Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Solo monster playtesting

Since I have a special interest in game balance and game design, I'm often interested in play testing and analyzing games. Now makes this especially interesting by being a full-featured tactical board game. Who needs role-playing, I'm just having fun fighting monsters!

I've done a number of fights against groups of monsters, now I'm looking at solo monsters. I have a group of 5 third level characters that me and my friend Erick constructed. First we fought the blue slime from the first module, using the same terrain. It is listed as a level 3 monster, and my numeric game balance calculations indicated that it is a level 3+ monster (on the high side of level 3). The fight ended up seeming appropriate for its level - it cost a fair amount of damage but basically we demolished the monster.

Then I had a fight against a black dragon. The terrain was favorable to the dragon: The characters had to fight on a 2 square wide path through the deep water of the swamp. The dragon is listed as level 4, but my calculations indicated it was level 6- (on the low side of level 6). Or rather, I calculated it was level 5- without the darkness ability, then I arbitrarily added one because the darkness ability looked scary but who knows how effective it would be. The players managed to squeak out a difficult victory, but then I realized I had totally forgotten about the dragon’s tail attack. I suspect it is quite possible the players would have lost the fight if I'd done it correctly.

The first thing I learned from the fight is a bit more about how lurkers work, and how the darkness field works in particular. The classic lurker is supposed to be a monster that spends much of the battle hiding, coming out periodically to launch a big attack. I've been very skeptical about this actually working very often in practice, because I know how difficult this is to achieve. Before playing a specter, I predicted that lurking would not prove practical, and I was correct. However, before playing the black dragon I looked at the darkness field and had a feeling that it could potentially prove very troublesome to the characters. As long as the dragon is sitting in his darkness field, there is very little the characters can actually do to the dragon. They cannot do anything to extinguish the darkness field, and they cannot enter the darkness field without giving the dragon a massive advantage. Blindly throwing ranged attacks at the dragon from outside the darkness field causes only a slight amount of damage, to the point that it seems like it might be very effective for the dragon to just sit in the darkness field until his powers recharge. And since the dragon is a solo monster, this doesn't hurt any of his nonexistent allies. So the dragon's lurker ability really works. The problem is, I'm not so sure it is entertaining to have a solo lurker. While the dragon is recharging, the characters are more or less waiting for the restart of the fight. Not very exciting. So I decided to have the dragon fight every turn and just use the darkness when it happened to recharge. This probably wasn't a great tactical idea for the dragon because it got terrible recharge rolls and was hammered while outside of the darkness.

So why did the dragon seem too powerful for the characters? The most straightforward reason was that it is a level 6 encounter. The DMG says such an encounter is a normal hard encounter. Maybe level +3 is just hard for higher-level characters, but for level 3 characters, this means the monster is about as powerful as the characters even if they have and use every daily power they have. Not very appropriate unless you want there to be a significant chance that the players are totally defeated. This is appropriate for comic books, but I don't think D&D is supposed to work this way. The monsters will just eat you.

One thing that makes a high-level fight like this even more difficult than it may initially appear is that the extreme toughness of the dragon dilutes the effectiveness of their encounter and daily powers. Even after you've used them all up, there is a lot of dragon to kill.

One thing I think is very interesting, though, is the idea that the tactical situation in D&D can be as important as the raw numbers. In particular, which side has the powers which totally hose the other side? For the party, it appears that the power which is really awesome effective is the fighter’s lockdown ability (combat superiority and combat challenge). The blue slime had no way to counter this power, so even though it did a fair amount of damage to the whole party, it basically felt helpless. It had no real tactical options, it had to just sit around getting beat on until it was dead. The black dragon, on the other hand, can counter this power. This left the warlock is the only character with powers that were especially effective against a solo monster. On paper, witchfire and dread star are unusually good against solo monsters. While this is true, the problem is that the only be used once each, and you are lucky if one of the 2 actually hits. While the monster is very annoyed for one round, there is no way you can even come close to killing a solo monster in one round. So when the next round comes, you are back to the same tactical situation you started with. This is totally different from fighter lockdown, which lasts every round for the entire fight - or black dragon darkness, which lasts as long as the dragon either lurks in the darkness or gets lucky with its recharge rolls.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The might of area effect powers in D&D

I believe I have determined why area effect powers are so tempting to take when designing characters. I've noticed, for instance, that is extremely hard to resist "divine glow" when making a cleric, it just looks very effective.

It appears that character powers are designed using a rigid set of guidelines, similar to the way that monsters are built in a somewhat mechanistic fashion. A level 3 encounter powered as a base 2 dice of damage. If the power has a strong advantage, such as area effect or an evil special effect such as dazed, the power is reduced to one die of damage. That's it, except that I think the kinds of special effects allowed becomes more broad at high levels (you never see stunned at low level).

Therefore, divine glow could have a 2d8 ranged power instead of a 1d8 close burst 3 enemies only power. When you factor in damage bonuses, this means that a ranged power only does 50% more damage than an area effect power like divine glow (and probably doesn't increase the special effect at all). It is, of course, extremely difficult to compute how much better an area effect attack is, since it depends so much on the style of fights and monsters you encounter. But close burst 3 enemies only is surely more than 50% better than a single target ranged attack (probably it is at least twice as good). Explaining why divine glow seems so tempting.

This also explains why blinding barrage is so insanely potent. The rule for a level 1 daily power seems to be that it does 3 dice of damage, reduced to 2 dice for powers with strong benefits. Since blinding barrage has strong benefits, it does 2 dice of damage. The fact that the power has 2 great benefits, and is in fact obviously quite mighty, doesn't factor in. The only mystery here is why they allowed this type of power as a level 1 rogue power at all. A area effect attack with a vicious control effect would seem like something that only a controller class would be allowed to have.

Friday, September 26, 2008

D&D monster level balance

I just noticed that the D&D monsters are made according to a strict formula. They are assigned a level, a role, statistics, and powers, then hit points, defenses, and attack and damage bonuses are calculated based on level, role, and statistics. The level of the monster is an input, not a calculated value; it is not affected by how good the monster’s statistics and powers are. This would explain why the effectiveness of many monsters seems to vary greatly from the level of the monster.

The needlefang drake swarm, for instance, is described as level 2 because it uses the basic statistics of a level 2 monster. The unbelievable offensive power provided by its special abilities is not taken into account. The zombie, on the other hand, is also considered level 2, but its "special power" of having incredibly low stats makes it very weak.

I'm estimating that the needlefang drake swarm is effective level 6 and the zombie is effective level 1 (and on the low side of that).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Unimportant Skills

When thinking about game design, one issue that comes up is how to handle the cost of skills with little or no game use. The traditional approach has been to make them cost as much as useful skills, which is clearly a bad idea and hoses characters with interesting character conceptions.
Although technically one might expect minor skills like “mason” to have some small point value, I quite respect D&D’s choice not to implement this. There are a number of practical difficulties in assigning a point value to unimportant skills:

1. It takes space in the rules.
2. Since D&D is choice-based rather than point-based, there is no mechanism by which a skill could cost very little to get.
3. If a skill is worthless, it is cheap to become incredibly good at the skill. There is a risk of players then trying to abuse the skill by claiming they can do incredible, useful things with this much skill.
4. If the GM does not adjust the skill cost to the campaign, it would be all to easy for some of these cheap skill to become very underpriced because they are used much more often in that particular campaign.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Hi, I'm a fanatic about game design. Right now I'm really excited by 4th edition D&D. I used to play D&D when I was a kid, but when more sophisticated game systems came out I lost interest. 3rd edition was a very interesting improvement, but still didn't really improve D&D enough for my tastes. 4th edition, however, is totally different. It seems like a huge leap in game design, really a different game. This is the first game I've ever seen that looks like something I would design - a "game balanced" game. In 3rd edition, the different classes were so totally different, I couldn't even analyze whether they were balanced at all, I could only guess. The wizard had a whole bunch of annoying limitations about casting spells, but when he cast one, the effect was insanely superior to anything a non-spellcaster could ever do. The cleric was the ultimate healing god that you couldn't function without. I always felt these classes at high level were much better than the fighter types, and the fighters were there to distract the enemies and deal with ambushes. Who can tell, though, the abilities were so orthogonal.

In 4th edition, everything is built around a balanced design. Characters work in an identifiably similar manner, and the differences in things like hit points and armor class are far less drastic. The wonderful thing is that the characters still feel very different - something I've found challenging to achieve when trying to balance the game.