Tobold's Blog
Saturday, April 25, 2015

I couldn't resist the opportunity for speculation: I bought a WoW Token for money on one of my poorer characters and exchanged it for over 40k gold. The idea is to use a rich character of mine later to buy a WoW Token for less than 30k (prices go up and down quite a lot). The overall effect is 5€ extra paid for a month of subscription, but gaining 10k gold and having it transferred to where it is needed.

Friday, April 24, 2015
Europeans buy less gold than Americans

Curiously the price of the WoW Token is rising again in Europe, hitting nearly 40k, while the US WoW Token is down to just above 20k. As the price reflects the relative supply and demand, it appears as if the players on the US servers are far more enthusiastic in buying gold, while the Europeans are more interested in selling their gold. I find it hard to explain why there should be such a huge difference, with the tokens twice as expensive (and thus gold being half the price) in Europe. Any ideas?

Thursday, April 23, 2015
Semantic collision

A role-playing game is a semantic collision of two very different activities: Theatrical "role-playing" and playing a game with dice and rules ("roll-playing" or "rules playing"). Different people enjoy those two parts to different degrees, and they are prominent to different degrees on different platforms: Computer RPGs often concentrate on the game part, which then makes the role-playing part an "unique selling proposition" for tabletop RPGs. But there are definitive synergies between the two parts, especially in the heroic fantasy genre or other genres where action and combat are very much part of the story. The inherent randomness of determining success or failure by rolling dice creates a source of neutral input and impulse to the story-telling. And in the other direction clever role-playing can create advantages for combat later or generate more interesting gameplay situations.

On blogs and forums people frequently exchange ideas how games "should" be designed and played. But the truth of the matter is that those blog and forum posts have little or no influence on game developers. In a computer game the developer determines the laws of physics and possibility in the game. You might be able to pursue different goals and activities in a MMORPG, but you cannot change game design. But as the Dungeon Master / Game Master of a tabletop game it is YOU who determines what is possible, and that makes you a game designer to some extent, even if you use a pre-made rules system like Dungeons & Dragons.

This is why the design of my next D&D campaign is very important to me. There are game design principles I believe in, and this is my opportunity to realize them and see if they work. And the balance between the role-playing part and the game part is a very important piece of that. I am not saying that I have an universal solution, but I do what I like, and I do play this campaign with people I have been playing with for years, so to some extent I know what they like. Thus the goal is to find a balance which is the most fun for all of us.

I recently joined another D&D group of people I didn't previously know, where I play a character in a 5th edition D&D game. I don't want to dis that game, but I can certainly see that between the personal style of the DM and the 5E system this makes for a system that I am not overly fond of. In two sessions we only had one single fight, and that one was over in 5 minutes. As much as I want more story for my game, I don't want to fall into that extreme either. I'm pretty sure my players would get bored, they do like tactical combat. I am far more inclined to target an overall 50:50 ratio of time spent in combat and time spent role-playing. Not necessarily per session, but at least per adventure. I don't want just a "role-playing", nor do I want just a "game"; I want the complete thing, a role-playing game.

WoW Token hits Europe

One could have reasonably expected Blizzard to launch the WoW Token in Europe at the same price than in the USA, because there isn't really a strong reason to think that the market value would be much different over here, with the Euro being at $1.07. But strangely enough somebody at Blizzard decided to set the starting price of the WoW Token in Europe to 38k instead of 30k. I faintly suspect that they observed on the US servers that the price dropped by 8k from 30k to 22k since its launch and figured that if they launched at 38k they would end up at 30k. While a few players bought tokens for this high amount of gold and drove the price on the first day up to nearly 45k (a similar post-launch peak happened in the US), the high price then simply caused people to stop buying those tokens. So now the price is 33k and falling, and in trade chat many players said they'd wait for the prices to reach US levels.

I haven't done a recount of my gold yet, but I think it is over 300,000 now. I'll certainly buy at least one WoW Token for gold if the price falls below 25k as expected. But that is mostly to be able to say that I did it. Otherwise I have much reduced my gold-earning activities, because they are only fun for so long, and I'm not falling into the circular logic trap of buying a subscription with gold, and then only using that subscription to make gold. I don't like repeating the same activities over and over, even if that makes me save $15 a month.

As I have no intention of cancelling my subscription and replacing it with WoW Tokens, I started to wonder what happens if you have both. If I have an active subscription and turn in a WoW Token for 30 days of game time, does that "suspend" my subscription and make Blizzard not charge me money for a month? Or do I need to cancel my subscription in order to use the token?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015
The Favorites of Selune - Last Session

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune had fought their way through the troll warrens, uncharacteristically skipping an optional combat. That left them for this session with only the final boss fight of the dungeon left, against the troll king Skalmad. The fight was okay-ish, but in view of this being the end of the campaign I think I should have re-designed Skalmad instead of taking him as written from the King of Trollhaunt Warrens adventure.

Skalmad is a troll who found an artifact, a magical orb. A person can rip out his own eye and put the orb in, and that gives him access to some special powers. I loved the idea, but unfortunately didn't bother to playtest or re-read the powers in detail. And it turns out that in practice the eye wasn't all that great. It had one minor power that slowed a single character and prevented teleportation, but with a solid front adventurers vs. trolls movement wasn't much of an issue in the fight. And then there was one power that shot a sort of fireball, but only once per encounter. That made Skalmad mostly reliant on melee combat, and for some reason he was hitting less hard than the battle trolls of his entourage. Once I started I didn't "cheat" and upgrade Skalmad in the middle of the fight, but in the end I did wish I had prepared better and made my own version of the troll king with more impressive eye powers.

I guess that is a lesson on transitioning from one campaign to the next. The natural tendency is to be very excited about the new campaign, and that poses a risk of not properly ending the old one. But then I guess in the history of D&D there are far more campaigns that just somehow petered out than those who got a spectacular send-off at the end. With the Favorites of Selune having been an episodic campaign with no large story, there wasn't really much room for a great finale.

So, this was it for the Favorites of Selune, a campaign of just over 3 years. It taught us how to play Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, and got us from level 1 to 11. I asked, and my players prefer 4th edition over other options, so the next campaign will use the same rules system, but use all Player's Handbooks, and not just the first one. And I'm hoping to improve on the role-playing part.

The new campaign will start slowly: One session to introduce the world of the Zeitgeist campaign, and then another session to create the characters. The idea is to first establish the campaign world, and what the general role of the group is in that game world, before creating the characters. I always felt that if you make a character before knowing anything about the world, you risk to end up with a background that doesn't really fit into the history of the world. One of the strong points of the Zeitgeist setting is that it provides character themes which are tailor-made to fit into the campaign. But for that to work, some knowledge of the world is necessary.

Friday, April 17, 2015
Level cap activities

I am not a huge fan of playing at the level cap. Gameplay at the level cap tends to be more repetitive, with diminishing returns of gear rewards over time. And while reaching the level cap is great as a starting point for the next expansion, the gear reset when that expansion comes makes most rewards you got at the level cap obsolete.

One thing I was interested in was making gold with my 4 level 100 characters in view of the WoW token coming to Europe one day. That turned out to be rather easy. With two tradeskill buildings and the relate professions per character, and a level 3 barn each, I'm making over 5,000 gold *a day* just by producing the crafting materials and savage blood that I transform into various upgrade essences. The problem is that with money-making methods I am most interested in proving the concept, and not necessarily in repeating the method for a long time. For the savage blood I need to kill 6 elite level 100 mobs per character per day, or 168 elite mobs per week. That gets tedious pretty quickly, and between farming those mobs and doing the daily garrison chores (gathering resources, collecting work orders, followers missions) I end up spending half of the time I play each week just with those money-making tasks. As I already have enough gold to buy a bunch of tokens, I'm planning to cut that way down, and skip the resource collection / farming part. The tradeskill building still make some money if I buy the resources, and I don't really need more.

End game activities frequently pose a danger of circular logic: You raid to get epics, and you need epics to raid more. I need gold to pay for WoW tokens, and then I spend my subscription time to make gold. To escape that circular logic I think I need to concentrate on what is intrinsically the most fun activity, and forget about the rewards.

One thing I am having a lot of fun with is pet battles. Collecting the pets from different zones appeals to the collector in me. I am currently working on the Draenor zones, with the added goal of reaching 150 pet battles won in Draenor, which gives an account-wide achievement which unlocks the level 3 menageries in my garrisons. But once I have that, I was thinking of collecting pets with my low level monk and/or hunter, combining questing with pet collecting in the same zone. Maybe that way I'll even level another character all the way from 1 to 100.

I still haven't regained my interest in group content, even with the announced timewalking mechanics. On paper it looks like a good idea: A lot of effort went into creating the dungeons of previous editions, and right now they are pretty useless. I soloed Karazhan for fun with my warlock, but beyond the nostalgia value that isn't really all that interesting. So yeah, making old dungeons available to current end game characters sounds good. Only I'm not interested because if you join a pickup group today you only ever get people in a hurry wanting to do speed runs, and complaining all the time about their group mates. That isn't what I would want to visit old dungeons for, even if they give level 100 rewards. As I said, those will be obsolete by the time the next expansion comes anyway.

One combat system to bind them all

Since last weekend I started doing pet battles in World of Warcraft. I simply missed out on them earlier and had only low level pets. So in the zones that were level-adequate for my high-level characters, the pets were too high level for me, and I wasn't in a mood to grind low-level zones for them. But when you do the final upgrade of your garrison at level 100, you get an easy quest for an "Ultimate Battle-Training Stone". With 4 character at level 100 I could thus instantly boost 4 rare pets of mine of different types to level 25, and could start battling high-level pets. Which then gave me more pets, and lesser battle-training stones, so by now I have a decent selection of level 25 pets for different opponents.

A hundred pet battles later it struck me that in fact the WoW pet battle combat system in solo PvE is far more interesting than the regular WoW combat system: In pet battle combat you actually need to plan ahead, and you can't use the same pets with the same rotation for every battle. You can lose a fight horribly, change your pet selection and their powers and win the rematch. In comparison the standard WoW combat is far more simplistic, requires less thinking, and your optimal tactic is largely independent of who you are fighting. So why not "Pokemon the MMORPG", where all battles are pet battles?

The answer to that is probably that solo PvE is only one part of combat in MMORPGs. You also need to consider group PvE and PvP. And the turn-based pet battles of WoW that work brilliantly with you alone against the AI wouldn't work quite so well when there is a whole group of players involved. Because there are so many different ways to play a MMORPG, the combat system needs to work well in all those modes.

Wildstar, currently rumored to be preparing a drop of subscriptions after having pulled boxed copies from retail stores, in my opinion has a problem with the combat system. I really love the Wildstar combat system in solo PvE, because it is far more interactive than classic systems. But all those telegraphs and signals you need to respond to collapse into chaos in a group situation. When you are fighting a group of monsters with a group of players, there are telegraphs on the ground everywhere and you don't know where to step.

Even in World of Warcraft the fact that the combat system is used for different situations poses a problem. It is simply impossible to have a perfect class balance for all the different modes of play. And typically class balance is considered most important for PvP, somewhat important for raids, and less important for solo PvE. So I am left with a shadow priest that downright sucks in solo PvE. And the announced serious nerfs in patch 6.2 for some classes are pretty much incomprehensible for me as solo PvE player, because it isn't the classes that are best in solo PvE that get nerfed.

Sometimes I think the relative rise of the MOBA and decline of the MMORPG is due to the fact that a MOBA is only trying to do one thing, while a MMORPG is trying to do too many things at once. I can think of better game designs if I start with the premise that my game is *only* having solo PvE, or *only* group PvE, just like a MOBA *only* has group PvP. Using one combat system for everything imposes serious limitations on the MMORPGs of today.

Thursday, April 16, 2015
Personal blogging

Yesterday mbp asked "Would you care to share your thoughts on the ongoing relevance of personal blogging in this age of facebook / twitter / reddit etc.?". I think the keyword in this is "personal", because that is where I see blogging moving towards to. A lot of the things that we thought a decade or more ago have turned out to be not true. Blogging isn't a platform to become rich and famous on the internet, blog posts do not make or move opinions except on a very small scale. The people who started blogging because they wanted to influence others, or to make money, have seen that this simply doesn't work and have stopped doing so. Those who only ever wanted to shout a strong opinion from the rooftops have moved to Twitter, fortunately taking a good part of the hate culture of the internet with them. Gamergate happened mostly on Twitter, not blogs.

Blogging has become quieter and more personal. Some hate blogs still exist, but they have turned into echo chambers of small groups of people already sharing the same opinion and repeating the same stuff over and over again. Sustainable blogging is personal, because intrinsic motivations last longer than hoping for extrinsic rewards. If you don't write for yourself, you don't write 5,000 blog posts over 12 years. Blogs are a perfect medium for public diaries, a need that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit don't address. Blogs are semi-public, the author still retains far more control than he has on social networks or forums, for example through comment moderation. That makes blogs a good place for moderate discussion, as you have the tools to kick out the troublemakers. Blogs work better for considerate, thoughtful discussion, while the other platforms work better for rash, strong expressions of strong emotions. It is actually a feature of Twitter that old tweets are hard to find, while for blogs it is a feature that they have searchable archives.

If somebody would ask me for advice whether he should blog, I'd ask him what for. Much of our daily lives is ephemeral. When you are playing a game, you leave nary a trace. If you want to preserve some memories and thoughts, personal blogging is a great way to do so. I am sad that I don't have blog entries from the role-playing sessions I did during my university days, because there was a lot of creativity in interactive storytelling that has been lost forever. For trying to make money or influence people, I would recommend different platforms (YouTube?), although I have a strong suspicion that for every famous person on the internet there are a million unknown people that tried the same thing. Blog if you want to write for an audience of one, yourself, first and foremost.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

This is my 5,000th post on my blog. That took me nearly 12 years, with an average of just above one post per day.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015
McDonald's is not responsible for your eating habits

The best thing I can say about Wolfshead is that fortunately he doesn't post often. But when he does it is always a long diatribe against the evils of modern MMORPGs, modern being anything from this century. Usually I just ignore him, but his current rant at least deserves one major logical flaw to be pointed out: In a free market the bad habits of customers are not the fault of the companies that enable those bad habits. Just because junk food exists does not force anybody to eat junk food. And if, as Wolfshead claims, there is a bad habit of gaming without social interaction that is enabled by World of Warcraft, that is *NOT* the fault of World of Warcraft.

In the case of McDonald's people could still point out that junk food is cheaper than healthy food. That still doesn't make McDonald's responsible for you eating junk food, but at least you can blame socio-economic factors for it. Playing World of Warcraft is not cheaper than other MMORPGs, in fact WoW is one of the most expensive games out there. So if more people play World of Warcraft than some "socially superior" game, it is because players *prefer* the "playing alone together" mode of World of Warcraft to the forced grouping of yesteryear.

Communities in online role-playing games evolved in a trend which is similar to the evolution of communities elsewhere on the internet: We moved from a situation where only a very small part of the population had access to a situation where everybody has access. Early online communities were tight because they were small and socially homogeneous. Today the online world is much bigger and much more heterogeneous, which leads to people having less in common and less interest in interacting with each other. People today prefer games in which they don't have to speak to each other for exactly the same reason that people generally don't start conversations with strangers on a bus.

What Blizzard does is what Blizzard always did well: Make accessible games and design them around what the players want. If guilds and raids today in WoW are the way they are, it is because people prefer them that way. And it is because people prefer playing the way that WoW offers that the game has millions of players. There is no secret, hidden conspiracy where Blizzard executives visit the houses of people who would rather prefer games with more social interaction and force them at gunpoint to play solo-friendly WoW.

The "flaws" that Wolfshead lists, easy soloing and no downtime, are actually part of World of Warcraft's recipe for success. Forced grouping and long downtime are not popular features for the mass market. The worst thing you can accuse WoW of is creating a mass market, as some people would have preferred MMORPGs to remain niche forever. But even in a hypothetical parallel world with no WoW, MMORPGs would have evolved to have less forced social interaction. Because the alternative, that is visible in places like Twitter or League of Legends, is a toxic and petty community in which people hate each other. Good modern games deliberately isolate players from each other, because hell is other people.

What do the gold buyers spend their gold on?

When the WoW Token was announced, I speculated that it would lead to gold flowing from people who didn't use it to players who had some need for it, who would go on a shopping spree and cause AH inflation. For me it appeared perfectly reasonable that somebody who was short on gold and bought 20k of it would spend it on let's say some Hexweave Leggings (follower missions for some reason don't give leg slot items) and maybe even a Hexweave Essence to further upgrade the iLevel of those leggings. But as far as I can make out from websites that track US server AH prices, the US prices for those items haven't changed since the WoW token was introduced and are roughly the same as the prices on the European servers, which don't have the WoW tokens yet.

So I am wondering what is happening. Are there not enough WoW tokens being traded to make a difference to AH prices? Or are the people buying gold spending it not on the AH, but for example to upgrade their garrison or buy NPC vendor mounts? Or am I just looking at the wrong kind of items and there is an inflation, but for items I haven't looked at?

If you are "playing the market" on the US servers, I would be quite interested to hear your observations. Did you notice any effect of the WoW token being introduced? What items do the gold buyers spend their gold on?

Monday, April 13, 2015
On the role of the DM in a tabletop role-playing game

I've been reading a blog post about whether a DM in a pen & paper role-playing game should be an impartial arbiter, friendly guide, or deadly foe. None of those options struck me as particularly fitting, at least not for my style of Dungeons & Dragons gaming. So this is a post about what in my opinion the role of the DM is.

What I didn't like about the three options described above is that they have one thing in common: They set the DM apart from the players. Yes, pen & paper role-playing games which use a DM are asymmetrical and the role of the DM isn't exactly the same as the role of the players. But more often than not a tabletop role-playing group is otherwise homogeneous, a group of friends or people with similar interests. So in my opinion the DM is first and foremost a player too. That means that fundamentally everybody at the table, DM included, is working towards a common goal, telling an interesting interactive story and having fun in the process.

Think of it like the actors in a play that revolves around a strong main character, let's say Hamlet. Everybody is an actor in that play, including the person playing Hamlet. But the person playing Hamlet gets more time on stage. In a game of Dungeons & Dragons the DM also gets the most stage time, because everything anybody else does happens somewhat in interaction with the DM. But the goal, to make "the play" a success, is the same for all actors / players.

Whether the DM should be the arbiter depends a bit on what system you are playing. There are systems where the rules are deliberately vague and the DM is always required to judge any action of the players. Personally I dislike the "mother, may I?" style of play, and prefer systems with strong rules, like 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. If a situation can be played by following the rules as written, it isn't even necessary that it is the DM who has the best rules knowledge. Although if another player takes that role, the DM has to make certain that this player is impartial about it, and not a "rules lawyer".

Friendly guide is still the closest option of the three presented, but it isn't so much guide as the DM simply having a different view of the story, and a different set of information. There are many aspects in the fantasy world that the DM knows, but the players haven't discovered yet. That doesn't mean that the DM's view is absolute. It is *because* many parts of the world are unknown to the players, that the DM has the freedom to change the world on the spot. If your group enters a town and the cleric says "I am looking for a temple of Selune", I as the DM will either create such a temple on the spot, or if that doesn't fit reply with some other information about religion in this place, even if I hadn't thought of that before and hadn't prepared anything. If the players have a great idea to resolve a situation, the DM should play along, even if that wasn't what he planned. Thus the players can create new elements in the world by suggesting them and having that suggestion accepted.

What the DM should never be is deadly foe. He shouldn't use his infinite power over the world to basically cheat in combat against the players. It is best to design the challenge in advance, and then treat combat like a game of chess: The DM is the adversary, controlling all the monsters against the group of the players, but he is also a player in a tactical game which resembles a board game. Thus like any other player he should cheat on the dice rolls or conjure up new monsters on the fly when he feels he is losing. The DM sets the challenge level in advance, and then lets the dice fall as they may. Random results, whether that results in an easy win or in a player character death, are part of the story in a tabletop role-playing game.

DM isn't an easy job, and it involves more work than the other players have. But ultimately the DM should also have fun, interact with the others to tell a story, and be part of the group. Somebody *has to* be the DM in most pen & paper systems, and it is best not to set that role too far apart from the players. You never know, maybe another day you and your group will decide that somebody else is going to be DM for the next campaign.


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