Thursday, February 27, 2014

Which person?

I have been doing a lot of writing on my RPG Heroes By Trade.  At the moment the text is still fairly rough but I have been slowly trying to make it more consistent and complete so that it will be easier for random people to use.  One tricky bit of the writing is figuring out what person to write everything in.  Initially it was quite a mess with some of it written in third person and some in second with little rhyme or reason to the style.  I figured that third person would be a better way to approach it generally but it is tricky because the text refers to so many different things.

For example, sometimes the text is giving direct orders to the reader.  Sometimes it is describing how a particular race always works, sometimes just how a certain member of a certain race works, and other times it describes the effect of a spell on the character in question.  Also the text varies between discussing the player and the character being played.  My impression was that other roleplaying manuals did this very seamlessly and I wanted to emulate that to have my work be as professional as possible in style and to make it easy to understand.  I usually found that either my person usage was inconsistent or that the text seemed a bit stilted when I tried to avoid that problem deliberately.

Today I went through my old RPG manuals for Vampire, DnD, and Warhammer to see how they dealt with this problem and I discovered that they were pretty much completely random and nonsensical.  The text would interchangeably use 'you' to refer to the player or the character and would swap from third to second person with no rhyme or reason.  Often in the middle of a stat block the writing would change styles completely and yet somehow while reading it all back in the day I never noticed this.  I suppose I wasn't terribly discriminating back then but more likely it is just because at the gaming table these things are used without much consistency and the books reflect that contextual usage of the word you.

This discovery was a bit of an eye opener both in that I realized how badly my old books needed editing and also because I now realize that the flow of the text is probably a lot more important than consistently staying in third person.  People can figure out what I mean as long as my writing is easy and fun to read so I should probably focus more on that.  It will be tricky to turn off the part of my brain that is attuned to this now though because that particular style leaps out at me after this little investigation.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Even more dangerous

Last time I talked about how I dislike the design of dangerous monsters in oldschool DnD.  The comments got interesting so I decided to talk a little more about how one could go about building deadly monsters effectively.  The problem with old school medusas is not that they could turn people to stone - it is that the way you would go about avoiding that is to roll 1d20 to make a saving throw.  That reduces what could be a fantastically memorable and dangerous encounter to a simpler number cruncher that occasionally kills characters outright.  That seems like the worst of all worlds.  On the other hand including monsters that have outrageous instant death attacks in the normal bestiary seems silly because what good are having stats for a beast that automatically kills everybody as soon as it gets a turn?

I think the answer is to have two separate bestiaries.  The first one represents normal monsters that the characters can be expected to fight without notice or preparation.  Gryphons might be pretty dangerous but you don't need a Lance of Gryphon Massacre to kill them, just good tactics and skill.  Gryphons can have a normal entry with a number to indicate how difficult they are to defeat and regular combat stats.  The second bestiary would contain monsters that are ludicrously dangerous to unprepared groups but require Plot to defeat.  For example, a medusa could instantly turn anyone to stone who has not just anointed themselves with the water of the Fountain of Life.  These entries can specify what is needed to be able to survive whatever hideous thing the monster does but of course GMs will often modify that to suit their campaigns.  Including combat stats for a medusa is fine but the assumption there is that anybody who is needing those combat stats has already figured out how to overcome their stony gaze.

I have already included these sorts of things in the game via Epic Rituals.  There are plenty of hideous and awful things an enemy could do right in the manual that the players would have to try to stop just as the heroes do in stories.  By including epic monsters with extra text describing a default way to prepare for those monsters it becomes much easier for a novice GM to build a final boss that is a truly legendary encounter right out of the box.  Of course I would make the second bestiary much smaller than the first - a dozen entries at most since eventually people will end up making their own hideous and unfair abominations.  In theory they are there to provide ideas and inspiration rather than an enemy of the week.

Making encounters that are really terrifying and require lots of prep is a very useful thing to do.  It definitely can amp up the reward of beating a particularly difficult opponent when much preparation was required to even step into the ring with them.  The best way to accomplish this though is not to simply have cockatrices, harpies, and basilisks wandering the forest randomly but to use them as legendary terrors that must be approached with utmost caution and to make the rules actually support that.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A dangerous world

Monsters in old versions of DnD were incredibly dangerous.  They would charm characters, turn them to stone, poison them, disease them, pop out of the ground, or any number of other unpredictable things.  In DnD 4th edition that is not at all the case and pretty much every monster presents a predictable numerical challenge.  A medusa is terrifying at any level in old school DnD but in 4th edition it is a joke once the characters outlevel it a bit because there is no more danger of instant petrification.  The old model more closely mirrors the real world since after all there are plenty of poisonous critters that will kill you dead, dead, dead if you disrespect them and avoiding them has nothing to do with combat skill and everything to do with knowledge and preparation.

The crux of the matter is whether or not players actually enjoy the realism of being randomly killed because they didn't know a monster's particular powers or weaknesses.  The world does feel more dangerous when you will die instantly if you don't get out a mirror / get fire ready to stop regeneration / stuff your ears with wax but it does feel a little ridiculous that out of character knowledge is so paramount.  Hydras aren't exactly common so how is anyone supposed to know that you can't beat them without burning their heads off first?  Does it make any sense that characters have to know that harpy songs will charm them without hearing protection and failing to do so means everyone dies?  (Or, you know, harpy sex slaves or something.)

When the game is played as a simulator where characters are just vehicles for players to 'win' then all of these crazy critters seem justified.  If you don't want to die to the first weird monster that shows up then read the entire monster manual and memorize that shit!  I don't much like those sorts of games though as I prefer to be in character and to have my character act as a person in that situation would.  Well, as an irrationally brave, combat oriented person in that situation would at any rate; they really shouldn't just sit in the library learning cool stuff for the whole campaign and I know people who would do that!  Really I like the idea of a character who doesn't know all these things and has to muddle through anyway so having monsters that require out of character knowledge to defeat bothers me.

I have been building a bunch of monsters for HBT and I want to avoid monsters being too generic so this problem has come to the front of my mind.  I decided to build a hydra that has a ton of HP and regenerates those HP very rapidly to reflect its heads regrowing.  It doesn't require special knowledge to defeat but the mechanics definitely support a terrifying creature that heals any damage done to it moments after that damage is dealt.  Once you chop off the last head (deal actual wound damage) to the hydra it dies so the combat should, if described properly, reflect the legend of the hydra.  The characters don't have to have special tactics but they do have to beat the hydra down hard because if they are too defensive the beast will simply outheal any damage they do to it.

The next step is for me to create a bunch of weird conditions monsters can inflict on players.  At the moment monsters have a huge variety of tactics and abilities but they don't inflict hideous and lasting suffering.  While I don't want instant death attacks and petrification to be usual I do think that a disease that slowly transforms someone to stone so that they need to rush to find someone with a Ritual that can cure it is a cool idea.  The ideal situation to me is one where the players have to find solutions to problems that monsters pose without randomly dying to them right off.  If monsters do nasty stuff to characters but are then defeated the situation becomes a new challenge that can be overcome and that strikes me as a lot more fun.

One thing I really like the idea of is making these afflictions linked to taking wound damage.  If players only take HP damage they avoid being poisoned or diseased but if they take real damage something terrible can happen.  This seems like it has to potential to alter strategy and really increase the stakes even if the players don't actually suffer from the affliction in question.  Combining these ideas seems like it could lead to some really great strategic choices where players have to figure out how important it is to defend their friends vs. going all out and bashing monster faces.  Now I just have to do the actual work of implementing all of this.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

More on XP and levels

Today I have been ruminating on character advancement.  My thoughts were directed this way by the latest DnD Next blog post which talked about character advancement without using XP.  I greatly support that style as I find the idea of counting up murder points absurd in theory and wretched in execution.  The blog post talked about how the system of 'level up whenever it seems right' will be included in the final version of Next.  This is a great idea and despite the complaints of others I think there was no reason to introduce this earlier in the process - who needs to playtest a system that consists of "do whatever you want"?

What I have been considering is what exactly should be gated by levels in my own game.  At the moment there are three things that change when a character levels up in HBT:  One Aspect (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Will, Pres) increases by one point, the character learns a new Power / Ritual / Skill / Racial Ability, and the character gains a Fate Point.  It is a simple and clean advancement system but the three categories are really different from one another and I don't know for sure that they need to be linked.  Aspects are pretty much about raw power.  Higher Aspects means bigger numbers but they don't add a lot of new options so they are the dial the GM uses to make the characters better at murdering their enemies.  Learning new things mostly improves out of combat options.  Fate Points essentially add an I Win button so that characters can have heroic and unexpected successes when they really need them.

I wonder if it would be useful to put all of these things on separate tracks.  I can easily see GMs wanting to ratchet up character power quickly so they can be superheroes and if Aspects are acquired separately it would be easy to manage this.  In the current system a character that has a ton of combat power is also going to have a bazillion Rituals and be great at tons of Skills and that may not be desirable.  Fate Points are the simplest to separate because they don't permanently change the character's abilities and so having a system where characters are awarded Fate Points for good roleplaying, taking big risks, heroic sacrifices, or other criteria would work fine alongside a level system that regulated learning and Aspects together.

Of course I can simply put all of these things in the GM's guide as optional schemes but I think relying on that is a cop out.  It is fine to have some choices available but it is important to have the best possible baseline that people accept as the standard.  My feeling at the moment is that permanent character sheet changes should be strictly regulated by levels that everyone earns at the same rate.  This also means that it is easy to integrate a new character to a game because they come in at the same point everyone else does.  Fate Points being awarded for doing cool stuff and not being limited to level seems like a fine baseline though.  It adds a way for the GM to reward doing great things in the game without letting anyone fall behind in any permanent way.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The wrong damn polyhedral piece of plastic

The DnD Next blog this week talked about some of the things that worked and didn't work in Next.  The designers of Next really like Advantage as a mechanical replacement for the bazillion and one different +1s that older editions relied on.  I agree, and have done the same thing in Heroes By Trade.  Nobody really liked the system of

"I hit AC 21."
"You miss."
"Wait, I am flanking.  AC 23."
"Still miss."
"I have Cat's Grace up, AC 24!"
"Is that Prayer spell still going?  Make that AC 25!"
"... fine you hit"

and replacing that and the terrible iterative attack system with a single unchanging bonus to hit and advantage / disadvantage is fantastic.  Players should not spend half of their combat time and most of their thinking on locating all those pesky bonuses that have been misplaced somewhere.

The thing that makes no sense to me is that they still don't grasp the fundamental flaw with their skill system. I have said it before and I will say it again until they publish or listen - when being the strongest person in the world gives you a +5 bonus over a regular schlub you should not be rolling 1d20.  The idea that an Olympic weightlifter is only a little bit better at lifting a portcullis than I am is ridiculous and makes the whole skill system absurd.  If the strongest person in the world gets a +5 on me then we should be rolling 1d4 so that no matter what happens I am just worse.  They tried and failed to implement an auto success system and their failure can be squarely blamed on this one critical flaw.

One thing I am not sure they notice is how much this impacts the martial vs. caster balance.  If martials could rack up really big skill bonuses and actually do cool things like leap over buildings or smash brick walls then the endgame wouldn't feel quite so much like Gandalf adventuring with Pippin.  Unfortunately with the enormous die and the small bonuses nobody can do anything really cool - unless of course they can cast spells.  If you want to see a game where high level fighters can actually do something other than "Swing sword very good" then all that is required is a few mechanics to give martial classes large skill bonuses and reduce the die rolled on skill checks to 1d6.  When something is hard for a normal person to accomplish at Difficulty 6 then the rogue with a Balance check of +15 can probably walk on raindrops.

This is actually making me reconsider my current HBT design.  In the game characters can hit check bonuses on the order of +20 which lets them do some pretty ludicrous things but they have to be pretty high level to manage that.  Impossible difficulty is 20 and ludicrous is 25 for reference.  My current design keeps people bounded pretty close to reality but maybe I should change it so that they can do things way beyond what real people could hope to accomplish.  In any case it isn't a martial vs. caster thing in HBT because everybody can do Rituals if they want to but it is an interesting idea to chew on.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Stylistic crossroads

It is good to consider every so often what sort of game you actually want to be playing.  Many times in the past I have been utterly absorbed in a game and ended up playing it beyond the point where it was actually the best thing to be doing - World of Warcraft is the standout example but it is by no means alone.  This week I am thinking about roleplaying and what exactly I like to do when I get together to roleplay with people.  My two groups are all of a sudden dealing with substantial upheaval with players dropping out and schedules being madly rearranged and this naturally leads me to consider what exactly I want to have happen when the dust settles.

I definitely want to be playing Heroes By Trade.  My new version is very exciting for me and I really want to give it a test drive - it has the combination of smoothed rules that should make things somewhat easier for new players and additional options that will add richness to the experience.  That leaves a lot of options on the table though from a dungeon crawl where we all optimize our characters for combat and danger to a story driven, angst filled tale full of tension and raw emotion.  Both of the games I have been involved in lately have straddled those two extremes as they had combat and some degree of 'kill it, eat it, take its stuff' but also had some roleplaying and drama.

At the moment I am harbouring a hankering for both extremes.  I think it is a reaction to being in two groups with similar middle of the road styles for half a year.  I want those things that I have been missing - the hardcore tactics and math fest and endless intrigue and introspection both sound interesting.  The trick I suspect is getting the mix of people right to make that work.  Some people really love the intricacies of combat and optimizing systems and others don't get much out of it and the number people tend to like the game a lot better if they are playing with other number people.  That way they can all focus on fighting the hardest fights just to see if they can come out the other side alive.  The same goes the other way of course since following up a tearful goodbye to a beloved friend with "Man, aren't we going to fight *anything* tonight?" really reduces the impact of the scene.

As usual though my ideals will end up at the mercy of schedules.  Roleplaying games require a serious investment of time and when one is no longer in university surrounded by students with endless amounts of time available this translates into a lot of schedule juggling and rejiggering of style and direction.  Thankfully I have a bunch of great folks to play with so I will happily be involved in whatever it is that shakes out.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A cool new sword

Both of the campaigns testing Heroes By Trade have come to stopping points this week so I am taking some time to get feedback from players.  One of the things that has come up is that people don't feel like there are sufficient rewards for doing things in the game.  When there is an XP system in place players can feel rewarded by getting XP towards a new level even if a new level doesn't happen right away but HBT doesn't have XP and I have no intention of using it.  I tend to give out levels periodically rather than requiring specific game events to trigger them - I don't really like the idea that if there a few sessions with a lot of travelling or roleplaying but lacking big developments that the players don't feel any sense of progress.

One of the things about HBT right now is that gear and cash rewards don't work very well.  Magical items are reasonably rare things and aside from getting one of those every sword is the same as every other sword.  HBT keeps track of cash in very loose terms on a scale from Destitute to Monarch rather than by counting copper pieces and I like it that way because economies based on adventurers having enough cash to buy a small kingdom and then spending that cash in a small store never make any sense.  In the campaign I ran the characters ended up reasonably wealthy but once they had enough to buy a small boat and to bribe a guard getting more cash held little appeal.  While it was good that they were focused on the story rather than farming dragons for gold pieces it seemed to lack something.

The solution I am hoping to implement is something akin to masterwork items or exotic materials in DnD.  That is, those who are lucky or rich can find weapons, armour, or tools that are of a quality that is far beyond the norm.  I feel like having extraordinarily rare materials such as mithril, starmetal, adamantium, silversteel, heart of ent, etc. be the main way that these tools exist is a good mechanism.  They cannot be mass produced due to rarity of the materials but they allow for small steps up in power for the players.  The increase in raw numbers doesn't need to be big as long as there is a steady stream of useful upgrades punctuated by the occasional jackpot of a magic item.

In addition to adding in mundane but useful gear I intend to change the way magic items work.  Right now all the magic items have a list of abilities that are unlocked based on the character's Presence.  Each item is roughly the same in power as all the others though they do different things.  My new theory is that every character can attune to a single magic item and gain its powers but they can attune to a greater number of items if they have very high Presence.  However, there will be some magic items that are incredibly potent and have multiple powers that can be attuned to which synergize with one another.  The idea is to differentiate between simple magic items that are cool and do something neat and artifacts that are the subject of stories and fables across the land and which can only be properly used by a legendary hero.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Smashing those sugary confections

Like everybody else in the world I downloaded Candy Crush to my phone and have been busily destroying masses of sweets with enormous chains of explosions.  Unlike everybody else I have declined to funnel huge sums of money to the creators of Candy Crush - I am content to play for free and to stop for the day when my 5 lives run out.  I feel like I should give a nod to other game creators out there when they do something right and Candy Crush deserves credit.  It has a ton of things going for it and its remarkable financial success (to the tune of $750,000 a day) is not random or lucky, it is because the game is extremely well designed.

Getting the proper mix of randomness and skill in a single player game is key.  CC definitely has skill involved as on many levels I sit and stare at the screen for many minutes at a time trying to plan out a huge chain of effects and when I do I am much more successful.  That said, there are times I play a level and fail to get the required 50k points and the next time I get 300k points - it is still true that is it better to be lucky than good.  The mix here is just right because I can feel myself improving and notice that levels get easier with practice but even if I was really bad I could still win just by slamming myself into the RNG over and over.  At some point of terribleness the player is essentially waiting on cosmic sort / time sort but it *will* happen.

CC also has a couple of ways to buy into the game and I really like their strategies.  Buying powerups is something you might not think to do unless you are familiar with how much they help so they make sure the free player gets a trickle of them to entice them to buy more; giving them the first hit for free as it were.  They also get that people should pay to play rather than pay to not play - some free to play games essentially allow the player to skip the game by spending cash and that really shortens the lifespan (not to mention enjoyment) of the game.  CC on the other hand gets it right and lets people who want to play more pay more to do so.

CC also has a great method for experiencing and skipping content.  There is a cutesy map and cut scenes and such for those who enjoy such things but I can trivially zip past them to the game.  They make it very easy to spam your friends on Facebook or hand them cash but it isn't a constant strain or hassle to avoid those things.  They fit their requests for cash very smoothly into the experience and avoid the mistake of making free players bitter or under assault.  Everything in the game feels like it is there for a reason and it is clearly not designed to try to irritate me into opening my wallet.

The one complaint that I have about CC is the unbelievable power draw.  I can run every app I own at once and all of them combined don't use as much power as CC does.  A simple game like this shouldn't cause my phone to become hot to the touch!  I think this might be a much bigger flaw for a player willing to pay for more playtime because they would likely run their phone right out of juice and have to stop anyway.  For me it ends up being annoying but I always run out of lives before I run out of power so it isn't a catastrophe.

So to those who made the game:  Good job.  You are getting ludicrously wealthy and while you may not 'deserve' it exactly I submit for the record that you are building swimming pools to hold your cash for some very good reasons.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Roll dem dice: Poll on rolling damage

I am monkeying with some of the mechanics in Heroes By Trade.  I have found that the current way I set up damage dealt in combat is mechanically very precise and generates the right numbers but it is clunky and sometimes confuses people.  I swung a little too far into 'make the numbers beautiful' and too far away from 'make the game fun'.  Keeping that in mind I want to change the way I do damage determination.

I still intend to have a hit roll that determines if the attack lands or not.  The question is, what system should I use for damage?

Option 1.  Everyone rolls 1d10 for damage and adds modifiers to that damage.  Weapons and Aspects plus miscellaneous bonuses will be added on.  For example, someone with 8 Strength using a Greatsword would do 1d10 + 12 damage.

Option 2.  Damage is fixed.  It is still possible to get a critical hit and ignore the opponent's Armour but otherwise every hit does the same damage.  Note that opponents have different Armour values so the actual damage that ends up getting through is not the same on each opponent.  For example, someone with 8 Strength using a Greatsword would do 18 damage.

Option 2 looks really weird at first glance.  I am used to rolling damage in every system from DnD to World of Darkness to Cyberpunk but nonetheless there is no particular reason why it needs to happen.  Removing the damage roll certainly speeds things up and makes it very simple but I wonder if something is lost.  In particular I am concerned about whether or not people will find that it lacks the proper feel.  I am currently leaning towards Option 1 but I don't want to do so just because of tradition.  It is pretty hard to separate myself from so many years of that tradition though!

So, poll time.  Do you like rolling for damage or fixed damage?  If you have an opinion or any thoughts at all please do reply and let me know.