Thursday, February 28, 2013

D&D Next: Perspectives on Healing

The last few Legends & Lore posts have touched on issues around healing in D&D Next, as have a number of the blogs I read, so this is me, casting my chapeau in again... jauntily, of course. As one does. The driving conflict here is whether D&D Next will adopt 3.x-and-previous approaches to healing and game-pacing (informed, in limited ways, by 4e), or 4e's approach to healing (through the lens of 3.x-and-previous delivery methods). To state that less opaquely: do characters heal overnight (or, more radically, every battle) basically for free, or do they suffer attrition, and if so, to what degree?

Boiling this down about as far as it will go, hit points are the progress track toward catastrophic character failure. Here I use the word "failure" without prejudice - taking damage in battle is a normal part of play, unless your group's gameplay involves hard-line strategic combat where you focus on how to think your way around every problem, to the point that no one really gets to make an attack. If it makes you feel better, call it the progress bar toward enemy success. Healing, then, is erasing enemy success, and the game's approach to healing as opposed to simply granting more hit points is that the players, as a group, must either resolve the current threat (every form of out-of-combat healing) or expend power and/or actions that could be used some other way (in-combat healing, and the fast versions of 3.x-and-prior out-of-combat healing) in order to heal.

Another view: sometimes that which opposes you in the game makes progress toward your defeat not because you have erred, but because chance has dictated that it come to pass. Perhaps you got hit by a sword or a spell; perhaps you failed a Jump check at the wrong moment. Whatever it is, you take damage for reasons that don't involve bad gameplay - you're playing adventurers, so optimal behavior still carries risks. If it didn't, then you probably should have been taking on a bigger challenge, or the hand of narrative drama probably should have come up with a spanner to throw into your works.

Moving on - taking damage and expenditure of consumable items and per-day abilities are the kinds of lingering consequences that the game offers. I know of groups that start essentially every fight with 100% of their normal resources, on the reasoning that this gives the DM the best grounds for estimating the party's capabilities and keeps the action going - an extreme solution to the problem of the 15-minute adventuring day. (Since at least one of those DMs regularly reads this blog, I invite him to clarify or expound upon this argument - any misrepresentation on my part is not malicious.) 4e is also much less directed toward tactical use of consumable items than 3.x; while it does include such items, in my experience they are far less central to gameplay. In particular, healing potions are a far less popular option here than in 3.x-and-prior. As they heal a fixed number of hit points that is often less than a player's healing surge value, but still cost a healing surge, they are tools of last resort rather than go-to healing solutions. (I'm lumping the more-efficient wand of cure light wounds in with the healing potion, on 3.x's side; wands are not 50-charges-ever items in 4e, so that parallel is completely broken.)

For my part, though, I look at attrition as an important aspect of gameplay. I don't want the game's design to tell me that anything less than four combat encounters a day is too easy because of insufficient attrition; there's a middle ground in which the characters should prefer to avoid unnecessary combat, but still feel like they have the strength to continue. With attrition as a mechanic, healers traditionally have to select in favor of healing both in terms of actions during combat (4e did address this, at least) and in terms of spending daily abilities on healing instead of something else. This puts pressure on the cleric's player to save spell slots for healing, even though the cleric has lots of other firepower in its spell list and ending a fight sooner is even better than healing afterward. The cleric's magical reserves are the party's ability to recover from failure, and (since gaming turns us into masters of risk-assessment, and character attachment creates risk-averse behavior) no one wants to go into a new encounter while heavily injured.

Friday, February 22, 2013

PvP: Boffer LARP Edition

A couple of weeks ago, Harbinger Readers JohnKazuo and Ms. J replied to my post on PvP design to specifically address the dynamics of PvP in LARPs, and now I'm returning to the topic. To state a few things up-front: this has a lot to do with pure aesthetics, and I am absolutely, 100% NOT judging what anyone else likes. The only measure of good or bad is whether the game is (either tactically, strategically, or both) fair, the social contract of the game is upheld, and enough people have enough fun that the LARP can continue to run (chiefly this means not driving off all of the newbies).

But first, we have to define our terms. It's not simple in LARPs the way it is in video games, because LARPs embrace far more complex social dynamics than the average MMO (RP servers and guild infighting notwithstanding). When people talk about PvP in boffer LARPs, they're usually talking about in-play bloodshed, with varying levels of lethality, but talking to Ms. J and some really excellent commentary in G+ by +Wade Jones and +Timothy Clancy has forced me to consider the broader spectrum and how social conflict factors into things. I can't speak in an informed way on salon LARPs, even though they motivate my posting about social conflict.

My LARPing History (Just the Highlights)

I've been on staff for three LARPs at this point: StarQuest, Wildlands South, and Dust to Dust. I have played Shattered Isles, King's Gate, and Eclipse extensively. StarQuest was a very small game (I expect that our peak player draw was near 30, give or take) with no PvP violence that I recall at any point, and only modest social conflict. WLS's first campaign (the one I didn't work on until taking the Blood Oath at the very end) was a small-to-medium game, with significant PvP violence and even more social conflict. The second campaign had only a small amount of PvP violence, and (I think) somewhat less social strife. SI saw only a small amount of PvP death or bloodshed, but a ton of political conflict. KG had very little violence, but even more political conflict, and a lot of big talk about one team attacking another - I'm happy to say that this never erupted into a full-on fight. Eclipse has had, as far as I know, two PvP deaths, and Dust to Dust none (but we've just started Season Two).

Social Conflict

The boffer LARPs of my experience tacitly or explicitly encourage PCs to form teams of anywhere from three to twenty players. The tacit form comes down to player housing - if you're going to stay in cabins on state parks, your character's personal security is a shared risk, and you very badly need a certain minimum of trust with the other people in the building. It helps if you enjoy their company, because you'll probably spend some percentage of your event hanging out in your cabin, and life is better if that's a positive experience. Shared protection from danger, pooling resources to keep one another alive, and camaraderie: this is a pretty good working definition of a team.

Once there are two teams, I can almost promise that there will be social conflict. When you have three or more megateams (8+ players) and five or more smaller-but-indispensable teams (3-7 players), all of them motivated toward friction by their culture packets, their self-interest, and the intrinsic dynamics of a crowd of 40+ people... social conflict is the order of the day. That's fine! It's great if players will entertain themselves while Plot catches some shut-eye or sets up the next module or whatever. We're still talking about non-violent stuff here, as a baseline. If there are X-many desirable pieces of treasure and X+1-many teams, whee, what you have is some politicking.

I'm going to brush past issues of plot favoritism, player popularity, and such. Plot should do everything in their power to avoid playing favorites, and targeting wallflowers with Cool Stuff (as long as the wallflowers haven't specifically said they prefer to avoid being in the spotlight) is Item One in the LARP-runner's Best Practices document. Suffice it to say that (for complex reasons) Plot favoritism will be perceived even when it does not exist, and the Plot favoritism that does exist can't be reduced to zero anyway... I'm getting off-track here. The point is that these things will tip the scales in social conflict.

Aesthetically, I prefer games in which social conflict varies in tone from times of peace to times of intense conflict and a lot of grandstanding. Like the best TV dramas, tension should sometimes rise right to the edge of boiling over, because that's exciting, and then resolve in some way that lets the story and the characters move forward without putting everyone in their own pine boxes. Ms. J's comment on this is very important: if it is at all possible, people who are engaging in in-character conflict should spend time together in a strictly out-of-character mode, so that they remember that it's about gamesmanship but not out-of-character enmity. (If you are LARPing with someone you have OOC conflict with... that sucks, and pursuing IC conflict is far more likely to generate explosions.) I like it when characters or PC groups can win or lose, but still bounce back to be ready for the next conflict, and enjoy roughly the same odds of success as before (possibly after licking their wounds for awhile).

The games I listed above are all heroic fantasy (seasoned with "dark" or "space" as appropriate). The emotional structure of the stories usually includes the sense that the characters hate or strongly dislike one another at the beginning, but they are forced to work together by circumstance, and they learn to coexist, putting off their differences until the end of the current emergency... at which time one hopes they have replaced their conflict with friendship. (At least in King's Gate's case, I came away with the strong impression that, with disaster averted, the characters would take about six months to breathe, and then begin a bloody purge of the survivors. I'm glad the campaign ended before that part.)

Which brings me to...

Monday, February 18, 2013

D&D Next Design Idea: Giving Ground

Kainenchen and I have been talking about the economy of actions in D&D Next lately, particularly in light of the fact that most characters have no way to spend their reaction in a round unless someone provokes an opportunity attack. Further, D&D Next needs more movement in combat (since we play with TacTiles and minis anyway). While LARP combat is definitely not true simulation, it has repeatedly shown me that a fighter or shield-wall with room to fall back can avoid a lot of hits. With these and other examples in mind (such as the constant movement of swashbuckling duels in film), I propose the following:

Give Ground

As a reaction, whenever you take damage from a melee weapon attack or a weapon-like spell (such as flame blade), you may move five feet away from that attacker in order to reduce the damage of the attack by 1d6 hit points.
  • The attacker has the immediate option to move five feet to follow, though if the attacker has caused more than one opponent to Give Ground in the same round of actions, she may follow only once. 
  • If none of the three squares behind the defender that increase his distance from the attacker are legal destinations, he may not Give Ground (even if he could otherwise pass through the square, such as when occupied by an ally). 
  • The defender also may not Give Ground to move into difficult terrain. Situationally, the DM may find it appropriate to allow a character to Give Ground with a move onto difficult terrain with a successful skill check (such as using Acrobatics to leap backward onto a table.) 
  • If for any reason the move backward fails, the defender does not reduce the incoming damage. 
  • A character may Give Ground in addition to being pushed, but not when knocked down, pulled, or teleported. The character must be able to move, and (obviously) must also be able to take reactions.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Video Games as Art

Video gaming, as a medium, lives now in a constant state of public debate over when it might bridge the gap into being an art form. A conversation sprang up the other day in G+ over this article, and I had enough that I wanted to say that, well, here we are in my blog, where it's okay for me to be the only one talking for the first 2,000 words or so. I hope to explain a pathway between the current state of video games and wider acceptance as Art, but with more matter along the way, without becoming a foolish figure or indeed quite mad.

In all my life I have never heard a conversation about whether a given work, genre, or medium is Art that did not break down into a dispute over the definition of Art in five steps or fewer. Therefore I want to start with laying out in broad strokes the definition I expect to use; I enjoin those writing in response to spend as little time as possible disputing the core definition, so that we can move on to the interesting part. I am nowhere near as well-educated on these debates as many of my readers, and I offer no pretense otherwise.
Art is a discrete work that carries an aesthetic intent on the part of the creator and can be shared with others.
Aesthetic intent must be held to a high standard if video games hope to cross the chasm of acceptance imposed by the institutional theory of art, in the same way that words on a page must achieve a high standard of emotional resonance and other kinds of aesthetic value to hold literary merit. Without imposing a stringent standard, most definitions of art would almost necessarily embrace video games almost from their inception. Audiovisual spectacle, especially in combination with a baseline level of audience engagement, is certainly available in early video games - here I would point to the meditative state brought on by an hour or so of Tetris, and the way its gyrating shapes emerge again in the mind's eye as you drift off to sleep.

No, we can't short-circuit the discussion with the claim that video games have always been art, or that the full standard of art was achieved in video gaming 29 years ago by... the Soviets. We're really talking about what standard video games will have to reach before the artistic establishment really should accept the validity of the medium.

It's terribly tempting, especially as someone who does this for a living, to insist that true art is present in games already, and it is only the audience that is not prepared to receive it. I am sure an endless list of artists in other media have felt exactly that impulse - that their greatness would be recognized if only the audience shared their aesthetic refinement. Considering how many creators find only posthumous celebrity, they must not be entirely wrong. It is, however, entirely outside of our powers as both creators and audience to effect change on the populace, except through the discernment of criticism.

I would certainly argue that the Mass Effect series, for example, deserves as much analysis from video game critics as literary critics has lavished on the canon of Western literature. Given its ability to provoke deep, thoughtful argument about narrative structure and cosmic meaning (even among those who detest the series' conclusion), it's halfway there. It certainly provoked sound and fury (and a DLC revision of the end) to compete with the Parisian premiere of The Rites of Spring. For the sake of Mass Effect, I'll have to argue that specific works may be at or near the standard of Art even if video gaming as a medium still falls short.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

PvP Design Principles

I've been thinking a bit lately about some of the high-level principles of PvP design. These principles readily apply to video games and LARPs. I want to be clear from the start: this is not master-class level stuff - for that, you want to talk to Stands-In-Fire. Quite seriously, the majority of what I know about PvP design I either learned from him, or from the hurdles the Fallen Earth Systems team faced in my time there. Also, I am not an expert on PvP-heavy LARPs, but I've had some fascinating conversations with friends who are experts on them.

One of the first decisions that goes into PvP design is the question of how many factions the conflict will have. While I've often suggested that three sides is the Right Number, that really just means that such a system will face the fewest balancing hurdles, because player population issues will be mostly self-correcting. Let's not pretend, though, that such an answer works for all games; you can thank the Zoroastrians for giving us dualism. To that end, I'll go through a variety of models and discuss problems and available solutions.

Zero Factions, or One Faction

Obviously, these come down to the same thing. This is a model in which PvP is not driven by faction membership. It might be a free-for-all, a tournament ladder, or a Highlander-style winner-take-all; this model is functionally identical to "every player is a one-man faction." This isn't common in MMOs, because MMOs gain huge amounts of player buy-in by encouraging players to align with a faction and invest in its story and struggle. (Remember: Anything that is socially destructive in real life is almost always ideal grist for games and stories. Tribalism is just one example.) The good side of this model is that there is always someone to fight! The bad side is that if you can't defeat an enemy on your own (for reasons of skill, level, or whatever), you have no natural allies to call upon.

A faction loyalty, then, is a channel for cooperation and identification with other players. Games without factions, or games where all players belong to the same faction but still kill each other (such as an extremely zoomed-out view of the Camarilla, in campaigns without the Sabbat), have PvP fights that are more like homicide than warfare. Without a defined channel for cooperation, it can be difficult for the players to build anything in the world that they can't accomplish on their own - they don't have a solid, mechanical basis for trust. (This is like real life, in a time of anarchy.) This is fine if your game isn't about the players building anything or changing the world in any way, but if that's true, you might not be playing an actual RPG. For example, you might be playing Banner Saga: Factions, a game I have dabbled in recently. There is no persistent world, just a matchmaking queue, so they made their matchmaking queue absolutely as snappy as possible by using the word "Factions" in their title ironically. (I kid; I'm sure they're talking about each player's team as an independent faction. See my above comment on "every player is a one-man faction.")

Some of the problems of cooperation can be addressed by giving players a way to opt out of PvP, temporarily or permanently; if it's publicly visible that you have opted out of PvP, or you're standing in a safe zone, players have a clear way to trust you. This is a kind of brute-force solution, since you're solving a PvP design problem by toggling off the PvP, but it can work. There might be a more nuanced solution, but in most games it won't be necessary. The upcoming Wizardry Online, which has touted itself as the most hardcore PvP experience possible (permadeath? hokay, dude), might be an exception to this statement; I get the impression that their plan is to let players kill each other at any time, so you only expose yourself to risk with people you have social (not mechanical) reasons to trust. This will make the player community the most important thing in the game, but it will also be a griefers' paradise. Let's call it a really interesting social experiment, but an insanely risky game design decision.

Lord of the Rings Online is a special case of one-faction PvP: your main character always belongs to the "good" faction, but during PvP encounters you can temporarily change over to an evil character (orc, goblin, whatever). I guess you'd call this a one-faction PvE system with a two-faction PvP system. I don't know enough about how the players have used this system to judge its effectiveness. Commentary welcome! As a general case of this concept, you could have a non-factional PvP system that confined its PvP to instances, and automatically assigned players to teams for the duration of the instance.