Thursday, April 28, 2011

4e Terrain Powers

This post came to mind while thinking about responses to Stands-in-Fire's post about melee and ranged balance issues in 3.x and 4e. I've also been thinking about the most important things that 4e does right and other games should lift from it, thanks in no small part to Sarah Darkmagic's posts examining 3.x/Pathfinder from her decidedly 4e-based perspective. I think that one of the best things 3.x and other games (hell, let's include MMOs here) could make a bigger part of gameplay are terrain powers, as described on p. 63 of the DMG 2.

If you haven't read the DMG 2 for 4e, it is honestly one of the best resources yet written for encounter design. 4e thinks about encounter design differently from previous editions of D&D; it's really more like Spirit of the Century than 3.x in this regard. GMing advice that talks about letting characters suggest cool stunts is nothing new - Mutants and Masterminds, Iron Heroes, 7th Sea, the list goes on. Any GM worth a damn in any system is going to uphold cool, cinematic player use of terrain, as it represents exactly the kind of mental engagement with the encounter that we always hope to evoke - but having some rules to suggest the actual game effects of such heroics helps. In its initial release, 4e took a strong first step in this direction with the DC scaling and damage expression scaling tables of the DMG. Anecdotal evidence indicates that a certain subset of players saw this for the stunts system that it was, but it didn't get the emphasis that it deserved to make that system central to gameplay. They gave this idea further emphasis in the DMG 2 with terrain powers.

In SotC, players get bonuses by either realizing things about their environment or by changing their environment. This calls on the GM to decide ahead of time what kinds of Aspects this scene contains. From what I've seen, SotC doesn't give these Aspects all that much further effect on gameplay, but the +2 bonus that players can pick up from them makes a big difference - and with an Athletics roll, I guess it wouldn't be too hard to change that bonus into extra movement if necessary.

4e handles this with its fantastic terrain types (many of which represent flashier magic than I prefer in my games) and (as of the DMG 2) terrain powers. In surprising contrast to the all-pervasive magic of fantastic terrain and many of the trap types, the listed terrain powers are strictly nonmagical. On the other hand, with all the different ways PCs have to push, pull, slide, or teleport NPCs, just about every trap in the game could indirectly become a terrain power if the PCs detect it in time. This wasn't really a part of previous DMGs, because encounter design didn't go much past "here's the map, and here's where the monsters are when the PCs show up." But now we're thinking about what kind of fire you need to avoid standing in or what kinds of interesting toys the setting of the fight might represent (toys usable by one side or the other... or both at once).

Bringing all of this back around to Stands-in-Fire's post that I linked above, I would like to see more terrain powers written into a boss's abilities in a boss fight. I understand perfectly well why the Monster Manuals don't do this - I mean, they're not writing the scenarios, so how are they going to know what kinds of terrain powers should be available? (For all I know, WotC design has already incorporated this - I haven't read their adventures.) The idea for a terrain power that set me on this wide-looping tangent was thinking about how some WoW encounters threatened the ranged DPS and healers without including melee characters. The first thing that came to mind was Gruul the Dragonkiller, who had a real fondness for making the ceiling fall on my head. (He did some other things to screw with the ranged characters as well, but Cave In is the one I care about right now.)

Why not give a solo, especially one that is going to wind up being a load-bearing boss if he loses, a terrain power in his stat block? Because you're defining the map ahead of time, you can use non-standard area effects for this - "from this hash mark to the back wall of the room" is perfectly valid. Obviously the solo doesn't want to get caught in his own collapsing building, thankyouverymuch, so he would only use this ability while on the other side of the room. With the melee attackers. (Hint: don't bother using this encounter if your party consists entirely of melee combatants.)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

LARP-writing Thought Experiment

Kainenchen's brief mention of LARP politics and scale of game in this post got me thinking about that topic, and I wandered off into "what if" territory that has nothing to do with actual use. To give a bit more background on the point, I think many games - particularly LARPs - run into the issue of wanting players to get invested in political plotlines without knowing how to get the players to make the shift from stick-jock to politico. The problem, I have believed, is that political brinkmanship requires bargaining, and it takes a lot of time for characters to build up a stake for that bargaining. Without something to risk or give away, players don't have enough of a reason to care what goes on, and most players will avoid getting involved, because most players won't jump feet-first into an encounter when they don't feel like they have anything to gain. When the politics take place on a national or even (in Eclipse's case) interstellar level, it's tricky.

The thought experiment, then, is the extreme case of bringing the scale of the game down to something players can identify with and enjoy with a minimum of handwaving. What if all of the PCs in a game grew up together in the same hamlet, and were themselves 90% of the hamlet's population? It would really change the way character histories were written, as each character would necessarily be written with connections to other characters. Maybe every new character history has to have two connections to existing characters and two spaces for new characters?

Huh, there's an interesting idea, actually. Character backgrounds could be based on one's role in the community, replacing cultural backgrounds such as we currently use.

Character Backgrounds

Forest Witch: -3 CP cost for (whatever magic is in the game) or Healing Ways
Hunter: -3 CP cost for Tracking or Security (for snares)
Innkeeper: -3 CP cost for Brewing
Shepherd: -3 CP cost for Animal Empathy or Staff
Woodcutter: -3 CP cost for axes
Baker, Farmer, Miller: I'd want to do something in the game mechanics that dealt with food supply. I don't know what exactly, but these backgrounds (possibly merged into one) would be relevant to it.

This setup suggests conflicts that are personal and immediate, as characters are protecting their homes and fighting off threats to the supplies that they need to survive. The simplicity of the setting appeals to me in theory. I think that in actual play many players would regard this scale as unheroic, though, which has a lot to do with why I wouldn't run it. The rate of character growth and power that are common in CI and Red Button games (really, games other than the Wildlands campaign) would quickly come to feel inappropriate in such a game. I would not find it intrinsically unreasonable to slow the game's advancement.


I'd also tweak mechanics to further discourage swords and shields, possibly requiring teaching for such weapons or unusual skill prerequisites. What if you had to have Striking Blows in some other melee weapon to start training with swords or shields, as a minimum level of competence before the local knight would employ and train you? Medium and heavy armor would be equally rare.


Low magic makes sense here, with a heavy reliance on individual exploration and discovery. Who knows, maybe the whole reason we care about this village is the awakening of magic there, so the PCs must learn on their own. Maybe magic comes from compacts with powerful beings (a kind of teaching time that you halfway look forward to and halfway dread, because you might be about to bargain away something else).

The whole point here, though, is the setting's simplicity: most of the people, places, and things the story cares about are within reach. Players meet all of the people of any political importance, because they are local. You know, immersion. (Immersion I would cheerfully toss to the wind to make sure we had electric lights, fans, refrigerated food, et cetera...)

Aaaanyway. Just some Sunday-afternoon rambling.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Doing Sequels Right

Strangely, this post is not about Portal 2, which Kainenchen bought just last night. No, this post is about Overlord and Overlord 2. If you follow those links, you'll discover that GameSpot gave the first game a middling grade, and gave the sequel a slightly worse grade. In brief, I have no idea where they're coming from here. I played the two games more-or-less back-to-back (with a break in the midst of playing Overlord 2 to play Dungeons).

The original game gave me the feeling that my minions could do a lot of neat things, some of which were under-used or under-explained. The story was excellent and ridiculous. The game comfortably earned a spot as one of my favorite games. It didn't bother me that my minions were a bit dumb or frustrating from time to time, and it didn't bother me that I kind of needed to go through early levels and grind sheepies for life-energy if I wanted to upgrade my armor. Just look at this one - this is a sheepie who has nothing to live for. I'm practically doing it a favor! I really liked the big plot reveal at the end of the game, and I thought the game had done an excellent job of laying the groundwork to make that reveal enjoyable.

Just to mention a couple of things I didn't like or didn't quite get, I'll say that the red minions' immunity to fire was sort of arbitrary, as there were some fires that killed them stone dead without a lot of warning; thank goodness they're completely expendable. Green minions' ability to leap onto many types of enemies was the solution to a number of problems, but I didn't Get It early on, and had several very frustrating fights before Kainenchen's suggestion clued me in. (If you don't figure out how to get your greens into the action, succubi are about the most miserable thing in the game, especially the Hot Two-Succubi-At-Once action of one of the midgame boss fights.) Blues are immune to magic (but not fire, even fire from spells), but as far as I could tell this really only comes up about twice in the whole game; it's certainly the most under-explored minion ability.

Playing through Overlord was also educational in helping me boil down the essence of a good puzzle game. Whether you're talking about the four flavors of minions, the many tools in Batman's arsenal in Arkham Asylum, or the portal(s), it's about giving players a complex-but-finite set of tools, and then spinning out more and more ways that those tools can influence the world. Overlord and Arkham Asylum particularly handle this with barriers that a player can't immediately overcome, but once you have the tools to get past that barrier, there's a piece of candy and a branching path of additional puzzles. This is pretty simple, all in all, but I hadn't phrased it quite that simply in my thoughts before.

The sequel game (I haven't played the DLC for the original game) expands on the first in many ways. I felt that it put even more of the focus on what being an evil overlord should be about: in this case, conquering territory and subjugating its people. Also, even more Tower Mistresses (you accept one and ditch the other in the first game; in the second, all three come to live in your Netherworld Tower, and you can switch between them at your leisure. (I picked Rose in the first game, since I was playing a non-corrupt Overlord, and Kelda in the second game, because she isn't a heinous bitch. Which is funny, because she's the one who supplies your minions with wolves.)

Just about every part of the game felt like it was bulked up. The first game's choice between Corruption or... not was easy for me, as I will just about always play "as goodly as the game lets me." (Decades of roleplaying games have taught me that this will lead to the most-fun-for-me version of the game.) The second game's choice is instead between Destruction and Domination; since they're both horrendously evil, I felt like they were equally valid options. (I chose Domination because I didn't particularly care about using my spells in the middle of combat.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

4e Skills and Class Balance

While on a long drive with Kainenchen and Stands-in-Fire recently, we started talking about skills and skill challenges in 4e. At its most macro level, the skill challenge is one of the best ideas that 4e has added to D&D as a whole. I have seen skill challenges be an excellent source of non-combat tension that can be resolved with a combination of clever thinking and multiple dice rolls. (Before I get started here, it has to be noted that Rob Donoghue has done some really clever things here (and in several subsequent posts) and the next time I run 4e, I'll be playing with his ideas.)

The actual usage of skill challenges in-play is tough, though, and some of the problems specifically remind me of problems I had in previous editions. So let's talk about class balance between in-combat and out-of-combat situations, because no edition of D&D has gotten that right.

There are games where the focus of the whole game is on the narrative whole rather than the actual action. The games (Song of Ice and Fire comes to mind, as does every edition of World of Darkness-based games) are designed so that combat is when some players shine, and out-of-combat is when other players shine. It is possible to run a 3.x D&D game this way, though I can't recommend it: I'll note that a violent conflict can easily take 1-2 hours of session to resolve (and some examples stretch far beyond that; I have heard of campaigns in which a single battle took 8, 16, or even more hours to play through). That is a lot of time for one subset of players to have fun, and another subset of players to be observers. Even complicated non-combat conflicts seldom last much beyond half an hour. My premise: "my character contributed something useful to solving the group's problems" is where "feeling cool" comes from in tabletop games, particularly D&D (not so much in, say, Amber).

In terms of roleplaying, most GMs would love it if characters treated violence as an option only when all others had been exhausted, and looked at a broad range of ways to resolve various conflicts. That's great and all, but D&D's rules for combat are more interesting, and every character as some amount of combat ability. When all you have is a tactically interesting hammer that gives experience points when used... Anyway, I mention all of this to explain why I don't favor a split between combat and non-combat characters in D&D.

Skills in 4e have applications both in and out of combat, and players and GMs are encouraged to interpret them as loosely as possible. You'll recognize this technique from such games as Spirit of the Century and World of Darkness; it represents a big change in D&D away from the narrower definitions of skills (and larger skill list) in 3.x.

Some classes legitimately need a variety of skills to accomplish their core concepts. Rogues and bards are the main examples here, such that 3.x D&D gave the two classes wildly more skill points than any other classes. For 3.x, I'm willing to agree that rogues needed lots of skill points to cover the wide variety of skills that 4e rolls into thievery, acrobatics, and athletics. Where 3.x rogues got four times as many skill points as fighters, 4e rogues get only twice as many trained skills as fighters. This frustrates me in 3.x non-combat situations, because I'd like to know who decided that broad, general incompetence was a guiding theme of fighter archetypes. Even increasing my fighter's Int score wouldn't help this problem, because an extra skill rank every other level in one of those cross-class skills does not fit my definition of "help."

As I play a pretty decent number of fighters, this still bugs me. A fighter's best stat is going to be Strength followed by Dex, Con, or Wis, depending on his build. Fighters have no options for class skills that are Dexterity-based, and two skill options that are Charisma-based. Of the core classes, only the Cleric has as many of its class skills in skills relying on stats that the class doesn't otherwise use. Ultimately, this means that when it comes to a skill challenge, a fighter is skilled in very few things, and is not as good at the things he is good at doing. This probably has something to do with the otherwise-inexplicable decision to make scale armor the one type of heavy armor that doesn't impose check penalties.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Dungeon of Three Deceits: Sector 2

Room 3

In this room, one of the largest in the whole dungeon, a three-foot-high wrought-iron railing partitions off a twenty-foot by twenty-foot area in the center of the room. The south wall of the room holds a door that appears to be made of smoked glass; through the glass one can barely make out a candle-lit hallway. The door has neither key nor handle, and proves to be entirely resistant to harm. The rest of this large room holds two long tables, pushed against the east and west wall respectively; the tables are covered with candles of many sizes and colors, and that candlelight is the room's only light source.

Inside the railing, the floor is tiled in marble squares of five feet by five feet. The railing on the north side of the square has a gate that allows one to enter the square, though it is equally easy to step over or under the railing. Lines of inlaid semiprecious stones run from square to square, as displayed below. Massive statues of a lion, a goat, and a dragon occupy some of the squares, as shown. The northwestern corner of the railing holds a small, flat table, and on this table are tiny figurines: three lions, three goats, three dragons, and four figurines of men. The animal figurines clearly match the larger statues already in place.

Characters may select a puzzle piece from the side table, enter the tiled floor, and place the piece. As soon as the piece rests on the floor, it grows to full size. (This is a property of the floor and the figurine together, and the figurine does not do this if placed elsewhere.) Characters may remove pieces by placing a hand on them; this causes figurines other than the original three statues to shrink back to their original size for ease of movement. The goal of the puzzle is to place the pieces so that each row, each column, and each gem-line has one lion, one goat, one dragon, and one human figure. Solving this puzzle causes the smoked glass door in the south wall to dissipate, and it remains gone until someone manually resets the puzzle.

(This puzzle is stolen from here, and is used and adapted without permission.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Strength of His Convictions

In this post, Kainenchen talks about what she would want out of her ideal psionics system. I started thinking about how I would make that happen, wrote my initial thoughts in comments to that post, and let my brain percolate on it for awhile. I think there's a chance, by the by, that a system very like what I'm about to explain exists, but if so I haven't played it. This would be easiest to apply as a modification to the new World of Darkness or as an addition to Over the Edge. I would potentially remove Willpower from nWoD if I were going to use this system.

This system of Convictions is necessary for the psionics system in question because of the way K wants telepathy and empathy to work. Once such a system exists, there are neat ways to plug other areas of the system into it, such as making strong Convictions juice up pyrokinesis.

Convictions (not the legal kind)

Characters are motivated by Convictions. Normal convictions are rated on a scale of 1-5 (this is convenient in both nWoD and OtE). 1 represents a short-term or back-burner desire, while a 5 represents an all-consuming drive (perhaps related to killing a six-fingered man). Players receive a budget of Convictions at character creation - let's say 20 points, with cumulative costs (level 1 is 1pt, 2 is 3pts, 3 is 6 pts, 4 is 10 pts, 5 is 15 pts).

Conviction represents a pool of bonus dice that players can spend to improve rolls. Each point of Conviction might be two bonus dice to a single roll in nWoD, or one bonus die to a roll in OtE; these pools refresh at the beginning of a new adventure (since the pools are bigger than I would want players to run through in a single session). Spending Conviction to improve a die roll does not change the permanent Conviction score for purposes of mental defense or other applications.

More importantly (for my original purposes, anyway), Convictions also improve your defenses against psychic tampering. From K's description, one of the main ways a telepath or empath influences a fight is by understanding the opponent's thoughts or emotions, and then rewriting or redirecting those thoughts or emotions. It's harder to influence the thoughts of someone who is deeply invested in what he's doing. For nWoD, this can be applied as a penalty to the telepath's roll. If Resolve or Composure also apply, as they usually will, you'll want to factor in about a 1-die constant bonus to the telepath's roll, just because a Conviction of at least 1 pt will apply as a defense so much of the time.

For OtE, it'd be a little more complicated, but that system isn't exactly driven by fiddly rules. Influencing a character away from a Conviction has an increasing target number. Influencing someone with no applicable Convictions might be around a TN of 3 (66% success for a character with 1 die in that fringe power). This scales up at (3 + the point cost of the Conviction) therefore 4, 6, 9, 13, 18.

Convictions can change over time, of course. I'd suggest allowing a character to purchase new Convictions with XP, and re-spend old Convictions at a rate of 5-10 points per adventure. Fulfilling a Conviction (killing the six-fingered man) might do all kinds of good things for you, starting with letting you convert those Conviction points directly into bonus experience points earned from the story goal. (Incidentally, this models people not knowing what to do with themselves once they've completed their major life goal. They could spend all of those experience points on some new Conviction.)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Armchair Design: Dungeons

To take breaks from the writing I've been doing lately, I've played through the core campaign of Dungeons. It begs for comparison to the classic and excellent Dungeon Keeper games, of which I played Dungeon Keeper 2. I'll go ahead and get that out of the way: where Dungeon Keeper has you keep your monsters paid, entertained, etc., Dungeons has to entertain the heroes, and then kill them once they are full of soul energy, ready to leave your dungeon, and heading back to town. The rooms of your dungeon are things that the heroes will like: libraries and armories. (Or things for containing heroes: prisons, torture devices, and sacrificial altars.)

I enjoyed this game a lot. I like the ways that the game encourages you to make gameplay harder for yourself by tacking on additional, optional challenges. On the whole, I like the sense of humor in the writing, and I note its close parallels with the humor of Overlord and Overlord 2, a pair of games I have enjoyed very much and really can't say enough good things about. I am really kind of baffled that Marc Silk, the voice of Gnarl in the Overlord games, is not also the voice of your henchman-of-identical-role in Dungeons.

I would recommend this game to others. It provided me with many hours of entertainment, and I expect that I will shell out for the DLC and play a few of the custom modes that are available outside of Campaign Mode.

Having said all of this, I will now get into my armchair design rundown, or "Things I think didn't work quite right." While these things do detract from the game, they are all minor things that I found it easy to look past. Mostly I wonder what other designs they attempted and what problems they found with those designs that led them to this design.