Friday, June 29, 2012

Mage Knight: Revenge Kickstarter

The company that I work for, MFV (née Icarus Studios), has begun a Kickstarter project so that we can create a video game of MageKnight. I am one of the designers on this project, and I am hugely, overwhelmingly excited about potentially getting to make this game. If you can help us out, please do! Also, share this around - like all Kickstarter projects, word of mouth is the key to our hopes for success!

And you can see the beginnings of my meteoric rise to super stardom in the video! Ahem.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

LARP Design: Between-Game Actions

In many live-action games, there exists a mechanic to represent the players' actions between events, since otherwise players can only take part in the world and its goings-on for maybe twelve (for some games, as many as twenty-four) days out of every year. Since the plot committee is dedicated to creating the illusion of a living world, the NPCs do things between events so that the plot advances; correspondingly it is reasonably logical to let players do things as well.

Oh, by the way, this post is going to have some serious alphabet soup. Let me lay out a quick glossary:

BGA/IBGA: (In) Between-Game Action
DtD: Dust to Dust, the game I am currently running
FoD: Forest of Doors
IFGS: International Fantasy Gaming Society, one of the original LARPs; utterly different in style from NERO, CI/RB/Ro3 LARPs
KG: King's Gate, the second Chimera Interactive campaign and the first Red Button campaign
NERO: New England Roleplaying Organization, a LARP with a lot of chapters nationwide
PBEM: Play by e-mail
SI: Shattered Isles, the first Chimera Interactive campaign
WLS: Wildlands South, a NERO campaign using variant rules

The history of In-Between Game Actions (more recently we've dropped "In") that I can speak to directly goes back to the second season of the first Shattered Isles campaign. Since some of my readers were on staff for SI at that time, maybe they'll do me the favor of commenting when I get things wrong, and possibly hold forth on the origins of the idea. What I do know is that in '98, SI's IBGA system was a kind of upsell within the system, what we might now look at as a microtransaction. You didn't have to pay for a membership to play SI, but if you did, you got three IBGAs after every three-day event. I dimly recall that memberships cost around $15, lasted a year, and also got you a subscription to the Town Crier, an in-play newsletter written by players. These were early days of using the internet to support LARPing. For that matter, the LARP I played before SI, IFGS, didn't have a website - all game communication took place through their newsletter, "Here There Be Dragons."

But I digress. In SI, there was a quite narrow list of what you could do with an IBGA. Chiefly there were extra uses of Production, Craft, and Lore Talents, or learning one or more new spells if you had teaching; this made a huge difference to the overall usefulness of these talents. I don't mean this as a criticism of the design - far from it. It was a huge payoff to the player, for an amount of money that was relatively trivial compared to the cost of six events a year, so the only real problem was remembering to renew each year. IBGAs gradually came to feel more like a right than a privilege, as is often the case with such things, and eventually the idea of paying extra for a membership was dropped and IBGAs really were standard. Even so, the list of things you could do remained tightly constrained: no explorations or interactions with NPCs. These restrictions had the benefit of keeping things simple; in those days, you filled out IBGAs on a paper checkout form on Sunday morning, and handed it in before you left site. This worked pretty much fine.

Later on, SI transitioned to an online checkout form, which was more convenient in every way except one: without an immediate, physical checkout envelope, the money and tags spent on Production actions took a little more coordinating to work out. This was solved easily enough, of course, at check-in for the next event. The change to electronic format is probably the single most important shift for allowing the systems that came later. The downside to checkout envelopes and on-site IBGA writing was that, well, it's Sunday morning, you've had six hours of sleep in the last thirty-six, and you're in a hurry to pack up and get offsite. If there had been a lot of careful planning to do, it would have been more or less impossible due to sleep dep.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Clerics in Fantasy Gaming

A long while back, I posted a comparison of the treatment of religion, divine magic, and worship in seven different settings. This is relevant in that today I want to talk about the problems I have with clerics in fantasy gaming, particularly the various editions of D&D. These problems, I readily recognize, have as much or more to do with my shortcomings in running tabletop games as anything else. The D&D 2e and 3.x rules, at least, do carry some responsibility, since the cleric is the best healer in the game to such a degree that we often felt we didn't have a team without one. Most groups have at some point had the "okay, who's going to play the cleric?" issue; fortunately it wasn't something my gaming groups seemed to find especially burdensome.

This led to odd problems in the games I was running, because as I see it, the cleric class carries a whole category of default assumptions about the setting and the cosmology that has no parallel in other core classes, aside from possibly the monk. The problem that I run into:
  • All PC-friendly religions come across pretty much the same in-play. The PCs can't really tell one temple with acolytes and low-to-mid-level cleric NPCs from the next.
  • With a cleric in the party, it becomes utterly convenient to make the conflict between that PC's deity and that deity's most hated enemy god the centerpiece of the campaign. Clerics are, after all, presented very strongly as crusading holy men and women.
  • Therefore the cleric winds up being the crux of the climactic conflict.
Spending the first decade of my gaming career running Forgotten Realms far more than any other setting had a lot to do with this. Obviously, it's not inappropriate to the feel of FR to base a lot of the conflict on the gods and their servants, but I did start to feel like the games I was running were too samey. This is a subset of my strong tendency to make all of the major villains be spellcasters.

It isn't actually that I dislike the cleric class. I think it's typically done a pretty acceptable job of doing the thing that it set out to do: crusading holy warrior (as distinct, in an often nebulous way, from a paladin). The problem that I have with the class can be summed up by saying that crusading holy warrior and the best source of healing and buffing are conflated into one class, so that the latter is stuck with the baggage of the former, and vice versa. It's easier to create a crusading holy warrior that isn't a primary healer (by choosing different spells/domains or by playing a paladin) than it is to create a primary healer that isn't a crusading holy warrior. Druids and bards - the other core classes with substantial healing ability even at low level - can't keep up with the cleric's healing. I never got to see archivists in play, but the theme and rules behind this class are pretty much my ideal (within their edition, anyway).

My solution to this problem was to stop running core 3.5 D&D and start running material of my own creation with heavily re-written classes. For my Six Elements setting, I created an elementalist class somewhat related to the Oriental Adventures spellcasters. Of the eight different elementalist Orders in the game, one was definitely the best healer, but three others were viable healers. The two parties that played extended campaigns in this rules hack both had one elementalist of that best healing Order. If they were ever particularly dissatisfied with their ability to do things in addition to healing, I don't recall hearing about it.

The other 3.5-ish game I've played is, of course, Arcana Evolved, in which only one prestige class includes even a nod to religion per se, and the best healer in the game is the greenbond. We had a greenbond PC for the first few sessions, but the player quickly became very dissatisfied with the class and started a witch instead. Ever since then, our joke about greenbonds has been, "But they're the best healers in the game!", with the implication that they can't really do anything exciting other than hand out healing. For a very long span of the campaign, our healing supply was everything the witch could cast, plus the one spell per day that my warmain could generate with his magical tattoo. When we finally got a magister, that was close to the same time that another character multiclassed into champion of Life, so we suddenly had very deep healing reserves. I've liked the fact, though, that the campaign hasn't needed to involve crusading holy warriors - again, just because it's different.

Making warlords, bards, artificers, runepriests, and ardents pretty much the full equals of clerics in healing output is another candidate for the best change made in all of 4e. As a result, I've seen the bard and warlord played far more often and extensively than the cleric, even though there's really nothing wrong with the cleric as a class. Correspondingly, my 4e game never involved plotlines about conflicts between the gods; there was one battle that took place in a healing shrine, but that campaign could have been completely devoid of all religious influence (other than some pseudo-Lovecraftian stuff, which scanned as Primordials in D&D parlance) without significant changes.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Material Components in Spellcasting

There's been a good bit of information distributed on spellcasting in D&D Next, most recently this; the broader ENWorld aggregation of information on wizards and spellcasting is found here. These pieces of information might or might not contradict one another, depending on how you want to interpret them. Today I'd like to talk about material components in spellcasting, starting with a little history on the topic. This may broaden into a discussion of spell design as a whole.

In 2e (and presumably earlier editions), material components for spells tended toward the pseudo-thematic, whether it was eating a live spider to cast spider climb or using glass or amber and a bit of fur to cast lightning bolt. These components had no stated price, weight, or anything else, and the components of one particular spell were never going to show up in any other spell. I don't think it ever occurred to anyone at the time to have spell components that saw use in more than one spell. Obviously, I might be wrong about this; I haven't done an exhaustive review of the 2e Player's Handbook to be sure. As more material came out for that edition, the components required for a spell were more tenuously or jokingly connected to the effect they were producing.

In the 2e games I ran - and, I honestly believe, the 2e games other people were running - we didn't track spell components. Having said that, I am now guaranteed to see at least one OSR blogger explaining that the game is only balanced and fun when the wizard spends time gathering and tracking components for each and every spell. Let's take it as read that this might work for some groups, but for people who want to get to the fun and/or plot, a playstyle in which you don't track components that do not have a price or weight is also valid, and (I propose without hard data) significantly predominant. I do clearly recall the example character sheet, though - an elven mage/thief that tracked each individual spell component (and didn't have enough spell components to make it through a whole encounter, much less a whole adventure). I don't recall whether any significant number of these spells had a costly material component.

In 3.x, WotC moved to a kind of hybrid approach to spell components. Many spells still have material components that are nods to tradition; the main point of these from a gameplay standpoint, as far as I am aware, is that the caster can be denied all of his spells with an M component by taking away all of his stuff. Correspondingly, the Eschew Materials metamagic feat avoids this limitation, and that is the entirety of its benefit. There are also a significant number of spells with a costly Focus component or Material component, such as 500 gp of diamond dust or the like. Here, the monetary cost is clearly intended to be a drawback to the use of an otherwise quite powerful spell.

Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate money sinks as much as the next MMO designer. It's just that the way this plays at the table has never seemed like fun to me. Part of that is in how the costly components are expressed: as a simple gold piece value that the game wants you to spend. What's the logical approach to roleplaying the encounter with a merchant when you want to buy 500 gold pieces worth of diamond dust? I don't actually care about the level of simulationism that haggling over that expenditure entails; I'm just trying to explain why it isn't interesting gameplay. It would have been a half-step better for the rules to say, "This requires eight ounces of diamond dust, typically priced at or near 500 gold pieces." I feel that there's still something missing, some level on which spell components are intended to represent an interesting or meaningful choice.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I made a board game!

So, for Dust to Dust, we have introduced a number of games-within-the-game. I've commented at some length about Wizard Dueling before. This works well in LARPs, because even when things are scheduled well and everything is on time, there will be downtime that could stand to be filled. It's just how things are. With help from Kainenchen, Stands-in-Fire, and Sirdrow, I made Stones of the Wall. The game's strong points are that it takes only a minute or two to set up, a game can be finished in five minutes or less, one of its primary game components is a double-six set of domino bones (which many players are already carrying around at all times), and that the "board" is different every time you play. The game's weak points are that it requires a flat surface - you couldn't really sit in a grassy field and play. There are also still a few kinks to work out in the rules; in one game I sat down for this weekend, I had lost the game before my first move, because my opponent sort-of-by-accident picked a place that boxed me in. I have a few different ideas on how to tweak the rules to stop instant-wins from happening. Also, there's a bit that I need to clarify about the opening layout - it's just grammatically difficult to do so.

While feedback on this game is still coming in, it sounds like those who got involved in the tournament to play this game had a good time! Thanks also to the players who spent time teaching each other how to play and committing a bit of their afternoons to playing.

Now I'm wondering if there would be an interesting cooperative variant of this game...