Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 25, 2014
 
The use of game analysis

A lot of the posts on this blog are about game design: What makes a game fun? What motivates players to act in certain ways? How can good game design make a game better? Of course if we talk about video games and MMORPGs all that game design discussion remains rather theoretical. I don't have illusions of grandeur believing that game designers are reading my blog and will implement my suggestions for improvements to their games. But when we move into the domain of pen & paper role-playing games that changes the situation dramatically. Here, if you can find the strong and weak points of various systems, you can actually make changes to your game and put together the best elements of different systems for your own table.

One thing that few people realize when discussing pen & paper rules systems is that no two table play the same game. Just look at the various videos I linked to earlier this week, with different groups playing the 5th edition starter set, and you will notice how different the different versions of the same adventure in the same rules system are. The result of that is that is that not all criticism of for example an edition in the edition wars is true for all groups playing that edition. I've read a lot of people saying that 4th edition has no role-playing and the fights are extremely slow, and then I watch those 5E videos and have to say that on MY 4E table there is more role-playing and faster combat than shown in most of those 5E videos. That is why I tend to focus my game system criticism on the rules and the maths behind the rules.

Having said that, you can also approach a rules system from the point of view of a hypothetical newbie group playing the system as written. And there it is clear that for example 4th edition is a more balanced and less random system of tactical combat, but has clear weaknesses in not having systems in place which encourage or reward role-playing. 5th edition has a far superior character creation system which not only pushes players to create better backgrounds, but also encourages role-playing your flaws by handing out inspiration bonuses; but then 5E isn't good for tactical combat at all, because its high damage versus low hit points and little healing makes combat very random, and there are fewer tactical options based on positioning.

The solution is to make my own Dungeons & Dragons Edition 4.5 for my table. Which isn't just selecting the best bits from every edition, but also tailors them to the individual needs of my players. What is "best" for my table isn't necessarily best for a different group. In my group role-playing already happens, but much of it is a bit stereotypical (e.g. elf vs. dwarf rivalry), and only one player made a really good background (sorceress who is a Vistani soothsayer). So the 5E character creation system with the personality traits, the inspiration system, and a better background (including the "one unique thing" rule from 13th Age) would surely improve role-playing at my table. But as the players very much enjoy tactical combat, and most of them would not enjoy playing a minor role in a campaign ultimately dominated by wizards, for my table it is very much preferable to stick to 4th edition powers and combat rules. That also has the added advantage that we can keep playing with the existing 4th edition books and their existing French translations, and not switch to a system that only exists in English and doesn't have translations announced yet. It is a lot quicker to just translate rules for background and personality trait creation than to translate all the rules regarding combat, including all spells.

Where our group is somewhat wary of extensive role-playing is because of previous experience where typical role-playing scenarios ("Here is a mystery in a city, go out and solve it by role-playing!") led to the game getting bogged down in role-playing the details of everyday life and not much happening which actually advanced the story. With the particular situation of my group, which only meets twice per month, the overall result was that three months later we still weren't anywhere near having a clue regarding that mystery. Furthermore, with role-playing usually being a lot less structured than combat, the more extroverted players tended to dominate the sessions, while others just sat back and didn't contribute much at all. But I believe I have found a solution to those problems in recent multi-system adventures like Murder in Baldur's Gate or Legacy of the Crystal Shard. The idea is to give somewhat more structure to role-playing when it is supposed to drive a story forward by introducing "turn-based" elements into it. Which means that the DM makes sure that every player gets his chance to contribute his ideas, and then also gives "turns" to the NPCs, especially the villains. Which means that stuff always happens, villains act after some time, and the way the story progresses depends on whether the players did anything which affected the villain's plan or not.

That will need some practice, so I'm planning on a last adventure of the current campaign in which I will try to make a city adventure that doesn't stall. And if that works well, we should be ready to start a new campaign, starting with an improved character creation. Technically it will still be 4th edition, but with none of the flaws that people believe that edition has. Because the flaws of 4th edition are mostly flaws of omission, and those can be more easily fixed by just adding the stuff that isn't done so well in the books.

Thursday, July 24, 2014
 
Less fun jobs in a group

In the second part of RPGMP3 video playthrough of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, the fighter in view of rather bad odds is resorting to a tactic which is probably optimal for a 5E level 1 fighter: He stops trying to hit things, but instead uses the dodge action every round. Which in addition to his protection fighting style results in every attack on him or anybody next to him being at disadvantage, taking the lower of two d20 rolls. That doesn't exactly speed up the game, the group takes 4 hours for two fights, but it results in there being no combat deaths. As advantage/disadvantage is such a huge bonus equivalent of up to +5, and 1st level characters in 5E don't survive more than one or two hits, the fighter using dodge is keeping everybody alive by making the monsters keep missing.

The cleric in this group, and in all other groups I watched playing this, is not playing optimally. The optimal play for a level 1 cleric in 5E is to reserve his two level 1 spell slots for healing, because that is all the group gets. So casting another level 1 spell like bless or shield of faith is suboptimal to casting cure wounds or healing word on a fallen comrade and instantly reviving him and getting him back into action.

The reason why the optimally playing fighter is so remarkable, and the suboptimally playing cleric is so common, is that the optimum in both cases isn't much fun. Dodging, which involves not even rolling any dice, is a lot less fun than hitting monsters. And casting only healing spells instead of your full range of spells isn't fun either. It is a bit like in World of Warcraft, where tanks and healers are constantly in short supply, because dealing damage is just more fun than healing or being a meat shield.

Of course that depends on the system. In 4E the tank protects his group by "marking" an enemy, and that is done by doing an attack on that enemy. The 4E healers get 2 heals per encounter a bonus spells that aren't substracting from the number of other spells they can cast. So with Wizards of the Coast obviously being aware of the problem, it is kind of sad that they went back to a situation where fighters and clerics basically get the choice between unfun or suboptimal.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014
 
Lost Mine of Phandelver videos

As I want to buy it at my local gaming store and not online, I still haven't got the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. But I did find that several people, Wizards of the Coast included, put videos of themselves playing the starter set adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver on YouTube. *Spoiler alert* Don't watch those videos or read my comments if you plan to play the Starter Set as a player. As watching different groups actually play the game can give a more precise impression of the Starter Set than just reading it, I ended up spending hours on YouTube that way. Here are my impressions.

Let's first list the videos I watched. First of all there is the official version, WotC playing their own Starter Set, with one completely new player. The videos I liked the most were the ones from RPGMP3: Dungeon ON! Also quite well done is the video from Quill18, but after the end of part 4 it appears as if that was just a temporary group and they don't plan to play through the rest of the adventure. Table Top Gaming has a playlist with already 23 half-hour videos, but with apparently experienced players who don't really care that they are playing 5th edition, and a DM taking lots of shortcuts. The lowest quality video is the one from Caffeinated Conquests, where you don't see anything and the music makes it hard to understand what the players are saying.

Of those five video sources, the first and the last are playing theater of the mind style, while the other three are using the Roll20 virtual online table-top. Whatever you think about using battlemaps and miniatures in Dungeons & Dragons, it has to be said that if you want to turn it into a spectator sport these are very much needed. A video showing people sitting around a table and rolling dice just isn't all that visually interesting. Furthermore it turns out by comparing the same fight done by everybody that theater of the mind isn't the fastest version, with even WotC taking one hour for the first fight against 4 goblins. Part of that is of course people still learning the rules, but one does notice a lot of "where exactly is my character standing? Where are the monsters exactly?" type of questions in the theater of the mind versions, and that takes time.

WotC is playing the adventure using the pre-generated characters and they make a great effort to stress the new role-playing rules elements of 5th edition, like characters now having bonds and flaws, or getting "inspiration" advantage for role-playing to those flaws. It is very noticeable that everybody else does not, mostly using characters created using the basic rules. As much as I can understand a dislike of pre-rolled characters in D&D, the pre-gens do have specific background stories, objectives, and bonds to items, places, and people appearing in the adventure, and that gets lost if you create your own characters. So for once I would recommend playing Lost Mine of Phandelver with the pre-generated characters. It isn't as if with the basic rules you could actually make VERY different characters than the pre-gens. As I do consider the personality and background rules for character creation to be one of the strong points of this edition it is somewhat worrying to see them not used so much in actual play videos.

As previously remarked the lethality and randomness is very much on display in these videos. There are several cases of players getting one-shotted from full health to unconsciousness. One fighter, previously wounded, dies outright and instantly from a large critical hit. Quill18 ended up visibly cheating and allowing an unconscious player to use second wind to prevent a total party kill at the end. Some people like lethal games, but somehow I can't help thinking that it isn't a great feature for a Starter Set. If your first impression of Dungeons & Dragons was being the one guy at the table who actually "lost" the game, would you want to play again? I'll have to check, but I don't think the Starter Set even has any instructions on how to replace a dead character, as there are only as many pre-gens as there are supposed to be players.

Speaking of which, WotC had the situation that one player wasn't available for the second session, and "solved" that by presenting that character as having gone elsewhere, instead of somebody else playing that character. Then another character fell unconscious, and the group ended split up with two characters still exploring and one character tending the unconscious fellow. Really? In my opinion the DM should have stepped in and prevented the party from splitting that way, because it sets a rather bad example in the official video of the Starter Set.

5E at its game core is very much a game of resource management. Not every group, and especially not the WotC group, was good at that. The limiting factor appears generally to be healing: There are no healing cantrips, so the two spell slots of the cleric are the only sources of magical healing, and the only way to quickly revive an unconscious character. That is so important that low-level cleric basically should only ever cast cantrips and healing spells. In any case, the level 1 cleric spells other than healing are extremely weak, especially if you compare them to the level 1 wizard spells which do 3d6 area attack damage or splittable 3d4+3 damage with no attack roll or saving throw. Somewhat unfairly the wizard can get spell slots back during a short rest, but the cleric can't. As cure light wounds can heal for a LOT of hit points, it is even debatable whether a cleric should always wait for a character to go down before healing him. On the one side a wounded character can die instantly from a crit, but on the other hand the cleric doesn't really have the luxury of healing every wounded character.

Rogues are actually quite good in this edition. They get their sneak attack even on ranged attacks if they have advantage or, more frequently, when another ally is standing next to the target. And the dual wield rules are rather powerful: If you wield a light weapon like a dagger or shortsword, you get a second attack with your off-hand weapon, albeit only the base damage without attribute bonus. With the bonus attack not being limited to the same target, and moves being splittable in 5E, you can stab a monster to death, move and then stab another monster with your off-hand. In the Starter Set adventure with the level 1 groups against goblins, the rogue and the wizard were the only classes that could potentially kill more than 1 goblin per round.

The Lost Mine of Phandelver appears to be a rather generic adventure, but that is probably a good thing for a Starter Set. It also is a lot longer than the adventures in previous starter boxes, and could potentially be the start of a whole campaign. Given how the basic rules are somewhat incomplete and insufficient to start a game by themselves, the $20 Starter Set looks like a good investment for people who want to play 5th edition without paying $150 for the core books right away. And new DMs can always see how to play that adventure by watching those YouTube videos.

Monday, July 21, 2014
 
The least balanced of all D&D editions

I now had time to study the basic rules of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons in more detail. And I discovered something which surprised me: By combining rules from unbalanced earlier editions with rules from the very balanced 4th edition, WotC has managed to create the least balanced of all D&D editions. They basically removed most of the disadvantages of lower level spell-casters without toning down their high level advantages. So the previous deal, where the fighter was stronger at lower levels and the wizard became stronger at higher levels is gone: Now the wizard is nearly as good as a fighter at level 1, and then becomes quadratically more powerful with level by gaining both more spells and more powerful spells. The fighter still has his linear progression where he hits harder and is harder to kill with every level, but doesn't gain much in additional options. All the stuff he does gain with level again just makes him hit harder or harder to kill. Whatever his level is, if he stands in front of a monster and the DM asks the fighter what he wants to do, his answer will be "I hit the monster with my weapon", because that is basically his only reasonable option for 20 levels of play.

Spell-casters like wizards and clerics have become far more powerful at lower levels. That starts with the level 1 wizard now having 6 + constitution bonus of hit points, instead of 1d4 or 4 plus constitution bonus. You don't have to choose which spells to cast in advance any more, you can use your spell slots for any spells you have prepared, even multiple times. Then in 5th edition the cantrips are now more powerful than 1st level spells were previously. Do you remember the level 1 wizard who was only able to cast 1 magic missile per day, doing 1d4+1 damage? Well, now he has a cantrip which he can cast every round and do 1d10 damage. Plus several spells slots for level 1 spells, with which he could for example cast a magic missile which does THREE TIMES 1d4+1 damage. Even the cleric has a cantrip with a ranged attack that does 1d8 damage. Although I would argue that the cleric is screwed somewhat in 5th edition by the lack of combat healing, so he'll probably end up using all his spell slots for healing spells (there are no healing cantrips except one that stabilizes a dying player).

At higher levels the spell-casters still get all the spells that made them problematic in earlier editions. Why play a sneaky rogue to scout out the enemies if there are spells like invisibility and fly in the game? Why lockpick if there is a knock spell? Why play a fighter who can hit a monster really, really hard if there are spells like Power Word: Kill? But even more importantly, a high level fighter or rogue is simply lacking options. They don't even have something like a kick power. The most they can do is maneuver themselves into a position where they get advantage and roll two d20 instead of one, or do some extra damage by a sneak attack. But that is it, roll one or more attack rolls and deal a lot of damage. Meanwhile the high-level casters get up to 27 spells per day, of which 5 are cantrips and can be cast repeatedly. Plus you get to "recover" up to 10 levels worth of spell slots once per day.

5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is probably okay for people who never role-played playing through the Starter Set. They will have a lot of fun, especially since the Starter Set ends at level 5. If you start 5E with experienced players, and especially with people who previously played 4th edition, you sooner or later will run into the situation that nobody wants to play a fighter or rogue any more. If you want to play with non-spellcasters in the group, I hope you have a few friends who are somewhat simple-minded and don't object to being constantly outshone by the casters. In the group I'm playing with, nobody would play a simple class like that. They simply are too boring, and have too few options. Being able to attack several times in a round doesn't make up for not having the multitude of options that a spellcaster has. And with the previous disadvantages removed from the caster classes, those will become even more popular than before. Without the powers they had in 4th edition, the fighters and rogues in 5E now just plain suck in comparison. More than ever before.

Sunday, July 20, 2014
 
Core-shell model of Dungeons & Dragons

I have a very simple model of games in general: They usually have one core activity that is frequently repeated, and then some shell around it that gives structure to the sequence of core activities. In role-playing games, both on paper and on the computer, the core activity is usually combat. The shell is then the virtual world with its lore and quests turning an otherwise dreary sequence of combats into something more. But the same model also applies to very different games, like World of Tanks, where there is also a combat core activity, and a shell around it about researching, buying, and equipping tanks.

Now how much emphasis is on the core part and how much emphasis is on the shell part varies from game to game. Some pen & paper role-players will happily play only the shell part of the game for several sessions, doing mostly role-playing with very little combat. The game I like to call D&D Tactics, but which WotC calls D&D 4th edition is more towards the other extreme, being very focused on the core combat tactical game and not all that helpful with the shell part. That is very evident in the official adventures, where you usually get a booklet with a series of encounters, and need to put in quite some work yourself to fill the part between encounters.

For example my current 4E campaign is near the end of the Madness at Gardmore Abbey boxed adventure. A great adventure with a great story, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. You get two booklets full of encounters, but the encounters aren't all that memorable. The fun is in exploring the sandbox that is the abbey freely and piecing together the puzzle of what happened to the abbey, and make decisions about what to do about it. But that requires the DM to piece together that puzzle himself first, and the story is distributed over the other two booklets, plus told in sidebars or descriptive text of the various encounters. And because the story isn't linear, you also need to piece together the various quests and story parts with the map locations. I think I did a good job of that for my campaign, but that involved many hours of preparation, even making lists of quests, secrets, and locations, and flow-charts of the quests and the locations. While I would recommend Madness at Gardmore Abbey for experienced DMs, I can also easily see how an inexperienced DM could make a complete mess out of this. Just by themselves the series of encounters makes no sense, and the adventure would suffer a lot if one only plays the core game of combat without the shell game of slowly revealing what is going on.

Having said that, this isn't a unique flaw of 4th edition. I have played through all editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and I have encountered my fair share of bad DMs. Early editions had lots of adventures that consisted only of dungeons with room after room full of monsters and traps, with little more in the way of a story than there being an evil villain at the end. Even the 5th edition starter set begins with a story that reads "You are hired as caravan guards. The caravan gets ambushed.", which must be one of the most generic stories in the history of role-playing games. 5th edition makes a better job than previous editions in encouraging role-playing by having things like flaws and bonds in the character generation system. But in the end none of the D&D rule books ever did a good job of teaching people how to role-play. Rule books are more concentrated on the core game, the story shell remains to the players and the DM to create.

I am currently preparing the next adventure in my campaign, and the challenge I have set for myself there is to make an adventure in which the shell of the story carries itself even with less of the core combat elements at time. If all goes well there should be sessions with no combat at all. And some fights are optional and can be replaced by role-playing if the players so choose. The difficulty in that is to keep the game interesting to all the players, because many players quite like combat, rolling dice, and using their combat powers. Combat is turn-based, and everybody gets his turn to shine. Role-playing is less structured, which can lead to the most eager players to dominate, while others aren't so engaged. But this will be the last adventure of this campaign, and the next campaign is far more story-centric. So I'd better start demonstrating that ultimately the shell part of the game is in the hands of the DM, and can work regardless what edition is being played.

Thursday, July 17, 2014
 
The economics of CREDD/PLEX

Recently neowolf2 commented here in a discussion about how much money Wildstar is making, saying "I'm wondering how the CREDD system is affecting this. I'm seeing reports that people can just farm and vendor stuff to get enough gold to buy all the CREDD they need. If Carbine screwed this up they'll effectively have a grindy B2P game.". So, what are CREDD in Wildstar or PLEX in EVE all about?

Different people enjoy different activities in a MMORPG. Furthermore different people also have different amounts of available time and different tolerances to grind. The result of that is that some people either enjoy very specific gold-making activities like trading, or don't mind farming gold, or if they hate both sometimes are willing to buy virtual gold for real money. Thus there are third parties selling gold, and that trade can cause a lot of trouble if the sellers hack accounts or use bots to farm their merchandise.

Now the easiest way to kill third party gold trade would be for the game company to sell gold at half the going rate. As they can create that gold out of thin air and don't need to hack or bot to get it, they could always be cheaper than any Chinese sweatshop and quickly take them out of business. But some players, especially the hardcore variety, object strongly against game companies selling gold. Miraculously the same hardcore players suddenly find gold selling not unfair any more if it is them who profit. Thus CREDD or PLEX are primarily a way to introduce a legal gold trade into the game without the hardcore players protesting.

If you ask the people who sell gold that way, they will pretend that this is all positive for the game company. The gold buyer basically pays for two subscriptions and the gold seller plays for free, so overall for the game company that works out as if they had two players buying subscriptions. What that calculation ignores is the alternative of the game company selling gold directly: In that case the gold buyer is still spending the same amount of real money and gets the same amount of subscription time plus virtual gold. But the other player who previously financed his subscription with gold would now either have to pay money to keep playing, or stop playing and stop using resources of the game company. So selling gold directly instead of via CREDD or PLEX is clearly more profitable for the game company. As the people who object to that are those who are basically freeloaders in the CREDD/PLEX system, them protesting against direct gold sales is not actually a financial impact on the game company.

Now some people will tell you that direct gold sales from the game company, of gold created out of nothing would lead to inflation. That is a strawman argument. It is obvious that ALL gold in a MMORPG is created out of nothing; various sources in the game either hand out gold directly, or hand out items or resources that can be sold to a vendor for gold. And all those mob drops or vendor sales create gold out of thin air. If you have a CREDD/PLEX system, more people are busy creating more gold that way, and that causes pretty much the same inflation as if the game companies sold the gold directly. In any case you have to balance the virtual economy with gold sinks, like the expensive housing decor in Wildstar or exploding spaceships in EVE.

So how much is a CREDD/PLEX worth in virtual gold? In Wildstar, where gold is easy to make if you know how, the price of CREDDs is going constantly up. On my server a CREDD used to go for under 4 plat, and now it is already 9 plat. Basically the price balances out at a dollar vs. hour rate at which the money-poor but time-rich player is willing to spend time to get his subscription, and the money-rich but time-poor player is willing to spend dollars to get his gold. Unfortunately that balance means that if somebody has a more effective way to make gold, for example a sweatshop, a bot program, or account hacks, he can sell gold cheaper than the player who farms gold to pay for his subscription. As a result for that neither Wildstar nor EVE managed to eliminate illicit gold trade.

Even a standard subscription game without a CREDD/PLEX system already has the casual players (who play less for the same money) subsidize the hardcore players (who play more, and thus pay less per hour). Adding a CREDD/PLEX system allows some people to play completely for free, freeloaders who live of the money of other players. Game companies would be better advised to just sell gold directly, and by that way get rid of the freeloaders and the gold traders at the same time.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014
 
Magic 2015

I've been playing Magic 2015 on my iPad for a few days, and it will be released on Steam later this week. At first one wonders why the game is 10€ on Steam and "free" on the iPad, but obviously the later isn't real: You only get the tutorial plus 4 games before the free game ends and you need to pay 9€ to unlock the main game. Both platforms also allow you to buy the 30€ complete bundle instead, but that only unlocks all the cards you would otherwise unlock by playing, so I don't recommend it. Complete bundle or manual unlock, there are cards that you can't get either way, and you need to buy those in 1.79€ boosters of 15 cards if you want them. Well, Magic the Gathering was never a cheap game.

The interface is quite well done. Instead of stopping every second to ask you whether you want to cast an instant or interrupt, there is a stop timer, and you need to act quickly if you want to do anything, otherwise the game progresses. Also some decisions like damage distribution are automated by default, but you can turn that off in the settings. The AI is playing reasonably well, although in the campaign the difficulty is more about the computer having the better decks. The game is divided into several planes, each with a series of fixed encounters and a set of random exploration encounters you can play once you beat the fixed games. The first time you beat a fixed game and every time you beat a random encounter, you earn a booster full of cards. But you can get only cards from that plane, so after you got all from one plane, you need to move on.

With all cards unlocked if you pay more at the start, plus the premium boosters with cards you can't get by playing, Magic the Gathering is definitively a Pay2Win game. Which is why I didn't even try multiplayer. But the campaign is fun enough and decently priced, so I'll be having fun with this for a while.

Saturday, July 12, 2014
 
EQ Lego

I have played EQ Landmark for 7 hours and don't plan to play any more at this point. I've claimed a patch of land, built a house (including a slanted roof), explored islands and mines, and crafted better picks and axes. Except doing more of all this, there currently isn't much to do in Landmark. It isn't a game yet, it is just a toy, like Lego. Now I have seen really awesome castles and building made by other players. But that isn't something I am all that interested in. I'd rather have a house with some functionality. Unfortunately I would need to mine 210,000 stone for a tier 1 crafting station (stone forge). As I only got up to about 12,000 in 7 hours, I don't think I have the patience for that sort of grind.

Having said that, I see the potential in EQ Landmark. The "prettier Minecraft" approach is going to attract a lot of people. But for me the question is in how far they are going to add an actual game to that concept, and how good the integration between toy and game will work. The possibilities are endless. You could actually build a tunnel through a mountain, although that probably would give a whole new meaning to the term carpal tunnel syndrome. I guess I will have to wait quite a while before Landmark is ready and integrated with EQ Next. But now that I've seen it, I'm quite looking forward to that.

 
info@e-sonyonline.com is not fake

I received a suspicious e-mail with a Landmark beta invite. The mail looked perfectly real, but was sent from info@e-sonyonline.com, instead of from soe.com or station.sony.com. And the beta client download link also directed me to link.e-sonyonline.com. That looks very much like a phishing mail. So I googled it, and mostly found a lot of confused people asking whether mails from info@e-sonyonline.com were phishing mails, and some people who said yes, it was phishing, while others said no, it was legit.

So I decided to test this out. Certainly not by following the link and logging in with my true credentials. But there are two ways to test whether a login screen is fake. One is to enter fake login credentials, which a real site will reject, while a fake site will react differently. The other, which I actually used in this case, is taking advantage of a feature of many websites who won't ask you for a login if you are already logged in. So I went to the legit SOE site, logged into my account from there, and THEN clicked on the link. And lo and behold, the mail was real and I got to download the Landmark beta client without having to enter my SOE credentials on the e-sonyonline.com site.

What I think happened is that SOE outsourced sending out that sort of invitation to some marketeer, without letting him use the soe.com mail system. In an age where one gets phishing mails every day and people are highly suspicious that isn't really a good move.

Friday, July 11, 2014
 
Unification failure

Dungeons & Dragons started its life as squad-based tactical wargame, made by people who called their company TSR for "Tactical Study Rules". The idea of acting in character was a later addition, and in fact there are a number of other pen & paper roleplaying systems which have rules that are far more suitable for roleplaying than D&D. Nevertheless Dungeons & Dragons played most of the time for most of people as a mixture of both, a tactical combat game and a game where you play-acted a role. And like with all games that have more than one core that inevitably led to conflict between players who preferred the one over the other. That conflict was fueled by the fact that over the 40 years of its existence many different developers worked on Dungeons & Dragons, and they swung back and forth between the two parts. That led to the "edition wars", which culminated in 4th edition, a version of D&D which strongly favored the tactical combat part over the play-acting part. 5th edition set out to end the edition wars and be a unifying edition that pleased and united everybody. And the one thing that is clear from just reading the basic rules is that it completely failed in that mission. 5th edition is clearly swinging the pendulum back towards a play-acting game.

It is not as if 5th edition wouldn't permit you to put figurines on a square grid to play out your combat in a tactical manner. The problem is rather that 5E made many design decisions which result in it becoming a rather bad tactical game if you want to play it that way. First of all it threw overboard the class balance that 4th edition introduced to D&D; 5E went back to a system where classes are initially not equally strong, and then certain classes that start out weaker become stronger than other classes after a certain time. That has good reasons on the role-playing side, but makes for a horrible tactical game outside a narrow range of medium levels where the classes happen to be just about equally strong.

The second problem of 5E as a tactical game is randomness. If you look at MMORPGs, you will find that in combat there you rarely miss, and the damage you deal with a single hit only takes a slice of the health of your opponent. Dungeons & Dragons always had a system where your chance to miss was around 50% at lower levels, with varying systems of how that evolved in higher levels. But where the editions differed a lot was how big a percentage of health a successful hit could deal. For a tactical game you prefer to limit that, so that tactics play a bigger role than luck. 5th edition has an extremely luck-based combat system, where not only hit and miss depend a lot on luck, but also the difference between minimum damage and maximum damage of an attack is huge compared to the health of characters and monsters.

So whatever modularity 5th edition will add to the rules later, I don't think adding more tactical rules about facing or positioning to the game will turn 5E into a good tactical combat game. Which means that people who want to play a good tactical combat game will stick to 4th edition. Which is perfectly fine, but does herald the failure of 5E as the great unifier of the D&D editions.

Thursday, July 10, 2014
 
About the G in RPG

In the previous thread a number of people were in favor of a DM of a pen & paper RPG cheating to avoid unwanted results like random character death. The argument was that a RPG is role-playing, not roll-playing, and thus shouldn't be suffering from the randomness of dice-rolling. I don't agree. I think that argument totally ignores the G part of RPG, which stands for "game". Games generally become worse when somebody cheats. That is because games are a social contract, where the players agree for a limited time to adhere to certain rules. When you break that social contract, you destroy the very basis of the game.

That is not to say that dice are necessary for role-playing. There are quite a number of pen & paper role-playing game systems which are diceless. In that case the players agreed beforehand that they would prefer a system in which results are not randomly determined by dice. But if a group of players sits down to play Dungeons & Dragons instead of a diceless system, the social contract is a different one. The players agreed that they want a certain randomness in the game, because that can be fun. The DM cannot just opt out of that social contract, because ultimately he is a player too. His temporary god-like role in the pen & paper system are a consequence of the social contract, and do not reach beyond that agreement.

The DM in the video under discussion yesterday rolled his dice openly, and was chided for that by one commenter. But I think that the DM did the right thing, especially in the context of a training video for new DMs. Dungeons & Dragons, like all systems with a game master / dungeon master is asymmetrical, the DM has far more powers than the players. To a group of people playing a pen & paper RPG for the first time, that might well feel unusual. There can easily be a sneaking suspicion that the DM "isn't fair". Rolling dice in the open, at least at the start of a campaign, is a trust-building exercise. The DM shows that he is bound by the same set of rules as the players are. If something bad happens, it was bad luck with the dice, not the DM singling somebody out. If you have been role-playing for many years with the same people, you don't need that sort of trust-building. But this being a starter set for brand new players, trust-building is a necessary step. You don't want a first-time DM to cheat, because he probably doesn't even have the experience to know when fudging the dice would be a good idea. And you certainly don't want the first-time players to notice that their DM is cheating, because they would probably just quit at that point.

So what other options are there? Let's get back to the problem. While I did mention 1st level mages and arrows in my example, the problem of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons goes way beyond that. For example an orc (in the last playtest version, I haven't got the starter set yet and there are no monsters in the basic rules) hits for 1d12+2. Which means that if he rolls a critical hit, he can deal up to 26 points of damage. That kills any cleric, wizard, or rogue below 4th level, and any fighter below 3rd level. Furthermore if the orc has "advantage" in combat, his chance to roll a critical hit is 10%, not limited to 5% like in previous editions. Any hard-hitting monster in 5E with a large damage dice thus results in very unpredictable results, with the volatility of the results being large compared with the health pool of the characters.

The solution to that is not cheating. It is changing the rules in advance, in agreement with the players. There are various options, for example giving the players more health to start with, or letting them start at a higher level. Or, and that is even optionally supported in the rules as written, you don't roll dice for hit points and damage at all, but use always the average (rounded down). That means the orc always deals 8 points of damage on a normal hit, and 14 on a critical hit. And that most 2nd level characters can survive. But what I would really prefer is a system in which there is a better balance between the volatility of the damage rolls and the health pools of the players and monsters. Fudging dice rolls only gets you so far, for example you can't fudge your player's dice rolls. So cheating can't be the solution for a rules system in which the random numbers are too volatile.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014
 
A first 5th edition remark

I have frequently joked that if you want to know what edition of Dungeons & Dragons you are playing, you only need to ask "How many arrows does it take to kill a first level mage?". I watched WotC do a demonstration of the new starter set on YouTube and the group cleric there gets one-shotted by a critical hit. And the DM mentioned that in a previous trial run of the same adventure a mage not only got dropped by a critical arrow hit, but outright killed.

I believe 5E to be rather deadly, at least in the low levels. The advantage / disadvantage mechanic makes critical hits far more likely, and player characters have much less health than in 4E. And while a critical hit in 4E does damage as if you had rolled the maximum on the dice, in 5E you get twice the dice to roll. So if you roll high, you do more damage on a crit. More crits, potentially higher damage per crit, and lower health pools. What could possibly go wrong?

As I reported yesterday my campaign is in the middle of a fight which is hard and didn't go terribly well for the players. It is possible that somebody will die in that fight. But if somebody does, that will be an accumulation of several things, tactical errors made, and health lost over several rounds, with opportunities of healing having been missed. In 5E you can lose a character to a single arrow in the surprise round of an ambush. I don't consider that to be good game design. Character death should be a strong feedback signal telling you that you did something wrong, and not a random result telling you that you have bad luck.

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