Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Final Battle

Tonight my Pathfinder group faces their final challenge.  The grand enemy they only heard whispers about 8 months ago is now out in the open and they must fight him to the death or watch him wreak untold havoc on the world.  The campaign is finished and although the epic confrontation will be the centrepiece of the session tonight there will be one very important thing to tack on at the end; the twist that leads to the next phase of the story.  The characters are powerful enough now that little they know of is going to be much of a threat but a whole new level of challenge awaits.

I spent quite some time last night designing the final encounter.  I knew who they would face ahead of time and had a vague sense of the battle but working up the actual numbers is tricky.  I want the final fight to be hard and I don't mind if I kill off a character or two; they aren't going to miss much from this point forward!  The trick is that in a four person party killing off a person or two leaves the group with very much diminished resources and that leads to a cascading failure.  It is a fine line to walk as I don't want to make the fight unwinnable either.  Going through a year long campaign and then getting wiped by the last boss isn't ideal!

If people do want to continue the story I won't be doing it in Pathfinder however.  The characters will be tenth level after this session and they simply have access to too many spells and abilities.  They can fly, cure any ailment, send messages anywhere, ignore most normal physical challenges, and do any number of other crazy things.  Creating opponents and challenges for them is becoming more and more of an issue, which is of course normal when characters in DnD type games get powerful.  If we do continue I will be using Heroes By Trade instead which will make for a strange transition but I have played in campaigns that successfully swapped game systems before.

Hopefully I will get a chance to swap hats for awhile.  My theory is that I will hoodwink In The Hat into running the next campaign while I get a chance to play a character in Heroes By Trade and see how it works from the inside.  I have had a grand time running this campaign but I think I need some time to be a player for awhile and recharge my DMing batteries.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Squashing bugs

I played a game of Blood Bowl today in my turbo league and it did not go as it was supposed to.  Unfortunately the BB game I am playing is kinda buggy and regularly does things that make no sense.  In some cases when a game bugs you just have to suck it up but in this case we had various ways to handle it but no particular protocol for how that should be done.  There were three different bugs:

1.  I was not allowed to line up two guys in a wide zone.
2.  Multiple times the game placed 12 guys on the field instead of 11.
3.  My opponent crashed and he could not rejoin the game.

I ended up on the ass end of bugs 1 and 3.  My first drive was successful but would likely have been safer if I had been able to line up my dudes properly.  After 6 turns of the game I was up 1-0 and looking good to win but because my opponent crashed we had to start from scratch and I lost.  We both ended up with 12 guys on the field several times and when we caught it we ran one of our guys away to the side so that the play would not be affected.

It is frustrating to be in a situation where you have to decide how to handle something like this.  I really like optimizing systems and playing to the fullest and it irritates me to no end to deliberately not use all of my tools to win.  Normally the game takes care of that for me by enforcing all the rules so I can go all out and do whatever it takes but when bugs occur and we have to ad hoc rules things get muddy.  Should I get any kind of compensation when the game screws up my placement?  The competitive part of my brain shouts at me that I got screwed by a bug on the first play so I should be able to use a different one to my advantage on the second play.  Realistically I know that playing that way would be terrible and we should endeavour to never let bugs matter unless there is no way around it.  Winning just because of a bug would have little sweetness.

I do like the game a lot and playing football is being a ton of fun.  That said it is frustrating that these bugs exist.  They are regular occurrences and should be straightforward to find and squash.  I don't generally expect much in the way of quality from Games Workshop but their inability or unwillingness to fix these issues is a real irritant indeed.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What the rules are for

The latest DnD Next post is up and it has some interesting information regarding exploring.  The game will have specific rules for parties moving through small scale terrain such as a dungeon and large scale terrain such as a mountain pass.  The two types of exploration will have different time scales for their turns (1 minute and 1 hour respectively) but will allow for similar types of roles and tasks.  The thing that is most interesting to me is that they intend to make class abilities interact directly with exploration tasks so rangers will, for example, not be able to get lost while navigating.

I suspect that this kind of material is going to mostly be ignored by players.  Wandering through a grid of squares on a map of a forest doing tasks in each square just doesn't strike me as something people are actually going to do.  I can see how it would be really useful for premade adventures or for people who really want to get their tactical exploration on but the great majority of campaigns resolve these sorts of things with handwaving or roleplaying and I don't see them desperate for a system to change that.  It also would feel really bizarre if characters were travelling long distances to have them roll out what happens every hour of every day - a one week trek turns into 56 different 'so what do you do this round?' scenarios which seems terrible, especially since most likely nothing is happening.  The players are also going to find it a bit bizarre to fast forward through a long trip and then suddenly be in Explore Mode when they near something relevant.  That said, as long as the exploration material is not significantly considered in terms of balance it is a fine thing to include for those that want it.

The other curious thing they are doing is adding in specific NPC traits like Greedy, Coward, etc. so that players can, if they utilize those traits, gain benefits on their social interactions.  For example, if you offer a Greedy NPC a bribe it will shift the result of the check favourably whereas a NPC with the Incorruptible trait would respond very badly to the same bribe.  This sort of thing actually seems like a really great idea to me.  Obviously GMs don't need to use this stuff in the worlds they make up but it will be very useful in building premade adventures and quickly communicating the important things about a NPC.  It should also offer useful roleplaying tips for GMs to help give them some inspiration.

Now if only they could get away from the archaic and terrible mechanics that form the basis of the Hit Point and healing systems...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ghost Blitz gets a thumbs up

I just recently acquired a new game called Ghost Blitz.  It is aimed at children and the box says it is for 8+ but Elli picked it up really fast and is quite good at it at age 6.  The basic idea behind the game is that there are five objects on the table each having a unique colour and type (white ghost, blue book, red chair, green bottle, grey mouse) and players take turns flipping up cards with pictures on them.  Each card has two objects on it which may or may not match the objects on the table.  The objective is to figure out which of the objects on the table does not match either the type or colour of the objects on the card and grab it first.  For example, if a green mouse and a white chair came up on a card you would grab the blue book.  

To mix it up there are some cards that have an picture that matches an object on the table exactly; in this case you must grab the object that matches instead.  Whoever grabs correctly first gets to keep the card and the person with the most cards at the end wins.  In the case below the blue book is an exact match so you grab that.

The premise is incredibly simple but it is actually quite difficult to force your brain to recognize both the colour and type of an object simultaneously.  I was shocked to see how good Elli became at this game as within a week she was soundly trouncing some adults who were trying their best and giving Wendy and myself a run for our money.  In the past I have asked for good games for kids and I think I have found one of the best of them.  Very simple pieces which aren't particularly breakable are a plus and if some cards get ruined or lost they can be ignored or easily replaced.  Not only that but an adult can actually play this as a game unlike the mindless dicerolling that characterizes classics like snakes and ladders.

Game designers often end up showcasing tremendously complex creations that will hardly ever see the light of day but I am always the most impressed by the simple systems that are fun to play.  This is the basic theme behind the board games I have built; easy rules, quick playtime.  Granted my wargame isn't the easiest game out there but compared to other wargames it is supremely streamlined.  This game impressed me by having a remarkably high fun factor considering its nonexistent learning curve.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

When roleplay gets in the way of rollplay

I was talking with Wendy today about Blood Bowl and the various strategies one needs to employ to play at maximum efficiency.  One of those strategies is planning when to score a touchdown.  Unlike in real football where any time you can get a touchdown you take it there are definitely times when you don't want to score in BB.  For example, if the opposing team takes a minimum of 3 turns to score a touchdown you want to score with only 2 turns left in the half so that they cannot get a touchdown in return.  There is a big incentive to hold on to the ball in that situation so that you guarantee you score the last touchdown of the half.  Holding on to the ball and not scoring has its risks of course because your ball carrier might get taken down but it is a risk you can manage.

Wendy thought this wasn't a very good mechanic because it really went counter to the basic idea of football where you always want to take any opportunity to score.  I see that point of view and agree with it to some extent - having the optimal strategies of the game feel like they match the 'roleplaying' strategies of the game is an important goal.  However, in this case I feel like it isn't a big problem because holding on to the ball is risky and usually I just score as fast as I can.  There existing some situations where I don't score right away is fine as it offers some deeper strategy for those who are willing to think that far ahead.  If the entire game revolved around never scoring and just holding the ball until the last turn I think I would have a problem with it but it isn't that extreme.

One problem that is a lot more serious is Fan Factor.  Each football team has a FF rating that inflates the team's overall ranking (which measures their power and effectiveness) but which doesn't help them win.  Teams who have high FF end up having a much higher ranking than is appropriate and thus their matches will tend to be lopsided if they face teams with low FF but with similar ranking.  The real crux of the issue is that some teams will concede matches to each other which artificially reduces their FF.  This could certainly be solved by reducing the amount of influence FF has on team ranking in online matches but I doubt that will happen; realistically it is up to each group of players in a league to police that sort of behaviour on their own.

I totally get why FF is there and it makes sense of a roleplaying perspective but the numbers don't work very well.  Having a measure of how popular a team is with the bloodthirsty fans is a fine thing indeed until it starts to make matches unfair.  This isn't unique in BB to be sure as it is a tremendously fun game but has lots of problems with the math behind the scenes.  Games Workshop tends to do that a lot in my experience.  Those guys really need to hire me to fix the numbers for them.

Friday, May 10, 2013

More footing of the ball

I am in the zone again.  I have been feeling a bit directionless lately, perhaps in the middle of an existential crisis.  I was concerned that perhaps I needed to find direction in my life; to do something big and important.  The people around me lately seem to be going out and getting jobs far away and making long terms goals their priority.  I worried that perhaps I really needed to shake up my life to get back to the comfortable zone I generally reside in.  It was a strange place to be and I did not like it at all.

I stopped worrying about that on Thursday morning.  The thing that stopped me worrying was Wednesday night where I was up for an hour tossing and turning imagining things in my head.  I was replaying Blood Bowl games from the previous day, obsessing over optimal player progression paths, and imagining an unstoppable team of dirty rats that would crush their enemies.  My mind wouldn't stop spinning and fantasizing and calculating and .... it was awesome.  I must play more Blood Bowl.  I MUST BE BETTER!

I have always done that over one game or the other.  For years it was WOW but I have been heartily addicted to so many games - SC2, SC1, Diablo2, Diablo3, Civilization, Plants vs. Zombies, HOMM3, and many more.  It isn't good for me to be up all night twitching about my latest game but during the day it leaves me calm and feeling fantastic.  That sense of flow, of intense absorption, is something I desperately crave.  I need it, it would seem, and it seems to take the place of ambition in other folks.

For whatever reason I seem to need that obsession in my life.  If my mind is totally occupied mastering a game I am happy and content and that is enough; other goals have no importance.  It isn't like some people where they pick up a new game, bust through it in 30 hours and then put it away forever.  Even games like Mass Effect 2 cause me to log a couple hundred hours.  This is strange among gamers, I think, because when I hear people talk about games they have played so many different ones and none of them for thousands of hours.  Moderation is for normal people; me, I am all or nothing!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Blood Bowl and randomness

I have played 3 games of Blood Bowl in my current league and I am finding it remarkably like playing Magic:  The Gathering back in the day.  There is a tremendous amount of skill you can apply to the game both in terms of planning and execution and yet there are constant outrageous game swings based on really random things that happen.

For example in my last game as the Skaven against the Undead my opponent was convinced he had already lost the game on turn 2.  It wasn't an outrageous conclusion since I kicked off to him but I managed to get the ball instead of him and was scurrying towards his end zone for a fast first goal.  Letting a fast scoring team get up 1-0 on you that quickly is an utter disaster.  Unfortunately for me he got a lucky block, the ball went into the stands, and the crazy fans bounced the ball all over the zone until it ended up almost in *my* end zone.  My opponent got the ball and scored without much difficulty.

Things went terribly from there.  I couldn't score in return in the first half and when I received the kick in the second half I got nowhere.  My guys flubbed their pass and absolutely failed at knocking the Undead over.  By the time we were halfway through the second half my entire team was on the ground and I gave up and just passed the turn over and over until the game ended.  I finished the game have never completed a pass, scored a goal, injured an enemy, or in fact done anything but get wrecked.  I didn't play perfectly by any means but I got completely ruined on the dice.

It feels a lot like M:TG did.  In the long run over a substantial number of games skill absolutely trumps luck and the best players end up in the finals with remarkably regularity.  The trick with Blood Bowl is that you have a 2 hour game that has a fair degree of randomness in determining who wins.  If every M:TG match was only one game the finals would have a lot more random players in them and the same is the case here I think.  This isn't a bad thing, but it is a thing to keep in mind.  Games that have substantial random components that take 2 hours require a very specific sort of attitude.  You have to be willing to accept that you just get wrecked sometimes and can't do jack about it.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sub of the Class

DnD Next has announced the structure for class design in general in the latest developer post.  The basic idea is that every class from wizard to fighter is going to be primarily defined by a choice of subclass.  You won't just be a fighter, but rather you will be a fighter-gladiator, fighter-knight, fighter-archer, etc.  The idea behind this, I think, is that the game will present a series of relatively simple options to new players rather than opening up the toolbox too much all in one go.  New Player X will have to choose a class from the list of Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, Rogue and then choose a subclass from a similarly sized list.  After doing so the player is ready to go and aside from choosing equipment (which comes with defaults anyway) there is little else to decide.  It will certainly make it easy for new people to get into the game quickly with a variety of play options.

One really good thing about this system is that it allows for relatively easy insertion of more complex material.  If designed correctly the baseline fighter-killer subclass can compete handily with a more complex fighter-duelist subclass just by hitting harder.  For advanced players this will be indistinguishable from simply adding new classes on but I suspect choosing twice from two lists of size four is much more palatable to newbies than once from one list of size sixteen.  In third edition the only way for a fighter to distinguish himself from another fighter was taking different feats and those usually relied on a lot of system mastery to evaluate and plan out.  The new system should hopefully reduce the need for system mastery to be competitive.  It is much more restrictive than third edition too but I feel like this will greatly enhance the experience.  While individual players have fun making invincible characters it is much more fun for the GM when player power is more predictable and new players feel better when their characters matter.

This system makes me more optimistic than I was before about how much fun playing the Basic system will be.  With only four classes and no other significant choices I really felt like the Basic system as presented awhile ago was utterly boring.  I do think there is something to be said for keeping the number of choices and the difficulty of those choices down for new players though and this new subclass system looks like it hits the sweet spot.  Hopefully they can find a way to apply it to skills also as that would really get me behind the system as actually being good at the whole complexity scaling thing.