Saturday, August 27, 2011

Cottage games

I will be at the cottage for the next week.  Likely no posts.  Hopefully I will have lots to say in September and can make up for lost time.  See you then.

Friday, August 26, 2011


I had my first Pathfinder DnD session last night.  I am pretty familiar with the system since I would call myself an expert on DnD 3.5 but there are definitely things that surprise me yet.  The new group is great and I had a fantastic time so I fully expect to be jonesing for more games than I am going to get.  I seem to have replaced WOW with DnD for the moment but it is much harder to manage to play DnD for 4 nights a week!  One of the other players is very new to DnD and is playing a bard with the intention of using poison with a blowgun to wreck people and initially I had absolutely no idea how good this might be.  I recall in 3.5 PvP matches that poison was absolutely laughable because everybody had high enough saves that they would make their saves on any roll greater than 1 but I wasn't sure if it would be viable in Pathfinder or not.

It turns out that the poison rules have changed drastically and the new system seems to be a grotesque hybrid of bad and broken.  Normally you don't have attack forms that are both bad to the point of uselessness and also overpowered at the same time but poison manages to be both in Pathfinder, a rare "achievement".  Here are the basics:  When you get poisoned you make an initial save to see if you are afflicted and then make new saves each round to try to get rid of it.  Every time you fail you lose stat points.  The saving throw DCs are quite low though and the cost of the poison is absolutely heinous so generally poisoning your enemies is completely awful as you would be better off buying scrolls with attack spells on them.  Even more so you would be better off buying *anything* that makes you better without resorting to poison.

That sounds just bad though.  What about the broken part?

So when you get poisoned multiple times instead of simply having multiple poisons recorded separately you have a single poison that gets +2 to the difficulty of the check to get rid of it with every application and which has an absolutely monstrous duration.  Once you have a couple stacks on somebody it becomes extremely difficult for them to resist subsequent applications and very quickly it becomes impossible.  This leads to the situation that you really either want absolutely nobody in the party using poison or everybody using it and setting up their characters to land many small hits.  Doing this means your enemies very quickly get poison stacks that last forever which they can never remove and new applications will never be resisted so they lose stats even faster.  I haven't figured out if the whole party should just be using Con poison to demolish the enemies hitpoints and Fort saves against further poisoning! or Dex poison to lower their AC so the rest of your attacks always hit.  Either way when the stat gets to zero they are defeated.

When a game has a system that has a very immersive, cool method to model something but which is really unbalanced I generally don't like it but I can't entirely fault it.  I know that I am way more focused on numbers than most people and I have to make myself grudgingly accept the necessity of flavour.  However, in this case the system basically works such that the only reasonable way to use poison is to use a truckload of it and have everyone in the group use the same poison - otherwise it is hopeless.  That isn't how poison 'feels' to me.  Poison feels to me like something that should kill people good, but do so slowly.  If you really want to kill somebody in the middle of a swordfight then poison is pretty much garbage, you should just stab them more.  If you want to kill somebody secretly or without a fight then poison should take them out over time, and how much time depends greatly on the power of the poison in question.

I think that poison is just something I would prefer to not be a particularly useful combat option for the average player.  If it is a significant advantage to use it then every physical attacker will feel obligated to use it and that seems both annoying and very much against the flavour norm.  My preference would be to design a poison system that has poison do varying kinds of damage over varying time periods and any class that is supposed to use poisons should have special powers to make poisons good for them.  For example, if a fairly nasty poison did 1d8 damage every minute after infection and stopped working after 5 instances of damage then it would be useless to a Fighter but an Assassin could have a special ability that makes their poison do its damage once right away.  This would also mean that if a poisoner did manage to poison someone then it would actually be very deadly, unlike the current system where any random peasant can survive the great majority of poisons with no difficulty.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Heal me!

I have been playing DnD 4th for some weeks now and am starting a new Pathfinder (DnD 3.75) campaign this week and I have noticed a serious tendency for healing classes to be overpowered.  My theory on this is that people normally don't want to play healers and so game creators have gone out of their way to stack on powers to entice those who are looking to be leet to make healers more enticing.  Let's be frank:  If you have a party of Wizard, Rogue, Fighter and your Cleric buddy has no attacks and can only cast spells out of combat you are going to want him in your party anyway because he can heal you after the fight.  No matter what else a Cleric can do they are going to be needed to heal and expected to heal - their other contributions are immaterial.  Unsurprisingly most people aren't super interested in the role of cheerleader because it doesn't feel especially heroic nor is it interesting strategically.  Given that players end up not wanting to have to be the healer  and so game designers keep adding on bells and whistles until the healing class looks appealing.

The trouble with making healers awesome though is they end up being one man armies.  In particular in 4th clerics were completely overpowered because they got powerful attacks spells that hit enemies but not friends - and also got to cast absurdly powerful heals with their minor actions.  In my current game Ziggyny is playing a Shaman and they seem to be utterly nuts because their attack spells and utility are fantastic and worth playing on their own but when they can also cast heals that heal/prevent 37 damage with their minor actions... other classes seem pretty pathetic in comparison.  It seems the same way in my Pathfinder campaign where I am playing a cleric.  I have lots of good spells, good armour, great saves, good hitpoints and I also get to do extremely powerful AOE heals (2d6 at level 3) 7 times/day.  I looked at the cleric class with the AOE heals removed and compared it to a wizard or sorcerer and concluded that I would still be extremely strong and given that I could still heal reasonably I would be welcome in any group.  I then considered how good a character I would be if I had the AOE heals but none of the rest of my powers and decided that I would still be a good character!

So the current class design for healers in DnD seems to be that they are as good as any other class but get immensely powerful heals tacked on top.  I don't much like this theory and I wish that the responsibility for healing was spread out around the party a little bit more.  I really enjoyed the initial idea for 4th in which non healing classes were able to heal themselves by spending healing surges and that this plan would reduce the necessity for a healer in the group.  It hasn't worked.  In 4th edition the power of a healing surge needs to be substantially increased and the bonus that a healing class gives to the healing surge needs to be substantially decreased - probably reduced to zero.  In that way the idea of people protecting themselves with the Second Wind action and using powers that let them spend healing surges makes a lot more sense and healers can be a backup system for the one guy who gets beat up really badly rather than the sole provider of super powered healing spells.  I like the idea of a class that defends other people and heals them but I think the best way to make that work is a lot more of defending and a lot less of 'wizard who can also heal the entire party by themselves'.

When the Rogues, Wizards and Fighters can take care of themselves a lot of the time the Cleric can be a much more versatile sort of character and not feel like they are there just to help their buddies feel invincible and heroic.  I also like the idea of being able to play when your healer can't show up - sort of like when somebody else in the party is away and things are trickier but manageable.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Looking retro

The WOW 4.3 patch announcement just hit the internet and there are some juicy things to discuss.  The thing that interests me the most is the addition of the Transmogrifier who will change the appearance of your armor to something else.  It looks at the moment like you have to change the appearance to something of the same armor or weapon type and that you need to actually own the piece you want to look like.  Predictably the forums are full of Death Knights complaining that they are getting shafted on this feature because they don't have armor sets tailored to them from the old, low level raids and dungeons.  People are AWFUL.

You might also wonder why I am concerned about this when I retired from WOW months ago and am not likely to return.  I think it is because when you live in an alternate world for years it is hard to let go completely.

This is a feature that people have been clamoring for for many years now.  Every time a new armor set comes out that the masses think looks dorky they complain that they want to continue to wear their old gearset for the cool looks and get the new stats of the improved version.  I think this is actually a pretty legit complaint because the tier system that Blizzard has introduced has certainly made using old gear completely impractical and yet they have tried to add lots of appearance tweaking options to the game.  Giving people the option to look how they want while still being numerically competitive seems like a good way to go.

I personally would use the old Tier .5 set.  I collected it back when the quests were still in the game and now there is no way to put it together.  It is part of Redcape's town set which is full of classic gear, much of which is now unobtainable like the sword from the opening of the gates of Ahn'Quiraj questline.  The armor is purple and silver and looks fine, though certainly not as great as paladin T2.  However, I would expect half the paladins in the game to start farming BWL for T2 pieces since that set is so well known to be awesome and it turns out that looking 'cool' for me isn't much good if everybody else looks exactly the same version of cool.  I do like that ability to pick a look for a character and go with it and to not be restricted by whatever came out in the most recent dungeon.

This certainly isn't going to save WOW though.  WOW is down something like 1 million subscribers from its peak and it seems clear that it is done with expanding and is headed down a long decline.  It isn't because the game is bad, because it certainly isn't, but rather just because it is old.  I quit because I had played WOW enough and there are plenty of other folks in that exact same situation.  New looks and the Deathwing raid are great and all but nothing will bring WOW back for me.

I logged onto WOW today to get a shot of Redcape in all his retro glory.  That's old school baby.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

No threat

Just now Blizzard has announced that WOW is pretty much getting rid of threat as a relevant game mechanic.

  • Hotfix: The threat generated by classes in their tanking mode has been increased from three times damage done to five times damage done.
  • In an upcoming patch: Vengeance no longer ramps up slowly at the beginning of a fight. Instead, the first melee attack taken generates Vengeance equal to one third of the damage dealt by that attack. As Vengeance updates during the fight, it is always set to at least a third of the damage taken in the last two seconds. It still climbs from that point at the previous rate, still decays at the previous rate, and still cannot exceed the current maximum.

You can see the full announcement on mmo-champ Here.  Basically what this means is that players in any serious raid situation will have absolutely no chance to pull a mob off of a tank.  As soon as the tank lands 2 attacks the mob will be stuck to them forever - the only possibility of threat being an issue is healing threat or extremely overzealous dps on mobs that have just appeared.

I like it.  For healers of course this won't much affect their gameplay except in that dpsers will randomly pull aggro and die a little less often.  For dpsers it means that they can stop being forced to download mandatory UI modifications and can pay attention to their abilities, rotation and fight elements and not threat.  I think that change is a good one.  It never felt particularly good to know that your only job is to do more damage to kill the boss faster and you cannot do that because the tank isn't letting you.  It is nothing short of infuriating to know that getting that last upgrade is irrelevant because you simply aren't allowed to do more damage - might as well /dance in festival gear.  For tanks this means that threat stats on gear truly are irrelevant and you can focus entirely on positioning, cooldowns and rotation.  Beyond the first 5 seconds of combat there should be no reason at all to be concerned about how much threat you make so long as you are hitting your buttons.  I think this is also a good change - tanks already have plenty of things to do without staring at a threat meter.

Blizzard also stated that this change is there to help pickup groups with new or badly geared tanks.  It sucks to be throttled as dps and it sucks to have mobs running around out of control as the tank.  When your only recourse as the tank is to ask the dps to suck more it isn't much fun for anyone.  It is good for the game and for the population of tanks in the queue to make sure that new tanks have a good experience even when paired with better geared people so for this purpose the change is very much a positive one.

From a roleplaying perspective I like it too.  We are here trying to beat the Giant Evil Dragon for some reason, so shouldn't we be trying to kill it and dodge the fire that it breathes?  It is immersive to be staring at a meter that tells me whether or not the dragon is going to decide to come kill me next instead?  Shouldn't I be focused on surviving and killing the dragon instead of a box in the corner of the screen that I had to mod in?  The answers are clear:  Threat isn't immersive and mostly people don't enjoy it.  Clearly if the tank is ignoring the dragon then I have no problem with it ignoring him but as long as we are all doing our jobs I think the dragon hitting the tank by default is no problem.

There are plenty of challenges in WOW that make the game hard so in my mind it is a good thing to remove any components of the challenges that are annoying, lack immersion and which have negative ramifications for random PUGs.  Dodging fire and stabbing are fun (and if they aren't for you, don't play WOW!) so having those be the challenges that people face is a grand plan.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

talent points in Diablo games

There are plenty of controversial changes in Diablo from v2 to v3 where there are real discussions to be had on the pros and cons.  There are also plenty of changes that are undoubtedly good but which still attract their fair share of detractors on the internet.  I feel like talent points really fit into the second group.  They didn't work at all in D2 and there is no reason to continue with them going forward, not that this stops people from whining.

The is the fundamental problem with talent points as used in D2 is that they completely destroy flexibility.  Because skills get more and more powerful per point for each point invested in the skill the only reasonable approach to character building is to slam the maximum legal number of points (20) into each skill you intend to use.  This also means that if a max talent skill is balanced against monsters at a particular level then any skill with only a few points is utterly useless at the same level, which means that characters end up putting all their points in a single skill and never doing anything else throughout the entire game.  This was compounded further by making skills multiply together so that after you put 20 points into Nova you have to put 20 points into Lightning Mastery to make Nova better.  This means that until you are extremely high level there is no chance of ever using any spell except Nova - hardly a recipe for deep play.  This lead to messes where low level characters never wanted to invest more than 1 point in anything because they didn't want to waste points in a suboptimal skill and saved up all their points until they could get their best skills at level 30.  Having the best strategy being 'don't spend any points and get boosted to high level' is a craptastic design by any measure so Blizzard solved it by bringing in synergies that only made the problem worse by making it optimal to use 100+ skill points on a single attack skill!

This is all a disaster.  The problem is that when you give players a resource they can spend usefully to make a single attack better they will spend all of those resources on that attack and if each point of the resource has some real marginal benefit then that attack will eclipse all other options.  Even if your attack is an AOE you end up using it for single target when it does enough damage, and that leads to repetitive gameplay.  It is important to give players options to improve or modify their abilities so they can have control over how they specialize but that control needs to be limited.  The current D3 system looks wonderful in that players learn new abilities as they level up and the abilities scale with level so new abilities aren't necessarily better - just different.  You then get to 'equip' 6 abilities at a time of the 20 or so that you have so you have a truly stupendous number of different setups.  Each ability can also be modified by runes to behave differently in 5 distinct ways so even if you have the same 6 abilities selected their performance and usage will vary person to person.  I really like this setup because you get lots of control over what sort of abilities you have and how they work but you retain lots of flexibility so you can approach different fights and situations with very different tactics.  Assuming Blizzard gets the balance at all right you will be using different abilities depending on what sort of situation you are in and who you are playing with.

We lost skill points but we gained what looks to be a much better system.  The only potential drawback is that you have unlimited ability to respec - any time you are out of combat you can swap around which abilities you have 'equipped'.  This means that any level 50 Wizard has the same potential as any other and there is little reason to replay a class because there isn't a Frozen Orb build or a Nova build but rather just a Wizard who can equip whichever abilities they like at any given time.  I think though that the lower replayability of the levelling game will be more than made up for by the levelling game being better and endgame characters not being caught with a skill point or two spent poorly that can never be undone.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

More on D3

The furor over the Diablo 3 announcements has even made its way onto boingboing.  Between that and the forums there are all kinds of folks ticked off at Blizzard over their announcements of a Real Money Auction House and the requirement to play online.  Lots of people are chucking around conspiracy theories about Blizzard's shift towards social gaming and facebook integration and the forces of evil... but I think they just aren't seeing the big picture.  Here are the facts:

1.  If people are allowed to play offline they will hack their characters.

2.  Playing online with people who have hacked characters and gear isn't fun for and does not lead to any kind of persistent trading game or sense of advancement and also ruins PvP.

3.  Having separate realms for single player characters that are played online and online only characters means that many people will end up with characters they are attached to but which are in the wrong partition.  They will be separated from their friends characters and potentially from the entire player economy.

In D2 Blizzard ignored the third fact and we ended up with the travesty of Open Battle.Net where everybody was running with max level characters with hacked gear whose only goals were to grief those few people who were playing legitimately.  What this also meant was that all the people that started playing offline ended up having to start again from the beginning if they wanted to play with their friends - not particularly daunting for the hardcore players but a really big stumbling block for beginners I think.

Sure, Blizzard could just offer single player mode available offline with big warning notices that proclaim "YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO PARTICIPATE IN THE ONLINE GAME WITH THIS CHARACTER!" when a new character is started and this would benefit those who want to play offline while travelling or whatnot.  It will also screw over all kinds of people who don't know what they are doing and end up building a bunch of single player characters that are then stranded outside  This would give players the freedom to play anywhere and also the freedom to screw up.  Instead Blizzard has decided to make sure that nobody gets those options.

Was this all motivated by the desire to improve the game for players at a cost of the players' freedom or was it a nefarious scheme to get everyone to spend money at the RMAH and add in another layer of DRM on the sly?  I suspect it was mostly the former but the fact that forcing people to play online might get Blizzard some extra revenue and might keep hacks out of the game a little longer couldn't have hurt.  Thing is, if Blizzard could have found any way at all to let people play offline and maintain a secure online environment that was integrated with offline characters they would do it!  They can't though, and they either needed to continue the clunky and annoying split of online/offline characters or force you to have an internet connection.  It won't affect me either way but for the record I think they made the right call.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Making a living in D3

Diablo 3 is gearing up for the beta test phase and a couple of really big and very controversial announcements were just made.  The tidbit that has the forums in a knot this time is the Real Money Auction House.  Basically what happens is players can sell each other items either in in-game gold currency or in real dollars and players will be able to withdraw or add money to their account through PayPal or some similar service.  I will be rich!

Or not.  Here's the rub:  If people can make money playing the game then the amount of money that can be made will be sharply limited to the amount that a Chinese sweatshop farmer using every bot, hack and cheat available is willing to work for.  I expect that fairly shortly after release there will be a big market for items and the farmers will not have had time to get their cheat on so it will be possible for clever individuals to make $10-$20 bucks an hour selling in game items.  Within a couple months at most or a couple weeks at least that range will drop to $2-$4 bucks an hour and the idea of 'making a living' in D3 will permanently vanish into the ether, at least for anyone on this side of the Pacific.

That said, there are some pretty big unknowns in this equation.  If, for example, Blizzard actually manages to completely prevent botting then D3 items will keep their value *much* longer.  Farming up items when you actually require a person in front of each monitor is a monstrous hit to profitability for sweatshops and how this particular battle will play out is unclear.  A lot of people point to the continued existence of bots and hacks in WOW as a sign that Blizzard can't deal with them but WOW has the problem that new accounts are free to create so keeping the hackers out is a huge logistical issue.  In D3 every time a hacker has an account get banned they have to buy a new copy of D3... not an appealing idea.  Another big obstacle for hackers is that in WOW they have a regular source of free accounts obtained by selling other services such as powerlevelling whereas in D3 everything is sold through the game interface.

The factor that absolutely cements the constant, inevitable decline of prices in D3 will be people leaving the game. When a player quits D2 for example they just leave their items to rot as they have nothing useful to do with them.  When a player leaves D3 though I fully expect them to dump every item they have on the RMAH and then cash out with as much real money as possible.  This is going to mean that there exists a constant supply of people selling items who will sell at any price and want to move their items *now*.  Items of any significant worth will never leave the economy and will constantly be produced but the demand will ever slide downwards... a recipe for massive deflation if I ever saw one.

As always the forums are full of silly complaints.  The two big ones are that

1.  Maniacs with huge bankrolls will walk in, buy all kinds of incredible gear and casuals will be unable to keep up due to the ridiculous prices.

2.  Botters and hackers will flood the market with items, forcing the prices of all the best gear to the floor and making everything a player does worthless.

Note that the two big fears are mutually incompatible.  If the prices are tiny then every player with $20 to spend will be able to buy a fantastic gearset.  If the prices are huge then casual players can make big money selling the stuff they find.  It is certain to work out just like real life - items that are stupendously rare and powerful will be worth a ton of money but items that most people can get in a reasonable time frame will be practically valueless in comparison.  The price vs. power scale will be not be linear but rather exponential.  Whether or not having the RM option in the game will make it more fun for people is certainly a valid question however, and that is one I cannot answer.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Shadow Hunter

I played a new and strange board game called Shadow Hunter during my trip this week.  The essentials of the game are that everyone is assigned a role in secret and then you attempt to win the game based on the role you are assigned.  Some players will be Shadows who need to kill all the Hunters and some players will be Hunters who need to kill all the Shadows.  There can also be Neutral players who have all kinds of crazy win conditions like "Be the first person to die or be one of the last two people to die" or "Have the person to your right win".  There is also a guessing game where you use cards to try and figure out who the other players are so you know who to attack and what to do.

One of the really interesting parts of the game is that players can still win even when dead.  It is possible for a Shadow to die and then end up winning anyway because the Hunters all end up being killed by somebody else for example.  It is also entirely possible for all players to win simultaneously if the Neutrals with the correct win conditions are in the game though it looks to me like in most 6 player games of Shadow Hunter 2 people will win and 3 would be fairly common..  The game is quite random but still fun for a hardcore gamer since you can play by doing very complicated calculations to figure out which character is which or you can just stab whoever seems convenient if the calculations are too tedious.  Of course doing all those calculations is regularly pointless since often you end up getting exploded by people shooting at random anyway.

The thing I was thinking about is whether or not having multiple people win is a good thing.  I do think that letting dead players win if their win conditions arise is awesome in a game designed around lots of players since it means that people who get in a bad situation can still try to make plays that maximize their chances of victory.  It gets rid of the problem that once a player gets beat up they end up just playing kingmaker and losing interest in the game.  Most multiplayer games that are quick to play are very random and don't much satisfy the need for challenging, competitive play so I think that generally having lots of winners is a fine thing.  People enjoy winning and as long as their choices and strategies noticeably impact their chances of victory it is a good thing to let several win at a time.  Heck, even if the game was very tight and competitive it might be great to have multiple winners in big table games since people do feel dejected if they never win and with lots of players you are going to have large winless streaks in games with just one victor.  I

Overall I really like Shadow Hunter.  I will never play it extensively since there is so much randomness there but it has some great ideas and games with many players that resolve quickly are great to have about for parties, especially when you have people arriving or leaving regularly.