Thursday, January 28, 2016

A team effort

Initially I started playing this Diablo 3 season with the idea of running a pet build.  The strongest Witch Doctor build this time around is Helltooth Pets, which doesn't even have a spammable skill and relies purely on pets and cooldowns.  I liked the idea of that a lot, particularly because repetitive strain forced me to stop playing the last season and this build requires very little clicking.  Skill matters, certainly, but I don't have to keep clicking ten times a second to play well.

Recently though I have begun doing some four player rifts and have shifted to a support build instead.  Initially I was just doing my thing, letting my pets bash people, but rapidly found out that although I was a perfectly fine damage dealer there is no space for perfectly fine at the top of the heap.  I just don't have a way to become absurd, and absurd is required if you want to get into good groups.

The absurdity this time around is a wizard using a weapon that makes Energy Twister do 150% more damage for each Energy Twister that exists.  Normally Energy Twister wanders randomly, mostly missing the mobs, and normally it costs a lot of resources so you can't have many out at once.  However, when your entire group is devoted to filling the entire screen with monsters and shovelling resources to the wizard suddenly there are dozens of Energy Twisters all about, dealing 20x the damage they are supposed to, and all of them are hitting *something*.

I was kind of blown away by a strategy that involved running away from groups of ten enemies when all ten of them are badly injured, but it turns out the only way to win at the top is to only fight groups of fifty at a time.

If for some reason you get one hundred enemies on the screen the game locks up and you lose, so everything is dependent on fighting exactly the right number of monsters in a giant pile.  It is ... bizarre.

However, it does feel a lot more like old school fantasy RPGs.  Instead of four characters blasting away at the monsters, you actually have roles.  One character kills things, one tanks, one buffs, and one groups up enemies and supplies healing and resources.  These roles are so regimented at the top that the class breakdown for the top one hundred goes something like this:  25% wizard, 25% barbarian, 24.5% witch doctor, 24.5% monk, .5% demon hunter, .5% crusader.  Crusaders can't complain too much though, as they do dominate the single player ladder.  Demon hunters... have my condolences.

Having a specific role to play and maximizing it is kinda cool though, and a nice change of pace from the usual.  I am not used to setting myself up to help everyone else in a specific way, but it means I can play more of my favourite class while having something really new to do.  One of the best parts of this is that there are actually a lot of different things you can do as a support, while the damage builds tend to be utterly regimented.  My pet damage build uses the exact items everybody uses, with the exact skills everybody uses.  There is no variety without being bad.  While playing support though I have a bunch of different pieces of gear that all interact in interesting ways with my skills, and a lot of the tradeoffs are rather tricky to evaluate.  The top people have all kinds of interesting variation, which certainly means at my level (far from the top!) there is plenty of choice.  Of course sometimes you run into players who won't be involved with you unless you are a carbon copy of whatever build they think is broken, but that is true in nearly any cooperative situation I expect.

This is something I wish I could have done in WOW, but the size of the raids really ended up making it impractical.  You get some interesting tradeoffs in D3 when you think about all the different sorts of builds you can use, but if you could bring a ton of people WOW would end up either having 15 paladins buffing everyone, one paladin bringing unique buffs, or none.  That doesn't work so well.  In the beginning when buffs were annoying and short I actually was a pure buffbot but those days are long in the past - now everybody gets to deliver the big numbers.

Not delivering the big numbers is turning out to be a really fun change.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Unsatisfying workarounds

My final edits on Camp Nightmare have been sent off, ready to be turned into a thing.  It took awhile because playing the game over the holidays revealed something to me that was bothersome - people found one particular mechanic very difficult to understand and remember.

The mechanic is an Action called Gear Up.  When you Gear Up you spend 1 Energy, then play a card.  When I first looked at it I thought it would be trivial but players really struggled with it.  They tried to pay Energy for other Actions, they forgot to pay Energy for Gear Up, and they couldn't figure out what to do when a card gave them Energy.  For example, you have to pay Energy to play Marshmallows, but once you play it you gain four Energy.  If you have a bunch of Energy on hand then you basically net three Energy, but that was a constant source of confusion.

When I looked at it I really was surprised at how much of a problem it was.  My hardcore gamer friends who are used to playing games that are easily ten times as complicated as Camp Nightmare had little difficulty but most other people, including gamers who I would describe more as social gamers, constantly struggled and got half of their turns wrong one way or another.

Fixing this issue is something I wrestled with a great deal.  Part of me was willing to just write it off, to accept that some people would never be able to get my game.  Any strategy game with a modicum of complexity has to make that cutoff at some point - there are players who can't deal with anything more difficult than War, after all, so *somebody* is finding the game too hard, no matter what the game is.  However, I figured if there was a way to take the edge off of it, to somehow reduce the confusion, then I ought to do that.

The thing I ended up finding was that people were most confused by cards that gave Energy.  The idea of paying Energy in, (which is important, because it means you have to have stockpiled an Energy from earlier) and then getting Energy back out was the most significant stumbling block.

I could have fixed all of this by just removing the requirement to pay Energy to play cards.  However, that ruined some of the basic ideas in the game, which is that you actually need all of the basic resources in order to get along.  You need Food to keep yourselves alive as time passes, you need Wood to start fires, and you need Energy to play cards.  Take away the necessity to pay Energy for cards and suddenly not only do I have to completely redo the balance of the game, I also have to figure out what Energy is going to be good for.

I ended up concluding that removing the Energy requirement entirely would both significantly reduce the strategic depth of the game as well as making it feel ugly.  Combine that with the need for a complete overhaul and the nuclear approach was a non starter.

My solution ended up being to simply alter the cards that give Energy to make things less tricky.  Most of the cards that gave Energy no longer do so.  The ones that do, which are few in number, do not require you to wonder if you have to pay for a card that gives you Energy afterwards.  One of them sets everyone's Energy total to four.  One of them lets you distribute Energy among other players.  What they don't do is just give you an Energy or two as part of their effect, which reduces the confusion considerably - I hope, at any rate.

It puts me in a weird place.  I look at other games I play like Le Havre or Agricola where the increase in difficulty is enormous and yet I am trying to strip out any possibility of misinterpreting my rules, which are drastically more simple and straightforward.

One part of my brain is yelling "If they can't figure this stuff out, then to hell with em'", but the other part yells back "But you are telling 90% of people to go to hell, that seems wrong!"

So I compromised.  Hopefully it was the right compromise.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Focus less

I have been thinking about how game companies design games with too much focus on particular things, often losing out in other important ways.  Some examples:

In Skyrim, there are talent choices you can take that allow you to get critical hits.  Crits do fixed amounts of damage in the neighborhood of 10.  This is fine but not great when you get your first sword that does 25 damage in a swing, but becomes ridiculous when you fully upgrade and attack for 1000+ damage, with a chance to crit for 10 additional damage.

In Diablo 3 there is a talent called Gargantuan that summons a dork that blocks enemies and attacks them.  It does about as much damage as your character can do spamming your best spells nonstop.  In the endgame this ends up being okay because the extremely high powered sets make it possible to have builds with or without Gargantuan, but when levelling up it is ridiculous.  How does it make any sense for me to be a caster when I can summon a random dude who does more damage by himself than my casting?

In DnD 5th edition there are a bunch of save or suck spells.  One of them is Levitate, and it is a lot more powerful than the others because the enemy only gets a single save against it.  However, when you are in a dungeon with a low ceiling Levitate often does nothing.  But when you are outside, Levitate is regularly a save or die spell.  You lift the enemy up, kill their friends, then leisurely shoot them with fire until they die.  Balanced in a tiny hallway, ridiculous out of doors.

In Mass Effect 3, biotic explosions were based on the health of the enemy.  They worked fine on lower difficulties, but on higher difficulties they were insane against the really high health enemies.  They made other abilities with fixed damage ranges seem terrible.

There is no denying that it is hard to look at all of the possible situations a given ability can be used in and make them all balanced.  Heck, perfect balance isn't even the goal as far as I am concerned - choosing Levitate when you are going to be fighting outdoors is an interesting tactical choice... we like those!  The problem is when an ability is so out of whack in some situations that the gameplay becomes absurd if you don't make the 'correct' choice.  Talents that have no measureable effect are not well designed.  It is fine if they are niche, or largely there for flavour, but if all a talent is doing is pumping out numbers then it really needs to have numbers that work.

For example, there is a weapon in Diablo 3 that occasionally summons a bunch of cows with halberds to murder your enemies.  The weapon is not good.  It finds its way into zero endgame builds.  However, that is fine because that weapon is fulfilling its role as giving people a few giggles when they equip it just to see what the heck it does.  Nothing wrong with having some of those, in fact I quite like it when I game has that.

Similarly, there are talents like Angry Chicken that aren't good.  But they don't have to be, because they turn you into a chicken, you run super fast, and then you blow people up.  Badly.  Which is okay, because you aren't using Angry Chicken to be good, you are using it to be a chicken.  But when a talent like Gargantuan is so overpowered that you feel like an idiot for not using it, that is a problem.

When creating a mechanic all game designers should consider all of the ways in which it will be used.  It is fine for a mechanic to be better in some circumstances, but it should do *something* in any circumstance where the player has reason to believe it will be effective.  Games feel best, and have the biggest following, when there are choices to be made about numbers but those choices generally should jibe with the feel and the lore that the game has.  When I am a summoner/nuker class, a single summon should not be more powerful than all my nukes combined.   When a talent says that it makes a thing do more damage, that thing should do more damage in a noticeable way.

This sort of thing doesn't generally impact the super hardcore players very much as they will research the optimal builds and choices and go with them no matter how silly they seem.  However, it has a huge effect on whether or not the average player enjoys the game and feels good about their choices in the game, and that is something that too often goes overlooked.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


A new Diablo 3 season has started, and I am enjoying playing it again.  I think Blizzard has done a lot of good things in terms of minor tweaks, and they added in some new and fun challenges in the form of Set Dungeons to give more content for people to work through.

Sometimes though I can't fathom what they are doing.  I am not one to be overly critical of Blizzard's designs - for example, the Auction House ended up being a real mess and made the game worse, but seeing exactly how that would shake out was difficult.  Sometimes you have to try things and sometimes those things go wrong.

On the other hand, some changes just reflect unbelievably sloppy work.  Gargantuan is a Witch Doctor ability that summons a dork who follows you around beating down the enemies.  It used to be that the basic dork swung for 100.  One rune made it swing for 130 and cleave to hit multiple targets.  Another rune made it swing for 575 and hit multiple targets, but it was only available 1/4 of the time.  That is a reasonable trade off, and although mostly people took the 575 version you could definitely make arguments for either one.  Blizzard decided to upgrade Gargantuan because it was pretty bad, so they changed the numbers a lot.

The basic dork went from 100 to 450.
The first rune went from 130 to 585.

Great upgrades!

The version where the Gargantuan is temporary went from 575 to ... 575.

So as it is now I have the choice between a dork that swings for 585 all the time, or a dork that swings for 575 and only exists 1/4 of the time.  Wut?

It isn't as though this somehow snuck by them because nobody noticed.  I visited the forums every couple of weeks and even then I saw people talking about how they obviously needed to update all the runes.  Because you can't take two options which are reasonably competitive, multiple one of them by 4.5, and just walk away thinking everything will be fine.  Doing so is just sloppy.  It isn't a design choice, it isn't providing people with the option to figure things out, it just means you have done poor quality work.

I am perfectly fine with situations where competitive players all end up taking one particular choice.  As long as the average player can look at the choices and needs to spend some time figuring out what is what, then all is well.  Figuring out which things are best is fun!

But figuring out if 585 permanent or 575 temporary is better isn't fun.  It isn't a thing you test, or a choice you make.  It is just a waste of space.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Fireball is a problem.

It is always a problem.  It was a problem in old school DnD when it trivialized combats against multiple opponents, and it is a problem in Heroes By Trade... though for very different reasons.  Fireball in HBT is balanced by the numbers but it creates some real problems in terms of feel and theme.

In HBT there are several kinds of magic.  One kind is Rituals, which are slow to use and restricted by the damage you take from casting them so they are not generally useful in combat.  The other main kind is Powers, which are quick to use, do not require you to take damage, and are primarily suited for combat.  The problem I am having right now is that some classes fit into this dichotomy fairly nicely and others do not.

For example, Channelers are martial artists who use their Powers to mash their enemies.  They punch and poke and break bones.  The fact that their martial arts aren't especially useful outside of combat makes sense because they are built around the idea of mystically disrupting their enemies and that doesn't necessarily work on doors, walls, or other structures.  It feels natural.

Wizards, on the other hand, cast Fireball.  It envelops a large area in fire and burns enemies, which has obvious applications outside of combat.  Pretty clearly you can use this to start fires, destroy property, create light, and maybe even more exotic things like melt some objects.  It feels kind of bizarre that performing a relatively simple Ritual costs time and health but blowing up a huge area with fire doesn't.  Fireball clearly isn't the only offender here because Meteor, Eruption, and Inferno are just as troubling.  I am not entirely certain that this is a critical problem but it is definitely a chunk of the fluff that doesn't quite fit as well as I would like so I have been mulling over ways that I could fix it.

The easiest solution is to simply remove Wizards as a class.  Get rid of magical nukers that blast people with fire from range.  I don't particularly want to do that though, as the idea of a class that uses magical attacks from range is something I want to include.

The more complicated solution is to alter the Wizard theme in such a way that it doesn't feel out of place.  One thing I was considering was changing Wizards to have a musical theme and call them Bards or Songstitchers or something like that.  Instead of blasting people with Fireballs they would instead attack with various songs and sounds that deal psychic damage instead of fire / cold / lightning.  This feels a lot more in line with the other classes since their Powers would be more obviously useful in combat because they are attacking other people's minds directly instead of blowing everything up.  Another thematic option for them is some kind of psionics sort of thing, where Fireball is Mind Blast instead.  The last possibility rolling about in my brain is a light themed class, one that burns people in a way that isn't about setting the world on fire, but more about creating beams of light that do not harm friendly targets or furniture but which burn the evil critters.  Evil, in this case, is of course from the caster's point of view.

I already have a class that focuses on shadow and corruption so retheming a class to be all about light has some appeal.  It might take some work to rebuild all of the fluff surrounding each Power because there are only so many synonyms for light but it would fit into the rest of the world lore fairly seamlessly I think.

See, this is the rough stuff because there are no right answers.  When it comes to numbers there are right answers.  It is either 3 or 4, Area 2 or Area 5.  I can actually figure it out.  Fluff though, that stuff is slippery!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

What is a win?

My Camp Nightmare Kickstarter didn't work.  That means that the production I am going to do is going to be smaller and only for people who I know IRL or can reasonably meet up with.  However, the game will be available to purchase online for anyone going forward once I get that all set up.  I wrote a bit about my feelings on the matter on my other blog here.


Yesterday I played a game of Dune, an ancient board game based off of the Dune books.  From a lore standpoint I really like the game and I feel like it drew a lot of great stuff from the source material.  However, from a mechanical perspective the game is really weird, mainly in that what counts as winning the game is not well defined for the players.  Note that I played with six players, which is the ideal number for the game I think since all factions are represented.

You win the game in a variety of ways, but mostly it involves having an alliance with at least one other player and controlling three of the five key points on the board between you.  In theory you can do it solo but in practice that is highly impractical.  However, the easiest way to win is to wait until the first opportunity to form alliances, make a five way alliance, and have the last person immediately lose.  All five of you win!

But really, does that count?  It is trivial and stupid and the game becomes a popularity contest, nothing else.

How about a four way alliance?  That still guarantees a win but it feels like a better win since more people lose.

A three way alliance definitely feels like the only 'real' win since the enemies can certainly stop you.  However, if the game breaks into two factions of three players each the game is nearly guaranteed to end on that turn.  Using that strategy a game that has fifteen turns in it probably only lasts two or three turns before one group wins.  I think a three person alliance certainly counts as a win, but it seems like if you get into a three way alliance the game is kind of stupid and ends immediately if people are playing intelligently.

Now the two person alliance, that is a real win.  Assuming no one else has an alliance of three or more players the game is going to be wide open and winning definitely takes skill and thought.  (It must be noted that like many old board games the final turn will usually have a coinflip for victory no matter how well you play.)

I wish the game had a slightly different win structure.  Specifically, I would love a structure where you can enter into big alliances and reap the associated benefits but you can't win the game in such an alliance.  If one player jumps out into the lead the other five can certainly band together to beat the frontrunner down but they can't *win* while doing this.  I am not sure that would happen much but I think it would be really cool because guaranteeing that you can't win could lead to cooperation that otherwise can't really happen.

I suppose that normal people would just all agree informally that winning in huge coalitions is cowardly and you suck if you do that.  Not me though, I like knowing exactly what the win condition is and going as hard as I can at it.  For my money, that game becomes a lot more interesting and fun if you can only win if your current alliance has two people in it or if you aren't in an alliance.

Not like I will likely ever play it again... old school flavour games that usually end on swingy coinflips aren't really my schtick.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Campaign stylin'

Naked Man asked me a question today that I thought warranted a post here.  In essence, he wanted to know what it is I want out of a roleplaying campaign.  Currently he is running a 5th edition DnD campaign that I am playing in and he has correctly noticed that my level of engagement could really be higher.  So why is that, and what could change to fix it?

I think primarily my struggle is that we are running a published adventure that is a serious dungeon crawl.  Underground complexes themselves aren't an issue but a lot of dungeon crawls really end up not being to my taste at all.  The main thing that gets me about them in general and this module (Whispering Cairn) in particular is one word:  Magic.

How did that elevator appear from nowhere?  Magic.  Why did a massive wind blast out of a solid wall to try to murder us all?  Magic.  How the hell did someone build this gigantic rainbow clock elevator thing?  Magic.

The answer to everything is Magic.  Obviously some magic is good, as I like fantasy games with fireball chucking and teleportation and all that stuff, but I want it to be sciency magic.  That is, I want a magic system I can read about in the manual and understand.  I want something I can make predictions about, and something that is concrete.  When in a Magic dungeon the designers just come up with whatever nutty concept they like and nothing needs to make any sense... you just say Magic a lot.  The players can't predict what a thing will do, because everything is Magic.  To me, such a design is basically just sloppy work.  It is a sign that the designer doesn't want the player to think because the designer knows that everything is ridiculous.  Workarounds are often confusing and random because everything is Magic so nobody has any idea how it actually functions.  When I face a lock or a regular tripwire or something like that I can tell what sort of thing might work against it and it gets me interested, but when everything is just 'this stuff just happens magically' then I check out.

If it is a tripwire then I could see it, or throw stuff down the corridor and trigger it.  If I notice it I can try to trace it to figure out what it does.  If it is a magic trigger then I have no idea what it does, why it does it, or even what steps I might take to prevent it.

In a dungeon where the wall can randomly create an unstoppable wind to try to blow you all off a cliff, we have *no* reason to doubt that in the next corridor a random wall will slam down behind us and we will all be murdered by poison gas.  Or the ceiling will simply collapse, instantly killing us.  Or the entire dungeon will be filled with fire.  There is no rational explanation for why all of the traps just happen to be barely survivable to a party of our level, and no reason for our characters to think that they have any chance of surviving the next ten feet of exploration.

I want a world where if I encounter a magic thing I can look in the book to figure out how it might work, or at least make reasonable deductions.  Sure, maybe the villain has access to a nasty Ritual that isn't in the book, but at least I know it is a Ritual.  That means *I* can learn it if I can find a copy, and I can potentially counter it with a Negation Ritual.  I know what I am dealing with.  I like magic like that, where rules exist and they are obeyed.  It creates a world I can believe in, a world where puzzles feel like they have value.  It immerses me.

On the other hand when magic can do absolutely anything, has no consistent properties, and does different things for players and non players, then I can't get into it.  It is just an excuse for lazy, half assed design.

Similarly I like campaigns where there are problems to solve and I can figure out my own solutions.  Magic dungeons are the opposite of this, because nothing follows any rules so I just have to wander in and do everything in order.  For example, if the evil king is at his summer palace and I want to go assassinate him there, I might try to sneak in at night, bribe a guard, dig a tunnel, or build a glider.  Heck, I might just decide to storm the gate.  Give me a problem and a bunch of obstacles and I will have a blast trying to figure out a way to use my abilities to solve that problem.

This is rarely the case in published adventures.  There is usually a set of things you have to do, and you have to do them in order.  If you try to get too creative there just won't be anything written and the GM will have to make it all up.  This is a big part of the reason that so many adventures are Magic dungeons - you can be sure that nobody can come up with good alternative solutions when they don't know how anything works because Magic.  Dungeons full of Magic provide great rails to keep the players under tight control.

I like an adventure where I truly can get sidetracked and skip out on plot points that aren't panning out.  I love wandering about, discovering things and taking on challenges as my character's motivations dictate.  The freedom to just head out on the southern road to see what there is to be seen is fantastic, and clearly you don't have that in published adventures.  Some amount of railroading is necessary, but usually I like a lighter hand than adventure writers really can get away with.  The kind of railroading I like is goal based, rather than process based.  If I know I need to get into the tower to kill the evil naga sorceress then I am happy to try to figure out puzzles and look for answers.  If I am just trying to get into the tower because that is the next step on the adventure and I have no particular reason to do it except for "the rest of the world is blank" then it has little appeal.

I want a living world.  One where there is a town over the next rise, and it has problems.  Maybe I will solve those.  Maybe I won't!  If I go somewhere else, I want those problems to continue to evolve, so that my decision to ignore it matters.  I want to be able to influence events in a world that draws me in, gives me real options, and makes sense.

It is a tall order.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A game for the old and creaky

The next season of Diablo 3 comes out in a few weeks.  I was initially interested in it, but the interest waned because I remembered why I gave up playing during the last season - my hands and wrists couldn't take the strain.  I was playing a spec that required clicking multiple times per second on both hands continuously and eventually my body began to rebel.  This is something new for me, as I know in years past I was able to play just this hard for much longer with no issues.  While I like playing games, I am definitely not in the mood to give myself repetitive strain injuries just to play Diablo!  Getting old sucks.

But then a light dawned and renewed my enthusiasm for trying again.  There is a new spec for Witch Doctors in the coming patch that is both competitive and extremely light on clicks.  It revolves around running a pet build specializing in Gargantuans and not using any normal attacks at all.  The idea is that you don't bother using any gear or skills that attack directly and rely purely on your dorks to fight the enemies.

The build does have a bunch of moderately short cooldowns, but if I can't manage to click once every three seconds or so then obviously it is time to turn in my keyboard and mouse.

The testing other people have done has shown that the build is competitive at least.  It isn't likely the perfect, optimal build but I don't need to be perfect, I just need to be good and to not ruin my body trying to collect shiny loot.

I really like the new patch from a theoretical standpoint and I am definitely going to enjoy maximizing and figuring out gear and spec choices.  Diablo theorycrafting has tons of great options now and since I can actually put the theory into practice there is some sauce in my walk.

Now to wait a couple weeks to find out just how good a true summoner can be.

Slay them my minions!  Mwahaha!