Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Alignment and the whole Detect Evil thing

In DnD the traditional alignment system has a long and storied history - mostly the story involves people yelling at each other about whether or not Chaotic Neutral means 'I just do some crazy stupid thing every time a decision arises because that is fun'.  Aside from constant arguments about what the traditional nine alignments actually mean in terms of how characters should be played there is also a consistent issue with the way in which spells and magical powers interact with the alignment system.  Paladins constantly detecting evil on everything they see is the classic example - if the paladin has any kind of sense they will detect evil on absolutely everything which is a gigantic pain in the butt for the DM both in terms of time invested and silliness of story.

DnD Next has alignment in it.  I wouldn't do that personally but I can understand the desire - they want to appease the old school players and keep things familiar.  Including it at all is going to make the old arguments about what alignments mean continue but they recognize the other issues and seem intent on fixing them.  For example, paladins will be able to detect supernatural creatures instead of generic 'evil'.  That is all good - knowing that a supernatural creature is present is a totally reasonable thing to have in a game and lets the DM easily tinker with what exactly supernatural means to allow the ability to work without making the game silly.  Paladins also aren't going to spend all of their time spamming Detect Supernatural Creature on every pillar and wall they encounter too, which should speed things up some.

The details aren't complete yet of course but I really appreciate that they are trying to prevent alignment from being actively represented in spells and other mechanics.  As long as I can ignore alignment without having to rewrite the rest of the system I don't particularly mind it; some people will use it and that is fine.  It looks like they are making a real effort to ensure that the alignment system is very modular and easily removed which causes me to give Next a rare and enthusiastic thumbs up.  Slipping in stupid old systems to appeal to people's sense of nostalgia without making them define the construct as a whole is a very good compromise.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Big Guys in Blood Bowl.

Blood bowl teams have a really varied structure.  Most of the dudes on any given team are strength 3 but there are exceptions - halflings, goblins, and other little critters have lower strength and a few things have strength 4.  However, most teams have access to one dude with strength 5 who usually has some other major drawback to compensate for being so large and in charge.  They are called Big Guys collectively.  There are a few different drawbacks:

1.  Bonehead:  Lose your action 1/6 of the time.
2.  Really Stupid:  Lose your action 1/6 of the time always, 1/2 of the time if nobody smart is nearby.
3.  Wild Beast:  Lose your action 1/6 of the time always, 1/2 of the time if you aren't attacking.
4.  Take Root:  Become rooted in place permanently 1/6 of the time.

These are all pretty hideous drawbacks, with Bonehead being the obviously least hideous.  People still use Big Guys of course because you can play around their disadvantages and they do hit really hard but they cause real problems when you try to make a plan.  Most guys have to roll dice to attack enemies or pick up / throw / catch the football but Big Guys can't even walk without checking to see if they suck this turn.  It is really terrible when you rely on a dude to just stand in a place and provide a tackle zone or pin an enemy down and they just stand there instead.  The real issue is that you can't make any kind of long term plan that relies on your Big Guy doing what you want.  Just having one around adds a large amount of uncertainty to your game and mucks up plans constantly.  I generally don't run them on my teams because they end up being very expensive and causing more problems than they are worth in the long run, I think.

This added uncertainty is really a problem for humans but less so for the computer.  It makes plans and tries to execute them but it doesn't have the same level of awareness that a really good human player does.  A human is often going to be completely boned when a Big Guy doesn't follow orders but the computer's actions are usually a lot more random and they just continue blindly swinging even if things go completely off the rails.  The other thing about the computer is that it is rated to lose.  It just isn't as good as a human so something really swingy like a Big Guy who sometimes is just a wrecking ball and sometimes is hopeless garbage is great for it.  The more randomness the computer can introduce into the game the better off it is since if everything plays out evenly it loses nearly every time to a careful human.

My current campaign against the computer is trying to achieve a specific goal.  I want to injure the entire enemy team of 16 players and have not a single enemy that can face me.  I managed to get a team down to 14 injured guys, one guy ejected for cheating, and 1 guy knocked out but I couldn't manage to get that knocked out guy back onto the field to try to kill him again.  It takes some serious doing to make this happen, but I have constructed a team of savage murderers to attempt it.  I probably can't succeed unless playing against halflings / goblins / ogres / lizards but I will certainly keep trying.  It feels very satisfying to watch elves die beneath the boots of my mutant chaos beasts.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Legendarily good news

This week DnD Next is making me feel optimistic.  That isn't usually my take but I really like this weeks blog about Legendary monsters.  These monsters are designed to be usually powerful creatures that break a lot of the standard rules.  The are all named things, beasts that are whispered about and which have stories told about them around campfires.  They might be dragons, giants, wielders of legendary artifacts, or otherwise unusual.  So the lore is fine and all, but what about the numbers?

'What about the numbers?' could be my rallying cry around here...

It turns out that the numbers are pretty good.  The example given is of a black dragon and it has some very familiar mechanics like a breath weapon, a bunch of physical attacks, and interesting movement abilities such as flying and swimming.  It also has a list of immunities that make sure that it can't be easily incapacitated by one shot spells and four times per day it can automatically make a saving throw.  Basically they recognize that when you fight a really special critter the fight is not very interesting if on round 1 the wizard stuns it and it never gets to go again!  It isn't outright immune to everything but the defenses it does have mean that you really have to just beat through its hit points rather than hoping for a instant victory.  This is a good thing as boss fights really do need to last a bit of time to feel appropriate and epic.

The best thing about the dragon is that it addresses action economy in a great way.  Normally a single enemy's actions have to be insane to make up for the fact that the players get five times as many actions as it does.  This dragon gets four actions in between each of its turns.  Those actions aren't nearly as good as its regular turn but it can make an attack, move a short distance, or recharge its breath weapon.  Thus the players have to constantly react to changing battlefield conditions and can't just plan on the battlefield being entirely predictable between each of the dragon's turns.

I think this is marvellous from several perspectives.  First off it will keep the players guessing and on their toes as well as making the battle feel dynamic.  That is just a 'feel' sort of thing though, the second benefit is raw numbers - when an enemy gets so many actions each action is small and things tend to even out.  If an enemy has only a single action each turn that action needs to be utterly devastating and if it always hits it should probably spell doom for the players.  With a lot more dice and many small effects there is much greater likelihood that the battle outcome is predictable and players can be challenged but still emerge victorious.

Lastly there are rules for the dragon when it is engaged it its lair.  The lair has extra abilities and powers that make things difficult and complicated for the characters.  This is a really cool effect but I do think that the dragon should have different experience values depending on whether it is encountered in its lair or not.  It makes a huge difference in the challenge overall and that should be reflected in the experience reward.  Overall though this is a really positive design for a boss type monster.  I approve.

Friday, June 14, 2013

You need a system for downtime?

Mike Mearls put out a new post about DnD Next this week talking about downtime.  It is very light on details and has no numbers but the essence of it is that when characters aren't doing traditional adventures they want to have a system for what the characters can do and how they can get things done.  The assumption is that characters are sitting in a town and each week they can perform one task such as crafting a sword, influencing a person, earning money, or working on a building project.  This is, of course, based on the assumption that the campaign follows a 'traditional' path of the characters wandering out to a dungeon, killing stuff, and then coming back to town to chill out safely for some time.  I think that model is bollocks personally but surely some people play that way.

The trouble with providing systems for things like "Make the noblewoman Elisha like you more" is that the system ends up being utterly silly and breaking immersion.  A single conversation doesn't take a week and if Elisha is actually important to the story then presumably the conversation with her is interesting enough to roleplay out, not roll out.  If Elisha isn't important then are the players really even going to know who she is?  Are they going to care about trying to make her like them more?  Is a numerical system to handle this going to be any use since you aren't going to show them the results anyway?  If they do upgrade her attitude from Neutral to Friendly they shouldn't actually know that for sure.

A weekly system of chores does actually make sense when governing things like crafting objects, doing a job for cash, or building a tower.  Unfortunately although it makes sense it still isn't any use.  If you do want to build a system that allows characters to do labour for money you also need to keep track of their trivial expenses.  Does anyone really want to spend the time to figure out how many copper pieces they spend on bread and their profit margins on a being a part time carpenter?  In a traditional game characters are so rich those sorts of things become irrelevant chump change by level two and in a non traditional game people aren't tracking their income from tradeskills.  You certainly can build a reasonable system to govern these sorts of tasks but I can't fathom why you would want to bother.

There are all kinds of weird economic systems in previous versions of DnD and the main thing about them is they were totally irrelevant until somebody abused them horribly.  People would try to hire thousands of soldiers to defeat dragons for them, abuse crafting laws to generate astronomical sums of money, or start magical item factories.  I have never seen those sorts of systems actually provide anything of use since it was so easy to simply roleplay through them instead.  Trying to do a combat in a heroic fighting game doesn't work without the numbers but that shouldn't confuse us into thinking that we need numbers for everything or that we need absurd structure for social interactions.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

HP structure again

Last time I talked about HP structure in DnD Next and I suggested that they really need to have a system where there are Hit Points that regenerate quickly after combat and represent fatigue and Wounds that represent actual trauma and which you only take after your Hit Points are depleted.  Sthenno suggested some problems with that system in the comments and I wanted to talk about that a little specifically looking at the Hit Point system I developed for Heroes By Trade.

The primary issue Sthenno brought up is definitely real - when you all have Hit Points that come back after a fight there is a real issue that some fights don't damage the characters at all.  It is easy to imagine going through a combat that should in theory be challenging and coming out the other side without using any permanent resources.  This can be an problem in two ways:  First, the characters may not feel challenged if they don't actually get hurt.  Second, it is very difficult to drain the resources of the characters over several combats since if you make a fight hard enough to do Wound damage you could easily end up killing off characters.

I don't think the characters not being challenged ends up being an issue most of the time.  In the tests I have done people recognize that take Wound damage is a really big deal and they get very worried when they get low on Hit Points.  Even if they end up coming out without a scratch the concern and/or fear they felt at being hit seemed plenty real.  The other factor that works well in this case is that in Heroes By Trade there are a variety of defensive actions characters can perform.  When someone gets low on Hit Points they don't just keep on swinging and hope; rather they can take the simple but effective Defend action or they can use Powers that let them run away, be harder to hurt, or restore their HP.  Getting into a situation where you feel the need to use your defensive abilities to survive is a good way to make people feel challenged and afraid even if they end up winning handily.

The second issue of draining resources is a trickier one because it relies so heavily on GM style.  Some people like me tend to write more story based combats that are spaced out.  Characters get into fights because they have to or because they want to achieve specific objectives.  I don't design gigantic dungeons that involve dozens of fights against forgettable opponents.  Because of this draining their resources simply isn't something I think about fights doing since the characters generally have ample time to rest and recover before the next time they have to fight again.  I just don't rely on that mechanic.

However some people do want to drain resources so in that sort of case there are a few arguments in favour of HBT's system.  The Powers characters use in fights can all be Augmented.  Augmenting a Power costs a variable number of Wound Points and makes the Power drastically more effective.  As an example, Arcing Bolt shoots one enemy with lightning but if you take 1d6 Wound damage you get to shoot three enemies instead.  Characters very often end up spending their Wound Points to do really nasty things in fights and take damage without the enemies having to actually chop through all of their Hit Points first.  Certainly characters *could* refuse to Augment their Powers and in fact may often do so when an encounter seems trivial or is going really well but in most cases fights end with people having spent their resources of their own accord.  The temptation to do something really cool in combat and take damage to do so seems irresistible to players... which of course was exactly what I was hoping for.

I should note that DnD Next doesn't have the same mechanics and thus would probably have a lot more issues with switching to a HP/Wound system.  There aren't effective ways for characters to defend themselves, the system is designed around depleting resources with trivial and boring fights, and characters cannot spend their own resources to do cool things.  I still think all of the current ideas DnD Next has for HP are terrible but it may well be that given their constraints they are simply going to randomly pick a terrible option and go with that because they don't have a way to build a good option instead.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Getting punched in the face

The construction of a new roleplaying game must of necessity answer the question "What happens when you get punched in the face?"  The answer to that question is of critical importance to game design both in terms of flavour and numbers.  If getting punched in the face leaves you on the floor gasping for air and takes days to recover from the players are going to be cautious and careful of getting into violent encounters - much like real life!  If getting punched in the face is trivial and getting fixed right up is easy then brawling can be a constant source of challenge and entertainment.

This week Mike Mearls tried to answer this question for DnD Next in his post on Hit Points.  He talks a good talk a points bringing up how HP has always been viewed as a combination of physical damage, exhaustion, and psychological trauma but kind of goes off the rails when he talks about actual execution.  As usual the team seems to have a lot of good ideas but is hamstrung by history and the expectation that they will produce a product that shares the mistakes and lemons of the past.  I feel their pain in that they aren't allowed to make the best thing and have to compromise but I think that they innovate too little and compromise too much.

In terms of actual problems I think the king is the idea that players who rest in dungeon / wilderness settings can naturally heal themselves up to half HP.  In order to restore their HP to full they will have to venture back to town to rest in a secure setting.  I can't imagine how this could match up with any normal lore - the first blows you take are savage physical damage and after that you can just heal up any subsequent trauma with a little rest?  What?  In video games towns are magical places that can restore you to max HP instantly but how exactly does that make sense in a tabletop RPG?  Why are characters who spend a lot of time travelling always half dead?  Why do healers say "No, I won't heal you now.  Wait until morning when you are only half dead and I will heal you then."

The system needs some kind of divide between HP that return rapidly and which represent exhaustion, effort, and light battering and HP that represent actual wounds and trauma.  Having this drastically reduces or eliminates the need for healer classes (which have always been a problem) and allows the system to reflect the way stories and movies deal with getting hurt.  The DnD Next team keeps dancing around this solution creating ever more silly and strange mechanics to address the problem that flat out don't work.  Just accept the inevitable folks; you need a split HP pool.  Or, you know, don't accept the inevitable and give Heroes By Trade a greater leg up on you than it already has.