Thursday, February 26, 2009

When to Use Powers

To follow up from last week, I thought I would go into some issues I've noticed with choosing when to use encounter and daily powers.

For daily powers, if you do not use the power in a given encounter, you can always save it for later encounter. So the question is, when to use the power. Daily powers have two purposes. First, the existence of daily powers allows the character to have a resource he can save for really difficult encounters, in order to rise up to a difficult challenge or escape from a bad situation. They act in this way as a replacement for hero points. Second, a daily power can be a unique and exotic ability that is used even less often than an encounter power.

Unfortunately, the timings of when you would want to use these abilities differ. If daily powers are dramatic emergency abilities, then you want to save them for big fights and emergencies. If daily powers are cool and exotic abilities, you want to make sure to use all of them every day, so that you get to do all of your cool stuff. Since any given day may or may not have a big fight, and you can't predict what will happen during the day, you can't achieve both of these goals. If you use a power at a cool and appropriate moment, you are not saving it up. And if you save it up, there may not be an emergency and you may not use it at all.

My general suggestion has been to compromise. Save up half of your daily powers for emergencies, and try to distribute the other half throughout the day, using them when most effective or appropriate. But this suggestion has proven difficult to follow.

Some powers fit relatively easily into one or the other category, so it is straightforward to determine whether to save them or not. Brute Strike is just about the perfect power to save up for an emergency, because it doesn't really have any situational abilities, it is nothing more than a stronger version of a regular attack. You pretty much know that when you need to increase your damage output, Brute Strike will be the perfect maneuver. On the other hand, something like Web is very situational. You never know when you'll find a situation where you can place it so as to sufficiently annoy a bunch of monsters without annoying your allies. There isn't much point to saving it up for an emergency, because it is not likely that the emergency will also happen to be a good time to use your specialty spell. So you might as well use it when you see the perfect opportunity, while the getting is good.

But most powers are a combination of potency and specialty, and these are tricky to use. Something like Villain’s Menace could be useful in just about any fight, but is clearly more useful if you are fighting an elite or solo monster. Since most powers tend to work like this, it becomes mentally tricky for the players to decide when to use the daily power. If they use the power as soon as they find a reasonably good opportunity, they can easily use their dailies up too soon and not have enough for the big fight. If they say the power for the big fight, it is likely to be something of a letdown when they find they aren't in a situation that is well-suited to the special application of the power, and they have to simply skip the power or “waste” a good part of its effect. Trying to follow my suggestion of “metering” the powers throughout the day is possible, but awkward and mentally taxing. It just doesn't seem like a natural and intuitive way to play the character. When playing, we are always trying to remember to use up powers and action points at the correct rate. It is actually beneficial to do so, since using daily powers at the appropriate time makes the normal fights easier and saves healing surges. But the natural tendency is to be very conservative with the use of daily powers, saving them up solely for the big fight or the “perfect” opportunity - and you don't get a lot of perfect opportunities, or fights which are so obviously big that you know for certain it is a good time to blow all of your powers. So the daily powers can go unused during a day, or they end up being used in a disappointing weak fashion during an emergency and the player really wishes he had selected a more boring daily power.

Encounter powers are more straightforward, since you know you need to use them or lose them in an encounter, but they also suffer from a similar problem. A classic example of an awkward encounter power is Covering Strike. This power both does extra damage, and has a specialized tactical effect. This ends up being somewhat confusing because these 2 aspects want to be used in different situations. The extra damage is something you want to use right away, or at least as soon as you find a juicy target. But the tactical effect is only useful if you save it for just the right moment. In theory, it might seem interesting to have to make a decision between these 2 tactical choices. But in practice, it seems more unpleasant than interesting. If you save it for the right tactical situation, it is likely that this situation will never materialize. But if you ignore the tactical situation and use it right away, it is boring – and frustrating if the tactical situation you are looking for does materialize later on. It seems that Covering Strike would be much more entertaining if the ability to do additional damage and the ability to have a tactical effect were separated into 2 separate powers that could be used separately. Then you could always say the tactical effect for the most interesting and appropriate moment.

These issues with both daily and encounter powers are based on having limited use powers which both make the character flat out more powerful, and have tactically specialized effects, at the same time. I didn't think this was a problem when first reading the rules, but now I think it is not as good an idea as it might have initially appeared to be. I'll have to keep this in mind when designing powers for games.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Encounter Powers and Front-Loading

I really enjoyed the idea of encounter powers in fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons. It solves a problem I've had in the past when trying to game balance characters with multiple powers (most commonly Champions characters). If you try to give a character a bunch of powers to select from, then in any given situation, there will often be one power which is clearly superior to the others. This is most noticeable when the powers are not balanced and one power really is better than the others. But even if you balance the powers so that, overall, they are equally effective, as long as the powers are meaningfully different, in any given situation one power will be better than the others. If the powers are balanced overall, then over the lifetime of the character all of the powers will be used frequently. Unfortunately, it is quite common that against a given opponent in a given battle, the same powers is always the most effective power. So the character tends to use the same power over and over again in a given battle, which is not interesting.

This isn't the entire problem, however. If a power is a conventional damage-dealing attack, using it over and over again at least works well from a game mechanics perspective. But some powers just don't work very well if you are allowed to use them without end. Entangle was a classic power of this sort. All it really did was allow you to spend an action to try to make an opponent lose some number of actions. If the opponent can break out of the entangle too easily, you wouldn't want to use it against them. But if not, after they have struggled and managed to dramatically escape from the entangle, it is very efficient to entangle them again. This is makes for exceptionally long and boring fights. It also does not match what happens in the comic books, even though from a efficiency point of view it seems like a very logical action.

What is worse, a balanced entangle power would cause the opponent to lose, on average, only slightly more than one action (after you have factored in the hit probability and so forth). After all, it is only costing you one action. But this typically isn't very much fun to use - you want your entangle be more powerful in order to “feel cool”. But if it is, you have the problem mentioned previously of wanting to use it over and over again.

I had been pondering a number of ways to solve this problem by limiting or preventing the character from using the same power repeatedly. But I must confess, I hadn't quite hit on the idea of avoiding untested and complicated solutions in favor of the simple idea of generally making powers work only once per encounter. As soon as I saw this idea, I was struck with the elegance of the concept, in terms of making a rule which, while perhaps not perfectly true to cinematic reality, would solve some problems in a straightforward fashion.

By making a power an encounter power, you have the liberty to make it powerful and exciting, without worrying about the character using it repeatedly. The power no longer has to be balanced with the other powers. It doesn't even have to be balanced with other encounter powers on the same character. You entangle the bad guy once in a display of power, he struggles and eventually gets free, and you move on to other powers.

However, in playing with encounter powers, I have noticed a problem which I did not immediately think about. They cause the characters to be "front-loaded". Encounter powers are more powerful than other powers, but you can only use them once per combat. This means that eventually you run out of encounter powers - often rather quickly. This causes some problems:

1) Traditional storytelling drama suggests that heroic adventurers should often start out barely able to hold their own against the ferocious monster attack, then rise to the challenge by “pulling out all the stops" and finishing off the monsters with a series of dramatic moves. But D&D works the opposite way - the characters pull out their best maneuvers at the beginning of the combat and peter out toward an ending anticlimax.

2) As the fight progresses, the characters become less powerful, which can make the fights more “touchy” and harder to balance. A lot of the player damage will be dealt early, then the players have to finish off the monsters with weak attacks. If the players get a little bit lucky, they may finish off the monsters with powerful early attacks rather suddenly. If the players have bad luck, they may not cause enough initial damage with their powerful attacks, and the fight could go on for a long time. Increasing the variability of fight duration is not desirable - fights with a normal duration are mostly preferable to fights which are over too quick, or which drag on interminably.

3) Since harder fights have tougher monsters which can do a better job about outlasting the initial burst of powerful attacks from the characters, it might be very hard to finish them off – while weaker opponents are likely to be killed all too quickly. Thus harder fights become harder and easier fights become easier. This is a minor issue since daily powers and adventure design can compensate, but it is not desirable.

4) Not only do the characters become weaker as the fight progresses, they also become less interesting, reinforcing the idea that a long fight will turn into a tedious slog.

5) If a fight suddenly takes a turn for the worse, it is possible to pull out your daily powers to try to turn things around. But since they are available at any time, and it is most effective to do your best maneuvers as early as possible, they are less effective when used this way then when you predict that a combat will be difficult and use the powers at the very beginning to make sure that the fight won’t turn against you. This is not a major problem, but it is kind of unfortunate that you would be rewarded for making the fight less interesting.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Combat Fatigue Rule

I added a new rule to the sidebar, the Combat Fatigue Rule, with designer's notes. Although the rule has received little playtesting as of yet, I thought it would be appropriate to present it as it complements the Endurance Rule I posted previously.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Player motivations and obsolete GM articles

I like a lot of the game master advice in fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, such as the inclusion of the "player motivations" concept. That was one of my favorite concepts from Champions fourth edition, I remember how enlightening I found it and how much fun I had reading the descriptions and trying to figure out what kind of player everyone else was.

I’ve been reading some old game magazines from before this time, and it occurs to me that the concept that there are multiple different legitimate player motivations is actually a pretty big discovery, because some of the old game mastering articles had some pretty bad advice. They remind me of reading ancient medical articles recommending the use of leeches. Well-intentioned, but misguided.

Many of these articles were basically about how the GM could punish players who did not fit their playing style, in an attempt to force that player into the correct playing style. The advice given was often logical for that purpose, but it just didn't seem to occur to the authors that there might be more than one legitimate way to play the game. I can't really blame them, I don't think this concept really occurred to me until I read it in Champions. It is just interesting that a purely non-rules-based article can become obsolete with the discovery of new knowledge, much like an old science book.

I'm a little skeptical, though, of the idea in Dungeons & Dragons that the game master can really cater to every type of player simultaneously. A party of power gamers is all well and good, but I'm not sure I'd ever really want to play in the same group as a pure power gamer. I’m mostly a genre fiend / storyteller, and I don't really want my carefully crafted character overshadowed by an ultra-powerful rules abuse monster.

I usually just recognize that there are different campaign styles that can cater to different play styles, and it is possible to recognize that certain campaigns may be good for some players but not others, and that campaigns can include or exclude certain elements based on the players.

A thinker likes the "problem-solving" element. I dislike this element myself, but I have one player who likes problem-solving. So when that particular player is performing noncombat actions, I can sometimes convert a part of the adventure which would otherwise use skill checks to use problem-solving instead.

As another example, playing in a group with wacky “instigator” players can make for a fun change of pace and memorable experiences, but I would want to be forewarned to prepare for a lighthearted gaming style and save my serious characters and campaigns for a different play group.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Temple of the Beastmen - CNA Rules

Whenever I play a game that has some parts I like but some flaws, I tend to start thinking of ways to fix the flaws and make the game better. Temple of the Beastmen is an old game that isn't that great, but has some elements that appeal to me. As a small side project, I decided to have a go at rethinking the rules and coming up with a better version game that still carries some of the original spirit that I liked. I've published the new rules and designer notes in the sidebar of my blog.

Monday, February 2, 2009

More explanation on Lurkers

I wrote some time ago about what monster roles actually exists in 4th edition D&D, and how they don’t always match up directly with the printed monster roles. I mentioned that the Lurker role seems almost totally non-existent in the monster manual when I perused all the heroic-level monsters. Since many monsters are listed as “Lurkers”, I’ll explain this more thoroughly.

According to the description of what a Lurker is supposed to be, it is supposed to be a creature that launches a big attack every few rounds, withdrawing in the meantime through stealth, mobility, or some other defensive ability. This sounds like it could potentially be an interesting kind of monster, so I put in my descriptions that this is what a Lurker is supposed to be. It would be possible to build a monster that works this way mechanically. However, almost none of the monsters in the monster manual actually work like this.

Some of the monsters are capable of acting in this fashion - for instance, they can turn invisible and hide between attacks. However, they have no reason to act like this. The description for lurker is generally indicates that while they are hitting and running, their allies are fighting at full intensity. It is extremely disadvantageous to have one monster attack once every 3 rounds instead of every round. While he can hide on the other rounds, this is not very helpful to his side because the players can simply target a monster which is not hidden. Basically, it is almost as if the monster is unable to attack 2 out of 3 rounds.

In order for a monster to want to spend an entire round not attacking, it would have to get a huge advantage to compensate. Many monsters do get small advantages - for instance, if they waste a round becoming invisible they can gain combat advantage on the next round, and the opponents will be forced to attack a tough soldier next round instead of them. But this isn't even close to compensating for the massive disadvantage of losing an entire attack.

Now, it is possible for the game master to ignore the correct tactics for the monster and have it make hit-and-run attacks just to make it feel like a cool lurker monster. In some cases, this sort of GM control can be effective at creating the proper atmosphere. However, such a monster is not really a lurker, but rather it is a coward. Pretending that a coward is actually a lurker only works as long as the characters don't catch on. Once they do, it can be rather annoying. D&D is a tactical game, and if the players think that a monster is a lurker, they will naturally want to foil its ambitions when they have a chance and try to corner it and force it to fight straight up. Unfortunately, if the monster is actually a coward rather than a lurker, this is the worst thing the player can do because the monster becomes much more powerful when it is forced to fight straight up. If the players realize this, it can really disrupt the suspension of disbelief and the general atmosphere of the combat.

GM: The cunning bandit strikes from behind, then disappears into the shadows to avoid reprisals.

Players: Oh good, now we can beat on his buddies in peace and deal with him later. Maybe we should try to avoid throwing any area attacks in his direction - we wouldn't want him to feel threatened and come fight us. We definitely don't want to cast our "reveal hidden enemies" spell.

In theory, however, it should be possible to create a monster that is a true lurker. One way to do this would be to give the monster low defenses and an extremely powerful attack with a recharge roll. That way, it might be a better idea for the monster to withdraw until he recharges his power, rather than fighting with his ineffective at-will power and probably dying before his main power is recharged. In order for this to work well, the rechargeable power needs to be much, much stronger than the at-will power, not just a little stronger. Another, more heavy-handed approach is used in the Imp, the only true heroic-level lurker I could find in the monster manual. The Imp has a special power which is more than twice as strong as his basic attack, and it only recharges when he uses his lurker power to turn invisible. Hence, he is strongly encouraged to alternate attacking with turning invisible. And while invisible, he probably has nothing better to do with his move action than sneak around the combat and try to prepare for a mischievous surprise attack - in other words, to act exactly like a lurker is supposed to act.

All of this discussion relates to the idea of having lurkers in the same fight as normal monsters. If you fight nothing but lurkers, the dynamics of the fight change completely, and it is much easier for a monster to be an effective lurker. If all of the monsters are extremely good at disappearing on the same round so that the players have no targets at all, this can be an effective tactic even with some of the "lurker" creatures listed in the monster manual. For instance, I found that the young Black Dragon is nearly invulnerable inside his zone of darkness, so he can afford to sit there and wait for his powers to recharge. As long as he doesn't have any allies for the players to attack, this seems like a reasonably effective tactic. The only problem is that I found this was rather boring, it wasn't very exciting for the players to withdraw to a safe distance and sit around twiddling their thumbs and throwing ineffective long-range attacks while they wait for the dragon to come out and play again. The fight was more fun when I had the Black Dragon give up the lurking concept and just go fight the players.