Thursday, March 31, 2016

Wrynn, again

Varian Wrynn was a card which a lot of people thought was going to be huge.  It certainly has the potential for blowouts and no doubt there have been some hilarious moments with him.  Unfortunately he saw virtually no competitive play because he has some serious problems.
The biggest problem he has is that he is an endgame card that you can't play in the extreme endgame.  If you play him right at the end of the game where you have no cards left in your deck, those 3 drawn cards punch you deep into fatigue, generate no benefit, and basically lose you the game.  A card designed as a finisher that can't be played near the end of the game is a disaster!

Wrynn also doesn't gain you the battlecries of any minions he puts into play, which is sad, but even then he is still very powerful if played right on time on turn 10.  However, the game of Hearthstone goes from turn 1 to turn ~25 and Varian is only playable on turns 10 through 16 or so.

All is not lost however because there is a new card that appears on the surface to be similar to Varian, but which avoids the severe problems Varian has.
Y'shaarj will never have the insane blowout turns that Varian is capable of but Y'shaarj is much better overall.  The big benefit is that if you are in the extreme late game Y'shaarj is always playable.  A 10/10 for 10 isn't exactly premium but if your opponent has exhausted all their hard removal it can easily pound its way to victory.  It is definitely a serious threat that must be dealt with immediately even if its special ability is irrelevant.

It seems like faint praise to say "This card won't lose you the game when you play it", but that is actually the biggest factor here.

I also just like Y'shaarj better because you can build a deck around it.  Varian is random so aside from filling your deck with minions (which isn't a deck that wants to get to turn 10 anyway) there isn't much you can do to try to maximize his power.  Y'shaarj on the other hand can be put into a custom deck with a bunch of high powered minions without battlecries that will make him extremely dangerous.  Imagine, for example, a control warrior that runs Sylvanas, Thaurissan, Ysera, and Ragnaros along with a huge pile of removal and weapons.  Y'shaarj is *ludicrous* in that situation no matter what he pulls from your deck, and if he isn't removed on the turn he lands the game is absolutely over.  I don't know for sure that such a deck is actually a good plan but I really like the way that you can use Y'shaarj to search out specific minions if you want to.  That feels like it will generate some cool archetypes even if those archetypes aren't really competitive.

But it does feel to me like Y'shaarj is just a big upgrade even without that customization element factored in.  Even on turn 10 he is +3/+3 bigger than Varian and he has the potential of winning more if left in play.  Varian might, for example, draw 2 cards and put a minion in play, but +3/+3 is as good as drawing two cards costwise and Y'shaarj gives a minion too.  Even where Varian is good Y'shaarj is just as good, and Y'shaarj avoids the times when Varian is completely dead.  On turn 10 both of them are terrifying.  On turn 20 Varian is worthless, and Y'shaarj is still a serious beating.

So is seems to me that the question is not if Y'shaarj is better than Varian because I think unequivocally he is.  The question is whether or not that improvement is enough to make Y'shaarj a real contender.  My guess is that the answer is yes.  There are going to be lots of decks with old gods in them out there so I think an awful lot of games are going to turn 10, and if you are definitely going to get to play Y'shaarj then he is a real monster.

One other thing that should be kept in mind is that Y'shaarj and N'zoth (another 10 mana Old God) both work very well with similar deck types.  Both of them work ideally with deathrattle minions, so a deck with 10 deathrattle minions, a bunch of spells and/or weapons, and Y'shaarj and N'zoth as finishers seems plausible.  Y'shaarj might fetch N'zoth, which would suck, but you gotta take risks sometimes.  (And if your disaster case is that you put 15 attack worth of minion into play in a single turn, that isn't so bad, really.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

See More Butts

The world has one less butt pose, and a lot of people are pissed.  The as yet unreleased game Overwatch by Blizzard has been the centre of a controversy about the removal of a pose from a character.  One side of the argument is a bunch of feminists, the other side is a bunch of assholes.

The short version is that there is a character in Overwatch whose is female and who has a silly, techie sort of theme.  She had one pose that emphasized her butt and which was at least somewhat sexual.  Some people thought this didn't match her character, and really wanted it removed to keep that particular character on theme.  Blizzard agreed, and will change the pose to something else.  Now the misogynists of the internet are extremely angry because they want their butt poses and they want them now.

The arguments that the angry people put forward are a joke.

They want the right to have sexy characters!  But there are other sexy characters in Overwatch, so if you want boobs and butt you will easily find it.

They don't like censorship, they want artistic freedom!  Since the creator of the piece agreed with the criticism and had already planned to change the pose anyway, it is hard to argue that censorship is a problem.  More like, y'know, listening to your customers.

They don't want anything removed from the game, because options are good!  You know what else isn't an option?  Winston, the big male ape character, posing in a speedo.  What aren't you complaining about *that* option being missing?  (Blizzard has not offered this option, obviously, but also no one is whining about getting it.)

Fact is that all these arguments are crap.  There is plenty of sexy in Overwatch.  Also if you really want butts, cruise over to pornhub, I bet they have some to spare.  The creator doesn't agree with you, but that isn't a freedom of speech issue or censorship.  Advocating for all options to be possible is idiotic.

But we all know what this is about.  It isn't about people's right to a butt pose on every damn female character in existence.  It isn't about millions of people loving that particular butt pose and going ballistic about its removal.  It is about people not wanting to think about the fact that objectification of women in gaming is a problem.

And it is worth repeating that nobody is trying to take away all sexy characters, or all sexy female characters.  Nobody is saying such games can't be made.  We are just saying that not every female character need to have a sexy pose.  Some of them can and should be decidedly not sexual, in the same way that most male characters are.

Screaming about this just shows that you are so terrified of admitting that some of the stuff you like has problems that you are willing to do anything to avoid that thought.  You are willing to refuse to buy games and have gigantic internet tantrums, all in the name of not saying "huh, I guess some of the stuff in games does have issues."  You can keep your games.  You can have your sexy.  Just think about the impact that has on women, accept that products are increasing made to appeal to more than just men, and move on.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Game over, just in time

In the early going Magic:  The Gathering had a lot of pure control decks.  Some of them were land destruction based and relied on the opponent never getting to play a significant card because they had no land, some just counterspelled everything the opponent tried to do, some discarded the opponent's hand, and some just sat there doing nothing until their combo landed and the game ended.

While I had fun playing with and against these decks, Wizards correctly realized that people enjoy the game a lot more when they get to do stuff like play creatures and beat down.  Being completely shut out isn't fun.  Losing to an opponent who plays better creatures isn't the most fun, but it is infinitely better than losing to an opponent who never let you play your game at all.

Magic changed for the better to make that happen, and Hearthstone seems to be doing the same thing with the new Whispers expansion.  Check out the newest Legendary card to be revealed, N'zoth the Corruptor.

N'zoth is amazing.  In the right deck, your 10th turn involves slamming down 7 big minions, 6 of which have deathrattles so they do extra stuff even if your opponent has a full board clear.  Sure, sometimes your opponent will Brawl twice and wreck you but nearly all the rest of the time N'Zoth just ends your opponent's day.

The reason this matters is that control decks in Hearthstone have been aiming for long games, often being designed to win by simply running the opponent completely out of cards.  Elise Starseeker has accelerated this trend, setting up a game style where you don't try to win at all until the last couple turns when both decks are already empty.  That is a long time to play, especially if you are the aggressive deck and you knew you lost ten turns ago but kept playing out of a faint hope of a disconnect or outrageous luck.

These new cards in Whispers of the Old Gods enforce a new kind of control.  That new kind of control tries to stay in the game until turn 10 and then do something absolutely outrageous to blow the opponent out.  These new 10 mana cards are worthy of the cost, which has not been true of most 10 drops in the past.  This new kind of control isn't going to be playing nothing but removal, and it isn't aiming for fatigue.  It is going to be playing minions, brawling for board control, and doing lots of trading.

And that stuff is FUN.  People like playing minions and bashing them into each other.  That is just plain old fun and is the core of Hearthstone, much as it was the core of the joy of Magic.

There is plenty of strategic depth in playing hard control with nothing but removal.  You do need to think, plan, and consider.  No question on that.  However, the masses of people really do enjoy monsters brawling each other, and this new soft control style will do plenty of that.

Not that every hard control deck will go away, mind you, but I think they will have huge difficulties fighting the new soft control decks.  Sure, you can load up on nothing but removal and keep your opponent's board clear, but how will you deal with the turn 10 that hits you for 20 to the face, summons a complete set of 7 monsters, or does whatever else the remaining 2 Old God cards will do?  How do you prepare for all of those eventualities, while still keeping yourself secure against hyper aggro decks and midrange?

I think the answer is that you won't be able to have enough answers for all those things.  Pure control, hard control, of the kind that just sits there waiting for fatigue, will get squeezed out.  Soft control decks that play enough healing, taunts, and removal to fight for the board will be the new big thing, but they will be playing tons of minions too.  Whether those minions are cultist types like C'thun decks will have, deathrattles for N'Zoth, or something else entirely, they will be out there on the field of battle duking it out.

None of this is accidental.  Blizzard wants to build a game that is fun for newbies, and getting beaten by control warrior on turn 25 isn't as much fun as throwing down dorks, brawling, and then dying to something absolutely spectacular on turn 10.  Especially so because then you can go and get your own turn 10 monsters and blow other people out too.  While the Old Gods are part of a theme, I am confident that this theme and the way it affects the metagame is deliberate and designed to do exactly what I am describing.  The game plays best when it is resolved somewhere between turn 8 and 12, and a combination of aggressive decks trying to close things out early and control decks playing 10 cost monstrosities is exactly the ticket to getting there.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


New Hearthstone cards are coming out, and the latest is a new Warlock card called Doom!
The reaction to this card has been mostly negative, largely because Warlock already has an 8 mana card that does the same thing without the card drawing.  A lot of people are concerned that Warlocks already draw a lot of cards, so drawing your entire deck and/or milling yourself is a real concern, and also having to spend 10 mana is a real issue.

I, on the other hand, think this card is going to be a big deal.

Mostly I am of this opinion because of my suspicion that Warlocks are going to be playing C'thun decks when the expansion lands.  C'thun, you may recall, looks like this, and has tons of cards that make it bigger when it finally does come out.
A C'thun deck is very different from a normal deck in that it isn't trying to be pure control.  It isn't trying to run the game to fatigue and it is going to be playing lots of cultists to buff C'thun and will try to push for damage while doing so.  The goal is to survive to turn 10, play C'thun, and win the game.  You know what helps with that plan?  A card that can clear the board to enable C'thun to do massive face damage which also draws lots of cards to get you to C'thun.  Doom! fits that bill exactly.  When you are playing C'thun a lot of your minions will be mediocre so you are likely to be behind by the time turn 10 rolls around, and your opponents will not have the luxury of just slow playing it.  If they don't get aggressive and kill you eventually you will just drop a 20/20 C'thun and explode their face.  Even if you don't do that, letting a Warlock deck hang around and draw tons of cards and play out an endless stream of minions is a recipe for disaster.  You have to put on pressure, and that leaves you wide open to Doom!

Imagine the choice:  You can keep a small board and risk the enemy slamming down C'thun to clear that board and do a ton of face damage, or you can build a big board and get blown out by Doom!  Both strategies are potentially disastrous, but because you don't know what the C'thun player is holding so you have to guess, and guessing wrong means you lose.

I completely agree that Doom! does not fit into current archetypes well.  It is far too slow for aggressive Zoo Warlock decks, and the card draw and expense is problematic for Reno/Handlock decks.  It might have a place in Combo Warlock (Leeroy/Power Overwhelming/Faceless) but even then it is 10 mana so it is a bit sketchy.

But we should not only look at old decks when we consider new cards.  New decks mean new values, and an endgame spell that clears the board to help keep you alive, opens the door for C'thun lethal, and draws you into C'thun is just the ticket.  You probably can't afford to run more than 1 just because 10 drops are really pricey, but it will be a hell of a thing when you do use it.

I predicted earlier that Warlock would get cards to make C'thun their default deck and this feels like it is part of that set of cards.  It isn't enough on its own for sure, and Warlock definitely needs a specific card or two to make C'thun really effective, but Doom! is certainly a piece of the puzzle that will help C'thun Warlock being a real force in the upcoming meta, in standard in particular.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The power of flex

Three new cards came out for the new Hearthstone set that are very interesting indeed.  They all have a similar style - they cost zero, but when cast they use up all of your mana to do something.  There is a healing effect that heals for double the mana used, a summon that creates a random minion of the same cost as the mana used, and a damage spell that does damage equal to the mana used to a minion only.  They look like this:
This introduces an interesting new question to the game:  How do you value flexibility?  In every case when these new cards are used they are weak spells when compared to similar options at the same cost, but the fact that they can be played at any time and can fill any spot in the curve makes them incredibly flexible.  Most people don't seem to value that flexibility enough, I think, when first looking at a card.  As an example, consider the cards Spellbreaker and Keeper of the Grove.

Looking at these two cards they seem like they will often be of similar value.  Spellbreaker has slightly better stats, (only slightly, since they are less usefully divided) but it lacks flexibility.  Keeper is often used as a silence, and when it is, these two cards are fairly similar, even leaning towards Spellbreaker as the superior card.  But when we look at actual usage we see that Spellbreaker is considered a weak card and sees virtually no use in high level play.  Keeper on the other hand is a superb card that is used in nearly all druid decks and is almost an auto include.  The difference between subpar and superior is merely in the flexibility.

Keeper can be used as a silence, sure, but it can also drop 2 damage to achieve lethal, or just blow up a 3/2 minion.  Spellbreaker is junk because it lacks the flexibility the Keeper has even though its raw power is plenty high enough.  When you need a silence paying 4 mana for it and getting a 4/3 body is just fine.  The problem is that you will often be holding Spellbreaker when you don't need a silence and he will be a big steaming pile of crap.  This makes it abundantly clear that a card that can flex depending on your needs at the time is hugely more powerful than the raw numbers might indicate.

This is why I am definitely excited about these new flexible cards.  When you face a Hunter you can just use the summon on turn 1 to get some random 1 cost dork to fight the opposing 1 drop.  When facing a control Warrior you can save it up to use on turn 10 to get some giant monster they have to deal with, adding one more enormous threat to your deck.  When facing a tempo deck you are never going to look at your hand and cry because you have nothing to do on turn 3 since you will always be able to just pop out a random 3 drop.  It won't be great, but a lot of the time all you need is *something*, not the perfect thing.

The damage and healing spells are similar.  Sure, spending turn 10 healing for 20 health isn't usually what you want to do, but against a Hunter it is likely a game winning move.  Unless you have completely lost control of the game they are going to be trying to finish you off and 20 extra health is probably an insurmountable lead.  Just as important is the ability to heal for 2 or 4 with 1 or 2 mana.  There are tons of times where spending a card and 2 mana to heal for 4 is a great play but you can't afford to put that card in your deck because of how narrow it is.  Being able to sneak in a heal on a medium size minion to maintain board position is sometimes really useful, and when that card can be used in the late game for a massive heal instead it is going to be a great option to have.

These flexible cards are rarely going to feel great.  Nobody is going to have them listed on their "God draw" lists, and you won't be dreaming about how you are going to wreck people with slightly subpar effects.  However, you also will have a much smaller chance of looking at a hand with a 2 drop and a bunch of 4 drops and being super sad that turn 3 is a bust.  Any hand with a single flexible card in it will be much more resistant to that sort of thing, and much more able to turn a card advantage into a board advantage by maximizing mana spent every turn.  Just like Keeper of the Grove, nothing these flexible cards do is all that insane (barring the minion one producing a King Mukla every so often, to be fair) but the ability to always have something good to do is not to be ignored.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

It has arrived!

The final copy of Camp Nightmare has arrived.  Despite my worries that I had screwed something up in the UI and made a mess of it, nothing of the sort happened.  The game looks and feels fantastic, and it is kind of amazing to see something I built appear before me looking all professional like.  Here is a picture of the game set up to begin:

The main difference between the previous playtest copy and this one is that this new copy doesn't have a game board.  I liked the visual on the board a lot, but the cost of a full game board was extreme, and I found I could easily replace it with the round tokens you see in the box.  There are also some small balance changes to cards, mostly just there to make the game simpler and easier to understand.  Sometimes it is possible to streamline play and make the systems clearer without actually warping the numbers, and this last pass definitely had some of that.

The cards have nice rounded corners, unlike the old ones I cut out myself with scissors, and they have a really solid snap to them.  The quality feels good, and the colours came out beautifully.  One of the problems with my last playtest copy that I printed at the local print shop was that some of the darker cards came out almost black, and it was really hard to see what was going on in the pictures.  This is apparently a really common problem with the transition from computer design to paper, but the final copy looks superb and the colours printed exactly as I would have wanted them to.

The box even looks sweet, with a nice combination of pictures from the game on it.  I particularly like the fox on the back of the box, which is from the game card Cunning Fox.  I ended up botching the graphic requests the first time round, so Nathan had to redo the box art to make up for my goof, but the final copy really captures the feel of the game that I wanted and the text on the back works really well.  The box isn't anything fancy in terms of construction, but it is solid and hot damn if it doesn't look like something a real serious person made.

These tokens are the replacement for the board.  Instead of moving a single token along a track players use tokens like this to count their Wood, Food, Energy, and Fun.  I like that the Energy, which is an individual resource rather than a group resource, has a distinctly different art style to differentiate it from the others.

So there you have it.  I am going to play it a few times to make sure all of my final edits work and that physically the game feels right, but very shortly I will be putting up a big order to get 100 copies of the game so everyone can buy it.  Right now it looks like the final cost for the game will be ~$35 Canadian, but that is subject to currency fluctuations so I can't be perfectly sure until I actually hit the button.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Tentacled horrors

Hearthstone has a bunch of new cards coming, and they are all themed around the Old Gods of WOW and the corruptions that those old gods have visited upon the unsuspecting denizens of Azeroth.  So far all the cards we have seen are marginal at best; that is, barring some new synergy they are not serious cards.  Fun deck filler only.  That is, with one possible exception:  C'thun itself.
Now on its own, C'thun is junk.  A 6/6 that does 6 random damage is a good 7 drop, but C'thun costs 10.  However, there are lots of cards like the one below that buff C'thun so that when the old god actually lands in play it will be lights out for your opponent.
The standard formula for the cards we have seen so far is that cards pay a 1 stat cost to give C'thun +2/+2.  Thing is, C'thun would only really be good for 10 mana at 10/10.  So you have to give him +4/+4 just to get to 'good' territory, and that isn't even counting the cost of playing those bad minions to get there.  Assuming we play two Beckoner of Evil in our deck, that means we are playing 2 bad 2 drops just to get a reasonable 10 drop.  This is bad.  So how many of these cards do we need in order to make C'thun insane?  If you play 7 cards like Beckoner, you get a 20/20 C'thun who basically wins the game for you if it is close at all.  That costs you 7 stat points along the way, which is awful, but you do get 1 card that just ends your opponent when it lands, either clearing their board completely or doing 20 to the face or something similar.

That doesn't sound good enough.  In order to make sure you actually get to deliver that insane finisher you would need to be playing ~10 C'thun boosters in your deck.  1/3 of your deck being weak cards is brutal, and is going to lead to you dying before you get a chance to C'thun for the win.

A very comparable card is Anyfin Can Happen, which requires the paladin player running it to play out 5 bad murlocs in order to power it, but which also does 22 damage immediately and leaves a monster board afterwards.  Pretty similar to a 20/20 C'thun, actually.  Thing is, Anyfin Can Happen isn't a legendary so you can put two in a deck.  That means both that you are *way* more likely to be able to use one early in the game, and that against a control deck you can likely deliver back to back turns with Anyfin and be unstoppable.

If we look at how bad those murlocs are compared to the cultists we have seen it looks like the murlocs are worse on their own.  Not much though as they actually can combo with one another before the big turn, so I feel comfortable equating the murloc penalty with the cultist penalty.  Anyfin decks need 5 bad murlocs and C'thun decks will need probably 10 bad cultists.  So far Anyfin decks have way better staying power and a greater likelihood of locking out the game early.  (Early here is turn 10, of course, rather than turn 16).

Now C'thun does have some things going for it.  If you can bounce it with a panda or a Shadowstep and play it again, your opponent is dead.  If you can double its effect with Brann Bronzebeard, your opponent is dead.  If you can land a Duplicate on it, your opponent is dead.  There are a lot of ways you can potentially demolish your opponent with C'thun that aren't available to Anyfin, and there are also a ton of cards that interact with C'thun that we haven't seen yet, some of which may make the C'thun deck much more effective.

The trouble with those extra things is that they are finicky.  Shadowstep is good and all but unless you want to leave your C'thun out there and risk him getting polymorphed, you have to give up the 20/20 body and bounce it back right away.  Rogue also isn't good at control particularly, so it would be a rough build.  Brann Bronzebeard is great and all, but how do you keep him alive on turn 9 when your opponent 100% knows C'thun is coming?  Panda bounces also rely on either extra mana from Innervate or Emperor, or C'thun not getting blown up when it finally arrives.

So my reaction to C'thun is this:  Unless the other cards in the new set do more than just buff its stats, C'thun is going to be bad.  Just worse than a Anyfin Can Happen deck, no question.  Anyfin Can Happen is good, tournament quality but not broken, so if all the new cards do is give more +1/+1, then C'thun will be a fun casual deck.  However, if a bunch of the cards in the set buff C'thun by reducing mana cost, protecting it from removal, searching it out of the deck, or other similar sorts of utility, C'thun will be competitive.  There have to be ways for it to be played multiple times somehow, and to do that reliably.  That is the key to C'thun being a threat.

I can't imagine that the devs have ignored this line of thinking.  C'thun is the marquee card of the set, so they definitely want it to be playable.  Assuming then that they plan to publish support for the C'thun deck, and that they want it to be interesting, my prediction is we see a variety of cards that make C'thun better in the ways I describe, as well as a ton of ways to give it raw numbers bonuses.

I will even go out on a limb and suggest that the best cards for doing so will be warlock cards.  I think Molten and Mountain Giants are going to get nerfed to smash handlock and keep it from being a permanent contender and the new default warlock build will be a C'thun build.  This is thematically appropriate and makes sure the warlock has something good to do.  There clearly will be C'thun support across multiple classes, but the smart money is on warlock C'thun being the new big thing.  Write that down, and we can see later if my prediction hits the mark.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Evening out

There are some changes coming to Diablo 3's metagame, and they are ones I heartily approve of.  I mentioned awhile ago that the far and away dominant strategy of the endgame is to leverage a single wizard build using Energy Twister for damage dealing with all other characters being pure support.  The wizard group damage build is so far above all other characters in terms of damage potential that there is no other viable option at all.  Clearly balance will never be perfect and the top players will gravitate towards the theoretical best builds, but in this case the difference was too stark.  For example, I found that my best damage build for the Witch Doctor was doing at best 10% of the damage of an Energy Twister wizard with a proper group, and no endgame damage build should be that far ahead of the pack.

The reason Energy Twister was so outrageous was that the damage scaled by the square of resource input.  Casting twice as many Energy Twisters multiplied damage by four, and wizards could ramp up their resource generation through using health globes, so every group included two characters focusing entirely on buffs and producing enormous quantities of health globes.  Blizzard has put up massive nerfs to these health globe generating effects, and for good reason.

Here is the real problem as I see it:  Basic good builds should do something.  If I have a really powerful soloing build I shouldn't be completely irrelevant in a group.  Certainly tinkering with the build to add in more group buffs or utility makes sense, but if a group is doing four person content and someone says "Hey, can I bring a top tier soloing build along?" the answer should not be "Uh, no, you will be totally useless."  A good build should be better than idling in town, but this isn't really the case at the moment.

I feel like this is a similar stance to how I like my roleplaying games balanced.  If someone makes reasonable decisions like "I will play a fighter, have high strength, use a sword, and bash people." then they should contribute fine.  The game shouldn't be set up so that such a character is totally worthless compared to the melee character with 4 classes who stacks Charisma because they can add it to their attacks, damage, saving throws twice, and AC via a complicated series of feats, gear, and class features.  Similarly I want good soloing characters to be worse in groups than dedicated group builds, but they shouldn't be a joke.

In roleplaying games I like the balance to be a lot tighter, so that optimized characters are perhaps 25% better than reasonable characters.  You can build a terrible character any number of ways, and that is just fine and not something that worries me.  In D3 of course optimization is often an order of magnitude in difference, so everyone being within 25% of each other isn't really feasible - unless you spent years without introducing new stuff you would never arrive at that magic point.  However, they can definitely do better than they are doing right now, and it looks like the next season is headed in a good place.

Until they create a new item that starts some ridiculously overpowered build next time.  It will happen, we know it will happen, we just don't know which item or which build yet.  Such is the nature of content churn.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Levels, for a reason

I have a love/hate relationship with level based roleplaying games.  On one hand levels, under most systems, are obvious gamey constructs that make no sense in the lore of the world.  They make things seem ridiculous and break immersion.  On the other hand levels make it possible to have balanced combat and to make sure that various characters all contribute both in and out of combat.  Levels let you as the designer have control over character power.

Because I want the numbers to work and I want heroic combat I chose to use levels for Heroes By Trade, even though I recognize the tradeoff that this choice required.  Today I was wondering if I could bury the level system into the lore of the world so effectively that I could negate the immersion issues that usually come along with having levels.

My design already has classes and levels documented by the metaphysics of the world.  Characters with classes and special powers are known as Shards, because they have inside them a shard of one of the long vanished Beings that created the world.  Normal people can have skills and use rituals but only Shards can use the amazing magical abilities associated with a class.

I also don't use experience points.  I think getting points for whacking monsters or finding gold is silly, and people always just award points to get the progression they want anyway.  If you decide to level the characters after 3 sessions and give them 1/3 of a level worth of XP each session, just skip the middleman and tell them to level after 3 sessions.

All this adds up in a way that actually works in a really satisfyingly thematic way.  If a Shard from a Being is a connection to magic and/or the divine, then as characters do important things their Shard can become more powerful.  It isn't about monsters killed but rather about having an exciting story and doing interesting and important things.  Send your soldiers to fight a dragon?  That isn't *your* story, it is the soldiers' story!  Go into the woods to slaugher 5,000 boars?  Not gonna impress the universe with your importance.  You need to stride boldly into danger, change the world, and establish yourself as important and this will empower your Shard... which increases your level.

The thing that most pleases me about this is that it feels good from an acting and roleplaying perspective.  It explains why the player characters so often level up faster than the world around them - they are doing important things and having an exciting story!  It also means that people in the world can actually talk about how powerful someone is and have a context for how that happened.  They must have done all kinds of big things.  Maybe those things were good, maybe evil, maybe neither, but they were definitely *important*.  It also means that telling people stories about all the amazing things you have done inherently implies that you must be immensely powerful for having accomplished all those great deeds, which could place storytelling and bragging as a sort of ritual that important people engage in to establish themselves.  Heck, I could even have bards whose job it is to record and verify the stories told by Shards!

Characters will also have a good reason to run off and go fight a dragon.  Grand adventure, danger, and the unknown are part of the formula for empowering your Shard... but you actually have to seek out tremendous challenges because beating up foes who are no threat to you simply isn't interesting enough for the universe to sit up and take notice.  It will create an interesting dynamic where truly heroic personalities will be making good choices when they take huge risks - sure, they will probably still die young, but the rewards for success are real.

The game already has the idea in it that characters can have a special, personal relationship with the universe.  A character's Presence score tells us how important they look, how effectively they can control magic items, and generally how much the world bends to their will.  Levels are a similar thing, but are less about influencing others and are more about raw power.

I don't think I would actually include numbers in people's understanding of Shard strength.  That is, I don't want the world to actually know that a character is 3rd level, only that Shards come in various strengths and people who have powerful Shards are extremely dangerous.

This whole thing feels a lot more like the Generation stat from Vampire in the World of Darkness setting, and a lot less like the level system of DnD.  This to me is a very good thing because both are measures of character power but one is smoothly buried into the lore and one is a bizarre construct that no one really understands.