Thursday, February 28, 2013

WOW ruined everything

While I quit WOW awhile ago I still find it necessary to come out swinging to defend it from its many detractors now and again.  I just saw a video bashing WOW for ruining MMOs entirely and while the video was amusing and made some good points I think there was far too much silly misinformation there.  There are lots of things people criticize about WOW legitimately but here are some of the more common but incorrect ones:

Hotbar Based Combat

Hotbar based combat has two primarily components.  First we have the mechanic that hitting a button does something.  You hit R and your character casts Divine Shield.  You hit 2 and your character casts Judgement.  This is NOT a WOW mechanic, it is a 'using a computer' mechanic.  The second component of hotbar based combat is having these linkages between keystrokes and game actions represented on the screen for player reference.  Is anyone really upset that there is a small corner of the screen devoted to letting me know which buttons do which things, or are they upset because hitting buttons does things?  Either answer is ridiculous.

Quests and Quest Hubs

Saying that WOW quests suck and aren't interesting is fair.  Most of them are 'Kill 10 Rats' or some variation on that theme.  However, we aren't comparing WOW quests to some undefined game nirvana but rather to other realistic options.  WOW tried in depth quests with tons of story, cinematics, phasing, etc. to make quests less about killing rats and more about saving the world in Cataclysm and guess what... they sucked worse.  How about removing quests entirely?  Then you get endless hours grinding the same mobs over and over, which was a constant complaint about the games before WOW, and also about WOW at launch.  People want quests, they don't want quests that are too cinematic / interesting / hard, and they want to be able to easily find those quests.  Oh look, we are back to 'Kill 10 Rats'.

Player Freedom aka The Sandbox

People talk about wanting extremely freedom to build their own world - the sandbox experience.  The trouble is what they actually want is freedom for themselves and no freedom for other people.  Note what happens in Eve, the flagship of sandbox games:  People nearly all hide in perfectly safe places doing missions and mining that barely ever interact with other players and build nothing of consequence except a bankroll.  When they aren't being boring and they go out into the dangerous part of the world they get scammed, PKed, and their stuff gets stolen or destroyed for lols.

Do you know what happens in a sandbox where there aren't any adults protecting the kids from each other? Bullies run around smashing everybody's castles to bits just for fun.  Imagine if WOW let people build things.  The first thing they would build is giant walls to block off the newb areas so new players couldn't escape.  Then they would wall off class trainers, blockade cities, and do all manner of other disruptive things.  That is, of course, unless player built things could be destroyed in which case everything that was built would be torn down by others in a fit of spite.  Sandbox type gameplay combined with Massively Multiplayer results in endless griefing and (surprise!) no subscribers.

An Ill Defined Paradise

My challenge to all those who claim WOW ruined everything is this:  Come up with better alternatives.  Precise alternatives.  Not "I would do things better." because that is just mental masturbation with a hubris sauce.  You don't like quests?  Cool, tell me how exactly you would run things.  It is nearly certain that your solution would be either completely impractical or straight up worse.  (Worse for the majority, of course, since you can find a couple of people who will sign on to any damn fool thing.)  Is WOW perfect?  HELL no.  However, the claim that WOW ruined everything is spurious at best.  Games copied WOW because of its financial success and failed because they did it worse.  The reason so many games that are kinda like WOW get made and so many other games don't get made is because investors want to get paid and WOW clones, sad as it seems, are more likely to make money than MMOs that try something completely different.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Randomness, Nacho style

A little while ago I played my first game of The Nacho Incident (a game based around smuggling mexican food into Canada and trying to avoid the Mounties) and like many games it had an amusing theme, some interesting mechanics, and way too much luck for my tastes.  There were lots of decisions to make and different things to do but in the end they seemed to be completely dominated by rolls of the figurative dice.

As an example, in the game I played our final scores ended up between 65 and 105.  There were several turns where I pulled two green cubes out of the bag and another player pulled out a black and a white cube. My turns were then capped at a gain of 3 points and their turns were capped at a gain of 15 points.  There really wasn't anything I could possibly do to win once I got 24 points behind even if my opponent was really bad... and she wasn't.

Not that this is a problem in all games; the format matters a lot.  In Texas Hold'Em, of which I am an enduring fan, getting dealt a pair of Aces sure does make you win a lot more money than 7-2 offsuit but that is offset by the fact that the hand is very quick.  I figure that it is only a couple minutes per hand so the odds have a way of evening themselves out in Hold'Em that they don't in The Nacho Incident.  I could in theory play The Nacho Incident hundreds of times to even out the odds and let good players establish winning records but that isn't practical.

I think this illustrates a really important point in game design:  highly random games should also be very quick games.  This is a good strategy to implement to keep the hardcore gamers happy because they can actually establish a winning record if their skill warrants it and it also means that more casual gamers are going to get some wins in even if they are bad.  Quick games also avoid putting people in unwinnable situations that they have to slug through for hours and hours just to let everyone else compete.  Le Havre and Agricola are examples of games that do this and the combination of length and 'sitting around losing for 3 hours' means I don't play them much.

In general the longer a game is the harder it is to make because of the greater need for game balance and catch up mechanisms.  It is entirely fine that a hand of poker is heinously luck based because you get another hand of poker right away.  Board games would probably have a lot more universal appeal like poker does if they could tap into that style of mechanic more effectively.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Planning ahead

In the Pathfinder DnD campaign I am running things are starting to get complicated in terms of planning.  Initially the characters were low level grunts in the army so I could handwave away magic for the most part but now they are level 7 and are extremely influential politically so they could fairly easily requisition whatever spells they need while in their home base.  This is problematic because Pathfinder has an absolutely bloody enormous spell list (1300 spells or so) and those spells are really powerful.  They can teleport people around, view other people, interview corpses for information, determine the truth of statements, read minds, etc.  Setting up a political situation almost always relies on secrets and those are hard to keep when the characters have access to all these spells.

The most difficult thing is that I don't know what all the spells do.  I present the characters with a problem and they look through the books and online resources hunting for spells that solve that problem.  Last session they found a spell called Cultural Adaptation that let them infiltrate an enemy base in a way I had not anticipated because the spell let them figure out things they could otherwise not know.  Cultural Adaptation isn't even a high level spell but it is obscure so I had no idea it existed.  I really want to create problems that the characters can solve creatively but it is very difficult to do that when I can't keep a handle on what their capabilities are.

This is one of the issues with games that last a long time and put out a lot of splat material.  It is fun for characters to discover new things and explore new options but it is a giant headache for the person trying to plan around all of it.  Intrigue and spycraft can make for great adventures but it doesn't work especially well if the players can randomly ignore huge chunks of the scenario.  It also doesn't feel like much fun for people to be doing internet searches to figure out what their characters can do all the time.  I like people trying to figure out plans based on what is on everybody's character sheet but when clerics in particular can cast any of 750 different spells in a day the other characters feel very left out.

It also feels a bit ridiculous when people realize that their character technically has an ability that would have trivialized a previous encounter that was otherwise exciting.  Saying "Well, I really should have cast Win The Game last time, but I guess my character forgot about that... good thing I looked it up online this time!" is a cruddy way to have the game go.  I think that magic design really needs to limit the number of different things someone can do.  If you can't possibly record all of the stuff your character can do on a few sheets of paper nor keep all of your general capabilities in your head then something is distinctly wrong, both in terms of GMing the game and trying to achieve class balance.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Roll to see who has to be the Cleric

Sometimes game designers make terrible mistakes and think that their pet idea is way better than everybody else thinks it is.  Sometimes they change things just to be changing things and muck everything up.  Then there are the times when they simply give up and say "Well, we know this system is bad, but fixing it is hard, so we aren't going to bother."

In short Wizards has decided that DnD Next should return to the old system where either you have a cleric to heal you in the party or you don't get healed.  Have a three person party?  I guess one of you is a cleric, because if nobody is then you can't play reasonably at all.  Wait, none of you wants to be shoehorned into casting only healing spells and being forced to roleplay "Please give me my spells God, even though I am so unworthy."?  Too bad, because somebody has to play a pious healbot, no way around it.  Other classes are entirely optional but the cleric is entirely mandatory.

It makes my head explode.  There are a crazy variety of ways to get around the absolute necessity of faith based healing and clerics in particular.  You could, for example, set it up so that characters have a pool of temporary hit points that come back after a short rest so that they avoid taking real damage a lot of the time. You could change the lore slightly so that other classes can heal, or so that everyone with levels has healing capability!  One of the problems they worry about is people wanting 'realism' but apparently people are willing to accept adventurers who get stabbed by a sword 15 times and walk away from it so I think they will be able to deal with lore that says that adventurers heal really quickly.

I completely get that DnD is a cooperative game where people play together and they try to fill roles.  Some people will focus on being tough, others on killing the enemies, still others on stealth, diplomacy, or whatever.  This mimics real world team setup from military to science to commerce, so it makes sense.  Unfortunately this sets up the game so that all the roles are flexible *except* healing so you simply have to have that cleric - you can't have a fighter who dips into healing a bit to cover that eventuality.

What DnD Next actually needs is a solid healing mechanism that doesn't involve any class at all.  If people want to play a character that defends their allies then well and good - clerics having solid defensive options in combat like adding on temporary hit points or increasing armour class for their allies is a great idea.  That way clerics are like the other classes in that they have a particular specialization and iconic abilities but aren't required to be present for the game to make any sense.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Not Optional

I have been reading my DnD 2nd edition manual for ideas and amusement.  It is fun to read over old rulesets and laugh at what sort of information was provided and what was left out.  For example, there are rules on how you get away from enemies you have engaged in melee but those rules leave out how you know if you are engaged, how close you have to be, how many people a combatant can engage, whether you engage someone if you just move past them, etc.  The simplest questions like "what happens if I walk past that guy to get next to that other guy?" are not at all answered.  On the other hand you have precisely 18 different kinds of polearms, each of which has detailed instructions on its historical uses and origin and a punching and wrestling chart that has 21 different results.  Because obviously massive selection and backstory of polearms and fracking punching charts are more useful than knowing *how to move around*.

One thing I did notice was that there are an awful lot of optional rules in the old DnD and they didn't feel particularly optional most of the time when I was playing back in the old days.  We used pretty much everything and doing so really increased the complexity of the game.  We used hovering on death's door, spell components, encumbrance, the entire proficiencies chapter, individual initiative, parrying, and more.  The notable exception to our "use it all!" mentality was the complex, awful, and ridiculous weapon type vs. armour type rule.  Barring that one outlier optional rules simply weren't optional; even when two choices were presented we always went with the more complex option.

I think this tendency for players to always gravitate towards the most hardcore game possible is something that appears across genres.  Look at WOW, for example, where the complaints that everyone cannot complete the most hardcore content were never ending.  People were never satisfied to play the game that suited them but rather wanted to play the biggest, baddest game around and often would quit if that game wasn't what they wanted.  Even if a game they would like was available they weren't interested unless that was the premiere game.  I saw tons of people complaining that the Brutal setting on SC2 was too hard even though there was absolutely no necessity to finish it whatsoever.  I felt like Brutal was a challenge, but quite a reasonable one really, and why would you complain when you can always just do it on Hard instead if that is more your speed?

I think this is going to present massive problems for Wizards in their concept for DnD Next.  They want a massively tiered system with gajillions of optional rules and dials that can be used or not all bolted onto a very simple game.  Somehow they think they can balance this and make simple, no decisions characters work alongside massively customizable characters in a system where the rules are mostly unknown.  This is a disaster waiting to happen.  Nearly everybody is going to use the most complex rule system that gets published and incorporate every optional rule they can possibly stuff into the game.  They are going to end up with a really complex, intimidating ruleset that has been bastardized so that a simple ruleset that doesn't get used lies somewhere within it.

Don't make a game that is a heinous mess of optional rules.  Don't make a game with so many settings that balancing things is impossible and don't make a game that sacrifices being good for being nostalgic.  Just make one good game.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Take their stuff

A big part of the culture in fantasy games revolves around taking the stuff from fallen enemies.  In many games this is a real necessity because upgrading gear is such an important part of progression, so much so that if you decide that looting the dead is wrong you pretty much can't play.  This is certainly true of fantasy MMOs and roguelikes such as Diablo where the idea of not taking whatever you can from whoever you can is a foreign concept.  WOW in particular is actually kind of bizarre in that sense because although the game definitely has the idea that robbing a grave is bad and disturbing the dead is wrong characters still take whatever loot an undead critter has when they kill it.  Not only that but the only way to advance the Tailoring skill is to murder humanoids and steal their clothing for raw materials!

In tabletop RPGs the story is a bit different.  Of course the gold standard is for characters to kill enemies and immediately loot them as soon as the last foe falls over but sometimes people have issues with this.  There is an assumption some people make that stealing from the dead is wrong and that this should somehow stop adventurers from looting their enemies.  I find this attitude mindboggling.  It is okay to murder a person but morality requires you to leave their equipment lying on the ground?  Is the sanctity of gear ownership and inheritance really more important than the right to not be killed?  My take on it is this:  If you feel justified in killing a person and that person has equipment that would really help you survive the next lethal encounter you take their stuff!

I spent a bit of time figuring out what a DnD-like wealth system would mean in terms of real dollars.    Characters need to find items worth 10,000 gold pieces or more on a regular basis and that translates (using a tradesman's income as the standard) to about 4 million dollars.  If you got into a firefight with some random dudes and knew that some of them might have 4 million in cash or goods on their bodies, would you desperately search them before the bodies even began to cool?  Hell yes you would, but in the real world a random dead guy might have a couple hundred bucks worth of stuff, or he might have nothing.  Searching him isn't so relevant.  Of course this also means that a magic item shop would likely have a cool 1 billion dollars of inventory or more, so how exactly they don't get robbed is beyond me.  Obviously the entire economy of fantasy worlds is completely borked under these assumptions.  MMOs are just as bad, if not worse, because a farmer over here will have 1 dollar on him and a farmer over there will have 10,000 dollars on him (as well as having 1,000 times as many hit points!) and that clearly doesn't make any damn sense.

It is a good trend, then, that magic items in DnD Next are no longer going to be listed by cost.  They are explicitly described as being rare and pretty much unpurchasable.  In Heroes By Trade I have done something similar in an attempt to reign in the 'magic items raining from the sky' standard.  The Monty Haul style campaign where every fight has to have magic item rewards really became too much the standard and I think people will generally have more fun in a world that has more interesting rewards that are spaced much further apart.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Bloat and splat

Today I am wrestling with the conundrum of how much is too much when it comes to system bloat.  DnD is the best game example though this crosses genres very nicely.  In every version of DnD from ADnD to Pathfinder there was an incredible amount of additional material put out for the game that added in spells, classes, weapons, feats, and other options that drastically increased the power level with time.  For a new player these things eventually became overwhelming and the simple act of picking one feat at first level was impossible to do in an informed fashion.  On the other hand the hardcore players seem to love having endless permutations of options to peruse to make bizarre (and usually overpowered) characters.

System bloat in other formats is usually a lot more benign.  For example, in MMOs there is generally a constant stream of expansions and updates that add content and options.  While the enormity of the system can still be a big challenge for new players at least the new content often obsoletes the old and new players can ignore much of what has gone before.  Magic:  The Gathering is similar to an MMO in this sense because maintaining a comprehensive collection continues to get harder and harder but the great majority of cards will someday become totally irrelevant.  Still though a new player these days who wants to play Magic competitively will have a brutal time getting caught up with the veterans because there are so many expansions.

It is clear that adding content is mandatory to generate a large revenue stream but I don't think all of this churn is actually good for the games themselves.  Certainly in a subscription model MMO churn is necessary because otherwise they could not maintain the revenue stream necessary to keep the servers on.  In a tabletop game the rules are very different though.  The publisher obviously wants lots of money and that requires new expansions but the game itself can be perfectly fine without them.  Whether the expansion in question is Gods and Kings for CiV or Cities and Knights for Settlers of Catan the usual effect is to increase the complexity without really improving the game experience.

While having no expansions seems fine for the game itself it does appear that it makes for a small community.  If you look at the most popular games and franchises out there it becomes clear that people really want to be doing the same thing as yesterday but bigger and shinier and are happy to shell out for that.  Games that never expand or change do develop loyal followings but those followings are very small.  The lesson I take away from this is that you don't need constant expansions and the problems that those generate to make a good game but if you want to make a lot of money or if you want a huge following you simply must produce a constant stream of product to take people's money.  If you don't take their money somebody else will and they will go play the game they just bought.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

I want to be lucky

During my HBT test last weekend Pounda said that he wanted his character to be lucky rather than good.  Specifically he felt like the essence of fantasy RPGs is a group of heroes who go out into the world braving dangers and fighting monsters and succeed not because they are the most powerful thing out there but because they are lucky.  They find the cryptic note that gives them the clue they need to locate the kidnapped wizard.  They burst in on the Big Bad Evil Guy just in the nick of time to stop his nefarious plans.  They don't beat everybody up just because they are more powerful... except in bad stories where the characters are just demigods teleporting around blowing up enemies for fun.

The trick is reflecting that in game mechanics.  If the characters just have high enough stats to beat the monsters you can call it lucky but it doesn't necessarily have that feel to it.  On the other hand if characters are not particularly equipped to deal with monsters but have Fate Points or somesuch that they burn up to survive fights then it does feel like luck but also lacks some amount of realism.  Some games do this very explicitly of course and there is no attempt at all to make the world 'fair'.  I think DnD 4th edition actually went a bit too far in that direction though with all kinds of mechanics being explicitly for PCs and many people found that distasteful.

I think that I should probably rewrite the section on building encounters with this in mind.  At the moment it is written sensibly such that if a party with Encounter Strength (ES) 100 fights a monster with ES 100 they each have a 50/50 chance of winning.  However, this means that GMs are usually going to be selecting fights where the enemies have a number that is explicitly lower than the character's number.  While that makes perfect sense from a purely mathematical standpoint I think it would lead to people feeling bad about their characters; after all, they only fight things that are rated as weaker than themselves!  I think I should correct the numbers somewhat so that a fairly straightforward encounter has ES equal to the party and harder ones have higher ES ratings.  This means absolutely nothing in terms of actual game math but it gives the feel that characters are taking on appropriate challenges and getting lucky instead of beating up wimps.

Having read a thousand posts in the Pathfinder Raising the Dead thread I am even more convinced that resurrection is not the way to go.  Make raising the dead too easy and nobody in the campaign world ever dies by accident - that sure throws all normal assumptions about society off!  Is murder even a significant crime if you can just resurrect the slain person?  Protecting people from dying in the first place seems like the way to go.  My current thought for HBT is that I will have Fate Points that can be spent to do heroic things and get automatic successes or to protect yourself from dying.  GMs that want a campaign with no deaths can hand out Fate Points liberally and those that want gritty carnage fests can not use them at all.  It gives a nice easy way to adjust the flavour of the game with minimal hacking of the ruleset.