Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bowling for Blood

I just bought Blood Bowl:  Chaos Edition on Steam.  I have such fond memories of playing BB on Lucky's board back in university:  Staying up all night fighting exhaustion with adrenalin, sticking little bits of paper with notes scribbled in tiny letters on the tops of the figurines, and screaming "YOU'RE OUTTA HERE!!!!" in concert with half a dozen other excited spectators when a player got ejected for fouling.  It was a wonderful time full of camaraderie, flow, and intensity.  I would love to recreate that but the community and environment is evaporated, never to be recreated I expect.  We are too old and jobs, children, wives, geography, and gray hairs keep us in check.

The computer game is a faithful recreation of the old board game with a few modifications that I heartily approve of.  The basic mechanics are the same - block or dodge away, run the ball or kill the enemies, make the desperate long pass or sit tight.  There is still the glory of the unlikely touchdown and the agony of watching a favourite player get pushed into the stands and die to the zealous fury of the fans.  It has a campaign mode that seems reasonable so far since it is pretty much just a framework on which to hang playing a bunch of games of BB and it is hard to fault that.  The graphics are mediocre and the menus are not the best but the gameplay is so much fun that it is easy to forgive.  It feels like going back to play Final Fantasy 1 or somesuch - it looks terrible but I love it so.

I got into a league right away with some old friends, fellow alumni, and some folks who I know from my M:TG days and it seems like it should be a lot of fun.  Hopefully it can scratch an itch I have had ever since I stopped playing WOW; the ability to log onto ventrilo randomly and chat with really smart gamers about a game that excites me.  The community that surrounds competitive play is something I have missed very much since I stopped being a serious contributor to Ret Paladin theory on the Elitist Jerks WOW forums and I have high hopes that this can give me that feeling again.  It doesn't feel like there is the same degree of number crunching available and I probably won't be writing any huge simulators but some armchair theorycrafting certainly is in the offing.

Now I just have to find a way for my squishy ratmen to score a crapload of touchdowns while avoiding being killed too much!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

DnD Next feats and skills

The next blog post about DnD Next is up and it contains some things that seem pretty good and some things ... not so much good.  I have been openly skeptical about the development team's ability to balance Basic characters against Advanced characters but their new announcements seem pretty good as far as that goes.

In short characters are going to get constant +1 increases to their stats.  They can trade away one of those +1s for a feat if they are using the Advanced rules while Basic characters are stuck simply upgrading stats.  Feats will be balanced against stat increases so that Basic characters just have bigger numbers but less options - in theory this is a fine thing, but the devil is in the details.  The trouble is that they want some more powerful feats to have level prerequisites so high level characters can do awesome things.  This is problematic because if low level feats are bad then everybody will simply pump their stats up to the maximum of 20 and then Advanced characters will start taking powerful high level feats and Basic characters are stuck putting their stat increases into less useful stats.  The balance should be good at low levels when everyone has no options but at high levels... not so much.  Still, it isn't a terrible system and certainly gives the Basic characters something simple to do to improve their characters.

Skills are in a much worse place.  The current plan is to simply not have skills in the Basic game and have them in the Advanced game.  Everyone will be rolling 1d20 + Wisdom to see if they notice the hidden monster but Advanced characters will get to add their Perception skill bonus to the check.  This means that Advanced and Basic characters can't really play together reasonably and the difficulty numbers for tasks have to be changed based on what ruleset is being used.  Not great, but at least it is simple, right?  Not so much.  Not only are we going to have skills but there will also be areas of knowledge and proficiencies to deal with.  I don't think that having three different systems for tracking what your character can do skill wise is a sensible option.  Extra complexity is justifiable when the system is elegant but this seems like a beast; it doesn't bolt onto the Basic game seamlessly and it has too many parts.

If there has to be a Basic edition (which I am still not sold on) systems like skills need to exist in some form.  It can be something really simple, sort of like 4th edition.  A list of 6 skills where you get to choose 3 to get +5 in is really simple choicewise and straightforward to adjudicate.  People aren't going to be overwhelmed by making that sort of choice and the Advanced edition can have much greater flexibility in choice or some kind of skill point system if they want to amp it up some.  I don't look forward to a system where a Basic character can't be reasonably played in an Advanced game and vice versa.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Grind that there dungeon

The more I think about DnD the more I can't fathom how the mechanics work for most campaigns.  DnD is clearly designed around the idea of limited resources that are expended over an adventuring day - that is, a group of heroes should get into a large number of violent encounters in a given day or the system sucks.  This is true in every edition of DnD but spectacularly so in 4th Ed. and Next.  When wizards only get one spell per day (back in 1st and 2nd edition) they are going to be very sad when the second fight happens but at least they eventually end up with a truckload of spells and can keep on going.  In those scenarios the other classes are limitless in resources so only some of the classes some of the time can actually go nova.

Unfortunately the new philosophy of giving everybody daily resources makes this problem much worse in any campaign where there aren't a ton of fights on a daily basis.  If I was running a 4th edition campaign the opponents would have to be utterly savage because the players would simply blow their dailies immediately and end the fight.  They tend to get into fights with important enemies or at critical moments and don't spend eternities clearing out dungeons full of monsters who happily sit in a room waiting to die.  Next is looking much the same because spellcasters get far fewer spell slots, particularly at high levels, and everybody ends up with extremely powerful daily abilities including the thug classes.

I wonder if there really are a lot of campaigns that run with the model that tends to make the DnD rules work.  Is it the norm that the players come to a dungeon and then have to hack through five encounters, retreat for a day, hack through five more encounters, etc?  Especially when those encounters are presumably dangerous this seems absolutely insane.  The heroes really go into each room knowing that if a group of enemies rushes them from behind during the upcoming battle they will all die?  And they do this *five times a day*?  It blows my mind because my campaigns tend to have politics and investigation and interpersonal conflict as the things that consume the most time.  I GM more like a fantasy novel, and not much like a roguelike grind.  Not that I disparage those who like DnD as a grind but I can't help but wonder if they aren't being pandered to despite being a significant minority.

The whole concept of daily limited resources in Pathfinder really makes character abilities nonsensical.  Instead of an ability granting 8 rounds per day of Freedom of Movement it effectively becomes immunity to a huge number of different things.  High level spellcasters are always casting their most powerful attacks.  I don't put much pressure on to memorize a ton of combat spells so casters can safely memorize some interesting utility spells... which is probably a nice thing for them, actually.  The next campaign I run is definitely going to use Heroes By Trade; that will also give me more incentive to keep slamming away at adding content to it too.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sentinels of the Multiverse

It is rare that I play a cooperative game and like it a lot.  Most of them either feature extreme luck and randomness or have the '1 player problem' where the best player plays everybody's turns for them.  I can certainly see how either sort of game would be fine for a group that isn't especially competitive - just do whatever you want and win or lose.  I find the trick is figuring out a cooperative game where there exists a lot of strategy and challenge while preventing 1 player from running the whole show; information needs to be kept hidden to a substantial extent.

Pandemic is an example of a game that doesn't manage this very well.  As written 1 player can know everything and make all the decisions so each person often feels like they have nothing to contribute.  It is easy to change that by keeping all cards held secret but the game ends up feeling less fun when players cannot talk about strategy at all.  A big part of the appeal of a coop game is discussing strategy and trying to convince the other players to run with my crazy plan!

I have recently been playing a lot of Sentinels of the Multiverse and it seems to me to be the best designed coop game I have found.  Thematically it is a battle between the players, each of whom represents one of the ten possible superheroes, against one of the four possible supervillains.  To keep things more unique there are four environments in which the battle can be fought like Megalopolis, Wagner Mars Base, Atlantis, and a dinosaur island.  The thing that makes this excellent mechanically is that each hero has cards that can be played and Powers that can be used; one card per turn and one Power per turn.  Because of this players can discuss use of their Powers and general strategy while keeping their cards secret.  It gives a nice mix of strategy "I will blast the dorks, you deal with the erupting volcano" but with significant information being secret one player cannot reasonably play the whole table.

One very valid criticism of SotM is that the balance of many things is way off.  You can see four heroes in the image above, two of which are excellent and two of which are rubbish.  While Tachyon and Legacy (in white) aren't twice as good as Absolute Zero and Bunker they are at least 50% better and that makes something of a mockery of balance.  On the other hand the game can be played with 2-6 players and the villains scale very poorly with the number of players so you can always just play with crappy heroes if you have a lot of players and good heroes if you are shorthanded.  The villains and environments themselves are also pretty variable in terms of power so it is possible to arrange anything from a trivial victory (6 players vs. Omnitron using best heroes on dinosaur island) to a nearly impossible situation (Bunker and Absolute Zero vs. Citizen Dawn on Wagner Mars Base).

One thing I wish they had done is include a sensible power rating for the various heroes and environments.  The villains have reasonable difficulty ratings but it would have been nice to not have to play the game a lot to figure out which challenges were going to be impossible and which would be trivial.  Either way though the game is a hell of a lot of fun and I recommend it highly.  Elli has been enjoying playing with us at age 6 although she needs a lot of help but there are often really interesting strategy decisions for advanced players. The game has a great combination of fun and variable challenge that I approve of heartily.

picture from:  http://sentinelsofthemultiverse.com/

Friday, April 5, 2013

D3 Auction Hall failure

Diablo 3's Auction Hall has been controversial its entire existence.  No one can deny it has totally reshaped the game but there are real questions as to what exactly those effects were.  Blizzard recently talked about it, saying that they feel like they screwed up when making the AH.  They claim that their goals were good (reduce fraud and account theft by getting rid of third parties, for example) but that the AH was used far more than they anticipated and had more sweeping effects than anyone thought possible.

Some of what is said against the AH is entirely true of course.  By far the best way to progress in D3 is to play the AH buying and selling.  Beating up monsters is a terrible way to get better because it takes so long to accumulate wealth.  Additionally there is the problem that items are so incredibly variable that finding the item with the perfect stat spread for a build is completely impossible while going solo but it can be bought instantly on the AH.  Simply put you can beat the game solo but you will progress at double to ten times the speed by using the AH.

You can't just look at this in a vacuum though.  Imagine the AH was gone.  Instead people would wander into games and yell at each other in an attempt to trade items directly.  This would take forever and be incredibly irritating but would still allow the trading pros to accumulate immense wealth while new players would get scammed out of their stuff in record time.  No difference there except that it is more annoying.  It would feel more reasonable to simply play solo because the trading interface was such a pain in the ass but that wouldn't change the fact that traders would be obscenely wealthy and players would be broke.  We saw this in D2 so this isn't even remotely speculative - that is exactly what happened.  Just like in D2 there would be tons of third party sites selling stuff, stealing accounts, and scamming people.  I know those exist in D3 but they would be ten times as large if the Real Money Auction Hall didn't exist.  People would buy gear from these sites and people would complain about the noobs who buy gear just like always.  The difference is that the money would be going to DiabloLegitGear.com instead of Blizzard and a bunch of people would get scammed.

So how would we get away from this?  We could remove trading completely which would certainly get rid of the possibility of buying your way to the top and would make playing the game the best way to advance.  Although this would definitely piss some people off I think it would end up being a far better game in the long run.  The second thing that could be done is to normalize gear.  The fact that the best weapon I found ever in D3 was 33% worse than a weapon I bought on the AH for a trivial sum is insane.  Weapons in particular are incredibly variable and if the stat spreads on gear were really tightened up trading would be less important because you could depend on having an item that is 80% as good as the Best In Slot item just on your own.  Right now your guarantee is more like 40% and that makes the AH required.  If both of these ideas were implemented the game would still be fun to play with friends but you could play alone quite reasonably.  They aren't possible to put into the game without a total overhaul though so I don't think they will happen.

When you make a game about trading you have to accept that the traders will be the rich ones.  Just like in real life where the bankers make insane money the traders in D3 make insane money.  If you don't want that then you either have to make trading impossible or pointless.  No other solution will suffice.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Apprentice

The latest information about DnD Next is intriguing.  Wizards plans on having explicit tiers of play in the system to divide up the levels into groups.  Apprentice levels are 1-2 in which the characters are extremely fragile, have virtually no abilities or special powers, and are training to become full fledged adventurers.  Adventurer tier is from 3-15, and then Legacy tier from 16-20.  It seems a bit odd to me to have the tiers be so drastically different in size but it could work; I can't think of any objective reason why they would need to be so.  They are framing it such that the new default for a starting character is level 3 and levels 1-2 are just there for those who want to play incompetent normal people.

I suspect they are trying to do an end run around the problem of low level squishiness.  They know that characters that all one shot each other is a stupid system but rather than just fix the HP calculation they have decided to just make us all start at level 3 since level 1 will be both boring tactically and also incredibly lethal.  I know all kinds of people including my last two Pathfinder games started at level 2-3 because we felt that level 1 was so silly but I would really rather they fix level 1 rather than keep it and just tell us not to use it!  This is the problem of trying to shoehorn crappy old mechanics into a new game; you end up doing all kinds of terrible things to support mechanics that don't work.

One of the major reasons for doing this seems to be to fix multiclassing.  There was always a great difficulty in that a 1st level character needed certain abilities to feel unique and competent in their class; without those abilities they didn't work but with them it became too powerful to multiclass into them for just one level.  For example, barbarians got fast movement and rage right away so dipping in was too tempting for other melee type classes.  Under this new system you would need to take 3 full levels in a new class to actually get their suite of basic powers which is a much more significant investment.  They still have not presented us with anything to suggest that they have fixed multiclassing for caster types - unless there is something really saucy coming up multiclassing is for weapon users only... again.

Even though this might 'fix' multiclassing in the sense that it will prevent multiclassing from being overpowered for melee types I think that they really need to come up with an entirely different model for multiclassing instead.  Multiclassing in 3rd edition was always complete garbage or overpowered; Fighter/Mage/Sorcerer was useless and Barbarian/Ranger/Fighter/Paladin was insane.  4th edition actually had a totally reasonable multiclassing system; perfect it was not but it worked.  Going back to the 3rd edition style of multiclassing where you actually take levels in other classes is simply shovelling in nonfunctional mechanics in the hopes of satisfying nostalgia.  That isn't how you make a good game.