Thursday, November 28, 2013

Put all the fire in one place please

My post on Sunday generated an interesting question from AfN about encounter design.  Part of my assumption when writing the post was that focus fire is the default strategy when in a fight and I feel like that should be unpacked to some extent.  In a real fight focusing fire isn't really a thing because people get injured and that reduces their fighting capability substantially.  When I get punched, shot, or Fireballed in such a way that I don't die I am still going to run slower, have worse aim, and panic.  If a realistic implementation of injury were put into place in a fighting game focus fire would definitely take a back set to simply injuring as many enemies as possible.

However, a fighting model that takes injury into account is full of pitfalls.  World of Darkness uses this idea and in that system it is a major issue because fights become routs almost immediately.  Anyone who strikes a lucky early blow cripples their opponent's ability to fight back and as such encounters are often all but over by the time everyone has had even a single turn.  This doesn't make a bad experience necessarily but it makes for a crappy tactical game.  It also has the problem that when a character gets injured they don't get to respond effectively and many people get frustrated by this.  Getting hurt is bad enough, I think, without tossing on top the issue that you now suck at everything.  Of course DnD, Heroes By Trade, and many other fantasy games do not have this feature and everyone fights at full capacity until they keel over unconscious or dead.  Unrealistic for sure, but I think it is more fun in a heroic fighting game than an injury based model.

AfN suggested a different sort of model to eliminate the need for focus fire too, one where if you were not attacked in the previous round you are much more powerful during your turn.  Perhaps you get an extra action, become more accurate, do more damage, whatever.  This is certainly a good way to reward combatants for spreading their attacks out and trying to engage all enemy targets but it also suffers from a few issues.  First off it requires keeping track of another state for every combatant and secondly it (much like the injury model above) penalizes people for being attacked.  Anyone who is a melee combatant or who tries to tank for other characters is never going to get to take advantage of the bonus for not being attacked and I don't particularly like a system where the people taking the greatest risks are penalized further.

Another similar option I considered was a model where combatants could choose to avoid an attack by giving up their next action.  Obviously this could not be a guaranteed thing or no one would ever get hurt but it could mitigate the blow in some fashion.  I think this sort of system would lead to fights that lasted forever though as people tossed away their turns to defend themselves.  The solution I am still most comfortable with is one where combatants have decent options to defend themselves that they choose to use.  If someone is being focus fired they can use the basic Defend action or they can use a Power that makes them hard to hurt in some fashion.  Focus firing is still a good default plan but intelligent opponents will use their abilities to reduce its effectiveness.  For HBT this seems like the best option to me.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Constraints in DnD design

This week the DnD Next blog post was about elegance in game design.  It is a good piece and the lessons it talks about would definitely suggest that the folks in charge there have a sense of their goals and a process that works.  If they were trying to come up with a game from scratch the things the post talks about would be a great start at making a wonderful game.  The trouble they have is that they are weighed down by the burden of success.

Looking at the casting system of DnD Next in particular I see a hilarious disaster.  It makes no sense to me even if I look at it from a "I am a wizard in a world full of dragons and zombies and magic swords" perspective.  It looks like the ideas of elegance that were discussed in the article above were just absent in its construction.  That isn't the case though, rather the problem is that they have to build the best system they can on a foundation that is not elegant at all.  When you know that a fifth level wizard has to be able to cast a third level spell called Fireball that allows enemies to make a saving throw to take half damage it very much constrains your design options.

Obviously they could have started the process with something really revolutionary like 4th edition was but they clearly have the directive from on high that the game must be like the old DnD.  It must be familiar and incorporate enough of the legacy mechanics of the old games that people get a real sense of nostalgia when playing it.  This is a serious issue and is clearly responsible for many of the things that bug me about the current design of Next.  Of course the flip side of the coin is that they have millions of people just waiting to buy the product the instant it hits the shelves even if it isn't elegant.  This is a game designer's nightmare but a marketer's dream.  Heck, I might even buy it despite all of the trash I talk about it since it is a good bet I will end up playing it at some point.

The question I have been asking myself is what I would do if I were offered the opportunity to work on a project like that.  If I had artists and production people and testers all lined up and I knew my work would be widely used it would be fantastic but would I be willing to publish a product that was so kludged together to satisfy the demands of the folks wielding the checkbook?  Realistically I would I think.  The opportunity to see so many people use and enjoy the fruits of my labour would outweigh the distaste of the artistic limitations placed upon me.  Now I just need to find somebody to make me that offer.  Any takers?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Why worry about challenge anyway?

MattV commented in response to my post last week about setting numbers to describe monster difficulty.  His experience in the old days didn't have much to do with trying to arrange fights that were at a particular challenge level and were more about 'let's go into this premade dungeon and see if we live' kind of play.  I wanted to talk a bit about that and why I see the necessity for building a robust system to describe monster difficulty.

Back in the old days of DnD monsters didn't have to challenge the party because they challenged individuals.  Even if you had a ten person party and you were facing down two orcs those orcs could roll well on initiative and swing their axes for enough damage to kill anyone in the group.  Even though the party was guaranteed to win the element of danger was always there for any individual member so the GM never needed to calibrate the encounters tightly to keep people on their toes.  Even if the monster didn't kill you the group only had a handful of healing spells for the day so a single hit was a significant drain on resources.  The trouble with that model is that characters become disposable and investing in one is almost silly.  It is a game of attrition rather than an epic tale.

These days people expect that their characters will live.  Certainly this is true in 4th edition DnD, DnD Next, and Heroes By Trade.  There are a variety of mechanics in all three games that mean that it is *possible* for a character to die in a fight that the party wins but the default expectation is that everybody walks out alive or everybody dies.  In that sort of scenario if the encounter the party faces is utterly trivial then nobody is afraid or worried.  That same ten party person facing down two orcs lacks any sense of danger or concern.  This is good from a character longevity standpoint but has the issue that in order to keep the players cautious and worried the fights have to actually threaten the whole group.  Of course if you want to threaten the group but not kill the group you need some sort of system to figure out how to do that.

This is where Challenge Ratings, Encounter Strength, and XP value come in.  All three are systems to tell GMs how tough a monster is.  All three have issues.  Challenge Ratings from 3rd ed. suck because optimization makes such a difference in that system.  An encounter that is barely winnable by a normal party is completely trivial for an optimized party and this makes the system not very useful.  XP values from DnD Next have the problem that the scaling is completely off - they work for fights with a handful of enemies on each side but if you fill a tenth level fight with the appropriate number of orcs the players get massacred.  Encounter Strength is the most robust system of the three but it isn't perfect either.  At the extreme ends of the fight spectrum where the players face a single monster or a swarm of dorks the system isn't as good as I would like, though it is still the best of the three.

There is another motivation for creating tough but winnable encounters that I have not touched on so far though and that is that they allow for a challenging tactical game.  Many players like combats to be a challenge and they want the combats to be tough enough that they have to play well to win.  Without a good system it is extremely difficult to provide fights that force the players to think hard and play well but don't accidentally kill them off on a regular basis.  Personally I love the feeling of being in a tough fight and having to optimize my actions so I really appreciate when the GM gets it just right and we need to play superbly to pull out a victory.

Of course not everyone really wants the party to be challenged nor do they want a tactical game.  For those folks these systems aren't very relevant as they aren't trying to walk the razor's edge.  All they want is something rough to tell them if a monster is way out of line for the group.  Nothing wrong with this of course and as long as they are enjoying it then more power to them.  For me though a well built challenge system is key on either side of the GM screen and while building HBT I definitely want to provide such a system for those who want to use it.  Moreover my perfectionist tendencies make me want to keep on tweaking and perfecting the system far beyond what most people would consider reasonable or necessary.  It feels in many ways like what I was born to do (if such a thing truly existed).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tiers of power in DnD Next

The DnD Next blog post this week was light on details but still interesting.  The main thrust of the article was that the designers built the game with a hierarchy in mind, specifically that some sorts of choices were meant to be more important than others.  Class is the top of the heap and as such if a class does something then races, spells, feats, and backgrounds are never allowed to do that same thing better.  In particular Mearls talks about how rogues are supposed to be good at stealth so spells are not allowed to make a wizard superior at stealth.  In previous editions this was an issue because at high levels flying, invisible wizards with divination magic were drastically better at stealth than any rogue could ever be.

This strikes me as a good thing, particularly the emphasis on spells being worse than classes.  Hopefully this will lead to casting classes generally being comparable to thugging classes in overall utility instead of being insanely overpowered at higher levels and rendering thugs obsolete.  I would personally change my focus to 'spells shouldn't be as powerful as they were in 3rd edition' rather than specifically trying to avoid making spells more powerful than particular class features but I can't fault their goal.  It is a tricky thing to accomplish in any event because classes have such varied abilities both in combat and out.

I have managed to avoid this sort of balance issue in Heroes By Trade by carefully separating out where character power comes from.  Classes provide combat options and themes but they do not provide skills or other non combat abilities.  This makes balancing them much easier as I just have to make sure Fireball is balanced against Cleave and I don't have to worry about balancing Whirlwind vs. Invisibility or Charge vs. Teleport.  All characters have access to Rituals and Skills regardless of class so I don't have to worry that a particular class is going to be obsoleted.

There is a disadvantage to doing it my way though.  Classes in DnD are very much full of lore and flavour.  Rangers are good at tracking, Rogues at stealth, Bards at singing, etc.  Classes in HBT have themes but lack the crunch to go with those themes.  Marauders may be animalistic in their fighting style and Wizards may summon things to smite their enemies but those don't really translate to out of combat prowess.  I did this deliberately because I wanted it to be possible to build a tough melee combatant who was good at magical theory or a spellslinger who was talented at athletics.  When class choices specifically include crunchy noncombat options people end up playing the archetype instead of the character.  That said there are surely many people who want every bow user to be called a Ranger and to be good at tracking either for lore or for simplicity.

The way I see it if people are very attached to Rangers being the best trackers then it doesn't matter much what my system is because they aren't going to like it.  I feel that I should target those who are dissatisfied with the DnD model and want something different, something more.  Rather than try to accommodate everyone I should instead figure out my own style and then execute that perfectly.  There is already plenty of watered down mush out there.

If that wasn't enough then I can just go with my instincts.  Making a product that tries to be everything to everybody makes me want to stick a fork in my eye.  On the other hand making the best game for me sounds like a wonderful time so I suppose I should just do that.  I have the luxury of not having a bunch of stockholders breathing down my neck and I can just do what makes me happy.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How hard is that fight anyway?

I have been slugging away at my system for figuring out how monster difficulty should be rated in Heroes By Trade.  Doing so has given me more insight into why 4th edition DnD did monsters the way it did.  In 4th ed. monsters were all given a level that corresponded with player levels.  12th level players should fight 12th level monsters, for example.  Also monsters were categorized by type - minion, regular, elite, or solo.  In theory this makes for a very tight system for creating encounters where monsters always have stats that are appropriate for the players.  In practice it makes the game encounters feel very artificial because random brigands you meet at level 20 are so drastically more powerful than random brigands you meet at level 1.  The world isn't populated with interesting things at that point; instead everything the players fight just happens to have the perfect stat spread.

The thing is that the system described above is just so convenient.  I was trying to assign static numbers to monsters that would work across a variety of player levels and it was a nightmare.  Monsters that worked fine as part of a level 25 encounter were utterly lethal when faced as a solo encounter at level 10 because the players just couldn't hit them or couldn't get past their armour.  There simply wasn't a single number I could assign to them that adequately reflected their difficulty.  This is the genius of the 4th ed. model - you have two dimensions to the difficulty (level and minion-solo) and that makes it so easy to figure out because you always know what level the players are.

The major challenge involves the solo monster problem.  That is, when one side in a fight has a single HP pool it is at a massive advantage.  The other side cannot focus fire to remove threats and focus fire is the primary strategy of any successful group.  The flip side of the coin is that a single monster often cannot make use of its debuffs and is far more vulnerable to debuffs than a group.  This means that monsters that have debuffs as a primary focus can be more deadly in groups and monsters that have big stats as a focus are powerful solo.  So far in testing it has seemed to me that the advantage of having a single HP pool massively outweighs any debuff advantage in most cases.

I finally had to give up on making a system that would work across all party sizes and encounter types.  My final attempt works as follows:  Each player has a Encounter Strength (ES) of Level + 6 and those are added together to determine the ES of the party.  I then model a monster fighting two players and figure out at which level the fight is even just based on damage dealt.  Then I calculate the monster ES based on the ES of two players at the given level.  This is all very reasonable but then comes in the kludge - any monster encountered alone should be considered to have a ES 25% higher than listed because of the previously mentioned single HP pool factor.  I mashed a bunch of encounters through my simulator and it seems to work out all right but it continues to irk me that I have not found a simple, clean solution.  I suspect that unfortunately such a solution does not exist as otherwise some edition of DnD would probably be using it.

I don't like having monsters be so artificial as they are in 4th ed. even though it is very convenient for the GM.  I also don't want them to be as ridiculous as 3rd ed. or Pathfinder where 'appropriate' encounters ended on round 1 and it was easy to be unhittable or unmissable.  The old days of monsters being incredibly random and oscillating between lethal and trivial was entertaining at times but eventually unsatisfying and the new model defies immersion.  If the perfect system does not exist though I will lean towards old school because I am convinced I can do a better job of the numbers than Gygax did back in the day.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Bigotry in RPGs and the writing of GM guides

I had a really interesting debate today with people about RPG worlds and the way that bigotry in them is justified.  An awful lot of game worlds are brutally sexist whether it be through chainmail bikinis, male dominated power structures, or other degradations of women and much of it is defended as being realistic.  Realistic, in this case, means that it is a really inaccurate but culturally normal portrayal of the way in which some people see European centric medieval culture in order to justify sexism.  Is it true that way more men that women were in power in medieval Europe? Yes.  Does that have anything whatsoever to do with how a fantasy world with dragons, teleportation, and fireballs should be or is organized?  No.

In the GM section of Heroes By Trade I talked about this and emphasized that the most important thing to do was to make sure that all the players were happy.  If your world design made people (most often but not at all limited to women) unhappy then you did it wrong.  However, I included a justification for a non male dominated world if someone was really looking for one.

Characters with inborn power (which includes all player characters) have equal combat prowess and other talent regardless of gender so the serious sexism that exists and existed in the real world did not develop in the world of Heroes By Trade.

Of course you didn't need this justification.  Saying "the world we are playing in doesn't work that way" is plenty.  After all, magic and frostbolts and flying and such, even if you ignore the fact that the real world has an immense variety of different cultures which have very different standards for the way that people relate based on gender.

However, I concluded that even providing that justification was an error; I was wrong.  The idea that women being unequal is realistic and therefore worth considering as a fundamental game structure is bullshit.  There is only one rule:  Have a good time.  That's it.  Make it realistic isn't a rule or even a guideline and the idea that feminine oppression is somehow necessary for things to feel realistic is misogynistic in itself.  If you are willing to accept flying across a mountain on a pegasus without losing immersion then clearly you can accept people all being treated as people in the same way.

Instead of staying home we go out to smite evildoers.  Instead of getting cut by swords and dying from infection we rest awhile and then keep on going.  Instead of being in a world where people are systematically discriminated against we play in a world where such discrimination does not exist.  None of these things make a good reality simulator but they all make the game more fun and that is the whole point.  Screw realism... give me fun every damn time.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Video games really have it easy in a lot of ways when compared to pen and paper gaming.  One of the biggest things they have going for them is the ability to put absurd challenges in front of players.  I am playing Mass Effect 1 through on Insanity difficulty lately and it has made me laugh a few times when I think of doing the same scenarios in a tabletop RPG.  In particular I found it amusing when my character hopped into a two meter pit and was informed by a squadmate that this was a one way trip because there was no way back up to the surface.  Obviously the only solution was to go through the whole maze and disable the force field with random narratively powered properties; just climbing back out of the pit was out of the question.  How could a squad of cybernetically enhanced future soldiers wearing power armour get up a two meter wall after all?The same thing happens all over.  A rock blocks your path!  I guess the only solution is to clear out an entire dungeon full of monsters to get a ladder, or a magic glove, or some other McGuffin to deal with the rock.

In a TTRPG of course the players will say things like "I climb back up the wall I guess, that sounds like the easiest solution" and then you have to figure something better out.  Of course weak GMs tend to do things like randomly have magic everywhere so real world solutions aren't feasible.  Every dungeon is a ludicrous maze of traps and magical junk that makes no sense - teleportation pads, elevator rooms, statues that spew acid and dispense treasure for no reason and other such kludges are the bread and butter of teenage gaming.  If you try to do things in some vaguely reasonable way though making appropriate challenges becomes a ton harder.  In a computer game the two meter wall is literally unbeatable (Sorry, we didn't add a jump button, I guess you have to follow the rails) but challenges have to be robust when the characters have lots of choices and you don't feel like shouting "It's fucking magic, stop trying to think".

I think I make things pretty hard for myself when I design TTRPG adventures.  When I build a dungeon I carefully think out what every inhabitant is going to eat and drink, how they feel about each other, and why they haven't gone someplace else.  If a weird magical thing is going on there needs to be a good reason for it because "Wizards are crazy and fill the world with stupid magical crap for no reason" sounds incredibly weak the fortieth time you say it.  That sort of design does lend itself to the players accepting the dungeon as real but it makes it hard to put up straightforward challenges because they have so many options stemming from equipment, magic, and skills.  Sometimes I really want to just deny them any options and teleport them into the middle of a gigantic magical maze where nothing works.  It would sure take the stress level down a notch.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Attack my minions!

I have been out of the WOW loop for a long damn time now but the news of a brand new expansion was something I could not ignore.  There are tons of sparkly things being added to the game like an improved UI, in particular the inventory (I might not need to install a bag mod!) and new stuff to do like open world PVP, some kind of player housing, etc.  The thing that really turned my crank though was the strong support for Flexible raiding.

The gist of it is that all normal and heroic difficulties for raiding allow for 10-25 people to be in the zone and they scale with the number of people that are there.  Presumably boss damage, health, number of adds, and special abilities creep up in power as you add people in ways that reasonably preserve difficulty level.  There remains a single difficulty level called Mythic that is tuned for precisely 20 people and is heinously difficult which is all fine and good for the most hardcore guilds.

Flexible mode seems absolutely fantastic.  One of the most frustrating and difficult parts of raiding was recruiting to a specific number and benching people.  You needed 13 people on the roster and then nearly every raid you ended up having to either bench people or cancel the raid - it wasn't that common to actually have the right number and comp to just be able to go.  It won't be as tightly tuned as past raiding difficulties of course but the ability to just run with 17 people in the guild and hit GO as soon as the raid start time ticks over is fan fucking tastic.  This alone has me wondering if I will raid again when the expansion lands since I really do love the idea of building a guild around a group of friends and not recruiting to a specific number.

Instead of feeling like you simply have to log in because the guild cannot hit the magical number otherwise you simply play when you want to smash monsters and don't play if you don't want to.  Clearly if you rarely log in you will eventually get dropped from the group but that crushing obligation to log in or risk having everyone be disappointed will be very much mitigated.

And holy crap am I excited about leading raids without the bullshit of having to pick who doesn't get to play tonight.  Just figure out what specs people are going as, sort out the strat, and yell "PULL!"  That is exactly the kind of raid leading that got my blood running hot in years gone by as I sat on ventrilo bellowing orders and giving desperate instructions to my minions.  The thing I want to block my troops from getting their shiny loot is the necessity of playing well, not the necessity of convincing the raid leader to let them play.  I can feel the rush right now, that desire to lead a group to glory pulsing in my veins.  IT IS CRUSHING TIME YO.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Powers and the use thereof

In Heroes By Trade I have a system for determining which powers characters can use.  One of the basic stats determines the character's Vigour, which in turn determines what rank of powers they can use.  The maximum rank usable is Vigour + 6, so a normal character with Vigour of 5 can use at most rank 11 powers.  Normally they won't want to do this though because on each following turn they need to roll Vigour +1d6 and they can only use a new power if the result of the roll is at least as high as the rank of the last power used.

Example:  I have Vigour 5.  I use the Blizzard power which has rank 11.  Next turn I roll 1d6 + 5 and get 9.  9 is not as high as 11 so I have to use a basic attack and try rolling again each turn until I succeed.

Example:  I have Vigour 5.  I use the Zap power which has rank 6.  Next turn I automatically can use another power because 1d6+5 is always 6 or more.

What this means is that characters have to roll 1d6 each turn and remember what power they used last.  Mechanically I love the way it plays out because people consider whether or not to use a low rank power and automatically make their roll or use a high level power and take some downtime.  It adds a lot of strategy, particularly later on when characters have a large arsenal of powers to choose from.  The trouble though is that the players constantly forget to roll their 1d6 or forget which power they used.  It isn't complicated to figure out but it does seem clunky in implementation.

There are other ways to approach this.  I could for example have Vigour determine the maximum rank of power a character can use but just let the characters use those powers any time they please without any rolling.  This has the unfortunate side effect that low rank powers would almost never get used because there is no longer any penalty for using a max rank power.  It is very simple - either you have enough Vigour to cast Fireball or you don't - but it loses a lot of depth.

The last method I have been considering is one where before a character uses a power they roll 1d6+Vigour to see if it works.  If the roll fails there are two possibilities:  Perhaps the character just loses their action entirely or maybe they have to default to a basic attack or defence.  Either way I suspect that people would find it very frustrating to position themselves for a big kaboom and then have it fail.

I love the current implementation theoretically but I don't know that everyone playing buys in completely.  I guess I build the games I want to play; for me remembering what I used last and to make a roll is super easy but some folks don't have the same viewpoint.  Can't make a game for everyone!