Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Keeping the diversity rolling

In my Heroes By Trade tests I got some feedback that the races in my particular fantasy world weren't compelling enough numerically.  At level 1 they were reasonably differentiated but as time went by many of the differences between the races vanished because they could be replicated simply by buying particular Skills or Powers.  Initially many of the races were set apart by having a short list of Skills they had to choose from - as an example, Trolls need to choose two of Intimidate, Stealth, Camouflage, and Wilderness to be trained in to start the game.  I came up with an idea to keep races differentiated over time that I adapted/stole from 4th edition DnD, which is to let people buy racial abilities as they level up.

All characters of a particular race will still get baseline abilities like the Troll getting Thick Hide which grants them +1 Armour and +1 Resist.  However, as they level up they will have the option of buying new abilities that are unique to their race.  Humans can purchase an increase to the number of Fate Points they receive, Gnomes can tumble through squares occupied by large creatures, and Sylphs will be able to upgrade their wings to have more powerful flight.  Every race will have a number of cool things that they *can* do but which not everyone who takes that race will be able to do.  Hopefully this will make racial choices continue to be relevant and interesting as characters get more powerful and also let people of the same race differentiate themselves if they choose to.

I feel like in DnD this style didn't work well partly because the feats were terribly balanced but mostly because of organization - all the racial abilities were listed under feats and as such were difficult to find if you were looking for them and hard to avoid if you didn't want them.  It seems like a small thing but I think those feats would have gone over a lot better if they could have been neatly placed under race instead of just randomly scattered throughout the feat lists - I certainly would have liked to know what cool stuff a dwarf could learn to do when reading the other details about dwarves.

This all ties in with a philosophy of mine about gaming systems.  That is, the system is not necessary to do cool things and have fun but people feel much more immersed in the game when the system supports their intuitive understanding of how things should work.  I think people want characters to be able to have unique abilities and they want a character's race to matter in terms of what amazing abilities they can manifest.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The big pitch

Little games, ones published by a new company, a single person, or just a game without a number after its name often have trouble establishing themselves.  People already know the entries in the category and want more of the same - Diablo for example has a huge following and if you are going to do a ARPG you really need something cool and different to draw people in.  I think it is really key to have a good pitch line, something that can quickly and effectively communicate what exactly sets your game apart from the leviathan everybody else knows.  If you want to have any chance of getting people to pay the monetary and time cost of converting to your game you really need to have some good taglines for why your game is worth it.

In TTRPGs the leviathan is DnD, or its bastard offspring Pathfinder.  Of course the competition I am thinking about right now is Heroes By Trade and I am considering what I would say if I had just a few seconds to get people's attention.  The key of course is to find a way in which DnD sucks and HBT rocks so that I can set up the most favourable comparison possible.  Just saying "HBT lets you play fun fantasy campaigns!" is useless because plenty of systems do that; I have to showcase why and where HBT is better.

Complex choices, simple math
Interesting tactics for all classes and roles
You can actually play out Lord of the Rings
Worlds that make sense

These are some things I have been thinking of.  The first two are huge because I always hated the situation where it was blindingly obvious what to do every round but actually calculating the results of the optimal choice took forever.  "What is my plus to hit on my secondary offhand attack roll again?"  Figuring out what your bonus to hit is should *not* take five minutes.  I think that is actually a huge draw for new players because I often find newer folks absolutely floored by the task of keeping track of their current numbers and veterans who are bored because their tactics almost all come down to "I attack".  There is a reason that nearly all the indie games out there that get any traction have extremely simple minimalist rulesets.

The latter two phrases are most important for the GMs I think.  I always found it frustrating to come up with worlds that didn't fall apart when high level spellcasters began to do things - the amount of work it took to sort out exactly how everyone was supposed to defend against powerful PC spellcasters with clever players was prohibitive.  I also really have a personal thing about healing and recovery; I despise the DnD instant heal system that makes injury a trinary system.  Either you are full, hurt, or dead, and there really isn't anything more to it than that.  Fantasy stories just don't work that way!

I figure it is important to keep these things in mind when designing a new game.  It can be fun to build something to compete against the leviathan but if you actually want to see your game played you should figure out what other games are doing badly and then do that really well.  It is going to provide a place for players who really want that and it will make a great marketing pitch should the time to sell ever materialize.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I suck

There are a lot of games in the world where I am pretty good.  Given an equal practice period I would happily go up against anyone at nearly any game you can name.  Holy crap do I ever suck at bowling though.

That's right, I got beat in bowling by my seven year old child.  I also got beat by my dad, but that is a lot more reasonable since he actually has done some bowling in the past and is good at that sort of game.  At least we don't have any worries about me getting an inflated ego this Christmas season.

Friday, December 20, 2013

It goes up smooth

I have been playing a bunch of Path of Exile lately and I have been impressed with the way the endgame works.  In particular I am impressed with how well POE compares to Diablo 3 when it comes to endgame progression and the difficulty curve.  When playing D3 I just smashed through all of Normal, Nightmare, and Hell without stopping and then suddenly got brutalized when I arrived in Act 1 of Inferno.  With a combination of playing better, figuring out better skill combinations, and some gear tweaks I managed to get Act 1 down pretty fast and then hit the brick wall of Act 2.  Not only was I dying a dozen times to every elite group but it was also abundantly clear that it would take a truly monumental amount of farming to change that.  The prospect of farming Act 1 for a hundred hours to allow me to be able to slowly and painfully make progress in Act 2 was extremely unpleasant.  The difficulty curve was just a wall rather than being a smooth increase throughout.

POE seems completely unlike that.  As the level of zones goes up the monsters get consistently more difficult; although there are definitely prime levelling places I definitely find that I get a little more gear and a few more points and then I can move on to the next area comfortably.  The progression into the map endgame seems smooth as I was able to tackle the first map I found at the listed level.  I died some but a lot of that was just cockiness and inexperience and once I took the enemies seriously and regeared a bit it was quite doable.

The key here is that I consistently get the sense that I am getting better.  I get a new piece of gear and then I can farm the Docks instead of the Fel Shrine.  I get another piece of gear and I can farm the Cathedral instead.  Another piece yet and I can start effectively farming my first maps.  The trouble with the Act 2 wall in D3 was that even if I got several upgrades I would still be doing exactly the same thing as before - clear out the whole second half of Act 1 again.  There was no feeling of progression, no sense of being able to do new things.  Having a really good difficulty scale that gives that constant sense of progression is key to making the game fun.

A major factor in making that happen is the inevitability of damage.  In D3 it was quite possible to avoid nearly all damage and building a character that would be one shotted by everything was the only sensible choice.  In POE that isn't reasonable because you are going to take damage and you must be able to survive it to accomplish anything.  That allows the difficulty curve to be much easier to construct because if the monsters do 10% more damage that *matters*.  When all monsters do infinite damage it becomes extremely difficult to actually ramp up the challenge of encounters in a granular fashion.

Ahead of time I hadn't realized just how important a feature this was but it definiltely is - there needs to be a lot of damage flying around that is nigh impossible to avoid and which the character has to be able to survive to make sure that being tough enough is a constant struggle.  A smooth progression curve is key to a fun experience in a RPG and achieving that is so much easier if you can do so just by ramping up the damage the players take by 20% and be sure that doing so really matters.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Feelin' it

The feel of a game is critical.  I think that this term is pretty terribly defined most of the time as people would generally only be able to say 'I just don't like it' as justification for saying that the feel of a game is off.  Sometimes they might complain about mechanics in an inconsistent or nonsensical way to support their sense that the feel is off but rarely can they point to the real source.  I have noticed though that a huge component of feel is the sense that decisions made by the player have the sorts of consequences one would expect if they were made in the real world.

For example, if your character is being attacked by archers and you choose to hop behind a tree you should be substantially safer from arrows.  If the game fails to reflect that then someone who makes that choice will be frustrated that the game feels wrong because their intuition about what actions are sensible does not match the rules.  In a similar way people expect that if their character wields a sword and shield they will be tougher than someone who wields a sword in each hand.  It would be possible to build a system where wielding two weapons gave you an option to parry and shields helped you slam people and end up in a situation where putting on a shield actually made you easier to hurt but this would have a bad feel for most people.

This is why systems are so important.  People want to do things that are in character and make sense and they also want to 'win' the encounter.  If those two goals are achieved by doing the same thing then they feel comfortable and have confidence in the system.  On the other hand if being good and making sense are entirely at odds you end up with bitterness between the optimizers and the actors.  It is true that if your group matches you very well it hardly matters what system you use because fun will be had.  It is also true that if your group is a horrible mismatch for you then it hardly matters what system you use because misery will be had.  There are plenty of places in the middle though where a really good system that aligns sensible roleplaying choices with optimized power choices can smooth over the differences between players.

Achieving that balance is one of the cornerstones of Heroes By Trade design.  I really want it to be true that if a player just picks a class, picks a few Powers that seem thematically appropriate, and picks a weapon based purely on aesthetics that they will be fine.  As good as the twink?  Certainly not, but I really want the feel that the best general measure of a character's prowess is their level rather than their ability to avoid making stupid choices that are baked into the game.  If you built a character by trying to make a copy of a hero from a movie, for example, that character should at least be reasonable in the system.

The key to doing this is to make sure that any given choice is optimal some of the time.  Should I use a greataxe or a twohanded sword?  Depends on my stats, my perks, and my Powers.  Should I wear chain armour or plate armour?  Depends on who I am fighting, how much I have to move around, and where I need to travel to.  Should I learn Infested Claws or Whirlwind?  Depends on what my teammates are using, whether I am fighting a single target or a mass of enemies, and what other Powers I chose.  Any time I find that one option is always correct I tilt things until that isn't true.  As long as every choice is optimal given some configuration of the rest of the character things will work out fine.

Friday, December 13, 2013


In the DnD Next blog post this week Mike Mearls talked about classes and how people approach them.  He discusses how some players have a concept in mind when they begin and they try to find a way to hammer a particular class into the concept they started with.  Others window shop and when they see a class they want they just play it as it is.  One group wants the system to present them with a mostly fully formed character they can just step into and the other wants the system to give them tons of options to tweak things just so.  What ends up happening is the system sits partway between those two extremes, offering classes that have some fixed features and some options.

My group of friends built a system years ago that discovered the necessity of a middle ground the hard way.  We designed the game down to three generic classes, then two, then one.  A player could build any combination of thugging, magic use, skills, and tricks but people seemed very uninspired to play the game.  Having restricted options and built in flavour really increased the fun of character building.  People may say they want complete flexibility but it seems that few really do; note how few people actually play GURPS.

What is interesting to me is that Mearls tries to position DnD 3rd as the edition where people had tons of choices and 4th as being highly restrictive.  I think it is true that you had more options in 3rd but the problem was that nearly all of those options were garbage.  You could be a multiclass wizard / ranger / cleric / bard / rogue if you really wanted to but since you would be completely useless that doesn't really count as an option.  I think 4th edition actually had significantly more options that were decent but it certainly cut off all kinds of junk builds by fiat rather than by attrition.  In 4th edition as long as you maximized your attack stat you couldn't go that far wrong - in 3rd by comparison you could make a monumentally crappy character with ease.

I suspect that the final model for DnD Next's classes will be one that supports both philosophies reasonably but also generates maximum revenue.  I would bet that we get core books that present a few simple options but mostly let you just choose a class and go and then supplements that provide plenty of ways to swap out baseline abilities for new and interesting things.  People will complain of course about splatbooks and power creep and the necessity to buy tons of junk but that model lets new players buy a Player's Manual and get started easily and lets the hardcore people buy eighteen books and make their super optimized twinks.  This is of course the model that was financially very successful in both 2nd and 3rd edition already.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Slimming down

I have been building character sheets for Heroes By Trade.  This is a tremendously useful exercise because it gives me information on just how complicated I have made the rules.  I remember building characters in Pathfinder and being amazed at how many numbers went into each calculation.  Armour Class seems like a simple concept until you see it broken down into three categories of AC - touch, regular, and flat footed, and then you see the huge list of different things that modify each one.  The calculation of defence values and hit rolls in HBT is drastically simpler than in Pathfinder (which, in fact, was one of the defining reasons to build the system in the first place) but I do have an additional wrinkle in that every character has a soak value for both physical and magical damage.

People have found that last detail a bit of a challenge and there has been a lot of desperately searching character sheets for the appropriate soak value for the incoming damage.  I know that HBT is much simpler than Pathfinder but it is tricky for me to decide if it is simple enough.  I want complex tactical decisions but I really want a game that people can figure out the numbers very quickly.  The question "What happens if I do this?" should be trivial to answer and the question "What is the best action to take?" should be very complicated.  People get those messed up a lot and miss that many games that are deadly complex to understand consistently boil down to a single best strategy.  Getting perspective on this is difficult as I am so much inside the system myself and knowing what every number does is intuitive.  People other than me on the other hand don't seem to find it as straightforward as that.

I could simply have a single avoidance stat and a single soaking stat rather than having both of them for physical and magical damage.  This would make things simpler for sure but would lose some depth of strategy.  Some characters and monsters end up much more vulnerable to one sort of attack or the other and it is interesting to have to figure out who should be attacking what based on those vulnerabilities.  There is nothing generally wrong with just having Dodge and Armour but sometimes having Dodge, Armour, Ward, and Resist lets the players be clever and send their physical tank to go tie up the ogre while the magical tank engages the enemy necromancer and that feels pretty great.  It also lets people be differentiated somewhat and feel like their stat spreads really matter.

I do have the issue that there is a cost to adopting a new game.  Even if DnD is more complicated it contains familiar mechanics that people will easily fall into because they have seen them before - in order to really be appealing I need HBT to be significantly simpler while simultaneously being tactically superior.  DnD designers do have the constraint that they have to cater to the nostalgia of the grognards but having said grognards around does have big advantages in terms how much complexity can be crammed in.

Friday, December 6, 2013

What am I doing again? Killing dudes, that's what!

I have been playing Path of Exile a lot.  It has been described as the spiritual successor to Diablo 2 and after testing both Diablo 3 and POE I definitely agree with that description.  D3 has its own charms but POE definitely *feels* like D2 and honestly seems like more fun than any of the games that actually bear the Diablo name.  The funny thing is that a lot of the things I find I most like about POE are things that were specifically engineered out of D3.

In particular I like that I often have no idea what is going on.  When I finally went to kill Piety at the end of POE I honestly didn't have any idea why I was doing that.  I knew she had shown up and mocked me once or twice and definitely killed a guy once but other than that I really didn't have any awareness of why I should bother.  This is definitely the sort of thing that happened in D2 - you could end up fighting nearly all of the act bosses without really knowing why aside from Diablo himself.  D3 very deliberately had the enemies pop onto the screen to mock you and tell you their plans so that you absolutely could not fail to know what you were up against.  It turns out I really like being able to just wander around butchering stuff with no clue why.  Of course if I really wanted plot I could go around to everybody in town and hear all the speeches and get all the backstory but the wonderful thing was how optional it all was.

That optionality of various parts of POE is absolutely key.  I am completely able to skip quests, wander into zones for no reason, ignore lore, and just do whatever the hell I want.  There are gates to progression of course but they aren't always in your face and they fit nicely into the world.  A truly open game with no direction isn't really what I want and the utterly regimented plot of D3 was stifling but this middle ground with some plot that needs to happen and a bunch of stuff you can do or not is fantastic.  I think D3 was deliberately designed to avoid the scenario of the player having no clue what is happening, probably because people ended up wandering around in D2 being completely clueless about what to do next some of the time.  Unfortunately that choice really makes the game feel less like a series of interesting choices and more like Progress Quest.

The loot decisions in POE are also absolutely fascinating because sockets and gems are just so damn flexible.  A piece of gear has not just a series of random properties but also a random set of sockets with random colours with random connections.  All of the dimentions offer incredible variety and make gearing choices very complicated.  Do I want to wear the gear that lets me socket more stuff onto my primary attack, or gear that gives me more resists?  More movement speed, or another aura?  Can I afford the loss of mana?  So many questions!  More options, both to be bad if I want or awesome if I can figure it out, make POE by far the game for me.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Being even more elegant

The DnD Next blog post this week is the second installment on game design elegance.  One of the key points in it is a discussion about making rules local rather than global.  The idea of the article is that you should bury rules in individual classes, weapons, or other small categories rather than making them standard so that only the people who really need to know them have to learn them.  For example, they talk about how spellcasters have to concentrate to maintain some spells and being hit ends that concentration.  The idea is that only the spellcasters will need to know this and other people will not.

I think this is a very flawed approach to solving an old problem.  The problem is the extreme complexity of the 3rd edition combat rules, in particular the rules about attacks of opportunity.  Firing a ranged weapon provoked an attack of opportunity, drawing a weapon did not, but sheathing one did.  Standing up provoked an attack, 5 foot stepping did not, and you can make a special kind of check to avoid provoking when spellcasting.  This is only the tip of the iceberg and anyone who wanted to not get destroyed in combat needed to know these things.  However, the problem wasn't that the rules were in the Combat section but rather that they were flat out too complicated!  The basic rules of how combat works need to be super simple but people need to know what they are.

Continuing the example from above it is clear that absolutely everybody in combat needs to know that concentration spells are ruined when you get hit.  When the enemy wizard tries to turn your friend into stone you *need* to know that if you go over there and clobber the wizard the spell will fail.  It simply isn't enough for the wizard to know that they have to avoid getting hit; the brawlers have to know the rule too.  Another example is that ranged weapons are likely to have a property that makes them bad when used within an enemy's reach.  The proposed solution is to have that rule sitting in the section on that weapon itself instead of in a central location.  Again though everybody needs to know that running up to an archer and getting in their face is a good thing to do mechanically - it isn't reasonable for that knowledge to be only available to the archer!

The fact is that if a rule is useful and if a rule is necessary then it needs to be located in a place where everybody can read it.  If that means that there are too many rules then trim down or simplify the rules.  Hiding the rules away so that they are hard to find or so only a few people know what they are just means that some players are going to play terribly because they don't know how the game works and that isn't helping anyone.  Players who end up on the ass end of a rule they didn't know existed will not thank you for making that rule local rather than global.