Thursday, March 27, 2014

Defend thyself

The question I have finally answered for myself is the following:  What does Intelligence do in a fight?

In the context of an RPG some things are obvious.  Dexterity determines how well you can dodge attacks, Constitution determines how much damage you can absorb, Strength determines how hard you hit with weapons.  But what good is being smart?  In most systems the answer is absolutely nothing.  Being dumb as a box of rocks or a trancedent genius does not change a person's odds of winning a fight.  This isn't so outrageous in some contexts like a strictly controlled sword duel where practice, reflexes, and strength should be the determining factors.  However, in a messy brawl against unknown opponents in a unfamiliar environment while dealing with surprises and unexpected twists one would think that being clever would really matter.

So now in Heroes By Trade Intelligence gives you the option to alter events that have just happened on the assumption that you planned for them or reacted perfectly.  

"Aha, you could never have planned for me to have a hidden dagger in my boot.  Now you are doomed!"

"Afraid not good sir.  I thought of that and hid a dagger in *my* boot as well!"

I want to call this ability Anticipation.  Normal people wouldn't have it as it would be restricted to people with 7 or more Intelligence and a regular person ranges from 2-6.  The advantage to having even more Intelligence than that would be increases uses - one use per encounter at 7, two per encounter at 11, and three per encounter at 15 Intelligence.  So what good is being smart?  It makes it possible to plan ahead for a particular move and ensure that it works, or to react instantly to a disaster and avoid it.  That, to me, feels like exactly what a smart person would be capable of doing in a unpredictable and dangerous situation.

The nice thing about this is it lets me get rid of the previous kludge I have been using to make Intelligence useful.  Previously I had Intelligence determining how hard it was for enemies to hit you with spells.  Now I can eliminate that mechanic entirely and instead of having Dodge/Armour for physical defenses and Ward/Resist for magical defenses everything can be under Dodge/Armour.  It simplifies the list of defenses and since that added very little strategically but a lot in terms of number crunching I like the simplification.  There is only so much complexity you can have in a game so it is best used where it is most interesting and fun.

One other fun thing to fall out of this design change is that the damage types that classes have can be a lot more varied.  I wanted to keep each class strictly magical or physical before because otherwise there would be a lot of confusion with keeping track of what target numbers were and what damage types were being used.  Now with consistent defence values regardless of attack type I can have Thundering Charge actually do lightning damage if I want and Meteor can do physical when the meteor hits and fire when it explodes.  These things generally won't matter but thematically it pleases me greatly.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The beta is over

My impressions of the Diablo 3 expansion are still early but they are very favourable so far.  Reaper of Souls has pretty much the same plot style as the base game - there are a bunch of quests that have to be done in order and a good number of random side areas and events that shake things up some.  Thankfully there is much less of the villain appearing randomly to taunt you after you beat up one of their minions (though it still happens a couple times... really guys?) and the expansion content feels fun and slick.  The good news is that everything else is really well done and the railroad of a plot no longer dominates every aspect of gameplay.

The big problem in the base game was that there was no way to get away from the plot even after you beat the game.  You had to beat through it in order four times and even then farming required you to do everything in order over and over again.  That got tedious in a hurry and the new design is excellent.  Instead of just slamming through the same plot the game sends you to random zones to fight random mobs or achieve varied objectives.  Sometimes you get sent up against regular plot bosses but the variety seems pretty decent and because there are rewards for completing all of the objectives you end up seeing every bit of the game at some point.  Of course you can beat through the game in order over and over but it isn't the only option by any means.  This seems like a much better arrangement to let people farm the same area over and over if they like but incentivize doing lots of interesting things.

I also feel so much better about loot.  Because so much of the loot is not tradeable the game isn't about building wealth until you can buy the perfect upgrade from the auction hall, but rather it is about getting out there bashing some faces in and seeing what cool stuff drops.  Crafting and swapping mods on items seems like it will be fun though whether the costs are in line I can't really say at the moment.  Legendary items have an incredible list of crazy and wonderful mods and this keeps character builds and designs ever changing as you acquire different gear.

The fact that Magic Find is, for all intents and purposes, removed from the game is fantastic.  Want more stuff?  Get tougher, do more damage, crank up the difficulty!  This also means that top geared players aren't going to end up collecting literally ten times the stuff that starting characters will - since everyone has the same base chance to get items the best geared players will mostly just be able to access a few top tier items.  I initially was pretty happy with MF being a thing in D3 but these days I am really feeling differently about that and I like not having to worry about it.  There are tons of considerations in itemization anyway and this levels the playing field a lot.

Lastly I must say I am super pleased with the direction Witch Doctors took.  The new added talents very much support the debuffs and pets playstyle that obviously was meant to be functional but which was absolutely hopeless at launch.  The class was supposed to be about curses and summoning and instead was all about being a crappy nuker.  Now it is clear that nearly every Witch Doctor is going to want pets as random blockers but that you can invest in making them really good at bashing or focus on nuking instead.  Options are great and I love the way it is playing now.

So if you are looking for a summary of Reaper of Souls from the perspective of someone who liked D3 but ended up disappointed with it in many ways:  It is a great game with tons of potential longterm.  Buy it.  Also, join my guild.  There are guilds.  FINALLY.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The degenerate case

I have been doing some thinking about edge cases in character builds in Heroes By Trade.  I know the system is relatively robust in general but I always get a little concerned about how prone the game is to breaking when extreme situations arise.  For example, I have a character that has a pretty extreme build with 10 Strength, 3 Dexterity, 3 Constitution.  Because Strength provides Armour my Armour value is very high.  This is exacerbated by the fact that I am also wearing heavy armour, using a shield, and getting Armour bonuses from elsewhere.  My final Armour value is 18, which means all physical damage dealt to me is reduced by 18.  However, I also have access to a Ritual which increases my Armour by 10 for a limited time.

For reference a regular archer using a crossbow has a maximum damage roll of 16.  A longbow can hit as high as 23 but it is extremely unlikely to do so.  As such I can pretty much walk up to a city wall manned by hundreds of archers and be unworried about the volleys of arrows that might be launched my way.  They simply can't hurt me because none of them can manage the 29 damage required to beat my Armour value.  A serious character trying the same thing is quite capable of beating my Armour value, but mooks aren't.

It isn't like this is free - I have to take damage to use my Ritual and I have the penalties inherent in stacking all this Armour including weak attacks, slow movement, and other opportunity costs.  Costs aside though I can stand there and take a thousand arrows in the face and laugh which is pretty insane.  The question of the day is whether or not this situation is okay.  It comes down to what sort of vision I have for the game.  Do I want a world where high level people can laugh at armies and very slowly wade through hundreds of soldiers, invulnerable to the attacks being sent their way?  That is definitely high fantasy territory and isn't generally the way HBT fits in my mind.  I wanted to avoid characters disrespecting armies as part of the vision, after all.

The solution for the problem is very simple - any successful attack deals at least 1 damage.  That means that having a ton of Armour is still bloody amazing against physical attackers because you do NOT want to be fighting someone that only takes 1 damage from your attacks but nobody is going to be walking up to 1,000 archers and just taking the arrows in the face.  Heck, even 20 archers are going to be dealing 12 damage per round to me and that is lethal in a serious hurry.  It is possible that I could take down 20 archers given good luck but I wouldn't bet on it.

I am curious what sort of world other people, particularly those who have or are playtesting HBT, want to play in.  Do people enjoy the idea of being an invincible machine who (with the right build) can churn through endless hordes of losers, or is it better for the world to be more dangerous than that?  Some people really like that a crowd of peasants with pitchforks can beat anybody and some like being a superhero... so tell me, what do you like?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The competition isn't fierce

I was sent a link recently to a kickstarter for a new roleplaying game called Circle of Hands.  I was really intrigued as doing a kickstarter to try to print Heroes By Trade is something I have been seriously thinking about.  I won't be doing that until I feel like the game is complete though as I can't see the use in putting a half baked effort out there.  It has to be right before I will be willing to ask people for chunks of money to produce it professionally.

Unfortunately the creator of Circle doesn't share the same ideals I do it would seem.  It is pitched as a gritty, realistic, fine grained system that simulates Iron Age combat in a fantasy world.  All well and good that, but unfortunately the system has egregious examples of balance issues and the production quality of the document is ... sad.  I am not expecting gorgeous full colour pictures and professional layout but I was hoping that examples would actually contain, you know, examples, instead of just the word example.  An example should be more like the following:

Two handed axes are pitched as extremely dangerous, brutal weapons.  They add +1 to damage.  Swords are pitched as less dangerous weapons that can be paired with shields.  Swords also add +1 to damage, but that +1 could also be applied to defense instead and the shield they are paired with reduces damage taken by 4.  So what use is that giant axe again?

I don't know exactly what fine grained combat is meant to mean, but I think Circle fails.  Because the system doesn't have a hit point basis but instead reduces physical stats when you take damage, and then your stats suck so you can't win anymore, what it amounts to is the first person in a combat to take a hit just dies.  Brutal is certainly accurate, also short, but when a fight simply comes down to rolling 2d6 against the opponent and if you roll low you make a new character I don't see that as 'fine grained'.

What it comes down to is that if you are actually going to build a system with no tactics, no relevant combat decisions, and a massive reliance on luck you should pitch it as such.  There are system out there that work this way, where combat is a simple contest of skill without actually working out each hack and slash.  There are also systems totally based on roleplaying that presume that combat simply isn't something that will occur at all. Those systems are fine, and detailed combat systems are fine.  Circle, on the other hand, is a DnD derivative with terrible mechanics.

The author has value to bring to games but it is wasted here.  He obviously has a ton of knowledge of history and lots of creative ideas for world building and magic systems.  Blog posts he has written indicate an understanding of some of the flaws of DnD and other similar systems.  Unfortunately he does not have talent for writing game mechanics and figuring out numbers.  This is the trouble with small productions; it is hard to have a single person talented enough to do a good job at all the various parts of building something as complex as an RPG.  I suspect he and I could do wonders building a game together as I would make the math work and he could write flavour.

If Circle can get six grand of funding even with all of its manifest flaws then I really ought to get HBT in shape.  The trick for me is getting the initial pitch and the taglines right as the author of Circle has certainly done that.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Any effects?

A conversation last week with some former Magic folks gave me some inspiration for my game FMB.  (See sidebar.)  They were talking about losing a big game of Magic on the back of asking an opponent "Any effects?" and then being forced to end the turn because they had ceded priority.  Magic isn't the only game where order of operations and waiting to see what the opponent will do is a problem but it is certainly the stand out example in my mind.  The very worst of this was permission decks loaded with counterspells that relied on the ability to prevent the opponent from ever doing anything of note... of course those were only played by sociopaths with anger management issues.  *Tugs collar nervously*

The thing is that those decks and the reliance on timing and waiting for opponents to react just aren't much fun.  First off people really like making plans and knowing that those plans won't work is frustrating.  Secondly there is an issue of pure time - constantly checking to see if an opponent is going to do something is really slow and keeps the pace down to a crawl.  A long game isn't necessarily a bad game mind you but the game length should be about doing more interesting things rather than about being bogged down in constantly checking to see if your opponent is going to do something.

This all affects FMB pretty substantially.  The initial version of the game even had a counterspell in it but that was fairly quickly removed as it just wasn't any fun.  However, right now it still has the issue that opponents can regularly interrupt your turn and this is not a good thing.  It makes the game slower and prevents people from making a big plan and executing it.  It also makes some card wordings really strange as I need to account for the possibility of being interrupted for each effect that a player can generate.  If I could be sure that an opponent could never interfere with a plan in motion then there would be a lot more room to design effects.  Right now if there is a spell that makes a creature super powerful for a turn that creature is incredibly vulnerable to having Sleep cast on it immediately afterwards and wasting the entire effect.

My plan is to get rid of or modify all of the interrupt type effects so that the game can play faster and with less checking back and forth.  Hopefully I can reduce the effects that take place on the opponent's turn enough that players have lots of fun playing out their dastardly plans successfully and then can get wrecked in return on the next turn.  Stopping an opponent by setting up difficult situations for them is fun; it is much less so when they are on a roll in the middle of a big thing and suddenly the bottom falls out of the plan.

Strange that I keep thinking the game is done and then I end up finding ways to improve it.  Small iterations for the most part, polishing a pretty solid core, but still there are nearly always ways to tweak it just a bit towards perfection.  I wonder what it will look like ten years hence.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


I spend a lot of time talking on this blog about getting numbers right.  When I build game systems the first thing I focus on is making everything balanced and grinding the numbers off to perfection.  Unfortunately I don't think an expertly smoothed matrix of values is actually the thing that gets people really excited about a game.  Diablo3 at launch was a game of raw numbers, of slowly building up higher Critical, Critical Damage, Prime Stat, and Attack Speed numbers.  Each piece of gear slowly pushed those values higher but the game just wasn't that compelling because the drops were never all that interesting and never provoked a complete rewrite of a character.

D3 right now is just so much more fun than it was.  The big thing that is really getting me is how incredibly powerful and random the legendary equipment is.  I got a belt that was just straight up better than my old belt in terms of raw damage and health but it also had a random ability tacked on - Insect Swarm reduces enemy speed by 80%.  Insect Swarm is a debuff that rapidly spreads from the first target to everything on the screen and does lots of damage.  I was already using it as my primary damage source anyway so this new belt completely changed the way my character played because every monster was laughably slow and kiting became trivial.

Then I found pants that give me a 30% damage boost while moving and a 20% damage penalty while standing still.  Suddenly it seemed completely viable to build a crazy dot build that relied entirely on pets and debuffs while my character ran around like a maniac to keep that 30% damage boost rocking.  Of course when I level up some more I will find new and different gear and have to rethink everything... and that is *amazing*.  I love this new game where everything I find on the ground has a chance to cause me to completely rebuild my character and have to learn all new strategies.

Rather than a slow grind upward it is rather more like exploring.  There is a colossally large space to explore in terms of character builds and optimization and I am veering around throughout that space knowing that there are a huge variety of places I could go based on what happens.  Instead of figuring out that Zombie Bears is absurd and then spamming those for hundreds of hours I look forward to doing all kinds of new things.  I can be a nuker, a dotter, a summoner, or just base my build around fire, poison, or physical damage depending on what I find.

I am super excited to see what I find on the ground and what it does.  I will just turn off cinematics, turn off the sound, pretend that the horrific plot doesn't exist, and spend my time happily mashing monsters.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ok Blizzard, you win

I have been perusing the Diablo 3 expansion announcements and I think Blizzard has actually sold me on buying it.  One of my requirements for that purchase was a guild system and they are finally delivering on that.  My ability to hang out with my friends and have easy group conversations / arrange PUGs / kvetch about idiots on the internet is critical to ongoing enjoyment of the game.  Honestly I think if they had done that one thing right at the beginning my career as a D3 player would have been much longer and the question of buying the xpac would never have been in doubt.

However, that isn't all I like about the way they are going.  Really I love everything right from the new loot system that has deleted the auction hall and made killing dudes the route to better gear to the difficulty setting changes.  The cumbersome and terrible system of going through the same game four times but gated all along the way is gone and now once the game is beaten once we can just dial up the difficulty and play wherever we want.  There are also all kinds of interesting announcements about randomized dungeons and new events and such but without fully testing those I can't really comment.

Still I have some comical things I need to complain about.  How is it that when skills are adjusted some of them are improved in effectiveness by 400%?  You seriously sat on skills that were one fifth as good as they should be and didn't do anything up to this point?  Did you somehow avoid noticing that nobody good ever used them?  Obviously when errors that egregious get discovered there are two possible choices - fix them a little and accept that they are still wrong, or fix them a lot and look incompetent.  I am glad Blizzard is going with looking incompetent but seriously these should not have slipped the net for so long.

I intend to continue to play my Witch Doctor and I am mightily pleased with many of the changes there.  I was concerned that I would be casting Zombie Bears for another six months but they really decided to make other abilities competitive.  Mostly this was accomplished by just buffing the hell out of everything else, which seems like a perfectly reasonable approach to me since Zombie Bear Witch Doctors were just fine and certainly not broken.

Right now I am looking forward to a game where the way to play it optimally is to log on, easily chat with my friends to form a PUG, kill a bunch of mobs, find some gear, craft some gear, and then log off.  Sounds like a plan to me.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Boundary pushing in alternate worlds

I have a new Heroes By Trade campaign that started yesterday.  It began with a bang, and lots of fantastic character interaction.  That to my mind is a great sign for things to come because I have had lots of experiences on both sides of the GM screen where the players bond instantly and unrealistically and there is nothing between them of interest.  I always found it difficult when I posed hard questions to a group and the answer was rapidly and democratically decided even though by any reasonable reading of character histories there *should* have been conflict.  I get that some people really just want to be a happy group of heroes who fight external enemies but some tension makes it so much more interesting!

The trick in this case primarily revolves around the fact that we have a necromancer in our group.  He isn't letting it just sit at raising the dead as shambling zombies though, he also has a very unusual sexual 'orientation' in that he is only interested in the dead he has animated.  He raises them, marries them, and a month later they decay into dust and he starts anew.  It seems at first glance like a teenage prank character but it really doesn't play that way both because he has a good character history that supports this, the rest of the character is real and this isn't a one trick pony, and that this actually raises powerful questions.

In standard fantasy worlds necromancy is the standard EVIL thing that everyone can feel happy bashing on.  Thing is, that is based on a pervasive idea in our culture that bodies belong to someone after they die and is, I think, inextricably tied up in the idea of the soul.  My personal view is that once my mind is gone my body is just a hunk of meat which is incapable of experiencing either joy or suffering and therefore I don't think that moral arguments about respecting the dead need be universal.  Obviously in a world that has completely different physics, mythology, culture, and is occupied by creatures that have been around for a thousand years since the Beings created the place the dominant ideas about what should be done with bodies after death would be completely different than Western tradition.

All of this means that it isn't actually reasonable to assume that necromancy is EVIL.  It is entirely plausible that people would view it as a way to extend the useful life of a body, or perhaps just as an oddity but without significant moral implications.  Obviously the loved ones of the dead would likely find watching the body of someone they cared about shambling around very difficult but if removed from that immediacy I can see people not worrying about it overly much.

Of course that doesn't yet touch the topic of necrophilia.  Interestingly the character doesn't view his tendencies as such - rather he thinks of undeath as another later form of life rather than a form of death.  It is all a bit bizarre but I think it will very successfully push our boundaries and get us to think about how our characters would view something we personally would find abhorrent.  We aren't playing people in a modern civilization, but rather a satyr, an elf, and a troll who grew up with totally alien traditions and with minds constructed by ancient Beings for a particular purpose.

I am excited.  At some point we are going to come to an agreement about how we deal with this particular problem but it is clear our various characters have a bunch of crazy traditions, neuroses, and goals that we will have to reconcile if we want to work together.  And work together we must as one would certainly hope that there is some chunk of the world that needs saving and naturally nobody else will be able to accomplish that.