Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Keeping the diversity rolling

In my Heroes By Trade tests I got some feedback that the races in my particular fantasy world weren't compelling enough numerically.  At level 1 they were reasonably differentiated but as time went by many of the differences between the races vanished because they could be replicated simply by buying particular Skills or Powers.  Initially many of the races were set apart by having a short list of Skills they had to choose from - as an example, Trolls need to choose two of Intimidate, Stealth, Camouflage, and Wilderness to be trained in to start the game.  I came up with an idea to keep races differentiated over time that I adapted/stole from 4th edition DnD, which is to let people buy racial abilities as they level up.

All characters of a particular race will still get baseline abilities like the Troll getting Thick Hide which grants them +1 Armour and +1 Resist.  However, as they level up they will have the option of buying new abilities that are unique to their race.  Humans can purchase an increase to the number of Fate Points they receive, Gnomes can tumble through squares occupied by large creatures, and Sylphs will be able to upgrade their wings to have more powerful flight.  Every race will have a number of cool things that they *can* do but which not everyone who takes that race will be able to do.  Hopefully this will make racial choices continue to be relevant and interesting as characters get more powerful and also let people of the same race differentiate themselves if they choose to.

I feel like in DnD this style didn't work well partly because the feats were terribly balanced but mostly because of organization - all the racial abilities were listed under feats and as such were difficult to find if you were looking for them and hard to avoid if you didn't want them.  It seems like a small thing but I think those feats would have gone over a lot better if they could have been neatly placed under race instead of just randomly scattered throughout the feat lists - I certainly would have liked to know what cool stuff a dwarf could learn to do when reading the other details about dwarves.

This all ties in with a philosophy of mine about gaming systems.  That is, the system is not necessary to do cool things and have fun but people feel much more immersed in the game when the system supports their intuitive understanding of how things should work.  I think people want characters to be able to have unique abilities and they want a character's race to matter in terms of what amazing abilities they can manifest.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The big pitch

Little games, ones published by a new company, a single person, or just a game without a number after its name often have trouble establishing themselves.  People already know the entries in the category and want more of the same - Diablo for example has a huge following and if you are going to do a ARPG you really need something cool and different to draw people in.  I think it is really key to have a good pitch line, something that can quickly and effectively communicate what exactly sets your game apart from the leviathan everybody else knows.  If you want to have any chance of getting people to pay the monetary and time cost of converting to your game you really need to have some good taglines for why your game is worth it.

In TTRPGs the leviathan is DnD, or its bastard offspring Pathfinder.  Of course the competition I am thinking about right now is Heroes By Trade and I am considering what I would say if I had just a few seconds to get people's attention.  The key of course is to find a way in which DnD sucks and HBT rocks so that I can set up the most favourable comparison possible.  Just saying "HBT lets you play fun fantasy campaigns!" is useless because plenty of systems do that; I have to showcase why and where HBT is better.

Complex choices, simple math
Interesting tactics for all classes and roles
You can actually play out Lord of the Rings
Worlds that make sense

These are some things I have been thinking of.  The first two are huge because I always hated the situation where it was blindingly obvious what to do every round but actually calculating the results of the optimal choice took forever.  "What is my plus to hit on my secondary offhand attack roll again?"  Figuring out what your bonus to hit is should *not* take five minutes.  I think that is actually a huge draw for new players because I often find newer folks absolutely floored by the task of keeping track of their current numbers and veterans who are bored because their tactics almost all come down to "I attack".  There is a reason that nearly all the indie games out there that get any traction have extremely simple minimalist rulesets.

The latter two phrases are most important for the GMs I think.  I always found it frustrating to come up with worlds that didn't fall apart when high level spellcasters began to do things - the amount of work it took to sort out exactly how everyone was supposed to defend against powerful PC spellcasters with clever players was prohibitive.  I also really have a personal thing about healing and recovery; I despise the DnD instant heal system that makes injury a trinary system.  Either you are full, hurt, or dead, and there really isn't anything more to it than that.  Fantasy stories just don't work that way!

I figure it is important to keep these things in mind when designing a new game.  It can be fun to build something to compete against the leviathan but if you actually want to see your game played you should figure out what other games are doing badly and then do that really well.  It is going to provide a place for players who really want that and it will make a great marketing pitch should the time to sell ever materialize.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I suck

There are a lot of games in the world where I am pretty good.  Given an equal practice period I would happily go up against anyone at nearly any game you can name.  Holy crap do I ever suck at bowling though.

That's right, I got beat in bowling by my seven year old child.  I also got beat by my dad, but that is a lot more reasonable since he actually has done some bowling in the past and is good at that sort of game.  At least we don't have any worries about me getting an inflated ego this Christmas season.

Friday, December 20, 2013

It goes up smooth

I have been playing a bunch of Path of Exile lately and I have been impressed with the way the endgame works.  In particular I am impressed with how well POE compares to Diablo 3 when it comes to endgame progression and the difficulty curve.  When playing D3 I just smashed through all of Normal, Nightmare, and Hell without stopping and then suddenly got brutalized when I arrived in Act 1 of Inferno.  With a combination of playing better, figuring out better skill combinations, and some gear tweaks I managed to get Act 1 down pretty fast and then hit the brick wall of Act 2.  Not only was I dying a dozen times to every elite group but it was also abundantly clear that it would take a truly monumental amount of farming to change that.  The prospect of farming Act 1 for a hundred hours to allow me to be able to slowly and painfully make progress in Act 2 was extremely unpleasant.  The difficulty curve was just a wall rather than being a smooth increase throughout.

POE seems completely unlike that.  As the level of zones goes up the monsters get consistently more difficult; although there are definitely prime levelling places I definitely find that I get a little more gear and a few more points and then I can move on to the next area comfortably.  The progression into the map endgame seems smooth as I was able to tackle the first map I found at the listed level.  I died some but a lot of that was just cockiness and inexperience and once I took the enemies seriously and regeared a bit it was quite doable.

The key here is that I consistently get the sense that I am getting better.  I get a new piece of gear and then I can farm the Docks instead of the Fel Shrine.  I get another piece of gear and I can farm the Cathedral instead.  Another piece yet and I can start effectively farming my first maps.  The trouble with the Act 2 wall in D3 was that even if I got several upgrades I would still be doing exactly the same thing as before - clear out the whole second half of Act 1 again.  There was no feeling of progression, no sense of being able to do new things.  Having a really good difficulty scale that gives that constant sense of progression is key to making the game fun.

A major factor in making that happen is the inevitability of damage.  In D3 it was quite possible to avoid nearly all damage and building a character that would be one shotted by everything was the only sensible choice.  In POE that isn't reasonable because you are going to take damage and you must be able to survive it to accomplish anything.  That allows the difficulty curve to be much easier to construct because if the monsters do 10% more damage that *matters*.  When all monsters do infinite damage it becomes extremely difficult to actually ramp up the challenge of encounters in a granular fashion.

Ahead of time I hadn't realized just how important a feature this was but it definiltely is - there needs to be a lot of damage flying around that is nigh impossible to avoid and which the character has to be able to survive to make sure that being tough enough is a constant struggle.  A smooth progression curve is key to a fun experience in a RPG and achieving that is so much easier if you can do so just by ramping up the damage the players take by 20% and be sure that doing so really matters.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Feelin' it

The feel of a game is critical.  I think that this term is pretty terribly defined most of the time as people would generally only be able to say 'I just don't like it' as justification for saying that the feel of a game is off.  Sometimes they might complain about mechanics in an inconsistent or nonsensical way to support their sense that the feel is off but rarely can they point to the real source.  I have noticed though that a huge component of feel is the sense that decisions made by the player have the sorts of consequences one would expect if they were made in the real world.

For example, if your character is being attacked by archers and you choose to hop behind a tree you should be substantially safer from arrows.  If the game fails to reflect that then someone who makes that choice will be frustrated that the game feels wrong because their intuition about what actions are sensible does not match the rules.  In a similar way people expect that if their character wields a sword and shield they will be tougher than someone who wields a sword in each hand.  It would be possible to build a system where wielding two weapons gave you an option to parry and shields helped you slam people and end up in a situation where putting on a shield actually made you easier to hurt but this would have a bad feel for most people.

This is why systems are so important.  People want to do things that are in character and make sense and they also want to 'win' the encounter.  If those two goals are achieved by doing the same thing then they feel comfortable and have confidence in the system.  On the other hand if being good and making sense are entirely at odds you end up with bitterness between the optimizers and the actors.  It is true that if your group matches you very well it hardly matters what system you use because fun will be had.  It is also true that if your group is a horrible mismatch for you then it hardly matters what system you use because misery will be had.  There are plenty of places in the middle though where a really good system that aligns sensible roleplaying choices with optimized power choices can smooth over the differences between players.

Achieving that balance is one of the cornerstones of Heroes By Trade design.  I really want it to be true that if a player just picks a class, picks a few Powers that seem thematically appropriate, and picks a weapon based purely on aesthetics that they will be fine.  As good as the twink?  Certainly not, but I really want the feel that the best general measure of a character's prowess is their level rather than their ability to avoid making stupid choices that are baked into the game.  If you built a character by trying to make a copy of a hero from a movie, for example, that character should at least be reasonable in the system.

The key to doing this is to make sure that any given choice is optimal some of the time.  Should I use a greataxe or a twohanded sword?  Depends on my stats, my perks, and my Powers.  Should I wear chain armour or plate armour?  Depends on who I am fighting, how much I have to move around, and where I need to travel to.  Should I learn Infested Claws or Whirlwind?  Depends on what my teammates are using, whether I am fighting a single target or a mass of enemies, and what other Powers I chose.  Any time I find that one option is always correct I tilt things until that isn't true.  As long as every choice is optimal given some configuration of the rest of the character things will work out fine.

Friday, December 13, 2013


In the DnD Next blog post this week Mike Mearls talked about classes and how people approach them.  He discusses how some players have a concept in mind when they begin and they try to find a way to hammer a particular class into the concept they started with.  Others window shop and when they see a class they want they just play it as it is.  One group wants the system to present them with a mostly fully formed character they can just step into and the other wants the system to give them tons of options to tweak things just so.  What ends up happening is the system sits partway between those two extremes, offering classes that have some fixed features and some options.

My group of friends built a system years ago that discovered the necessity of a middle ground the hard way.  We designed the game down to three generic classes, then two, then one.  A player could build any combination of thugging, magic use, skills, and tricks but people seemed very uninspired to play the game.  Having restricted options and built in flavour really increased the fun of character building.  People may say they want complete flexibility but it seems that few really do; note how few people actually play GURPS.

What is interesting to me is that Mearls tries to position DnD 3rd as the edition where people had tons of choices and 4th as being highly restrictive.  I think it is true that you had more options in 3rd but the problem was that nearly all of those options were garbage.  You could be a multiclass wizard / ranger / cleric / bard / rogue if you really wanted to but since you would be completely useless that doesn't really count as an option.  I think 4th edition actually had significantly more options that were decent but it certainly cut off all kinds of junk builds by fiat rather than by attrition.  In 4th edition as long as you maximized your attack stat you couldn't go that far wrong - in 3rd by comparison you could make a monumentally crappy character with ease.

I suspect that the final model for DnD Next's classes will be one that supports both philosophies reasonably but also generates maximum revenue.  I would bet that we get core books that present a few simple options but mostly let you just choose a class and go and then supplements that provide plenty of ways to swap out baseline abilities for new and interesting things.  People will complain of course about splatbooks and power creep and the necessity to buy tons of junk but that model lets new players buy a Player's Manual and get started easily and lets the hardcore people buy eighteen books and make their super optimized twinks.  This is of course the model that was financially very successful in both 2nd and 3rd edition already.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Slimming down

I have been building character sheets for Heroes By Trade.  This is a tremendously useful exercise because it gives me information on just how complicated I have made the rules.  I remember building characters in Pathfinder and being amazed at how many numbers went into each calculation.  Armour Class seems like a simple concept until you see it broken down into three categories of AC - touch, regular, and flat footed, and then you see the huge list of different things that modify each one.  The calculation of defence values and hit rolls in HBT is drastically simpler than in Pathfinder (which, in fact, was one of the defining reasons to build the system in the first place) but I do have an additional wrinkle in that every character has a soak value for both physical and magical damage.

People have found that last detail a bit of a challenge and there has been a lot of desperately searching character sheets for the appropriate soak value for the incoming damage.  I know that HBT is much simpler than Pathfinder but it is tricky for me to decide if it is simple enough.  I want complex tactical decisions but I really want a game that people can figure out the numbers very quickly.  The question "What happens if I do this?" should be trivial to answer and the question "What is the best action to take?" should be very complicated.  People get those messed up a lot and miss that many games that are deadly complex to understand consistently boil down to a single best strategy.  Getting perspective on this is difficult as I am so much inside the system myself and knowing what every number does is intuitive.  People other than me on the other hand don't seem to find it as straightforward as that.

I could simply have a single avoidance stat and a single soaking stat rather than having both of them for physical and magical damage.  This would make things simpler for sure but would lose some depth of strategy.  Some characters and monsters end up much more vulnerable to one sort of attack or the other and it is interesting to have to figure out who should be attacking what based on those vulnerabilities.  There is nothing generally wrong with just having Dodge and Armour but sometimes having Dodge, Armour, Ward, and Resist lets the players be clever and send their physical tank to go tie up the ogre while the magical tank engages the enemy necromancer and that feels pretty great.  It also lets people be differentiated somewhat and feel like their stat spreads really matter.

I do have the issue that there is a cost to adopting a new game.  Even if DnD is more complicated it contains familiar mechanics that people will easily fall into because they have seen them before - in order to really be appealing I need HBT to be significantly simpler while simultaneously being tactically superior.  DnD designers do have the constraint that they have to cater to the nostalgia of the grognards but having said grognards around does have big advantages in terms how much complexity can be crammed in.

Friday, December 6, 2013

What am I doing again? Killing dudes, that's what!

I have been playing Path of Exile a lot.  It has been described as the spiritual successor to Diablo 2 and after testing both Diablo 3 and POE I definitely agree with that description.  D3 has its own charms but POE definitely *feels* like D2 and honestly seems like more fun than any of the games that actually bear the Diablo name.  The funny thing is that a lot of the things I find I most like about POE are things that were specifically engineered out of D3.

In particular I like that I often have no idea what is going on.  When I finally went to kill Piety at the end of POE I honestly didn't have any idea why I was doing that.  I knew she had shown up and mocked me once or twice and definitely killed a guy once but other than that I really didn't have any awareness of why I should bother.  This is definitely the sort of thing that happened in D2 - you could end up fighting nearly all of the act bosses without really knowing why aside from Diablo himself.  D3 very deliberately had the enemies pop onto the screen to mock you and tell you their plans so that you absolutely could not fail to know what you were up against.  It turns out I really like being able to just wander around butchering stuff with no clue why.  Of course if I really wanted plot I could go around to everybody in town and hear all the speeches and get all the backstory but the wonderful thing was how optional it all was.

That optionality of various parts of POE is absolutely key.  I am completely able to skip quests, wander into zones for no reason, ignore lore, and just do whatever the hell I want.  There are gates to progression of course but they aren't always in your face and they fit nicely into the world.  A truly open game with no direction isn't really what I want and the utterly regimented plot of D3 was stifling but this middle ground with some plot that needs to happen and a bunch of stuff you can do or not is fantastic.  I think D3 was deliberately designed to avoid the scenario of the player having no clue what is happening, probably because people ended up wandering around in D2 being completely clueless about what to do next some of the time.  Unfortunately that choice really makes the game feel less like a series of interesting choices and more like Progress Quest.

The loot decisions in POE are also absolutely fascinating because sockets and gems are just so damn flexible.  A piece of gear has not just a series of random properties but also a random set of sockets with random colours with random connections.  All of the dimentions offer incredible variety and make gearing choices very complicated.  Do I want to wear the gear that lets me socket more stuff onto my primary attack, or gear that gives me more resists?  More movement speed, or another aura?  Can I afford the loss of mana?  So many questions!  More options, both to be bad if I want or awesome if I can figure it out, make POE by far the game for me.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Being even more elegant

The DnD Next blog post this week is the second installment on game design elegance.  One of the key points in it is a discussion about making rules local rather than global.  The idea of the article is that you should bury rules in individual classes, weapons, or other small categories rather than making them standard so that only the people who really need to know them have to learn them.  For example, they talk about how spellcasters have to concentrate to maintain some spells and being hit ends that concentration.  The idea is that only the spellcasters will need to know this and other people will not.

I think this is a very flawed approach to solving an old problem.  The problem is the extreme complexity of the 3rd edition combat rules, in particular the rules about attacks of opportunity.  Firing a ranged weapon provoked an attack of opportunity, drawing a weapon did not, but sheathing one did.  Standing up provoked an attack, 5 foot stepping did not, and you can make a special kind of check to avoid provoking when spellcasting.  This is only the tip of the iceberg and anyone who wanted to not get destroyed in combat needed to know these things.  However, the problem wasn't that the rules were in the Combat section but rather that they were flat out too complicated!  The basic rules of how combat works need to be super simple but people need to know what they are.

Continuing the example from above it is clear that absolutely everybody in combat needs to know that concentration spells are ruined when you get hit.  When the enemy wizard tries to turn your friend into stone you *need* to know that if you go over there and clobber the wizard the spell will fail.  It simply isn't enough for the wizard to know that they have to avoid getting hit; the brawlers have to know the rule too.  Another example is that ranged weapons are likely to have a property that makes them bad when used within an enemy's reach.  The proposed solution is to have that rule sitting in the section on that weapon itself instead of in a central location.  Again though everybody needs to know that running up to an archer and getting in their face is a good thing to do mechanically - it isn't reasonable for that knowledge to be only available to the archer!

The fact is that if a rule is useful and if a rule is necessary then it needs to be located in a place where everybody can read it.  If that means that there are too many rules then trim down or simplify the rules.  Hiding the rules away so that they are hard to find or so only a few people know what they are just means that some players are going to play terribly because they don't know how the game works and that isn't helping anyone.  Players who end up on the ass end of a rule they didn't know existed will not thank you for making that rule local rather than global.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Put all the fire in one place please

My post on Sunday generated an interesting question from AfN about encounter design.  Part of my assumption when writing the post was that focus fire is the default strategy when in a fight and I feel like that should be unpacked to some extent.  In a real fight focusing fire isn't really a thing because people get injured and that reduces their fighting capability substantially.  When I get punched, shot, or Fireballed in such a way that I don't die I am still going to run slower, have worse aim, and panic.  If a realistic implementation of injury were put into place in a fighting game focus fire would definitely take a back set to simply injuring as many enemies as possible.

However, a fighting model that takes injury into account is full of pitfalls.  World of Darkness uses this idea and in that system it is a major issue because fights become routs almost immediately.  Anyone who strikes a lucky early blow cripples their opponent's ability to fight back and as such encounters are often all but over by the time everyone has had even a single turn.  This doesn't make a bad experience necessarily but it makes for a crappy tactical game.  It also has the problem that when a character gets injured they don't get to respond effectively and many people get frustrated by this.  Getting hurt is bad enough, I think, without tossing on top the issue that you now suck at everything.  Of course DnD, Heroes By Trade, and many other fantasy games do not have this feature and everyone fights at full capacity until they keel over unconscious or dead.  Unrealistic for sure, but I think it is more fun in a heroic fighting game than an injury based model.

AfN suggested a different sort of model to eliminate the need for focus fire too, one where if you were not attacked in the previous round you are much more powerful during your turn.  Perhaps you get an extra action, become more accurate, do more damage, whatever.  This is certainly a good way to reward combatants for spreading their attacks out and trying to engage all enemy targets but it also suffers from a few issues.  First off it requires keeping track of another state for every combatant and secondly it (much like the injury model above) penalizes people for being attacked.  Anyone who is a melee combatant or who tries to tank for other characters is never going to get to take advantage of the bonus for not being attacked and I don't particularly like a system where the people taking the greatest risks are penalized further.

Another similar option I considered was a model where combatants could choose to avoid an attack by giving up their next action.  Obviously this could not be a guaranteed thing or no one would ever get hurt but it could mitigate the blow in some fashion.  I think this sort of system would lead to fights that lasted forever though as people tossed away their turns to defend themselves.  The solution I am still most comfortable with is one where combatants have decent options to defend themselves that they choose to use.  If someone is being focus fired they can use the basic Defend action or they can use a Power that makes them hard to hurt in some fashion.  Focus firing is still a good default plan but intelligent opponents will use their abilities to reduce its effectiveness.  For HBT this seems like the best option to me.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Constraints in DnD design

This week the DnD Next blog post was about elegance in game design.  It is a good piece and the lessons it talks about would definitely suggest that the folks in charge there have a sense of their goals and a process that works.  If they were trying to come up with a game from scratch the things the post talks about would be a great start at making a wonderful game.  The trouble they have is that they are weighed down by the burden of success.

Looking at the casting system of DnD Next in particular I see a hilarious disaster.  It makes no sense to me even if I look at it from a "I am a wizard in a world full of dragons and zombies and magic swords" perspective.  It looks like the ideas of elegance that were discussed in the article above were just absent in its construction.  That isn't the case though, rather the problem is that they have to build the best system they can on a foundation that is not elegant at all.  When you know that a fifth level wizard has to be able to cast a third level spell called Fireball that allows enemies to make a saving throw to take half damage it very much constrains your design options.

Obviously they could have started the process with something really revolutionary like 4th edition was but they clearly have the directive from on high that the game must be like the old DnD.  It must be familiar and incorporate enough of the legacy mechanics of the old games that people get a real sense of nostalgia when playing it.  This is a serious issue and is clearly responsible for many of the things that bug me about the current design of Next.  Of course the flip side of the coin is that they have millions of people just waiting to buy the product the instant it hits the shelves even if it isn't elegant.  This is a game designer's nightmare but a marketer's dream.  Heck, I might even buy it despite all of the trash I talk about it since it is a good bet I will end up playing it at some point.

The question I have been asking myself is what I would do if I were offered the opportunity to work on a project like that.  If I had artists and production people and testers all lined up and I knew my work would be widely used it would be fantastic but would I be willing to publish a product that was so kludged together to satisfy the demands of the folks wielding the checkbook?  Realistically I would I think.  The opportunity to see so many people use and enjoy the fruits of my labour would outweigh the distaste of the artistic limitations placed upon me.  Now I just need to find somebody to make me that offer.  Any takers?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Why worry about challenge anyway?

MattV commented in response to my post last week about setting numbers to describe monster difficulty.  His experience in the old days didn't have much to do with trying to arrange fights that were at a particular challenge level and were more about 'let's go into this premade dungeon and see if we live' kind of play.  I wanted to talk a bit about that and why I see the necessity for building a robust system to describe monster difficulty.

Back in the old days of DnD monsters didn't have to challenge the party because they challenged individuals.  Even if you had a ten person party and you were facing down two orcs those orcs could roll well on initiative and swing their axes for enough damage to kill anyone in the group.  Even though the party was guaranteed to win the element of danger was always there for any individual member so the GM never needed to calibrate the encounters tightly to keep people on their toes.  Even if the monster didn't kill you the group only had a handful of healing spells for the day so a single hit was a significant drain on resources.  The trouble with that model is that characters become disposable and investing in one is almost silly.  It is a game of attrition rather than an epic tale.

These days people expect that their characters will live.  Certainly this is true in 4th edition DnD, DnD Next, and Heroes By Trade.  There are a variety of mechanics in all three games that mean that it is *possible* for a character to die in a fight that the party wins but the default expectation is that everybody walks out alive or everybody dies.  In that sort of scenario if the encounter the party faces is utterly trivial then nobody is afraid or worried.  That same ten party person facing down two orcs lacks any sense of danger or concern.  This is good from a character longevity standpoint but has the issue that in order to keep the players cautious and worried the fights have to actually threaten the whole group.  Of course if you want to threaten the group but not kill the group you need some sort of system to figure out how to do that.

This is where Challenge Ratings, Encounter Strength, and XP value come in.  All three are systems to tell GMs how tough a monster is.  All three have issues.  Challenge Ratings from 3rd ed. suck because optimization makes such a difference in that system.  An encounter that is barely winnable by a normal party is completely trivial for an optimized party and this makes the system not very useful.  XP values from DnD Next have the problem that the scaling is completely off - they work for fights with a handful of enemies on each side but if you fill a tenth level fight with the appropriate number of orcs the players get massacred.  Encounter Strength is the most robust system of the three but it isn't perfect either.  At the extreme ends of the fight spectrum where the players face a single monster or a swarm of dorks the system isn't as good as I would like, though it is still the best of the three.

There is another motivation for creating tough but winnable encounters that I have not touched on so far though and that is that they allow for a challenging tactical game.  Many players like combats to be a challenge and they want the combats to be tough enough that they have to play well to win.  Without a good system it is extremely difficult to provide fights that force the players to think hard and play well but don't accidentally kill them off on a regular basis.  Personally I love the feeling of being in a tough fight and having to optimize my actions so I really appreciate when the GM gets it just right and we need to play superbly to pull out a victory.

Of course not everyone really wants the party to be challenged nor do they want a tactical game.  For those folks these systems aren't very relevant as they aren't trying to walk the razor's edge.  All they want is something rough to tell them if a monster is way out of line for the group.  Nothing wrong with this of course and as long as they are enjoying it then more power to them.  For me though a well built challenge system is key on either side of the GM screen and while building HBT I definitely want to provide such a system for those who want to use it.  Moreover my perfectionist tendencies make me want to keep on tweaking and perfecting the system far beyond what most people would consider reasonable or necessary.  It feels in many ways like what I was born to do (if such a thing truly existed).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tiers of power in DnD Next

The DnD Next blog post this week was light on details but still interesting.  The main thrust of the article was that the designers built the game with a hierarchy in mind, specifically that some sorts of choices were meant to be more important than others.  Class is the top of the heap and as such if a class does something then races, spells, feats, and backgrounds are never allowed to do that same thing better.  In particular Mearls talks about how rogues are supposed to be good at stealth so spells are not allowed to make a wizard superior at stealth.  In previous editions this was an issue because at high levels flying, invisible wizards with divination magic were drastically better at stealth than any rogue could ever be.

This strikes me as a good thing, particularly the emphasis on spells being worse than classes.  Hopefully this will lead to casting classes generally being comparable to thugging classes in overall utility instead of being insanely overpowered at higher levels and rendering thugs obsolete.  I would personally change my focus to 'spells shouldn't be as powerful as they were in 3rd edition' rather than specifically trying to avoid making spells more powerful than particular class features but I can't fault their goal.  It is a tricky thing to accomplish in any event because classes have such varied abilities both in combat and out.

I have managed to avoid this sort of balance issue in Heroes By Trade by carefully separating out where character power comes from.  Classes provide combat options and themes but they do not provide skills or other non combat abilities.  This makes balancing them much easier as I just have to make sure Fireball is balanced against Cleave and I don't have to worry about balancing Whirlwind vs. Invisibility or Charge vs. Teleport.  All characters have access to Rituals and Skills regardless of class so I don't have to worry that a particular class is going to be obsoleted.

There is a disadvantage to doing it my way though.  Classes in DnD are very much full of lore and flavour.  Rangers are good at tracking, Rogues at stealth, Bards at singing, etc.  Classes in HBT have themes but lack the crunch to go with those themes.  Marauders may be animalistic in their fighting style and Wizards may summon things to smite their enemies but those don't really translate to out of combat prowess.  I did this deliberately because I wanted it to be possible to build a tough melee combatant who was good at magical theory or a spellslinger who was talented at athletics.  When class choices specifically include crunchy noncombat options people end up playing the archetype instead of the character.  That said there are surely many people who want every bow user to be called a Ranger and to be good at tracking either for lore or for simplicity.

The way I see it if people are very attached to Rangers being the best trackers then it doesn't matter much what my system is because they aren't going to like it.  I feel that I should target those who are dissatisfied with the DnD model and want something different, something more.  Rather than try to accommodate everyone I should instead figure out my own style and then execute that perfectly.  There is already plenty of watered down mush out there.

If that wasn't enough then I can just go with my instincts.  Making a product that tries to be everything to everybody makes me want to stick a fork in my eye.  On the other hand making the best game for me sounds like a wonderful time so I suppose I should just do that.  I have the luxury of not having a bunch of stockholders breathing down my neck and I can just do what makes me happy.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How hard is that fight anyway?

I have been slugging away at my system for figuring out how monster difficulty should be rated in Heroes By Trade.  Doing so has given me more insight into why 4th edition DnD did monsters the way it did.  In 4th ed. monsters were all given a level that corresponded with player levels.  12th level players should fight 12th level monsters, for example.  Also monsters were categorized by type - minion, regular, elite, or solo.  In theory this makes for a very tight system for creating encounters where monsters always have stats that are appropriate for the players.  In practice it makes the game encounters feel very artificial because random brigands you meet at level 20 are so drastically more powerful than random brigands you meet at level 1.  The world isn't populated with interesting things at that point; instead everything the players fight just happens to have the perfect stat spread.

The thing is that the system described above is just so convenient.  I was trying to assign static numbers to monsters that would work across a variety of player levels and it was a nightmare.  Monsters that worked fine as part of a level 25 encounter were utterly lethal when faced as a solo encounter at level 10 because the players just couldn't hit them or couldn't get past their armour.  There simply wasn't a single number I could assign to them that adequately reflected their difficulty.  This is the genius of the 4th ed. model - you have two dimensions to the difficulty (level and minion-solo) and that makes it so easy to figure out because you always know what level the players are.

The major challenge involves the solo monster problem.  That is, when one side in a fight has a single HP pool it is at a massive advantage.  The other side cannot focus fire to remove threats and focus fire is the primary strategy of any successful group.  The flip side of the coin is that a single monster often cannot make use of its debuffs and is far more vulnerable to debuffs than a group.  This means that monsters that have debuffs as a primary focus can be more deadly in groups and monsters that have big stats as a focus are powerful solo.  So far in testing it has seemed to me that the advantage of having a single HP pool massively outweighs any debuff advantage in most cases.

I finally had to give up on making a system that would work across all party sizes and encounter types.  My final attempt works as follows:  Each player has a Encounter Strength (ES) of Level + 6 and those are added together to determine the ES of the party.  I then model a monster fighting two players and figure out at which level the fight is even just based on damage dealt.  Then I calculate the monster ES based on the ES of two players at the given level.  This is all very reasonable but then comes in the kludge - any monster encountered alone should be considered to have a ES 25% higher than listed because of the previously mentioned single HP pool factor.  I mashed a bunch of encounters through my simulator and it seems to work out all right but it continues to irk me that I have not found a simple, clean solution.  I suspect that unfortunately such a solution does not exist as otherwise some edition of DnD would probably be using it.

I don't like having monsters be so artificial as they are in 4th ed. even though it is very convenient for the GM.  I also don't want them to be as ridiculous as 3rd ed. or Pathfinder where 'appropriate' encounters ended on round 1 and it was easy to be unhittable or unmissable.  The old days of monsters being incredibly random and oscillating between lethal and trivial was entertaining at times but eventually unsatisfying and the new model defies immersion.  If the perfect system does not exist though I will lean towards old school because I am convinced I can do a better job of the numbers than Gygax did back in the day.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Bigotry in RPGs and the writing of GM guides

I had a really interesting debate today with people about RPG worlds and the way that bigotry in them is justified.  An awful lot of game worlds are brutally sexist whether it be through chainmail bikinis, male dominated power structures, or other degradations of women and much of it is defended as being realistic.  Realistic, in this case, means that it is a really inaccurate but culturally normal portrayal of the way in which some people see European centric medieval culture in order to justify sexism.  Is it true that way more men that women were in power in medieval Europe? Yes.  Does that have anything whatsoever to do with how a fantasy world with dragons, teleportation, and fireballs should be or is organized?  No.

In the GM section of Heroes By Trade I talked about this and emphasized that the most important thing to do was to make sure that all the players were happy.  If your world design made people (most often but not at all limited to women) unhappy then you did it wrong.  However, I included a justification for a non male dominated world if someone was really looking for one.

Characters with inborn power (which includes all player characters) have equal combat prowess and other talent regardless of gender so the serious sexism that exists and existed in the real world did not develop in the world of Heroes By Trade.

Of course you didn't need this justification.  Saying "the world we are playing in doesn't work that way" is plenty.  After all, magic and frostbolts and flying and such, even if you ignore the fact that the real world has an immense variety of different cultures which have very different standards for the way that people relate based on gender.

However, I concluded that even providing that justification was an error; I was wrong.  The idea that women being unequal is realistic and therefore worth considering as a fundamental game structure is bullshit.  There is only one rule:  Have a good time.  That's it.  Make it realistic isn't a rule or even a guideline and the idea that feminine oppression is somehow necessary for things to feel realistic is misogynistic in itself.  If you are willing to accept flying across a mountain on a pegasus without losing immersion then clearly you can accept people all being treated as people in the same way.

Instead of staying home we go out to smite evildoers.  Instead of getting cut by swords and dying from infection we rest awhile and then keep on going.  Instead of being in a world where people are systematically discriminated against we play in a world where such discrimination does not exist.  None of these things make a good reality simulator but they all make the game more fun and that is the whole point.  Screw realism... give me fun every damn time.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Video games really have it easy in a lot of ways when compared to pen and paper gaming.  One of the biggest things they have going for them is the ability to put absurd challenges in front of players.  I am playing Mass Effect 1 through on Insanity difficulty lately and it has made me laugh a few times when I think of doing the same scenarios in a tabletop RPG.  In particular I found it amusing when my character hopped into a two meter pit and was informed by a squadmate that this was a one way trip because there was no way back up to the surface.  Obviously the only solution was to go through the whole maze and disable the force field with random narratively powered properties; just climbing back out of the pit was out of the question.  How could a squad of cybernetically enhanced future soldiers wearing power armour get up a two meter wall after all?The same thing happens all over.  A rock blocks your path!  I guess the only solution is to clear out an entire dungeon full of monsters to get a ladder, or a magic glove, or some other McGuffin to deal with the rock.

In a TTRPG of course the players will say things like "I climb back up the wall I guess, that sounds like the easiest solution" and then you have to figure something better out.  Of course weak GMs tend to do things like randomly have magic everywhere so real world solutions aren't feasible.  Every dungeon is a ludicrous maze of traps and magical junk that makes no sense - teleportation pads, elevator rooms, statues that spew acid and dispense treasure for no reason and other such kludges are the bread and butter of teenage gaming.  If you try to do things in some vaguely reasonable way though making appropriate challenges becomes a ton harder.  In a computer game the two meter wall is literally unbeatable (Sorry, we didn't add a jump button, I guess you have to follow the rails) but challenges have to be robust when the characters have lots of choices and you don't feel like shouting "It's fucking magic, stop trying to think".

I think I make things pretty hard for myself when I design TTRPG adventures.  When I build a dungeon I carefully think out what every inhabitant is going to eat and drink, how they feel about each other, and why they haven't gone someplace else.  If a weird magical thing is going on there needs to be a good reason for it because "Wizards are crazy and fill the world with stupid magical crap for no reason" sounds incredibly weak the fortieth time you say it.  That sort of design does lend itself to the players accepting the dungeon as real but it makes it hard to put up straightforward challenges because they have so many options stemming from equipment, magic, and skills.  Sometimes I really want to just deny them any options and teleport them into the middle of a gigantic magical maze where nothing works.  It would sure take the stress level down a notch.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Attack my minions!

I have been out of the WOW loop for a long damn time now but the news of a brand new expansion was something I could not ignore.  There are tons of sparkly things being added to the game like an improved UI, in particular the inventory (I might not need to install a bag mod!) and new stuff to do like open world PVP, some kind of player housing, etc.  The thing that really turned my crank though was the strong support for Flexible raiding.

The gist of it is that all normal and heroic difficulties for raiding allow for 10-25 people to be in the zone and they scale with the number of people that are there.  Presumably boss damage, health, number of adds, and special abilities creep up in power as you add people in ways that reasonably preserve difficulty level.  There remains a single difficulty level called Mythic that is tuned for precisely 20 people and is heinously difficult which is all fine and good for the most hardcore guilds.

Flexible mode seems absolutely fantastic.  One of the most frustrating and difficult parts of raiding was recruiting to a specific number and benching people.  You needed 13 people on the roster and then nearly every raid you ended up having to either bench people or cancel the raid - it wasn't that common to actually have the right number and comp to just be able to go.  It won't be as tightly tuned as past raiding difficulties of course but the ability to just run with 17 people in the guild and hit GO as soon as the raid start time ticks over is fan fucking tastic.  This alone has me wondering if I will raid again when the expansion lands since I really do love the idea of building a guild around a group of friends and not recruiting to a specific number.

Instead of feeling like you simply have to log in because the guild cannot hit the magical number otherwise you simply play when you want to smash monsters and don't play if you don't want to.  Clearly if you rarely log in you will eventually get dropped from the group but that crushing obligation to log in or risk having everyone be disappointed will be very much mitigated.

And holy crap am I excited about leading raids without the bullshit of having to pick who doesn't get to play tonight.  Just figure out what specs people are going as, sort out the strat, and yell "PULL!"  That is exactly the kind of raid leading that got my blood running hot in years gone by as I sat on ventrilo bellowing orders and giving desperate instructions to my minions.  The thing I want to block my troops from getting their shiny loot is the necessity of playing well, not the necessity of convincing the raid leader to let them play.  I can feel the rush right now, that desire to lead a group to glory pulsing in my veins.  IT IS CRUSHING TIME YO.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Powers and the use thereof

In Heroes By Trade I have a system for determining which powers characters can use.  One of the basic stats determines the character's Vigour, which in turn determines what rank of powers they can use.  The maximum rank usable is Vigour + 6, so a normal character with Vigour of 5 can use at most rank 11 powers.  Normally they won't want to do this though because on each following turn they need to roll Vigour +1d6 and they can only use a new power if the result of the roll is at least as high as the rank of the last power used.

Example:  I have Vigour 5.  I use the Blizzard power which has rank 11.  Next turn I roll 1d6 + 5 and get 9.  9 is not as high as 11 so I have to use a basic attack and try rolling again each turn until I succeed.

Example:  I have Vigour 5.  I use the Zap power which has rank 6.  Next turn I automatically can use another power because 1d6+5 is always 6 or more.

What this means is that characters have to roll 1d6 each turn and remember what power they used last.  Mechanically I love the way it plays out because people consider whether or not to use a low rank power and automatically make their roll or use a high level power and take some downtime.  It adds a lot of strategy, particularly later on when characters have a large arsenal of powers to choose from.  The trouble though is that the players constantly forget to roll their 1d6 or forget which power they used.  It isn't complicated to figure out but it does seem clunky in implementation.

There are other ways to approach this.  I could for example have Vigour determine the maximum rank of power a character can use but just let the characters use those powers any time they please without any rolling.  This has the unfortunate side effect that low rank powers would almost never get used because there is no longer any penalty for using a max rank power.  It is very simple - either you have enough Vigour to cast Fireball or you don't - but it loses a lot of depth.

The last method I have been considering is one where before a character uses a power they roll 1d6+Vigour to see if it works.  If the roll fails there are two possibilities:  Perhaps the character just loses their action entirely or maybe they have to default to a basic attack or defence.  Either way I suspect that people would find it very frustrating to position themselves for a big kaboom and then have it fail.

I love the current implementation theoretically but I don't know that everyone playing buys in completely.  I guess I build the games I want to play; for me remembering what I used last and to make a roll is super easy but some folks don't have the same viewpoint.  Can't make a game for everyone!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Travelling and defence

Movement and travel is constantly an issue when constructing fantasy or science fiction worlds.  People building such worlds love to create instantaneous travel options to allow characters to move about the world efficiently but regularly forget that this has real consequences for how the world should work.  As an example standard DnD campaigns have teleport as a normal option and yet somehow countries still spend enormous fortunes to build castles and maintain armies.  What good are armed goons or big walls when characters of modest levels can just teleport in, massacre anyone they want, and teleport out again?  The problem is that the world creators have failed to adequately understand the consequences of completely changing the nature of travel and location.

A similar issue exists in science fiction universes.  In particular I have read several books in the Old Man's War series by John Scalzi and the same sort of problems occur with FTL travel replacing magical teleport as the destabilizing factor.  In that universe military organizations spread their fleets out over many different planets to defend them.  Unfortunately even a cursory examination of the situation shows that any race could take all of their ships and just skip in to a system, annihilate the defenders just due to numbers, and raze the planet in a matter of minutes.  They then could skip to another system, blow that up, and repeat.  After a few days at most and perhaps even within hours they could have easily destroyed an enemy that had similar total military strength.  Every war story in this universe should be over practically before it starts and yet even though this tactic works (because a few people try it a few times) nobody really makes good use of it because that wouldn't make the story much fun.

Part of this is the issue that combat systems in these worlds tend to be very much like fisticuffs.  Ships and characters punch each other until somebody falls down and those with a numerical advantage win the fights.  In real combat this isn't the case because people and vehicles are so incredibly flimsy.  Bombers and fighters don't punch each other till somebody falls down - if the sky is full of enemy planes it becomes incredibly easy to blow them up.  The real world has an awful lot of instant death and very little of "Captain, the shields are down to 25%!"  In the real world the tactic of 'put all my stuff in a pile and drive it around to enemy bases' is suicide while in fantasy or scifi worlds it is usually unstoppable.

Of course most people don't care about this stuff.  They like fisticuffs in space and don't really care that the universe and the way warfare is conducted makes no sense.  They also like teleporting about and aren't so worried about the fact that castle and army based warfare is a hilarious joke in such a world.  I get that; internal consistency isn't what makes fantasy worlds fun.  It bothers me though.  I want to create a world that makes sense and reacts to what the characters do and I can't do that very well when important people are committed to monumentally stupid strategies.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Finding the perfect play

Tearing games apart with broken combos is fun as hell.  I certainly have made it one of my life's major themes and expect to continue to do so.  I just finished reading Sthenno's review of Path of Exile and he talked about the joy inherent in finding brutal, unfair combos and blowing enemies up.  He disparages balance and suggests that balanced things are often less fun.  I see people talk about this from time to time and to a point I agree but I think when the details are examined it becomes a more complicated than a simple declaration that balance is either good or bad.

Balance is obviously important in a PvP game.  Having a single setup be the best means everybody runs that setup and people who don't just get creamed.  That simply isn't enjoyable and becomes very monotonous.  People of course like to advocate for their preferred style "Nerf Rock, Paper is fine. -Scissors" but really PvP games are at their best when there are many top tier strategies.  This is less true in a single player game of course.  I remember playing Civ 1 many years ago and it was tremendous fun figuring out what the top wonders and units were but that was fine because I wasn't playing against anybody else and the computer cheated anyway.

I think the key in either case is that there need to be terrible strategies.  It doesn't need to be the case that particular abilities are always garbage but there should definitely be things you can try that are patently inferior.  People love trying things out and figuring out the best ways to approach their builds and that fun is lost if there aren't mistakes to be made.  If everything works fine then any random bozo can be successful and that doesn't make people feel good about their game prowess.

There are definitely places where balance is a very good thing when we look at the strategies at the top of the pile.  If one strategy is simply twice as good as anything else then there is little experimentation to be done.  It is fun to find such a strategy but the game quickly becomes boring after that point.  When there are 10,000 strategies and 9,000 of them are garbage, 900 of them are passable, 90 of them are reasonable and 10 are superb then the game is amazing fun.  There is still a sense of discovery when you finally figure out one of the great strategies but there are plenty of other things to try that don't feel weak.  You still have lots of options for being bad if you want to dial up the difficulty or just explore a concept too.

The other place where balance is good is making sure that major thematic divisions are all reasonable.  You don't want a game with four classes where two classes are great and two are terrible; that just results in bitterness and whining from people who chose Thief as their class.  Each class should have some build that is strong, particularly if there is a big investment in a class before that becomes apparent.  There is a lot more flexibility if you have twenty classes of course but I would still posit that you want some classes of each major thematic group to be good.  It is boring if every melee class is garbage but fine if you can be good as an Assassin, Fighter, or Knight but terrible as a Thief, Templar, or Gladiator.  At least those who want to go hit people with sticks have some kind of good option.

Balance is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in a vacuum.  It is one of those things that needs to be applied in moderation and in the right way given the context.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Realism isn't so real

Recently I have been playing Mass Effect 1 again.  It is distinctly different from the later entries in the series in a bunch of ways but I think the most important way is that it tries to present a real world you can interact with in all kinds of ways.  ME2 and ME3 instead present rigid combat challenges you must overcome in a specific sequence with very restricted tactics.  In theory I like the idea of an open world to explore but in practice there are a lot of issues with the added 'realism'.

First off there is the issue of retreat and zoning.  In an open world there are buildings I can enter where enemies attack me and one totally reasonable response is to focus fire down a single enemy and then zone out of the building.  The enemies can't leave the building so they reset but the dead one stays dead so I can zone back in again and repeat.  This, obviously, does not adequately represent the response of real people to having armed invaders break into their residence and start shooting.  I also regularly abuse my ability to hop in and out of my tank to fight enemies - while the tank is hidden behind a hill regenerating its shields I run around shooting at people with my pistol.  This is actually an effective tactic but not one that increases immersion.

ME2 / ME3 and games like them have different immersion issues.  If you can't win a fight by just being good at fighting there are no alternatives - every zone is just a twisty hallway with scripted fights and there is no way to get around anything.  If you aren't winning your new strategy can generally be summed up as "Only shoot the enemies in the head."  It does feel very strange indeed that I can't ever flank enemy positions, or wander over that hill to see what is there, or just bloody go back to my spaceship and blast them to cinders from orbit.  In ME1 you can just fly away from a fight and come back later with new and bigger guns to blow them up if you really want to.  Why they sit there unmoving waiting for you to return is a question not adequately answered.

So I love the idea of an open world where you can do anything but in practice it means that the players abuse mechanics like zoning, enemy pathing, and running away to beat challenges instead of just using 'legitimate' combat tactics.  Without seriously controlling player behaviour there just isn't a decent way to build enemies that are immune to such tactics.  WOW does it by having enemies instantly heal to full and sprint back home, immersion be damned.  Most shooters just refuse to give you options to abuse and games like Skyrim just let people cheese the monsters out if they feel like it.  I suspect that this is a problem without a solution.  You just have to accept limited options, unrealistic behaviour, or overpowered cheese tactics and run with it.  Avoiding all of them won't happen.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A bit of suspension of disbelief

Getting characters in an RPG to do things together can be a trick.  This week I am adding a new player to my Heroes By Trade group and it was quite the feat of engineering to make everything work.  I try very hard to let the players decide what they want to do next but to bring a new person in I really need to end a session with them in a place where that can happen.  If, for example, the previous session ended with them on a boat headed to the fantasy world version of Antarctica it would be a bit rough to bring a new person on board!  I stressed out far too much over how to make that work and how to smoothly add a personality to the mix.  As one would expect it is going to take a bit of kludging.

After all, these characters live in a dangerous, unpredictable world.  Randomly trusting their lives to a stranger who they just met is likely a very foolish plan indeed.  A new character in the group likely is exactly that though, a stranger who has not proved themselves an ally.  Even if the characters do decide a new person is an ally they still have to decide that it is the sort of ally who travels with them and should have a vote on how things go.  Given all that it is hard to imagine how anybody ever joins such a group!  I have plans though... they largely revolve around 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' and lots of running away from crazy cultists.  Nothing bonds a group like massacring fanatics.

What I can't figure out is how groups manage to continue to play together with traditional DnD death rates.  I read recently about someone who was in a group which had 37 character deaths in 3 months of play.  This group is somehow introducing a new character more than twice a session?  How do you maintain even the tiniest veneer of immersion when people say "Can I join up?" and the answer is "Sure, but people who join up with us tend to live about 2-3 days on average."  These people are brave heroes and all but that kind of fatality rate has got to convince even a fearless paladin that retirement looks good - or maybe a different group of friends.  You can go be brave somewhere else where people don't die quite so often after all.

Friday, October 18, 2013

I turn into a freaking bear and maul him

Everybody wants to turn into a bear.  Just imagine growing huge and getting sharp claws and ripping things up.  Great, right?  The problem is that game designers keep trying to put the turn into a bear experience into a game and it is always a disaster.  Druids were a total mess in 3rd edition DnD with their ability to turn into animals that had the ludicrous Pounce ability and in 4th edition the druid, while reasonably balanced, didn't make any sense.  You can turn into a bird!  But you can't fly!  What?

DnD Next is trying to keep the iconic druid ability to wildshape into all kind of things and it is looking like a real trainwreck.  They aren't exactly repeating the mistakes of the past but rather coming up with all kinds of interesting new mistakes to make.  The new idea about druid shapeshifting is that they will have a variety of forms and each of those forms will have its own stat block and a separate HP pool.  Hooray for massive bookkeeping headaches!  So druids are back to abusing the situation where they max their mental stats and trash their physicals since they can be a bear, but at least they aren't letting them just pick animals out of the book at random because that was a hilarious problem from day one.

I totally get the desire to turn into a bear.  I love the concept of a shapeshifter in fiction.  The trouble I have is that giving a character the ability to turn into whatever critter they want is always a disaster.  This gives them the ability to fly, swim, echolocate, have incredible vision, smell, taste, and hearing.  It means they are incredible scouts, potentially lethal combat machines, and maybe even able to communicate with creatures they otherwise couldn't communicate with.  It is also obviously fantastic for hiding and sneaking.  That is WAY too much stuff for a single ability to be able to accomplish, even if you set up the numbers such that turning into a bear isn't a free pass to kill everybody.

I feel like a far better implementation would be to give a shapeshifter the ability to shift into a single form.  You could make that form fixed with specific benefits or allow the player to customize the form to some extent but as long as the list of abilities and benefits is set then the potential for abuse is very limited.  For example, having a shapeshifter that can turn into a giant wolf which has a great sense of smell, fast movement, and decent unarmed combat would be a reasonable proposition.  The Summoner in Pathfinder can customize their eidolon (a summoned demon) in this way and although the eidolon is a horrendous disaster numerically that general idea of customizing a form is pretty cool.

Switching in between two forms is a bit of work but not too much I think.  The thing you really need to avoid is people flipping through the Monster Manual or nature documentaries looking for ways to make their shapeshifter even more flexible and annoying than before.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Defence Dilemma

Heroes By Trade is built on an assumption of constant use of cool stuff and that people won't run out of resources.  One of the things that worried me about this system initially was the concern that people would build very defensive characters and be unable to defeat one another.  If two characters are duelling and both of them use shields and focus on powers that regain HP instead of focusing on powers that smash enemies they could in theory go forever.  I wasn't eager to see that happen because I really didn't want to accidentally build a game where the optimal strategy was to build invincible characters and slowly grind the enemies down with no sense of danger.

There exists some kind of balance point in the weighting of offensive and defensive abilities that allows for a general offensive strategy to be the norm but has room for defensive moves in specific situations of extreme danger or when attempting to 'tank'.  For example, I want defensive moves to be useful when you are badly hurt and the rest of your team is not, or when the enemies are obviously trying to focus fire you preferentially.  I really don't want them to be the default move that is used all the time though, and as such I weighted abilities that regenerated HP fairly heavily.  Adding 1.5 damage to your attack costs the same as adding 1 HP to your own total.  Given that weighting players looked at the HP regaining abilities and pretty much ignored them.  A dead enemy inflicts no damage, after all!

I think this was an error.  First off, fights really are designed to be group vs. group rather than 1 vs. 1.  Standing around gaining HP is not a winning strategy if the entire group of enemies is pounding on you and certainly will not result in stalemates.  They will rapidly beat through your regeneration and victory will come down to which team beats the other down first which is what I wanted anyway.  When HP regaining powers are only 2/3 as good as they 'should' be they end up being used never instead of sometimes and that isn't the place I wanted to be.  HP recovery needs to feel like a good action and right now it doesn't feel that way.

If I do improve all the HP recovery it will probably lead to some degenerate cases where two defensive characters simply can't kill each other.  I think it is worth accepting those degenerate cases though if it improves the general case of groups of combatants trying to beat each other.  I really want people to look at defensive options and value them and having that be a thing is more important than worrying about what happens when two paladins stand there beating on each other for eternity.  Having decent HP recovery also has other benefits in terms of combat predictability.  When characters can defend themselves they are less likely to be blown up by the fickleness of the dice and will be better able to smooth over bad situations.  That will lead to less "I guess Joe McSword is dead" and more strategy, which I like.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Getting better or just surviving

There is a new RPG on the market built my Monte Cook (of DnD 3rd edition fame, among other things) called Numenera.  It is a smashup of far future and fantasy, vaguely in line with many Final Fantasy products.  The world is Earth but enormously far into the future.  Swarms of nanobots roam the world and everything is subject to their machiny whims.  Being a spellcaster isn't really about manipulating magic but rather about manipulating tech, tech which is so far advanced from our familiar zone that it might as well be magic.  Arthur C. Clarke wins again.  I should note that I haven't actually played Numenera because I have too much to do playtesting and writing my own game but I read about some of the mechanics here and I am going to talk about them.

One of the really fascinating things Numenera does is completely rewrite the book on XP.  Characters gain XP from doing things and can use it to advance their character's attributes but it also can be used to directly influence outcomes.  For example, you can spend XP to alter die rolls to save yourself in combat.  The GM is also encouraged to say things like "The enemy has a rocket launcher you didn't know about.  You can either take 2 XP and accept this or spend 1 XP and there will be no rocket launcher."  Now this certainly is kind of cool and all but it really smashes the fourth wall to flinders.  I very much enjoy putting myself into the story and trying to play as though my challenges are preset; essentially pretending that the GM can't just say "You win" or "You all die horribly" at any time.

I feel like having these explicit game challenges where mechanics that fall way outside the character's POV directly influence what happens feels icky to say the least.  It feels much like the GM fudging dice rolls to keep the characters alive to me.  The suspense just isn't there anymore since the game feels like it is all about the GM being capricious instead of setting fixed challenges that need to be overcome.  While I know logically that challenges are designed for me to beat them I really don't like having my sense of immersion in the world blown apart so flagrantly.

The other issue with XP done this way is that there is always a conflict between winning now and winning later.  I would feel terrible spending all my XP to win a fight and not getting to advance.  I am a lunatic when it comes to these things and when I play games I always have all my consumables still intact when I get to the final boss.  Other people are obviously going to have a different take on this but I find the idea of permanently weakening my character to change a die roll exceedingly distasteful.  More generally though I am not in favour of mechanics that allow some characters to advance more rapidly than others based on player decisions.  I feel like parties are going to be happier when everyone advances together and tactics affect current situations but not future power.  Stories may be told with Aragorn and Legolas fighting alongside Pippin and Sam but nobody wants to play Pippin and they don't want the feeling that they might as well not even be there.  The best way to avoid that is have everyone advance together.

Given these things I don't think I will try Numenera.  If anyone who knows me picks it up I would be interested in reading it though since it probably has some cools ideas I can poach.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Murdering those orc babies

So bold adventurers you have courageously fought your way into the Temple of the Bad Stuff while being beset by traps and ambushes set by the clever and evil orks who inhabit the place.  Leaving a nearly endless trail of corpses in your wake you descend one final staircase into the heart of evil, ready to use your bloodstained axes to decapitate whatever fiend you find there.  Now as you open the door you see (dramatic pause) a whole bunch of orcish babies and their caregivers hiding trembling in the corner of the room, obviously terrified of the maelstrom of death that you represent.  What do you do?

This is the sort of dilemma I really enjoy putting into my games when I GM a fantasy RPG.  For one it can generate really interesting conflict and discussion between characters and for two it makes them understand that the world is actually nuanced.  If every orc in the world is a bloodthirsty maniac intent on attacking the characters on sight then surely the characters are justified in acting like murderhobos but when the orcs have guards and militias to defend their homes and families just like everybody else things become much more muddled.

There is nothing wrong with some things being just inherently evil monsters whether they be bloodsucking undead, voidspawn, demons, or whatever else but to my mind it really pays to have some ambiguity in most situations.  There doesn't need to be a particular penalty or reward associated with challenging moral choices either - sometimes you let the scout you captured go and sometimes you kill them.  Occasionally those choices should matter change the story arc but sometimes all they need to be is a bit of worry, regret, or relief and a powerful moment to remember the campaign by.

The most classic DnD is pretty much just an endless dungeon crawl where everything is out to kill you and nothing makes sense.  I am not so much a fan of such things as if I want to play a pure tactical game I feel like I can do better than DnD and if I am roleplaying I want the world to be consistent and to challenge me.  Randomly smashing into people's houses to kill them and take their stuff so that I can smash into the houses of more powerful people doesn't strike me as consistent with being a moral and righteous hero, nor does it make for interesting decisions.

James Wyatt wrote an interesting piece on that today where he talked about worldbuilding and making decisions about things like "Do orcs even have babies?" and "Are orcs inherently evil or are they just often socialized that way?"  I think these are fantastic questions to have the answers to before you ever set out to run an adventure.  For example, orks in Heroes By Trade are available as a player character race and aren't evil.  They are scary, domineering, and militaristic by nature but killing them on sight is not at all justifiable morally.  They also have females that are bigger than males, who make up 10% of the population, and who are the ones in charge most of the time so they definitely have some interesting quirks and aren't just people that the characters can mow down without any qualms.

This came up in my game last week where the characters fought a couple of patrols outside a Troll city underground and then snuck into the Troll city itself.  They wandered up to the top floor of a building and kicked open the door, ready for a bloody brawl.  Instead they found a couple of Troll adults, a handful of children, a pet 'dog', and a strange looking boxy device the children were messing with.  The characters panicked a bit but then decided to run into the room, steal the strange device, and run out again.  After a moment's inspection they determined that they had in fact stolen a children's toy and elected to run away.  You seriously cannot make this kind of thing up; the brave heroes sneak into an enemy stronghold to steal toys from wailing children while making what seemed to be reasonable decisions at each step.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Think fast

Your turn dude.

What?  Ummm. Sure, I uh, guess I will go over here.  No wait.  Hm.  Let me look at the board for a minute to figure out what I am doing next.

Couldn't you have thought about this ahead of time?!?

This is a constant conversation when playing games, especially when playing with people who are particularly slow to decide or who aren't all that interested in the game.  The trouble is that people who play slowly not only make their own turn take forever but also cause issues for the next person; when the previous turn is taking forever even the most involved player will end up drifting off and forget what they had intended to do themselves.  It is at its worst in games like DnD where some players really do have enormously complex choices (like a high level wizard) and some players have virtually no choice at all (like a low level fighter).  It is not much fun when each of your turns takes 30 seconds and another player takes 15 minutes and it is nearly impossible to stay mentally focused on the game.  Players try to come up with rules to force people to act quickly but when the game is heinously complex that will tend to leave the tacticians irritated.

In terms of tabletop RPGs I think the solution has four parts.

1.  Make sure that everyone has interesting tactical decisions so that everyone feels like they are participating and everyone has to take time now and again to consider.

2.  Make sure that nobody has a truly outrageous number of options so that even the hardcore tacticians can parse all of their options in a reasonable time frame.

3.  Arrange the combat mechanics such that figuring out what a given effect will accomplish is easy.  Figuring out what the *best* choice is should be hard but figuring what will happen if you do X should be trivial.  Players should not sit around flipping through books to figure out what their abilities do.

4.  Enforce some kind of time restriction.  Even with straightforward choices some people take forever to decide (and you know who you are!) and it is important to make sure they have a limit.  Characters don't have forever to figure out tactics so this is both supporting immersion and making things more fun.

It is not nearly so easy with a regular board game.  The trouble with a board game designed to have players opposing one another is that nearly every turn people change the game state substantially because they are actively *trying* to force their opponents to make different choices.  Often you can't play your turn ahead at all because there are simply too many choices to parse until your turn begins or you have nowhere near enough information to decide anything useful.  Cooperative games don't have this issue because you are building something together and you really want to know what it is your partners are trying to accomplish and they want to support whatever it is you are obviously planning.

I am not convinced there is any easy solution to this issue.  If people can't really oppose each other very much then you have a game like Dominion which often feels like Solitaire.  If people can oppose each other in a direct way then you have a game like Settlers where people feel ganged up on.  If opposing someone must be done in a indirect way like Puerto Rico then the game will totally shift with each choice and you will need lots of time to parse after every move.  Obviously all three of those games are games I enjoy but all of them have different pieces of this problem at their core.  Perhaps my next project will be to design a game that tries to address this in particular and see if I can find any interesting solutions.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The power of names

There is always a big controversy over naming things in games.  The latest DnD Next blog post illustrates this admirably.  It talks about how all classes are going to fall into one of four groups - Warrior, Trickster, Mage, Priest.  This is fairly iconic division and certainly the grognards from days of old should approve... except of course they largely don't.  There are a couple of issues here and it seems the largest one is the choice of Trickster for the group of classes that contains the iconic Thief / Rogue.  People really don't like Trickster since in theory classes that focus on scouting, assassination, crafting, or other skills would get lumped in there and that doesn't feel right.  People have suggested Rogue instead but I honestly feel like that has just as many issues.  The ideal choice from my perspective is something more like Scout or Expert; something that implies that their focus is information and skill instead of magic or fighting.  The thing I don't like is that Trickster implies deception and that isn't going to be at all consistent in classes in that group.

Of course there is a bigger problem there and that is that having a class that focuses on skills that are fully bounded by physics is always going to be weak in the late game against the reality bending powers of spellcasters.  Those same spellcasters are drastically less problematic in Next than in 2nd and 3rd edition but having a set of classes be focused around being skill experts is going to mean they suck overall.  Things don't have to be this way.  Dividing the thugging classes by 'good at fighting' and 'good at skills' is a disaster but they could just as easily be divided along the lines of 'tough and solid' and 'quick and dangerous'.  Fighters that have tons of HP and lots of ways to defend can be balanced quite reasonably against Rogues that hit hard and have good mobility and escape tactics.  Warrior and Rogue work just fine as names for those kits of abilities.

I have my own personal nut against calling the healing group Priest since I would very much like to have options for my healer that don't include worship.  This isn't even the crusading atheist in me talking; I have played very religious characters many times and enjoyed it but I would definitely like the option to build a character without such convictions as the healer in the group.  The other three categories aren't constrained by a particular belief set and outlook and I would greatly prefer to have a healer group that doesn't have that title.  I get that most people don't see it this way though; they could just call them Leaders or Healers or Oracles or something else entirely but most folks seem satisfied with Priest.

I struggled a lot with naming classes in Heroes By Trade.  I ended up with Marauder, Champion, Hunter, Tactician, Voidbringer, Channeler, Oracle, Wizard.  I feel like between them you can find a home for pretty much any concept and I don't really feel like I need group names even though they can easily be divided by using three separate descriptors - Range/Melee, Martial/Magical, Offence/Defence.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wile E Coyote

Cinematic fights tend to take place in interesting locales.  Movies love to use cliffs for this purpose because they really want the villain to die in the end but having the hero stand over the villain and deliver a final fatal blow to a fallen opponent doesn't fit well with many folks.  They want a hero who is an expert in violence and who smashes faces with ease but who won't actually finish the job and a cliff is the standard answer - the villain can, at the last second, do something aggressive and stupid that causes them to fall to their death sparing the hero the necessity of murder.  For extra bonus points the cliff can be replaced with a boiling pit of lava or a pit full of snakes / crocodiles / scorpions or some other lethal danger.

Obviously fantasy roleplaying games often end up the same way.  The tops of castle walls, perilous mountain passes, the heart of an erupting volcano, or a rickety bridge over a pit of spikes are standard locations for fights with terrifying monsters and mad wizards.  The tricky thing about these sorts of fights is that there are so many ways for them to end really rapidly.  DnD Next, DnD 4th, and Heroes By Trade all make use of effects that push and pull people around the battlefield and this means that instant death is but a single push away.  It is troubling because normally pushing somebody a few squares away is a pretty minor thing until it becomes an instant death attack when they fall into lava and crispify.

DnD 4th has a rule that if you are going to be pushed off of something you can just fall down and avoid the push entirely.  This is a pretty good way to avoid the issue but it does seem unfortunate that pushes can be sometimes even less useful when next to a cliff than they normally would be!  It also is completely bizarre that you can't avoid a push normally by falling down but if a cliff is nearby suddenly that option becomes available.  DnD Next seems to not have any rules of this sort and any fights next to deadly dangers are often going to result in instant kills on round one using a trivial ability.  HBT is in that same boat currently and that concerns me - I had a situation in one playtest where I had to remove an enemy's Power that would have knocked the players off of a cliff and made the fight they were in pretty near unwinnable.

I don't like the idea that cliffs suddenly change the rules of the game.  Ideally the rules play the same way regardless of the terrain but pushing people around isn't quite so deadly.  Knocking people down instead of pushing them is a reasonable solution but then you have to resolve what happens on the second push - is that one now lethal, does it do nothing, or something else?  I am kind of leaning towards letting people avoid pushes by taking a ton of damage, between two to five points of damage per square of the push.  This would make pushes absolutely fantastic in cliff type situations but wouldn't end up killing tough people right away.  It does make some thematic sense too - instead of trying to mitigate the blow you just stand there and take it on the chin.  This would still mean that mooks who get pushed off of cliffs just die anyway (which is fine!) but serious opponents can survive the situation while still very much fearing those push attacks.  Seems like a solid compromise to me.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Play Cookie Clicker

I got linked to Cookie Clicker from Facebook.  It was roundly derided in the post but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  Weeks later I have clicked an awfully large number of cookies and again I see a Facebook post linking to an article talking about CC and telling people how terrible it is.  (Here is a post about CC strategy if you want that.)  So here is the thing about CC:  It isn't a game where you can talk about success vs. failure in the normal way.  Anybody can, through brute force and no strategy, get every achievement and accomplish every goal.  It is just a matter of time.  The key isn't getting to the end, it is getting to the end as fast as possible.

If all you want to do is click mindlessly and build things randomly you will always and forever move onward and upward but what is the optimal order in which to purchase all of those upgrades and buildings?  If you restart from scratch you get a permanent bonus based on how many cookies you have previously baked... when is this a good idea?  CC is the sort of game where maximizing every one of these decisions and building yourself a spreadsheet is the fun part.  Heck, there are even interesting decisions to be made keeping your real life in mind.  Your purchasing strategy will change based on your real life schedule and how much time you can spend focusing on the game and when.  Going to sleep for ten hours?  Best recalculate how many cookies to keep banked for that Frenzy/Lucky combo you hope to cash in on when you wake up.  Reaching the end is inevitable but just like in a NASCAR race it isn't very interesting to get to the end; rather you need to shave off every possible second from the time you start until the time you finish.

CC is at its core a game where you make your own rules about winning and losing and decide just how hard you want to play.  Plenty of people get angry about such games because they see it as a waste of time - after all, you never win.  But who cares?  We don't say that Mass Effect 3 is a better game if you finish it vs. only getting 75% of the way through, and in fact plenty of folks would tell you that you are far better off not finishing that last 5%.  It is true that people get addicted to CC and many of them employ no strategy whatsoever while they click randomly.  That makes the game, for them, not particularly educational but not really worse than most other games.  Of course if you actually play the game by figuring out all the mechanics, building spreadsheets, and doing lots of math to decide the optimal strategy at any given point it is a pretty great learning game.  This is why I recommend building spreadsheets for everything!

So CC is a simple and addictive game.  It has potential if you play it right.  So play CC, just play it right!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

to pay the bills

The DnD Next design has done an abrupt about face on skills.  Previously they had decided to get rid of them entirely and have a hodgepodge of strange and bad ways to be good at things.  What it all amounted to was in pretty much every situation people would roll 1d20, add their bonus (from 0-5) and then see if they succeeded.  If you wanted to play a character that was stealthy as a ninja you were screwed - any random dork guard would catch you sneaking by a good chunk of the time.  This was true of pretty much every sort of ability except combat leaving characters in the silly position where they were supposed to be epic heroes but none of them were good at anything except killing.  Being good at killing is a very useful trait for an epic hero but it shouldn't be the only trait.

The new theory is that skills will be back in the game and will be recognizable as a hybrid of 3rd and 4th edition skills.  There is a list of them which is mostly comprehensive and they will provide bonuses to checks ranging from +2 at level 1 to +6 at level 20.  Overall this is reasonable since basic attributes provide a bonus of +0 to +5 but the problem is (as I have lamented before) that the die is too big.  The ultimate skill master in Next will have a bonus of +16.  This means that if you take a task that the greatest and most heroic athlete in the world can complete every time (DC 17, in this case) then Joe Ordinary with his bonus of +0 will succeed 20% of the time.  If you want to set a task that Joe Ordinary can't manage such as tightrope walking (DC 21, in this case) then you have to accept that the greatest acrobat in the world will fall off the wire quite regularly.  There just isn't any room in such a system for people to perform amazing feats.  If the strongest person in the world only gets a +5 bonus to lift heavy objects they should not be rolling a 20 sided die to see how heavy an object they can lift.

I actually had a model fairly similar to Next in Heroes By Trade with the notable exception that the die was a d8 instead of a d20 so being really good at something actually mattered.  A normal person had a maximum result of 12 while an Olympian would have a minimum result of 17 leaving lots of room for tasks that were easy for pros, impossible for normal folk, and dicey for the people in between.  This was a very important goal for me because I wanted people who invested heavily in a skill to be really excellent at it and not be regularly shown up by the person who had no bonus but rolled a natural 20.  I hate the system where everybody rolls and if somebody rolls well you succeed.  Blech.

One other thing I recently decided was that the Perception skill and its ilk needed to die a fiery death.  That sort of skill was always the best skill from DnD 3.5 to Next because every time something happened the group would end up rolling Perception to figure out if they noticed what was going on.  It became a crutch to avoid descriptions and circumvent specific talents.  If you want characters to roll to see if they notice something then roll Culture if it is a religious symbol or Wilderness if it is a broken branch or Empathy if it is someone acting strangely.  

I needed to have a skill to oppose Stealth and Camouflage though so I added in Alertness to fill that role and it is used just to detect ambushes and people being sneaky.  This allowed me to make HBT free of Search, Awareness, and Perception and I feel so much better for having done so.  I really like people using all kinds of different skills depending on the circumstances and getting rid of the omnipresent 'roll Perception to figure out if you notice anything' always trod heavily on that goal.

The trouble with making updates like this is that I have two active games of Heroes By Trade running.  I don't want to be constantly changing the rules but I do want room for my new ideas to be tested and used.  A tricky situation, that.