Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Problem of the Fire Mage

Between Sea of Stars, G+, and a few other places, there's been some discussion lately about what I see as the problem of fire mages. This problem generalizes somewhat to other tightly themed spellcasters, but the fire mage and the mind mage have it worst, I think. The problem is that in many fantasy games, you can play a fire mage, but resistance to fire or outright immunity to fire are the most common resistances among monsters and trivial to for non-monstrous NPCs to acquire through spells or magic items. This has on one hand some positive effects that I'll discuss later, but on the other hand it means that there will be a lot of encounters in which a fire mage doesn't have as much fun as a complete generalist, because the fire mage only has fire damaging spells and fire damage resisting spells.

The other bloggers involved have argued that removing all outright immunities solves the problem. The design of Dust to Dust is a clear expression of my, and Stands-in-Fire's, position on immunities in games: we're agin' it. At the same time, I can't agree that this is the right tack to take, for a number of reasons. Part of the G+ discussion has been about whether it's reasonable for anything to possess immunity to fire, with some holding that even a fire elemental - that is, again, a creature formed entirely of flame - should be possible to burn, if the fire were hot enough, and others arguing that, if anything, dealing fire damage to a fire elemental ought to cause it to increase in size. 

It's interesting to me that one of the commenters and Kainenchen chose the same analogy to argue against immunity: why should fire elementals have fire immunity if a creature made entirely of flesh is not immune to the blunt impact of flesh? I've had a hard time verbalizing why I think this analogy inappropriate, but touching one flame to another - such as holding two lit candles together - damages neither and creates a brighter flame. I think that the vast majority of creatures, and the entirety of spellcasting, should not have access to immunity, but I don't want to entirely close the door to fire immunity as a possible creature trait, for the sake of those poor fire elementals.

I also feel that changing immunities to very high resistance values doesn't address the core problem. Resist Fire 50 might as well be fire immunity, for all that a D&D fire mage can do anything about it. In 3.x, an empowered fireball averages 52.5 damage, and shaving 50 points off of that means that the fire mage can nickel-and-dime the creature to death while just about any other kind of spellcaster operates at full effectiveness. This is why I say that a fire mage doesn't have as much fun as a complete generalist in such fights.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Save or Die!, or: For it to feel like doom, there has to be a track

This post is a response to Mike Mearls's two items on save-or-die mechanics, here and here. I wrote a bit about the situation with save-or-die in high level play back in this post, but I'll expand on it a bit here. (I'll go ahead and spoil it for you: I don't think save-or-die is a good mechanic.) The comments to Mearls's first post raise the problem of whether save-or-die effects heighten or destroy tension during a fight. The former group feels that the situation is tense if players are anxiously waiting to see whether the dice decree that they live or die. The latter feels that because the opportunity for opponents to make save-or-die attacks is out of the player's control and there are no choices for the player to make after the perfidy of the dice has been revealed, there is no tension, only fatalism. Those players feel relieved if they survive the battle, but during the battle they feel there isn't much they can do to prolong their lives.

The dice determine the outcome of every battle, of course; it's technically possible for a 1HD goblin to defeat a 15th level fighter in a stand-up fight, if the fighter rolls nothing but 1s and the goblin rolls nothing but 20s. We're used to dice-luck determining outcomes, but we're also used to players making multiple decisions along the way, basing those decisions on varying estimations of risk.

Mearls talks a good bit about the right ways to use monsters with save-or-die effects. I have to wonder if he knows that this is one of those areas where DMGs have never offered comparable advice, and published modules have directly undermined that advice. Every high-level spellcaster in 3.x has save-or-die effects. Most poison-using creatures that I can recall in 2e that aren't drow have save-or-die effects - wyverns spring to mind. Fortunately the game mostly got rid of save-or-die poison effects in 3.x, but they left things with basically-passive save-or-die effects, such as bodaks and medusae.

Mearls's comments:
The save or die effect represents an interesting point in D&D mechanics. On one hand, fighting a critter with a save or die attack is tense and exciting. Or at least, it can be. A good DM makes a fight like this into something that can grow into a gaming legend over the years. Players will remember how their characters valiantly fended off attacks and either hoped for lucky rolls or came up with a cunning plan to defeat or avoid the critter.
On the other hand, the save or die mechanic can be incredibly boring. With a few dice rolls, the evening could screech to a halt as the vagaries of luck wipe out the party. A save or die situation can also cause a cascade effect. Once the fighter drops, the rest of the party's inferior AC and saving throws can lead to a TPK.
I really like the save or die mechanic because, in my experience, most DMs know how to handle it well. They use it as a spice: something that can keep an adventure interesting or that can serve as a pitfall for foolhardy play. The mere appearance of a medusa or a giant spider changes the game, leaving even the most confident player nervous. Great triumphs require great adversity, and the threat of instant death is one of the game's toughest challenges.
The proliferation of save-or-die effects, though, means that lots of encounters will threaten instant death. I recall a 4e devblog relating a conversation in which the designers concluded that a combat system in which every character was a one-hit kill would be unfair because it made initiative too powerful. What I don't understand is how Mearls doesn't see this as a case of the same. Is it really that hard to imagine a character getting killed by a save-or-die effect before taking an action? "Before taking an action" here means that "foolhardy play" has not occurred. The only decisions a character can make without taking an action are ones that the character made without necessarily having any information on the encounter... or even that an encounter was in progress.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

LARP Thought Experiment: Next-Gen Games

A little while ago, a friend of mine started a conversation in G+ about the Next Big Evolution in LARPing, without getting into specifics of what he thought that change might represent. The idea has been knocking around in my head since then, and I've come up with a number of different directions that boffer LARPing in the South could go. I'm not saying that these are good things - I'm trying to avoid value judgments here altogether, because it really is just a thought experiment. Also, these things may already be in evidence in other parts of the world - boffer LARPing in the South tends toward various kinds of heroic fantasy or heroic sf without a lot of attention given to the more avant-garde stuff, especially since the more avant-garde stuff is done in salon-LARP style.

It may be that I'm thinking too much "inside the box," but I think a safe starting point for exploration of ideas is to describe what we have right now, and then imagine a negation of each of those points. To that end, I might describe boffer LARPing as:
A combination of combat, puzzles and unscripted in-character interaction that takes place primarily in state parks. A character's material possessions are represented in a simulationist manner: you have a pile of tags, gems, and coin reps instead of a Resources stat, or you have a directly-developed history of connections with PCs and NPCs rather than a Politics stat. (Then there's also a lot of back-end stuff I want to talk about.)

A game with combat emphasized at the expense of all other kinds of gameplay is admittedly, something that has been done in the past; it's pretty much how the whole hobby got started, and the introduction of puzzles and character interaction came along later.  Let's face it: presented with two padded swords, almost any two people of my generation or generations near mine will pick them up and at least spar lightly. The same goes for NERF guns.

Because of my own ignorance, I don't know how much games like Amtgard and Dagorhir resemble competitive team sports. I can, in any case, imagine LARP combat formalized into something more like competitive fencing, with referee scorekeepers (or electronic scoring), leaderboards, and the like. I don't mean to take any credit for the idea - it's one I heard through the grapevine from another friend. This could certainly involve terrain complications just as paintball does, and it's remarkably less stupid than some sports people are playing these days. It's also a less-lethal version of Extreme Jousting. Alternately, the competition could be scored and timed completions of "dungeons," staffed by an NPC team or in split-module format.


Wildlands South and Shattered Isles were both pretty heavy on puzzles; Wildlands in particular makes puzzles and puzzle-solving a central part of its world-laws, as part of its extended lift of Earthdawn. (This isn't criticism. The WLS staff roster and playerbase had several names in common with the Earthdawn credits list.) I don't mean to say that WLS or SI started this - they're just the ones I know about. Puzzles have been a pretty steady component of gameplay throughout the years, whether we're talking about wooden block puzzles, riddles, decryption, or the like. DtD's and 2nd Dawn's (independently developed) Ritualism systems both rely on solving puzzles during play: dominoes for DtD and mazes for 2nd Dawn. DtD has also begun exploring research that is supported by puzzle completion and other kinds of skill challenges.

I can still imagine a game with more of its gameplay shifted into puzzle-solving, whether we're talking about abstract puzzles (such as DtD and 2nd Dawn use) or more direct things. This concept would be easiest to describe as Myst: the LARP, I guess. This really works best as a one-shot or short-run game, since a lot of the emphasis on traditional narrative and fighting the Bad Guys falls by the wayside in exchange for pure exploration of a space. The prep time involved in creating enough density of puzzles to entertain anywhere from ten to sixty players for a weekend (and this would work really well as a low-population game) means that you'd need a large number of full-time content creators working in disparate fields of puzzle creation.

The flow of this theoretical game goes something like this: On going into play, players begin exploring the site, looking around for anything that is out of place, odd, or represents an obvious puzzle. Maybe there are marshals to make rules-parsing easier, or maybe all of the puzzles are functionally self-marshaling. Some puzzles can be completed based on what's immediately obvious, while other puzzles require clues gained from puzzle completion, which might be in place to encourage character interaction. (A state park can work for this, since each cabin represents a discrete location for a puzzle, but if combat is taking a back seat, maybe all fights can be staged in one combat-approved room of a building.) As the weekend goes on, players learn more and more about the mysteries of the setting, through the context of the puzzles. The climax of the event is a series of timed puzzles or a series of skill challenges (probably de-emphasizing physical skill).

As mentioned above, the workload of content creation for solvable puzzles is a major challenge here. The committee behind such a game would need to develop shortcuts, I suspect, to generate a large number of puzzles with interwoven clues. It's a skill, certainly, and they'd get faster at it as they went; certainly there are people at MIT who more or less do this kind of thing every year, and manage to include through-line stories. The big advantage that this kind of game would enjoy is that, depending on how thoroughly boffer combat was de-emphasized, the game becomes much more accessible to those with physical disabilities, and more work can go into outlandish costumes and set design (since they don't need to be things you can fight in or around). Also, such a game could put a lot of emphasis on computer-based puzzles developed in Flash, and could release small amounts of content between events. Of course, that means getting a Flash developer to work for-the-love, which is not necessarily easy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Brainstorming on Necromancy

So I was playing Battleheart on my iPhone... kind of obsessively (hush, Kainenchen)... and the particular way that the power level of the skeletons advances gave me a few ideas. I really like something about the idea that undead from this one particular canyon, swamp, or whatever have different powers than undead from other places, just because of that origin. The ideas that followed are available for anyone's use, if you want some flavor text to back up the varying powers and power levels of undead that are nominally the same type.

See, the actual function of animate dead in D&D 3.x bugs me just a little. (This is also topical to 5e today: see here.) The function of this spell and the skeleton or zombie templates means that all human skeletons are basically the same; if you want a better skeleton, get a better base creature. Don't get me wrong, I like a skeletal T. Rex as much as the next guy. No, the problem is that when human skeletons have a basically fixed power level (CR 1/3). A spellcaster who can animate a graveyard full of your family members... shouldn't bother, if facing opponents remotely able to challenge him. That's fine, though; WotC designers and third-party publishers have spilled gallons of ink creating new and more threatening skeletal undead made out of humans, and creating new spells that generate that specific undead.

Setting aside that this is sort of cop-out in terms of generating content (that's what you get for paying by the word!), it's also a lot less compelling for players to learn about these spells as a foundation for drawing conclusions about what's going on once the encounter is over. Not everything needs to be a mystery, but anchoring the powers, appearance, and so on of the undead to things in the world gives players a way to draw conclusions. I maintain that players get more enjoyment out of remembering something interesting from three sessions ago than they get from possibly rolling well on a Knowledge (Religion) check to have the GM tell them something that was not previously established (though I don't extend this argument to the point of doing away with Knowledge skills).

Necromancy and the Identification of Skeletons
The Undead in general are differentiated by the circumstances of death, just as the living are differentiated by circumstances of birth. Many forms of undead share their eternal undeath when they strike down the living - particularly shades, wraiths, and vampires. Others, such as the mummified dead, may transfer their cursed state to their victims, ending their own torment at another's expense.

Skeletons, zombies, and shades are the least among the ranks of the Undead; the means of their animation determined which of those three they should become. The reason you bury the dead rather than incinerating them (Editor's note: something I've seen GMs struggle to justify in some games) is that the spirit, when called back to the world, will seek out the most familiar body. If that body rests safely and securely on ground that remains consecrated, the spirit enters the body and leaves it just as quickly. If there is no recognizable form, the spirit is confused and maddened, and manifests as a shade (or possibly a greater incorporeal undead, generally governed by the individual's strength of will).

Skeletons and zombies, on the other hand, are particularly influenced by the place where they were interred - even more so if that location had borne great personal significance in life. Therefore a necromancer might be able to turn all of the skeletons he is animating into Knifewind Canyon skeletons even if he transported the bones from elsewhere, but he'll have much greater success if there were bones there already, of those who had died there.

The skeletons of Knifewind Canyon, as every scholar of the Undead knows, are distinctive for the howling wind that gusts forth from their mouths, and for the river-clay baked around their bones by the punishing sun, which renders them more resilient to many forms of harm.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Crafting: More Than Just a Find Item Mission

It's been almost five months since I last commented on crafting systems in any detail in this blog - but no longer! Kainenchen and I were talking about... something or other, I can't recall what, but we came around to discussing some particular instance of crafting that I felt didn't constitute a crafting system at all. Okay, let me back up: I've talked before about questing after fragments of a completed item that the players then combine into a finished treasure. This is a perfectly good form of quest, and it can even be a reasonable way for magic items to come about in the game, but I've seen people argue that this constituted some kind of crafting system. Now, this is ridiculous on its face - it's a single instance of completion, not a system - but it also displays a misunderstanding of what's enjoyable about crafting in games, in a way that I've had a hard time articulating in the past.

The fun moment in crafting is when you make the decision. When you have 2-3 different components in varying amounts, which you combine into a new item - that's almost enough. The one thing missing from that is multiple options for what that completed item might be; the other completed goods should require different configurations of components, because this creates additional choice points for the player. Let's say you have two units of iron, two units of leather, and a sapphire, which would let me make a Blade of Winter. If I also know how to make Armor of the Golden General (two units of iron, two units of gold, and one runestone) and you don't have the latter two components, then you have to think a little more: instant gratification or patience? It would be hard for players to have much more agency than this.

The simpler model, in which the GM tells the players to quest after Item A and Item B get Magic Item C, requires the GM's explicit cooperation (particularly in tabletop games) in order to work. At least in most games, the GM has absolute control over the treasure that enters the game. I don't mean this in an authoritarian way; it isn't that the GM would try to keep the components out of the players' hands. It's just that waiting for the GM to remember to give you what you need strips the feeling of agency out of the practice.

I'm not normally a serious proponent of additional randomness in tabletop games. In most cases, I think a GM's planning leads to a better game experience than reliance on random dice rolls. Dice can't give you pacing or responsiveness to player choices. What they can do is absolve the GM: of responsibility and of directed choice. There's an extended subset of arguments to be made about how the GM weights the randomized tables, but that's immaterial for crafting purposes. Once the GM has written them, they represent world physics and can be spaded out. So in this case, I think randomized access to crafting components might have a place in tabletop games.

In 3.x and 4e D&D, most of what players would want to craft is overtly magical, so let's not dick around with Iron + Wood + Coal = Longsword here. Instead, let's talk about the crafting system that the two games do have. They both fall short of my above definition not because of a lack of choice - they have plenty of choice - but because they each operate on universal rather than specific components: gold and XP in 3e, and residuum in 4e. What I'd like to see instead can be summed up in the form of World of Warcraft's Enchanting system. This would involve, for 4e, a rewrite of the Disenchant Magic Item ritual and the introduction of specific components that went into each magic item in the book. The former change would give you a few items from a list of five component types, graduated by five-level brackets. The latter is much more work, though it wouldn't be too difficult to create general guidelines that guided what it cost to make a new magic item.

I would probably design such a system to offer diminishing returns - specifically, you're probably going to spend the components of 2-3 disenchanted items to enchant one new item. This is totally normal in WoW, since the magic items you disenchant come from other skills; in the model I'm proposing, it requires some additional worldbuilding. Is there just an ever-decreasing number of magic items in the world? That might be right for some campaigns, but I don't think I like that as a general answer.

One way to go here is to take a page from Shattered Isles' Dorums: at the intersection of ley lines, magical energies accrue in ways that can be harvested. Sometimes you come across a ley line juncture that is full and ready to be harvested, and sometimes another group has beaten you to the punch. Handle this with another magical table if you like.

Anyway, that's as far as I've gotten with this idea. Comments welcome.