Thursday, January 30, 2014

Simulator or story

The DnD Wandering Monsters article this week is all about how many goblins you have to kill to gain a level.  The very idea that this is the standard metric makes me giggle.  Getting better at picking pockets, learning about the arcane mysteries of the world, or being better able to channel the energy of a diety you worship is all about how many monstrous humanoids you have watched your friends butcher.  Obviously.  There is a sound argument that brawling makes you better at brawling but shouldn't people then get loads of experience for hanging around the castle for months doing drills with the local weaponmaster?

I just don't see how you can engineer a system of gaining XP around body counts and have it work.  This is probably my bias showing because in my games people don't spend every session doing fight after endless fight through a nonsensical dungeon.  The world is not full of enormous buildings that contain ten neatly packaged encounters evenly spaced throughout and the inhabitants tend to do things like run away and get reinforcements when they are outgunned.  In the last session I ran there were two fights - one which was an enemy trying to fly away from the castle window using magic while the players desperately tried to take her down, the other which was a brawl to the death on an austere mountaintop sanctum with a cult leader.  Both of the fights were very important though neither was terribly threatening by the numbers.  I just don't see the point of having characters spend hours murdering nameless mooks with no plot motivation to exist solely to justify level increases.

It comes down to the game being a combat simulator or a story.  I like to tell stories and I like to encourage the PCs to find creative ways to solve problems.  You can fight the cultists, convince them to go home, get the king to send the army after them, whatever.  The goal is to solve the cultist problem, not to cut them open to get the XP stored in their bellies.  Accomplishing goals in the story and doing things that matter in the world are what triggers levelling up in my game (that, and they generally just level up every two sessions...) and although there are fairly regular fights those fights are there because they make sense, not just as filler.  The characters get better because they are working their own way through a story.  In the simulator model of RPGs the GM just rolls dice and provides a world and the characters need to make their own advancement.  That does require some fairly serious metagaming though as surely the characters, being intelligent and all, would figure out that they get better by murdering and would go find weak opponents to smash to get more powerful.  See that?  When the players wanted to go farm goblins for XP they weren't be metagamers, they were just having their characters respond to the way the world works in a sensible fashion.

There are a lot of things about the standard DnD model for levelling up that bother me.  The presumption that early levels go by in a flash but later levels take forever is an unappealing artifact of the way the magic system scales, the fact that the system is based around a necessity of constant murder is a seriously problematic design constraint, and that all of this necessarily leads to immense dungeons filled with random and illogical inhabitants makes immersion much more challenging.  People say that online RPGs ruined DnD but I think in many ways it is the reverse.  Online RPGs grasped the essence of old school DnD and in doing so they created many of the absurdities that we all take for granted in that genre.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Clanking along

DnD Next is having a bit of a thing with armour.  There is always a real struggle to sort out how armour should work and the stakes are relatively high because if you get it wrong the world doesn't make any sense.  Sometimes that is because everybody runs around effortlessly performing athletic maneuvers in full plate armour (DnD 4th), sometimes it is because nobody should wear armour (World of Darkness), sometimes it is because armour makes you invulnerable (Cyberpunk).

The current direction Next is going seems to be to improve heavy armour.  This is a good thing because up to this point they have given heavy armour a very high AC bonus but serious drawbacks including no Dexterity bonus to AC, slow movement, and a big stealth penalty.  Those added up to a situation where people using Strength based builds with heavy armour were fine at melee but awful overall since they lacked mobility, ranged capability, and stealth.  The recent innovation is to allow people with high Strength to ignore armour's speed penalty which is a fine start but does not solve the problem.

The fundamental issue is that Dexterity is awesome for everything and Strength is awesome for only one thing so Strength builds are just going to be bad.  Unless they make Strength builds way better at melee combat (which is a terrible decision!) there isn't a good way out of this mess.  RPGs have a history of making Dexterity good for everything from initiative to avoidance to ranged weapons to finesse weapons and then wondering why everybody only cares about Dexterity.  There are a lot of ways to reduce the current overpowered status of Dexterity like shifting attack bonuses to Dexterity but damage bonuses to Strength, making initiative based on Intelligence, or making less spells require Dexterity saves.  Without doing some of these things there is no good way to make the system work.

In Heroes By Trade I really want heavy armour to be excellent for stand and fight battlefield conditions but poor for the usual swimming, climbing, sneaking, and running that adventurers generally face.  At the moment characters have a base Speed of 5 and armour reduces that by 1, 2, or 3 depending on if it is leather, chain, or plate and increases their damage reduction by the same amount.  Generally people have opted for leather armour or none at all and that seems to be working well.  I really want an average guard at the gate or infantry fighter to say "Yes PLEASE" to plate armour but dungeon delvers who explore far places to say "Meh, no thanks.  I might have to run away."

The trouble is that I can quite decide how to implement the penalties to athletic maneuvers that would make sense with heavy armour.  I feel like Hiding, Sneaking, Athletics, and Acrobatics should be penalized but so far keeping track of all the possible bonuses and penalties to various skills has been challenging for my playtest groups and I am sure that the armour penalties have been forgotten.  Although HBT is drastically simpler in this regard than DnD is the system is different and therefore takes some getting used to.  At the moment the penalties to skills are the same as the Speed penalty above (1,2,3) so swimming in full plate is quite feasible.  I keep thinking that maybe I should ratchet those up to (3,6,9) to emphasize that heavy armour is not fun to run around in.  I don't think that those penalties need to be there from a balance perspective but I do feel like they should exist from a immersion perspective.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I don't care about you

When the boardgame Dominion first came out I loved it and played a ton.  It is a deckbuilding game where you start out the game with a deck of terrible cards and buy things to make your deck better and score points.  Eventually though I ran into the problem that Dominion was all about strategy and had pretty trivial tactical decisions.  Figuring out whether or not I was going for a big deck Gardens strategy or a lean Chapel - Silver - Gold type strategy was interesting but on each turn my decision was usually trivial.  In addition to trivial decisions on most turns there was also the issue that I really didn't care what my opponent did most of the time - we could easily have just played in separate rooms and shouted when we bought a fourth Province.  I understand that Dominion expansions have improved this situation somewhat but they haven't done so enough to make me really interested in the game again.

The fundamental problem to my mind is that the options that exist for purchases are always the same turn after turn.  Your turn most of the time can be simply summed up by how many gold pieces your hand is worth and then you buy the thing that you knew you were going to buy with that many gold.  It turns out that I do like strategy discussions but I don't like sitting around shuffling cards watching other people count while waiting to see how my strategy plays out.

I have recently been playing some Ascension and I think it really managed to do the whole deckbuilding thing much better.  The two critical differences are that instead of a huge list of things to buy there are six things from a deck of random stuff.  You can have a strategy but since every thing that is bought ends up being immediately replaced by something random you have to adapt on each turn.  You can decide that you really want to run a Mechana Construct strategy but when there aren't any Mechana cards you still have to make choices.

The second thing that changes everything is that currency is split into two types.  Defining your hand by two numbers instead of one may not seem like a huge difference but it really does offer a huge range of different choices when combined with the cards that may be available.  Also because cards you buy are replaced immediately there can be a lot of thought put into deciding which currency you use first.  Combine that with the various cards effects that can cause you to discard or make choices on which resources to gain and the decision tree for any given turn often becomes extremely complex.

The big thing that I like better about Ascension is that I really do care what my opponent does.  I need to read all of the cards and compare their effects on my board position as well as my opponent's.  Sometimes I need to draft defensively, sometimes not, but paying attention to what my opponents do is important and their choices really do affect my play.  The simple summary of the situation for me is that Dominion is a lot more about shuffling and Ascension is a lot more about thinking so Ascension has a lot more appeal.  If I had a robot shuffling for me and Dominion turns only took 2-3 seconds then my mind might change but I don't see that happening at my dinner table anytime soon.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

For the beginners

It is very important when designing a game to figure out how you are going to attract new players.  There are many games that do this remarkably badly and the standout example of this is bridge.  I am by no means a competitive bridge player and yet if someone who had only twenty hours of bridge playing under their belt tried to play with me and others like me it would be bit of a trainwreck.  When I talk about the game I generally suggest that it has a one hundred hour learning period (which won't make the player excellent, just able to play the game) which is probably an exaggeration... but not that much.

Compare chess and quoridor for example.  I have watched kids playing chess and they absolutely can't do it.  They can't figure out how to checkmate opponents, they constantly capture the king and call me over to inspect the board, and moves like en passant and castling are impenetrable to them.  While they can use a chessboard they aren't playing chess.  Quoridor on the other hand they understand.  They play incredibly badly but the basic goal of getting your piece to the other side is easily grasped and they finish games without anyone breaking the rules.  Both games have a very deep and interesting endgame for advanced players but only quoridor can introduce a new player and have them rightly feel like they are playing the game properly.

This problem becomes magnified with games that have a large investment at the outset like tabletop RPGs.  To play DnD you want to have dice and several hardcover books and you will be spending many hours getting started in the game.  To overcome this issue the new player experience needs to be really good and new players need to feel that there are things about the game they can master with greater experience but that they are playing the same game as the veterans.  I tend to reduce this to a simple percentage that expresses how much better an optimized character is than one built strictly along roleplaying lines.  That is, how much better is

"I will built a perfect melee killing machine"


"My character will be big and strong and use a sword and shield and hit stuff!"
"My character will be fast and smart and use a big spear and stab people!"

In DnD 3rd edition the percentage was easily 200%.  In extreme cases at certain levels it could go as high as 500%.  In DnD Next it looks like the difference is more like 50%.  Heroes By Trade has a lower number yet, likely more in the 25% range.  Note that these numbers only reflect the character sheet, not choices in combat.

I clearly don't want this number to be 0%.  There is definitely a fun element to building a character that works well together and trying to make the best choices.  However, when the number is too big new people feel overwhelmed and their characters feel hopeless or useless - not ideal for having a good first experience.  I think Next is actually a totally reasonable game in this regard.

However, Next has forgotten that sometimes you have GMs that are novices too.  Their current theory is to have multitudes of options for the GM to choose from.  The game is essentially a set of dozens of optional rules modules.  The difficulty here is that this presents a new GM with a huge problem - how do they decide which modules are in and which are out?  This is compounded by the fact that in every edition there has been public play that will use a standard ruleset and also standard rules that everybody adopted and ones everybody ignored.  (Okay, there was some group out there that used Weapon Type vs. Armour Type modifiers and ignored the Hovering on Death's Door rule... but they were nutters.)

The current system is fine for a veteran GM who wants to tailor a simple campaign for a group of new players.  It is also fine for a veteran GM who wants to make a hideously complex campaign for the grognards.  What concerns me is its functionality with a completely new group who pick up the rules.  Mearls does talk about how a campaign could use the early levels to figure out which rules and modules they are going to use but I can't see how that works.  Just randomly bolting on feats, backgrounds, or other such core elements at an arbitrary time seems questionable, and same goes for ripping them out.

What the game needs and what I am attempting to create with HBT is a game that has a great baseline experience.  It won't be all things to all players but that is okay.  If they want to houserule their game they can and they don't need the Wizard's or my permission to do that.  To bring new players into the hobby what is needed is a complete game that is recognizable right from the outset to the end, from beginner to pro.  A mashup of difficult and obscure choices is fine for the veterans but they will do that on their own anyway - what you need is a gold standard for play and a comfortable starting point for the new folks.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Handicaps in Puerto Rico

When we first started playing Puerto Rico it quickly became obvious that there was a serious benefit in being the player starting with corn instead of indigo.  The reasons behind this are many - corn can produce earlier and more cheaply, corn can make better use of the Hacienda and also regular plantations because nobody wants a second indigo but the first one is useful, and the corn player is also situated to produce or sell sugar rapidly whereas indigo players are not (except potentially in 5p).  At first we just randomized seating and let the chips fall where they may but it was always frustrating to start the game and before even setting up the pieces to realize that one's chances were much reduced, particularly since PR is such a skill intensive game.  Eventually we settled on a complicated bidding system for seat that involved bidding in 1/2 point increments, though there was always debate on the exact rules for the bidding system.  It was not particularly a satisfactory way to resolve the situation in any case but it was even more silly that we then had to recall our bids at game end to figure out who won.

I did some reading up on this and found that in both games by humans and in games by the best AIs available the win rates in four player went something like 20/20/30/30 with the corn seats getting 30.  This certainly means the indigo players can win but they have a pretty severe handicap, largely because the effect of even a small advantage in the early game is greatly magnified as time goes on.  I can vouch for this as I once played against a couple of mediocre players who let me sell my sugar with a two buck Trader on round 3 one time and my build order went Sm. Sugar, Coffee, Factory, Sm. Indigo, Harbour, Wharf, Customs House, Hospice, City Hall, Office and I had a point total over 90 with my opponents at around 40 each.  They played very badly on the first three turns and then played well but by that time my lead was spiralling out of control.  Nobody should ever get Factory/Harbour/Wharf with 6 rounds left in the game and doing so is really just being a jackass but man it was some fun.

The best solution is not an arbitrary 3 point penalty at endgame but rather something to combat the early game advantage corn players have.  The solution I found was someone who did a bunch of AI testing along with real player testing on games where the players with corn start with -1 dubloon.  This actually sets the corn players back on buildup and in AI testing brought the win percentages right in line with one another in all 3 format sizes.  Players who played ~100 games with this implemented also reported a much more balanced early game experience.  This is a solution I can really get behind because it doesn't require new rules sets and new players don't need to be involved in an auction they have no comprehension of.

This solution only has one drawback that I can see, and that is an issue with the 3 player game because the corn player would start with just 1 dubloon.  They could easily be in a situation where builder is called and they cannot purchase anything but Sm. Indigo if the two Sm. Markets are already taken.  Sm. Indigo for a player that doesn't have indigo isn't disastrous but it has a bad feel to me.  Of course the revision I proposed last week makes this even more problematic because the Sm. Market was recosted to 2.  Regardless of those issues though I very much like the solution.  It is simple, clean, easily understood and administered, and gives the result I want - equalizing the value of each seat in terms of positional advantage at the start of the game.  I hope to use this variant in all my games going forward.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Making the right types of choices

I think a key element in making an RPG fun is the sorts of choices that players get to make about their characters.  Having a choice system that is both simple and highly variable is excellent as players get both the joy of making characters quickly and doing so without high system mastery requirements and also the entertainment of having incredible variety so characters can all feel unique.  The obvious question:  How do you build such choices into an RPG?

The technique I champion is to give players choices where they are always picking from a list of ten or less things.  When players need to flip back and forth through huge tables or lists they get overwhelmed and almost universally feel like they must have missed something.  Usually that feeling is right.  What they really need is not a computer aid to sorting through interminable lists but rather a low number of options that are all decent.  Choosing a race and class in old school DnD definitely worked this way as there were six to ten of each and so they were all well differentiated and easy to hold in your mind while choosing.  Both DnD Next and Heroes By Trade do the same thing because in this case the classic model is a good one.

Feats on the other hand are a real problem in both old DnD editions and Next.  The list of them needs to be huge because they are so specific but that creates choice paralysis in new players.  Both in the old days and the new there are lots of trap feats that are utterly rubbish so careful perusal is required and system mastery is necessary to avoid just being bad.  When feats were first introduced I really liked the idea as a way of adding customization but now that I see where it leads I like it very little.  Any time an important aspect of a character comes down to "Here, read this book of stuff.  One of the things in the book is super broken but it isn't obvious which.  Have fun choosing!" it has failed.

Next manages to fall on the unfortunate side of feat design because it has too much choice and on the wrong side on class design because it has too little.  Each class is built with a singular option that makes the great majority of your decisions for the future for you so although you have a few different things you can do (which is great) you end up not getting to make decisions in the future which leads to a stifling of variety.  A good example of character design is more like the World of Darkness system where you consistently get a number of points to divide amongst a small set of choices.  All those small decisions multiply together to generate incredibly diversity but each stage is straightforward.  This means the new players can get started easily and without being lost and the optimizers have plenty to work with.  Of course the mechanics behind the WoD numbers are a mess but I admire their character sheets at the very least.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Breadth of game

I played Puerto Rico a couple times over the holidays and came to some conclusions about the problems the game has.  It does some things brilliantly like randomization and the rotating jobs system but at a very high level of play there are some issues with the game, notably breadth.  Terminology can be tricky, so I will try to define breadth of play first.  Breadth of play is a measure of how many different ways there are to be successful at the game.  Depth, on the other hand, is a measure of how complex decisions are and how difficult it can be to determine the right thing to do and PR has plenty of depth.  At a high level of play though many of the options you might think should work simply don't because everyone is either pursuing a Builder strategy or a Shipper strategy and unfortunately both rely on doing the same things.

Anyone going for Builder is planning on building all of the production buildings, a Factory, the Guild Hall, and will take a Small Market if they can.  They will definitely plan on making one of each trade good.

Shippers on the other hand build 3-4 production buildings, a Harbour, a Wharf, and will take a Small Market if they can.  They will plan on making one of each trade good if they can, otherwise they will make 4 of the 5 goods.

There are a few big problems with these two top tier strategies.  For one, they only make use of four of the pink buildings and leave seven largely unused.  (Large Market is a reasonable buy, but isn't in anybody's game plan.)  For two, the entire strategy set of 'make lots of one good and ship it' is completely missing.  Because of the immense power of the Factory and Harbour rewarding diversity and the fact that making lots of one good is incredibly costly in terms of colonists nobody pursues a strategy centered around a single resource.  Diverse production is already amazing when Trading because it makes it easy to jam other people and makes it hard for you to be jammed.  It is also very useful in shipping because you get lots of choice in making boats and no matter what boats get made you get to ship most of your goods.  What it boils down to is that the top tier strategies focus on diversification of production and use only a few buildings that reward that diversification and this is very limited in terms of breadth.

I sat down to try to figure out how the game could be made broader and results more varied instead of just reporting "Well, there were two Builders and the one that got the Guild Hall won."  What I wanted to do was fix production so that there was a real incentive to specialize in a particular good that might offset the problems with specialization and also find a way to make little used buildings better and ubiquitous buildings worse.  I really want people to think of Hospice - University - Fortress as a valid Builder strategy and Small Warehouse - Office - OMG Tobacco as a valid Shipper strategy.  Ideally of course I want plenty of cool ways to win rather than just two, and they should take more description than a single word.

First thing I reduced the cost of Hospice, Office, and Large Warehouse by one.  Then I reduced the cost of University by two and increased the cost of Small Market by one.  The really big change was that I eliminated all of the extra circles on the Large production buildings and made them support unlimited plantations.  Being able to support 5 Tobacco production with a single dude in the production building is *huge* in terms of making that strategy viable.

I tried out my changes and things seemed really neat.  The person that won (though I was all the people) had the build order of Hospice, Hacienda, Lg. Indigo, Tobacco, University, Factory, Lg. Sugar, Harbour, Guild Hall, Fortress.  Not every day you see that build order win a game, especially when the other players are competent.  Thankfully PR has reversible buildings so I just wrote on my changes and can flip them over to play the base game.  Now to find people to play 50 games against me so I can see how things play out when I get really good at this new game!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

What's in a name

It is important to recognize the power of names.  Names are used as shorthand for our gender, our culture, our profession, and as recognition for our ancestors.  This of course is just a list of things humans do with our names and even then is not exhaustive so it seems an interesting thought experiment to think about what other types of creatures might do with their names.  In writing about the races of Heroes By Trade I talked a lot about cultural norms, physical descriptions, and attitudes but forgot that most fundamental of things, names, and it took some questions from Wendy to get me on to that track.

I hadn't considered it overly important as my mind was stuck in an outdated mode of thinking created by years of playing DnD.  In the various versions of DnD the races had naming guidelines but they were all clearly modeled on a European standard rather than trying some really crazy and new things.  Sure elves had long, flowery names and dwarves had names like Goldhammer and Stoneforge but there really was a lack of true creativity.  I finally got down in the thick of it today and tried to create some really different naming conventions that would reflect the fundamental character of each race.  While this might seem strange or racist when considering races of humans in the real world it is very appropriate in HBT because each race was created by a singular entity representing a very particular viewpoint.

Trolls, for example, do not have names.  They view it as an unnecessary oppression, tying individuals down to a label.  They live solitary lives in the wilderness and detest civilization and structure so they have little need for names and can make do with descriptions when truly necessary.  Orks on the other hand are the children of the Domination Being and so they possess individual names but refer to themselves by naming the ork that is currently dominating them.  An ork who controls no one never has their name used while orks who are controlled by no one use a title that roughly speaking means Empress or Queen.

Elves are strangely named because they change their names constantly to reflect their mercurial nature.  Each time they move to a new place or become fixated on a new thing their name changes accordingly.  Dwarves, being born of the Tradition Being, instead have names that are rigidly structured, composed of clan name, parental names, social status, and a personal name at the end.  They have complicated modes of address that take into account the various speakers affiliations, ranks, and roles.  Also a dwarf may only have a name vacated by another dwarf that has died for all names must go on.

I really enjoyed making all of these strange things up.  It gives additional support to the creation story of the world and the character of its inhabitants.  I think that players will really enjoy reading these rules and then deliberately violating them, hopefully making up interesting histories to describe why exactly their characters refuse to do what is normal and what sorts of trouble that has got them into.  If I do it right his will provide constraints in such a way that it actually promotes creativity rather than stifling it.