Monday, December 31, 2012

Combat Duration - DnD Next and HBT

How long should a fight in a pen and paper RPG last?  Different people will have different answers, of course, but there are some consequences of various choices that we can work out empirically.  Most RPGs are organized into rounds where combatants take turns and on each turn they can move and/or attack.  There are exceptions, of course, like Vampire where it is quite feasible to take 5+ distinct actions in a turn but that system is so totally unbalanced in terms of combat I am going to ignore it for the moment.  For HBT I elected to set standard fight duration at 5 rounds.  That isn't a battle to the death though, but rather a normal fight where the characters are in some danger but generally win fairly cleanly.  A true challenge where either side could win would last significantly longer, probably closer to 8 rounds and a trivial encounter would be over in 2-3 rounds.

DnD Next is currently set at about 2 rounds as standard fight duration.  In many cases this means that fights are over on round 1 if all the hit rolls are successful which to me seems totally bonkers.  Each player only getting one action?  Many fights against monsters that are supposed to be a reasonable challenge ending with the monster not even getting to take a turn?  Juh?  The balance isn't far off because monsters do plenty of damage in general but aside from monsters that have AOE crowd control like the dragon's aura of fear nothing seems likely to be alive after round 2 unless the party gets significantly unlucky with their rolls.  Pathfinder had the same problem I found, in that monsters could easily kill a character from full with a single full attack but those same monsters only lived 1-2 rounds so they rarely got the chance.

I am just not that big a fan of 2 round fights, and even less so 1 round fights.  It means that abilities that debuff monsters or buff the group are almost certainly useless and that setting up moves is almost a laughable proposition.  The only thing that matters is piling on more damage to end the fight even faster.  It also means that combat is massively swingy and random because the monsters can kill the party in 3-4 rounds so it only takes a couple rolls to go the wrong way and the party is going to be wiped out.  The more random the fights are the easier the encounters have to be to make sure the party doesn't just die to a fight that wasn't supposed to be a challenge.

I am sure there are people out there who want combat to be a single attack roll "I chop off his head!" but I suspect they are very much in the minority.  I think most people want a little more than that and unless the damage to HP ratios in DnD Next are dramatically changed fights are mostly going to be a swing or two in duration.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Being awesome while gaming

On my main blog I wrote a piece about being awesome.  This wasn't a call to be somebody else's idea of awesome, mind, but to be awesome in a way that you believe in.  I think it will normally be associated with the idea of flow, of total immersion in the activity at hand.  I have been awesome while gaming many times in my life but looking back at it with that in mind I see great swathes of time I really did waste on nothing at all.

Raiding in WOW has mostly been awesome.  It took a lot of time and resulting in no real world benefits but pushing to the limit of my abilities to down monsters and especially leading raids to do the same required me to be the best I could be.  I definitely found flow when working on the hardest things like the Alone in the Darkness, A Tribute to Dedicated Insanity, or Sartharion 3D achievements.  Doing things like that were amazing and awesome.  Grinding out terrible random achievements like The Diplomat or The Exalted titles on the other hand were not awesome.  I did not have to push myself nor did I ever get that feeling of flow - it was just something to do and I don't think I will ever do it again.

Civ V was mostly awesome, but especially so when I was building my mod.  Playing the game to test my innovations and constantly doing my best to find new ways to make the game better was tremendous fun, a good learning experience, and hard.  Although I built a mod that I was proud of and lots of people downloaded it I don't feel like it matters at all how many people used it.  The pursuit of awesome is not about download numbers or revenue or anything else of that sort - it is within the person doing the activity.

Building games has mostly been awesome.  Testing and physical construction both forced me to stretch myself and do better and I am really excited about where Heroes By Trade is going.  I want to make them the best they can be and I am passionate about what I do.  There isn't so much awesome in grinding out things I am less interested in like world design and flavour text and such but the overall project makes them worthwhile.

There are a few other games that were completely awesome like Portal or Plants vs. Zombies for the first few hours but most other games I have played end up seeming pretty lame from this perspective.  So many of them I just played with half attention, putting in the time but not pushing myself to the edge.  Sure, Mass Effect was fun, but did I gain anything by playing it?  Diablo 1, 2, and 3 looked at this way seem like a complete waste.  There are thousands and thousands of hours locked away there in things that I can't get back and I probably shouldn't have invested in the first place.

I am not one for making New Year's Resolutions (aside from my annual Achieve Total Self Mastery goal that is quite impossible) but I think I have a game resolution for the coming year:  More awesome time and less passing time while playing games.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Next is better, but still so much death!

The latest DnD Next playtest packet is out.  I missed it for awhile due to my travels but I have had some time today to peruse it and there are some really good changes.  The main thing that changed is that the balance of classes and spells was massively improved.  In the previous versions fighters were amazing combat beasts because they output unbelievable damage while all other martial types sat in a corner and cried.  This is very much corrected and it seems like the big difference between the classes is that fighters are the toughest.  They have the option to use heavy armour (they probably shouldn't, because Dexterity builds with light armour are better) and shields but more importantly they have more HP than everybody else and can parry to reduce incoming damage.  That seems like a reasonable balance; rogues and monks get lots of cool tricks and sneaky things and fighters are hard to kill.

I have to say that I like the changes to spells, though those changes are trickier to math out from a quick read.  There is a new mechanic where Save Or Die (SoD) spells aren't cast if the opponent saves.  For example, if you try to turn somebody to stone you can keep on casting the spell until they fail their save and are affected.  However, you have to maintain concentration on the spell for a full minute to actually kill them so it is entirely possible for an opponent to turn a party member to stone, creating all kinds of tension and drama, but for the person so targetted to survive because their friends beat up the baddie just in time.  It doesn't address the PCs using SoD spells to destroy bad guys on round 1 but you can't have everything.

One thing that the new version adds in doesn't work so well and that is the Skill Die.  This is a replacement for bonuses on skill checks and it is essentially a die that starts off as a d4 and eventually gets to a d12 which you add to any skill roll where you are proficient and some classes can add it to other things.  I don't see any need to roll additional dice when performing skill checks and I would prefer it as a static number, particularly in the case of rogues who roll it twice and take the best result.  Too much rolling for no benefit, I think.  It also has some other weird attributes because fighters get to roll it to reduce damage taken and rogues can spent it to use their extraordinary powers but bolting all that onto a system designed to let people get better at skills seems bizarre.  I think they stretched the Skill Die to do too many things and it doesn't do any of those things well as a result.

Though there are many improvements to the system there are still some significant problems, particularly the incredible lethality of the system.  Low level characters all kill each other in single hits and high level characters take a long time to die; although this is good from a nostalgia point of view I don't much like it from a numbers perspective.  I get that they are trying to be just like 3rd edition and give people 1d6 hit points per level but I think that is one of the systems that seriously needs to get the boot.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Class functionality vs. theme

In my initial builds of SkyRPG (Now officially named Heroes By Trade) I built classes around functional lines.  Each class could be melee or range oriented, use magical or physical attacks, and either focus on pure damage or a mix of damage, disruption, and buffs.  After finishing my eight classes though I looked at them and they didn't have a huge amount of pizzazz and pop.  They had all kinds of interesting abilities and mechanics but the flavour sections didn't do much to leap off of the page.

Example 1:  Marauders focus on high damage attacks using melee weapons.  They rush in and smash their opponents in close range; although Marauders have limited defensive options they hit harder than any other class.

Example 2:  Marauders are melee fighters that employ techniques from various animals to decimate their enemies.  They use weapons but their powers allow them to pounce like a cheetah, gore like a bull, or poison their opponents like a snake.  All of their abilities are based around emulating the powers and abilities of various creatures and because Marauders can employ the strengths of any animal at any given time they can accomplish unthinkable feats in combat.  When a Marauder charges their targets recoil in fear for they know that the mightiest predator in the jungle is coming and will not be stopped.

The second entry is obviously more interesting and can act as a springboard for stories and interesting roleplaying.  The trick is that if people want to play a melee brawler but aren't interested in the animal kit they really have no other option.  In DnD the base classes have very little in the way of lore but the extra classes and especially the classes added in extra books are loaded down with fluff and bizarre themes.  What I am wondering is whether or not that is a sensible formula.  I could easily build a few generic classes and a few colourful ones but I could also go full on either way; all lore filled or all generic.

What I wonder is what people like the best.  Constraining people's choices to some extent is good because it forces them to be a bit creative to make the system reflect their imagination but going too far means the system feels too constrained and might be unusable in a given campaign setting.  I don't know where the best balance lies; if you have an opinion on it do drop a comment and let me know.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Noncombat abilities

I have been struggling with the borders of combat and noncombat abilities.  Keeping one from unduly impacting the other has always been a challenge in any game with a lot of options from MMOs like WOW to tabletop RPGs.  In early WOW all tradeskills were useless from a combat perspective which meant that lots of people ignored them completely.  This was fine, I think, because only the people who wanted to be blacksmiths were blacksmiths, but some people who really wanted to maximize progression were angry that all their effort didn't make their character more powerful.  As soon as combat benefits for tradeskills were introduced though everybody flocked to the most powerful ones and Blizzard has spent years trying to balance them out so people don't feel 'forced' into a particular tradeskill.  When you let combat or noncombat effects bleed across that border you get all kinds of problems.

A similar sort of issue exists in DnD of course; there are skills like Acrobatics that give huge combat advantages that absolutely everybody takes and skills like Handle Animal that are pretty much a joke.  Even worse are things like Fly or Invisibility that could be reasonably balanced for combat or noncombat applications but when they are available for both scenarios something gets horribly broken.  Thankfully DnD Next has a good system for fixing this to some extent (concentration).  Only in systems where no artificial divide between combat and noncombat exists like World of Darkness do things feel seamless but that leads to far more broken scenarios than anything else.  World of Darkness is much like the real world in that regard... unbalanced as hell but *highly* immersive.

My particular problem is having combat effects that increase stats or move characters around.  A short distance teleport is completely fair in combat but hugely problematic out of combat because it can be used constantly to escape bonds, cross chasms, and any number of other things.  Same goes for increasing Strength to do more damage; fine in a fight, but grants significant benefits outside of fights for breaking stuff, climbing, etc.  I find it hard to pick out which things are problems and which aren't because having a little bit of crossover can be fine, until everybody feels obligated to use the abilities that cross over to twink out.

So far I have been very strict about keeping combat effects from crossing over.  I think this will lead to a much more balanced system and one where the GM can maintain much better control over the player's abilities but it does feel a bit weird that people who can chuck fireballs at will can't use other less destructive talents at will too.  It is a price you pay for heroic combat, I think.  Either combat is a fun game or the system is highly intuitive and immersive; doing both really well is somewhere between hard and impossible.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

More Saving and more dying

The Wizards team building DnD Next regularly puts out blog posts about their design ideas along with their actual playtest documents.  They have a lot of interesting thoughts, and MAN am I jealous of their art department (since my art department consists of just one dude, and he isn't any good at drawing).  Their latest post talks about spell design, in particular the save or die (SoD) mechanic.  In the old days Fireball was absurd but in 3rd edition people focused more on SoD attacks because of monster HP inflation.  That lead to some weird stuff, where beating monsters down was useless because at some point they would fail a save and just die regardless of their HP total.  The article talks about changing SoD spells into spells that slowly kill the enemy over several rounds and with several rolls; eventually turning the monster to stone or somesuch.

The trouble is that when wizards have effective ways to kill monsters that entirely bypass HP and everyone else is forced to just do damage the party is going to end up with bizarre situations.  The wizard can start casting a '3 rounds and you die' spell and according to the article the party will then spend their time trying to slow down or hamper the enemy from coming to kill the wizard.  Unfortunately this is going to be a complete mess because if the party isn't trying to hurt the monster, just slow it down, and the monster makes its saving throw, then the party is no further ahead after three full rounds.  If instead the party just beats the monster down while the spell does its work then the spell is probably terrible - using a SoD spell against an opponent who is already dead or nearly there is wasteful and pointless.  Simply put, if the party doesn't need to SoD a monster because they can beat it down then SoD is awful.  If they can't beat it down and they need to SoD it to win, then the party dies if the monster makes its roll.  These are poor options.

SoD spells are going to work best when they directly interact with HP.  For example, a SoD spell that only works when the enemy is bloodied (below 50% HP) would be fine.  It won't let you beat something that is totally out of your league, nor end a fight on round 1.  It will, however, let you do nasty things to enemies that are already beat down, which is fine because it interacts nicely with the rest of the party.  "Get that dragon's attention and wear him down a bit so I can line up my KILLYOUFOO spell!"  Of course you need a mechanic like bloodied from 4th edition DnD for this so players know when opponents will be vulnerable to a SoD attack.  This makes the wizard a team player instead of a boss killing machine.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Worlds and fluff

The Vampire:  The Masquerade rulebook is full of fluff.  Good fluff, mind you, with lots of stories, mood pieces, and interesting set dressing.  Vampire has the distinct advantage that it operates within a somewhat altered version of the real world and thus it can get fairly specific with lore.  In contrast you have DnD which is designed to be able to fit in to any number of different settings with completely alternate geographies, histories, and cosmologies.  That leads to having a rulebook full of numbers and rules because any fluff you put in is likely to conflict with whatever the GM is designing anyway.  I am kind of torn about whether or not I should design skyRPG to be a very modular rules system that can be slotted into any campaign world or build a very specific world myself.

In the past when I have run a campaign I have never used a published world setting.  At least in part that is because I am a finicky bastard when it comes to running DnD campaigns and I never wanted to say "Okay, ahead of you there is an endless desert" and have the players come back with "No, there is a city here....".  I think the greater problem though was that the published settings were the source for books and manuals and ended up full of crap.  While I did read some DnD novels when I was young and really enjoy them I find the worlds they built to be really bad.  The worlds were just so ridiculously full of over the top magic that I couldn't wrap my mind around actually running a game in them.  In a world full of 20th level wizards it is quite the challenge to make the characters into heroes; if the problem is important then a godlike being can just swoop in to fix it and if it isn't important the characters shouldn't bother.

At the moment I have a rules system with some lore tacked on there and there.  Most of the remaining work is writing up all of the lovely fluff that needs to be there to fill the book and I figure I should try to build some kind of world that doesn't suck as the basis for the game.  More like Vampire than DnD then, in that I would like it to be entirely feasible to run the game in a different setting but I want to make it easy to just walk straight into the game if that is what people want to do.  I should actually give Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay big props here.  That single book had all the rules, monsters, a world, and even a totally reasonable first adventure.  If only the rules and mechanics weren't such utter rubbish!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Monster Design

I am working on building monsters for skyRPG.  I am trying to avoid a lot of the obvious screwups that have been made over the years (Beholders!  They die in one round and have a broad range of instant death attacks!  Huzzah!) with various monsters in a variety of games, though obviously sometimes avoiding one bad decision leads you to make another instead.  I am having a bit of a philosophical debate though, surrounding the DnD 2nd edition or 4th edition monster styles.

In the good ole' days, monsters were presented as a fact of life.  They had an XP value to give you some idea of how dangerous they were but the XP values were not well correlated to their difficulty and it would be very easy to wipe out the party (or make the fight a cakewalk) by putting in the wrong types of monsters even if the XP total looked right.  This feels like a much more real world to me, where the monster manual is not a system designed to generate appropriate encounters but rather a description of something concrete.

The 4th edition style is to give monsters levels, types, and special power sets based on whether or not you are supposed to encounter them alone or in packs.  This certainly makes it easy to make challenging but fair encounters (in theory, the system at launch was horribly flawed) but things really don't feel immersive somehow.  When a random mercenary I meet at level 20 is automatically 5 times as powerful as a mercenary I meet at level 1 things feel really bizarre.  It isn't a world we are exploring anymore, but rather just a jumble of numbers.

So how should I design monsters?  My current plan is to have players and monsters each have a Encounter Strength value that is, in theory, the same scale for both.  Players have a ES equal to 30 + Level so 4 monsters of ES 80 would be a 50/50 proposition against a Level 50 party.  The idea would be that GMs would generally put encounters at roughly 66% of the character's ES against them - the characters are rated to win nearly always if they play reasonably.  Harder encounters could go as high as 90% of the character's ES, and if the GM really wants to end the campaign they can always just send an enemy with noticeably higher ES than the group.

This never works out quite right though; it isn't idiot proof.  Skeletons swing for 2d6 damage, so once the party has 6 Armour or so they are pretty near invincible.  In theory 27 Skeletons have an ES high enough to be a dangerous fight for a max level party (Level 50) but in practice the Skeletons are a complete joke.  They take a while to blow up because there are a lot of them but when an enemy does 1 damage / round to you they really can't be a threat.

I guess I am kind of leaning towards the DnD 2nd edition style.  Monsters are going to be presented as an entry in a tome of information with a single stat that describes how tough they are overall.  This will lead to some fights that don't work well, but as long as I stick warnings in there about populating high level fights with enormous numbers of complete dorks it should be okay.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cash money

First off, I want to ask you a question:  Do you think that character advancement in a tabletop RPG should be rapid at first and then slow down?  The classic example here is DnD where people usually got their first few levels quickly and then much more slowly over time.  This was usually because first level play was so ridiculous with everything being an instant death attack and high level play was so out of control, I figure, so it wasn't exactly planned that way.  Many other games such as World of Darkness had that feature built right in - advancement was drastically slower as time went by.  So, would you like a roleplaying game that had consistent advancement, or some other model?  Reply and let me know.

I have been finding the Pathfinder game I have been running somewhat challenging in terms of rewarding the characters.  They like levelling up and all but I have made magic items very rare and completely removed the magic item economy.  Getting a bunch of money simply does not improve the character's ability to fight people because they cannot go out and purchase magic stuff.  I have noticed that even when I give them unique, interesting items that are worth a fortune they simply don't care and toss the items aside because they don't feel like there is anything interesting to do with them.

I wonder if this is why DnD ended up going so explicitly into purchasing magic items as its model.  Obviously some characters may be very avaricious and seek out cash but when a game is focused around heroic combat money just isn't much of a motivator.  After all, when that troll rends your flesh with its claws you would happily trade any amount of cash for just five more hitpoints.  I can see how a GM would be frustrated at having the characters kill a dragon, take the magic items from his hoard, and then shrug their shoulders at the vast fortune in gold sitting on the ground.  In order for that money to be important there has to be something to buy that matters.

I guess the solution is to list prices for things like towers, castles, land, and servants.  Let the player characters decide what sorts of things they want to buy with their new found wealth and then tell them exactly how much those things will cost.  DnD 2nd edition did this to some extent, but I always felt like every character becoming a landowner and keeping track of payroll expenses wasn't really much fun.  It also gets pretty weird when characters maintain a high lifestyle on the cash they find from killing dragons and then you want to say "three months pass" and the player replies "uh, I guess I have to sell my keep since I can't maintain it without adventuring" and then nothing makes any sense anymore.

You also don't see Rand Al'Thor, Aragorn, Richard Ralh, or Raistlin counting their gold pieces, waiting to make that very next purchase.  They adventure for a grand cause, not for the stuff they might acquire in the meantime.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Do some frackin' math

The latest iteration of DnD Next came out with a new class - the monk.  Wizards did pretty well on the flavour of the monk I think but the really messed up the combat math.  Surprise!  No, wait, every edition of DnD has done that, so nothing new to see here...

The monk is built around the idea of using expertise dice in the same way as the Fighter does but with the addition of random immunities (Fear, Poison) and Ki powers like stunning the enemies or healing.  Unfortunately although those abilities are cute they really need to be packaged along with decent beatdown and toughness to stack up and they really don't manage that here.  I built a well rounded Dex fighter and a Monk and discovered that Monks do roughly 45% of the damage of a Fighter and have about 72% of the HP.  When the enemy is at range the difference is even more stark.

Now being immune to things here and there and stunning humanoids occasionally is nice but I just can't see how you can justify this kind of discrepancy.  If anybody asked me which character I would want for my party there would be no hesitation whatsoever - when fear immunity comes home it sure is great but the strength of a character is not in being stupendous in 10% of the fights but in being excellent in 90% of fights.

"I can stun people a couple times a day!"
"Uhhh, sure, but I do more than twice as much damage as you."
"I don't get poisoned!"
"That's great... so when you run out of HP and are unconscious, again, you can be not poisoned!"
"I can walk on water!"
"Which, when you do it, makes you do even LESS damage?  Grats?"

Strangely Wizards actually seem to be kinda balanced against Fighters.  I have them both doing 27 damage / round assuming 3 round fights and two enemy targets but the Wizard lasts 15 rounds total and then SUCKS while the Fighter keeps on beating down for infinity.  Rogues are in the same boat as Monks, but at least their pathetic combat performance is balanced by them being utterly overpowered at Skills to the point that nobody else should even bother...

While I really have high hopes that somebody at Wizards will notice these problems before they actually launch it does disappoint me to see such poor balance choices.  People enjoy having their time to shine so we shouldn't set everyone up to be the same but this goal is not served by having one person shine virtually all of the time.  Having a bajillion writers and backstory folks is great but Wizards really needs to hire someone who specializes in spreadsheets rather than stories.  You can have both great story and balance, they are not mutually exclusive.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Terminology kills me

I have been slamming my head into SkyRPG today trying to get actual chapters written.  I have the mechanics pretty much fleshed out but it turns out that writing a roleplaying game is mostly about the gigantic blocks of text and not so much about the mechanics.  You can tell that most other RPG makers pretty much thought the same thing... when you have games with mechanics as bad as World of Darkness and DnD 2nd edition that have all kinds of fantastic art and writing in them you know it was writers making the games and not mathematicians.

The trouble is that I know exactly how things need to work but I need to come up with unambiguous descriptions to make it really easy for a random person to pick up.  I know that you can just make an attack by rolling to hit and doing 1CP damage but what do I call that?  An Attack?  That could be confused with an Attack Roll which can be part of other actions.  I could call it a Basic Attack but then I need to define that very specifically and confuse people that wonder why it isn't just an Attack.  I have turns split up into very simple parts - the beginning, which is ordered and required, and the rest of it, which is not ordered and is not required.  The problem is that every time I go to define the turn structure I end up either not being specific enough (which confuses people) or writing a small book (which bores people, which ends up confusing them because they don't read it).

I can really see why so many people have so many interpretations of how mechanics work in so many games.  Being both concise and precise seems impossible - it is something like the Uncertainty Principle, but for writing games instead of quantum mechanics.  That is a stumbling block I run into all the time while blogging but it rarely has reared its ugly head so much as in this current project.  Hopefully I can find some kind of happy medium, some remarkably turn of phrase that manages to convey everything I want in only a few words.

Soon I am going to need a few non gamers to read over my stuff to see if it makes sense.  I know hardcore gamers can figure it out, but that isn't the only intended audience.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Big games and little ones

Last night I took a trip to Snakes and Lattes for their game designers night to get some testing done on my newest Dot iteration.  I added in three and four player rules to the existing two player game and it did really well in the test.  The higher player versions played in the same timeframe but had very different feels which was pretty much exactly what I wanted.  The thing I noticed was that the people bringing games to the event seemed to have an awful lot of big, complex games.  The prime example was a game called Camelot which had a playing board that combined about five regular chessboards with four towers about 20cm high, four complete sets of chess pieces, two stacks of cards, and a ton of special extra pieces.  I played the game for most of an hour and there was still no winner; in fact the game creator admitted that you could easily play for dozens of hours without victory.

I wonder about making really complex, huge games.  In my life there are lots of complex, great games out there but I have absolutely no ability to play them.  Le Havre is great, Agricola is great, Diplomacy is great, the list goes on.  Hand me a huge block of time and a bunch of gamers and I have an enormous list of games I want to attack.  However, in real life I never actually get to play those games because they require huge amounts of space and time.  The games I actually get to play are ones that are small, quick to learn, and fast to play.

It seems to me that if you are making an enormous, long game you are pretty much giving up on the mass market and are aiming for the student crowd.  I certainly recall in university playing Barbu for three hours and then playing it twice more.  Good luck with that now!  I have to get up and get Elli to school these days so just getting in one game of Barbu is rough.  The way I see it if you really want to make a game a success it needs to be fast and simple with as much emergent complexity and potential depth as possible.  Gigantic boxes filled with pieces and dense rulebooks strike me as a good way to never play the game in question.

Of course there are other advantages to fast games.  If a player gets stuck in an unwinnable position or is knocked out of the game they don't feel like their entire evening is shot.  Also you can have a bunch of different people win a game in a given night and that generally leaves people feeling much better about things.  Perhaps we shouldn't put so much weight on winning, but most of us do.  All of this is why I am focusing so much on Dot and less on FMB.  FMB is my baby but it is a hard sell to anyone but a serious gamer.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Free to play can do anything!

All kinds of MMOs are going free to play and being relatively successful doing it.  In fact it is almost a sign of a seasoned MMO these days that it finally makes the transition from an unsuccessful subscription design to a successful free to play design.  SW:TOR is going free to play, obviously hoping to cash in on people desperate to hand them money for sparkles and shiny, but they managed to bork the transition pretty successfully.  Turns out they got the numbers wrong... not exactly a first in MMO design.

Free to play sure isn't any kind of panacea though.  Glitch has been running that since day 1 and they just announced that the game is shutting down permanently.  Despite having a pretty cool subscription option (getting to vote on game changes is neat, though it probably didn't amount to much) and a world that was quite a bit of fun the game still went down the toilet.  You certainly can't expect to make a bunch of money just by producing a game, letting people play for free, and hoping the dollars roll in.  It makes me a little sad, even though I haven't played Glitch for a year.  It was neat, and fun, for a time.

I think that the subscription only model is likely to vanish from MMO products (with the possible exception of Titan; Blizzard's brand may be strong enough to support it) in favour of free to play with subscription options and microtransactions.  Letting people log in here and there to see their friends and keep their addiction alive is a good way to get them to pony up some cash to make the game smoother and better.  That isn't going to fix the constant stream of mediocre MMO products that crash and burn by any means; people still have dollar signs in their eyes when they look at WOW and that leads to all kinds of duds being shovelled out there hoping for a big score.

On the other hand Free to play tabletop RPGs seem to be a thing that works.  Pathfinder has all of their rules sitting on their website freely available and yet they are still raking it in from their book sales.  Wizards is envious enough of the cash Pathfinder products are making that they are desperately trying to design a new edition to recapture that market segment and casually tossing the fans of 4th edition DnD under the bus to do it.  It is pretty clear that offering the basics for free and offering convenience for cash is a great model but you have to have a strong product in the first place.

Same thing with music downloads.  People that download lots of music illegally also tend to buy a lot of music.  People that sample music from bands also buy music from those bands.  If you make something that people like you maximize your profit by letting them try it and then taking their money.  A few people will just scam you, but plenty of them will end up buying to keep you very well fed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Worse cases and Skills

Worst case scenarios are really important in game design whenever you have a struggle between people.  DnD 3.0 was a great example of this.  Fighters had lots of ways to increase their Armour Class like putting on plate, getting a natural armour necklace, wearing a deflection ring, putting on a shield, and getting magical and mithral versions of their armour and shield.  The problem was that if they did all this many monsters that were supposed to be a 'reasonable challenge' simply couldn't hit the fighter.  For the average case the Armour Class system worked fine, but for the worst case it was a disaster.

You can see the same sort of problem in WOW.  Everybody goes around hit capped such that they can never miss on an attack.  This isn't a problem.  The problem came when people got their avoidance so high that monsters actually couldn't land a blow on them.  There were plenty of funny videos around during Burning Crusade of people soloing raid bosses by having 100% chance to dodge.  Thankfully it didn't end up really wrecking any raid content but it required some heavy handed kludging by Blizzard to avoid that.

Because of this it is important to keep bonuses to Armour Class low and keep randomness high.  As long as everybody is rolling a d20 to hit and a reasonable amount of those numbers will connect everything is fine.  It might not feel realistic that a veteran soldier layered in magical protections can still be hurt by some dork but it keeps the degenerate case from happening.  I took this to heart in skyRPG and tightly controlled access to abilities that increased character defenses.  You can get tough, but you can never get yourself to the point where enemies are utterly unable to hurt you.  Problem is, I followed the same logic with Skills and that was a big mistake.

How often should a random dude like me be able to jump further than an olympic calibre jumper?  Never!  1 in a million when the olympian trips and falls halfway through their run maybe?  Unfortunately in DnD the 1d20 mechanic ensures that I beat the olympian 5% of the time.  Raw Strength checks are even sillier.  The strongest man in the world adds 5 to their 1d20 rolls and I add 0.  So if there is a heavy object that I might be able to lift the strongest man in the world still usually fails to lift it?  Preposterous.

The difficulty is that the system for success with skills has way too much randomness in it.  When any fool can succeed at a check with a couple tries it hardly makes any sense that someone who is a master of the trade might not make it.  What skyRPG needs is a skill system that places more importance on the skill of the character and less on the randomness of the die.  I figure the simplest way to fix this issue is to just shrink the die.  If I am attacking someone I roll 1d20 + Dexterity, but if I am balancing on a ledge I roll 1d8 + Dexterity + Acrobatics.  This way you end up with a system where the basic mechanic is still die roll + stat but combat stays safely random and non combat makes some semblance of sense.

Pics from: and

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dump those stats

Today I made the dubious decision to do some reading on the Pathfinder forums.  I found a curious debate on stat dumping and watched with glee as people tore at each other over how to deal with it.  In any version of DnD I have seen, and indeed in most RPGs, characters have stats that have practically no benefit to them so they set them as low as possible to get more points to maximize their high stats.  Of course there are many different ideas on how to deal with this.  Some people insist that characters with a 7 Intelligence be actively roleplayed as being learning disabled or that 7 Charisma characters must be pariahs or victims of hideous deformative scarring.  Others just figure that everybody is going to do it, so why worry if all the characters are super overpowered and every fighter is dumb as a post and every wizard is weak as a kitten?  Of course nearly everybody is ugly and offensive aside from the few classes that need Charisma.

The best part of the whole schmozzle is that nobody thought to suggest that perhaps all stats should provide some kind of mechanical benefit!  Obviously it would be very strange if fighters were more powerful in combat if they were extremely handsome and had a winning smile rather than being strong but if Charisma had some kind of benefit people wouldn't feel *obligated* to trash their Charisma or foolish if they bothered to make it decent.  Of course DnD would need a pretty substantial rewrite to achieve this but it seems to me that being really clever should have some kind of benefit in a fight!  Being good looking might be a harder sell, though...

In skyRPG I spent an enormous amount of time coming up with a system that avoided stat dumping.  I wanted every stat to matter in a fight to everyone so that people could avoid the choice between decent roleplaying and being good at things.

Strength - Physical damage reduction (by letting you wear heavier armor)
Dexterity - Physical avoidance
Constitution - Hit Points
Intelligence - Determines turn order
Wisdom - Magical damage reduction
Charisma - Magical avoidance

Now everything matters.  Of course some stats are going to end up mattering more than others because a Marksman uses Dexterity to hit more, Strength to do more damage, and Intelligence to determine their Energy but those stats are noted as favoured stats.  You get a specific pool of points and upgrades that go into your favoured stats and another pool into your non favoured stats.  Want to have a really low stat for roleplaying purposes?  Go nuts!  You will, however, be weak in that area.  Want to have one massive stat?  Go nuts!  It won't make you overpowered though.

What I most like is that putting points into Intelligence is good for a Fighter type.  You go first!  Smart!  How about Charisma?  You shrug off spells!  With your ... winning smile?  Want to build a strong Wizard who uses heavy armour?  Do it!  One of the defining goals of skyRPG is to make it so that people can play the widest possible variety of interesting archetypes without being ineffective.  It is possible to build a bad character and it is possible to optimize your play but ideally there should be many, many ways to build a character that is numerically comparable to everybody else.

Note:  Both class names and stat names may not reflect the actual names of things in my RPG.  They have been made generic so it will be easier for people other than me to know what the hell I am talking about.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Stealth defines Skills

I have been slogging away at skyRPG this week and have been running headlong into Skill problems. Most RPGs have some kind of a skill system but they tend to run into one of two problems. Either the skill list is too big and bloated with bloody awful skills or the list is too small and there is little room for individual expression. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a great example of the first problem; the skill list includes things like Strike Mighty Blow (increases damage by 20% or so) and Very Resilient (reduce damage taken by 20% or so) and also includes Numismatics (the study of coins and currency) and Counterfeiting. While it is all fine and good to give players the option to know about Numismatics it feels completely ridiculous from a balance perspective. Why is the skill list made up of equal parts broken and rubbish? DnD 4th edition is the opposite end of the spectrum because there is so little selection. Because of the way stats are allocated everyone ends up taking whatever class skills line up with their stats and characters feel very much the same. (The only characters that are different are ones who are really bad.)

The key to making Skills work is twofold: One, Skills need to be balanced. That is, all of the Skills should at least feel vaguely comparable to one another in usefulness. Clearly Stealth and Intimidate aren't going to be useful at the same time but both feel useful; Coopering is not in the same league. Second, the Skill list needs to be large enough to get a variety of choices for players. No matter how many times I went around the block I always ran into one specific roadblock... Stealth. If Stealth is on the list you simply can't have a list with fifty different Skills in it because there aren't enough things that are as good as Stealth. In any big list with lots of weak choices everybody is going to take Stealth. At some point or other you are going to want to be sneaky but Linguistics and Use Rope are not in the same league.

This led me to a conclusion. If Stealth is a thing then I can only have ten or so Skills before Stealth starts to be an automatic choice. To get around that limitation I broke Stealth into two parts: Stealth and Camouflage. Stealth is for sneaking, Camouflage is for hiding and disguising. This way I can have twenty or so Skills that feel relevant and comparable to Stealth and make sure that characters have enough choice to let them be fairly unique. Here is the list I ended up with:

Animal Handling (Riding)
Athletics (Swim, jump, climb)
Awareness (Oppose Stealth)
Bluff (Oppose Insight)
Camouflage (Disguise)
Culture and Languages
Economics & Trade
Insight (Oppose Bluff)
Magic & Rituals
Nature (Survival)
Stealth (Oppose Awareness)
Tools & Machines (Traps, Locks)

Thursday, November 1, 2012


I did a lot of DnD PvP back in edition 3.0.  We ran an number of battles where everybody built a silly, twinked out character to see who was the most absurd.  I think the final character I settled on was a ludicrous level 8 sorcerer / level 1 paladin who polymorphed into a stone giant.  I had truly sickening defenses due to super stacking my charisma and getting a ton of natural armor from being a stone giant and beat down pretty hard too - a trip specialist with stone giant strength is pretty terrifying.  In the end though fights still came down to a single round or even a single roll.  I made most saves on a 2-3 on a d20 but you could still beat me by just hucking a save or die spell my way and hoping.  On the other hand I hit so hard that nearly any character would be killed within 2 rounds of coming within my reach and would spend nearly all that time on the ground.

In the early going of DnD Next I really had high hopes that they would reverse this trend.  It looked like they wanted to give starting characters more hitpoints and reduce the reliance on instant death attacks but in the latest iteration that seems to not be the case at all.  Right now things are just as lethal as in the good old days.  Now it might not be much of a design priority for PvP to be balanced but it seems like that would be quite valuable.  NPCs could reasonably be built using the same system the PCs use and the fights would make sense.  Enemies could have stat values that were comparable to player stat values and if somebody changes sides combat mechanics would still work.

Some examples from the current DnD Next (I made some reasonable assumptions about stat allocation):  Wizards have 6 HP/level. Wizards also have a Magic Missile spell that does 10 damage per two levels, rounded up.  This means at level 1 Wizards have a totally normal spell that instantly kills another Wizard without a roll.  Fighters swing for 12 damage at level 1 so they also one shot kill other characters but at least they have to roll to hit!  This is all nothing new though, low level characters murdered each other instantly in past editions.  (That doesn't mean it is a good thing.)  The real trouble is characters are now one shotting each other even at high levels, and without using Save Or Die spells.  Magic Missile scales up very nicely and is doing 50 damage at level 10 into a Wizard's 70 HP.  That isn't a one shot kill, but it sure hurts!  Fighters at level 10 are swinging with their two handed swords for about 40 a round into Wizards so death is swift on all fronts.  Except rogues, of course, who suck, and Clerics, who desperately try and fail to patch up the heinous wounds being inflicted.  Any time a critical hit happens the target simply explodes.

This just isn't right.  While I like the idea of character progression I really don't see the need for such extreme differences between the early levels.  A level 12 can fight a level 10 but a level 3 has triple the health and does double the damage of a level 1... they aren't even playing the same game.  Two major things need to change.  First off, people need to do way less damage relative to their HP.  Second, the game needs to start off at level 5 or so (by current mechanics) so that levels aren't doubling character power.  Level 5 to level 6 is a big boost, a noticeable boost, but you are still playing the same game.  Also, fix rogues and let them be decent in a fight.  Garbage at fighting and godlike at skills isn't balanced, it is just pigeonholed.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

But I have Skills!

I got the newest version of the DnD Next rules today.  There are some big changes to rogues, which is good, because the old version of rogues was extremely sketchy.  Their combat options were not interesting and their skills were so overpowered that the rest of the party pretty much need not even write down their skill values at all.  In the new version things are toned down quite a bit but I think the people writing Next still haven't truly come to grips with the idea that you can't effectively balance combat and non combat power in a heroic fighting system.

If you look at a system like the World of Darkness it is instantly obvious that they had no intention of creating a balanced system.  It was quite trivial for a thug character with 2 points in Potence, 2 points in Celerity, 4 points in Strength and Dexterity and a big ass sword to destroy 1 or 2 opponents each round.  This level of power can easily be achieved by even a raw starting character.  I get that Cthulu needs to eat 1d6 player characters each round (that is his actual stat from the game!) but players shouldn't be killing each other at quite that rate.  Of course this character is likely entirely useless when the talky guy with Resources, Contacts, Presence, and Dominate is playing a political campaign.  The system is built around the idea that you will get completely destroyed when you are outside your element.

Unfortunately Next, like all DnD, is designed around heroic combat and as such needs some sort of balance to avoid making the intricate combat system feel silly.  It is entirely valid to say that fighters are tougher and do more consistent damage while wizards are frail but have amazing AOE attacks and magical defenses - these both come up and can be reasonably compared to each other.  Rogues on the other hand are sort of like fighters in combat except they are just much worse.  They do drastically less damage (maybe 50% as much at level 10) and have far fewer HP.  They make up for it by being able to add big numbers to all of their skill rolls outside of combat using their Skill Mastery maneuver.  At low levels they are probably adding something like 3-5 to all skill rolls but by level 10 they are adding a solid 8... enough that everybody else can pretty much give up on skill rolls entirely and just watch the rogue do their thing.  It simply isn't fun for every noncombat challenge to be solved by the rogue and for every combat challenge to make the rogue into a liability.

Of course another wrinkle is that spellcasters are again going to be capable of totally dominating rogues in the 'out of combat' department.  Fly, Invisibility, and other such spells still completely demolish any skill check that a rogue might have since climbing walls, being sneaky, and other such skills are pretty pathetic compared to the spell versions.  Unfortunately at high levels you will see rogues once again being a laughingstock in combat and quite outclassed out of combat.  The idea of balancing rogues by making them bad in a fight and supreme out of a fight is old and it needs to go.  If we want to have multiple melee classes we need different things for them to be good at.  Maybe fighters can be tough, and rogues beat down hard, maybe it is something else.  Regardless you can't build a heroic combat system with one class that is hopeless in combat and think that this works.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Getting outside

The people who play MMOs a lot are regularly thought to never get outside.  It turns out isn't entirely true but isn't entirely wrong either.  In Mists of Pandaria Blizzard made a big effort to change that image; instead of just sitting in the cities teleporting to dungeons now and then the players are very strongly encouraged to get outside a bit.  Outside in WOW rather than outside in real life, mind you, but it is a start.  The two main mechanisms for doing this were reputation grinds and Spirits of Harmony (SOH).  All kinds of gear and recipes are gated by reputation which 'forces' people to do enormous numbers of daily quests.  Crafting is also gated by SOH which are found by grinding in the outside world though dailies do end up giving the player a small supply of SOH to work with.

This certainly does get people out in the world.  When I do dailies I see people all the time doing the same tasks I am doing and I actually fly places rather than just sit around in the main city waiting for a teleport.  The questions I have are why this choice was made and does it actually make the game more fun?  I remember the old days of spending 30 minutes just to get to the entrance of Maraudon and then having one person leave the group; we sure spent a lot of time wandering around the world but it was mostly just an aggravation rather than some kind of panacea.  The same applies to fetching Aqual Quintessence in order to raid Molten Core - I spent many hours wandering through the far reaches of Azshara to get my bucket of water but I don't know that doing so was much fun!

Most likely this change in philosophy came from people complaining that the world in WOW no longer resembled a believable fantasy setting but instead just a loading screen for dungeons.  Roleplaying and immersion are harder to achieve when all you do is log in and hit a button to be transported to a far away dungeon to blow things up whereupon you will be teleported home again.  I am afraid though that the idea of a living, immersive world being the core of WOW is long dead and cannot be resurrected.  Here is the problem:  WOW is built around a gear grind.  Every profession, dungeon, raid, or pvp encounter is designed around progression.  The world is very obviously built around getting more powerful at a steady, controlled rate.  An immersive, interesting world cannot be one where every activity is controlled to provide a predictable, steady stream of numerical rewards.

You know what really reflects an immersive world?  Quests, tons of them.  Pet battles.  Wandering rare monsters that don't drop much of consequence.  Obscure factions that provide little or nothing in terms of power rewards.  I had a blast doing the questline to open the AQ dungeons long after those dungeons were entirely irrelevant in terms of reward.  There are players out there doing these things just for fun and that is where the 'being part of the world' experience comes in.  As soon as everything is measured on the metric of power/time that world vanishes in a puff of optimization.

The solution to getting players out in the world and enjoying it is NOT to put numerical rewards out there.  Instead there should be interesting things to do that have practically no reward at all.  Let those that want to gear up do so in ways that they enjoy and leave the roleplaying and exploring to those who are looking for exactly that.  Setting up players who want to optimize power to need huge amounts of utterly trivial, extremely repetitive questing is just going to piss them off.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Game Builder's Block

I have been trying to write SkyRPG this week.  I have all kinds of ideas about writing a good fantasy RPG but there is one problem I have been finding especially thorny.  I am trying to figure out how character powers should work and no matter how I twist it about I can't find a solution that makes me smile.  The classic DnD style is that fighters do exactly the same thing every round and can do it forever while mages have all kinds of options and eventually are flat out unable to contribute.  I don't like either of those options much.  In 4th edition DnD the system is much better since everyone gets a variety of abilities but I am not sold on the concept of everybody using a predictable series of strong abilities and then petering out at the end.

My challenge is that there are some fundamental constraints on power design.  If you give players variable power in their abilities they will always choose to use the most powerful abilities first to blow up the enemies as rapidly as possible and leave as little as possible for later.  I can't think of a design strategy where it would be optimal to do anything but use the biggest guns first - aside from making all the really good powers highly situational which feels very strange to me.  There are a number of ways to gate player power from having magic points that can run out to simply having powers only be usable once per fight but either way if you let people frontload their big moves they inevitably will.

The other constraint is that if you don't allow players to alter the power of their actions they won't necessarily feel like they have a lot of control over fights.  Also it would imply having a pretty tight balance on various abilities because if your balance is way off then you pretty much end up with the first problem of everyone just using the overpowered abilities first (or exclusively).  I have tried to set up systems where all of the player's abilities are equal but it is really a struggle to hit that mark and even if I do hit it I don't know that I like the result much.

The ideal, from a theoretical perspective, is some sort of variable cost system with regeneration.  If characters spent points to use abilities and slowly regenerate them it is possible to prevent frontloading of big powers and also provide flexibility and options in combat.  The thing I constantly struggle with is the complexity of managing point systems that have regeneration.  I don't think people are particularly happy about recording points spent and the values either need to be really big or the granularity is really low.  Going from regenerating two points a turn to three points a turn.

I am well and truly blocked.

Friday, October 19, 2012


Traditionally there are two options for handling encumbrance in fantasy roleplaying games.  They both suck.  The first is to count up the weight in pounds of every item a character wears and use their Strength score to figure out if the total is too much.  The trouble is that this certainly prevents people carrying stacks of rocks or water but normally allows an average person to carry twelve longswords without difficulty.  It encourages thinking like "Well, longbows only weigh three pounds so I can easily carry that, and six quivers of arrows, and my armor, and a sword and shield, and a backup mace, and my backpack..." and nothing but silliness ensues.  The alternate option is to simply ignore encumbrance and not handle the issue at all.  I think counting by pounds actually makes things worse than just hoping that people will be reasonable so in most of my games characters just carry around whatever they like.

One of the things I don't like about that is that it makes being a big strong adventurer not mean much.  If the stick armed nerdy wizard can carry around just as much as the gigantic thug then you really lose any sort of benefit for being strong.  I like the idea that it is a disadvantage for people to have low stats of any sort.  Not that I want to make low stat untenable but I do like the idea that it makes a difference; I want it to be the case that a caster with a high Strength feels like that choice wasn't utterly wasteful.  I don't mind that most thugs should be strong and fast and most casters should be clever and wise but the choice should at least have some drawbacks.  Tradeoffs are the key to fun decisions.

Hence my solution:  In SkyRPG Strength is going to determine how much armour and weapons will slow you down in combat.  Armour will probably weigh between 1-5 and weapons between 2-4 with Strength scores ranging from 3 to 10.  The formula would be simple:  Add up the total weight of armour and weapons worn and compare it to your Strength.  If your weight is higher than your Strength you lose one space of movement (from a starting value of 6) for each point you are over.  The idea is that someone who really ignores Strength will be limited in what they can carry - probably just a single one handed weapon and leather armor.  On the other end of the scale is someone with maximum Strength who can wield a gigantic two handed weapon and full plate.

It is possible to stuff someone who isn't very strong inside heavy armour, hand them a sword and shield, and have them be tough but they will barely be able to move about.  This means that adventurers who want to be mobile and be able to climb things and such will either be lightly equipped or massively strong but a regular dude can slap on full plate for a pitched battle and have things make sense.  I wanted armour to make sense from a historical perspective (everybody who can afford to go to a battle in heavy armour does) but not make it mandatory for adventurers.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

An endgame for D3; it isn't enough

Diablo 3 patch 1.05 is due to arrive fairly soon.  It has all kinds of interesting changes in it, the most notable of which is the addition of a real endgame targetted at players who already have extremely powerful gear.  This comes in two parts:  The first is the ability to set Monster Power to make the enemies much tougher than normal and to increase rewards.  The second is a rehash of Diablo 2's Uber Tristram where you farm powerful enemies over and over to gain access to a extremely difficult fight with unique rewards.

I think that Blizzard is doing some good work here but unfortunately there is one key thing missing.  People will be very happy with an endgame that gives them a goal to work towards and something concrete to build on once they reach level 60.  Even if an individual player never gets to try to fight the Uber encounter themselves they do enjoy the idea that there are things to reach for and nobody can deny that the Uber encounters set to maximum Monster Power are very challenging and require excellent gear and substantial skill.  There are lots of other small additions to the game here and there which all seem good so I cannot complain about anything that is actually in the patch notes.

The thing they are missing from this patch, which I complain about every patch, is communication.  We have all the downsides of online play like rubberbanding, disconnects, maintenance, forced internet connection, etc. but we still lack decent communication which is by far the single most important upside.  I don't know if adding in chat channels or guilds at this point would actually get my community of friends back into the game or not but I do know for sure that without it the chance of us getting back in and consequently pulling other players into the game is zero.

I suppose this isn't the case for everyone.  There is a big community of people still playing CiV out there and the game itself is single player but a lot of people do spend a ton of time communicating on various forums.  Modders and people who use mods were a huge reason I played as much CiV as I did because I could chat and interact with them to get feedback, give opinions, and just pass the time.  There are people and games that get played a ton without any sort of community at all but they are tiny and insignificant compared to the social games.  Just consider sports bars, which people go to for games but which have nothing *but* the social element and we can see how powerful the attraction to talking about games is.

The easier it is to build a community around a game the more successful that game will be.  Companies that successfully leverage that will make a ton more money that companies that simply produce another good single player game.

Pictures from Blizzard at:

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hits and Misses in Mists

I just finished the Pandaren starting zone with my new monk in Mists of Pandaria.  I really liked the idea of questing in a zone which is located entirely on the back of a giant turtle and the rest of the lore in the zone was fun too.  It was entirely on rails with no choice whatsoever for the character, which is bad, but the NPCs were really well done as they interacted with each other and had distinct personalities.  If we accept that the starting zone is going to be entirely linear then I think Blizzard did a very good job making that linear story fun to play through.  One thing that really surprised me was how difficult the zone was since I died twice and not due to some outrageous incompetence.  There was one particular named mob that was extremely dangerous and one type of regular mob (the sprites that summon Mirror Images of themselves) that could kill me any time I pulled two of them at once.  I am used to started zones being utterly trivial and this one wasn't.

Up until this point I have been very positive on the endgame of Mists but I have to register one really sticky complaint, and the forums show that I am not alone:  Daily quests are far too necessary.  I get Valour Points from doing dailies, dungeons, and raids, and the only possible way to spend them is to first do a crapton of dailies to unlock gear.  I don't mind dailies being the gateway to gear but the fact that there isn't a single vendor I can currently use to spend my points is quite aggravating.  Normally Blizzard does a pretty good job to separate the various parts of the game so you can progress without being 'forced' into any one thing but this seems like a real failure on that front.  It isn't as if it would be difficult to address - if there was a single vendor who sold a variety of rings, or cloaks, or somesuch I would have no complaints.  That would mean that I could spend a damn long time getting my rep up before I ended up with points I could not possibly use rather than feeling like I absolutely have to do a full complement of dailies every day to make use of my rapidly accumulating points.

I will give massive props on Challenge dungeons.  We have been slugging away at them and I am frankly astounded at how hard they made the Gold level times.  The first group to do them all did it by running without healers at all and using all kinds of tricks like invisibility potions and spec swaps mid dungeon and other aggressive moves and my group, despite being skilled, was laughably far away from the Gold times.  We are going to try to rack up Silver times on every dungeon though and so far we are handily setting the pace for our server.  Once we get all the server records sewn up we can start doing nutty things like cutting out healers and going full on consumables and such to try to get close to Gold times.  These dungeons are well designed and really fun - not to mention brutally difficult, which I like.  This is a fantastic feature for people like me who want hard stuff and aren't necessarily into a heavy raiding schedule so I give Challenge dungeons a big thumbs up.  It may be the case that our current class makeup simply can't do Gold times at all for some dungeons but we will jump off that bridge when we get to it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

DnD magic items - going oldschool

I got the next package of the DnD Next playtest which included magic items.  This is something I was really excited about in their previews because they talked about getting away from magic items being part of an economy and moving towards magic items as unique, interesting pieces of equipment you find.  In both 3rd and 4th edition magic items were very strictly regulated in terms of slots and costs so every character needed to fill every slot with an appropriate item and continuously upgrade to remain competitive.  This always felt really strange, particularly the problem with reselling.  If adventurers are always loaded down with magic items and simply have to fill certain slots they always wanted to make fair trades with other people to make it work.  The books generally advised only giving adventurers a fraction of the value of their items though, which ended up feeling very bizarre.  If you let them trade freely then everybody has perfect gear and no drop is interesting beyond its gold piece value (boring) and if you restrict trade or force them to lose 50% or more of their item value when they trade then nothing makes sense.  Why is it that the player must always be on the losing end of any bargain?

I don't find it heroic at all to have to fill precisely twelve slots with appropriate level magic items.  My ideal is that if I find a magic sword that belonged to my great grandmother who was a psychic ninja when I am level five that I could reasonably use that sword at level twenty.  The idea that every item you find will inevitably be discarded for a numerically superior one flies in the face of every fantasy series ever written and also feels crappy.  The other big problem was that with linear progression of hit and AC bonuses a high level character was utterly helpless without their equipment.  Fourth edition was actually the worst for this since a high level character could lose twenty four from their AC just by taking off a single piece of equipment; going from invincible to pathetic on the back of a single item is a disaster.  The same is true of magic weapons, of course, because a character doing 25% of their normal damage because they lost their special sword really tells us that the character is just a vehicle for their magic equipment.

DnD Next addresses these problems in ways I really like.  First off, magic armour and weapons give +1 to hit, damage, or AC.  Really special weapons give higher bonuses in certain circumstances but they seem capped at +3, which is certainly low enough that nonmagical equipment will leave characters quite viable.  Magic items have all kinds of random properties and strange powers but they have a remarkably low impact on raw combat numbers, which is fantastic because it means that magic items don't have to be continuously replaced in a treadmill of adventurous consumption.  The strict adherence to slots is also gone, which is great because it means that everyone won't have to have the same set of items with the same bonuses and people can put on what seems cool rather than being forced to equip a cloak of protection, amulet of natural armour, or belt of strength.  There is also a system requiring attunement to an item to gain its full benefits, which limits how many powerful items a single character can use.  This is a nice way to avoid characters collecting items with single use or daily powers and trotting them all out to solve any given problem.

The goal seems to be to make items much less impactful on combat rolls, get away from a modern economics view of item acquisition, and more items more interesting and random.  All of these goals are good ones and they have accomplished them admirably I think.  I want to use the magic Frostbrand sword I found in the ogre king's secret chest, not just another +X sword I bought at the store, even if it has to mean that I end up using a totally ordinary sword I could buy at the store a little more of my adventuring career.

Initially I wasn't impressed by the idea of DnD Next but I must say that now that I have access to the playtest documents I am more and more pleased by what I see.  The game won't replace fourth edition as a tight, tactical battle game but it will certainly be the defining edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy roleplaying game, and in the end that is what I want.  I can play tight, tactical battle games on the computer but when I get together to roleplay with my friends I want to be lost in a world shrouded in mystery, not checking prices at the store.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Innovation and number of players in a game

This weekend I played Innovation a few times at the games day I arranged.  It is a card game with surprisingly good replay factor considering how small a package it comes in; it reminds me of a regular pack of cards in that there is tremendous room for novelty and ... innovation? ... in a very tight design.  It illustrates very well the difficulty in scaling up a game from a two player game to three players or more.

The fundamental mechanic of the game is advancing in science to get to the later and more powerful technologies.  You do this by drawing cards off of a stack; each stack has a number from 1 to 10 and if a given stack is gone you can draw from the next higher stack.  You start out only having access to stack 1 and work your way up from things like Clothing and Writing to things like The Internet and Robotics.  In the two player game it is possible to run a stack out and have to draw from a higher stack but it rarely goes very far - generally you have to work at it to be able to draw from higher numbered stacks.  In the three player game the dynamic totally changes because it is easy for three players to draw all the cards in the stacks and players can draw from very high numbered stacks without even working at it.  What often seems to happen is that every card from every stack numbered 5 or less is gone so I can draw from stack 6 regardless of whether or not I have been pushing to tech up or score so a lot of the strategy goes out the window.

One of the key mechanics that keeps the game interesting in two player is the choice between teching up to get power later and scoring points to right away.  You can't do everything so you have to make tradeoffs and interesting strategies emerge but those strategies often vanish in three player mode because everybody techs at the same rate.  This is the sort of problem I found when I tried to make FMB into a game that could accommodate two, three, or four players.  I could make the rules work for all the games but I had to trim away some ideas that were problematic and accept that balance was out of whack somewhere.  I often had to make the two player game worse in order to make the three player game better and that always felt wrong.  What I really wanted to do was make one perfect game, rather than a more flexible game, so I ended up trashing the three and four player rules.

Puerto Rico is another good example of a game that works very well for some numbers of players and very poorly for others.  I can't decide whether I like three or four player PR better but both have their good points; three is more personal and you have more control but four has better builder / shipper balance because you can have two on each stream.  The one thing I know for sure and which everyone seems to agree on is that five players is poor.  All kinds of basic things break down and the game ends up feeling very random with the player not having much ability to make impactful decisions.

Personally I own lots of games.  I don't need games to have bad settings like three player Innovation or five player Puerto Rico if those settings compromise the regular game in any way.  I am quite willing to buy more games for different numbers of people if that makes the games better.  I don't know that either Innovation or PR really sacrificed much to add on their additional player options but I know for sure that when I make a game I will make it the best it can be at one thing.  If other options are possible, so be it, but the game should not sacrifice quality to increase player options.  When publishing a game it probably helps to have 2-4 players on the box instead of 2 players but that is a bridge I am not likely to cross for a long time, if ever.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Best expansion yet

I am just a few bars of experience from hitting level 90 in Mists of Pandaria.  The levelling experience in Cataclysm was the worst in WOW, even worse than vanilla I think, (maybe too much with the rose coloured glasses) but I can safely say that so far Mists is the best.  Blizzard has a lot of new tools in their toolbox now that didn't exist during the initial WOW launch and this time they have really found the proper way to utilize them.  With great power comes great responsibility and all that.

They have managed to recapture the feeling of freedom and exploration that existed in the game at the outset and which was quite lacking both in the new Cataclysm zones and in the old world remakes.  There are random questgivers scattered here and there and it is easy to skip things and move on to something else if you want to.  There are still overarching stories going on throughout the zones and some things have to be done in order but this is pretty much exactly what I asked for; a big continuous storyline with a good number of sidequests that can be done or ignored as you see fit.  I can easily see myself playing through Pandaria again on an alt quite happily and I certainly did not feel that way about Cataclysm.

However, they didn't go all the way and give up on phasing and big events.  There are cool story moments that only occur when you complete entire zones that wrap up everything you have been doing quite nicely, in particular the wall breach at the end of Valley of the Four Winds.  They use phasing and vehicle mechanics and all kinds of NPCs and a gigantic war zone all at once and it feels very satisfying to see all the various groups I helped out throughout my adventures joining in on the event.  These big events and heavy use of phasing can be fantastic when used appropriately and I think they have been used extremely well this time around.

The last thing I should comment on as far as levelling goes is the little details and useless but awesome junk that appears throughout.  There are a number of different quests that award cool items at the end that are entirely fluff but are also awesome.  I can create a spittoon that other players can spit into, make a golden banana, put masks on other people, and plenty of other random things.  This is pure gold - the people interested in raiding or pvp or whatever can simply vendor this stuff and the collectors can have fun with all their silly trinkets and roleplaying gear.

I don't know that I will get back into WOW as seriously as I was before but I have to give credit where credit is due; aside from a couple of launch day issues Mists has been simply fantastic.  Exploration, story, fluff, and interesting questing fights are all there and unless Blizzard messes up their endgame very seriously they are going to have an absolute smash hit on their hands.  This time they got it right, particularly for the casual crowd.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

More on Pandaria

My initial impression of questing in Mists of Pandaria was pretty negative.  The start of the Pandaren continent was purely linear and there was a very buggy bottleneck right at the beginning.  Fortunately that is not the case throughout and the questing options opened up a fair bit after the initial story arc finished up.  It felt a lot more like old school questing where there were lots of quest hubs with chains available but you could easily skip any of the hubs and go on to something else if you wanted to.  There are still plenty of quests with phasing and vehicles and other gimmicky mechanics but they are mostly smoothly integrated and I enjoyed them.  When you know that you can always wander away and try something else it makes things much better!  It will be frustrating to some extent that every alt who comes to Pandaria will have to do that first questline but as long as my options after that are wide open I can't be too displeased.

The new strategy of putting a ton of importance on farming mobs instead of playing the Auction House is an interesting one.  Much of the high end crafting involves killing huge numbers of monsters to get Spirits of Harmony to craft things.  No matter how rich you are it just won't be feasible to maintain an army of alts to make cash for you unless you have endless hours to farm up materials on each of them.  This is bad for me as I traditionally spend much of my time in WOW getting alts up to max level and making gobs of cash by manufacturing goods but I don't know if it is good for the average player.  It boils down very much to a right / left political debate - do we celebrate or denigrate captains of industry who become absurdly wealthy?

People who sit on the AH buying gear and flipping it for profit obviously bring no value; they just skim money off the top.  However, I didn't make my money doing that but rather in manufacturing.  I transmuted things into other things, crafted gear, and cut gems.  I added value by leveraging my skills and got rich in the process.  In traditional left wing propaganda I am a thieving, unscrupulous bloodsucker taking bread from the mouths of hardworking people.  In traditional right wing propaganda I am a job creator, an entrepreneur, someone who drives the whole of society forward by making things everyone needs.  Which limited vision is more appropriate here?  Though normally I swing to the left politically I figure I am actually doing good here. People want the things I make and I focus on making whatever it is that they want to buy.

If you buy the theory that manufacturers like myself bring value then presumably this change is a bad thing.  If I see that a particular item is out of stock on the AH I won't be able to fill that need.  Granted somebody else can do so but any given individual will only be able to make a couple of things and from past experience we know that this will not be enough.  There will be big gaps in what people want to buy because there simply won't be enough sellers.  On the other hand this will keep gold in the hands of the average player instead of the businesspeople and it is quite clear that the businesspeople have plenty of gold as it is.  Either way I assume that I will continue to squeeze out cash via cutting gems and transmuting goods with alchemy whenever there is a margin available.  The profits will never be as good as they were back in the day but I really don't need them to be... I figure I have enough money for a couple more expansions at least.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Launch Day

This morning began at 3:00 am for me.  The days of getting up at any random old time and staying up for 24 hours straight are way behind me now; even though I napped this afternoon I still feel groggy and terrible.  On the other hand, I woke up to a new expansion for WOW and got to crush some dreams, which puts me in a good mood.  I was expecting Mists of Pandaria to be a smooth launch since Blizzard had a big beta test and has immense experience and resources available; sadly, it was not as smooth as I would have hoped.

The initial quest series where you fly a helicopter around to begin the quest chain in Pandaria was a gigantic pain in the ass.  I got glitched in the same place as hundreds of others when I was trying to bomb the boats and spent a number of minutes only able to view masses of twisting polygons.  My guildmates and I figured that since the quests were borked that we could just go and do some dungeons but sadly the second boss of the dungeon was bugged too and we couldn't proceed through the event.  It is certainly a bad sign when your players can neither do dungeons nor do quests because both are bugged beyond recovery.  Eventually of course we managed to get through the quest bug and get going but it certainly left a sour taste in my mouth that Blizzard couldn't even get a simple introductory quest to function on launch day.  If doing this quest wasn't *mandatory* to unlock any other quest in Pandaria it would have been fine but the current questing on rails system means that any bug like cannot be circumvented.

Thankfully I wasn't banking on questing much in the early going.  Initially I had been aiming to collect both the Alchemy and Jewelcrafting Realm First achievements solely on the basis of being extremely rich but I decided to go for First Aid too so I could buy overpriced goods of nearly all types at once!  I had no collection skills available to me so my only avenue to victory was outbidding everyone else on the server.  Thankfully the competition seemed to be pretty much nonexistent and I handily cleaned up Jewelcrafting and First Aid in the first three hours by wandering around the starter zone buying stuff from people.  Unfortunately Alchemy requires some high level materials and I couldn't buy them for any price; the Alchemy achievement got snagged before a single stack of high level materials hit the Auction House.  I bought stacks of goods ranging in price from 250g / stack to 1500g / stack and ended up dropping about 23,000g in total; I will recover some of that gold by selling gems and potions but the great majority is completely gone of course.

I consider two Realm Firsts to be a great result.  I didn't get everything I wanted but I also didn't spend nearly as much money as I feared I would have to; I was preparing to drop 100,000g or more if the bidding got fierce.  My guild OGT actually did gangbusters on firsts; we had four people online during the night at launch and scored up five Realm First achievements with everybody getting at least one and we defended our Jewelcrafting and Blacksmithing titles from last expansion.  Unfortunately I am not particularly impressed with the questing in Mists so far.  The quests are very much like Cataclysm where everything is on rails and you have essentially zero choice in what you do.  I want to have more to exploration and levelling than being led around by the nose.  Perhaps the later zones are better but I think I will just end up slogging through the forcefed quest system until I get to max level and start having some real fun.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bringing em back

The MMO blogosphere is full of people talking about Mists of Pandaria.  Some, of course, lament the fact that the Blizzard fanboys are going back to WOW even though there are newer, better offerings out there like Rift or GW2.  Some laugh in glee at all the haters and quitters who can never get fully over their WOW addiction and who always come back for just one more hit, and some welcome everyone back to the fold.

There are all kinds of theories about why exactly this happens like 'WOW is a security blanket' to 'Blizzard makes the most polished product out there' and those probably have some merit but they aren't the answer.  The real reason people end up back in WOW is community.  It is the same reason that D3 fell flat in my group of friends - grouping was substandard in terms of progression and communication was clunky.  The game itself was good enough to keep us playing a long time but the community wasn't.  When I used my free week in WOW and logged back in I found tons of my friends doing the same thing, getting ready for Mists by doing achievements, reading up on strategies for getting realm first professions, and testing out content we had missed in our time away.  I saw people there that I remember from raiding but whom I have never seen outside of WOW too; it was a full house.

That full house was the key.  I love having an online community, especially one I can access any time.  Sometimes I want people to talk to during the day and being able to log in to a game and chat with friends is a wonderful thing.  WOW has the huge advantage that everybody has played it, so all kinds of people reconnect when expansions hit, and also that it has a massive subscriber base normally so I probably know all kinds of people who are slaying monsters and taking stuff.

The gameplay in WOW is good, don't get me wrong, but the gameplay isn't the thing.  People will do almost anything for friendship and love, including playing awful old games like EverQuest.  (If you don't buy that, just ask a EQ veteran to tell a story that doesn't revolve around either "Boy, was EQ bad" or "I had lots of friends in EQ")  Once you develop those connections with people you want them back and WOW is the biggest hub of connections there is for hardcore gamers.  In this way WOW is like Facebook; even if it isn't the best it is the biggest and in a social network being big is even more important than being good.  I am on Facebook even though I think its design stinks and it has all kinds of terrible ethical lapses simply because the connectivity it offers is too useful to ignore.  WOW is the same way; I want to see my friends and they are playing WOW so WOW I must play.  Not that WOW's design irritates me the way Facebook's does; WOW isn't perfect but it isn't terrible either.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Take less damage

Diablo 3 is going to take another step towards making the endgame easier.  In 1.05 Blizzard is going to reduce monster damage by ~25% and nerf the hell out of a bunch of the most problematic defensive skills.  Long term this has to be considered a good move because when you consider that PVP is supposed to be a big focus of D3 sometime in the near future you must consider balance from a class vs. class perspective and not just a player vs. monster perspective.  You simply can't have always-on abilities that reduce damage by 43% (like Prismatic Armour for the Wizard with decent gear) and imagine that somehow this will work out fine when other classes have no similar abilities.

I suspect that Blizzard needed to solve two problems at once.  First off, when you can select an ability that reduces damage by 43% the idea that you would choose anything else is ludicrous.  This means that the wide variety of spec options touted by Blizzard at the outset is not particularly applicable because either players are totally invincible or these sorts of abilities are mandatory - there is no middle ground.  There are plenty of other abilities that are on the chopping block too and thankfully Blizzard seems to have consistently targetted the ones that were most over the top.  Even Demon Hunters and Witch Doctors, who had by far the worst damage reducing abilities, had their best ones reduced in effectiveness somewhat.  These changes will definitely open up PVE specs a lot and make it much more reasonable to run more utility or damage dealing powers in place of the current strategy of two attack moves and four defensive powers that people seem to favour.  Adding another attack spell to my bar increases my offensive power a little by increasing my flexibility but the change is small - defensive powers need to work the same way for specs to have a lot of variety at the top end.

The other problem was pvp of course and in particular the Witch Doctor and Demon Hunter were an issue. Pets work fine for tanking monsters but if you build a pet class and assume that you can give them weak personal mitigation abilities because their pets can tank you are setting them up for failure in PVP.  Players ignore pets and will always focus fire the summoner so Blizzard absolutely needed to bring overall mitigation levels down so that Witch Doctors weren't hilariously flimsy when faced with an intelligent opponent.  Demon Hunter designs face an entirely different problem because Demon Hunters are either invincible or made of paper and have little middle ground (Barring 4p set + perma Gloom which is clearly absurd and needs to get bugfixed).  DH do not have enough passive defenses and any attack that would threaten a tough class with death would outright kill a DH.  While PVP is supposed to be fast paced I don't think that Blizzard really intended to make a class that was a one hit wonder by design.

The changes they have outlined seem very good from both a PVP and PVE perspective.  The endgame will certainly be easier overall as even the classes facing the most serious nerfs will be slightly better off and the other classes will be improved but not so much so that it is a problem.  Because Blizzard is also adding a few new ways to dial up the difficulty I think PVE will remain challenging and fun.  Whether or not Blizzard can actually get PVP balanced well remains to be seen but I am certain they can manage to make something fun and addictive out of it.  PVP was never particularly balanced in D2 and it was still a blast as long as you weren't fighting against people with duped gear so I am sure D3 can be just as good and likely much better.

One last note though:  Due to pet Force Armour mechanics these changes will actually make pets die more easily rather than the other way around.  In order to maintain relative pet toughness the 10,000 baseline for pet Force Armour needs to be reduced by the same % that enemy damage is reduced.  Reducing enemy damage by 25% means nothing if you are reducing an 80,000 hit to 60,000 and then only allowing 10,000 through regardless.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Being casual and bad

I sat down today to try out WOW's Looking for Raid feature.  I haven't played in a long time, I am barely familiar with my abilities, and I don't know how the fights in the Dragon Soul raid work, but nonetheless I was prepared to inflict myself on a host of unsuspecting randoms.  There was some wiping and dying and quite a lot of people slinging blame for the wiping and dying around at random but eventually we cleared the raid out.  I had a pretty good time and became a lot better at healing over a very short timespan!  The raid was very reminiscent of PUG raids I ran back in previous expansions and seemed to be tuned appropriately.  The really great thing about LFR is that I got to experience the final battle of the expansion without having to be in a serious raiding guild.  People used to complain that casuals only get to see the first part of WOW stories and never get to see the end but LFR really opens that up to anyone who wants to put in any modest amount of effort.

The low quality of the leadership in LFR groups certainly brings me back though.  Instead of saying "All dps need to switch to tentacles and slimes when they spawn" people invariably say "All you dpsers are noobs, wtf is wrong with you?"  I rarely found that spouting vitriol was effective but I certainly noticed that simple, clear instructions went a long way towards improving people's play and also keeping the group from exploding.  People also seemed extremely eager to quit the raid and/or boot other people from the raid with minimal to no explanation; for some reason every single boot vote went forward even when I couldn't figure out why it was happening.

I don't get that old feeling of progression though as I upgrade my gear.  LFR does let me check things out but I really don't get the rush of getting new gear and moving forward, most likely because all of the gear I am acquiring will be obsolete in two weeks and there isn't anything more difficult to accomplish other than what I am already doing.  Whether or not I will end up feeling that rush again when Mists of Pandaria launches I don't know - this is particularly true if I end up doing timed dungeons with my friends where gear is normalized and finding new rewards doesn't matter anyway!  Maybe I will just do some pet battles and timed dungeons and forget about the treadmill entirely... who knows?

I am going to get back into theorycrafting in a serious way though.  You don't need to raid to be interested in finding optimal solutions to problems.