Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Knowing you have won

I saw a quote from a recent Mark Rosewater column about Magic's new direction today that struck me as very important.

"I explain that if the game ends while the players are still invested they end the game excited and wishing to play it again.  If the game ends after they wanted to stop, though, it makes them leave the game with a negative impression, which decreases their chance of playing again."

This is, I suspect, a hugely important reason why the last few turns of my game Fantasy Monster Beatdown (FMB on the sidebar) haven't been as engaging as I would like.  The trouble is that the game is over when someone reaches 45 points and because the entire score a player has accumulated is visible at all times people give up when it becomes clear they can't win.  It is hard to be invested in a game when you know that the outcome is already decided regardless no matter if you are winning or losing.  Perfect knowledge of who is winning exists in plenty of other games but it is obscured by having complicated calculations to figure out the final score.

For example, you could easily count a player's entire score in Vegas Showdown to determine exactly where they will end up but people don't do this - they look at the points scored on the track, make a rough estimate as to how well the player seems to be doing on the board, and go with it.  Even though a player who is losing could be aware of that in theory they don't know it in practice and they can play without any certainty of the outcome.  This ensures that veteran players can have a very good sense of who is the front runner without explicit counting but newbies get the excitement of playing the last turn without knowing that they have already been defeated.

There are a few ways around this.  The usual one is to keep much of the scoring on the board and make it complicated to add up as Agricola, Le Havre, or Carcassone do.  New players just can't penetrate all of the scoring details so mystery remains.  There is also the solution employed in Puerto Rico where points that are scored are kept hidden so that newbies only have a vague sense of what a player has scored but in theory all point totals are accessible via memorization.  One of the requirements of any of these systems is that the game have a fixed end condition that is not dependent on the number of points scored and as it is currently designed FMB does not have that as an option.

One interesting option that comes from a game the name of which escapes me at the moment is having scoring be slightly random.  Each time a player scores they get a token which has either a 1, 2, or 3 on it indicating how much it is worth but the number stays hidden.  That way a player who performs better overall almost always has the higher total but you can't actually be sure just what each player's hidden total is.  This does introduce additional randomness into the game but it also functions to keep people who are just a few points behind in expected value interested because with a little luck they could still claim victory.

I can't change FMB to have a scoring system where a lot of the points rest on the board because it just isn't that sort of game.  I also don't like the partially hidden mechanic that Puerto Rico uses in this case because people would feel obligated to try to memorize their opponent's scores and that is tedious and not fun.  Making the optimal way to play also a fun way to play is a key component in good game design.  What I do like is the idea of knowing how many point tokens an opponent has but not knowing the exact score they have as a result.  It would be pretty easy to change the scoring system such that every point scored is a chip with a value of (1,2,3), (0,1,2), or (1,2) without changing any other mechanics and I could neatly avoid a lot of the issues the current game has at endgame.

There would be some small issues that need resolving - I would need to establish the game end conditions based on the game turn rather than point total but that is very trivial since the game tracks the game turn passively anyway.  There would also need to be consideration of how to balance going first vs. going second but I have a few easy dials to turn in that regard like preventing the first player from picking up spells or an artifact card on their first turn.

The thing I like most about this solution is it changes the actual tactics and gameplay very little aside from the last turn.  The game always had a situation where the last turn or two involved crazy maneuvers to gain points while surrendering territory and this changes that just a little but in a way such that anyone who is already good at the game will remain so.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

And let the dice fall as they may

There is always GM interference in the fate of the players in an RPG.  The GM *could* drop an asteroid on the group at any given time and they need to actively intervene to avoid that circumstance... the question is, what sort of interference makes it more fun for everyone?

When I run monsters as the GM I try to play them according to their intelligence and view that as my challenge.  Sometimes the enemies are very coordinated and clever and will try to focus fire characters down and use other scary tactics but I am also perfectly happy to run boneheaded zombies that just zerg the closest thing no matter how foolish that might be.  I want the monsters to scare the players, to make them work for it, but I don't actually want to beat them.  To achieve this I don't particularly need a crunchy system and could be happy with something like Dungeon World which has combat resolution along the lines of 

Roll High:  You succeed.
Roll Medium:  You kinda succeed, but something goes wrong.  The GM makes it up!
Roll Low:  You fail.

I am fine running with this sort of system as it gives me the flexibility to amp up the challenge of a fight in the middle or tone it down by making things up in the ways I want.

On the other side of the screen as a player I want a tactical fight that lets me work as hard as possible to win.  I want hardcore crunch and I want the monsters to do their damndest to murder my ass while I do the same in return.  I definitely don't want any deus ex machina rescues nor 'make it up as you go along' fights.  What I crave is a scenario where I face a terrifying foe and I have to use all the resources at my disposal to defeat them.  Obviously the GM sets the initial fight conditions but once those are laid down I want the dice and my skill to determine if I live or die.  

I am happy to roleplay in combat to an extent - some characters are cowards, or foolhardy, or will try to defend a particular other character who is in danger even if that isn't optimal.  That can be a lot of fun and add interesting twists when other players freak out at poor strategic choices (right Naked Man?) and that sort of high drama in the middle of a life or death battle is the stuff of great memories and stories told for years afterward.

As a player I am not particularly satisfied by combat in crunch light systems like Dungeon World.  I would rather go full bore roleplaying and not bother with complicated dice chucking in that sort of system as it doesn't really grab me the same way.  When my strategic choices are inevitably lost in the vagaries of random GM decisions and random dicing I just don't feel the urge to put in the time and effort working the numbers.  Not that it is bad in principle necessarily, but it holds no appeal for me.

For me Heroes By Trade is ideally set up to play since it works very well with the idea that fights are predictable tactical problems the players can try to 'win'.  You don't have to play with an emphasis on tactics if you don't want it but it is certainly a big focus of the game rules.  As a GM it is about as good as any other game I think since I have fun running games in pretty much any system at all.  (Largely because I am going to hack them to pieces to suit the campaign and my mood anyway.)

When it comes to new players though I think the right balance is a game that provides clear answers to what happens and doesn't expect the GM to constantly come up with rulings on every roll.  Not everyone is up to that challenge and I believe that making an RPG that makes it easier to GM for people without strong improvisational talent is a really useful goal.  One of the things 4th edition DnD did right was make it straightforward to build appropriate fights and run them as tactical challenges.  I want to achieve much of the same thing in terms of making it easy on new GMs without all of the issues that plagued 4th ed.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Catering to the noobs, or not

I am currently pondering a design question about Rituals in Heroes By Trade.  Rituals are magical things that a character can do that are generally not that applicable in combat.  They use the caster's health to power them and have tremendous variation from a simple Ritual that creates a glowing ball of light for a day to a terrifying three day ordeal that produces a volcano.  My current design is one that is quite friendly to beginners as it allows any Ritual to be learned easily as there isn't much in the way of prerequisites or structure.  Also as characters learn more Rituals they automatically gain abilities that let them cast more often.  It is hard to mess it up very much as even if you pick the wrong thing you can always pick the right thing next time.

I have an idea though for a new version that would be much more punishing of mistakes and reward planning to a much greater extent.  The idea is to group Rituals into small trees with a Basic Ritual being mandatory to get in, a few Advanced Rituals branching off of it, and an Epic Ritual at the top of the tree.  Epic Rituals are often ridiculous and difficult to use (how often are you really going to want to die and ascend into the sky to become a new star, really?) so I want to attach really powerful bonuses to learning the Epic Ritual at the top of the tree.  For example, you might learn to cast a Ritual for free once per day, heal drastically faster, or cast Rituals for much lower cost than normal.

The new design would make it fairly easy for a player who did not plan ahead to get really stuck.  They might end up taking a ton of Rituals and not getting any of the bonuses at the end of the trees which would make using all of their knowledge very tricky.  They also might end up wanting a particular Ritual and be a very long way from getting to it if it is deep in a tree they have not invested in.  Not that they can get themselves in permanent trouble because they can always level up more and take the things they have missed but this design definitely rewards more thinking ahead.

Part of the idea here is to give people things to work toward.  At any given time you won't be able to take most of the Rituals so there will definitely be a feeling of progression as you work towards a particular Epic Ritual and the associated benefit.  This could provide some of the sense of a big reward when you finally complete a tree and get both a crazy and absurd Ritual as well as a straight up power boost that makes your ability to perform other Rituals much larger.  This progress won't be tied to a specific level but it should make people feel like they are getting to take things that were inaccessible before.

Many times I have found that when people are looking for creative ideas they are often well served by restrictions rather than complete freedom.  I suspect that this new idea will actually get people more excited about choosing Rituals as they will really need to think about how to make the structure that is there work for them instead of just picking up whatever they want whenever they want.  I don't want to go too deep as HBT really is supposed to be accessible to players who aren't hardened RPG veterans but I suspect adding this extra level of complexity will pay dividends.  It will require a *lot* of extra work to create, which might be a good thing or it might be a bad thing.  Can't really say.

Please do chime in if you have thoughts or preferences on this especially if you have playtest experience at some point or other.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The right fix

This past week I spent a good deal of time playing Sentinels of the Multiverse with Hobo out in Nova Scotia.  I have written about this game before - it is a cooperative game where each player picks a superhero and then all of the players try to fight the supervillain together.  The heroes, villains, and locales for the battle all have a variety of mechanics so the games are pretty varied.  Naturally after playing it a few times we spent hours sitting around trying to make it better.

The problem with the base game is that two of the heroes are notably underpowered.  Both Bunker and Absolute Zero are truly wretched characters, to the point that they often feel like they simply aren't playing on the team at all.  We came up with a way to make Absolute Zero passable but it was brutally kludgy (increase max health from 29 to 39, change power from "Shoot myself for 1" to "Shoot myself for 1 and any other target for 2") and I don't generally like playing with heavy handed changes that ignore lore and game feel.

Bunker, on the other hand, went through two stages of fixing that ended up in a really good place.  Bunker's issue is that he is supposed to be a dude in a big mech suit that shifts back and forth between various modes - Recharge mode, Upgrade Mode, and Turret Mode.  That is all fine and good but the problem is that the Modes are hilariously bad.  Recharge Mode makes Bunker tougher and lets him draw more cards but it prevents him taking any actions at all while it is active.  Using it for 3 turns nets you 1 extra card over playing normally but requires you to not do *anything* for those 3 turns which pretty much means giving up the game.  It is hard to imagine a turn based combat game in which an effect reads: "Skip your next 3 turns.  Draw one card." and have that effect be usable.  Bunker's other Mode cards aren't quite as abysmal as that but they are punishing enough that actually using them is pretty much a joke.  All of them have a very nice benefit and all of them have a disadvantage so crippling that you can't play the game.

Our first fix was to take advantage of Bunker's other theme which is discarding cards for useful effects.  Bunker has a couple ways to do this and so we tested out a version of Bunker where the player always draws an extra card every turn.  It worked pretty well as Bunker was able to dig to his decent cards much more efficiently and then discard all the rubbish to power his cannons.  Bunker really felt like he was a part of the team with this fix but there was still a problem - the feel was all wrong.  Bunker's discard pile was always full of Mode cards because that whole chunk of his deck was still garbage.  It might be balanced to draw loads of trash so you can discard it but it doesn't feel like it quite captures the morphing mech suit idea.

Our second attempt at making Bunker workable was to simply remove all of the penalties from Mode cards.  At first glance it seems like removing the text "You may not draw cards or play cards" from an effect *must* result in it being overpowered but Bunker's Modes are so bad that this makes them good but completely reasonable.  Playing Bunker with this setup meant that it was great to drop out a Recharge Mode early to collect some cards and find other combo pieces, swap into Upgrade Mode to play out all the stuff you have drawn, then swap into Turret Mode to gun down the enemies.  You don't have to do it that way of course but not only did this change make Bunker a hero I would want on my team, it also made him feel right.  Bunker felt like a dude driving a crazy shapeshifting robot suit that could do all kinds of things competently.

That is exactly the feeling I am shooting for when I hack games.  I used to be far more willing to just make the numbers work and just go with the a fix like the first one we tried with Bunker but these days not so much.  Now I work a lot harder to make the solution elegant rather than purely effective.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Something to shoot for

Naked Man and I have been going back and forth on comments in my previous posts about how exactly an RPG should be made in terms of how levelling up works and how characters gain power.  There are a few different models to consider, like the 2nd edition DnD model where characters hit huge breakpoints in power that really changed their game.  Fighters getting an extra half attack at level 7, for example, is a huge step up in efficacy.  Mages hitting level 5 and suddenly being able to cast Fireball increased their offensive capabilities to an incredible extent.  The other extreme is something like World of Darkness where every session the characters got a little bit of XP and it could be spent on absolutely anything - no abilities were based on overall character advancement.  Right now Heroes By Trade is very much the second way because you get new things when you level up but a level 15 character does not have substantially different choices than a level 5 character.

Some people really hate the design where some levels are good and other levels are dead - that is, a design where you don't get to do something interesting every time you level up.  Naked Man, on the other hand, dislikes that HBT doesn't have those huge levels where you suddenly become vastly more powerful than before.  He wants something big to look forward to, something that unlocks at a certain point that you could not access before.  Feeling more powerful because you get a big numerical increase is possible but I really don't like it much.  A level that simply makes you do 50% more damage doesn't make combat more fun or grant interesting choices and it does create a scale of increasing power that is a much higher slope than I want for the game.  However, it is possible to create things that require a substantial investment to acquire but which mostly add options rather than raw numbers.  For example, I could have Rituals come in trees and require that people learn 5 Rituals in the tree before learning the most powerful one.  That would create a longterm sense of accomplishment without necessarily blowing the scaling out of whack.

Personally I don't feel that big bumps in progression are necessary for my enjoyment.  I am really excited to pick a new thing each level and that new thing doesn't have to make me extremely powerful compared to what I was before.  Just moving along my list of things I want to do to get to the vision I have for my character at max level is great fun for me.  I know the complaints I have seen about leveling systems have mostly been complaints about dead levels rather than about not having enough cool stuff to do so perhaps Naked Man is really in the minority here and most people just want to get something new and interesting each time and aren't so worried about saving up for a particular thing.  I think I will investigate ways to add in cool new stuff in ways that requires substantial investment and thus can pay off later on and see if that feels good.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Doing cool things all the time

I have completed a pretty substantial change to the way people use Powers in combat in my beta version of Heroes By Trade.  My old system worked by letting people use low ranking Powers at will but if they wanted to use Powers of a rank higher than their Vigour things got tricky.  The Power would still work but using it would Fatigue them and each turn after that they would have to roll to see if they recovered from Fatigue and could use another Power or not.  The higher the rank of the Power you had used, the harder it was to recover from Fatigue.  The system was perfectly fine in terms of balance because players had the choice between using weaker effects consistently or stronger effects occasionally.

Balance isn't what it is all about though.  What the game came down to was people would roll 1d6 on their turn to see if they were going to do something cool or something boring.  Roll high and you get to select an action from a big list of interesting Powers, roll low and you just make a Basic Attack.  What it came down to is that people don't really enjoy rolling to see if they get to have fun this turn.

"Roll to have fun!"
"I failed the roll."
"Haha, no fun for you!"

Rolling to see if you hit is fine.  Rolling to see if you have fun, not so fine.

My new implementation changes this somewhat.  You can still use any Rank of Power you like up to your Vigour.  If you want to use a Power of greater Rank then you have to spend resources to make up the difference.  If I have a Vigour of 8 and want to use a Rank 12 Power I need to spend 4 Focus.  The key to the bit is that Focus is both my Hit Points and my attack resource.  I can use outrageous Powers that do crazy things to the enemies but I will use up my Focus and if I get pounded on I will have nothing left to defend myself with.  This means that no matter what I did last round I can always do something interesting this round and I never end up unable to do anything fun for most of the fight through poor rolling.

This means that people will be allowed to burn themselves out doing incredible things if they want or play it safe if they want and they can switch it up from round to round or fight to fight.  It also means that if they players ever feel like a fight is just taking forever and they aren't worried about losing they can start burning away their Focus like crazy to end things quickly and I like that as a safety valve.  Plus we avoid having one mandatory die roll at the start of each player's turn (which they constantly forgot about!) and we also don't have to remember which Power was used last.

The best part about it I think is that my design space for writing Powers got huge.  Now I can write things that have ludicrous effects and let people burn away all of their defences casting them if they are in the mood for that.  The old limitations on Power effects were fairly stringent because they only went up to Rank 14 but now I can write things at Rank 28 if I am in the mood and that lets me really do some wacky stuff.  I am glad to provide players the opportunity to go all Tellah casting Meteo ("So be it!  Let me life fuel the spell that ends his!") and blow the enemies up good in the name of an epic story.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Complicating things

I have fielded a variety of requests to alter Heroes By Trade to make the strategy more complex and add elements of realism over the time I have been building it.  Most of the recent requests have come from Naked Man and they have been all over the place including things like poison tables, facing, flanking, zones of control, imprecise locations of AOE attacks, support for hex grids, and more.  The other thing Naked Man has advocated for is faster combats that are resolved in much less real time.  Unsurprisingly these two things are very much at odds with one another.   Many of his suggestions like support for hex grids have been spot on and have already been implemented but the others aren't so workable.

Strangely adding in support for hex grids instead of the default square grid setup was really easy.  I had figured that a tactical game would be extremely different on a different grid design but all I had to do was design two sets of AOE effect shapes that could be usefully described with a single set of words.  I eventually settled on the following:

Area 2:  A 2x2 set of squares or a set of three hexes in a triangle.
Area 3:  A 3x3 set of squares or a circle of hexes three hexes across.
Area 5:  A 5x5 set of squares or a circle of hexes five hexes across.
Area 7:  A 7x7 set of squares or a circle of hexes seven hexes across.

Simple enough, and now the game can be played on either a square grid or a hex grid with no change needed in the text.  It isn't a perfect translation but it does allow those purists who hate the fact that diagonal movement is wacky on a square grid to play on hexes and have slightly less mathematical inconsistency.  Slightly.

The rest of the requests have been trickier.  The trouble with adding in facing is that I don't feel that it adds anything to realism.  People standing, frozen in time, waiting while somebody else runs around behind them to stab them in the back isn't realistic any more than not having facing is.  The important question to my mind is whether or not facing adds interesting strategy to the game without making everything take longer.  I don't think there is any way to avoid increasing combat duration because if attacks are more successful from behind a target then every attack must be calculated with an additional input.  One of the core principles of HBT design is that figuring which action is the best should be complicated and very interesting but once you decide what to do it should be very quick to resolve.  Adding in facing definitely increases the complexity of the choice process (good!) and also increases the time to resolve any given action (bad!).

Imprecise locations of AOE attacks have similar issues.  AOE attacks being difficult to aim sounds pretty cool but it would be a brutal slog to play with.  So, you tried to aim at three enemies and just barely miss three allies?  Time to make a whole new extra roll for every one of those targets to figure out if they will actually be affected.  Most likely what this means is that AOE effects simply aren't usable except against groups of enemies that are far away and while it strikes me as reasonable that you don't set off huge explosions near your friends it certainly increases resolution time while adding little to strategy.  I have definitely played with players who would always cast Fireball and end up hitting their friends and players that would never cast Fireball if there was even a chance of hitting a friend and both tended to frustrate people to no end.

Zones of control and flanking were standard in DnD 3.x and while they did have their advantages I think they created more problems than they solved.  Flanking is a pain in the butt to define and explain to new players and has the same problems as facing in terms of constantly altering the math for every attack.  I can't get behind a mechanic that means that melee characters are bad without a teammate and which slows resolution down tremendously.  Zones of control on the other hand have a huge variety of implementations, some of which are good and some of which are a disaster.  Currently HBT uses zones of control but the only thing they do is penalize ranged attacks.  Using a DnD style mechanic where moving past a creature entitles it to a free attack pretty much means you either have a way to negate that attack or you simply never move past a creature.  If I could find a very easy to resolve mechanic that didn't come down to 'never provoke an attack of opportunity ever' I would be interested in using it but so far nothing has come to mind.

Poison tables are actually a thing that doesn't have this sort of tradeoff.  You can have a big scary table with tons of poisons on it that is rarely used and that doesn't hurt anyone else at all.  As long as a feature doesn't bog down the standard game I don't have any issue with it and making a list of poisons and the ways in which they can be stopped is not the sort of thing I was really aiming for the HBT but it is entirely harmless.

Feature creep is the thing I struggle most with when it comes to player feedback on my games whether they be RPGs, board games, calculation tools, or computer games.  The great majority of feedback comes down to 'add this list of extra features' that all sound great but which extend the playtime of the game substantially.  (The second most common request is 'make the game play faster'.)  I actually design my games to a particular timeframe and that means constantly rejecting new feature requests on that basis.  Not that I object to new feature requests - many features like hex grid support can be added with no downside.  Telling people that the thing they want is never going to happen is tough, especially when it sounds cool to me too.  I have to keep my focus though as there is no shortage of very deep, incredibly complex games that absolutely nobody plays because they are brutal to get into and take forever to play.  The world has more of that then it can ever use.