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.

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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.