Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The puzzle balance

In reading over a lot of RPGs I have begun thinking about crunch and fluff in new ways.  The paradigm I am using at the moment is to think of RPGs as having a puzzle value.  That is, the ratio between how much of the game is focused around the players trying to think their way out of situations with concrete rules and how much is them just making cinematic decisions and the GM making something up.

Combat is the easiest venue for making these comparisons but it isn't limited to that.  Some games have the players making decisions in a matrix of rules and numbers such that they could actually play out combats by themselves without a GM.  DnD is definitely like this, as is Heroes By Trade.  There are surprises much of the time but it would certainly be possible to list exactly how the fight will go and what the enemies will attempt to do and run it as a player quite comfortably.  Whereas I remember a description from Numenera where the players were fighting a giant robot and due to something the players did the giant robot suddenly got a flamethrower.  It didn't have one before, and that result wasn't planned... the GM just made it up.

Personally I find the puzzle aspect of such a thing completely lacking.  If I have no idea what my actions will accomplish and encounters just go along until the GM arbitrarily decides they are over there is no optimization.  I often take a sub optimal route of course, because once I know what I should do in the puzzle I need to figure out if that is what my character would do and often those are not the same thing.  Without concrete rules to follow though the joy I get in sorting out a puzzle and finding the perfect solution isn't there.  Heroes By Trade has a very high puzzle value in combat, possibly the highest I have seen, and certainly higher than most of the new wave of fantasy RPGs that focus on fluff more extensively.

That actually applies throughout RPGs including things like exploration and negotiation.  I know the GM has to make everything up as they go but I want them to craft a world and then let me cut loose in it rather than have a blank slate.  I like the idea of exploring the dread forest to find out what is there rather than the story simply happening no matter what it is I choose to do.  Clearly the world isn't fully built when I step into it but I want to feel as though it is; I want a simulation as well as a narrative arc.

It is a tricky balancing act.  In a pure simulation of course I would end up dead, eaten by direwolves in the dread forest.  Either that or wander for days finding nothing of note!  However, games that have too low a puzzle coefficient end up feeling pointless and contrived, like my decisions don't matter and thinking about things is irrelevant.  I want the sense that the GM is simply letting me know what happens rather than that they are making it all up on the fly.  I need the puzzle value to be high even when I do get a few nudges in the direction of something interesting.

I am by no means the extreme outlier in this.  Naked Man is constantly pushing for poison tables, weather tables, and precise counting of coins.  He wants to note that he has fourteen silver shillings, two golden dragons from the Free Counties, 87 brass pennies from Traevas, a ruby worth 80 silver shillings, and a golden statue of unknown value.  For me this is simply too much because we never ever do it properly.  If we were actually playing an economics simulation I would happily record gold and silver and such but we always end up fudging the cost of stays at the tavern or bribing the guards.  Inevitably we spend time haggling over utterly trivial sums and hauling daggers from slain foes to sell for pennies, or we simply ignore the small expenditures and lose the simulation feel anyway.  I have many times found a wonderful simulation feel for combat, for exploration, for discussion, but never have I found money to actually work that way.

Heroes By Trade is the game you would expect from me.  It is crunchy in combat and has lots of interesting tactical decisions.  It does not have a concrete money system and instead plays that fast and loose.  It controls player magic and abilities reasonably tightly and does not simply let people make up things on the fly and hope the GM is generous.  I want to have a list of resources in front of me and a problem to tackle.  I want that puzzle to solve.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Figuring out Steam

Several game blogs I follow have talked about how they seem to have too many Steam games.  They buy a ton of games on big Steam sales but never end up playing them.  The usual story is that they have a library of one hundred Steam games but only play about five new games a year... and they are still buying twenty five new games a year because they look cool and for five bucks how can you go wrong?

My Steam library has seven games in it and all have dozens to hundreds of hours.  Sales, they don't so much work on me.

Tobold thinks this is a widespread phenomenon and that this is going to lead to some kind of massive game industry crash as people notice that they are paying for games they don't use.  Eventually people will catch on and just stop buying games at all until they have played through all of the games they have.  If we assume everyone is a perfectly logical actor and that money is extremely tight then this makes sense, but neither of those things is true.

Just look at the garment industry.  That new sweater that you bought even though you already have six sweaters?  A total waste, but what a bargain at half off!  It would be a waste of money *not* to buy it!  50% off sales still generate massive amounts of buying even though people have had awhile to try to learn that 50% isn't really 50%.  Like ten or twenty thousand years, at least.  I am pretty sure it took about fifteen minutes after the first person traded berries for a hunk of meat for someone to figure out that offering meat for ten berries then dropping the price to five berries would get people interested.  Fact is, we know that people continue to accumulate far beyond their needs, even far beyond their ability to use the thing they are buying at all.

There is every reason to think that this will apply to games in the same way.  People are going to continue to buy new shiny things at big discounts and then not have time to play them.  The people that are clever enough not to do that already aren't doing that, and last I heard Steam was making a bajillion dollars.  All those people supplying the bajillion dollars are going to keep on doing that.

You can't go too far wrong assuming everyone is going to buy crap they don't need, and Steam is assuming that in a big way.  The smart money is on that working well into the future.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Crunchy, but in an icky way

I have been reading 13th Age, a roleplaying game built on the d20 open gaming licence.  It is clearly a DnD clone that sits somewhere between 3rd and 4th edition incorporating elements of both.  That isn't all though as it certainly brings lots of new things of its own to the table, but you can't ignore the origin of the thing.  It was pitched to me as a crunchy game with a lot of combat tactics and that seems true but I don't much like the way it does things.

One of the issues 13th Age has is that it relies on rapidly scaling Armour Class to improve character power.  Overall from level 1 to level 10, which is the max, character AC rises something like 13 points.  That means at higher levels weak enemies simply cannot affect you, and moreover that you go from being hittable to being invulnerable in one big chunk.  The problem here is that the die simply isn't big enough.  When people are rolling a d20 to hit that first 2 points of AC might reduce the enemy to hitting you on 13 instead of 11, but that last 2 points of AC means that instead of hitting on 19 they cannot do anything at all.  13th Age tries to deal with this by controlling hit bonuses and AC very tightly.  Items provide +1 to +3 bonuses based on level, stats all start and end at the same values, and everybody gets the same bonuses from level.  The system is so fragile that they box every character into a corner and keep them all the same in order to keep the numbers from breaking.  This means that everyone is on a magic item treadmill, their stats are basically locked up with no flexibility, and they all have the same bonuses.  Boring!

They also imported a lot of things from 4th edition that I really dislike - things like having multiple stats determine the bonus to a particular defence based on which is highest.  That isn't a balance complaint, but just a feeling that raising my Constitution should have a consistent effect, rather than "Well, if I Constitution is my middle stat of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution then it does this thing, but if it is my low or high stat, it does nothing."  That just feels bizarre to me, an example of someone trying to balance things so hard that the system feels wrong.

One thing that they do in this game which I really like is the idea of failing not actually being about failure but rather complication.  If for example you fail a Diplomacy check you still succeed in what you were trying but something weird happens.  The queen might agree to pay you to slay the monster, but she decides to send another group too and give the money to whoever gets the critter first.  I feel like utterly failing should be a real possibility but this does give me an idea for how to handle most failures in a more entertaining fashion.

In Heroes By Trade people roll 1d8 and add their bonus to perform a Skill Check.  My theory is that I could add the rule that if you attempt something and fail you will have a choice:  Either accept failure and move on, or roll an additional 1d8 and add it to the roll.  If that higher check succeeds then you do what you intended but regardless something bad happens.  Basically you are taking risks and being reckless, which is a problem, but might allow a stunning success.  Maybe you pick the lock but you make a ton of noise doing it, or you leap the chasm but your weapon falls off halfway across and is lost.  It feels like this would give the GM a lot of opportunities for hilarity and make it possible to set up really difficult checks that the players can fail at in ways that forward the plot and add interesting twists.

This might even be a good replacement for Fate Points, as I haven't been entirely pleased with them in testing recently.  Using them just doesn't have the visceral impact that I want and they don't feel good in combat particularly - plus stocking up on them makes players feel invincible.  The main thing I really liked in terms of Fate Point use was coming up with crazy ways to succeed at very difficult tasks and taking a complication to achieve something super heroic strikes me as a much better way to approach it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Patch 6.2 for WOW is dropping on Tuesday.  I am excited about this primarily because I am sick of the current dungeon and am thoroughly ready for something new and exciting.  New monsters, new story, new stuff!

Of course the *really* interesting part of it is the math.

My new set bonuses look simple enough at the outset but they are designed to reward clever play.  Right now I have a buff called Avenging Wrath (AW) that gives me a 20% damage bonus and allows me to use a nasty attack for 20 seconds.  It has a 2 minute cooldown.  My new set bonuses read as follows:

1:  AW now has 3 charges.  (This means that I can use it 3 times and I get a new usage every 2 minutes.  I can also store those uses up, with a cap of 3.)

2:  After AW ends gain 6% extra damage every second for 10 seconds. (I model this as 30% damage for 10 seconds, which is hopefully the way it works out but I won't know for sure until I see it.)

These two things in combination are fairly easy to math out.  This new set is absolutely amazing in a short fight of course, because you just get 2 extra uses of a big cooldown right away.  The longer the fight goes the worse that effect is, but it still matters.  However, the key to the bit is that now I will have flexibility about *when* I cast AW and that is very hard to math out.

For example, my guild is currently bashing on Heroic Blast Furnace.  I really want to have AW available for every Channeler but exactly when we will have a Channeler up is not clear.  They also don't come on predictable 2 minute timers.  This means that with my current setup I either use AW every two minutes and often don't have it available for a Channeler or when it comes up I save it for a Channeler.  I have to choose between using it as often as possible and using it at the exact time I want but wasting possible uses.

With the new set bonus I won't have to face that choice.  I can just save up a couple AW uses and hit it as soon as I am about to get my 3rd use back.  Every time a Channeler comes up I will have AW to hit no matter if they come up 90 seconds apart, 3 minutes apart, or some other time.  The ability to save up charges and use them intelligently is difficult to evaluate in terms of raw damage done but it is considerable.  Even on a fight where there are no mechanics to force particular cooldown usage I can save up my AW uses for when I get a big buff from a trinket or Heroism.

The math I did suggests that the raw dps benefit of these set bonuses is roughly 8%.  That was modeled on a 9 minute fight with no consideration given to timing of AW nor syncing it with trinket procs, though I did assume Heroism cast at the start of the fight.  With the ability to stack up to 70 seconds of massively improved damage at once or to spread that damage out as necessity dictates I am certain the benefit will be drastically larger than that in practice.  (The 70 seconds can be 100 seconds with a particular talent, which I expect to be using when I get my 4p together.)

My feeling is that I can probably squeeze at least another 5% effective damage out of using AW intelligently with the new set bonus.  There won't be pressure to use it in suboptimal situations and I will always be able to line it up with phases that demand extra burst.  Even the ability to wait a few seconds to pop it to max out my Holy Power first without wasting any cooldown time is huge.

I am really looking forward to trying it out.  My current set bonus is powerful enough and required tinkering with my mod to optimize it but once that was done I pretty much ignored it.  This new one will really let me flex my brain to crush the enemies in the face and I ready to rise to the challenge.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Something's gotta happen

I had an interesting conversation this past week about the way I am designing Heroes By Trade.  The person I was talking to is much more a roleplayer than a rollplayer - he likes systems like Dungeon World where it is common to make a single roll for the turn and then the GM narrates what happens in response.  For example, it is possible to get a result where you are successful in your stated action but there is a consequence and the GM might decide that the consequence is that you fall down, break your weapon, lose your torch, or some other difficulty.  In Heroes By Trade that sort of thing isn't written into the rules at all - the GM is going to have to make calls at times but mostly you can predict the results of your actions easily.  Hit or miss, damage or not, dead or alive, you might not know *which* will happen, but you know that these are the options.

One thing that was pointed out to me was that the systems that have a lot more making it up in them have the advantage that something happens every turn.  You don't have turns going by with "I miss.  I miss too.  Okay, the monster attacks... and misses.  Back to the top of the order."  In a game like Dungeon World the fight changes each time people do something, but how it changes is often very unclear.  I don't like the unclear part for my games but I do find the idea of something happening every time appealing.

People don't like to miss.  They don't like whiffing completely and wasting their turn.  So the question I have been mulling over is whether or not I should try to find a way for that to happen in Heroes By Trade.  There are some half measures I could employ like simply reducing the base value for people's Dodge and letting attacks hit more often generally - this doesn't guarantee a hit but does make turns where nothing happens much less likely.  This really mucks with the balance of the game though because if players are already hitting a lot they will avoid hit bonuses and go for damage instead, reversing much of the gains.  Hit bonuses simply can't be that valuable in a system where you start out hitting the great majority of the time and in which the die being rolled is fairly large.

I was also considering the idea of letting people spend Focus to turn misses into hits.  This would mean that every attack would hit, but if you roll badly you end up having to spend some of your resources to make it land.  That is a possibility, but involves another step in every Hit Roll bogs combat down.  That doesn't rule this idea out, but it is a significant penalty to trying it.

The idea I am toying with right now is making every attack hit by default but having the roll determine if the target's Armour applies or not.  (The current version has Armour apply to all hits.) The idea is that you always bash on them a little, but on a good roll you can apply your debuffs and ignore their Armour to really lay on an extra beating.  This would require some adjustments to the game as damage values would have to drop substantially since people are taking damage each and every swing.  It would have a really pleasant side effect though in that it would eliminate stacking all Dodge or all Armour as a broken strategy.  Having a massive Dodge value would mean that every hit would have to go through Armour... but that means you need a good Armour value to leverage it!  Each point of Armour or Dodge makes the other one more valuable, which means that stacking a single stat doesn't get you to invulnerability.

It also means that I can actually give some monsters truly preposterous Armour or Dodge values if I want without breaking things.  Pixies may have 40 Dodge so you can't land a full strength blow on them, but their Armour probably isn't good so you can still beat them down.  Same goes for Dragons and other dangerous critters - I can give them enough Armour to be essentially immune to dorks with arrows if I want to as long as their Dodge is something that powerful heroes can deal with.

I don't know if I want to do the quantity of rewriting that would be necessary to balance that but it really does have some appeal.  Every turn does something, a few nasty edge cases get fixed neatly, and I think people end up having more fun.  Worth exploring, at any rate.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

That thing we all love to hate

Last night I went to a games night where I got to show off Camp Nightmare and ended up talking a lot about Heroes By Trade.  Pretty much I spent my evening defending and promoting the games I am pouring my time into to a new audience, and that was an enlightening experience.  The Camp Nightmare feedback was useful and fairly typical as it was divided into two types:  Firstly there were a couple card interactions that could be interpreted several ways based on the current wording and I can rewrite those to make them tighter.  Much of the rest of the feedback was of the second type though, which mostly amounts to wanting ways around the constraints the game imposes - essentially making the game easier.

Camp Nightmare isn't a brutally difficult game by any means - mostly people don't win but winning is quite possible, even for people on their first playthrough.  The goal isn't necessarily to achieve total victory but rather to do as well as possible.  People often see a way to do something powerful that the rules don't allow and ask for the rules to change to accommodate that.  For example, people usually end up drawing far too many cards and end up being grumpy that they have all these wonderful cards and they can't play them all.  Veteran gamers are actually by far the most likely to do this, for the record, so it isn't just people who have no clue when it comes to games.  I have received endless suggestions that all amount to the same thing - people want to just play all of their cards instead of picking and choosing the best ones.

Trouble is, not only would letting people play more cards require a redesign from the ground up, it wouldn't make the game more fun.  If players with 8 good cards could just play them all, even if there was a cost associated, they would do so.  No thought required, no sacrifices needed.  Just play everything!  kaboom!

But that is fun once.

The second time it is boring because you don't have to make a careful choice, plan ahead, or weigh your options.  You just do everything and win.  That isn't an interesting choice and it has little replay value.  The trick to the game is that you have to balance drawing cards to generate more possibilities with taking actions to generate more resources right away.  That sense that you just can't quite do everything you want to is frustrating in the moment but that feeling is what brings people back.  If Pandemic normally resolved by everyone handily curing every disease and the players declaring victory people would stop playing.  The reason people continue to play is that being in dire straits, desperately trying to eke out every tiny advantage from a perilous situation, is the part that is actually fun.  They might fuss about not being able to move quite far enough to get to the city that they really want to cure but if you gave them more actions the game wouldn't be more fun - it would be boring.

It is, I suspect, an offshoot of gamers' desire to optimize.  They want to push for every advantage, see every angle.  Those gamers constantly struggle against the constraints that games impose and curse the rules that prevent them from accomplishing their goals.  What is critical to recognize though is that such struggle is exactly what generates the flow, the enjoyment, and the eventual thrill of victory.

We want to do more stuff.  We want to go harder, faster, bigger, more.  That striving for more has to give that feeling of railing against an unyielding force in order for the greatest joy to be had at the end.

Like this guy, who is having a blast, according to me.

Pic from:  http://urbancliq.com/news_article_readmore.php?nid=16042

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Mathie games

Elli recently got a game as a present from her aunt and uncle.  The basic idea is that there are 31 cards in the game, each of which has 6 pictures on it.  Each picture appears 6 times in total.  The way that the game is played is players look at a pair of cards and try to be the first to figure out which picture appears on both cards.  The marvellous thing about it is that each of the 31 cards has precisely one matching picture with each of the others.  That isn't an easy thing to do - brute forcing that solution would be an incredible endeavour.  I suspect that most people would look at such a game and think that it was very clever to have precisely one match for each pairing but not think much about it, whereas I really wanted to know how that would be done.

It turns out that projective geometry makes finding such a solution easy.  My father in law did his PhD in projective geometry so he was immediate fascinated by the game and was delighted that he could use his knowledge of a pretty esoteric subject to discuss how the game would be constructed.  I have a math degree but I never took a course on projective geometry so my grasp of the subject is sketchy at best.  The basic idea is you construct a plane containing the (x,y) coordinates from 0 through 4 to generate 25 points at the intersections and then add 6 more points at infinity to get to a total of 31 cards.  The points are the cards and the lines through them represent the symbols on those cards.  Using this construction you can find the single possible solution.

What I immediately wondered was which of two things had occurred:  Did a math geek look at this and think that a game could be made of it, or did a game designer try to make the game, realize the brute force method was insane, and then contact a math geek to figure it out?  It seems likely that one of the two things happened but I certainly couldn't say which.  It is cool for me to contemplate though because while I don't actually know projective geometry I certainly *could* know it and I like to design games.  This is a thing I could have built.

I *wouldn't* have built it, but I could.  That is, while the construction is very interesting indeed the actual gameplay is a simple pattern recognition game.  Wonderful for children, actually pretty good for adults competing against children, and of no real interest to me.  If I am going to play against Elli this is ideal because I can totally go for it and she has a real chance to win, unlike nearly all other games, but I can't bring myself to care much for a game where there is no strategy.

This is unfortunate I think because games like this that are both elegant and fill a great niche are really useful to the world.  It is something I wish I could build, but which I know I never will.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

I don't wanna be the cleric

In Heroes By Trade each character has three stats that contribute most of their offensive power.  For characters that use physical attacks and weapons these are Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution.  (Characters using magic have analogous stats that aren't material to this discussion.)  Strength increases damage dealt, Dexterity increases hit chance, and Constitution increases the rank of Powers that you can use.

My initial design was to aim for a system where a generic character with an even mix of those stats would be quite effective, and to make sure that maxing a single stat was not the optimal strategy.  There should be reasons to have a massive single stat and builds that make it workable but I definitely don't want it to be the flat out best.  If a class strategy guide can be summed up by "Just max your Strength" then I have done something terribly wrong.  It is boring and it means that people are stuck choosing between being bad and adhering to a single build.  Yuck.

Strength and Dexterity are relatively easy in this regard because you generally need both of them to be successful.  If you are going to deal damage you need to land hits, and if you are going to hit you want to make it count when you do!  Mathematically speaking each point of Strength increases the relative value of Dexterity (and it works the other way around too) so as long as the point at which they are roughly equal in efficacy is close to where the raw numbers are equal all is well.  

Constitution, on the other hand, is a problem.  When characters use regular Powers that bonk an enemy everything works because all three stats contribute to their effectiveness.  The trouble comes up when I get creative with Powers and people don't necessarily need any Strength or Dexterity at all.  Example:

Battle Orders:  Rank 12

Choose 2 allies.  Each of them makes a Basic Attack and gains 2 Focus if they hit.

The problem with Battle Orders is that a character with 3 Strength, 3 Dexterity, and 12 Constitution can spam Battle Orders all day and be amazingly effective.  They don't deal damage personally but their friends absolutely rip through the enemies.  This can be exacerbated by having allies that stack Strength and Dexterity rather than Constitution because they spend so much of their time beating down without using a Power at all.  The optimal group is one where people's stats are all extreme and only a couple of Powers ever get used and that lack of diversity is terrible.  A regular balanced group of 4 players would get demolished by a group running 2 people spamming Battle Orders and 2 people optimized for making all the Basic Attacks.

I have been spending time going through all the Powers and making sure that this sort of thing gets squashed.  I want there to be interesting combinations, and there are, but I don't want a class to be reduced to a single Power with a single stat dominating all other strategies.  There are penalties to such a build of course, like the fact that the person using it is probably completely helpless in a duel, but I don't much like using that as a balancing mechanism.  Saying to the GM "Look, just make sure each individual player has to fight deadly enemies by themselves on a regular basis" seems like a terrible way to set up the system.  The way I fix these issues is by making sure Powers at some point use characters' actual damage stats, like in the following new version of the Battle Orders Power:

Battle Orders:  Rank 12

You and 1 ally each make a Basic Attack and gain 2 Focus if you hit.

This is a simple, small change but it fixes the problem completely.  The Power is still good, especially if you have an ally who is set up to deliver deadly Basic Attacks, but if you try to run it with miserable Strength and Dexterity your attack will be almost irrelevant.  On a balanced character this new version is pretty much the same, but on a single stat character it is reduced in effectiveness a good 40%, which puts it in line with other choices you could have made.  The single stat character is functional but won't eclipse anyone else as long as the downsides of their build actually matter.

There are definitely some exceptions to this, notably Powers like this:

Defiance:  Rank 10

Gain 13 Focus.

This Power, while it is spammable and doesn't use Strength or Dexterity, isn't leading to any broken builds or combinations.  Sure, you can build a character who is really good at standing there and taking a beating while healing themselves, but so what?  You aren't contributing anything to a team (being invincible but irrelevant is rarely useful) except when you can block a narrow corridor, I suppose.  There are similar Powers that restore Focus to other people though, and those ones have the same issues that Battle Orders does.  A little worse even, because then there will be tons of pressure to play the single stat healer build and somebody will have to suck it up and be the Cleric.  I say faugh to that.

Here are some more examples of Powers that I have come up with that allow people to do cool things that aren't direct attacks necessarily but which make sure you can't abuse a single stat build.

Rejuvenate:  Rank 6

Restore 6 Focus to an ally and on your next turn your Hit Rolls have advantage.

Sacrifice:  Rank 10

Restore 7 Focus to an ally and if that ally takes damage from an enemy during the next round you deal +20 damage during your next turn.

Energize:  Rank 10

Attack 1 creature for Lightning damage.  If you hit, you or 1 ally restores 10 Focus.

Shared Power:  Rank 12

One ally regains 8 Focus.  On your next turn you deal +13 damage.

In each case the Powers have lots of non damaging utility but if you refuse to ever make attacks you simply aren't going to be very effective.  I like the idea of classes that help defend and assist their allies but I really want to be sure that nobody has to play the healer / buffer build just to have a good group.  If you want to single stat Constitution these powers you can, and you will be a contributor, but that strategy is only viable, not exceptionally powerful, and definitely not necessary.