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.