Tobold's Blog
Sunday, February 07, 2016
Losing in games

I'm playing the just released XCOM 2 this weekend, and that made me think about the game mechanics of losing. To some degree that is an underdeveloped part of game design; there are about a million different rewards games hand out for winning, but only a single consequence for losing: You are forced to play some part of the game that you already did again. Losing is an essential part of games, as it increases the interest of winning. But there are a lot of things that can go wrong with loss conditions in games, and the XCOM series of games does have some examples of them.

One rather fundamental requirement for a good loss condition is that the game accurately tells you *that* you lost, and preferably gives you some information of *why* you lost. Games with a long campaign of many battles like XCOM or Heroes of Might & Magic even manage to fail the former sometimes: Either a decision you made that leads to inevitable doom will not give you any feedback at all, or worse you win a Pyrrhic victory and the game tells you that you won, while in reality you just sealed your loss.

One eternal problem with losing is how much it depends on randomness. I do think that randomness has its place in these games, and XCOM does it well by telling you exactly what your chances are for a shot. But an 80% chance isn't the same as certainty, and losing a soldier because you missed a shot with 80% chance can feel somewhat frustrating. But I do think that is more a problem of players not being good at risk assessment, and it gets better with practice.

If losing means having to replay part of the game, the obvious question is how much of the game. Console games frequently have "save points" visible or implicit, and a loss sends you back to the start of the level. As long as the level isn't too long, and you don't need to replay it 20 times before getting some jump pixel-perfect, that works quite well as a consequence of loss. Games like XCOM have loss consequences that are somewhat less transparent: If you lose a soldier, you need to recruit a rookie and train him back to that level. As the game doesn't necessarily give you the time to do that, you might actually lose the game while replenishing your losses, and then the penalty becomes a much harsher one of having to start the game over from the very beginning.

In many situations in XCOM, if you are reasonably clever you will know why a soldier of yours just died. He moved forward to quickly or otherwise exposed himself unwisely, most of the time. But there are situations where your soldier died because you come for the first time in contact with a new element or scripted part of the game. Traps you can easily circumvent the second time you meet them, but that are quite deadly the first time you see them, are rather bad loss conditions. They make people look up solutions on the internet instead of having fun trying things out. In a tactical game like XCOM you can learn a lot of general tactics by trying out, for example how close together you should keep your soldiers, or how fast they should advance. If that trial and error results in a minor wound, you learned your lesson. If it is insta-death and the error wasn't even obvious, that only gets frustrating.

The weirdest thing about XCOM and many other PC games is that you can frequently choose the consequence of losing. You aren't forced to accept the loss consequence the game just handed to you, but can opt for a different one instead by simply reloading a saved game from minutes ago. That leads to some perfectionists saving before every action and only accepting perfect outcomes, using the load function every time something didn't work perfectly. In some game the random number generator even gives different outcomes every time you reload, so you can reload until every attack is a perfect hit. Unlimited save options thus can completely negate the designed loss consequences, and make a game rather boring. XCOM fortunately has the ironman option to disable saving and reloading. I once recommended playing XCOM games on easy plus ironman, and I still think that is a good option to learn about consequences in the game. But the option most veterans will be use is an intelligent management of save game files to suit loss consequences to your personal preferences.

Monday, February 01, 2016
Dungeon Boss and Retail Therapy

With my interests in games and economy, I am naturally interested in the mechanics of Free2Play monetization. And my day job pays enough for me to be able to drop a couple of hundred bucks on such a game to explore that monetization without that hurting my finances. Last year I played League of Angels for 2 months. While I was able to get to the top spot on a server using real money, I didn't really like psychological lever that game used: Competitiveness, you'd end up paying money so that somebody else wouldn't get ahead of you. So currently I am trying a very different game, Dungeon Boss. That can be as expensive as League of Angels, but the psychology behind it is much more pleasant.

Because League of Angels *wants* a lot of people to be highly ranked on their server so as to make them pay money for the privilege, it has lots and lots of servers, with new ones opening every week. Dungeon Boss only has one server as far as I can tell. Which means that there is absolutely no chance for latecomers to rise to the top of the server. Which doesn't matter, because unlike League of Angels, Dungeon Boss has very little direct competition between players. Even the PvP system automatically just pairs you against people around your own strength, so it doesn't matter that there are people at the level cap while you aren't. Competitiveness is not a driving factor in this game. So how does it work?

Basically Dungeon Boss is related to the Pokemon series of games: You have a collection of up to 50 heroes in 5 different colors which you level up and use for combat. The colors represent elements, so your fire heroes are strong against plant heroes but weak against water heroes, etc. Each hero has a level (which is limited by your player level), between 2 and 4 skills with a level that is limited by the hero level, 3 degrees of ascension (which determines the number of skills), and between 1 and 6 stars, which increase power. So for each hero you need to collect xp to level up, "evos" to ascend, gold to level up skills, and tokens to get stars. Multiply by 50 heroes and there is a *lot* of stuff to collect. That puts you on a rather long progress curve from starting the game to the level cap.

Monetization in Dungeon Boss as a result is an extremely simple concept: You have absolute freedom to choose at which speed you want to progress. Want to get ahead on that completely individual curve? Pay some money! Usually quite a lot of it, a special bundle of stuff that improves one of your heroes can cost between $9.99 and $39.99, depending on the rarity of the hero. And that is just one ascension out of two possible, so for 50 heroes you would need to buy 100 such bundles. Plus a ton of money for gold and gems to use the portals to summon those heroes. On the other hand you can also play this game completely for free, and just progress much slower. It is up to you. The game doesn't threaten you with any negative effects if you refuse to pay, it just tries to seduce you into paying when you feel like it. Any payment also counts towards your VIP level, so if you paid at the start and then play for free you still get some permanent bonuses in addition to whatever you paid for. I've rarely seen a game that was so nice about trying to get money out of you; the carrot, not the stick.

I still don't believe that any single game can "addict" you into spending money. However I do believe that spending money can make you feel better about yourself, the so-called retail therapy. Whether you do that in the mall or in a mobile game is not fundamentally different. For every sob story about somebody spending all his money on a mobile game, there is an equivalent story about somebody spending all his money on the shopping TV channel. And to someone who is likely to have such problems, it doesn't even matter what game exactly he is playing. The process of trying to feel better by spending money is independent of what exactly you are spending that money on.

Thursday, January 28, 2016
Limiting monetization for fairness

When you hear talks on game developer conferences you might think that the concept of giving the player with the biggest wallet an advantage in a game is a recent invention from casual and mobile games. In reality the idea is over 20 years old (not counting gambling, where unlimited funds always were an advantage). Magic the Gathering is to a large degree "Pay2Win", and many people (me included) spent thousands of dollars on that game. So it comes to some surprise that the current combination of money-grabbing Magic the Gathering on a money-grabbing mobile platform in the form of Magic Duels isn't an unlimited money grab.

When back in the early 90's Magic the Gathering, was invented, you could read interviews from the developers like Richard Garfield on how they intended that game to be played. It turned out that they believed that people would only buy a limited amount of cards. Therefore a "rare" card, which was rare to find in a booster, would also be rarely found in a player's collection and thus be rarely played. The devs were then completely surprised by people buying cards by the box-load and stuffing their decks by 4 of each rare. It actually "broke" the game, as many of the early rares like the Black Lotus or the Mox artifacts were simply too good and too useful to allow 4 of them in each deck. They had to fix that by first restricting the use of those to 1 per deck, and later banning them. Over time "rare" cards in Magic evolved into being powerful, but highly specialized, so 4 of one rare basically determined the theme of the deck and couldn't be used in every deck. But the basic design flaw of "commonly played rares" remains until today, and has perpetuated into many other trading card games. Needing multiple copies of rare cards gives a huge advantage to players who bought large amounts of cards, the "Mr. Suitcase" syndrome.

In order to make Magic Duels a more casual-player friendly game, they fixed that design flaw in this variant of Magic the Gathering by changing the deck-building rules. You can't put 4 of each rare in a Magic Duels deck. Rarity now doesn't just mean "rarely found in a booster", but also "rarely played". You can put 4 of each common into a deck, but only 3 of each uncommon, 2 of each rare, and 1 of each legendary. And because cards are virtual the same restriction also apply to player's collections: You can't even *own* more than 4 of each common, 3 of each uncommon, 2 of each rare, and 1 of each legendary. Of course you can still use that 1 legendary card you own in multiple decks, as you never play with more than 1 deck. Now while paper Magic the Gathering has boosters of 15 cards with 11 commons, 3 uncommons, and 1 rare, Magic Duels has boosters of 6 cards with 3 commons, 2 uncommons, and 1 rare or legendary card. And the "complete set" of any expansion is a multiple of that, for example the complete set of the Origins base set is 72 boosters. 72 boosters gives you 216 commons, and there are 54 different commons in the set, so you will have exactly each common 4 times. 72 boosters contain 144 uncommons, which gives you each of the 48 uncommons 3 times. The same is true for the rares and legendaries, just that they share the same rarity slot in the boosters.

As a result opening a booster in Magic Duels does *not* give you a really random selection of cards. It gives you a random selection *of cards you don't own yet*. And after 72 boosters the game refuses to sell you any more boosters, as your collection is now complete. As you can buy a big bundle of 50 boosters for € 40 / $ 40 a complete set of any expansion doesn't cost you a fortune, or you can earn a complete set in about a month of regular play. So there are no "whales" in Magic Duels. The overall effect is a bit like that of a level cap in a MMORPG: People get to that level cap in a reasonable amount of time, and then everybody is equal. Huge advantage of perceived fairness, no more Mr. Suitcase. Buying a full expansion becomes like buying a "buy to own" game, there are no further costs.

It is for that reason that I have kind of forgiven Magic Duels the 2-month outage of last year, and gotten back to playing it regularly. I'm just 6 boosters away from having the full set of Zendikar, and while I bought the first set of boosters, I'll get to the full set just by playing and doing the "not-so-daily" quests that pop up every two days. Compared to another game I am currently playing, Dungeon Boss (/shakes fist angrily at Jeromai who mentioned the game to me) where it is far too easy to spend endless amounts of money for advantages, Magic Duels has a much more restrained and fair business model.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Zeitgeist: The Dying Skyseer - Session 01

In the previous session the group reached the end of the first adventure of the Zeitgeist campaign, and level 2. In this session we started the second adventure, The Dying Skyseer. It is now 3 months later, and the constables have been occupied in Flint with a local affair: Hana "Gale" Soliogn, an eladrin woman with a history of being held captive as a trophy by a family of Danorans, has since her arrival in Flint turned her hatred against Danor into a hatred of all things industrial. A number of sabotages and murders have been attributed to her, and she is being wanted as a terrorist. Capture has been made difficult by the fact that Gale can fly, a magical ability that had been considered impossible by the rest of the world.

The adventure starts with the constables at the RHC headquarters doing paperwork, including filing newspaper articles on Gale, as they haven't got much more than that to go on. But then their boss, Assistant Chief Inspector Stover Delft arrives with news of a lead: A young woman has been killed at the Danoran consulate, jumping out of fourth floor window and being impaled by the fence around the compound. The interesting bit is that the fence is too far from the window to have been reached by a normal jump, and the woman deciding to flee through the window suggests she believed she could fly. That could be a connection to Gale!

The Danoran consulate is in North Shore, an hour travel by coach away from the RHC HQ. As it also took an hour for the report to reach the RHC due to lack of magical communication, the constables arrive at the scene two hours after the fall. A group of regular police has cordoned off the area, but the woman has been removed from the fence and moved inside the consulate. As the crowd of gawkers is already much thinned, the constables decide to first question witnesses outside. Then they meet the Danoran chief of security Julian LeBrix, who tells them that it was him who killed the woman. The woman, known to him as Nilasa Hume, was the girlfriend of one of the guards of the consulate. She had brought chocolates as breakfast to the staff of the consulate that morning, and had snuck upstairs while the staff was thus distracted. Julian LeBrix says he followed Nilasa and found her stealing golden forks and spoons and a valuable jeweled egg upstairs. He chased her, and fired his pistol into her leg. But she climbed on the window-sill and so he shot her again in the shoulder while she was jumping through the window.

By examining the body, the consulate, and talking to witnesses the constables could put together a somewhat different sequence of events. Speak with Dead resulted in Nilasa stating that she was killed by "a shadow", and a black figure had been seen by witnesses outside. That shadow had slashed Nilasa's face and also caused some necrotic damage to her head, but somebody had gone to some lengths to conceal that by healing the face wound magically postmortem. It also appears that Nilasa first flew out of the window and onto the fence and was shot afterwards.

A part of the story that the security chief had left out was that Nilasa had chatted at the reception area of the consulate with a foreign doctor, Dr. Wolfgang von Recklinghausen, who was in the consulate to get a visa for travel to Ber. When Nilasa later fell onto the fence, the doctor rushed to help. Apparently Nilasa said her dying words to him, gave him a bundle of papers, and then he also took her necklace and ran away. A coach driver reported picking Dr. von Recklinghausen up and driving him to the House of the Blue Birds hotel, where the doctor disappeared through the back door while the coach driver was waiting for him to come back. The constables were able to get the file the Danoran consulate had with the doctor's visa application.

Another possible lead was information about Nilasa from her boyfriend, who knew that she liked to hang out in the Thinking Man's Tavern and had friends there. He also knew that she was working at the Sechim's Alkahest and Alchemicals factory, and that she was sleeping there. He asked the constables to inform her boss and her friends of Nilasa's death. Nilasa apparently had other connections to alchemists, as a receipt for alchemical items for a large amount of money was found in her pocket, together with a bail certificate showing that she had been picked up in a raid against smugglers and released on bail, paid by Heward Sechim. Nilasa apparently had used an invisibility potion in the consulate, and the door of the consul's office showed marks of thieves tools. But the security chief wouldn't let the constables enter that office.

After taking Nilasa's body to the coroner's carriage, the group left the consulate and went to the House of the Blue Birds to look for the missing doctor. Curiously the hotel manager told them that another policeman with a thin mustache, calling himself Officer Roger Porter, had already been there and searched the doctor's room. As the doctor was nowhere to be seen and a search of his room didn't reveal any additional clues, the group decided to go to Sechim's factory next. At that point we ended the session. 


Sunday, January 24, 2016

If you are reading about pen & paper roleplaying games on various blogs and forums, you sometimes come across the expression RAW, which means "rules as written". Unlike a computer RPG, where most rules are hard-coded into the game and allow no interpretation at all, rules in a pen & paper game are far more flexible. You can play them "as written", or you can modify them if you feel the rules are contrary to common sense or you think the intended outcome of a rule is different from the literal interpretation. For example if your players fight a gelatinous cube and use a power that would trip an enemy and make him fall prone, do you apply that rule as written, or do you declare that the cube is immune to falling prone, because that makes more sense? There is no right or wrong answer to that, and the decision might well depend on the style of your game and the ruleset you use.

Now in my 4E campaign I came upon a different problem with rules as written: Wizards of the Coast sometimes issues errata to the printed rules. If you use the D&D Character Builder on their website, it uses the "rules as written including errata", but to the player the errata are very hard to find (especially now that 4E isn't the current edition any more), and basically invisible. And when those errata are basically a nerf to a character class, that can come as an unwelcome surprise to the player if the DM cites some new rule the player wasn't aware of.

One of my players is playing an Avenger. The Avenger starts out with cloth armor, and a special ability called Armor of Faith that gives him +3 to AC. He can take a talent that improves that bonus to +4, so even in cloth armor his armor class is already quite high for a melee dps. Now the rule as written for Armor of Faith is that this bonus applies as long as you don't wear heavy armor or use a shield. That opens up the possibility to take a talent that allows the Avenger to wear leather armor, and gain another +2 AC. But that turned out to be overpowered, so the errata "fixes" Armor of Faith to give the bonus only if no armor or cloth armor is worn.

The player in my campaign didn't know that and wanted to learn to wear leather armor. I noticed the problem when I tried to make the character sheet in the D&D Character Builder and the software used the errata'ed rules and didn't give the Armor of Faith bonus. Now I could have overruled the errata and house-ruled that in this case "rules as printed" apply. But then the Avenger would have ended up with the same armor class as the two tanks in the group, while dealing significantly more melee damage. So I went with the errata and told the player to forget about the leather armor and take a different talent. Ultimately my decision was based more on what would be more fun and balanced, than on legal niceties.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Netflix VPN blocking

Shelves and shelves full of legally bought DVDs in my house demonstrate that I rather buy video content legally than to pirate it. On the other hand I *do* use a virtual private network service to rather watch US Netflix than my local version. Not only are there about twice as many films and episodes on US Netflix than on the local version; but also in the US I can always get English subtitles, while local Netflix frequently only offers the local language as subtitle, which isn't ideal for expats. Certain TV executives would thus consider me a "pirate", although philosophically speaking and using Kant's categorical imperative as measure for what is good or evil, I'm pretty certain that I'm not doing anything wrong.

Nevertheless there is an ongoing discussion about Netflix blocking VPN access in the media. Despite the doubtful headline the Guardian regarding this possibility, I am in no doubt of the technical possibility, provided that Netflix is serious. While making the difference between somebody using a VPN and somebody actually traveling may be hard, you can always arrive at a perfect VPN block by simply restricting service to travelers. The competitors of Netflix will only show you the local content from your country of residence written on your credit card, so you'd need a far more complicated service creating a false address including credit card to for example watch HBO over here. Netflix could just do the same and give travelers either no service at all, or a very limited selection consisting of only films available both in the country of origin and in the country the traveler is now. I doubt many people would cancel their Netflix subscription just because it won't work any more when they are on holidays abroad.

Where Netflix really would lose a lot of business is with their over 30 million customers in whose country of residence there actually isn't any Netflix offered at all. It is a safe bet that these people all would unsubscribe from Netflix if they couldn't use VPN any more to watch, as that is actually their only option. The fact that Netflix lets you subscribe from a country with no Netflix service pretty much proves that they consider using a VPN to be acceptable behavior. With verifiable numbers like the use of BitTorrent dropping 14% in Australia the month Netflix launched in that country it is very obvious that there is a large population that are quite willing to pay for legal access to films and TV series and only pirate when there are no legal options. And even those TV executives complaining about "VPN piracy" are at the same time receiving licensing fees from Netflix from those people they just called pirates. They just believe that they would make a bit more money if they could use regional barriers to extort local TV companies. Something which in a globalized economy should be outlawed anyway.

Economically speaking, under the current system a Netflix with VPN option is more valuable than a Netflix without that option. That is not just a consumer surplus for those who use a VPN, but there are definitively a certain percentage of Netflix customers where this added VPN option is the deciding factor in whether they subscribe at all. So Netflix profits as well, especially since it gives them a competitive advantage over the many competitors who aren't as permissive. So maybe Netflix really is just trying to placate rights holders. A bit like Captain Renault in the film Casablance, Netflix says "I'm shocked, shocked to find that VPN use is going on in here!", while cashing in their winnings. They might even go as far as installing a completely ineffective "industry standard anti-VPN solution". But if they really wanted, they *could* stop VPN use completely, at the cost of millions of dollars to them. I would guess they would much rather arrive at the point where there are absolutely no regional differences between Netflix offers in different countries, because that must be both more profitable and a lot easier to manage for them.

Monday, January 18, 2016

As I mentioned in a previous post I love games based on the UFO / XCOM heritage and am currently waiting for XCOM 2 to be released. But while I'm waiting I play a game on my iPad which is called X-Mercs, which is very, very similar. Up to the point where some of the abilities of your soldiers have exactly the same name and function as in the XCOM game, e.g. Lightning Reflexes. On the other hand the game adds a different background story and that results in your team not only fighting aliens, but also mutants and rival mercenaries / soldiers, so there is a bit more variety.

X-Mercs also has one of the weirdest business models I have seen, which doesn't differentiate between different currencies, e.g. a currency earned by playing and a currency bought for real money. There is only one currency which is both earned and spent in the basic gameplay, but can also be bought for real money, and be spent for advantages that look a lot like Pay2Win. That description suggests that you could play X-Mercs for free, but in my opinion that is not the case. Earning currency through playing is deliberately slow, and what you earn doesn't even cover some of the things that I would consider basics. For example you need a lot of currency to get a fourth and fifth soldier into your squad. So if you play for free you'd have to grind a very long time with just three soldiers in your squad, and as the game constantly raises the difficulty even of the side missions that is going to be increasingly unfeasible.

The overall result is that the game is not so much "Pay2Win", but rather "pay to make the game playable". Once you *did* pay something like $60+ and unlocked the must-have stuff, the game suddenly plays like a "buy once" game, and doesn't constantly push you towards further purchases. Yes, sometimes you get "special offers" to buy powerful consumables for cash, but you can ignore those. So compared with my experience from last year with League of Angels, X-Mercs is actually rather cheap. Of course not everybody would agree to spend $60+ on a mobile XCOM clone, but then the same can be said about any $60 console shooter.

What I also like more in X-Mercs than in League of Angels is that there is very little mandatory daily activity in X-Mercs. Yeah, you better collect the free money that accumulates in some of your buildings from time to time, and send out expeditions. But otherwise X-Mercs very much plays like a single-player XCOM, where the story only progresses when you have time to play. Then again the PvP part of X-Mercs appears to be more or less optional (I could get better beam weapons if I had a PvP rank, but up to now that hasn't blocked me in the PvE game), and maybe if I played the game more competitively I would be pushed more towards keeping up with the Joneses. On the other hand the free money you get over time, and resources from expeditions, mean that there is an advantage to take things slowly. If you wanted to progress much faster and play much more every day, you probably would be stopped by a lack of money and resources, and could then "unblock" your progress by paying even more real money. That is pretty much par for the course, most Free2Play games have additional ways for impatient people to pay more.

While the political correctness brigade would probably complain about the depiction of women in the game, the graphics of the game are otherwise okay, considering the platform. Not super-pretty PC graphics, but nice enough 3D graphics and okay animations for an iPad game. As a result X-Mercs takes up 2 GB on your iPad, compared with 3.3 GB for the iPad version of XCOM : Enemy Within. And you probably need at least an iPad Air to play it fluidly. I observed rare crashes to desktop, and even rarer a crash that erased the progress of the current mission so that I had to start over. No game-breaking bugs that I am aware of.

Overall I think that if you haven't played it yet, XCOM : Enemy Within for the iPad at now $9.99 (down from previously $19.99) is the better deal. If you already played many hours of XCOM and are just waiting for XCOM 2, X-Mercs is an option, but not really a cheap one. So I can't universally recommend it.

Sunday, January 17, 2016
Hunting aliens

I very much like most games of the UFO / XCOM franchise, especially those that remained true to the original MicroProse concept of the game. So while I generally don't pre-order games nor buy them at release, I did pre-order Firaxis' XCOM 2. So I was reading a number of previews like this one, all of which mentioned the extreme difficulty level of the game, and how much it hurts to lose characters you spent much time customizing and building up. That, and some discussion on my blog this week, made me think about difficulty in PvE games.

For me a game is first and foremost an area of liberty, where I can experiment with different things without having to fear serious consequences like in real life. Especially in strategy and tactical games much of the fun of the game to me is to try out different strategies and tactics, and see which ones work better and which ones don't work so good. A game where building up power is very slow, and any minor mistake or even just random bad luck can set you back by a lot or even make continuing the game impossible to me is simply not much fun. "High difficulty" in such a game means either following exactly the one best strategy and tactics and then praying for luck. If there are 20 ways to approach a problem and 19 of them don't work and punish you severely, trying out things becomes a rather painful exercise. You end up searching the internet for a guide or YouTube video telling you the one and only way that works. Which is pretty much why I gave up raiding in World of Warcraft.

I am pretty sure that when I get XCOM 2, I will start playing at the lowest possible difficulty level to try things out. Then I can only hope that the release version has options which make the easiest difficulty not as punishing as the preview versions that some journalists got to play. But if the easy mode then turns out to be actually easy, I'll dial it up for the next game until I reach a good balance between challenge and frustration. I don't like Telltale "you always win and just follow the story" games either. I want a game where I can use my creativity to develop clever strategies and tactics, and where severe punishment is reserved for stupid mistakes. A strategy that is just sub-optimal should result in slower progress and encourage you to keep trying; it shouldn't result in a loss of hours of gameplay or force you to completely restart from scratch.

I do think that "one single difficulty" games are a design mistake. Different players enjoy different degrees of challenge. And in a game where the player is not up against other players, but only against the script and the AI, "difficulty" becomes a completely arbitrary concept. There *are* people buying and enjoying those Telltale games, because they really just want a sort of mildly interactive story with very little challenge. And there are others who like extremely punishing rogue-like games where even perfect tactics only give you a low chance of getting to the end of the game. The thing is that in a game like XCOM you can easily have both of those, by just fiddling with some numerical parameters. I especially liked version of the game where you could separately set the difficulty level of the strategy / economic base management game and the tactical combat against aliens game, because again different players have different preferences here. There really is no reason why people shouldn't be able to tune the difficulty level of a single-player game to their liking.

Saturday, January 16, 2016
Hate blogs

You might have noticed that I haven't been blogging much lately, and then mostly about D&D and not about MMORPGs. When considering why that is so, I come to the conclusion that it has much to do with the fact that I am not reading other MMORPG blogs any more. And to push the analysis further, the reason why I don't read MMORPG blogs is that I don't want to deal with the negativity any more.

It is hard to keep up a blog without having strong feelings on the subject of the blog. But those feelings can be positive or negative. I find that until the peak of the MMORPG blogosphere, just before WAR came out, there were a lot of people who blogged out of their love for the game. After the peak not only the numbers went down, but also the survivors turned increasingly sour. And these days I find a lot of sites which I would classify as hate blogs, as they seem to be nearly exclusively driven by hate, with rarely a post about the love for a game.

One large sub-group of the hate blogs is the people who hate change, the Luddites. Most of their blog is dedicated to complaining about anything new, be that new games or new patches of existing games. According to their narrative MMORPGs were great when they personally started playing, and since then game designers conspired to make every game worse by patches and only releasing worse and worse new games. It doesn't occur to them that they simply might have grown bored with the genre, so they think that if games only were designed like the original Everquest, Ultima Online, or vanilla World of Warcraft (or whatever their first game was), they would have fun again.

Another large sub-group of the hate blogs is bloggers that simply hate other players. Their blogs are full of stories that constantly insult and deride "bad players", horror stories of groups or guilds gone wrong, and pseudo-positive stories of how happy they were when they were somehow able to really hurt another player. These blogger frequently demand game design that makes games more exclusive and keeps out the Great Unwashed Masses of casual players. On the other hand they certainly don't want that exclusivity be based on money (where they would end up on the side of the Unwashed), but rather on weird and arbitrary notions of "leetness" that are designed to specifically make them part of the exclusive club, while keeping out most of the others.

While not exactly hate blogs, I also get annoyed by kind of blogs that aren't actually concerned with games, but rather are fueled by strong political feelings. Those can be left-wing or right-wing, and Gamergate has really increased that sort of blogging. Not only are political bloggers frequently complaining, which is why I group them with the other negativity blogs, but for me they are also perverting the original purpose of a game being a place away from the problems of real life.

I find it sad that so few people would like to discuss how we could make games better, how we could improve player behavior by better game design, or discuss other constructive thoughts. I don't enjoy reading hate blogs and hate posts, so given their prevalence I end up not reading MMORPG blogs at all any more.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Adventure conversion

The Zeitgeist campaign from EN Publishing that I am currently playing with my D&D group is available in both D&D 4th edition and Pathfinder versions. So I was recently wondering whether they'd also bring out a D&D 5th edition version. But just by toying with the idea I realized how difficult that would be. Even the Pathfinder version, which is inherently closer to earlier versions of D&D, and thus more compatible with 5th edition D&D than 4E is, would still be very difficult to convert into a 5E game.

My standard joke on roleplaying game editions is that to understand the difference you need to know how many arrows it takes to kill a level 1 mage. Of course that is a caricature, but like all caricatures there is a core of truth in it: A game in which your level 1 character can be killed by one single arrow feels inherently very different than a game where it takes half a dozen arrows to kill a level 1 character. And especially 4th edition and 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons are on opposite extremes of that scale: 5E is fast and deadly, 4E is more predictable and tactical.

The different "feel" of combat is based on simple mathematics. Imagine you have a character that deals 2d6 of damage, so his average damage is 7 points. If he has a 50% chance to hit something, then on average he deals 3.5 points per round of combat. Compare that to the hit points of his opponent, and you will find that it takes that character on average 3 turns to kill an opponent with 10 hit points, and 6 rounds to kill an opponent with 20 hit points. You can do the same calculation in the other direction, and that gives you a prediction of who will win the fight. If on average it takes the player 3 rounds to kill the monster, while on average the monster will take 5 rounds to kill the player, the player is likely to win that fight.

The peculiarity of 5th edition is two-fold: First damage numbers are high in 5E (e.g. a magic missile does more damage in 5E than in any other edition of D&D) and the hit points are more on the low side, half of what they are in 4E. So already here it becomes clear why combat in 5E is much faster. But second there is an additional factor, which is how likely the results are to deviate from the average. 5E has the most extreme deviations from the average, the above described character with his 50% chance of dealing 2d6 damage and an average damage per round on 3.5 can with a critical hit and maximum damage roll deal 24 points of damage, killing his 20 hit points opponent with a single stroke instead of needing 6 rounds. So combat in 5E is a lot less predictable than in 4E or Pathfinder, and to me sometimes even feels a bit random: Extreme dice rolls play a bigger role in determining the outcome than any tactical maneuvers. The slower pace of 4E is deliberate, as having more rounds of combat makes tactical choices more important, like the resource management part of the use of daily and encounter powers.

So if I wanted to convert the Zeitgeist adventure into 5th edition, the different feel and lack of predictability would cause me a problem. The campaign is rich in story, and there are some fights which for story reasons should be predictable, for example the very first fight in the campaign where the players as police are arresting some troublemakers, a fight which they are supposed to win without problems. Having an accidental player character death in that fight would be quite detrimental to the rest of the story. I could imagine other styles of campaign of a more sandboxy sort where the randomness of combat provides impulses to the improvised interactive story-telling. But for the campaign style of Zeitgeist 5E is a lot less suited. So I gave up on the idea.

In other news, we just did an "intermission" session to level up the characters of our Zeitgeist campaign to level 2, including kitting them out with more magic items from the RHC stores (another point where the Zeitgeist campaign differs from typical D&D campaigns in which you "find" magic items). Then I explained to the players the different quarters of the city of Flint, where the next adventure plays, and allowed them to freely invent two contacts from two different quarters. That is to encourage role-playing and fostering creative ideas for alternative routes in the next adventure by "using people you know" (for reference, the concept of "you are who you know" is very prominent in the Shadowrun pen & paper roleplaying game, but hey, one can always borrow good ideas from other systems).


Saturday, January 02, 2016
Turning D&D into a card game

If you have ever been at a convention or elsewhere watched people seriously playing some trading card game, you might have noticed that they put their cards into so-called deck sleeves, little plastic bags with a transparent front and colored back. The funny thing is that when I was playing Magic the Gathering I never used sleeves, but today I am using those same sleeves for a completely different game: Dungeons & Dragons in the pen & paper roleplaying version.

Why sleeves? Because if you print a card-sized piece of paper in a regular printer on regular paper, the result is a bit too thin to handle well. Add a sleeve and you can handle a deck of "floppy" cards. I also use different colored backs for different cards, as unlike a trading card game there is no shuffling and randomization involved in D&D.

The first use for the sleeves are the D&D 4th edition power cards. The one big selling point of 4E for me is that it does away with the rather unfair system of some characters having spells and other characters not having anything equivalent. In 4E every 1st level character has 2 at-will, 1 encounter, and 1 daily power, and these numbers increase with level. So quickly everybody has the equivalent of "a spellbook" full of options. Putting those options onto cards really helps the flow of the adventure.

But for my next adventure in the Zeitgeist campaign I am expanding on the use of cards. As I mentioned before it is an investigative adventure, and in the past we had problems with people forgetting clues between sessions, as we only play about twice per month. So when I was reading the adventure which starts with over 20 different clues in the first chapter, I knew I needed some sort of memory aid for this to work. So I took one of the programs you can get to create power cards, and modified the template to make clue cards. When a player investigates the right spot and/or succeeds the right skill check, he'll get the clue in the form of a card.

That also solves nicely the fundamental problem of investigative adventures. The detective stories of literature or TV frequently rely on a brilliant detective coming to a conclusion that nobody else saw. That doesn't work well for a tabletop role-playing game, as there is a strong likelihood that nobody has such a stroke of brilliance and the investigation gets stuck. Gameplay of pen & paper roleplaying is better suited to an approach where the players follow up every clue and methodically gather more and more information until the solution becomes rather obvious. By having the clues as handouts on cards, that approach is much helped. And in a fantasy world, following up on clues can lead to adventure and dangerous encounters instead of boring house-to-house inquiries.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 07

In the previous session the musketeers of the Royal Homeland Constabulary captured Axis Island from the duchess's forces in their mission to give it back to Danor and prevent a war. But on one of the ships a high-level eladrin warrior had hidden, who had his own plans for the duchess. Having chased that eladrin, Asrabey Varal, to the hedge maze around the central tower, this session began with an encounter with Gillie Dhu, the guardian of the hedge maze.

As their first attempt to persuade Gillie Dhu to let them pass failed, the group engaged in combat. That was complicated by the hedge, through which Gillie Dhu could pass freely, but the players needed to push through, climb over, or go around. That made the fight a bit more interesting, because otherwise fighting with six players against a single opponent would have been far too easy. The different players chose different ways to deal with the hedge, with the sorceress using area attack fire spells to set it aflame, seeing how that distracted their opponent. And then in one round several players landed critical hits, and the fight was suddenly over.

So the constables reached the central tower, decided against trying to climb it, and instead found that the door had already been kicked open by Asrabey. At the top of the tower they came to a door which was slightly open and were able to overhear the discussion of Asrabey with the duchess and Nathan Jierre after Asrabey had beaten the duchess in combat. It turned out that Asrabey had been sent by the Unseen Court, the government of the faerie, in order to send a strong signal on which side in this civil war they were by killing the duchess. They also discovered that Nathan Jierre, which they were supposed to bring back to his cousin Lya Jierre, minister of outsiders for Danor, was in fact a traitor to Danor. Nathan had discovered that Danor was constructing industry and weapons on Axis Island, and had contacted the duchess because he thought that could prevent a war between Danor and Risur. It was Nathan who had provided the duchess with the key to the teleportation ring, although he mentioned that it has been Kasravina Varal who had constructed it; Nathan asked Asrabey whether that was a relation of his, but didn't get a clear answer. Persuaded that Nathan had valuable information, Asrabey then checked his escape route and found the group.

From the previous events it was rather clear that Asrabey was very high level, although he was obviously seriously wounded by now. Nevertheless the players didn't want to fight him, but rather negotiated. Asrabey wanted them to tell the king that the Unseen Court had sent him as a sign of support. He demanded a ship with an unarmed crew. He offered to go with the group to that ship and there leave the duchess to them, while keeping Nathan with him. After some discussion the group agreed, although they could sense that the eladrin wasn't entirely honest. They decided to foil his plan by closing the sea gate, but that didn't work out. On the way to the port Asrabey suddenly attacked the duchess (who was already at 0 hit points and thus unable to resist) and decapitated her with his flaming sword. Apart from the sorceress who summoned the spirit of the duchess to unsuccessfully attack Asrabey, the other players still didn't want to mess with that high-level character. So he grabbed Nathan, and escaped towards the teleportation circle (which the players could have guessed because they had seen him make preparations there in the previous session).

So the constables were left with just the corpse of the duchess, which they returned to the king. But first they formally handed Axis Island over to Lya Jierre, claiming that they hadn't found her cousin while conquering the island. As this meant their main mission was a success they reached level 2, and the end of this adventure.



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