Thursday, August 29, 2013

I need a railroad

I am in the beginning stages of two campaigns at the moment, both being run in Heroes By Trade.  Normally I love to rant about how I am better than everybody else and my games are superior but this time I really need to steal a play from somebody else's book.  In The Hat started up our group by having us sketch out characters in very broad terms and then collaboratively building stories that would get us together.  We talked about how we might get ourselves to a particular place where the action was slated to begin and figured out ways in which everyone could meet and have some reasonable expectation of cooperation.  I had plenty of ideas and a bit of a history already built but everyone else was pretty much starting from scratch.  This worked quite well; we did have to kludge a little to get everybody together but we are starting the real action soon in a situation where we have a bit of time together under our belts and at least some reason to be grouped up.

Things aren't going as well as that in the campaign I started.  I gave people a starting location (a whaling village) and a bunch of random details about the place that were intended to let them build a character with some attachment to it.  I ended up with one character who was invested in the village and two who were outsiders only recently arrived.  This was particularly tricky because when the action started none of the characters knew each other and we had to force it a bit to get them to work together.  It wasn't bad exactly but it wasn't as smooth as I would like.  I also kind of forgot that new players are often confused about what to do and initially I gave them a lot of options when I should have put them in a situation with clear objectives, perhaps as part of a military unit or somesuch... just like In The Hat has arranged in his game.

No matter how experienced I am as a GM and no matter how good the system is I should never forget that spending time building a good start to a game is key.  It is all well and good to let the players have total freedom designing their characters but care must be paid to ensure a cohesive start so they can build a base of trust and familiarity before their crazy choices and backgrounds cause all kinds of friction.  I want that friction and the interesting events it creates but I really need to get them sorted out and pointed in the right direction first.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The ultimate test

There are all kinds of useful things you can learn in a playtest and I have been doing a lot of those for Heroes By Trade.  Players will try things that seem problematic in terms of rules (Hobo and his whip / trip attack of opportunity) which need to be quashed.  Other players will have all kinds of interesting opinions on what things are overpowered or underpowered or just badly written.  One thing I should never underestimate though is what happens when I try to break the system myself.

I am starting a new campaign shortly with In The Hat presiding as GM.  This will be a fantastic opportunity for me to see the game in a whole new light from the other side of the GM screen.  Tonight I started out making a character and quickly figured out some changes that needed to be made.  I began by staring at the Voidbringer and Channeler classes and trying to map out my choices for Powers based on a few different builds.  The thing that kept coming up was that no matter my build, no matter my other picks, I always took Spiralling Shards for the Channeler and Slip Through The Shadows as a Voidbringer.  This is not a good sign.  If my theory about Power costing is right I should be all over the map so when I continually come back to one Power and conclude that every sensible player takes it something is wrong, wrong, wrong.

There were two fundamental problems.  First off both of those Powers were the only AOE choices for the classes in question.  This is a big problem because effective AOE is a really important niche to have covered.  At some point we are going to get swarmed by legions of zombies and I need to be able to mow them down like grass!  Having a single choice for such a critical combat function is not appropriate so I modified some things to make sure there were two choices.  The second fundamental problem was that even when I added another option I kept coming back to Slip Through The Shadows and concluding that I had to take it - it is just that good.  It is an odd ability that works in really interesting ways and clearly my optimization brain was seeing something that my designer brain was missing.  I ended up bumping its rank up to 11 from 10 and calling it a day.

When I build Powers I often develop favourites.  Sometimes those favourites are just neat and aren't actually very good but sometimes I end up loving things simply because they are effective.  It is only when it comes down to designing a character that I really find these things out because my characters always seem to end up taking the good stuff.  Funny, that.  The fact that I tend to work hard at building a strong character is sometimes irritating I am sure but it does come in handy now and again.

Spiralling shards

Shards of power swirl all around, glinting with murderous potential, slicing deeply into every enemy you can see.

Rank 10
Target:  All enemies within 2 squares of you.

Slip Through the Shadows

You blink in and out, rushing from one shadow to another in a terrifying display, striking every enemy to come within arm’s reach.

Rank 11
Effect:  Take a Move.
Target:  All enemies adjacent to you at any point during your Move.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What we all want

The DnD Next public playtest is pretty much over it seems.  Wizards is going to put out one final playtest package in September and then work in house on polish.  Mike Mearls blogged about what the design team learned from the playtest and some of the broad goals they settled on after getting all kinds of feedback.  I am going to talk about those ideas and goals.

-You like simplicity.  You want to jump into the game quickly, create characters, monsters, NPCs, and adventures with a minimum of fuss, and get down to the business of playing D&D.

This is true to an extent.  People want to be able to build characters and design encounters quickly.  Unfortunately Next has really missed the mark on this one.  In 4th edition there were hundreds of feats to choose from and some were absurdly powerful while others were almost entirely useless.  To be good you needed to spend hours poring over the lists trying to make sure you didn't miss "do 20% more damage".  That was terrible.  However, in Next as it is they simply stripped out all the choices.  The middle ground where they provide a small number of meaningful choices is actually where they need to be.  If you provide players with six sets of simple choices (race, class, class subspec, skills, background, stat layout) there will be substantial variety but nobody will feel overwhelmed.  Each individual choice is bounded to a small number of easily understood options.

-You like that every class has the potential to contribute in most situations, but you're OK with some classes being better at certain things if that fits the class's image.

I think this is generally true.  People do want fighters to be able to do useful things out of combat but they expect rogues to be better at sneaking and stealing and such.  Unfortunately with skills being removed from Next those classes that are grounded in physics seriously get shafted and those with magic will dominate non combat situations.  There simply isn't any way to build a fighter that can do anything significant outside of combat (mechanically, of course, since roleplaying does not rely on class) but spellcasters can't avoid having all kinds of awesome tricks.

People do want classes to have niches but combat shouldn't be one of those niches.  Certain classes being garbage when they are in a fight always leads to problems even if they can shine outside of it.  Next needs to find a way for martials to have exciting contributions outside of combat and be reasonably balanced in combat.  We really don't need another edition where fighters are tough and then go get everyone else sandwiches in between brawls.  Figure out some way to let thugs do cool stuff outside of combat whether it be class based powers, skills, rituals, or something new.

The remaining points are mostly trivial.  Mearls points out that people don't want to spend their time fiddling with math (very true), that players aren't looking for a remake of an old edition but rather something that works well (not exactly true, but certainly should be the goal), and people want flexibility in rules.  Flexibility sounds like a strange way to spell confusing and vague but honestly I believe him when he says people want this.  4th edition was very precise and people didn't like it as much as the random and inexact 3rd edition.  I think it is possible to make rules both precise and fun but it is certainly a challenge.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

DnD Next - ready for launch?

In the latest DnD Next blog post Mike Mearls told us that the core of the game including classes and races is pretty much done.  This concerns me greatly as there are still really huge issues with a lot of the gameplay.  I did a bunch of math on fighter damage output and it looks to me like people will still be killing monsters on round 1.  I built a simple bow Fighter who maxed Dexterity and took the bow feat and at level 12 that character is tearing off around 41 damage per round into a green dragon which has 127 HP.  I didn't do anything interesting, use any buffs, or use any limited abilities.  The green dragon is rated as a normal encounter and a party of three of these characters kills it on round 1 from 600 feet away much of the time - the rest of the time the dragon is very nearly dead, flies towards the characters, and dies on round 2 no matter what.  Barbarians do substantially more damage than this but aren't as hilarious because they actually have to get next to the dragon to explode it.  As usual Rogues are terrible - if they have a flanking partner they can deal 1/2 of Fighter damage and if they do not it is more like 1/4.

Fundamentally the math of melee combat is way out of whack.  I suppose they may intend that characters with bows be able to mow down any big monster from a very safe range but I kind of doubt that - in theory seeing a dragon coming over the hill should be terrifying rather than "Cool, a giant bag of experience just showed up!"  Of course big monsters aren't a threat but tons of dorks still are - if instead of a single green dragon the bow fighters are facing gnolls the fighters die on round 2 having killed a handful of the enemies.  I just can't figure out why they feel comfortable calling this 'almost done' when I can spend half an hour with a calculator and come up with absurdities like this.  Rogues get a few noncombat benefits over fighters but if they end up doing 1/4 to 1/2 of the damage they are *trash*.  Please let's not have another edition like that?  We have been down that road, we know where it goes.

If this were an early packet and the math of the game was still known to be very much in flux I wouldn't be too worried but if this is pretty much done we are going to end up with another edition where fights end on round 1 or 2 and rogues are useless.  At least this time casters are never especially dominant in combat - they still get all the toys outside of a fight but it does appear to me that they are really good at AOEing dorks and are otherwise not much good.  A caster throwing around max level single target spells does less damage than a fighter who just attacks with a bow - this, at least, seems fine since they do get to fly, plane shift, go invisible, and do all the other fun stuff.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Levelling up sucks

Tobold sent me an invite to the Card Hunter beta and I have been playing a bit.  The game is a crazy mishmash of DnD, Magic: The Gathering, and old school computer RPGs.  Thematically I found that initially it had some real appeal and amusing jokes but they rapidly got stale.  While I appreciate mockery of Gary Gygax as much as anyone and laughing at ancient grognards and their dungeon crawls is amusing it really only lasts so long.  To play this game long enough to want to spend money on it would definitely end up with me wanting to punch the screen for some reason or other.  I want to like it, I really do, because people who could make a mashup of all these things I love must be awesome but yet I don't actually want to play.

The biggest problem I have encountered so far is that levelling often makes me feel bad.  In many cases I got worse for gaining a level and that is a terrible design flaw.  When you level up you often get a new slot for equipment which in most games would be a huge benefit.  More stats!  In Card Hunter though a new piece of equipment just adds more cards to your deck so it doesn't necessarily benefit you at all, especially if those new cards are crap.  It makes your deck bigger and thus more inconsistent and the baseline cards that get added are generally terrible so much of the time gaining levels is a terrible thing.  Not only that but when you buy or find a new shiny piece of gear having a bigger deck means that your gains are diluted.

Getting equipment can improve your situation substantially but it seems to take a really long time to do so.  I found that the difficulty of adventures ramped up very quickly and because levelling wasn't really making me much better I needed to just farm up gear.  Unfortunately gear seems to scale very weakly so the farming process looks pretty daunting.  I need to find rare gear to get significant upgrades and that appears very seldom - unless you pay, of course.  I don't want to pay into a game that is in beta and I don't want to guess to figure out how much money I would need to invest.

In the end I think that Card Hunter, were it implemented as a game I could buy for twenty dollars, is a game I would buy.  However the fact that it is designed around being monetized frustrates me.  I don't know how much money I have to sink in to be good and make the grind less brutal and I don't care to throw money at it to find out.

Friday, August 9, 2013

More XP

I was puzzling over the DnD Next XP charts today trying to figure out their system for assigned XP values to monsters.  This is really important for a bunch of reasons, primarily because those XP values are presumably useful to generate fair encounters.  In theory you can use the DM guide for encounter building and simply pick out monsters with an XP total equal to the 'normal encounter' amount for their group and go.  It turns out this is not the case at all.  

For example, a gnoll is 40 XP.  This works out semi reasonably at low levels where encounters with gnolls are tough but winnable.  At level 9 a character has a budget of 700 XP though which works out to 18 gnolls.  Those gnolls shoot for 6 damage hitting about 20% of the time so those 18 gnolls deal 21.6 damage per round which kills the character in 3 rounds.  There is no way a character can deal with 18 targets spread out like that - this is not a normal encounter but rather a death sentence.  It is even worse if you have a four person party because the gnolls can easily focus fire and kill a character every round.  Hell, you can't even run away from them because longbows have utterly absurd ranges.  Encounters built with high level monsters work reasonably though because high level monsters were budgeted with high level characters in mind.

It seems clear that what they did was design a nice looking XP chart and then built monster XP values to match the chart.  That is not an appropriate way to approach this.  What they should have done is to assign a level 1 monster an XP value and then figure out how many of those monsters it takes to challenge a character of a given level.  If a level 9 character can beat 7 gnolls then they should have an XP budget of 280 and high level monsters should be costed appropriately.  This is a classic example of building the game to match a chart pulled out of somebody's ass instead of building the chart to make the game work!  Don't get too attached to your fancy charts and algorithms when they interfere with the game working, I say.

Heroes By Trade was built with that idea in mind.  I did a bunch of simulations to figure out how hard monsters should be to offer a tough challenge and then kept iterating on my formula until the Encounter Strength of the monsters actually reflected their chances of beating appropriate parties.  It took a bit of doing but I think the system is fairly robust right now.  I do have the advantage that HBT is not designed with the ideal that characters can wade through thousands of chumps at high level - the scaling is much less which makes the formulas much easier.  

Fundamentally the problem is that Next focuses all defensive scaling on HP.  Offensive scaling is very substantial but when you have six times as many HP at level nine as level one but enemies still hit just as often and just as hard you simply can't take on eighteen of them!  If you want to build a system where characters can massacre infinite legions of losers you have to implement serious defensive scaling and they have not done that.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Critical Hit

Much as I rag on DnD Next for various issues and flaws I do like one of the things they are doing in the latest packet - fixing critical hits.  In DnD 3rd Ed. critical hits got absolutely absurd with players often doing treble and sometimes quadruple damage.  Of course monsters did the same thing when they used weapons so the game ended up chugging along normally until somebody accidentally died.  This is best illustrated by the random orc that swung a greataxe for 1d12+3 damage.  This orc is meant to be a reasonable challenge for characters with 6 HP even though it is clear a single regular hit could quite easily kill anyone.  When the hit instead is for 3d12+9 it gets silly - that is easily enough to one shot level five characters for whom the orcs are supposed to be a trivial challenge.  The DnD Next version of critical hits has attacks doing one more die of damage on a critical.

Example:  Regular hit - 2d6+4  Critical hit - 3d6+4

This is a sensible way to do criticals.  Monsters that hit like trucks don't just blow characters out when they land one of their rare critical hits and you don't end up rolling max damage and doubling it to end encounters or campaigns in a single swing.  Heroes By Trade did something similar in that a critical hit ignores the Armour of the target so that the attack does full damage and is not reduced by Armour as normal.  In both cases the added damage is noticeable but never runs to extremes; this is important if you as the GM want to avoid fudging dice or cursing when the villain dies ahead of their time.

Both systems have specific weapons that are good at delivering criticals.  The approach is wildly different though.  Next has weapons that add more damage on a critical but never change what is needed to achieve one - a natural 20.  HBT has weapons that increase the critical range from 20 to 18-20 or 16-20 but the effect of the critical remains the same.  I kind of like the Next version better in some ways because it keeps weapons feeling very different and unique because their added damage dice are all over the place.  I specifically built the HBT weapons the way I did though because I wanted random dorks who are trying to take down The Colossus Of Doom to have a way to attempt that.  Even if said Colossus has an absurd Armour value they can use specific weapons to try to score critical hits to defeat it.

It is not a decision where I feel there is a clear right and wrong - having monsters that are effectively unbeatable is an interesting choice.  HBT was built to make that not really work because an enormous army of dorks with bows really can beat pretty much anything.  I don't mind that overly because I want armies to matter and I value characters having to respect the power of an army too.  Critical hit design is part of my way of doing that - even if you are really awesome the dorks will eventually roll 20s, ignore your Armour, and blow you up.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Do double damage

DnD next has a new playtest packet out.  I haven't had time to look at all of it in detail of course but I have seen some broad outlines and I don't much like what I see.  I feel like the spellcasting system in general is totally bizarre and full of terrible artifacts from old editions and that has been true throughout the playtesting process.  They are trying to walk the line between having the same sorts of spell charts that appeared in the 2nd and 3rd edition guides in the Wizard section and doing something totally new and it is becoming a crazy, terrible chimera.  That isn't new though, so I will mostly ignore it today.  What is new is the way in which martial classes beat things up.

Do you like to do double damage?  I sure do!  Thankfully most classes get an ability called Two Attacks that makes them do twice as much damage at level 8 so everybody gets to do double damage.  (Fighters get it at level 5, and then Three Attacks at level 11.)  How the game designers expect the game to be balanced when people double their damage at level 8 is quite beyond me but that is apparently the current plan.  I don't like the idea of people getting lots of smaller attacks as that creates tons of dicerolling and adding and brings nothing in terms of extra excitement.  It does even things out some, which is good for the players, but bogging down combat with lots of rolls just isn't better.  High level combats are going to take a lot longer than low level combats not because they are more interesting but because there is more trivial math to do.  This is a game design failure.  If you want to increase damage then increase damage by adding fixed numbers to the roll or doubling the weapon die or something, don't make us roll more attacks.

I am also very concerned that customization for martial classes at this point seems to be almost entirely limited to a single choice made at third level.  You choose a single path and then that path determines all of your choices for the rest of your twenty levels.  I remember a class in 4th edition that did this:  The warlock.  Warlocks SUCKED because of this mechanic.  You pretty much had no choices because every time you levelled up your initial selection determined what you would do; there were really only three warlocks you could make.  That, coupled with the fact that everybody will max out their primary attack stat at 20 and then start stacking Constitution means that there are going to be very few meaningful choices at all.  I don't think that system mastery should be paramount in terms of building a decent character but it isn't that hard to provide some choices where each choice is reasonable.