Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hardcore does not mean stupid

Wizardry Online just launched.  It is a low graphics, tiny, free to play MMO marketed as the most hardcore fantasy MMO every created.  The designers seem to have confused hardcore design with bad design somewhere along the way though.  I can see how that happens... you think back to ridiculously difficult old games and remember the sorts of mechanics they had and then you stuff your game full of those mechanics because you can't tell the difference.

The shining jewel in the crown is rolling character stats to see how good you are.  There are arguments made in oldschool DnD groups that rolling stats is fun.  You get to see what sort of character you are and you have to roll with it in sort of an improv way.  Not really my style but if people like to be pushed into a role rather than custom build it, go nuts.  The trouble with WO is that they have done away with the roleplaying element and latched firmly onto the power level element.  You just roll characters over and over, each time getting a particular number for your roll which determines how powerful you will be.  The great majority of rolls are between 6-9, getting a 12 takes a little while but is a really meaningful upgrade, and some dude on the forums talked about spending seven hours rolling to get a 32.  The maximum roll is 80.

So yeah, the difference between 8 and 12 is noticeable and it is possible but fantastically unlikely that you get an 80.  This means that people are very handsomely rewarded for spending hours or days at the character creation screen rolling over and over until they get a roll over their required integer.  That isn't hardcore, it is just awful.  WO is hugely gated by power and has permanent death so it is critical that you do everything you can to maximize your potential.  In the long run it is certainly optimal to spend truly staggering amounts of time rolling up stats rather than playing the game.  Thankfully bots will be able to do this and you can just start up a WO account, run a bot for a month, and be awesome.  Huzzah?

Don't worry though, once you spend a month getting a 75 for your character the game has PVP all the time, everywhere, and when you die all of your stuff gets stolen unless you pay real money to keep it.  Also, your character will die permanently sometimes and you have to start again from scratch.  I am not a big fan of games where the players who have been around awhile can trivially murder anyone they want, steal all of their stuff, and sometimes remove that character from the game forever.  I guess you would call that hardcore but it sure doesn't seem fun.

When I think of hardcore play I think of things like the WOW's famous hardmodes (I am dating myself here) like Yogg'Saron, The Lich King, or Kael'Thas.  You had to spend time prepping but then you had to be GOOD.  WO seems to be all about levelling past the content until you can 1 shot everything and then farming it till you can 1 shot the next dungeon.  You can't afford to goof around since regenerating health and mana costs cash and there is perma death so everyone farms trivial content forever.  Give me hardcore that is hard, not hardcore that is enormous boring timesink occasionally punctuated by being ganked by someone you can't hope to defeat.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Level Up!

While designing Heroes By Trade I attempted to build a skills based system (as opposed to a level based system) that had reasonable combat balance.  Normally systems that are skills based let characters improve any part of their character and that inevitably ends up with the twink standard - Either you twink out for combat as hard as the biggest twink around or you are useless.  You can, of course, be good at other things but I never much liked that dichotomy and the endless complaints about how Rogues are garbage in DnD show that a lot of people agree with me.  The majority of people want a game where everybody's contributions are different but where everyone feels effective and useful.  When people watch The Lord of the Rings they don't mind heinous imbalance (compare Legolas to Pippin!) but they don't like it when they have to play Pippin themselves.

Given that I decided that I need a level system to regulate character power but I wanted it to be extremely simple to use.  When you gain a level you add one point to an Aspect (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Willpower, Presence) alternating between physical and mental stats.  This ensures that overall combat prowess is very tightly controlled.  The second benefit of gaining a level is that you either learn a new combat Power, a magical Ritual, or a Skill.  Gaining flexibility has substantial diminishing returns so although people have immense freedom to customize their characters they really can't break the balance of the game significantly.  The other nice thing is that every time a level is gained people get to do one thing to get more raw power and one thing to learn new stuff.  Hopefully this satisfies both the power gamers and the people more interested in flavour and cool stuff.

Sadly DnD Next is looking very silly indeed when it comes to the leveling system.  For all of the thug classes there are plenty of levels that do absolutely nothing in the early going and the levels past 10 are much worse.  The Fighter, for example, gets a new daily power at level 11 and then all the way up to level 20 the only thing they get is more uses of that power.  No choices, no feats, nothing.  Just increase a number like the chart says, or maybe don't even do that.  Levels 15 and 16 literally have no effect aside from rolling for Hit Points!  I would have thought that the designers were aware that people didn't like classes being divided into "Cool new stuff all the time!" and "Nothing to see here."  It isn't even a matter of balance as honestly the thugs look very scary at high levels and it seems like a regular attack from a fighter is probably as deadly as a Disintegrate spell.  It is just *boring*.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Getting dead

Having a character die in most games is a pretty trivial thing.  You reload and go again, respawn and go again, or begin the level anew.  No biggie.  Some games though really go big on character death and make it a huge deal like Diablo when playing on Hardcore or oldschool RPGs.  Of course there is a huge cultural component to this where the Hardcore people scoff at the Softcore people calling them 'WOW kiddies' and the Softcore people laugh at the Hardcore folks calling them nolifers.  As usual both sides that spend time flaming each other on various forums are fools because there is clearly no 'better' way.

I have been reading some RPGs that deal with this very explicitly lately like the Dresdin Files RPG, the Leverage RPG, and Nobilis which pretty much make the assumption that the characters are immortal.  Not that the characters can do anything, of course, but the baseline is that characters can get beat up, defeated, or stymied but that losing a fight means they run away while badly injured.  They make no attempt to frame this as a fair simulation and describe everything in terms of the narrative.  A character sacrificing themselves deliberately to accomplish a goal that is worthy of their sacrifice is all good, randomly getting offed by a mook who rolled well is not.

I don't know exactly how I feel about this sort of thing.  I know for sure that I hate the idea of Hardcore in Diablo 3 because my character will die when I get a lag spike or disconnect and my skill will not be the point of failure.  I see little fun in that.  Being able to die from a monster attacking me when I play a heroic fantasy RPG though feels entirely okay.  Obviously I want the GM to make fights that won't kill characters all the time because story and character development is key for me but the thrill of knowing I could die makes victory so much sweeter.  I think the key is that I enjoy tactical decisions in an RPG and I am completely okay with my decisions making the difference between life and death.

I suspect that threat of death for failure to play well is why I find DnD so frustrating.  At low levels anything can kill you and no amount of strategy is relevant.  The monster is going to roll an attack and if it rolls a 20 you die.  You have no defensive action you can take that will alter that scenario.  Of course high level play is similar in that the beholder is going to blast you with an eye ray and you will roll a save to see if you die or not.  I feel a lot better about HBT in that department because characters have quite a few alternatives for increasing their survival from the simple Defend action to using a Power that keeps you out of harm's way.  You might still die but at least you can feel like you have control over the situation and when things get ugly there are always options to give you an out.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bot me this

Everybody wants something for nothing.  In the case of online games they want titles, power, and prestige that can be bought with trivial tasks repeated over and over so they use bots.  I have never used a bot and never intend to do so but I think a lot of the anger and vitriol directed at them is very misplaced.  Tobold talked about how bots show that gameplay is awful because people wouldn't bot if they actually liked playing the game.  This is clearly mistaken because I know people who loved playing WOW but who botted to generate extra cash.  When they were home they were playing WOW, when they were away their bots were killing stuff and making them money (badly).  All the bots proved was that it was easy to perform some kind of activity that generated advantage and people wanted that advantage.  The only way to stop bots is to make any possible gameplay that generates advantage so difficult that a bot cannot be written that could perform it.  Yeah, try ever getting a casual player to play *that* game.

Occasionally I cruise over to the D3 forums and there are always strident complaints about bots.  While I agree that bots do change the D3 economy I am not at all convinced that they actually make things worse in most cases.  For a solo player of course they have no impact.  For a player who goes into open group games and has bots clogging up their game doing nothing the bot is obviously a problem.  The tricky question is what exactly do bots do to the Auction House?  I think the answer is that they make nearly everybody much more powerful but concentrate that power in the hands of the botters.  They grind up enormous numbers of drops and because each character only needs 1 set of gear all of the extra gear ends up on the AH.  The botter claims the best of the best, of course, but the quality of the gear on the AH rises significantly and everybody can take advantage of that.  Bots make all characters more powerful and unless you are primarily worried about how powerful you are vs. the top players it is nothing but beneficial.

Really there are just two downsides to bots that end up being significant.  First off they use server resources, which can be very frustrating for people who want to log in and cannot or who have to deal with low performance.  This raises the cost for games so everybody suffers to a small extent.  The other downside is the perception of unfairness.  People get angry when others cheat even if the cheating is very minor.  I know I have an irrational hatred towards botters that far eclipses the actual negative effects they have had on me, which are surely near zero.  Perception is important and if a company could actually get rid of bots entirely it would be really good for their press - good luck with that though.

We need to accept that in highly competitive environments people will dope up (Hey Lance, how's it going?), use bots, or resort to other nefarious schemes to win.  Not that we should stop fighting the good fight but frothing rage isn't going to fix these sorts of problems now or ever.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Levels of Power

In The Hat brought me a big ole' stack of RPG manuals this week.  I got Nobilis, Wraith, Aberrant, and In Nomine, none of which I had experience with before.  I like the immense range of superhero oriented RPGs I have on my shelf now.  It starts with the fairly mundane Heroes Unlimited where you get to play a superhero with a cool power or three but who is likely terrified of a random mook with an AK 47.  It proceeds through Aberrant where the average character can defeat a swarm of bad guys with guns or perhaps even smash a bunch of tanks to Nobilis which has the most outrageous listing of effects I have ever seen.

Jump over a mountain?  Easy.
Smash a mountain with your fists?  Pretty hard.
Hide a mountain in your shirt?  Possible, but extremely difficult!

Wait, I can be powerful enough to hide a mountain in my shirt, you say?  Sign me up!  The trick with insane powers in games is to make the game robust enough to handle it and to give everybody crazy powers.  Vampire feels a lot like that even though the power level is somewhat lower because you can be totally broken at any number of things and virtually any concept can be awesome at something really relevant.  The trouble with high powered mechanics is when they

1.  Only let a few people be powerful.  DnD is the classic example where wizards get to be cosmos defining, plane shifting, teleporting, invulnerable world destroyers and fighters get to hit people with swords.  Hard, you know, they hit HARD with swords.

2.  Don't build the world around dealing with those mechanics.  Whether you are playing Nobilis or Amber for your ULTIMATE POWER fix you know that there are lots of people out there who can kick your ass if they want to.  Even though regular mooks are irrelevant there are plenty of good challenges to be had.  Again DnD fails because it tries to transition from a setting where three dudes with swords are scary to one where you fight the gods and that sort of switch is ultimately very clunky.

I feel like this is a good reason to keep Heroes By Trade firmly grounded in the low power universe.  Doing a high power game can certainly work with the right mechanics but trying to hybridize a game between mundane and high power styles is a recipe for being bad at both.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Roll dem stats

Mike Mearls, the head of the DnD Next development team, has made two blog posts talking about the future of DnD.  He talks a lot about their general goals, which can be summarized as 1.  Make Next have all the stuff people are used to from old editions and 2.  Make Next have a simple core that can have lots of modules and addons bolted on to increase complexity.  The idea behind these is obviously to get all the oldschool players on board and find a way to get new players into the game without overwhelming them.  I have talked about the problems with overly complex games attracting new players many times and DnD is the textbook example of this.

I don't like these goals.  First off, what old school players are looking for isn't exact replicas of old crappy mechanics.  They want the old school feel again and that comes primarily from things Wizards cannot provide.  If I could play in a weekly game with Sthenno, Hobo, Iolo, and Wendy again I would play any sack of crap RPG on the market.  We would roleplay, bitch about the mechanics, and have a grand time.  Is Wizards going to sell Wendy, Iolo and Sthenno more time and Hobo a teleporter?  No?  Then any attempt to get me playing for nostalgia's sake is doomed.

Instead Wizards is resorting to a character creation system that consists of three things:  Rolling for stats, picking a race, and picking a class.  So players get literally two choices when building characters and one of those choices is likely dictated entirely by chance.  Write this down folks: beginning the DnD experience with randomly deciding who gets to be powerful and who gets to be crappy is iconic because it is awful.  We remember stat rolling because of how frustrating it was for those who rolled badly or who couldn't play the sort of character they wanted.  Even a super simple stat system where you get a fixed set of stats (16, 15, 13, 12, 10, 8, for example) to assign as you please is fine.  The system where you try to get your character killed so you can roll again and maybe get a better one was a failed experiment.

A year ago I went to the a game designer meet to show off my game FMB.  I got a fantastic piece of advice there from a veteran, which was that I should scrap the multitude of options and just make the best possible game.  I cut down FMB from 2-4 players to just 2 players and from beginner/advanced to one set of rules.  After doing that I was amazed at how much better it was when I stopped trying to be everything to everyone and just made something awesome.  Next is falling into the same trap I did in trying to do everything at once, providing multiple layers of difficulty settings and rulesets.  If you try to please everyone you will end up pleasing no one.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Rules vs. advice

There are some things you need to know as a player while playing a tabletop RPG.  You need to know how the basic mechanics work and what your options are.  You need to know how to build a character and how combat works so you can make reasonable decisions on engaging in it or not.  What you don't need to know is exactly how the GM figures out obscure challenges like building a crossbow, holding your breath, or calculating the precise deviation between your assessment of the value of a piece of treasure and its 'actual' value.  If a player happens to know these things, okay, but if they don't then the game still runs just fine.

The problem lies in making a game that has so many rules that people feel obligated to know that it drowns them in details.  DnD 3rd edition skills are a great example of this in that skill descriptions contained huge blocks of information on all kinds of obscure mechanics.  How often are we really going to resolve swimming checks by rolling hour by hour to see how many miles a character swims and how likely they are to drown?  Do GMs actually sit down and say "Okay, so, you are 18 miles from shore, the weather is defined as choppy, lets roll some dice and see if you can make it."  If it never comes up it is just wasting space in the book and boggling the minds of the players who think they should know how their skill works.  A far better use of book pages and brain cycles is figuring out how to solve problems generally rather than trying to provide ready made solutions for every problem.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Amber RPG does a beautiful job in this regard.  It has a few rules and then reams and reams of examples for people running the game for running skill based challenges, combats, creating things, and everything else.  Players can read the first few sections to understand the basics and then rely entirely on the GM to know all of the fiddly bits.  This is something I want to try to emulate in HBT, though I will of course be designing a more traditional RPG than Amber.  Specifically I think I want to have a really bare bones players section that outlines all that a new player would really need to know and then an extensive section of GM strategies and guidelines.  In particular I really want to give good examples of making interesting and complex Skill mechanics that push beyond the basic 'roll 1d8 and see if you win' that GMs can use if and when they feel ready.

The only fly in the ointment here is Rituals, which are difficult because they have large descriptions and which I would like a lot of.  I have everything from Detect Magic to Create Volcano to Become a Carrier of a Virulent Plague and I would really like a ton of variety.  Just like in DnD though if you want to have a nice variety of really interesting effects you are going to use up enormous amounts of space and it will be really difficult for players to take it all in.  I remember perusing the hundreds of pages that DnD spells took up, which was perhaps too much, but also the embarrassingly tiny spell list in Warhammer RPG which had hardly any options at all.  It feels wrong to be planning supplementary material before I even have my basic book all laid out...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

More old RPGs, both good and bad

I have collected a few more game manuals from old RPGs and am having a wonderful time reading through them... mostly laughing at the mechanics and the way old games are built, but occasionally being very impressed.  In particular I found the Amber RPG (based off of the Chronicles of Amber books by Zelazny) to be fantasically written and executed though you really have to buy into the theory first off, and the theory is a bit deep.

The thing is, most of the numbers in an RPG are simply there to let the players interact in a random way with the obstacles put in front of them by the GM.  The game doesn't feel exciting if there is no danger, and if the danger is entirely that the GM may just decide that you lose it doesn't feel much like a game.  In a game where the GM cannot put *any* significant obstacle against you though that rule doesn't apply.  Because Amber at its heart is a PVP game where invincible superheroes who can do absolutely anything given enough time duke it out amongst each other randomness really isn't necessary.  All you need to know is who wins when players fight each other and a simple ranking system is good enough for that.  Amber has amazing rules explanations and examples; far better than any other RPG I have ever read.  It *needs* those examples because it has so few rules and it delivers.  I don't intend to ever play it but I must give credit where it is due. If you want to play in the world of Amber, this RPG is perfect.

GURPS, on the other hand.... is a colossal mess.  Sure, you can build a robot cowboy spaceman ninja psychic superhero with a phobia of six sided dice and only one eye, but then you have the challenge of actually figuring out how to do anything.  The amount of work required to generate a character is serious and the tables you have to pick things from are intimidating.  This is all not to mention the skills lists - I know a lot of gamers who would take one look at the skill lists and rules for related skills and throw up their hands in disgust.  GURPS is a product of its time where RPGs were designed for hardcore nerds who revelled in system mastery and were unworried about recruitment.  We're all hardcore nerds here, who wants anybody else?

Those days are fading rapidly.  The time where you could build a good but ridiculously intricate and complicated RPG and just expect people to give up their current game to sink 30 hours into learning your new one are a thing of the past.  Building games that way just ensures that people will stick to their old game because they just don't want to put in the time to learn a new one.  Nobody cares how good GURPS is because everybody already knows DnD so DnD groups fill up quickly and GURPS games collapse because you can't convince the new guy to pick it up.

This is something I am struggling with in Heroes By Trade.  I really wanted to have a complicated healing formula that took into account the skill level of the physician (if any), Constitution, a random roll, and potentially other factors.  Of course nobody wants to figure all that crap out every single day just to see how fast they heal so I reduced it to a simple 1 healing a day normally, 2 if resting under good medical care.  Easy to remember, easy to get into.  I am reminded of the old DnD improvement my friends and I (mostly Sthenno) were making years ago.  It was mechanically excellent but extremely complicated and when we saw how easy and straightforward 4th edition DnD was we abandoned it.  Our system was much better than the mess that 3.5 DnD was because it was equally complicated but mechanically superior but no way were we going to convince people to swap to it over the straightforward but mechanically inferior 4th edition.

What people really want, I think, is an excellently written system that has a really simple set of rules and choices.  Everything needs to be intuitive, fast to resolve, and extremely easy to explain.  If we have to suffer under some 'unrealistic' rules or obvious simplifications that is fine; the goal is to get people roleplaying, not studying up for a final exam in Obscure Lists and Alternate Rules Interpretations 108.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The bar is kinda low

I have been hitting up my friends to get my hands on their old, worn, outdated roleplaying manuals.  While much of what I would find in the tabletop RPGs of my youth is terrible, thought I, there will certainly be gems of insight, useful ideas or mechanics I can incorporate into Heroes By Trade.  I had forgotten just how bad these old games were.  Not just the mechanics, which I remembered as being bad but are worse than that, but the awful old black and white line drawings that pose as 'art' and the layout which leaves much to be desired.  You would think that in the 4th edition of a manual it would be highly readable, well organized, and properly referenced... you would be wrong.

In particular I have been reading Palladium's Ninjas and Superspies and Cyberpunk and have just been floored at the complexity of character design.  Huge numbers of skills, immense lists of gear, incomplete or inconsistent rules descriptions, and a 'realistic' combat system combine to leave new players gasping for air.  The assumption was, I suppose, that new players would hack together something at random, be killed by the 'realistic' combat and then set aside six hours or so to make a new and better character.  Coming from recent play experience with DnD where characters start off with only a few options and gradually add new ones the idea of having 20 different combat maneuvers for a new player seems absurd.

It is a massive cultural shift.  The old games were happy to be niche products, well designed for obsessive twinks with huge amounts of time to memorize enormous rulebooks.  Being accessible to new players was obviously not a design priority and it was clearly fine that some characters would be five times as good as others.  The books say as much very explicitly "If you feel like a character is out of line, go ahead and waste them.  That is the Cyberpunk way."  Rather than setting up a system where people have some guidelines you are instead supposed to just let people do whatever and then kill off their characters if they cross some invisible line in the sand.

I am not much of a fan of that sort of design.  As a player I found it frustrating when I built a character to do something well and the DM decided I needed to be punished.  As a DM I hated it when people who built a character by some reasonable set of standards felt utterly useless as twinks eclipsed them.  Being good at some things and bad at others is fine; being useless all the time is not.  I feel like extremely complex, unbalanced mechanics that massively favour experienced, obsessive types (which describes me perfectly) are really only good at stroking those people's egos and are crap for making a good game.

Some credit is due, though, so I should give it.  The lore and fluff in these old manuals is really good.  They had great imaginations, these folks, and could write.  Unfortunately their mathematical and organizational talents weren't up to the same standard.