Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wile E Coyote

Cinematic fights tend to take place in interesting locales.  Movies love to use cliffs for this purpose because they really want the villain to die in the end but having the hero stand over the villain and deliver a final fatal blow to a fallen opponent doesn't fit well with many folks.  They want a hero who is an expert in violence and who smashes faces with ease but who won't actually finish the job and a cliff is the standard answer - the villain can, at the last second, do something aggressive and stupid that causes them to fall to their death sparing the hero the necessity of murder.  For extra bonus points the cliff can be replaced with a boiling pit of lava or a pit full of snakes / crocodiles / scorpions or some other lethal danger.

Obviously fantasy roleplaying games often end up the same way.  The tops of castle walls, perilous mountain passes, the heart of an erupting volcano, or a rickety bridge over a pit of spikes are standard locations for fights with terrifying monsters and mad wizards.  The tricky thing about these sorts of fights is that there are so many ways for them to end really rapidly.  DnD Next, DnD 4th, and Heroes By Trade all make use of effects that push and pull people around the battlefield and this means that instant death is but a single push away.  It is troubling because normally pushing somebody a few squares away is a pretty minor thing until it becomes an instant death attack when they fall into lava and crispify.

DnD 4th has a rule that if you are going to be pushed off of something you can just fall down and avoid the push entirely.  This is a pretty good way to avoid the issue but it does seem unfortunate that pushes can be sometimes even less useful when next to a cliff than they normally would be!  It also is completely bizarre that you can't avoid a push normally by falling down but if a cliff is nearby suddenly that option becomes available.  DnD Next seems to not have any rules of this sort and any fights next to deadly dangers are often going to result in instant kills on round one using a trivial ability.  HBT is in that same boat currently and that concerns me - I had a situation in one playtest where I had to remove an enemy's Power that would have knocked the players off of a cliff and made the fight they were in pretty near unwinnable.

I don't like the idea that cliffs suddenly change the rules of the game.  Ideally the rules play the same way regardless of the terrain but pushing people around isn't quite so deadly.  Knocking people down instead of pushing them is a reasonable solution but then you have to resolve what happens on the second push - is that one now lethal, does it do nothing, or something else?  I am kind of leaning towards letting people avoid pushes by taking a ton of damage, between two to five points of damage per square of the push.  This would make pushes absolutely fantastic in cliff type situations but wouldn't end up killing tough people right away.  It does make some thematic sense too - instead of trying to mitigate the blow you just stand there and take it on the chin.  This would still mean that mooks who get pushed off of cliffs just die anyway (which is fine!) but serious opponents can survive the situation while still very much fearing those push attacks.  Seems like a solid compromise to me.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Play Cookie Clicker

I got linked to Cookie Clicker from Facebook.  It was roundly derided in the post but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  Weeks later I have clicked an awfully large number of cookies and again I see a Facebook post linking to an article talking about CC and telling people how terrible it is.  (Here is a post about CC strategy if you want that.)  So here is the thing about CC:  It isn't a game where you can talk about success vs. failure in the normal way.  Anybody can, through brute force and no strategy, get every achievement and accomplish every goal.  It is just a matter of time.  The key isn't getting to the end, it is getting to the end as fast as possible.

If all you want to do is click mindlessly and build things randomly you will always and forever move onward and upward but what is the optimal order in which to purchase all of those upgrades and buildings?  If you restart from scratch you get a permanent bonus based on how many cookies you have previously baked... when is this a good idea?  CC is the sort of game where maximizing every one of these decisions and building yourself a spreadsheet is the fun part.  Heck, there are even interesting decisions to be made keeping your real life in mind.  Your purchasing strategy will change based on your real life schedule and how much time you can spend focusing on the game and when.  Going to sleep for ten hours?  Best recalculate how many cookies to keep banked for that Frenzy/Lucky combo you hope to cash in on when you wake up.  Reaching the end is inevitable but just like in a NASCAR race it isn't very interesting to get to the end; rather you need to shave off every possible second from the time you start until the time you finish.

CC is at its core a game where you make your own rules about winning and losing and decide just how hard you want to play.  Plenty of people get angry about such games because they see it as a waste of time - after all, you never win.  But who cares?  We don't say that Mass Effect 3 is a better game if you finish it vs. only getting 75% of the way through, and in fact plenty of folks would tell you that you are far better off not finishing that last 5%.  It is true that people get addicted to CC and many of them employ no strategy whatsoever while they click randomly.  That makes the game, for them, not particularly educational but not really worse than most other games.  Of course if you actually play the game by figuring out all the mechanics, building spreadsheets, and doing lots of math to decide the optimal strategy at any given point it is a pretty great learning game.  This is why I recommend building spreadsheets for everything!

So CC is a simple and addictive game.  It has potential if you play it right.  So play CC, just play it right!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

to pay the bills

The DnD Next design has done an abrupt about face on skills.  Previously they had decided to get rid of them entirely and have a hodgepodge of strange and bad ways to be good at things.  What it all amounted to was in pretty much every situation people would roll 1d20, add their bonus (from 0-5) and then see if they succeeded.  If you wanted to play a character that was stealthy as a ninja you were screwed - any random dork guard would catch you sneaking by a good chunk of the time.  This was true of pretty much every sort of ability except combat leaving characters in the silly position where they were supposed to be epic heroes but none of them were good at anything except killing.  Being good at killing is a very useful trait for an epic hero but it shouldn't be the only trait.

The new theory is that skills will be back in the game and will be recognizable as a hybrid of 3rd and 4th edition skills.  There is a list of them which is mostly comprehensive and they will provide bonuses to checks ranging from +2 at level 1 to +6 at level 20.  Overall this is reasonable since basic attributes provide a bonus of +0 to +5 but the problem is (as I have lamented before) that the die is too big.  The ultimate skill master in Next will have a bonus of +16.  This means that if you take a task that the greatest and most heroic athlete in the world can complete every time (DC 17, in this case) then Joe Ordinary with his bonus of +0 will succeed 20% of the time.  If you want to set a task that Joe Ordinary can't manage such as tightrope walking (DC 21, in this case) then you have to accept that the greatest acrobat in the world will fall off the wire quite regularly.  There just isn't any room in such a system for people to perform amazing feats.  If the strongest person in the world only gets a +5 bonus to lift heavy objects they should not be rolling a 20 sided die to see how heavy an object they can lift.

I actually had a model fairly similar to Next in Heroes By Trade with the notable exception that the die was a d8 instead of a d20 so being really good at something actually mattered.  A normal person had a maximum result of 12 while an Olympian would have a minimum result of 17 leaving lots of room for tasks that were easy for pros, impossible for normal folk, and dicey for the people in between.  This was a very important goal for me because I wanted people who invested heavily in a skill to be really excellent at it and not be regularly shown up by the person who had no bonus but rolled a natural 20.  I hate the system where everybody rolls and if somebody rolls well you succeed.  Blech.

One other thing I recently decided was that the Perception skill and its ilk needed to die a fiery death.  That sort of skill was always the best skill from DnD 3.5 to Next because every time something happened the group would end up rolling Perception to figure out if they noticed what was going on.  It became a crutch to avoid descriptions and circumvent specific talents.  If you want characters to roll to see if they notice something then roll Culture if it is a religious symbol or Wilderness if it is a broken branch or Empathy if it is someone acting strangely.  

I needed to have a skill to oppose Stealth and Camouflage though so I added in Alertness to fill that role and it is used just to detect ambushes and people being sneaky.  This allowed me to make HBT free of Search, Awareness, and Perception and I feel so much better for having done so.  I really like people using all kinds of different skills depending on the circumstances and getting rid of the omnipresent 'roll Perception to figure out if you notice anything' always trod heavily on that goal.

The trouble with making updates like this is that I have two active games of Heroes By Trade running.  I don't want to be constantly changing the rules but I do want room for my new ideas to be tested and used.  A tricky situation, that.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Blizzard pranked me

I talked about the Diablo 3 expansion last week and then Blizzard went and dropped the bomb - the Auction Hall is going away on March 18th, 2014.  The D3 expansion will not have an AH at all and Blizzard will lose the revenue associated with it.  My reaction?


While it was fun to get a lot of stuff in D2 back in the day by parking in trade channels and fleecing rubes I can't say I enjoyed it more than playing the game.  I really liked the fact that trading was more efficient at generating stuff than killing demons but I know for sure if I could have killed demons and got stuff at the same rate that is what I would have been doing!

The thing about the AH is that it allows people to offload their great stuff to others and fill in holes in their finds.  This is a useful function I think but that function doesn't need to be filled by an Auction House.  Blizzard announced a bunch of things that will help with that function like rerolling stats on gear and already have crafting built into the game - combine those two and it is clear we will be able to make our own drops with sufficient time and energy invested.

Of course there remains the problem that third party sites will happily sell gear for real money and those people who really want to get decked out will go to them.  Also those people will end up losing their accounts to various scams, of course.  However, that was true in D2 as well and that game was still hella fun so I assume things will be good in D3 in the same fashion.

I have been thinking about what I have to do to be ready for the xpac and I think the answer is that I need to have +XP items, particularly the ring that is crafted by doing the Infernal Machine questline.  I haven't really tackled it yet and although my gear is sufficient for doing it I could definitely use some upgrades to make it faster and smoother.  When the xpac does finally land I want to be able to power up to the new gear farming point as quick as possible to start testing out the new version of Diablo 3.  Things sound very promising indeed.

I guess this is the end of my posts where I defend the AH.  While it did lubricate trading I don't think D3 is best as a trading game but rather as an endless slog through hordes of evil.  Time to collect materials and smash things together in a fruitless effort to get better things.  I can't wait.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Expand that loot

A new expansion is on the horizon for Diablo 3.  I haven't played the game for a year but I logged on Wednesday night for 90 minutes or so to see how things have changed.  The most obvious change is that gear costs absolutely nothing to buy.  I was able to upgrade my damage by 10% by spending only 100,000 gold which is about 3% of my total. (My total net worth of 3,000,000 is pretty trivial even then.) If I wanted to I am sure I could blow all of my money and double my damage at least but because the level cap is going up to 70 and all current gear looks likely to be invalidated I certainly shouldn't do that.  Blizzard has made it clear that they are doing a WOW style gear reset so optimizing current equipment is wasteful at best.

Of course they are adding a bunch of new abilities, buffing weak abilities to make them useful, including new content, adding in a new craftswoman, and bringing in tons of new gear.  All of that is going to be hugely subject to change though so what I am focusing on is the changeover to Loot 2.0.  The major focus seems to be on minimizing the effect of the Auction Hall on gearing.  Many items will be bound to the account that found them and gear will actually choose stats that favour the class that it dropped for.  Not only that but people can reroll gear to some extent to tailor it.  Clearly they intend for people who never really wanted to master the AH to be able to gear up more effectively.  Equally clearly an AH mogul will be able to gear out better than someone who is broke but hopefully the delta will be significantly smaller.

This is an excellent set of changes.  I am never going to play Diablo 3 enough to be one of the folks with top end gear but I do like the idea that playing the game is actually a reasonable and competitive way to gear up instead of being a complete joke compared to just using the AH.  There is another small tweak that should help this situation too - the first kill of a boss will drop a guaranteed legendary item at all times.  New players will then be able to gather up a bunch of legendaries to get started which will give them a leg up on the hardcore veterans.  They also claim that legendaries will all be unique and special to the extent that they define builds - I am skeptical but even if they try to make this happen it seems like a good thing.

I don't know that I will ever get past the wretched plot (The boss appears out of nowhere to mock you and then vanishes again.  Could you break immersion more please?) of the original game but basically everything I have seen looks excellent.  They even have a Random mode where you fight in a randomly generated dungeon against random monsters doing loot runs which seems awesome to me.  If they manage to just implement everything they have talked about in a vaguely reasonable manner I think I will be convinced to buy and play this expansion an awful lot.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Epic battles

Having a truly epic battle is a cornerstone of fantasy gaming.  Obviously a big part of that raw numerical difficulty because if the boss just falls over it doesn't feel exciting and if you all die then boo sad times! The epic battle should be hard and taxing but winnable. That isn't all an epic battle requires of course - mood and buildup are a key component to making it feel powerful and awe inspiring. I actually really like the way this recent DnD Next article talked about dragons - rather than just listing stats they talked about the inherent magic of the beasts, how they corrupted the world around them, and what it would be like to approach the lair of a powerful dragon.  The descriptions gave fantastic background for a GM to build what is almost a dungeon crawl through the wilderness to actually get to the beast in the first place which is especially effective because each dragon is very different.  Thumbs up there for presenting dragons effectively as terrifying monstrosities instead of 'bag o loot and XP'.

I think it is very much worth considering how many special mechanics you want to devote to boss fights. Back in earlier editions of DnD there wasn't anything like that; in theory at least the monsters were built off of some kind of simulator instead of kludging it to make the numbers work. This is, of course, why the numbers in 3rd edition and earlier were completely borked and the numbers in 4th edition were much more reasonable. 4th edition also had all kinds of very gamey mechanics to make building bosses work better like Action Points, Hit Point multipliers from nowhere, Saving Throw bonuses for no reason, etc.  This is why 4th edition fights were so much easier to design and run and why they never ended on round 1 with a lucky crit.

It is unclear to me how much of that I should incorporate into Heroes By Trade.  I definitely don't like the DnD 3rd edition style where monsters are built by directly using their stats and Hit Dice and such because it always ended up with monsters with defenses that were way too high, Hit Points that were way too low, or other glaring problems.  I really prefer to simply be able to say "Well, an Iron Golem has a bajillion HP for no reason at all.  They are tough, who cares?"

The major difficulty I faced was figuring out what to do with debuffs.  Randomly Stunning an opponent and negating their turn is not unreasonable when the fight is a 4v4 brawl - clearly the Stun is useful but it can be sensibly costed.  If high level characters can toss out lots of Stuns though a boss that isn't immune to them is going to be utterly helpless.  What I am wondering about is whether or not I should create some rules subset for powerful creatures to be resistant to the most debilitating of debuffs.  It is possible both for the monster entry or the GM to simply make particular critters immune to particular things and this does feel a lot less kludgy than slapping a 'boss template' on something.  Encounters that have been so obviously altered tend to not have the epic battle feel that people want.  They want it hard but they want it to play by the same rules they are used to.  With at least a couple of very nasty surprises thrown in, naturally.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Gigantic lists

DnD Next had an interesting blog post this week.  It talked about the structure of classes and the way in which complexity will be organized.  The main gist of it was that the game will use subclasses to introduce complexity.  Fighters will have the Warrior subclass which is tactically simple and the Gladiator subclass that is tactically complex.  For thug classes this seems reasonable since each main class can give a few abilities and leave a lot of the specific extras to subclasses.  In theory this should be plenty to generate classes like Assassin, Duelist, Archer, etc.

For caster classes though everything is much more muddled, particularly since they apparently want to put classes such as Psions under the Mage umbrella.  This seems problematic since caster classes seem to all have completely different mechanics and spell lists.  Psions are thematically entirely different from Wizards and if they are to preserve the flavour from previous editions they can't reasonably be bolted onto the Mage baseline and will require a completely different set of powers and a unique spell list.  Looking at the Mage I can see very little that can be ported over at all to a class that will use a Power Point pool instead of the utterly bizarre and terrible spell slot system that is currently in place.

In all previous editions spell lists ended up being a huge issue.  Not only did every class get its own spell list but classes that were different thematically like Psions ended up having all of their own versions of spells with only minor variations on the originals published for Mage types.  This lead to incredible bloat in terms of how many books were required and also made spell choice a serious issue.  New players would be at a tremendous disadvantage to people who owned all the splatbooks that contained huge numbers of different spells, many of which were decidedly more powerful than the ones in the main book.  Wizards seems bent on returning to enormous spell lists customized by class and to including old lore and themes at the expense of brevity and simplicity so Next seems headed towards the quagmire that was 3rd edition.

Honestly I don't see a good way around this problem for Wizards given their desire to retain the artifacts of the past.  They obviously are dead set on enormous spell lists, clearly they will publish more spells in new books, and they want completely different mechanics (and thus spells) for many classes.  There certainly are people who enjoy perusing thousands of spells to try to find the most appropriate *cough* overpowered *cough* spells but they have stated that they want to get the game back to its roots and acquire new blood.  Those goals will not be served by encouraging people to spend endless hours perusing splatbooks.  New blood is going to be attracted by making the game simple to learn and making character decisions straightforward not by encouraging system mastery.