesting in a fantasy RPG, but I don't know that they end up being worth the effort.  When I think about fantasy stories none of them ever involve the characters taking months off to go fight trivial opponents to collect cash.  That isn't a bulletproof argument though, because we aren't playing a book, we are playing a game, and these are different things.  

When I am running games I don't think I am willing to put in the effort to build a complete economic system for the players to interact with.  It is just too much, and I am not interested in something half baked.  NM, on the other hand, seems dead set on including an economics simulator in his fantasy RPG.