Thursday, March 28, 2013

Alignment and such

Threads about paladins in RPGs are always entertaining.  You know, entertaining in the way that two guys getting into a fistfight on the side of the road because they had a fender bender is entertaining.  I find the arguments about what is good and evil and what is the right thing to do in a given situation really interesting - not because I give a crap what random guys on the internet think of my paladin but because it says a lot about their perceptions of the world.

Some people are absurd and think that paladins should never use arrows (unchivalrous!) and have an obligation to attack anything they perceive as evil even if the consequence is a certain and pointless death for themselves.  This sort of thing comes, I suspect, from a bad experience with a paladin player who was a total jerk and used their vows as a bludgeon to force all of the other players to do things their way.  That paladin was a jackass, better make sure nobody can reasonably play a paladin ever again!  I have a bit of an odd take on it in that I think playing a character who is seriously Lawful Good but not a paladin is much harder and more interesting.  You don't have constant Detect Evil as a crutch to figure out what to do and you don't have Atone spells or other magical guidelines; just you and your conscience all alone.

I have been thinking about player priorities in games while watching Game Of Thrones.  Initially, like most people, I thought of Eddard Stark as the Good Guy.  He is all honourable and just, right?  Especially after watching the TV version of the story though I am coming around to the idea that he is actually a neutral character at best and might even be thought of as having a villainous streak.  The thing about Eddard Stark is that he values his honour above all else including the lives and happiness of thousands of other people.  Rather than capture Cersei Lannister right away or surprise her he gives her a chance to run so that Robert's soldiers and Cersei's soldiers can spend as much time as possible murdering each other.  This might be fine for Eddard's honour but it sure doesn't do much for all of the other people who are lined up to get killed in the crossfire.  What is evil but the willingness to disproportionately sacrifice the well being of others for your own gain?  Sure, when he has nothing to lose Eddard is happy to make reasonable decisions that help others but when the chips are down he will sacrifice anything and anyone to preserve his image of himself as righteous.

These real decisions are something I try to put into the tabletop RPGs I run.  I want the characters to consider the costs of their actions and to think of the unnamed masses rather than just the local nobility.  There is nothing inherently more important about the disappearance of the local princess than the local milkmaid.  The princess might be politically more critical but I try to avoid placing too much importance on the lives and designs of just the powerful few.  Just like in Game Of Thrones I want the cast to be difficult to categorize.  Empress Hawktail might be utterly ruthless, usually rude, and occasionally cruel but never without cause - she always thinks of what is best for the realm.  Is she evil?  Hard to say, which is why I banned Detect Alignment spells and effects.  Figure that stuff out on your own, it is far more interesting that way.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

SC2: Heart of the Swarm is meh

I posted my initial thoughts on SC2:  Heart of the Swarm earlier and at the time I was pretty positive about the game.  I finished it this weekend and I am leaning somewhat more negative having played through the entire thing.  It is still polished and had a solid launch - technically speaking there can be no significant complaints especially considering how bad other titles have been in the department recently.  Unfortunately for HotS it comes on the heels of what I consider to be one of the best titles in recent history... SC2: Wings of Liberty itself.

HotS has 27 missions but 7 of them are evolution missions which are utterly trivial and without merit or interest.  They are fine in the sense that they provide context for a choice you have to make but their very existence makes me not want to play through the game again on Brutal difficulty.  I played through the original WoL campaign a good half dozen times and enjoyed it each time but I find little enough incentive to do so with this expansion.

Evolution missions aren't the only sticking point though.  In WoL there was a much greater degree of choice in terms of how missions played out.  Although this often made the story seem somewhat nonsensical I really enjoyed the ability to choose what I tackled next and the fact that I could leave parts of the story behind and just finish the primary mission was great.  It gave me the sense of exploration and freedom instead of simply following a linear path with trivial deviations.  WoL also had choices in missions that determined the parameters of the mission and changed later cutscenes and plot developments.  These choices allowed me to feel like I was in some sense in control of the game.  HotS lacks both character decisions as well as tactical choices like mission ordering and it feels much less immersive.

I also feel like the very nature of the storytelling style leaves me less interested because the actors are so inhuman.  I honestly don't give a crap about Stukov, Dhaka, and the other zerg aliens that Kerrigan has so many conversations with.  The lore behind the conversations is really well done and they did a good job with what they had to work with but I am a human and I can't empathize with a big ole pack of monsters.  In WoL I really did like the characters and I felt a connection to them and their story simply because they were people.  I found it hard to care whether anyone aside from the marquee heroes lived or died.  Given that this expansion was all about zerg it does seem somewhat inevitable but it didn't work for me.

HotS feels analogous to Cataclysm for WOW.  Good looking, technically solid, but honestly not as much FUN as previous expansions.  Also the 'gaming on rails' aspect of Cataclysm and the lack of choice is definitely not something I enjoy going through again.  I figured after going through HotS completely on Hard I would then swap to Brutal and do it again.  Instead I find myself thinking that if I play SC2 right now I am just going to play through WoL on Brutal instead for my fourth time.  That is a sad fact for HotS.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

DnD Next: Lethality and clutter

The latest DnD Next playtest pack is out.  They have added in some new classes:  Ranger, Druid, and Paladin.  They have also revamped a ton of rules with very mixed success.  Part of their goal in changing the rules seemed to be to lower the damage dealt by martial classes in particular; this was a good goal as the classes in the last pack would end appropriate encounters on round 2 and a pair of steathy rogues could pretty much beat anything in the surprise round.  They succeeded in lowering damage overall but the balance between the classes is still sketchy at best and they did nothing to make low levels less dangerous.  In fact they seem to have made it a point of honour to give as many people as possible high damage AOE effects at level 1.

Thunderwave:  13.5 damage
Entangle:  10.5 damage and rooted
Magic Missile:  13.5 damage single target, long range, no roll
Slay The Living:  13.5 damage
Nature's Wrath:  9 damage + weapon swing
Inflict Wounds:  18 damage single target + weapon swing
Flames of the Phoenix:  10 damage

All these are available at Level 1 when characters have 6-14 HP.  Was it really necessary to give most characters the ability to wipe out their entire party in a single action?  Did we learn nothing from old editions where low level combat was decided by whichever wizard got to act first?  I suppose one could argue that since paladins, fighters, monks, and clerics are all now capable of killing multiple opponents in an action that things are more balanced but I don't think that this is a version of 'balance' that I like.

At high levels fights seem like they could take a lot longer, which is fine, but these low level fights are just absurd.  There is a fight length that fits nicely between 'I died before getting an action' and 'endless slog' that each group finds best.  The best way to approach that is not 1 round fights at low levels and interminable fights at high levels but rather a consistent length throughout so the GM can consistently set things up to work for their group instead of having to reinvent the wheel differently at each level.

Another thing that really puzzles me is Arcane Recovery.  This is an ability that wizards get which allows them to recover their spells.  It is just like having one more spell slot per level but requires that you use a short rest to use it.  Is this really tactically interesting?  It clutters up progression, requires extra bookkeeping, and matters only when the wizard wants to use all of their spells in a single encounter.  Adding in a bunch of extra crap to remember to corner one narrow case simply isn't a good idea.  If an ability is cool flavourwise but doesn't add much tactically that is fine but an ability that is boring, irritating, and tactically uninteresting is a complete waste to write up.

So overall I think that this edition is better than every edition except 4th because it does what they did but better.  It is better than 4th in some ways but starkly inferior in others; the flavour is pretty good but the math leaves much to be desired.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It's time to pvp

At my annual Back to the Lounge party I am going to have a PvP event using my RPG Heroes By Trade.  Now tabletop RPGs are generally not known for being any good for PvP - most of the time the fight ends with the first person to take an action winning immediately.  There are a few reasons for this.  First off is the problem that RPGs normally make characters and monsters on entirely different templates.  The design principle seems to generally go along the lines of making all the character mechanics first and then build monsters that work with those mechanics.  That leads to amusing situations where characters hit for 40 damage and have 30 HP while monsters hit for 10 damage and have 200 HP.  These situations make for comedic battles when monsters fight each other and can't do anything while the players one shot one another.

The second problem is the tendency of games to hand out powers that are on a daily limit.  When you have to survive multiple encounters in a day players naturally are conservative with their use but when facing down an equally powerful group in an arena it makes complete sense to go nova immediately.  This generally means that ridiculously overpowered abilities all come out on round one and whoever lands one first ends the fight; just imagine how silly a 2nd edition DnD pvp battle turns out.  The wizard casts sleep.  The entire enemy party falls unconscious.  Good fight!

Thankfully I think HBT will actually work out pretty decently as far as PvP goes.  I built monsters along the same lines as characters by making sure that their defenses, attack bonuses, armour values, and such all are in the same ranges.  Monsters also get abilities that are very similar to character abilities both in mechanics and in overall power level.  The main thing that some monsters have is enormous HP totals.  This was necessary so that building a fight against a single enemy would be feasible - plus, it does make sense that a 15 foot tall giant takes a LOT more punishment to take down than a human.

The advantage to building monsters this way is that characters fighting each other should work out well.  They will be attacking into the same range of defenses and HP totals as they would if they were fighting another group of random monsters.  The primary difference is that their enemies will be extremely intelligent and will do things like focus firing down one target rather than just bashing randomly.  Not that every fight has to be against a dumb opponent of course but the goal is to have fun and having all the monsters attack the wizard until he dies isn't much fun for the group even if the monsters do end up losing.  In PvP everyone sure is going to attack the wizard and he sure is going to die, that is just how it is done.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Love Story of the Swarm

I love Jim Raynor.  His personality reads a lot like Mal from Firefly and I love Mal too - the tormented criminal with the heart of gold.  I wasn't sure what to expect from Heart of the Swarm (The Starcraft 2 xpac) but so far I absolutely love what they have done with the story.  Someday I really need to play that character in a tabletop RPG!

***spoiler alert***

The key to the bit is Kerrigan's motivation.  Why would she go back to being the Queen of Blades?  What is she doing on Team Zerg again?  Raynor rescued you, fool, why are you going and messing everything up?!? They did a great job making that switch work though and it reads like a tragic love story with the twists based on misunderstanding and mistake.  A little bit hackneyed and unoriginal to be sure but the best plots have all been done before so all you can do is try to do that same old thing well.

The mechanics of the game seem really solid too which I appreciate.  It is more of the same from SC2 with timed missions, crazy events to deal with, and new mechanics on nearly every mission once you get past the intro.  Pretty much they took the original campaign (which was great fun) and did the same thing again but with a new plot, new race, and everything shifted enough to make it great.  Nothing spectacularly innovative, just solid execution and polish which is what we have come to expect from Blizzard.

Thankfully HoTS bucked the trend of big titles bombing on launch day because the servers weren't up to the job.  Downloading took a little while and things were a mite choppy now and then but for a launch day experience it was excellent.  I played the game, it was tons of fun, the game worked as advertised.  I am sure a week after launch things will be smooth as anything because all the downloading will be done and the rush will have slowed a bit.

I should note that I haven't beat the game yet and am probably only about 1/3 of the way through.  I started out on Hard which seemed very appropriate - I am rusty as hell but I only died once so far though I had my share of close calls.  Clearly I will need to get better and practice up to beat Brutal but it should be quite doable; from my vantage point they got the difficulty just right.  Maybe my mind will change after beating the game or actually testing Brutal but so far Blizzard gets a massive thumbs up - HoTS is good stuff.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Magic Items you won't forget

I regularly rant about how much I hate the magic item treadmill in fantasy RPGs.  In a MMO that is going to last years you really can't avoid it but in a tabletop game it feels terrible to me to have the game designed around constant acquisition and sale of magic items.  I am running a Pathfinder game right now and I built the campaign world such that normal magic item progression is impossible so I had to come up with ideas to make things work.  The two major troubles with not having magic items:

Monster balance is all out of whack.  - This hardly matters to me since I custom build all the enemies.

Weapon user vs. spell user balance is wrecked.  - Weapon users don't do nearly enough damage and lack magic items to replicate spell abilities.  Spell users get very small bonuses to their efficacy from magic items but weapon users are *massively* reliant on them.

Here is what I did to have magic items be a thing and make it work:

1.  The characters discovered that magic necklaces with a variety of powers were being manufactured in secret by an enemy government.  They tracked down a shipment of those necklaces, fought the guards escorting them, and took them.

2.  Once the enemy government was deposed the characters discovered a secret stash of magical weapons that had been created but never used by the old regime.  The weapons were made of gold but astoundingly light and had strange runes that granted them powers against The Beasts.

3.  The characters visited a land full of gigantic trees that stretched kilometers high which supported all the people of the land.  In the top of one of the trees was a place sacred to those people that had berries which could grant +5 to a single stat.  Eating such a berry would permanently change the colour of the person's hair and eyes depending on the stat in question.  Str = Red, Dex = Orange, Con = Yellow, Int = Blue, Wis = Purple, Cha = Gold.

4.  Upon leaving the land of trees the people there gave the characters spikes from their trees that grew very rarely.  If the spike was shoved into the person's body they would gain +4 natural armour but the spike would remain sticking out of them forever, not causing damage but being extremely weird and potentially uncomfortable.  All of the characters chose to impale themselves on the spikes to gain their benefits - they chose different places and ways in which to impale themselves, which was interesting thematically.

Basically the characters remember every item they got, where they got it, and why it is special.  I think it is working, although my system obviously is impossible to generalize and standardize.  If the system weren't so explicitly designed around magic item progression it wouldn't be such an issue but it is; I look forward to using Heroes By Trade so I can stop worrying about that.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Release Day!

Back when I was a teenager SimCity was a wondrous thing.  Our computer was so slow that even on the fastest game setting the game moved at a glacial pace but I spent hours uncountable designing the perfect city.  I sat down with graph paper to draw out the perfect city block that I could just repeat over and over again to make the ideal city, rewriting my masterpiece over and over as I gained mastery over the game.  Recently when I saw a review of the latest SimCity I was was very much tempted to buy it right away and play - it looked so pretty compared to the blocky black and white graphics of the past!

And then I looked at the player reviews and discovered that even if the game is good it doesn't matter because nobody can play it.  It has a mandatory internet connection and right now everything is a total mess because the servers can't handle the load at all.  If you can play, which most people can't, you can't do anything because trying to actually start a new city doesn't work.  Some people can play the tutorial for all the good that does them!

Lots of games have horrible launch day issues and solving the problem is tricky.  You simply can't have a realistic server model where you have 100 servers for launch day and then scale back to 50 servers three weeks later without running your costs into the stratosphere.  The solution isn't exactly hidden:  You just throttle the logins you accept so that everyone who is actually playing has a good time and give everybody else a reasonable estimate of how long it will be until they can get in.

Part of me thinks the reason that this isn't done is incompetence.  Part of me thinks it is optimism on the part of management that isn't shared by the tech team.  (Maybe that is the same thing?)  The cynic in me thinks that it might just be a legal dodge.  If you sell 1M copies and can only have 50K people online at a time you are openly admitting that people that buy the product can't use it.  If you instead sell 1M copies and let everybody on to have a craptastic experience instead you can at least claim that you are *trying* accommodate all the buyers with some plausible deniability.

Honestly guys, we figured the servers could handle it!  Sorry about this mess, but as soon as people stop wanting to use our product it will be all sorted out!  We didn't think so many people would actually want to play the game....?

I think that companies really shoot themselves in the foot when they do this, especially when the game is sold digitally and they could very easily stop selling it.  Wizardry Online did this recently and pulled sales from Steam so they could get their house in order.  Other games need to do this too, but much more aggressively. If you know you can deal with 50k logins then only sell 100k copies initially and let more go out the door based on how the servers are holding up.  It will frustrate some people who want to buy but can't but at least when they do get that first taste of your game it will be a sweet one instead of being full of bitter and hate.

I know that if I see a player review that says "I had to camp the online store to get a copy but once I did it was a blast!" I would be eager to buy and if I saw "I bought the game and camped the login but still can't play after two days." I would ignore the game completely.  I don't think I am alone in this.

Pictures from:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

For the GM's eyes only

Various tabletop roleplaying systems have all kinds of ways to separate information that is meant to be read by the players and information that is meant to be read by the GM.  DnD has separate player's and GM's manuals at one extreme, whereas Nobilis has so few actual rules that virtually everything is GM advice because the players can make up pretty much whatever they like.  I have been writing GM advice for Heroes By Trade and I have been mulling over how I would actually like to present it in the final work.

I don't think there is any sense in planning a second book for a few reasons.  First off Heroes By Trade is focused on providing a system where they aren't endless charts and systems that are rarely used so the GM section is almost entirely advice in the form of text.  That just isn't enough to fill a second book even if planning two books wasn't unrealistic from a practical standpoint.  Secondly I tended to find that sequestering away that advice leads to a more adversarial situation where GMs are set up as the keeper of secrets rather than as collaborators.

Given that I want all of the GM section to fit into the regular book I have three ways to handle it.  Firstly and most simply, I could just have a big ass chapter with lots of GMing advice in it.  This has the advantage of making it crystal clear what is considered a rule the players should know and what is a design idea.  The second option I have been considering is writing the GM advice right into the player's section.  There are a few formatting options like having the page split vertically with GMing advice in the outer column and player advice on the inner column with a different background colour or simply having occasional whole pages devoted to GM advice and explanation.  Lastly I could write the entire thing to both GMs and players alike and present everything as a set of options rather than a definitive ruleset.

I don't know which system would work better.  Is it easier to have everything on a topic in a single location, or is having the GM advice there just going to confuse players and make the game harder to pick up?  One of my major goals is to provide a simple format where a totally inexperienced player can figure out what to read and rapidly learn everything they have to know.  I have even been considering special notation on paragraphs so that a new player could be told "read everything that has a star next to it" to get a really basic crash course.

Feel free to tell me which of my basic structures you think would be best given the goals I have outlined:

1.  A GM advice chapter that contains subsections on Skills, Rituals, Combat, etc.
2.  GM advice written in clearly separate blocks within the regular chapters.
3.  The entire thing written without differentiating between basic rules and GM options and advice.