Thursday, January 29, 2015

Crushed it. But why?

Today I finally beat the local Agricola shark that I have been taking aim at for a full year.  The game had four strong players and the scores were 46-42-40-39 so it was definitely a close one.  We used the world championship card set which I like a great deal, mostly because the cards seem pretty balanced overall.  There are lots of things worth using in the set but very little in the way of rubbish or overpowered nonsense.  It certainly feels like a good draft set because you can actually hunt for combos but the lack of bombs means that it doesn't feel so luck based.

Agricola is an odd game in that there is a particular point that seems hugely influential but which is actually just a barometer of the game success so far.  That point is who picks up the first couple of sheep.  Being the first person to get an ongoing sheep breeding based food plan is powerful and it strikes me that it is a good way to figure out who is winning.  However, just picking up sheep randomly is terrible so it is mostly just a way to figure out whose game really came together.  If you grab those first 2-3 sheep and have a pasture for them to live in and an oven to cook them in you are in fantastic shape but that is mostly just a testament to how effectively you have set yourself up.

In the game today I was the person who grabbed sheep first.  I had Master Stableman, a profession that let me build 2 stables for 1 Wood each when I picked up 2 critters at once, and a minor improvement to cook them so I had a great situation going.  Nobody else set up a breeding situation in the early game so they had to rely on other methods of getting food.  I ended up taking starting player about 5 times to get out a large collection of improvements and managed to get Growth without Room twice.  Somehow Renovate + Fences wasn't a factor in the game and it just wandered around the table a couple of times.

I can't say exactly what it was that worked so well for me.  I have some very decent improvements but nothing that felt broken.  The Master Stableman was probably the key to the whole thing though as he got me 4 extra Wood over the game and let me build my stables precisely when I wanted them instead of having to save up a ton of Wood before expanding.  Getting to start breeding sheep in the first Harvest set me up pretty well.  Even so, 4 Wood and a bit of tempo isn't breaking the game by any stretch.

I guess it says something about my skill at Agricola that I can't really say what it was exactly that made me win this game when I lost so many of the previous ones.  Everything came together nicely and I got all of my combos down that I was aiming for but none of them were devastating by any means.  I usually assume that when I beat some strong players for the first time after many losses the game should feel like I broke it but it just felt like things chugged along reasonably.  Maybe that is the key though since often Agricola feels like an exercise in desperation and failure with me being unable to make all of the things happen before I run out of game.

In Puerto Rico I usually feel like I am doing obscene things and crushing the world while in Agricola I usually feel more like I am barely avoiding catastrophe at all times.  I can't decide if I like that or not.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The trouble with stories

In Heroes By Trade I have been writing stories for various races as a sort of introduction to the sorts of things a new player would have to consider.  Two examples:


Kee was born to a satyr family with one of the greatest medical pedigrees in the world.  From a young age she demonstrated a shocking talent for surgery and was on track to be one of the foremost physicians anywhere.  Everyone was pleased with her progress but Kee often fought with her teachers over the ethical basis of medicine.  Her school felt that they should heal everyone regardless of the patient's actions or association but Kee was sure that greater good could be accomplished with medicine for some and destruction for others.  When a violent gangster came into her clinic Kee decided to murder him instead of healing him and she was immediately cast out of her order forever.

Never having been given a student name due to her young age Kee decided to reject taking a student name entirely and go only by Kee.  She knew she could use her Powers to destroy evil in the world and her healing skills to save those who deserved it but neither of those two aspects of her was right to be her only name so she decided to be Kee.  Not Killer Kee, not Surgeon Kee, just Kee.


Fwelli Swift  (True Name:  Light Blue Shade on the River)

Most sylphs take some time to recover from their fall out of the blue to figure out what to do with themselves.  They usually find some place to hide first and wait quite some time to begin interacting with the world, if they ever do.  Fwelli was exactly the opposite as xe immediately went out and found a niche carrying messages through the deadly Doran swamp.  There were many groups on either side of the enormous swamp that wanted small goods or messages brought reliably through the morass and Fwelli established xemself as the person to go to when something had to get through quickly and reliably.  There were other messengers but Fwelli had the advantage that xe was a deadly Hunter and xe could simply kill unruly creatures if they got in the way instead of running away or sneaking around.  Of course that also meant that Fwelli's services didn't go cheap.

Eventually Fwelli built up enough of a fortune that xe had no more interest in continuing to carry messages.  One day without warning xe simply walked away to look for something new and interesting to do and never came back.  Most people simply assume that Fwelli finally met something in the swamp that was too much for xem to handle and that no body would ever be found but the truth is that there were just more secrets to learn elsewhere.


The idea is to reinforce the ways in which the various races in my world are not human.  A big component of this is the ways in which the races name themselves.  Each race's naming structure is relatively consistent throughout their ranks thanks to them being created by a singular entity for a particular purpose so talking about how the example characters are named can give a lot of insight into their history.  Sylphs, for example, have neither physical sex nor gender so the way they interact with societies that assume gender is highly variable and sometimes includes using non gender binary pronouns like xe.  Satyrs are quite different in that their student name reflects the thing they are studying at any given time.

There is an issue with writing up a bunch of character synopses though... now I really want to *play* all these characters.  Kee is modeled off of a character I have already played so that is one bullet dodged but I want to write up 16 short characters stories in total and I don't have a huge backlog of characters to draw on that are already used.  So now I am spending my time coming up with fun introductions for a variety of adventures and can't possibly use them all.  I guess I need another couple of gaming groups so I can get all of these characters the life they deserve!  (Or the death they don't deserve, I suppose, dice being what they are.)

I am also finished with the baseline monsters and now I can actually let myself go when writing up new adversaries.  Before I was trying to make sure there were a good number of monsters at each point along the difficulty scale so I ended up modifying a lot of stats to make sure that happened.  Now that the monsters are sufficiently bulked up I can just build the stats that seem appropriate for a given beast and then use my spreadsheet to tell me what Encounter Strength to assign it.  I really prefer to build creatures that way, to let my sense of what they *should* do guide the design rather than my sense of how challenging a monster I need right now.

Fortunately designing monsters doesn't suffer from the same angst.  Though I can't use all those monsters to crush the players' dreams I don't feel the same sort of regret.  Missing out on the chance to roleplay a very special story seems to be a much more important issue than missing out on the chance to bash some faces with angry pegasi.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Monsters

I have settled on a format for my monster presentations in Heroes By Trade.  I did some digging to see what various DnD editions used in terms of organization and I am pretty pleased with my final design.  It is tricky to walk the line between so much information that the important things get lost and too little information to run the game properly.  Here are the entries for three monsters, the first two of which are examples of different monsters with similar overall Encounter Strenth (20 and 17) but with wildly different stats and tactics.  Will O The Wisps are outrageously fast and use long range attacks and high Dodge value to rarely get hit.  When they do end up getting hit they explode almost instantly.  Giant Crabs on the other hand are very tough, massively resistant to weapons, and are big slow thugs.  Both monsters have specific skills that they are particularly talented at that are noted at the bottom.  Of course no monster list would be complete without a Dragon!

Giant Crab
ES    20
Size  2
Reach  2
Speed  3
Dodge  16
Armour  5
KO  110
Double Claw:  +6 Hit, +12 Damage against two targets.

Clumsy Rush:  Move, then +6 Hit, +12 Damage.
Tough Shell:  Resistant to Physical damage.

Swimming:  Normal speed while under water.
Aspects and Skills
Str       Dex        Con       Int        Will      Pres
 10         4            4          1           4           1
Hiding:  9
Might:  18

Giant crabs are aggressive carnivores who rely on their incredible natural armour to keep them safe from enemies.  They are as tall as a human but very wide and tremendously strong with claws that are half a meter in length.  These claws have terrifying strength and can crush or smash nearly anything in the crab's way.  They generally move slowly but can move much more quickly in short bursts.  These creatures are happy to attack anything that moves and which appears to be a significant sized meal.  They usually stay on shore or under water and are remarkably skilled at camouflaging themselves despite their great size.

Will O The Wisp
ES    17
Size  1
Reach  -
Speed  10
Dodge  22
Armour  2
KO  20
Disrupt (R):  +12 Hit, +12 Lightning Damage and Confused for 1 round.

Seizure (R):  +10 Hit, Stunned for 1 round.

Vanish (R):  +10 Hit, +12 Lightning Damage and Will O The Wisp is invisible for 1 round.
Immunities:  Lightning.

Flying:  Speed 10 flight, can hover.

Construct:  Destroyed when KO.
Aspects and Skills
Str       Dex        Con       Int        Will      Pres
  1         12           4          8            4            4
Alertness:  13

Will O The Wisps are glowing balls of electricity somehow imbued with intelligence and purpose.  They are malevolent and destructive and seek to maximize the carnage and discord they sow wherever they go.  They can hover and are incredibly fast and as such they favour ambushes in terrain where their opponents will be unable to maneuver properly.  Will O The Wisps love hit and run tactics where they dash in and out of range using their speed and ability to be temporarily invisible to confuse their opponents.  Normally Will O The Wisps are solitary but sometimes they will cooperate to attack some particularly difficult foe.

ES    100
Size  5
Reach  3
Speed  6
Dodge  16
Armour  13
KO  250
Elemental Breath:  Blast 7. +14 Hit,
+20 Fire / Cold / Lightning damage.

Savage Bite:  +14 Hit, +30 Damage + Persistent.

Tail Swipe:  Blast 3.  +14 Hit, +20 Damage + knocked Prone.

Terrifying Roar:  All targets within 5 spaces of the dragon.  +14 Hit, Afraid for 2 rounds.
Flying:  Speed 20 while flying.

Elemental Resistance:  Resistant to Fire / Cold / Lightning damage.
Aspects and Skills
Str       Dex        Con       Int        Will       Pres
 24         2            6           8          10           9
Intimidate:  17
Magic Theory:  13

Dragons are one of the legendary threats in the world but are rarely seen as they generally live far from civilization.  They are incredibly intelligent and usually have knowledge of a great number of Rituals and other secrets.  They have four legs, a long tail, and huge wings that allow them to cover enormous distances at high speeds.  Because of their size dragons find it difficult to take off and require a decent and uninterrupted run to take to the skies.  They cannot fight effectively while flying and must land to engage their enemies. 

The most famous dragons breathe fire but there are other types that breath cold or lightning using their Elemental Breath.  Each dragon is Resistant to the damage type that their Elemental Breath deals.  Fire dragons are red, cold dragons are blue, and lightning dragons are yellow in colour. 

The stories tell that all dragons are unnaturally attracted to valuables, with yellow ones liking gold, blue ones liking silversteel, and red ones liking adamantium.  They often hoard treasure in their lairs and sit in total bliss, mesmerized by their finds.  Those that can kill them and take their hoards can expect to be well and truly rewarded for their efforts.


There are of course many monsters that are much simpler than the ones shown above.  Lots of the creatures I have designed are basically just thugs who bash people's faces and don't have a ton going on in terms of mechanics.  I think this is a good thing to have, particularly for the new GM who doesn't want to deal with a ton of weird rules and options.  Sometimes all you want is a bear or a zombie who can lay on some beats.

Brown Bear
ES    18
Size  2
Reach  1
Speed  7
Dodge  15
Armour  8
KO  100
Rend:  +7 Hit, +10 Damage + Persistent.

Charge:  Move, then +7 Hit, +10 Damage.
Aspects and Skills
Str         Dex        Con       Int        Will       Pres
  8           5             4          2            4            1

Bears are usually uninterested in humanoids and will avoid them in most cases.  They generally subsist on berries, grubs, or fish.  If a bear is particularly hungry, rabid, or protecting its cubs however it will attack and eat people.  Bears can run very quickly and climb trees so they are exceedingly difficult to escape from when they do decide to attack.

ES    2
Size  1
Reach  1
Speed  5
Dodge  14
Armour  3
KO  20
Teeth:  +4 Hit, +6 Damage.
Undead:  Immune to Afraid.  Falls to dust when KO.
Aspects and Skills
Str       Dex        Con       Int        Will      Pres
  4          3            4          2            2           0

Zombies are remains of the dead, animated using a Shadow Ritual to mindlessly serve their masters.  They obey the last orders given to them by their creator but unless kept under close supervision they will attack and kill any living creature they happen across.  Zombies cannot make use of weapons and simply claw or bite at opponents with sharp bony fingers and teeth.  Zombies only last 1 month and after that they crumble to dust.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Know your role

As one professional wrestler so regularly informed his enemies, it is important to know your role.  This is particularly true when you are part of a team and there are a variety of tasks to perform that require different sorts of talents.  While people often want to work with others just like themselves there is a huge benefit in having a broad spectrum of abilities, skills, and even approaches to problems when facing an unknown challenge.

This past weekend I was involved in a pair of escape room challenges.  This is a puzzle composed of a number of rooms with many stages that is tackled by a small group of people - in my case 6 and 8 individuals for the two respective games.  The first was themed around the idea of a diamond heist where my group had to break through a series of locked doors using keys, codes, and odd puzzles of all sorts.  The second was set in a mocked up Japanese house that had been the site of a variety of horrible deaths and was filled with plenty of scenes that would fit in nicely in a horror film.  In that one we had free run of the house and had to solve a large number of puzzles in any order to advance to the final challenge.

It was *amazing*.  Not the cheapest entertainment around as it was $40 for two hours but so worth it for the experience.  There were some folks in my group who genuinely found the horror elements of the second game difficult to deal with because the company that did it (Escape Games near Downsview station in Toronto) did a great job on the aesthetics and ambience.  Unsurprisingly I was so engrossed in trying to win the game within the 1 hour allotted I barely registered any emotional reaction to the scenes except to note that they were well done.

In nearly all random groups of people trying such a task I would be the puzzle nerd.  I would expect to be tasked with sitting down grinding out codes or working out interfaces.  However the group I went with had a huge number of hardcore game geeks with strong technical backgrounds so there was no need for me to play that role as it was thoroughly saturated.  I looked around at those playing with me and realized that in this particular group I people I was the physical one, the person who should be running around, yanking on things, bashing myself into objects, and generally trying to solve all of the meatspace portions of the games.  I took to this role so thoroughly that whenever I encountered a new piece of an intellectual puzzle I almost universally handed it to the nearest person and ran off to go push on some other piece of the environment.  As Sthenno put it when I described it "In that group you were the jock!"

It worked beautifully.  I was the one who leapt into the tunnel on my belly, scooting forward under the laser.  I yanked furniture, found secret tunnels, spun wheels, slid things, discovered hidden materials, and jumped into dark, mysterious holes to see what was there.  It was glorious.  So while I feel I played the game pretty well the thing I am most pleased about was how I played the metagame.  There were definitely times when I was just wasting my effort poking at random stuff that had nothing to do with anything while my team solved puzzles but all the things I did do pushed us forward.  When you are taking a specific role in a game like this it is important to accept that sometimes you will be the hero and sometimes you will stand around being useless and you must keep focused on doing what you are good at rather than hunting for all the glory.

I highly recommend this genre of games in general, and Escape Games in particular.  If you do give it a try I definitely suggest going with a group with varied skills and talking about each person's specialties so that everyone can know their role.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Budgeting for complexifimication

I have been busy rebuilding my monster list for Heroes By Trade.  One of the things I have been wrestling with is just how complex I want monster stat blocks to be.  There is a tricky balance to achieve here between offering detail and flexibility of design on one side and ease of use on the other.  As an example I have randomly yanked a monster from DnD 4th edition that is of moderate complexity for that system and I will compare it to a moderately complex HBT monster.

DnD 4th:

Aboleth Lasher Level 17 Brute
Large aberrant magical beast (aquatic) XP 1,600
Initiative +11 Senses Perception +14; darkvision
Mucus Haze aura 5; enemies treat the area within the aura as
difficult terrain.
HP 200; Bloodied 100
AC 29, Fortitude 27, Reflex 25, Will 25
Speed 5, swim 10
Tentacle (standard; at-will)
 Reach 2; +20 vs. AC; 2d8 + 8 damage (4d8 + 8 damage against a
dazed target), and the target is dazed (save ends).
Combat Advantage
 An aboleth lasher makes an extra tentacle attack against any
enemy it has combat advantage against.
Alignment Evil Languages Deep Speech, telepathy 20
Skills Arcana +19, Dungeoneering +19, Insight +19
Str 26 (+16) Dex 16 (+11) Wis 22 (+14)
Con 20 (+13) Int 23 (+14) Cha 17 (+11)


Bone Hound
ES    5
Size    1
Speed    6
Dodge    14
Armour    4
KO    25
Knockdown:  +4 Hit, +6 Damage and knocked Prone.

Ravage:  +4 Hit, +6 Damage and Stunned for 1 round.  Only usable on Prone targets.
Undead:  Immune to Afraid.  Falls to dust when KO.

The Aboleth definitely has a more complex stat block than the Bone Hound.  Part of that is the fact that it has more defensive stats to deal with but also there is a bunch of extra information packed in there.  The Aboleth has listings for combat role, stat and skill bonuses for resolving noncombat situations, languages spoken, XP, and slightly more complex combat interactions.  Some of these are junk that I don't think should be in the system at all such as combat role and XP but I am on the fence a bit about things like stat bonuses and skill numbers.

I definitely feel like DnD 4th was too heavy on the preparation required for combat.  Monsters simply had too many options and too many numbers to keep track of.  HBT has much less combat option bloat and that is a good thing in my mind.  I want the GM to be able to figure out if hits land very quickly and that is much easier to accomplish in HBT than DnD 4th.  Also there were a huge number of monsters with all kinds of reactions that took place during opponent turns and abilities that triggered off of hitting the Bloodied health number and such.  Keeping that all in mind for a half dozen enemies at once was just too much of a pain.  HBT monsters have less wacky stuff going on which is unfortunate in that an omniscient GM has a little less to work with but it is an overall gain because combats flow much more quickly and new GMs aren't completely overwhelmed.

They also had completely bizarre stat blocks that made no sense whatsoever - I can't imagine why every high level opponent would have the mind of a transcendent genius even when it is just a big brute that punches players with tentacles.  I think I may want to include Strength, Intelligence, etc. scores in HBT stat blocks because I do want people to think of alternate ways to engage with monsters aside from murder but I really do want to avoid excessive information on the page.  Everything I add in makes it more difficult to find the most useful information quickly.  I definitely want to avoid having every high level monster have enormous mental scores for no appreciable reason.  On the other hand I am pretty okay with gigantic beasties having massive Strength scores!

Of course there is a lot more to a monster entry than just the raw numbers.  I want to have sections that focus on the social structure, language, culture, and biology of the various creatures I describe.  Fitting in all kinds of neat extra stuff that places the creature in the world organically instead of just as a combat obstacle makes things feel a lot more real for everyone involved.  The combat block has to be maximally functional for a GM who wants to quickly and easily run a combat with the creature but the rest of the entry needs to support world building, particularly when players read the monster entries just for interest or entertainment.  I want it to feel like an ecosystem rather than a game structure as much as I can.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Heroes By Trade version 3

I have pushed out a new edition of Heroes By Trade, my fantasy roleplaying game.  We are currently playing version 3 and so far I am very pleased with my changes.  I have switched over to a gigantic spawling Word document instead of a series of interlinked Google docs and I am so glad to have done so.  The transition was a bunch of work but it is so much easier to deal with now.  I wish I had done that from the outset!

HBT Version 3.0

Feel free to check it out and use it and do please give feedback in any case.

My next tasks are twofold:  First, a rewrite and expansion of monsters.  I need to add a ton of different sorts of foes into the game so that GMs have more to choose from.  As part of that I need to clean up the monsters file and get them all on board with new mechanics that streamline the GM's turns in combat.  Version 2 was good but there was too much bookkeeping for the GM when fighting a bunch of monsters at once and the new style cuts back on the unnecessary complexity on that end while keeping the strategies for the players as interesting as ever.

I want to make sure to keep the monster descriptions and text compelling too.  I remember very fondly reading through monster manuals for DnD back in the day and learning all about lammasu diet and mating habits, ogre social structure, and the clothing styles of frost giants.  I do want to get some of those nuggets in there to give players a sense of the world I have built in my head.  Unfortunately I can't imagine I will include anything like the detail that those old 3 ring binders did because I can't possibly justify a full page for every monster in a book I would like to print.  I will just have to make do with small but information dense snippets.

The second task is to bulk up the various racial descriptions with stories.  I am stealing this technique from 4th edition DnD because I liked it so much there.  They put stories right in the racial sections and I think it helped a lot to give people ideas about the sorts of things that they should consider about their characters.  It is all well and good to list what dwarf society is like but I think it will be really useful to put names and backstory together in a way that ties it all up.  For example, dwarven names are all reused and a name's history is of great importance.  A dwarf who carries a particularly valuable name would find that leaving their family was an event of almost catastrophic grief and loss just because of the loss of the prestige of the name itself.

The ways that I have set up nonhuman societies are quite different than most people are used to so this seems like a good way to get that across.  As an example, if you don't read the sylph section carefully you might miss that they are completely sexless and incapable of reproduction (they are born by falling out of the sky and glide to earth on their small wings), or that orkish males are not usually involved in heterosexual relationships and partner up mostly amongst each other (females are 10% of the population and partner up with males if and when they feel like it to produce many offspring).  These situations are so out of the human norm that I think giving people some context for how such a hero could have lived in and left such a society is necessary.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Analizing the format

I did the first test run of Heroes By Trade 3.0 last night.  It is always a bit of a nerve wracking prospect to go into a game session knowing you will have to rebuild characters to new rules before you can play but things went quickly and smoothly and that was a pleasure to see.  The game rules aren't really that different in most cases and the numbers conversions are simple enough but I still fret over this sort of thing a lot because usually there is something key that I have missed.  This time the thing that needed fixing was not a number or an explanation but simply the extraordinarily messy document that people were working from.

I sometimes forget that other people reading my documents aren't familiar with the contents the way I am so I don't worry so much about formatting.  I had all kinds of issues with individual Rituals and Powers wrapping across columns and pages, tables being broken up across sections, and a million other things that made the giant wall of black and white difficult to read.  This is something I often run into in my games - the point where my compulsive need to fix the numbers gets trumped by other people's desire to be able to figure out what the hell my numbers *are*.

So now I am doing the part of game design that isn't so much fun and rewarding but is extremely necessary.  I am spending time reading help files on Word to figure out all the little ways that I can make my document work the way I want.  Also I am spending a ton of time and energy on actually coming up with coherent systems for structure and thinking about things like font size, colour, and organization.  This is something that a lot of people don't think about when they encourage me to sell my games... that if you go commercial you end up spending most of your time doing the annoying administrative stuff instead of the fun game building stuff.

However, I do like the results when I put time in to try to improve my game writing so it is worth it in the end.  I know that how much people like a game is a lot more related to formatting than it is the perfect balance that I work so hard to achieve.  Fiddling with settings in Word isn't entertaining so much but it is a very necessary step in order to get all the stuff I have created out there to the people who might want to make use of it.