Thursday, May 29, 2014

Leaving things on the ground

I have been playing Skyrim these past few days.  I bought it because of my experience with Wildstar, specifically the scripted, no choice opening sequences that made no sense.  People have generally given Skyrim fantastic reviews and praised the openness and freedom of the game so I thought I would give it a whirl.  That, and the price has understandably cratered in the two years since the game launched.

I gotta say, I love leaving things in the dungeon.  Skyrim is full of crap.  Linen wrappings sitting on shelves in a dungeon full of mummy type critters is so perfect and I can pick up those linen wrappings and vendor them back in town for a pittance.  Every monster I fight has arrows sticking out of them that I can retrieve, axes I can cart away, and shoes I can pillage.  I am completely free to pick up every damn object in the dungeon and carry it back to the village to convert into cash if I should so desire, but of course this is a very stupid thing to do.  Instead I must figure out a ratio of item weight vs. cost to determine what junk I carry with me back to civilization.  I don't know what a blacksmith in a tiny, sleepy village *does* with 37 Ancient Nord Axes but I got paid so I don't care.

Not only am I free to cart away every iron pot in the world but I can go wherever I like.  I found a random hut in the middle of nowhere with a dead person next to it.  Figuring that she no longer needed her stuff I liberated everything in the hut that wasn't nailed down including the gear the corpse was wearing.  Somehow her relative from far away figured out I was the thief and sent thugs after me to kill me.  Random fights to the death on the porch of the inn are super exciting though strangely the people in the village don't seem to care that much that I just massacred some dudes right in front of them.  They really do care when you accidentally click on a chicken and kill it though and sometimes you have to reload after massacring villagers who really should have known better than to attack in retaliation for cluckicide.

Skyrim does have a lot of things I have criticized in games in the past.  There is a lot of walking, and there are tons of ways to trivialize fights.  I have had hilarious fun using traps to demolish monsters, shooting things from places they can't get to easily, and knocking people off of things.  It isn't fair, and it means that you can beat things that your numbers would indicate should be beyond your talents.  It is fun as hell though and I quite enjoy it.  This style of game requires a lot less grind and a lot more improvising, and although my natural tendency is to worry about balance first I find myself greatly enjoying all of the silliness.  After all it is much like the real world in that regard.  If I was going to kill someone for real I certainly wouldn't walk up to them and engage them in a fair contest of swordsmanship!

Skyrim has what MMOs have been lacking for me - a world I can play in, where I can find my own path.  Scripted stories with lots of phasing have become the norm in new MMOs but honestly I am having a lot more fun with the Lego that Skyrim is than the novel that MMOs have become even though I have to play in the world all by myself.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Faerie bargains

InTheHat has run two different Heroes By Trade games over the past year with two very different groups.  The only player in common is me.  Both games took place in the same world and they draw very heavily on stories of faeries that are extremely powerful, nearly immortal, and very much wrapped up in rules and games.  They love to make deals with mortals and play word games to try to gain advantage.  Their goals and knowledge are strange enough that they are mysterious at best, incomprehensible at worst.  There is a rich history of this sort of faerie in myth and I enjoy it very much though I don't actually tend to create this sort of thing myself most of the time.

The thing that has been so interesting to me is the way that other players handle confrontations with beings of this sort.  Mostly people seem to tackle it head on and attempt to deal with them simply by playing along or by refusing to engage at all.  They ask simple questions and just accept the terms of the deals that the faeries offer which generally doesn't work well because of course the faeries know a lot more than the players do.

I on the other hand treat these encounters like a game.  My opponents in the game know a lot so I can't allow them to dictate the terms of engagement because they will always choose terms that leave me no advantage.  I put myself in the mind of a faerie and I imagine they are looking more than anything for a challenge.  They want a worthy foe to contest against, a mortal who can step above the petty concerns of those who scrabble in the dirt and then quickly perish to offer something fresh and interesting.

For example:  A demon of some sort was trying to get my character to perform a seemingly simple task in exchange for favours from the demon.  I was paranoid that such a deal would end up very much to my detriment so I declined... but I declined in an interesting way.

"I am thinking of the many stories I have heard of people making deals with powers.  Those deals always seem too good to be true and they always end up being terrible in the long run.  As such I will not be making a deal with you today.  However, if you would like to try to trick me into doing something that will help you I am happy to listen to you."

My idea was that if I could challenge the demon to be clever enough to trick me I could get a bunch of information out of it without actually committing anything myself.  I wanted to put it in a position where the contest was one of my own devising and such that it had a choice - end the conversation and fail to meet my challenge or give me information I could use.  My gambit worked and it told me many things some of which may be false of course but as long as I know that I can still make use of what I learned.

Other people don't seem to approach these things in the same way and I don't quite follow why that is.  I know the people involved are familiar with the fantasy tropes of bargains and deals and such but they don't seem to see it as I do, or at least they don't employ the same tactics.  Perhaps it is just that I see these things the same way InTheHat does and we have a particular connection that way?  It is unclear to me.

What is abundantly clear though is that these sorts of conversations are amazing fun for me.  I love the freedom to take the encounter any direction I want, to use any tactic I can think of to twist someone seemingly holds all the cards to do what I want them to do.  A game with very few hard rules and plenty of opportunity for creative solutions - gotta love that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What it would take

A long time ago I fell into WOW and it took me years to extract myself.  Even then I end up recaptured by it every couple of years when a new expansion launches and the old crew reassembles to smash monsters and explore new vistas.  My recent experience with Wildstar taught me that even a reasonably made MMO with a theme I enjoy can't keep my attention for more than a half hour and that got me to wondering if there was anything at all that could bring me back to playing MMOs in a big way.  What would a new game have to do to bring me back in?

I don't represent all players in this of course and much of this will be personal.  However, I know there are a lot of people out there who are former WOW addicts who will feel similarly to me on many accounts.  I am not one of the bittervets who complains about everything after vanilla being a downgrade - lots of things were great, some sucked, and I just don't want to play like I did in years gone past for both reasons that are internal to the game and reasons that have nothing to do with it.  The draw required to get me to resub to a new game is going to be higher than it was back in 2004 for sure.

There seem to be two things I care about.  One is that I want all my friends to be playing.  I want to log in and see all kinds of familiar names, I want to use ImaginaryMMO as my social platform, and I want to be surrounded by all those people I remember from days gone by like those who somehow turned from teenagers into real people while I wasn't looking.  So yeah, make something so awesome that everybody I know loves it.  Good luck with that and sorry for the useless advice, since if you can get everybody I know playing you are probably already taking a dive into a pool of money.

The second thing I want is a world rather than a story.  I distinctly recall the first while of playing WOW and the thing was that the world had all kinds of interesting corners to poke about.  There was this place called Scarlet Monastery that was super far away and mysterious and our quest to clear all of the enemies out of it was a bloody adventure.  The story was mine to write, and it could include a trip to Scarlet Monastery to destroy those dastardly fanatics... or not.  Clearly there were all kinds of terrible problems with the world and quest design back at launch but it is possible to fix those without making the world into a single hallway along which the characters run.

That isn't to say that I glorify the inconvenience of the old days.  Walking forever to get to a dungeon is frustrating and things like summoning stones and dungeon finder teleports eliminated a lot of tedium.  The trick is that I really like it when a game is complicated and hard and optimizing it is actually a real thing.  I want to find the perfect path through the quests to do them at maximum possible speed.  It feels good to figure out the routine, to find the points where the game can be made to bend to my will.

I don't want a novel.  I want a choose your own adventure.  I don't want to watch, I want to play.  I kind of doubt that any game will recapture me in this way though - they all seem to be novels these days.  I suspect until there is a major revolution in the design of MMOs they will not be able to suck me back in.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Patching it up

A significant balance patch for D3 landed this week and my impressions of it are very favourable.  There are still a reasonable share of fixes that make me laugh but overall the job they did is very good.  The standout example of hilarity is Toad of Hugeness.  It's damage was upgraded from 24% to 580%.  It is still rubbish.  That's right, an increase of more than 2000% in the damage of an ability was insufficient to make it worth going on your bar.  Admittedly the Toad isn't solely used because of its damage but that is still a pretty outrageous increase.

Blizzard changed things so that there are more ways to get the rare, high powered set items that are restricted to Torment difficulty and higher.  The most important change to my mind is that they allowed players to specifically target items they want, albeit in an inefficient way.  Players can now gamble for any item in the game instead of having to rely only on drops.  I think this is a very good change as it makes waiting for that very last set piece much less absurd without increasing the amount of stuff people get in general.  It makes completing sets and getting particular gear much more reasonable and reduces the need for people to run in groups all composed of the same class.  Gambling for my Star Metal Kukri is still a ludicrous proposition but at least I can *try* it instead of simply killing random mobs hoping against all odds that it drops.

They are also taking steps to improve build diversity.  Because the internet exists there will always be some degree of homogeneity as everyone rushes to copy the build of the week but Blizzard is taking some big steps to open things up by changing what element specific abilities are.  It isn't much good to say that Barbarians can build around cold damage when they have only two cold abilities and neither is remotely competitive.  There are still going to be balance disparities but at least they are actively trying to make sure that Barbarians have a variety of cold based attacks and they are applying that philosophy to all the classes.

There was a complaint in vanilla D3 that there was absolutely no point in having more than one of a given class on your account.  After all, why bother having two Witch Doctors when you just put the best gear on one character and they all had the same build anyway?  I think this complaint is actually less valid now but it is based on gear rather than the character itself.  For example, if you want to be a cold based character you want Frostburns while fire wants Cindercoat.  That changes which sets pieces you can use, which changes which other unique bonuses you can get, all of which changes your build.  Many other items, notably Stone of Jordan, have specific elements on them so they shouldn't really be shared between builds.  I think building a cold Wizard and a fire Wizard, for example, is totally reasonable even if the characters themselves could be swapped back and forth if you wanted.  They likely use very different paragon setups and very different gear so you actually can level up multiple characters to have different builds if you like.  That said, I don't think very many people actually use this functionality, but there it is.

So while there is much yet to do to make the game perfect it is clear that the direction Blizzard is taking is a good one.  The forums will always be full of hate but the incremental changes are good ones.  If you want them to speed it up though, tell them to hire me.  I will get that shit DONE.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A distinct lack of making sense.

It has been awhile since I played an MMO.  I quit playing WOW a couple months after Mists of Pandaria dropped and I haven't touched the genre since.  Hobo was trying out the Wildstar open beta this weekend though and I figured I should give it a spin and bash some monsters with him.  I remember the fun times at the start of WOW and I thought maybe I could be a tourist for a short time and recover some of that magic.

Wildstar has some things going for it that I really like.  The character appearances were cool stylistically, real enough to be compelling but silly enough to be fun.  It is set in a futuristic, space travel type setting but with a wild west feel to it - I can't help but compare it to Firefly - and I quite like that sort of setting so it had a few things going for it right off the bat.

I sat down and played it for a little while, maybe an hour or so, and then I was done.  No interest at all in continuing.  I wondered for a bit what the issue was.  The interface felt weird, but that is almost certainly due to me being so used to WOW and certainly it would have settled down.  The thing that I really hated was that I never once got a decision.  Every quest led to every other quest, every path was preset, and everything I did was utterly trivial.  Moreover nothing I did made any sense at all, even in the context of the world.  Why, when our spaceship is apparently under attack, are there random enemies with swords just standing around on our spaceship for me to stab?  Why are there medical robots wandering around loose waiting for me to beat them up and take their juices?

There are many things I can get from a game.  One is challenge, where I work hard to see if I am good enough.  Running raids in WOW fits that description since obviously killing Nefarian every week makes little sense story wise but was difficult to accomplish.  The other is immersion.  If I can be in a world with options where I can carve my own path and find interesting solutions to problems I can really get into the character's head even if there isn't much actual challenge there.  A world where I have no choices, everything is trivial, and all I am doing is clicking the buttons in the precise order required has nothing to draw me in at all.

Probably Wildstar has more interesting choices later on, and perhaps I would even get invested.  Unfortunately that experience of simply doing exactly what the developers dictate in an environment completely devoid of challenge, thought, creativity, or innovation is the introduction I got and it turned me off immediately.  Much like the Cataclysm expansion of WOW this new trend towards clicking through a badly written story that makes no sense in other games leaves me completely uninterested.

I won't say that 2004 was the good old days, but I will say that WOW back then grabbed me like an alien face hugger and wouldn't let go.  The games now are better looking but they just can't make me care.  Maybe I am not the target audience, maybe I am just old and embittered, or maybe they just aren't much good.  I don't know which, but in any case my money is staying safely in my pocket.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Rebuilding versus reacting

A couple months ago I talked about how being able to constantly interrupt your opponent's turn in a board game isn't much fun.  It is good to have interaction where you can affect what your opponent does but there is a huge amount of time wasted when you have to constantly check to see if your opponent is going to react to things you do.  There are other reasons to avoid this too, like that people love to make a plan and then smash their opponent to bits.  It just isn't entertaining to set up for a big move and then watch that move flop.  It is also much easier to teach new players a game when the rules for timing are really simple.

In order to put this into action I have been rewriting Fantasy Monster Beatdown.  My goal initially was to get rid of a lot of the effects that went off during the opponent's turn but eventually I decided to axe all of them.  It is much easier to write both effects and rules when I know that you don't have to worry about how the opponent might interfere.  I have been getting rid of spells like Healing Light (which stopped an attack from working) and used more spells like Energize (which lets you get a defeated unit back into the fight super quickly).

The great thing about this is that it has got me approaching effects from a completely different angle.  Instead of trying to figure out how you can wreck plans in motion I need to design things that can constrain your opponent to make things more difficult for them to work with.  I have ended up designing much more broad effects that generally make life harder for the opponent rather than pinpoint interruptions.  I have tried to frame it in my mind that I want to get rid of effects that react to the opponent and create effects that rebuild after things the opponent has done.  That distinction is really key.

I got rid of things like:

Healing Light - Prevent a single Hit from occurring.
Blink - Move a unit one space.
Misfortune - Force opponent to reroll one attack

and added things like:

Quake - All Hills are treated as Mountains for 1 turn.
Flood - All units in or adjacent to a Water space have their Speed reduced to 1 for 1 turn.
Precognition - Look at the top four cards of a deck and discard or rearrange them.

Hopefully this will forward a variety of goals including quicker playtime, simpler learning, and increasing fun.  All of these are good things from my perspective, and my hope is that I can achieve them without losing out on strategic depth.  If I do it right I can get both the depth I want and the other things at the same time.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Roll for annoying

The latest DnD Next blog post talks about character traits that have no mechanical impact.  Background, fluff, flavour, whatever term you use.  It takes an approach geared very much to new players who have no idea what making a character is about and uses a clue by four to teach them what they should do.  For example, it has you roll 1d8 to determine a trait which could be things like:  Quotes religious texts constantly, hates rough living, tries to convert others to own religion all the time.  A lot of it sounds like rolling to see how exactly you character is going to be annoying and piss off all of your friends but since that is the heart of roleplaying a lot of the time I think all is well.

While the examples provided are very narrow I think this is a really good thing to have in the base book.  No matter what fluff advice you provide advanced players will ignore it so it is by far more useful to gear it towards completely new players and provide a starting point.  Back in my days of gaming in high school most characters really were just a couple of ridiculous quirks designed to get a laugh and that is a fine way to start seeing a character as a personality instead of a matrix of integers.  Making the leap from computer or board games where winning is the thing to a game where just playing is the goal takes some doing and I think this is a good way to begin.

I actually did something somewhat similar in Heroes By Trade.  My version is different though because it is designed to help you figure out your circumstances rather than your traits.  In HBT there is a rolling system to sort out things like friends, enemies, family circumstances, wealth, and other external parts of your history.  Obviously these things can mold a personality but it is also possible that they just provide plot hooks.  The Next version goes a step further and helps build your character traits themselves.  That isn't a thing I want to do particularly as I think getting players to do a bit of creative work figuring out some character traits based on circumstances is more fun and leads to greater engagement.  However, if all you want is a super fast system to get a newbie into a dungeon crawl then the Next version is a good way to do that.

I hope the organization of the books is better than some previous versions of DnD.  Roleplaying guides should be in the Player's manual and endless charts and descriptions of specific world building elements should be in the GM's manual if you need to include them at all.  I remember the old 2nd edition books that had huge amounts of room in the Player's manual devoted to the details of various kinds of ships, the differences in design between the seventeen polearms you could choose from, and other ridiculous indulgences while things like how to divide treasure or resolve problems between characters were in the GM's manual.

This week Next gets a thumbs up.  Not exactly the way I would do it, but I think this is a really solid way for them to do it given what they are trying to do.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Cool stuff

A big driving force behind fantasy RPGs is the hunt for stuff.  People love getting better weapons, cool trinkets, and magic doohickeys.  The trouble with stuff is that over the years people playing DnD got less and less neat things with interesting histories and more and more +6 to X in my hat slot.  I have tried a few solutions in Heroes By Trade to solve this problem and we are currently testing the latest with real success.  The big difference in the most recent version is that attuning to a magic item is a big deal.  Finding one is all well and good but eventually before it is willing to grant you its abilities you have to do something the item wants.

This requirement has led to some great situations.  My character just found a two handed sword themed around truth.  In order to attune to it I had to spend an entire day telling it everything about myself leaving nothing out.  I did so, but it generating an interesting situation where the other characters had to decide if they wanted to listen in or not.  I could not break my concentration to tell them to go away or argue with them nor could I lie or omit and this led to what was, for me, a really cool moment of decision.  The other items we found require other things, one of which seems to be to get struck by lightning! and the others are to perform bloody, scary rituals or to spend a lot of time reading secrets from a mysterious book.

All of this means that these items are in no way interchangeable and they have strong memories associated.  We had to choose what items we got carefully based on both what they did and what we would have to do to get them to obey.  Of course the selection process was somewhat marred by the fact that one of the characters was unconscious at the time due to getting mauled quite severely by some kind of dragon / statue / demon hybrid the previous day, but what is done is done!  What we definitely won't be doing is forgetting that we have these items or being bored by them.

The thing I most like about this is that it is a fantastic and natural way for the GM to generate direction and side adventures.  You found the sword that wants to visit a volcano?  I guess you are all taking a trip to Fiery Peak.  Your bowl of healing waters wants you to cure a town suffering from the plague?  Go find yourself some very sick people, somehow.  Of course the GM can make the attunement process simple, like the truth telling for 24 hours example above, but they can also give the item amazing powers and make it feel like it was worth the trials undergone to tame it, especially because the characters had to choose to do so deliberately.

Plus these items really feel like marvellous objects full of history and lore right out of a book.  Fantasy novels are not full of characters wielding longswords +2 but they are full of Fireheart, bane of the Undead, that can only be wielded by a templar who is pure of spirit and intention.  I think I am getting very close to a game that really models that second style and it is feeling great.