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:  http://us.battle.net/d3/en/blog/7597724/New_Event_The_Infernal_Machine-10_15_2012

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.