Friday, January 23, 2009

Gone Fishin'

I'm off on vacation, so I won't be posting or replying next week.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Comments on my rules posts

With regards to the rules that I post, these are generally "expert-level" rules that involve some extra bookkeeping in return for an improved play experience. On my blog, I have the advantage of being able to publish rules that might be too advanced for direct inclusion into a mass-market game. I try to make the rules as easy to use as possible given the constraints of what I'm trying to achieve. But I'm very good with numbers and bookkeeping, so it isn't always easy for me to determine how difficult it will be for others to use the rules until I get playtesting comments.

Feel free to post general comments on the rule directly under the blog entry, even though I didn't put the text of the rule directly into the blog. The blog comments have more visibility to casual readers and news feeds.

I was wondering if I should add the following disclaimer:

WARNING: Designer’s Notes describe how the rules really work, including flaws in the game and how the rules can be exploited. Some people may find that they enjoy the game better if they don't know these details, much like the way that a placebo treatment only feels good if you don't know it is a placebo.

Certainly I myself find that I have less patience playing with bad game rules when I know that they are bad, I know how I could abuse them, and I know how they can be fixed. But of course I have a passion for understanding how things really work, and I couldn't fix the rules if I didn't understand what was going on underneath.

I suppose this disclaimer is irrelevant, though, since if you didn't want to know exactly how game rules worked, you wouldn't be reading a game design blog!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Endurance Rule

Due to popular demand, I've written up and posted one of my new rules, and its designer's notes. Since these are living documents which might have to change to stay up-to-date, I have placed them in a new location on the game design fanatic forum, and added links to them on the sidebar. These documents should pretty much explain the Endurance Rule. This rule is only in playtest mode, and I haven't written blog articles yet on most of the problems it is trying to solve.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Email address

I've added an email address in the Posting Hints (it is obscured a bit for spam prevention).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Daily vs. Cinematic Timekeeping

Neubert wrote a good comment in an earlier post, suggesting that the problems with the daily powers mechanic could be solved by recharging the powers after a certain number of encounters rather than per day. This is basically equivalent to changing D&D from a daily system into a more cinematic system. When describing the ups and downs of the daily mechanic, I have not really written much about its main alternative, the cinematic approach.

The contrast to the classic D&D approach of pacing the adventure in terms of days and other units of real time is the cinematic approach, as exemplified by Torg and D6 Star Wars, where the adventure is more like a script and time is tracked in terms of Acts and Scenes. In a cinematic adventure, the passage of time has no great meaning to the game mechanics; if it has no signficance to the story it doesn’t usually matter how much time passes between encounters. Time is actually kept track of in terms of scenes, where a scene is one major element of the story – a fight, or a dramatic skill check, or a major puzzle or roleplaying event. A cinematic adventure is written out in terms of scenes, not in terms of maps and event locations, like a traditional 1st edition D&D adventure. Torg organized Scenes into Acts, but precise organizational details are not really important for the discussion.

In a time-based game like D&D, time is kept track of in terms of real terms. Powers recharge after 5 minutes, you can use your Might Swing twice per day, you heal one hit point per hour, or whatever. In a purely cinematic game, time is kept track of in terms of scenes. A power can be used once per scene, or you regain your stamina at the end of a scene, or you earn hero points at the end of a scene. Cinematic games can achieve this more easily by keeping track of resources using cinematic concepts like hero points (which deserve a whole article of their own).

Keeping time in the cinematic way makes adventures much easier to write, because the flow of time is not tied tightly into the game mechanics. The story can take place over one hour or several weeks, and the game mechanics still work the same way. There is no need to worry about characters filling time while they wait for things to happen – the way to recharge your powers is not to delay the action, but to make the action go forward. I always enjoy the cinematic style best myself.

4th edition D&D seems to owe a debt to the fun feel of the cinematic games in many ways – the adventures have a more structured, cinematic flow, the powers are exciting and have limitations that seem more dramatic than realistic. But the core time-keeping process is still daily. The milestone idea tries to put a little cinematic veneer on this, but it is a pretty thin veneer.

Transforming D&D to use the cinematic approach – recharging powers after every 4 encounters - is a fine idea, and something that I’ve been considering. I think it is certainly far superior to the “15-minute adventuring day” approach. But I should note that the technique of allowing the players to rest and recharge at any time, while keeping the adventure on a tight time constraint, has one advantage. Using the fully encounter-based recharge, if the players use up their powers after some bad luck in the first 3 fights, there is no way to get those powers back if they desperately need them for the 4th fight. With the time-constraint approach the characters can rest, accepting that they have to make up time later in the adventure of accept a less successful outcome to the adventure. With the encounter-based recharge, their options are less flexible. A real cinematic game has hero points to get the players out of a jam, but D&D doesn’t have that concept. On the other hand, the characters can probably figure out how to survive 4 encounters with one dose of powers, especially if healing surges are still daily. Or you could just give the players a certain number of “party recharges” per adventure, and let them decide when to use them.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Response to post on parrying game mechanic

I thought I’d add to a nice post from Thoughts of the Arch Chancellor about the parry mechanics. Some of these comments were rather similar to what I might have written - describing the various forms of parry rules and the effect they have on the game.

I would add that rules which give you the option of reducing your offense in order to increase your defense (“parry”) against a single foe, tend to discourage any use of parry at all. If you are outnumbered, as PC’s often are, you are lowering 100% of your attack but only partially increasing your defense (since some of the foes will ignore your parry). If you outnumber the foes, you are lowering your attack but you don’t even know if defense will be useful because the foes might attack someone else. If you are in a confused melee, you are lowering your attack but it might be the case that no foes attack you, or multiple foes attack you, and either way you aren’t really breaking even. Finally, even when you are one-on-one, it is to your benefit to go “all out”, because you might just kill the opponent instantly, and then you won’t need defense anyway.

Of course, there are still some reasons you might go on the defensive. If lowering your offense doesn’t really affect your attack, because you greatly outskill the foe and the game doesn’t give you much bonus for having much more offensive skill than the foe's defensive skill, you will go on the defense. Or if the tactical situation calls for extreme defense, you are holding off the enemy or something like that. Or if you are positive that you are one-on-one with a foe. But most of the time, you just don't want to lower your attack in order to increase your defense against only a single foe.

Rolemaster was had this exact mechanic, but it was also somewhat extreme in that, as you gained levels, your defense didn’t really increase while your offense did. So you didn’t want to parry, for the reasons I give above, but it was the only way to gain any sort of decent defense. I found the whole idea rather unpleasant, but the truth is that I never played at high level, just at low level where you could attack all out and forget about the parry rules.

A game where you have parries automatically doesn’t suffer from these difficult choices. But I have to say I dislike any single parry system because it strongly encourages concentration of fire, something games tend to encourage too much anyways.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fighting Withdrawal philosophy

When designing game rules, I have often found myself getting stuck trying to invent a rule that makes a game faithfully convey its source material, while at the same time being balanced and fun to play. Some things that appear in books and movies are just very difficult to translate into games.

I therefore found it very refreshing to read the 4th edition D&D rules and see that they had taken what I am calling a “fighting withdrawal” philosophy toward a lot of these rules.

For instance, the idea that a poison is so powerful that a single drop will kill a man instantly is a very classic fantasy idea which you might expect to see in fantasy source material. But it just doesn’t translate into the way that roleplaying combat actually works. D&D has traditionally had this “save or die” idea with poison, to represent the idea that the poison might not affect you. But if it does affect you, you are dead. This just isn’t fun, it just doesn’t work.

Instead of trying to make rules to accurately simulate a power that roleplaying games have never been able to simulate in a fun way, they have basically said, “We will not even try to properly simulate this power. We will instead say that in our game, poisons that work in unfun ways do not exist.” Then they have invented fun ways for poisons to work, and put those in the game. There are no poisons that instantly kill or paralyze you, mostly poisons that causing ongoing damage or interesting tactical effects. This isn’t very realistic, or even very cinematic (how a poison can slow down your movement without affecting your combat ability is hard to understand). But I finding it refreshing that they simply have retreated from fights they cannot win, to concentrate on making rules that actually do work. If you know you can’t create a good rule to cover a given situation, just don’t put that situation in your game and replace it with something different but fun to play.

I won’t give up my quest to make rules that really capture the true cinematic experience in an entertaining way. But until then, I might just make a fighting withdrawal from the really hard-to-create rules, and gather my forces to concentrate on a fun core gaming experience.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Trouble with balance of special defenses

4th edition D&D follows a very nice idea of trying to enforce a fundamental game balance. One example is that attack bonuses and defenses go up greatly with levels, but instead of letting them diverge greatly (resulting in fights where some hit rolls are impossible and some almost automatic), they specify exactly how quickly they should tend to go up so that difference doesn’t become too great. So the chance of a 30th level character hitting a 30th level monster should be similar to that of a 1st level character hitting a 1st level monster.

They specify that monster attacks and defenses are supposed to go up by one point per level. For characters, you can calculate how quickly they will go up, based on level, statistic bonuses, and magic weapons. The numbers work out nicely if you calculate the attack bonus a character will get over 40 levels (of course, in reality there aren’t that many levels). Characters will get +4 to every statistic and +10 to two statistics of their choice, so a total of +14 to their primary statistic. They get +1 better magic weapons every 5 levels, and +1 to hit every 2 levels automatically. This means the bonus is:

+20 from levels, +8 from magic, +7 from statistics = +35

So characters gain +7/8 attack bonus every level, slightly slower than monsters. Presumably the characters are supposed to make up for this in all the little bonuses they get from such things as paragon paths, feats, epic destinies, magic items, and so on.

Now, a character’s defense in light armor will go up at exactly the same rate. But because heavy armor is not based on a primary statistic, it goes up much more slowly. To compensate for this, D&D created the idea of masterwork armor, which gives larger bonuses for high level magic heavy armor. In theory, masterwork light armor is not really needed for game balance, but it would seem funny not to have it, and it may help compensate for high-level characters getting fewer ways to boost defense than to boost offense.

One thing that greatly troubles me, however, is the omission of “masterwork amulets”, extra bonuses for Fortitude, Reflex, and Will defenses. These defenses naturally go up more slowly than light armor bonuses. To be more specific, your special defenses that correspond to the statistics you raise with levels should go up at the same rate as your light armor AC, but your other special defense(s) will go up much more slowly. So without masterwork bonuses, special defenses would go up more quickly than heavy armor AC but more slowly than light armor AC. Therefore, they should get masterwork bonuses in between those two armor types.

The fact that there is no masterwork bonus means that special defenses go up more slowly than armor class. Since monster attacks that go against special defenses go up at the same rate as those that attack armor class, the relative accuracy differential of such attacks goes up. Worse, this does not obey the idea of the attack/defense balance remaining the same with levels. A 1st level brutal rogue, for instance, might be fairly easy for a 1st level monster to hit with a will-based attack. But a will-based attack from a 30th level monster will hit a 30th level brutal rogue just about automatically. This is rather annoying, especially if the monster has something like an immobilizing attack, and you know there is no hope the monster will miss you.