Sunday, September 30, 2012

Game Review: Choice of the Star Captain


A few days ago, based on some advertising on ENWorld, I picked up Choice of the Star Captain for the Kindle Fire ($2.99). Well, okay, first I played the first three chapters for free on the Choice Of Games website. I enjoyed that enough, with its combination of Paranoia-like humor in the character of Lloyd - your ship's AI, who really kind of hates you - and actually-paranoid suggestions offered in the choices along the way, that I picked it up.

So, the basics. Choice of the Star Captain is a choose-your-own-adventure game with ability scores and ship stats, as well as a cash total that acts as a score-keeping mechanic. The determination of character name, ship name, and ability scores comes about through declarations that the game invites you to make about your character. In the playthrough I just finished, for example, I had very good Engineering and very poor Bravado, and everything else was somewhere in between. It's not entirely obvious to me where in the game my Bravado stat might have been tested, but a number of Engineering tests are rather more obvious. Completing missions in the course of the story also allows you to upgrade your ship; it's even less obvious how these upgrades change your game experience, but I don't think I was ever penalized for failure.

Along the way, the game asks the player to make a series of choices: some of them whimsical, but mostly quite serious, contrasting with the characters and setting, which range from semi-serious to quite silly. (Your AI, after all, is named Lloyd.) I didn't find this contrast off-putting, though. In much the same vein as, say, Erfworld (among my favorite webcomics), a silly setting with a serious plot somehow works, convincing me as a reader to take it seriously while remembering to smile. (But I'm told that my sense of humor is calibrated differently from other humans.) There's even a TV Trope for this, but there are rules about linking to TV Tropes.

The game goes by pretty quickly; I believe Kainenchen played to completion in a single sitting. There are a number of choice points that I really want to go back and see, though - replay is definitely a thing here, as with any choose-your-own-adventure.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Game Economics: Boffer LARP Edition

A couple of posts ago, I discussed economics in tabletop games, with some specific elements that focus on the ways that game-economics are like and unlike the study of real-life economics. This time around, I'm shifting the focus to LARPs. CI/Ro3 and Wildlands LARPs - the ones I have real experience with - have some very different setting assumptions from D&D, some of which are stylistic choices and some of which are elements of the medium. Those differences have a huge impact on economy.

Upkeep

LARPs often include granular upkeep mechanics - paying yearly upkeep on specific pieces of gear, for example. Wildlands is noted particularly for the challenge that upkeep represents, as the best sword most smiths could make is a four-event weapon, and many characters spend the first part of any event figuring out how they're going to get a weapon for that event. This is a key part of the crushing squalor that so defines the Wildlands campaign. In CI/Ro3 campaigns, upkeep is a minor yearly cost, trivial for most players, and I like to think that players who couldn't meet upkeep costs would have no difficulty getting other players to help them out.

When I started work on DtD, it struck me that Superior Quality weapons (in SI and KG) represented kind of an odd point in the rules: very expensive weapons that no longer required upkeep. The cost of applying Superior Quality would almost never pay for itself in the limits of a campaign, but it still seemed strange to me that the reward for having piles of money was an exemption from the upkeep system. Much more appealing, in terms of economic design, was the silvering of weapons: for an extremely high cost, characters could call silver for a mere four months - four events at absolute most, but more likely two. To this end, in Dust to Dust, wealthy characters can sink money into enchanting their gear, but those enchantments fade in three or six events. The more powerful enchantments carry their own cost, as well as the cost of lower-level enchantments that must be in place in order for the higher-level enchantments to be placed.

Consumable Items

This is a matter of stylistic difference more than anything, as there are LARPs (or proposals for LARPs) that go very light on consumable (or one-shot) items. In CI/Ro3 and Wildlands, though, there is extensive usage of various one-shot items for attacks, healing, defensive buffs, and a huge range of utility effects. Several production skills hang on producing large quantities of consumable items, and this throws a major wrinkle into all discussion of economy. Because players invest significant amounts of Character Points in these skills, however, they come to expect a competitive degree of combat functionality from them; this is a second area of major stylistic difference from tabletop games. In D&D, you generally wouldn't have a character rely on alchemist's fire or poison gases as her go-to weapon, but all the way from NERO Tyrangel to DtD, that is a significant character archetype.

On one hand, consumable items fill an upkeep-like role, with regard to the characters that do depend on them. Acid Dart formulations are (roughly) as necessary to a DtD combat alchemist as mana, spell slots, or whatever to a combat spellcaster, but each formulation costs money. The plus side is that the alchemist can purchase formulations from other characters, find them as loot, and stockpile them from event to event. It's a delicate balance, and in SI, Wildlands, KG, and Eclipse, it depended on the income (see below, I have plenty to say about game income) of a whole team, not a single player, to support one or two brewers or alchemists (whatever the game's terminology).

On the other hand, consumables in both LARPs and tabletop games can represent a way to turn in-play cash into a pre-defined amount of awesomeness, by spending even more consumable attack items than you otherwise would (that is, "going nova is fun"), making you more resistant to harm, getting you back into a fight sooner than you would otherwise, or improving your stats in any number of other ways. Compare a Troll's Strength formulation to, say, a potion of bull's strength in D&D. The whole point of the latter is that it is a stat increase (a kind of awesomeness) that was not paid for out of the wizard's or cleric's spell slots. It's possible to look at LARP consumables in the same way: DtD's Warding Glyphs carry the benefit of weakening every target of a particular kind that passes through a doorway, while the description of Eclipse's Berzerk stim begins: "This drug causes the character to fly into a furious rage and become an unstoppable killing machine."

I like the idea that players voluntarily remove cash from the economy in order to exceed their normal limits. This is the other half of the idea that led to Forge Magic, which is either high-ticket upkeep (if you treat the benefits as "mandatory") or a long-duration consumable. I believe this is not true of NERO Tyrangel, but in Wildlands and all games of the CI/Ro3 family, permanent magic items (above and beyond times-per-day items) are very rare and almost never for sale or trade. A player might gain one of these very rare permanent magic weapons from a major plotline; about the only other way to gain one is to inherit it from another character dying or retiring. (Weapons taking on heirloom status is pretty cool.) SI introduced a system for crafting weapons with minor enchantments, using Essential Elements; this was cool, but there were very few top-end Weaponsmiths and Armorsmiths over the course of the game. KG used a reduced list of possible enchantments (corresponding with its shorter list of magical materials). Even at the end of each campaign, these items were uncommon. Though their powers were permanent, they were not indestructible the way actual magic weapons tended to be, and Break or Destroy effects (especially as part of an Inferno) grew increasingly prevalent in the latter parts of those campaigns.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mage Chronicle: the Conclusion

After thirty-one sessions, my Mage: the Awakening chronicle, "No Justice Like Mob Justice," has come to its end, as one of the players is moving away, and it seems more practical to end the chronicle and start a new game (of something that is not Mage) rather than introduce a new character at this stage. The chronicle began on 25 May 2011, and ended on 21 September 2012. In-play, approximately two months passed - a source of many jokes for the players as well as this interesting idea from Samhaine. They progressed from pre-Awakening to the threshold of arch-mastery.

The final session involved a showdown with the Red Word cultists who were probably the #1 antagonists throughout the chronicle. In this showdown, the players recruited about half of Boston's mages (the half that they more-or-less trusted and felt could handle themselves in a fight) and hit up the Irish mob for a much-needed donation of materiel, including RPG launchers and Humvees. In the final action sequence, four of them drove the Humvee around the massive battle, toward the huge black monolith that they were pretty sure they needed to destroy, casting spells out the back at the avatar of the Blasphemous Scribe that they had to evade. They evaded it long enough to plant C-4 around the base of the monolith, using Death and Forces to make properly place and contain the blast... to no effect. Then Surya sounded his trumpet... and the monolith cracked. Between more Death magic being thrown into it, Fate causing it extraordinary bad luck, and the trumpet self-destructing, they finally destroyed the pillar and ended the Abyssal incursion.

I'm still processing what I've learned from the chronicle as a whole. I think that I won't run Mage again for a few years at least; I spent the whole life of the game wishing I had done more preparatory work for every session. Most of all I wish I had incorporated the motivations of other NPCs on a deeper level, and ironed out more of the fine details of cosmology and thaumaturgy. As much as they had going on, I don't know how I ever could have worked in more interaction with Orders, and with only 60ish mages in Boston, I never felt like there were enough to make Legacies a meaningful part of the game. I just couldn't deliver exposition fast enough! Mage, as a game, intends for the secrets of the Orders, and especially the rotes they can offer, to be a major part of play, and that just... never really worked out. (As has been pointed out so many times, removing the Gnosis factor and replacing it with an ability score and a skill can theoretically be lots more dice, but in practice it's a wash or a downgrade in a lot of cases.)

The chronicle came to what I believe was a satisfying and action-packed finish, though there were a lot of unresolved plot threads, such as the Hunter of the Deeps (a True Fey), Black-Eyed John (who the mages always referred to as "the pirate ghost guy"), the actual meaning of one character's Destiny, or the details of the connection between the Shadow Chorus and the Lantern-Bearers. They did resolve the Prince of 100,000 Leaves and his Abyssal incursion, Diomedes and the Iron Grip of Death, Megistos and the false pharaoh Khasekhem (with help from Sobek, in a massive kaiju battle), the Marinara Sauce Jar of Evil (an actual prop that the players made at the table - it's covered in runes and actually kind of awesome), AngrboƵa and the Bad Trip... heck, in the next-to-last session, they even decided to join the Mysterium, if only so that they could finally fill in that spot on their character sheets. Of all the campaigns I've ever run, this was I believe only the second in which the final session was a planned climax that resolved the central plot, and one of only a handful in which I knew at the time that the last session was going to be the last.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Game Economics by and for Non-Majors

Before all else in this post: I am not an Economics major. I am, moreover, aware that I am not an economics major. I do know a few things about games, though. (Commentary by actual economics majors is welcome, though.)

I've been reading the Valve economics blog, and it got me thinking. First of all, the Valve blog is mostly concerned with player-to-player trades; interesting, but not the kind of economics that roleplayers deal with the most. Of greater interest to LARPers, tabletop gamers, MMO players, et al., is the economy of interacting with the game environment. (I'm ignoring for a moment the huge interest in and valid study of MMO auction houses.) I was originally going to discuss LARP economies in detail in this post, but I've cut those to save for a later post - staying on-topic is an issue.

Roleplaying games that worry about having an economy in the first place are usually interested in simulation, to a greater or lesser degree. Most games stop short of getting into the nitty-gritty of bills and maintenance, either because those things aren't fun, or because PCs are rootless wanderers who spend most of their nights under the stars or in a dungeon. As I mentioned in this post, Pendragon and AD&D 2e are notable for having definite, if abstracted, maintenance rules.

Upkeep

These two games each fix some but not all of the notable problems with upkeep costs: Pendragon includes a very clear phase of play in which to pay for upkeep, and grants mechanical benefits (both tangible and highly desirable in long-term play) to paying the optional larger upkeep costs. Having a definite phase of play for upkeep is useful because it keeps it from getting glossed over (with the downside that it can take half an hour, if everyone is on-task, to process upkeep and dice rolls for six or seven players). Having optional larger upkeep costs and mechanical benefits is good because it phrases those costs as a benefit to the player; considering that the player earns Glory from conspicuous consumption and mitigates some of the system's absolute squalor, I know that I tended to pay Superlative-level maintenance (a painful £12 per year) as often as I could afford it.

2e includes a scaling cost, based on player level, for the highest upkeep options. This is good because treasure values tend to increase over the course of a game. It's obvious that they would do so, if you're thinking of the game as a fantasy; once you've achieved an impressive haul, the next thing you want to do is find an even bigger treasure. I am pretty sure explaining concepts of progress and reward won't be necessary here. The problem with them, of course, is that an inflating reward is kind of antithetical to a functioning game economy. The scaling upkeep cost, then, means that players have to turn over higher profits at higher levels just to break even. Does this make any sense in the setting? Not without some substantial help from the DM. This combines with what I think is an expectation that players of 9th level and above will settle down, manage baronies, and adventure only intermittently; in that light, some of the Monty-Haul-ish treasure hoards that the DMG fully prepared to churn out make a lot more sense. But, well, we didn't play that way, and the DMG was much too vague in stating these expectations.

2e and 3.x/4e have completely different assumptions about what players want to buy with their epic piles of gold, as well. 2e belongs to the era of its predecessor editions, as well as Pendragon and ACKS, in assuming that players will want to transition into domain-style play. I can't help but see this as an exact parallel of players in MMOs reaching the endgame and deciding that player housing is the new style of gameplay that they want to open up. It just happens that the 2e designers (and Gygax before them) thought 9th level was about the right time for that shift. There's still room for traditional dungeon-crawling adventure, of course, but domain-style play is hard-coded into the class abilities of many character classes. 3e and later editions assume that high-level mathom-hoards go to buying or crafting still better items - call it a gear treadmill if you like, but it's a cycle of play that has gotten its hooks into plenty of players over the years.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Races in Fantasy Gaming: The Human Condition

In the great majority of medieval fantasy games, the first or second choice a player makes when creating a character is that character's race. Depending on the game, this choice may or may not make a large difference on a character's mechanical outcome, but it is probably the biggest single defining factor of the group's mental image of that character. I haven't gotten around to delving into fantasy games that aren't D&D, but they're largely irrelevant to my ultimate point, so... maybe some post in the distant future. As I so often do, though, I'll kick this off with some history.

Basic D&D

This edition gives characters one notable descriptor and calls it "class." This might be "fighter," or it might be "elf." Elves gain experience and levels in "elf." This was, bluntly, the source of much amusement among gaming groups of the mid-90's that I was in that even heard about it; many of us had no particular awareness of how editions prior to 2e did things. As a result of this design, there's not all that clear of a way to compare the different player races, except to say that elves are kind of just better than everyone else, but have to earn more experience points to advance. Halflings, as best I can recall, are significantly inferior to any other comparable class option, unless your thing is just getting to your race's level cap quickly and ditching that character for a new one. I don't really understand that argument, but I have seen it made.

AD&D (1e)

NB. I do not have a 1e PH; my primary resource here is OSRIC.

"Class" and "race" are separate pillars of character creation in this edition, and races have level limits in certain classes. Humans have level limits in only two classes, the assassin and the druid (because these classes simply have no advancement mechanic available past 15th and 14th levels, respectively); other than this, the sole benefit to being human is the ability to advance without limit. Other races cannot advance beyond given levels, if they can enter a particular class at all. Halflings, for example, may be only druids, fighters, and thieves, and while their advancement as thieves is unlimited, they can advance to only fourth level as a fighter and sixth as a druid.

Admittedly, these level limits are low enough to make a halfling fighter potentially feel that pinch. When defending 1e's and 2e's rules for level limits, players usually point out that the game didn't continue long enough to reach those levels anyway. If level limits do matter, the demi-human races stop having fun and start over in a party with high-level characters. If level limits don't matter, the advantage to being human never comes up.

These rules also spell out that humans are the dominant race in the game's setting, and humans get along with everyone more or less equally. Though it does not enjoy a rules usage in this text, human ubiquity is, I think, intended to be an advantage in play. Unearthed Arcana offers a table clarifying this; while demi-human subraces enjoy either preferential or antagonistic relationships with one another, everyone views humans neutrally, except for slightly better relations with half-elves and preferential relations with other humans.

Oh, and one other advantage: you can never be barred from playing a human by having starting ability scores that are too good or too bad. I am utterly mystified as to why races have both a penalty to a stat and a maximum starting value for that stat. Anyway, I have a hard time seeing this as an advantage - it certainly means that humans are the race that is permitted to suck. Races other than the half-orc are generally able to put good stats in every ability score, if not quite an 18 in all cases. A few races have starting maximums that reflect their racial ability score adjustments, so they truly are allowed to excel.

The demi-human races have a variety of interesting and often quite powerful abilities. (Brief digression: elven near-immunity to sleep and charm effects is only balanced because those effects are low-level, and everyone is immune to the sleep spell after a certain point. I will never understand why D&D, from OD&D through 4e, made these incredibly powerful and versatile abilities low-level, and only rarely gave them higher-level cognates to keep them in the game.) These range from bonuses to hit to superior perception to ability scores that make them better at the only classes they were permitted to be in the first place. Elves? Still the best. But another thing I'll never understand is why they weren't permitted to be druids. You know who wouldn't reasonably be invested in revering nature and balance and all that crap? Elves.