Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tales of Maj'Eyal: A Newbie's Review

So I don't have a long history with roguelike video games. Not to twist the knife for any geezers in the audience, but I was not yet born when Rogue was first released. I've played plenty of games that take place in dungeons - Diablo, Diablo II, Path of Exile, just to name a very few - but top-down, turn-based, single-character dungeon-crawling games haven't been incredibly common in the past fifteenish years. Oh, sure, I could have sought out the old-school ones, but I didn't. I'm explaining all of this so that when I talk about how great some features of Tales of Maj'Eyal are, my gentle readers will understand that I don't actually know whether those features were common in roguelikes of the mist-shrouded past.

Anyway, the point here is that I've been hugely enjoying Tales of Maj'Eyal, which I purchased on Steam some time back. Frankly, it's been addictive as hell for me, when a lot of action RPGs hold my attention for only the briefest span. Turn-based play is a big part of it; I don't have a particularly zippy reaction time in video games. But the most basic function of ToME's melee gameplay wouldn't hold my attention for long - it's just moving onto the same square as an enemy. This is my main problem with a lot of action RPGs - just clicking on the target over and over again loses its charm. ToME has combat options that look more like 4e D&D, if you squint a bit - you can make a basic attack, but most classes and builds seem like they have a decent range of activated powers.

I want to talk a bit about what ToME isn't as well as what it is, but the most important thing to take away from it is how content creators can make their games more interesting even with a limited number of verbs.

What It Isn't

The game isn't about its graphics. We're well past the days of ASCII monsters and heroes, but ToME's graphics are still consciously plain - this is common for indie titles, so let's not act all shocked. If you like indie games in general, you probably won't care. The really special stuff has unique art, and within its context it's clear that the item or monster is super cool.

The game's mechanics aren't simple, and the game itself doesn't care about teaching them to you. You don't have to understand how they work to make reasonably good choices - big numbers are better, and you can take that to the bank. That's complicated by mechanics with diminishing returns and comparing Mechanic A to Mechanic B, and so on. Cerulean Stag Says: shit be complicated and I haven't done the reading to make good judgments. I have the same problem with a lot of games with RPG mechanics - Path of Exile's passive abilities table is especially terrifying - but ToME has a very high level of transparency in enemy stats and permadeath, so there's a lot more pressure on the player to grok the stats and make optimal decisions.

Some of the classes are not at all intuitive to play, and even the most basic skill purchases feel like they might be barking up the wrong tree for how I play that class. I like for classes to have more than one way to play, but I look at the mechanics and can't really put together what playstyle they represent. This isn't true of all classes - I may not make all the best choices for a Bulwark, for example, but I don't think my choices are wasted or in great danger of being objectively wrong.

It isn't easy. I'm playing on Normal/Adventure difficulty, which gives me a limited number of lives, and I've only had one character make it to 20th level (still alive). 20th level isn't particularly far into the game - which is why the title of this post is A Newbie's Review. I've played the low-end content many, many times, and haven't touched the high-end content. Or the mid-range content, for that matter...

Okay, that about covers it for this section of the review. Let's move on to the interesting stuff. Oh, and there are going to be some SPOILERS; I enjoyed a lot of initial reveals, and if you care about enjoying reveals, stop here. Another word from the Ruminant of Impatience: I like this game a lot, and if you have ever struggled with keeping content fresh and different when you have very few verbs to play with in a game, this game has some lessons to teach.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Design Diary: Grappling Rules

Over the past couple of weeks, I've put 15k words into a playtest document for Quintessence, and today I got to a span of rules I've seriously dreaded writing. The 4e brawler build of the fighter class is about the only version of grappling rules I think I've ever seen in a game that I liked. The grappling rules of 3e and Pathfinder are notoriously complicated. D&D Next's grappling rules are simple, but why bother with them? They're really only useful if you're stopping the last guy from running away - otherwise, they impose the same conditions on the attacking grappler as the defending grappler, with no way to improve that situation.

It's a shame that it would be so hard to adapt 4e's rules, but the part that I liked was baked into specific powers. It does point to a useful form of contained options, though, and I recall a lot of cases of needing to combine effects in just the right way to get the greatest possible effect. By far my favorite moment was the time I grabbed a young blue dragon by the tail, dragged it across a room, and slammed it into a wall - this is great for feeling like this guy.

I think one of the major recurring problems with grappling rules is that in 3.x and presumably Pathfinder, a specialist can readily gain a 20-point edge over a non-specialist. The non-specialist has no reason to even roll the die for Grapple checks, because even the best roll won't win. The non-specialist also can't do anything else, because action denial is a central aspect of the 3.x implementation. I don't want to completely eliminate the "bloody constraint" aspect of grappling, because holds and locks are such a key part of grappling; instead I'd like to put some bounds on the best and the worst that a character can be.

In part because I was reading the Wikipedia article on grappling, I started thinking about something akin to 4e's disease track. The two sides of a grapple (I politely decline to design grappling rules that support 3+ separate sides) start at Neutral, and as one side improves in position, the other loses position. The positions govern your options and influence your dice rolls.

To explain a bit of the lexicon before I get to the grappling rules currently in my document:
  • Skills are broad, but contain specific tasks within them. Characters improve in both the skill and the task, such as the Athletics skill and the Rip Bindings task. Many characters have a bonus only in the skill or only in the task, but that usually doesn't prevent them from attempting the action.
    • Combat and spellcasting use Combat and Magic skill checks, respectively. Still working on some details here, but I'm currently planning for Grappling to be a task within Combat.
  • Much like 4e, characters have Defenses rather than Fort/Ref/Will saving throws. These are currently called Endurance, Avoidance, and Resolve. Since armor prevents damage, Avoidance is your ability to avoid an attack completely.
  • Characters have one additional defense, called Maneuver Defense. This is conceptually based on Pathfinder's Combat Maneuver Defense, but Quintessence scales much more like D&D Next's concept of bounded accuracy.
  • Characters take Wounds as well as damage. As in SIFRP, taking a Wound is a way to negate some amount of hit point damage.
  • As in 4e's minor/move/standard action economy, Quintessence characters get lesser/move/greater actions.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Quarriors! iOS Release

One of the last projects I worked on for MFV.com has just been released on the App Store. The Quarriors! app is a transliteration of the Quarriors! dice-building game. I strongly recommend both games, but especially the one that I worked on. Ahem.

Quarriors! Website

Quarriors! on the App Store

I hope you'll enjoy it!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Birthright: the Regent of Style and Substance

I've mentioned Birthright a dozen or more times over the past few years of writing this blog, especially while playing around with SIFRP hacks, but I've never written a detailed post of why it deserves its place in the canon of D&D's settings. If it weren't wedded pretty heavily to its AD&D 2e rules, it would be just about perfect; some of the setting's design elements were, if not common, not unknown in 2e design, but would be rejected outright in the design environment of 2013. Setting those things aside, though, Birthright has a lot of worthwhile lessons left to teach.

The first thing that draws me to Aebrynis, the world of Birthright, is that is does draw heavily on real-world cultures (and more than just England), which sets it apart from a lot of TSR's settings. Birthright is still mostly European in its cultures, I have to admit, but the core idioms of feudalism don't apply to all cultures. Now, this is applying the standards of setting design in 2013 to 1995 - in '95 there was almost no internet, much less an industry-wide conversation on how to be less Euro-cis-male-centric. I suspect that if Birthright had become a runaway success as it so richly deserved, the game's designers might have explored continents beyond Cerilia and revealed cultures based on, say, the Mali Empire, the Incan Empire, and Warring States-era China. (I say this based on how the Shaar, Zakhara, Maztica, and Kara-Tur were added to Forgotten Realms.)

The continent on which Birthright takes place is a little bit smaller (thanks to coastline shape) than real-world India. It is subdivided into five major regions that are roughly analogous to nations, except that they have no central government whatsoever. These regions and their real-world cultural and linguistic origins are, roughly:
  • Anuire: England and France, between 1300 and maybe the mid-1500s; minor Scottish influences
  • Brechtür: Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, during the height of the Hanseatic League; this parses as vaguely Italian at times
  • Khinasi: Two distinct cultures, the Basarji (Arabia) and the Masetians (umm... Phoenician? Greek? unclear) 
  • Rjurik: Celtic/Scandinavian blend, heavy druidic influences
  • Vosgaard: Russia
  • Also, all of the elves are heavily Irish, the dwarves are... very faintly Welsh, but mostly just dwarven, and the halflings are magical hobbits.
These cultural connections aren't 1:1, but they're only lightly veiled. The setting-writers take a very high-level approach to setting presentation, which I want to talk about more in a minute; the cultural notes come across heavily in the names and descriptions of domains, leaders, and organizations.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Oceanhorn Review

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been playing a new iOS game called Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas. I play a lot of things I don't care about, and this isn't a dedicated review blog, so if I'm bothering to post a review, then spoiler: I liked it. It's not a perfect game, though, and I'll also be discussing some of its flaws.

Oceanhorn sets out to be the Legend of Zelda's kid brother on iOS. I haven't played most of the Zelda series, but it's immediately recognizable as a game of that lineage: the player's inventory includes sword, shield, bombs, bow and arrows, a flute, and boots that allow you to jump or roll. The player increases maximum health by collecting pieces of Hearts. The main use of bombs is blowing up fake walls. Late in the game, your sword even shoots out radiant bolts when you're at full health. It's a bit simplified compared to its spiritual predecessor, though: even with pursuing a lot of optional content it's less than twenty hours of gameplay.

The Good

What it does have is a colorful, interesting world to explore. The world is made up of small islands (a great use of the iPad's limits on how large of a level it can comfortably store at a time), in a way that has enough in common with Earthsea that I like it a lot. The player's boat may not actually be called the Lookfar in the game, but I don't let that stop me. Travel is actually a rail-shooter mini-game, as there are obstacles and sea monsters that threaten the sea-lanes. The player (a typical silent youth) has a pumpkin-seed gun with a devastating rate-of-fire.
Side note: If Cornfox & Brothers, the game's creators, ever decide to release expansions with additional optional content, I'd like to see more variety in the rail-shooter portion. A boss that the player fights from the boat would be especially nice.
The game's overworld islands and dungeon levels are full of little puzzles. The majority of the puzzles take no more than one or two steps to complete, but a lot of them are there to be reasons to go back through earlier content once you get the item that allows you to attempt the puzzle. In theory, it's also teaching you the game's symbolic language of puzzles - the shorthand that make later, more complicated puzzles (especially ones that present actual danger) more approachable. This doesn't completely work out, but I'll get to that later. Heavy use of puzzles is also a key part of anything that wants to live up to a Zelda heritage; while most of these puzzles are less complicated than Zelda-franchise puzzles, they're still a good time.

The game's graphics are excellent, in a cartoonish and stylized way. They avoid feeling childish in a way that a lot of cartoonish, stylized games do not. My understanding of art design isn't deep enough to point to why, but I was happy with the game's visuals throughout. The overworld and dungeon maps are well-lit, interesting, and navigable - not that there aren't mazes, but the camera and the scenery don't make it unnecessarily difficult.

I love how much optional content is in the game. This is something I want to see more games do: there are several whole islands that the player never needs to explore, even though two of them have a lot of extra backstory on the game and substantially enrich the experience. I like for games to have strong narrative elements, but dungeons and B-plots that I only engage with because I want to are excellent. If the dungeon holds a rich, self-contained story, all the better. The Elder Scrolls games are top-notch examples of this.

The game's leveling system wouldn't be anything special, except that leveling does grant interesting new feat-like abilities and early-edition D&D style level titles. It's not a useful game feature, but I found it appealing.

Oceanhorn is among the more expensive iOS games I've played, but I feel like it was a good value for that price. In terms of cash-per-entertainment-hour, it's one of the best. The single best thing about it is that I paid up-front, and that was that: there was no kooky monetization scheme interrupting my gameplay to cadge me for a few more bucks. I want more games to do exactly that.

Below the cut, I want to talk about some of the rough spots.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Design Diary: Quintessence of Dust

Dear Design Diary,
While I was away for Thanksgiving, thanks to the unflagging support of Kainenchen, I started working with some ideas for a new fantasy roleplaying system for tabletop. I particularly want something that borrows a bit more from the style and substance of LARPing, without sacrificing usability. When I've considered such an idea before, that's what has stopped me, but I've had a few new ideas, and this time out I have a blog.
Let me start by laying out my goals in more detail.

  • Health and damage output scale slowly. Magic and skill can generate damage spikes, but sustained increased damage is difficult.
  • Normal mortals can't take very much damage, but they can do a lot of different things to reduce incoming damage or avoid getting hurt.
    • Characters reinforced with magic can take quite a bit more punishment, but this doesn't mean that everyone needs to be a spellcaster.
    • I'm not planning on hit-location or precise armor coverage, even though those are central parts of CI/Ro3 LARP rules.
  • There are multiple dissimilar magic systems. At minimum, three: mana, DtD ritualism, and pact magic (Aurikesh's warlocks). 
    • Preserving anything essential about ritualism into tabletop is in itself a problem I've been chewing on for a couple of years now. I think I may have an answer now.
  • Characters don't have classes, as such. I like how point-buy systems work in LARPs, but I don't want a point-buy system as such for this game. My plan is to explore a header system, comparable to the Accelerant family of LARPs.
    • This is intended to allow a wide variety of concept combinations, while keeping options contained in such a way that new players can digest them readily enough.
    • I'm not sure how many headers a character has by default, but Race, Class (well, whatever), and Background are probably a minimum.
    • Characters multiclass by purchasing a second header. This is a standard part of gameplay, as headers have limits on what they offer and once you've exhausted them, it's time to move on - usually to a more rarefied version of your previous concept.
  • Some characters use crafting and crafted goods as their primary contribution to battle (scribes, smiths, and alchemists, at minimum).
  • The game follows the tagline-based approach of LARP design, rather than having a huge number of custom effects.
    • Taglines are not particularly harder for new players to learn, but intermediate and experienced players can probably avoid a lot of rulebook lookups.
  • The system supports Dust to Dust and Aurikesh through separate rules modules.
    • Further rules modules would, ideally, add support for DtD's sister games, and for the source works that inspired DtD and Aurikesh.
  • Characters often have active defenses - that is, some sort of decision to make when they are attacked. I find that this does a lot to keep players' attention on the battle when it isn't their turn.
  • Since active defenses substitute for scaling hit points, one of the key distinctions between minions and more significant villains is their active defenses.
  • For places where D&D uses a d20, I am considering using either 2d8 or 2d10. 
    • Game effects might cause a character to change the dice they're using, for example up to d10+d12 or down to d6+d8.
    • Tracking the dice steps might get annoying if I'm not careful.
  • Since I need skills for things where LARPs would just use player ability, I need a more tabletop-like skill system. I've spent a lot of time criticizing the skill systems of other games lately, so I want to handle this with particular care. I'm thinking of a system of broad skills, with further bonuses for specialized tasks.
    • For example, maybe your broad skill grants a die bonus (+d4, +d6, and so on), while specific tasks grant a small flat add.
    • In keeping with my recent post, lores function a bit differently than other skills.
  • I generally like the focus on new active powers as the main progression in 4e D&D. Headers offer both passive bonuses and active abilities. One of my tabletop-side reference points is Dungeon World - their class system is pretty interesting, and broadly similar to what I'm interested in doing.
  • I'm currently planning on armor degrading from repeated strikes, though this increases the number of things players have to track at the table.
  • I don't exactly know what I want to see from ability scores. I thought about making them individual headers (comparable to FoD's system of traits), but I think I'll be happier avoiding that approach. My current expectation is that ability scores range from -3 to +3, with short-term forays into higher bonuses.
Until further notice, I'm calling this game "Quintessence of Dust," as the title of the post might have led you to believe.

These ideas still need more work, but these goals represent a start. I'll be posting in greater detail as I work through things; that work will be intermittent, as time and motivation allow. If any of these ideas strike you, the floor is open for discussion. Below the cut: where I am with ritualism ideas right now.