Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Killing off players

Last week I got my first taste of running a DnD game in a very long time... something like 11 years, though it could be as high as 14 years.  Needless to say I was a bit rusty but I think I managed to keep the players involved and entertained reasonably enough.  I got slammed in the face by two major bits of DM wisdom that had faded somewhat over the years though:  The players will do crazy things you never thought of and Always Always use a DM screen.

I had plans for what was going to happen during the session.  The players were tasked with locating a missing scout along a somewhat dangerous frontier which often had minor monster incursions from over the mountains.  I figured they would get past the first town the scout had visited really quickly and move on to the meat of the puzzle but they ended up asking all kinds of questions I had never considered.  They wanted to investigate the room that the scout had stayed in, find out how the scout arrived in town, what sort of horse she rode, and other details that are entirely reasonable and which I had not anticipated.  That all worked out fine; the crazy part was when they decided to start a revolution.

You see, they were faced with a choice of going back to town to accuse / arrest / attack the lying, stealing, possibly murderous governor or go into the mine to kill a monster.  There was an outside chance that they would run away to try to get reinforcements; any of the above would have been fine and within my plans.  Instead they decided to try to go around rabble rousing to start a minor revolution against the aforementioned evil governor and begin a war.

But, but, but....  You guys are the heroes!  The protectors of the realm!  You aren't supposed to be dragging the peasants into the battle?  Are the peasants going to work with you?  Betray you?  Ignore you?  Argh....

You can never, ever plan for what the players are going to do.  They will *always* come up with something crazier than you ever imagined.  Apparently I am the worst for this when I am a player... sorry Sthenno.

In the first fight we had the rogue (played by InTheHat) tried to acrobatically tumble around the Crazy Monster Infested Bear to stab it in the back while the rest of the party beat on it.  This is a fine plan but he rolled very badly and the bear ended up smashing him down.  He got healed and tried to stand up again but again he rolled badly and the bear scored a critical, killing him outright.  This of course happened after we finished our introduction but were only 1 hour into our first game.  So now I have a dead player through extreme bad luck... or do I?

If I was a smart guy I would have a DM screen up and just ignored that critical.  I don't object to killing off players when they die at reasonably important or appropriate times but axing a player such that they don't get to play for the entirety of the first session seems completely terrible.  I didn't have a screen though and the players saw the critical so I just decided to make it a normal hit.  It is a crappy situation because either the players lose immersion or one player in particular has a really cruddy time - no way around that. The fight itself was completely appropriate in terms of difficulty and required some pretty wretched luck to go as badly as it did so I am pleased with my encounter design but I am very sad at the outcome.  It is hard to keep people worried and on edge in battles if they know that I will fudge the dice!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

DnD next - more stuff both good and bad

DnD Next put out their next playtest package that gives the testers actual information about how to build a character up to level five (the old version just gave us premade characters) and much more refined rules.  I also got to listen to an interesting podcast where the Penny Arcade guys did a long interview with Mike Mearls, who is a bigwig in charge of Next.  In all that there were some really great things and some really questionable things; the fighter mechanics look fantastic and the rogue mechanics look questionable.

In the first iteration the fighter was a simple autoattack machine.  Nobody much liked that and the 'no thinking allowed' fighter got scrapped.  The new iteration gives the fighter extra dice to spend on things.  They start out with 1d6 and gradually get more and bigger dice up to 4d12 at level ten.  Initially those dice can be spent adding to the damage of attacks or reducing damage taken from attacks but each fighter will have other abilities they can spend dice to use.  One example is riposte - when missed by an attack, the fighter can spend three dice to make a regular attack against the enemy that missed.  This seems like a fantastic mechanic because someone who wants simplicity can simply spend dice to do more damage but if you have an interest in strategy and flexibility you can play a fighter with lots of options.

Rogues get Sneak Attack in combat and they get several mechanics to make them the masters of skills outside of combat.  The most interesting is their ability to automatically get at least a ten on any skill roll.  After rolling their d20 they simply raise the result to ten if it had been lower.  This is problematic because if the rogue can make the check on a ten they have a 100% chance of success but if they need an eleven then their chance for success is 50% and there is nothing in between!  Rogues also get many more skills and higher skill values than other characters.  This is all fine and good if you want to be the skill character but I question how much fun it is going to be.  If anyone else in the party has any chance at a roll the rogue probably succeeds automatically and given that skills use no limited resources I don't think there will be a lot of intensity in skill based situations.  Maybe I am just not used to skill systems where success is assured but it doesn't seem right.

Back when I was designing games with Iolo, Sthenno, Hobo and Full Throttle we eventually came to the conclusion that having some characters be awesome in combat and some awesome outside of combat was not a good balancing mechanism.  Not in a heroic combat based style, anyhow.  Next seems to be aiming to balance things this way and I am hesitant about it in general and don't like the rogue mechanics in particular.  The other thing that I really want to know is how the designers intend to balance high level spell casters.  Sure, you can give fighters so much damage that they are good in fights next to a wizard but if wizards can fly, go invisible, teleport, scry, etc. then eventually the wizard just beats every challenge by themselves.  More than that the wizard completely eclipses the rogue because every rogue skill gets trumped by a spell that does the same thing but better.  If you want to build a system that goes from level one to level twenty you first have to sort out how you are going to build a wizard with a classic feel that lacks the classic overpowered.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Levelling is great

Patch 1.04 is out for Diablo 3.  Much was promised for this patch and I must say that Blizzard delivered.  The biggest innovation is levelling - again!  Paragon levels have been added in as a replacement for the crazy high level grind of D2.  Characters stay at level 60 but earn XP towards Paragon levels which each grant 3% MF, 3% GF, and a few basic stats.  It isn't much in terms of raw power boost but it gives us something to grind away at again and fixes a fundamental flaw that came with D3 at launch:  The fact that playing a character didn't make that character better.  It used to be that when you were level capped the best way to get better was to sit on the Auction Hall refreshing the search function over and over... heroic gaming it was not.

Filling up a XP bar is fantastic!  I played for just a half hour today but even in that time I fell in love with the game again.  Just knowing that I am not entirely at the mercy of the RNG but can get better by playing and that every monster I kill puts me closer to nirvana makes life wonderful.  The implementation they have chosen is very much like the old level 99 grind which took hundreds or thousands of hours to finish and which gave small rewards along the way.  The crazy grinders had a grind to do and the regular people didn't miss out on much power wise.  Blizzard didn't listen to the forums prior to launch when they were all clamoring for a near infinite grind and I think it cost them; this new system is probably better than a simple 1-99 grind because it avoids power issues with defensive stat scaling in pvp but it really needed to be there at the start.  The new grind should take me between 1000-2000 hours to complete - on each character!

Every class got a lot of buffs and a few nerfs and for the most part I very much approve.  Witch Doctors needed their pets and mana fixed in a major way and needed buffing in general and all of those things were addressed in ways I approve of.  WD base mana regen was increased to 45 from 20, the ridiculous and problematic Vision Quest was completely rewritten and pets are now tough as hell.  I did some trial runs today and was shocked at how sturdy my dorks were.  I think that WD pretty much are all going to run builds with both Zombie Dogs and Gargantuan now because they are so stone cold awesome but the rest of the spell choices have opened way up and there are a ton of great things to try.  Just gotta say:  I called it about Vision Quest.  Broken, broken, broken.

Overall I give 1.04 a big thumbs up.  Unfortunately we still lack the ability to form chat rooms (I am going to keep harping on this until it happens!) but I think character balance is very much improved and basic class concepts like spending Fury and being a summoner class seem solid now.  Now I just need to convince a bunch of friends to start playing again and we can all smash monsters together.  Did I mention that grouping is awesome now?  It is!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Stars are Right

This past weekend I played a board game called The Stars Are Right in which players attempt to be the first cultist to summon an old god from beyond space and time.  Who will then presumably destroy the universe.  The summoning cultist might even survive, somehow.

I love the premise.  The idea of summoning lesser creatures to assist you in summoning even more powerful creatures until you can bring forth Cthulu itself to eat the universe is solid and the basic mechanic of the game looks good at first glance:  There is a 5x5 grid of symbols on the board and each turn you play cards to manipulate the grid by shifting, swapping, or flipping cards in an attempt to get a particular configuration that will allow you to summon a new monster.  Each monster can only be summoned when the 5x5 star grid has particular arrangements of stars, planets, suns, and other celestial bodies in it and at the beginning it seemed like the game would be about long term planning and setting up big plays for later.  Unfortunately the game didn't pan out that way.

The trouble with the idea of planning ahead is twofold.  First off you have five cards in your hand and you spend two of them on your turn to do things.  Then you can discard the worst of your cards and draw back up to five again.  This means that you generally are only going to know a small part of what your hand will be next turn when making decisions so you can't make useful long term plans.  The other big issue is that the board gets massively rearranged between each of your turns by your opponents.  Especially when you have three other people playing you can expect the board to be seriously manipulated six times or so between your turns and as such there is really no point in thinking ahead.  What this ends up meaning is that alternate between making a simple short term plan and ignoring the game.  Because you have no information you can't usefully work against your opponents at all and each player simply becomes a randomization agent for the others.

The other issue with the game is that each player takes their turn scoring points until somebody gets to ten points and then they win.  Given this I would guess that the player going first would win a solid 40% of the games and the player going last would win more like 18%... hardly a reasonable starting proposition.  I went first in my game and I certainly won at least partly on that basis.

The Stars Are Right ends up feeling like a game that had some cool ideas but which totally failed the playtesting and polish segment of game design.  At the very least they should have set it up so that going first wasn't such a monstrous advantage by completing a full set of turns after somebody gets to ten points!  Whether or not it is feasible to actually salvage the game given that it felt like playing solitaire 1/4 of the time and like not playing at all 3/4 of the time is a harder question.  Most games are turn based and you have to spend some time just watching but it is important to feel like paying attention matters and that your opponent's strategy is relevant.  Unfortunately The Stars Are Right ends up feeling like your opponents are just random number generators and you can safely ignore them - not compelling gaming.

Picture from http://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/392201/the-stars-are-right

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Design goals of a RPG

I was talking with Hobo yesterday about my ideas for a new tabletop RPG.  After hearing about some of my system he asked a really excellent question:  "What is the differentiating factor, the talking point that separates your game from other games like DnD?"  I rolled that around in my head a little bit and struck on my answer:  "My game plays like a fantasy novel rather than like a fantasy RPG."

In fantasy stories people don't get powerful in the ways they do in DnD.  They get really good at fighting and doing nifty tricks but they don't get to teleport all over the world at will, spy on anyone they want, store extra bodies for themselves in their castles, be flying / invisible / invincible all the time, etc.  There are fantasy settings where people start out being as powerful as a really talented person and end up being ULTRA POWERFUL and the universal constant is that when the characters get ULTRA POWERFUL the series starts to *suck*.  Rand Al'Thor, Belgarion, Sparhawk, Richard Rahl, and Gord the rogue (oldschool!) were all fun, cool characters (okay, Gord was never cool) and when they got ULTRA POWERFUL their stories became intensely lame.  In just the same way that Superman is never going to be as cool and exciting as Spiderman heroes in stories become boring when they become too strong.  In my RPG characters would become powerful but would never have the silly mechanics high level casters traditionally get in DnD.

"Oh no, a huge army is coming towards our capital and will be here in a week!"

"No big deal, I will just Fly over them with Invisibility and Protection from Arrows up and huck Fireballs down until all 100,000 of them are dead."
"We had better rally our allies and hope their army can get here in time!"

A huge component of fantasy RPGs is money.  The focus on cash and economics in Diablo 3 doesn't even work out very well and that game is a pure grindfest; counting coppers in a heroic roleplaying game is crap.  This is actually a major complaint of mine about 4th edition DnD in particular - the game completely revolves around a magic item economy that makes no sense and isn't remotely heroic.  Previous editions weren't much better but they didn't integrate the idea of magic items as boring currency nearly as completely.  In my RPG people wouldn't even bother keeping precise track of their cash because buying power by purchasing magic items would be nearly impossible.  Just like in World of Darkness people would have a general wealth level and would have to live within it but nobody would bother keeping track of how much it cost to stay at the inn.  Counting coppers is boring.

"Awesome, the dragon had 5,200 gold pieces in his stash."

"Nice, lets go sell my Longsword + 1 and get a Longsword + 2."
"We can use this money to ransom the baron from the barbarians - or maybe we should hire some mercenaries with the cash to try to fight the barbarians and rescue him instead?"

In fantasy novels people get hurt.  They need to rest and recuperate and magical healing is truly wondrous.  In fantasy RPGs people get healed to full after every fight and the idea of long term rest is ludicrous.  How exactly the existence of common healing affects the structure of society is rarely examined and it usually feels like the characters live in a totally different world than everybody else.  In my RPG would get hurt and need to rest to get healthy again.  Perhaps evil rituals could be used to sacrifice victims to heal the Bad Guy rapidly but ubiquitous Cure Light Wounds spells don't exist in most fantasy book settings and with good reason.

"Agggghhh that monster spat acid on my leg!"

"Whatever, 5 points of acid damage.  Cleric, heal me up."
"Oh hell, that leg wound looks BAD.  Can we afford to keep going, or should we get him back to town?"

Saturday, August 11, 2012

D3 1.04 - Good but missing something critical

I have not been playing D3 for a month or so but I have been watching for the balance patch 1.04.  Mostly I was hoping that my chosen class, the Witch Doctor, would be buffed such that I could actually play a summoner style. (You know, the supposed standard build and thematic focus of the class... but I'm not bitter or anything!)  Blizzard released the first batch of details for 1.04 today and I thought I would go over some of the changes they are proposing.

First off they are definitely going to be buffing WD summons in particular and all kinds of other underpowered abilities in general.  There is a paucity of details at this point but testing the effectiveness of various abilities is much easier now because there is a fairly stable endgame so I expect I will be able to summon up my horde of dudes and say "Slay them my minions!  Bwahahaha!" and it will work.  Really, that is what I was most looking forward to in D3 gameplay - getting to cackle my evil laugh as my zombies mercilessly ripped my opponents to shreds.  Whether or not WD are still going to be the crappiest class is unclear but I am sure the gap will close if WD have effective dorks.

When D3 was in development Blizzard announced that Magic Find would be averaged among group members.  This meant that in a group some people could stack all fighting stats and others could stack MF and everyone would get the benefit of both.  In 1.04 this mechanic will be removed and every player will use their own MF stat to determine the loot they get.  This will encourage people with amazing gear to enter public games more often I would think but it will also incentivize people to wear gear with only MF on it and follow others around leeching off of them.  I am sure that when I randomly wander into group games I will inspect people and many of them will be wearing garbage gear with high MF values on it because that is by far the best way for them to obtain loot.  Not wanting to group with people with low MF is frustrating but ending up in groups with people who have all MF and can't kill anything is even worse.  Without a decent way to form groups that avoid leechers this is a recipe for much bitterness.

If I want to form a group that doesn't contain leechers I need something that is conspicuously absent from D3:  Chat channels.  I spoke to several friends yesterday who played some D3 and then quit specifically because all they wanted was a fun game to pass the time where they could chat with their friends.  D3 failed the test of Fun + Chat.  We don't need guild support.  We don't need a complex social display.  We need only the ability to create a custom chat channel so that we can all hang out and shoot the breeze while we play.  I want to be able to ask all my friends "Anyone want to start an all Demon Hunter hardcore group?" without the intense irritation of whispering and replying to 18 different people.  I want to be able to comment on the outrageous hotness of Hollywood Starlet #7 and bitch about religion and talk about how Skill X brown bags the ram.  I can't do that.  More than anything else Blizzard needs to make communication with your friends in D3 a fun and easy experience.

The rest of the changes seem very reasonable and I approve of the direction they are going.  The D3 experience is going to get easier overall but I think that is fine.  The PVE endgame is going to vanish as a source of real difficulty when PVP launches anyway so gradual nerfing and smoothing of the PVE game is a good choice.  Thumbs up Blizzard ... as long as you get some chat support in, that is.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Healing is a problem

When I talk about RPG design I often refer to the Lord of the Rings.  LOTR isn't my favourite fantasy series by any stretch but it sure is well known; everybody knows the world and the story to some extent and it is a useful benchmark for expectations.  I don't like to put Tolkien on a pedestal, especially because of the racist overtones in the books, but his work is certainly iconic!

With that noted I would like to draw the reader's attention to healing.  In LOTR Frodo needs to take a big break to heal up after he is injured by a Ringwraith.  It takes time to accomplish this and that leads to a significant pause in the action.  This is true of most other fantasy stories as well; at some point important people are injured and their recovery becomes a major plot point.  Compare this to DnD or WOW though and you see the exact opposite situation.  In nearly every case people recover from their injuries nearly instantly and move onward without a pause.  Heck, in WOW it is normal for a main tank to go from completely healthy to very near dead every second or so for minutes at a time!  So much for recuperation.

Now in WOW this makes sense.  It would be ridiculous and unpleasant if characters had to take weeks, days, hours, or even minutes to recover from injury.  It is a video game and sitting staring at the screen waiting for people to heal up is boring as hell.  The core issue is that WOW is a real time combat game.  You can't just fast forward 2 weeks and be at full health again like an author can with fictional characters.  To keep the action moving and to make raiding and PvP possible characters need to heal rapidly.

Why is DnD in the same boat as WOW in terms of healing?  I have been asking myself this and coming up pretty much dry on answers.  In DnD you can fast forward time when it is dramatically necessary and there are all kinds of things to do that are not combat related.  There is no need to have every character instantly heal to full every 5 minutes.  The only stumbling block in DnD is that we wouldn't want characters to get injured and then be unable to fight for weeks on end; how would this work if the villain had to be stopped within 2 days and the a key party member got badly beat up?  Leave them behind for the boss fight?  Just let them die?  There are no good options.

However, that lack of options is only true in the model of combat where characters have a health pool that in theory represents ducking, weaving, exertion and skill but which can only be replenished through healing magic.  High level characters have a huge amount of HP which reflects their skill and determination but for some reason it takes absolutely forever to heal naturally; it is never explained why a 1st level fighter heals to full in 3 days and a 10th level fighter needs 40 days!  What is needed is a HP model that reflects actual damage to the body and also exertion and exhaustion.

Back in the day my friends and I were building a system that had two HP pools.  One pool called yah points (You're A Hero!) came back at the end of each encounter and regular HP returned much more slowly though it could be healed quickly through magic.  I think we didn't go far enough though:  We should have removed all magic healing entirely and let characters regain HP very slowly.  Being injured and having to take time to recover is okay when you have yah points available since you can be careful in a fight and try to be defensive - you are at risk, but not going to be killed by any random AOE attack that lands.  This allows characters to be injured and necessitates rest but lets people still fight a little when hurt.

It is annoying to have two HP pools to keep track of but I think it is worth the effort.  I really like the idea of characters being injured without having them spending a lot of time in 'gonna die imminently' mode.  The idea of taking downtime to heal injuries is great and I think I want to write a game where that is true.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Design failure in games

There is a bit of a kerfuffle at the Olympics over four different pairs of badminton players who deliberately tried to lose their matches and were subsequently kicked out of the Olympics completely.  The teams in question were already qualified for the next round of the tournament and were trying to alter their seed position to get more favourable matchups later on.  The fundamental issue at hand is how a competitor should behave when the rules of a competition reward them for trying to lose (or tie) a game instead of win it.  The influence of the metagame on the single match is usually straightforward in that you want to win and when that isn't in place everything falls apart in a hurry.

The Olympic committee and many commentators criticize the players for playing this way and suggest that it is against the spirit of the sport but I find those comments ring a little bit hollow.  When the competition is over there is a huge ceremony for those who won the game and absolutely nothing for those who had the most spirit.  Endorsement contracts, local and international fame, and funding to continue within one's chosen sport is all contingent on precisely one thing:  Winning.  I don't think it is at all reasonable to set up a competition in such a way that losing matches is definitely going to be the best way to win for some teams and then punish them for trying to do that.  I will admit that people who paid a lot of money to see the matches and got rewarded with garbage play got gypped but that is the fault of the organizers.

I remember this same sort of thing happening in Magic:  The Gathering play years ago.  I was in several situations in tournaments where a draw would get me into the finals or where a player wanted to concede for some reason or other and people ended up doing silly and obscure things to arrange this.  I recall people putting cards like Earthquake in their sideboard just to be able to get a draw and trying to pretend to screw up casting spells to manaburn themselves out.  It was all quite ridiculous, particularly the part where the judges were supposed to police this behaviour somehow.  Nowadays players can simply agree to draw if they like and conceding a match is perfectly fine - I don't know what happens if both players want to concede at the same time but they probably are forced to draw in that case!

As a professional organization you have an obligation to make sure that the metagame either 1.  Always rewards winning the current match no matter what or 2.  Allows players to lose or tie without resorting to ingame antics.  It is nothing but a disaster when judges are suddenly in the situation of trying not to enforce clear rules but to determine what a player's intent was with a particular action and to sort out what is going on deep in their mind.  You can't reward and punish the exact same behaviour and expect people to act in the way you want.

Without changing the other rules of the competition at all the organizers could at least have put in a clause that the winner of a match may choose to record themselves or their opponents as the technical victor; every match will thusly be played out to the full ability of the players involved regardless of their position in the metagame.  If you don't like that somewhat kludgy solution then something straightforward like a single or double elimination tournament is called for instead.  Having multiple teams from the same country playing in a tournament where you are using round robin play in pods is just asking for trouble.