Thursday, October 31, 2013

Travelling and defence

Movement and travel is constantly an issue when constructing fantasy or science fiction worlds.  People building such worlds love to create instantaneous travel options to allow characters to move about the world efficiently but regularly forget that this has real consequences for how the world should work.  As an example standard DnD campaigns have teleport as a normal option and yet somehow countries still spend enormous fortunes to build castles and maintain armies.  What good are armed goons or big walls when characters of modest levels can just teleport in, massacre anyone they want, and teleport out again?  The problem is that the world creators have failed to adequately understand the consequences of completely changing the nature of travel and location.

A similar issue exists in science fiction universes.  In particular I have read several books in the Old Man's War series by John Scalzi and the same sort of problems occur with FTL travel replacing magical teleport as the destabilizing factor.  In that universe military organizations spread their fleets out over many different planets to defend them.  Unfortunately even a cursory examination of the situation shows that any race could take all of their ships and just skip in to a system, annihilate the defenders just due to numbers, and raze the planet in a matter of minutes.  They then could skip to another system, blow that up, and repeat.  After a few days at most and perhaps even within hours they could have easily destroyed an enemy that had similar total military strength.  Every war story in this universe should be over practically before it starts and yet even though this tactic works (because a few people try it a few times) nobody really makes good use of it because that wouldn't make the story much fun.

Part of this is the issue that combat systems in these worlds tend to be very much like fisticuffs.  Ships and characters punch each other until somebody falls down and those with a numerical advantage win the fights.  In real combat this isn't the case because people and vehicles are so incredibly flimsy.  Bombers and fighters don't punch each other till somebody falls down - if the sky is full of enemy planes it becomes incredibly easy to blow them up.  The real world has an awful lot of instant death and very little of "Captain, the shields are down to 25%!"  In the real world the tactic of 'put all my stuff in a pile and drive it around to enemy bases' is suicide while in fantasy or scifi worlds it is usually unstoppable.

Of course most people don't care about this stuff.  They like fisticuffs in space and don't really care that the universe and the way warfare is conducted makes no sense.  They also like teleporting about and aren't so worried about the fact that castle and army based warfare is a hilarious joke in such a world.  I get that; internal consistency isn't what makes fantasy worlds fun.  It bothers me though.  I want to create a world that makes sense and reacts to what the characters do and I can't do that very well when important people are committed to monumentally stupid strategies.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Finding the perfect play

Tearing games apart with broken combos is fun as hell.  I certainly have made it one of my life's major themes and expect to continue to do so.  I just finished reading Sthenno's review of Path of Exile and he talked about the joy inherent in finding brutal, unfair combos and blowing enemies up.  He disparages balance and suggests that balanced things are often less fun.  I see people talk about this from time to time and to a point I agree but I think when the details are examined it becomes a more complicated than a simple declaration that balance is either good or bad.

Balance is obviously important in a PvP game.  Having a single setup be the best means everybody runs that setup and people who don't just get creamed.  That simply isn't enjoyable and becomes very monotonous.  People of course like to advocate for their preferred style "Nerf Rock, Paper is fine. -Scissors" but really PvP games are at their best when there are many top tier strategies.  This is less true in a single player game of course.  I remember playing Civ 1 many years ago and it was tremendous fun figuring out what the top wonders and units were but that was fine because I wasn't playing against anybody else and the computer cheated anyway.

I think the key in either case is that there need to be terrible strategies.  It doesn't need to be the case that particular abilities are always garbage but there should definitely be things you can try that are patently inferior.  People love trying things out and figuring out the best ways to approach their builds and that fun is lost if there aren't mistakes to be made.  If everything works fine then any random bozo can be successful and that doesn't make people feel good about their game prowess.

There are definitely places where balance is a very good thing when we look at the strategies at the top of the pile.  If one strategy is simply twice as good as anything else then there is little experimentation to be done.  It is fun to find such a strategy but the game quickly becomes boring after that point.  When there are 10,000 strategies and 9,000 of them are garbage, 900 of them are passable, 90 of them are reasonable and 10 are superb then the game is amazing fun.  There is still a sense of discovery when you finally figure out one of the great strategies but there are plenty of other things to try that don't feel weak.  You still have lots of options for being bad if you want to dial up the difficulty or just explore a concept too.

The other place where balance is good is making sure that major thematic divisions are all reasonable.  You don't want a game with four classes where two classes are great and two are terrible; that just results in bitterness and whining from people who chose Thief as their class.  Each class should have some build that is strong, particularly if there is a big investment in a class before that becomes apparent.  There is a lot more flexibility if you have twenty classes of course but I would still posit that you want some classes of each major thematic group to be good.  It is boring if every melee class is garbage but fine if you can be good as an Assassin, Fighter, or Knight but terrible as a Thief, Templar, or Gladiator.  At least those who want to go hit people with sticks have some kind of good option.

Balance is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in a vacuum.  It is one of those things that needs to be applied in moderation and in the right way given the context.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Realism isn't so real

Recently I have been playing Mass Effect 1 again.  It is distinctly different from the later entries in the series in a bunch of ways but I think the most important way is that it tries to present a real world you can interact with in all kinds of ways.  ME2 and ME3 instead present rigid combat challenges you must overcome in a specific sequence with very restricted tactics.  In theory I like the idea of an open world to explore but in practice there are a lot of issues with the added 'realism'.

First off there is the issue of retreat and zoning.  In an open world there are buildings I can enter where enemies attack me and one totally reasonable response is to focus fire down a single enemy and then zone out of the building.  The enemies can't leave the building so they reset but the dead one stays dead so I can zone back in again and repeat.  This, obviously, does not adequately represent the response of real people to having armed invaders break into their residence and start shooting.  I also regularly abuse my ability to hop in and out of my tank to fight enemies - while the tank is hidden behind a hill regenerating its shields I run around shooting at people with my pistol.  This is actually an effective tactic but not one that increases immersion.

ME2 / ME3 and games like them have different immersion issues.  If you can't win a fight by just being good at fighting there are no alternatives - every zone is just a twisty hallway with scripted fights and there is no way to get around anything.  If you aren't winning your new strategy can generally be summed up as "Only shoot the enemies in the head."  It does feel very strange indeed that I can't ever flank enemy positions, or wander over that hill to see what is there, or just bloody go back to my spaceship and blast them to cinders from orbit.  In ME1 you can just fly away from a fight and come back later with new and bigger guns to blow them up if you really want to.  Why they sit there unmoving waiting for you to return is a question not adequately answered.

So I love the idea of an open world where you can do anything but in practice it means that the players abuse mechanics like zoning, enemy pathing, and running away to beat challenges instead of just using 'legitimate' combat tactics.  Without seriously controlling player behaviour there just isn't a decent way to build enemies that are immune to such tactics.  WOW does it by having enemies instantly heal to full and sprint back home, immersion be damned.  Most shooters just refuse to give you options to abuse and games like Skyrim just let people cheese the monsters out if they feel like it.  I suspect that this is a problem without a solution.  You just have to accept limited options, unrealistic behaviour, or overpowered cheese tactics and run with it.  Avoiding all of them won't happen.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A bit of suspension of disbelief

Getting characters in an RPG to do things together can be a trick.  This week I am adding a new player to my Heroes By Trade group and it was quite the feat of engineering to make everything work.  I try very hard to let the players decide what they want to do next but to bring a new person in I really need to end a session with them in a place where that can happen.  If, for example, the previous session ended with them on a boat headed to the fantasy world version of Antarctica it would be a bit rough to bring a new person on board!  I stressed out far too much over how to make that work and how to smoothly add a personality to the mix.  As one would expect it is going to take a bit of kludging.

After all, these characters live in a dangerous, unpredictable world.  Randomly trusting their lives to a stranger who they just met is likely a very foolish plan indeed.  A new character in the group likely is exactly that though, a stranger who has not proved themselves an ally.  Even if the characters do decide a new person is an ally they still have to decide that it is the sort of ally who travels with them and should have a vote on how things go.  Given all that it is hard to imagine how anybody ever joins such a group!  I have plans though... they largely revolve around 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' and lots of running away from crazy cultists.  Nothing bonds a group like massacring fanatics.

What I can't figure out is how groups manage to continue to play together with traditional DnD death rates.  I read recently about someone who was in a group which had 37 character deaths in 3 months of play.  This group is somehow introducing a new character more than twice a session?  How do you maintain even the tiniest veneer of immersion when people say "Can I join up?" and the answer is "Sure, but people who join up with us tend to live about 2-3 days on average."  These people are brave heroes and all but that kind of fatality rate has got to convince even a fearless paladin that retirement looks good - or maybe a different group of friends.  You can go be brave somewhere else where people don't die quite so often after all.

Friday, October 18, 2013

I turn into a freaking bear and maul him

Everybody wants to turn into a bear.  Just imagine growing huge and getting sharp claws and ripping things up.  Great, right?  The problem is that game designers keep trying to put the turn into a bear experience into a game and it is always a disaster.  Druids were a total mess in 3rd edition DnD with their ability to turn into animals that had the ludicrous Pounce ability and in 4th edition the druid, while reasonably balanced, didn't make any sense.  You can turn into a bird!  But you can't fly!  What?

DnD Next is trying to keep the iconic druid ability to wildshape into all kind of things and it is looking like a real trainwreck.  They aren't exactly repeating the mistakes of the past but rather coming up with all kinds of interesting new mistakes to make.  The new idea about druid shapeshifting is that they will have a variety of forms and each of those forms will have its own stat block and a separate HP pool.  Hooray for massive bookkeeping headaches!  So druids are back to abusing the situation where they max their mental stats and trash their physicals since they can be a bear, but at least they aren't letting them just pick animals out of the book at random because that was a hilarious problem from day one.

I totally get the desire to turn into a bear.  I love the concept of a shapeshifter in fiction.  The trouble I have is that giving a character the ability to turn into whatever critter they want is always a disaster.  This gives them the ability to fly, swim, echolocate, have incredible vision, smell, taste, and hearing.  It means they are incredible scouts, potentially lethal combat machines, and maybe even able to communicate with creatures they otherwise couldn't communicate with.  It is also obviously fantastic for hiding and sneaking.  That is WAY too much stuff for a single ability to be able to accomplish, even if you set up the numbers such that turning into a bear isn't a free pass to kill everybody.

I feel like a far better implementation would be to give a shapeshifter the ability to shift into a single form.  You could make that form fixed with specific benefits or allow the player to customize the form to some extent but as long as the list of abilities and benefits is set then the potential for abuse is very limited.  For example, having a shapeshifter that can turn into a giant wolf which has a great sense of smell, fast movement, and decent unarmed combat would be a reasonable proposition.  The Summoner in Pathfinder can customize their eidolon (a summoned demon) in this way and although the eidolon is a horrendous disaster numerically that general idea of customizing a form is pretty cool.

Switching in between two forms is a bit of work but not too much I think.  The thing you really need to avoid is people flipping through the Monster Manual or nature documentaries looking for ways to make their shapeshifter even more flexible and annoying than before.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Defence Dilemma

Heroes By Trade is built on an assumption of constant use of cool stuff and that people won't run out of resources.  One of the things that worried me about this system initially was the concern that people would build very defensive characters and be unable to defeat one another.  If two characters are duelling and both of them use shields and focus on powers that regain HP instead of focusing on powers that smash enemies they could in theory go forever.  I wasn't eager to see that happen because I really didn't want to accidentally build a game where the optimal strategy was to build invincible characters and slowly grind the enemies down with no sense of danger.

There exists some kind of balance point in the weighting of offensive and defensive abilities that allows for a general offensive strategy to be the norm but has room for defensive moves in specific situations of extreme danger or when attempting to 'tank'.  For example, I want defensive moves to be useful when you are badly hurt and the rest of your team is not, or when the enemies are obviously trying to focus fire you preferentially.  I really don't want them to be the default move that is used all the time though, and as such I weighted abilities that regenerated HP fairly heavily.  Adding 1.5 damage to your attack costs the same as adding 1 HP to your own total.  Given that weighting players looked at the HP regaining abilities and pretty much ignored them.  A dead enemy inflicts no damage, after all!

I think this was an error.  First off, fights really are designed to be group vs. group rather than 1 vs. 1.  Standing around gaining HP is not a winning strategy if the entire group of enemies is pounding on you and certainly will not result in stalemates.  They will rapidly beat through your regeneration and victory will come down to which team beats the other down first which is what I wanted anyway.  When HP regaining powers are only 2/3 as good as they 'should' be they end up being used never instead of sometimes and that isn't the place I wanted to be.  HP recovery needs to feel like a good action and right now it doesn't feel that way.

If I do improve all the HP recovery it will probably lead to some degenerate cases where two defensive characters simply can't kill each other.  I think it is worth accepting those degenerate cases though if it improves the general case of groups of combatants trying to beat each other.  I really want people to look at defensive options and value them and having that be a thing is more important than worrying about what happens when two paladins stand there beating on each other for eternity.  Having decent HP recovery also has other benefits in terms of combat predictability.  When characters can defend themselves they are less likely to be blown up by the fickleness of the dice and will be better able to smooth over bad situations.  That will lead to less "I guess Joe McSword is dead" and more strategy, which I like.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Getting better or just surviving

There is a new RPG on the market built my Monte Cook (of DnD 3rd edition fame, among other things) called Numenera.  It is a smashup of far future and fantasy, vaguely in line with many Final Fantasy products.  The world is Earth but enormously far into the future.  Swarms of nanobots roam the world and everything is subject to their machiny whims.  Being a spellcaster isn't really about manipulating magic but rather about manipulating tech, tech which is so far advanced from our familiar zone that it might as well be magic.  Arthur C. Clarke wins again.  I should note that I haven't actually played Numenera because I have too much to do playtesting and writing my own game but I read about some of the mechanics here and I am going to talk about them.

One of the really fascinating things Numenera does is completely rewrite the book on XP.  Characters gain XP from doing things and can use it to advance their character's attributes but it also can be used to directly influence outcomes.  For example, you can spend XP to alter die rolls to save yourself in combat.  The GM is also encouraged to say things like "The enemy has a rocket launcher you didn't know about.  You can either take 2 XP and accept this or spend 1 XP and there will be no rocket launcher."  Now this certainly is kind of cool and all but it really smashes the fourth wall to flinders.  I very much enjoy putting myself into the story and trying to play as though my challenges are preset; essentially pretending that the GM can't just say "You win" or "You all die horribly" at any time.

I feel like having these explicit game challenges where mechanics that fall way outside the character's POV directly influence what happens feels icky to say the least.  It feels much like the GM fudging dice rolls to keep the characters alive to me.  The suspense just isn't there anymore since the game feels like it is all about the GM being capricious instead of setting fixed challenges that need to be overcome.  While I know logically that challenges are designed for me to beat them I really don't like having my sense of immersion in the world blown apart so flagrantly.

The other issue with XP done this way is that there is always a conflict between winning now and winning later.  I would feel terrible spending all my XP to win a fight and not getting to advance.  I am a lunatic when it comes to these things and when I play games I always have all my consumables still intact when I get to the final boss.  Other people are obviously going to have a different take on this but I find the idea of permanently weakening my character to change a die roll exceedingly distasteful.  More generally though I am not in favour of mechanics that allow some characters to advance more rapidly than others based on player decisions.  I feel like parties are going to be happier when everyone advances together and tactics affect current situations but not future power.  Stories may be told with Aragorn and Legolas fighting alongside Pippin and Sam but nobody wants to play Pippin and they don't want the feeling that they might as well not even be there.  The best way to avoid that is have everyone advance together.

Given these things I don't think I will try Numenera.  If anyone who knows me picks it up I would be interested in reading it though since it probably has some cools ideas I can poach.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Murdering those orc babies

So bold adventurers you have courageously fought your way into the Temple of the Bad Stuff while being beset by traps and ambushes set by the clever and evil orks who inhabit the place.  Leaving a nearly endless trail of corpses in your wake you descend one final staircase into the heart of evil, ready to use your bloodstained axes to decapitate whatever fiend you find there.  Now as you open the door you see (dramatic pause) a whole bunch of orcish babies and their caregivers hiding trembling in the corner of the room, obviously terrified of the maelstrom of death that you represent.  What do you do?

This is the sort of dilemma I really enjoy putting into my games when I GM a fantasy RPG.  For one it can generate really interesting conflict and discussion between characters and for two it makes them understand that the world is actually nuanced.  If every orc in the world is a bloodthirsty maniac intent on attacking the characters on sight then surely the characters are justified in acting like murderhobos but when the orcs have guards and militias to defend their homes and families just like everybody else things become much more muddled.

There is nothing wrong with some things being just inherently evil monsters whether they be bloodsucking undead, voidspawn, demons, or whatever else but to my mind it really pays to have some ambiguity in most situations.  There doesn't need to be a particular penalty or reward associated with challenging moral choices either - sometimes you let the scout you captured go and sometimes you kill them.  Occasionally those choices should matter change the story arc but sometimes all they need to be is a bit of worry, regret, or relief and a powerful moment to remember the campaign by.

The most classic DnD is pretty much just an endless dungeon crawl where everything is out to kill you and nothing makes sense.  I am not so much a fan of such things as if I want to play a pure tactical game I feel like I can do better than DnD and if I am roleplaying I want the world to be consistent and to challenge me.  Randomly smashing into people's houses to kill them and take their stuff so that I can smash into the houses of more powerful people doesn't strike me as consistent with being a moral and righteous hero, nor does it make for interesting decisions.

James Wyatt wrote an interesting piece on that today where he talked about worldbuilding and making decisions about things like "Do orcs even have babies?" and "Are orcs inherently evil or are they just often socialized that way?"  I think these are fantastic questions to have the answers to before you ever set out to run an adventure.  For example, orks in Heroes By Trade are available as a player character race and aren't evil.  They are scary, domineering, and militaristic by nature but killing them on sight is not at all justifiable morally.  They also have females that are bigger than males, who make up 10% of the population, and who are the ones in charge most of the time so they definitely have some interesting quirks and aren't just people that the characters can mow down without any qualms.

This came up in my game last week where the characters fought a couple of patrols outside a Troll city underground and then snuck into the Troll city itself.  They wandered up to the top floor of a building and kicked open the door, ready for a bloody brawl.  Instead they found a couple of Troll adults, a handful of children, a pet 'dog', and a strange looking boxy device the children were messing with.  The characters panicked a bit but then decided to run into the room, steal the strange device, and run out again.  After a moment's inspection they determined that they had in fact stolen a children's toy and elected to run away.  You seriously cannot make this kind of thing up; the brave heroes sneak into an enemy stronghold to steal toys from wailing children while making what seemed to be reasonable decisions at each step.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Think fast

Your turn dude.

What?  Ummm. Sure, I uh, guess I will go over here.  No wait.  Hm.  Let me look at the board for a minute to figure out what I am doing next.

Couldn't you have thought about this ahead of time?!?

This is a constant conversation when playing games, especially when playing with people who are particularly slow to decide or who aren't all that interested in the game.  The trouble is that people who play slowly not only make their own turn take forever but also cause issues for the next person; when the previous turn is taking forever even the most involved player will end up drifting off and forget what they had intended to do themselves.  It is at its worst in games like DnD where some players really do have enormously complex choices (like a high level wizard) and some players have virtually no choice at all (like a low level fighter).  It is not much fun when each of your turns takes 30 seconds and another player takes 15 minutes and it is nearly impossible to stay mentally focused on the game.  Players try to come up with rules to force people to act quickly but when the game is heinously complex that will tend to leave the tacticians irritated.

In terms of tabletop RPGs I think the solution has four parts.

1.  Make sure that everyone has interesting tactical decisions so that everyone feels like they are participating and everyone has to take time now and again to consider.

2.  Make sure that nobody has a truly outrageous number of options so that even the hardcore tacticians can parse all of their options in a reasonable time frame.

3.  Arrange the combat mechanics such that figuring out what a given effect will accomplish is easy.  Figuring out what the *best* choice is should be hard but figuring what will happen if you do X should be trivial.  Players should not sit around flipping through books to figure out what their abilities do.

4.  Enforce some kind of time restriction.  Even with straightforward choices some people take forever to decide (and you know who you are!) and it is important to make sure they have a limit.  Characters don't have forever to figure out tactics so this is both supporting immersion and making things more fun.

It is not nearly so easy with a regular board game.  The trouble with a board game designed to have players opposing one another is that nearly every turn people change the game state substantially because they are actively *trying* to force their opponents to make different choices.  Often you can't play your turn ahead at all because there are simply too many choices to parse until your turn begins or you have nowhere near enough information to decide anything useful.  Cooperative games don't have this issue because you are building something together and you really want to know what it is your partners are trying to accomplish and they want to support whatever it is you are obviously planning.

I am not convinced there is any easy solution to this issue.  If people can't really oppose each other very much then you have a game like Dominion which often feels like Solitaire.  If people can oppose each other in a direct way then you have a game like Settlers where people feel ganged up on.  If opposing someone must be done in a indirect way like Puerto Rico then the game will totally shift with each choice and you will need lots of time to parse after every move.  Obviously all three of those games are games I enjoy but all of them have different pieces of this problem at their core.  Perhaps my next project will be to design a game that tries to address this in particular and see if I can find any interesting solutions.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The power of names

There is always a big controversy over naming things in games.  The latest DnD Next blog post illustrates this admirably.  It talks about how all classes are going to fall into one of four groups - Warrior, Trickster, Mage, Priest.  This is fairly iconic division and certainly the grognards from days of old should approve... except of course they largely don't.  There are a couple of issues here and it seems the largest one is the choice of Trickster for the group of classes that contains the iconic Thief / Rogue.  People really don't like Trickster since in theory classes that focus on scouting, assassination, crafting, or other skills would get lumped in there and that doesn't feel right.  People have suggested Rogue instead but I honestly feel like that has just as many issues.  The ideal choice from my perspective is something more like Scout or Expert; something that implies that their focus is information and skill instead of magic or fighting.  The thing I don't like is that Trickster implies deception and that isn't going to be at all consistent in classes in that group.

Of course there is a bigger problem there and that is that having a class that focuses on skills that are fully bounded by physics is always going to be weak in the late game against the reality bending powers of spellcasters.  Those same spellcasters are drastically less problematic in Next than in 2nd and 3rd edition but having a set of classes be focused around being skill experts is going to mean they suck overall.  Things don't have to be this way.  Dividing the thugging classes by 'good at fighting' and 'good at skills' is a disaster but they could just as easily be divided along the lines of 'tough and solid' and 'quick and dangerous'.  Fighters that have tons of HP and lots of ways to defend can be balanced quite reasonably against Rogues that hit hard and have good mobility and escape tactics.  Warrior and Rogue work just fine as names for those kits of abilities.

I have my own personal nut against calling the healing group Priest since I would very much like to have options for my healer that don't include worship.  This isn't even the crusading atheist in me talking; I have played very religious characters many times and enjoyed it but I would definitely like the option to build a character without such convictions as the healer in the group.  The other three categories aren't constrained by a particular belief set and outlook and I would greatly prefer to have a healer group that doesn't have that title.  I get that most people don't see it this way though; they could just call them Leaders or Healers or Oracles or something else entirely but most folks seem satisfied with Priest.

I struggled a lot with naming classes in Heroes By Trade.  I ended up with Marauder, Champion, Hunter, Tactician, Voidbringer, Channeler, Oracle, Wizard.  I feel like between them you can find a home for pretty much any concept and I don't really feel like I need group names even though they can easily be divided by using three separate descriptors - Range/Melee, Martial/Magical, Offence/Defence.