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.


  1. "A variety"? I thought I was a lone wolf, shouting in the darkness!

    Naked Man is actually asking for combat to be more interesting, which may or may not mean shorter. He questions whether figuring out the best action is (always) complicated/interesting - AOE is an easy decision, basic attack because of fatigue is an easy decision, etc. Arguably, characters have a default "optimal" attack and only when the situation gets strange do they dig deeper into their list of powers/skills/rituals/racial abilities.

    I like the hex solution. You're a math guy, I know that deep down the diagonals were bugging you too.

    You've opened my eyes a bit on facing with regards to consecutive move/actions not being realistic. I would argue that you can only get back attack bonuses if the target is otherwise engaged facing forward. Not sure it takes more time to resolve - +4 to hit from behind, +2 from the flank. Wait, what are the surprise rules? Does dodge ever get disabled?

    Speaking of melee, melee attacks are better with flankers. They don't need to be worse without them. There is a downside to flanking - monsters can use it too, it makes AOE trickier, and it puts people within reach of the bad guys. It's the loss of realism and options that gets me.

    Imprecise AOE is tricky. Naked Man's biggest concern is the exact placement of an AOE so that the monster is affected, but you can attack it from the edge without penalty. If the monster is in a lightning storm, then people attacking it with melee weapons should be risking half damage or something.

    Note that this could be another use of intelligence. Make an intelligence check to see if you placed the AOE exactly where you wanted, or if it's off by a hex.

    I haven't played with attacks of opportunity, I've only seen it mocked in online comics. I like the realism - you can't just run/walk by the monster without engaging it. If there's space, walk around it, but a narrow corridor? Doesn't seem realistic.

    There's always the option of run up and attack the monster, and then allow 1 hex of movement while actively in combat...and the monster can follow. So you can't just run up and run away at whim (which seems silly), but you can still get by with a bit of effort. Or say that the defender is defending while running past and gets those bonuses against the opportunity attack.

    Or...have flanking rules and only allow opportunity attacks if you're running by in the first 3 hexes!

    Naked Man enjoys mentioning poison because it's such a common trope but there are no rules for it (though I think there was some poison recently). There doesn't have to be lots of poisons, but having it available adds good flavour.

    Note that D&D was very deep and complex...and yet lots of people play it. Complexity isn't as complex if it intuitively makes sense. I expect snakes to be poisonous and attacks from the back to do more damage, when they don't, comprehension complexity just increased.

    Also note that if you ever expect this to be a commercial success, you'll need to accept feature creep - that's how you sell more books! I want to see the HbT Complete Book of Trolls!

  2. There have been lots of people making suggestions. You are definitely the outlier in terms of suggestion output, which I certainly appreciate. I don't adopt all the ideas but I do consider them.

    In terms of complexity I think you will find the next update very satisfying. You will virtually never be in a situation where you simply autoattack and pretty much every round you will be making interesting decisions on which power to use. The decisions will be much deeper and more satisfying than the current build. If you want I can give you access to the files and you can see what I am building.

    Surprise is a free round of actions, it does not disable dodge. Combat chapter, turn order section.

    As far as flanking goes there are a ton of powers and a perk or two that make it effective but there isn't a base mechanic. Seriously, I am not writing a system where you have to figure out when you get that extra +2 to hit because of flanking. I have seen that enough to know that I want a singular plus to hit number that doesn't change. If you want to flank, get a power or a perk that lets you be a good flanker and set to. Knock your opponent prone so your friend gets advantage, use Pincer Attack or Wolfpack Tactics, or something similar. If you want more things that emphasize the power of melee characters ganging up then I can certainly build those but they won't be passive bonuses to hit that need to be kept track of.

    Snakes do in fact have poison now, there are mechanics and everything. We haven't encountered them yet but the stuff is there. I don't yet have a big table of poisons for assassins to use or anything though I suppose someday I will build them.

    I actually don't think DnD was deep or complex in the play. Twinking out a character from 15 different splatbooks was super complicated but nearly every thug character defaulted to 'I attack' on nearly every round. There was absolutely nothing interesting to think about. Casters did get options though, much like HBT characters get options.

    I am deliberately avoiding the complexity of building characters that DnD had because most people I know found it super intimidating and frustrating. I loved it, but I loved it for the sake of building overpowered characters and breaking the system. It was terrible for actual roleplaying imho.

  3. *Ahem*, fighters eventually got 3/2 and then 2/1 attacks per round. If you happened to miss that particular paragraph, then I can see why you have such a bad opinion of melee characters.

    It was *great* to get to that critical level for the extra attack. It's that great leap forward that I miss in HbT leveling. My choices from level 5 to 6 are the same when I go from level 15 to 16. I like shiny new things every few levels.

    (I do realize that every other level I could improve the stat that opens up a new *pair* of powers, but that's not quite opening up a new level of spells or an additional attack or special ability)

  4. Yes, your criticism is completely true. There are no levels where you suddenly do 50% more damage. So answer me this: Would you rather have a game where most levels you get absolutely nothing but every so often you get an enormous leap forward, or a game where every level you get a noticeable improvement? You can't have both, mind, unless what you want is to spiral the power level completely out of control, and I don't.

    The reason I built the game this way is that people all over (myself included, to be sure) thought that empty levels where you make no choices and get no significant benefits were no fun at all. Do you actually prefer that style? Nothing wrong with it if you do, but you should know that you are by far the minority in liking it that way. Most people roundly condemned the boring / incredible level dichotomy.

    Also (and I am totally sounding like a broken record here) the next update does bridge that gap a little. Both Intelligence and Presence have breakpoints at 7,11,15 where you suddenly become quite a lot more powerful. It isn't going to make you 50% more powerful by any means, but it will definitely be a noticeable increase.

  5. I'd like more evidence that I'm in the minority. More than anecdotal?

    Look at nearly every game. There's a leveling system. As you progress, you get better weapons, better units, better buildings. Would Doom be as much fun if you started with a pistol and it slowly did more damage and became more accurate but never turned into a shotgun or BFG? Would Civ be as much fun if you never discover flight or naval powers? (I guess you'd gradually have units that jumped farther with every tech discovery?)

    I believe the psychological basis for the leveling system being so powerful is the reward. The most effective motivator for behaviour is not consistent gradual rewards. (they're actually intermittent but satisfying rewards but I'm not sure randomly choosing whether you get something when you level would work...though randomly choosing minor powers you'd get probably would).

    I'm just throwing out ideas here, by the way, because I enjoy thinking about this kind of stuff.

    The thing that really sticks with me is my sentence from earlier:

    "My choices from level 5 to 6 are the same when I go from level 15 to 16"

    How do you maintain long-term interest in a system where your options never change?

    Assuming I prioritize the powers/abilities I want, I'll always take the one I want the most earliest. So after that decision, ever power/ability is by definition worse than the one I took before. Every level I get an ability I like less than the one from the previous level. That seems really bad.

    Granted, there is a minor bump from 1st level rituals to 2nd level rituals. And possibly a bump to the next level of powers. And possibly you can build some synergy and be all excited about picking up the 5th and final piece to your big combo.

    But in general, I level up, sigh, and go back to the list of leftover abilities I didn't take in the previous 5 levels and select one. It doesn't feel like a reward.

    It feels a bit like a 20th level mage with only 3 levels of spells to choose from. If you're determined to stick with 3 levels of spells, then the lists need to be longer. I'm not sure how viable that is.

  6. I don't see a useful way to integrate random rewards for levelling. Moreover I have a philosophical issue with two characters of the same level who made the same choices have different power levels. Just not going there.

    However, trying to find ways to have rewards you can't access early on the game is certainly possible. Question: Would you like the idea of Ritual trees working towards a very powerful Ritual at the end? Or is it more appealing to just have a specific level where everybody gets something big?