Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
The Elder Scrolls: Legends

The Elder Scrolls: Legends (TES:L) is a recently released collectible card video game on PC and iOS. Well, recent if you don't count the beta version you could already play last year on PC. It is maybe slightly more complex than Hearthstone, but significantly less complex than Magic: The Gathering. Which is a disadvantage only to MtG grognards such as myself.

As TES:L is free to play, I can only recommend trying it out and playing the story mode. Depending on your point of view that is either the ultra-long tutorial of the game, or the main attraction of it. Personally I am in the latter camp, and might well uninstall the game after I have finished the three acts of the story. Because compared to the story mode, practice mode gives very little rewards. The arenas cost money to enter. And the button marked "PLAY" is the PvP mode, and I don't like PvP.

Which brings me to one of the most important issues when it comes to playing collectible card games: They are fundamentally always to at least some degree Pay2Win. That isn't to say that the richer player always wins, because the player with the smaller collection can always happen to have just the right deck build to counter his strategy, or might just get luckier with the card draws. But everything else being equal, having more cards to choose from to build your deck is certainly an advantage.

You can earn cards by playing. Won games can give gold, and there are daily quests that also give you gold. Every 100 gold buys you a booster of 6 cards. But of course each booster only has a 1 in 25 chance to contain a legendary card, there are 52 different legendary cards up to now, and some of them you can put up to 3 times into your deck. Which means it will take a while to get a full set of everything, even if you can destroy cards you have too much to get soul gems, with which you can buy the cards that you are missing. Reddit estimates the cost for a full collection between $600 and €1,200. Or grinding for over a thousand hours.

That explains why I don't like PvP in collectible card video games. If you play against the AI, for example in story mode of TES:L, your deck just needs to be "good enough". And you can get to that point without paying anything (although for testing purposes I got the $5 starter set for 10 packs, plus 3 packs for registering an account). As soon as you play against other players, its a race to keep up with the Joneses. Either you match the time and/or money your opponents spent on the game, or you have to be content to play at a permanent disadvantage.

Personally I still prefer Magic Duels. You can only put 1 of each legendary into a Magic Duels deck, you can't find cards in boosters that you already have enough of, the game stops you from buying more boosters than you need for a full collection, and if you just play casually (e.g. the daily quest every day and not more) you end up earning enough gold during one expansion to buy the next one. Of course that isn't much of a help for late starters, because then there is a huge back catalog of cards to acquire. But the expansion blocks are nicely self-contained, so you don't really need all the cards from all previous expansions to do well against the AI. Magic Duels is my benchmark for generosity in Free2Play games, and The Elder Scrolls: Legends doesn't even come close to that benchmark.

Monday, March 27, 2017
Bitten off more than I can chew

The Zeitgeist Adventure Path is an epic campaign. It has 13 adventures for either 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder (5th edition conversion is in the works) that go from level 1 to the maximum level of each system. Printed out the campaign is over 1,500 pages long. It has its own campaign world, in which not just the history but even the planar constellation is part of the story. And it has as many storylines as Game of Thrones, often touching deeply philosophical issues and rejecting simple good vs. evil categories.

Now the attraction of such an epic campaign is obvious. It is why I started that campaign with my group nearly 2 years ago. But of course I didn't even read all 1,500 pages before starting, preparing just one adventure in advance at a time. The first and second adventure went well, but cracks are starting to appear in adventure 3: The "grand conspiracy" which is the main story line is getting more visible, but at the same time the DM can't reveal too much of it so as to not spoil the next 10 adventures. One of the consequences is that the group is now traveling to explore a ziggurat without really knowing what they are looking for. The players "meta-gamed" to make the decision to go there, as going to the next available dungeon tends to be a good idea in this sort of game. But the characters, members of the Royal Homeland Constabulary have no compelling reason to do so: What modern policeman who gets a case involving artifacts coming from an Egyptian pyramid would decide to explore that pyramid to find out more? And the rest of adventure 3 has a lot more of such events which might be fun to play, but don't really make much sense.

So this weekend I was reading adventure 4 to see what is coming. The setting is kind of a "Murder in the Orient Express" type of game. The constables will be undercover in a train, trying to identify a conspirator in a cast of 42 NPCs, of which several have unrelated storylines and events related to those happening during the trip. There is so much going on on this train that they will gain 2 levels in 5 days of train voyage. And I don't think that me or my group are up for such an adventure. To come back to the Game of Thrones comparison, do you know the feeling when you start watching a new season and realize that you have forgotten a lot of what happened in the previous season and don't remember quite who each of the characters is and what they are currently doing? As we only play once or twice per month, our roleplaying sessions are all a bit like that. Complex investigative adventures with tons of NPCs and side stories are just leaving everybody confused. The group is more likely to decide at some point to blow up the train to kill everybody than to interrogate everybody one by one discreetly in order to find the target.

So I was looking at ways to make adventure 3 and 4 a lot less complex and eliminate a lot of the red herrings and side stories. But the campaign already accelerates level gains far too much for my liking: In the 4 sessions with 2 fights they had in this adventure they already gained one level. If I shorten the adventure I'll end up giving them one level after every fight in order to keep up with the level requirements of the next adventures.

Ultimately the problem is that roleplaying games are an oral media: All the 1,500 pages of information from the Zeitgeist Adventure Path has to get from the pages somehow into my brain, and from there via my narration of the events to the players. That is a lot of story to tell, and a lot of story for players to keep in mind in order to make sense of what is going on. Maybe we are just getting old and forgetful, maybe we play too infrequently, or maybe we just aren't all that interested in such deep a story. Us playing in 4th edition, where sometimes it takes us a whole evening to play through one fight isn't helping. More and more I come to the conclusion that my plan to play this campaign to the end is doomed. It took us nearly 2 years to get from the start to the second chapter of the third adventure, and I don't see us spending many more years to get to the end of adventure 13. More and more that prospect looks like more work than fun. And fun is the ultimate purpose of playing games.


Sunday, March 26, 2017
Party politics

In Belgium, where I live, the federal parliament has 13 different parties. Not only is there the usual spectrum of parties from left to right, but there is an additional axis north-south, with Dutch-speaking parties from the north and French-speaking parties from the south. Under these conditions it isn't a big surprise that Belgium holds the world record of 589 days needed after one election to actually form a government.

A two-party system in comparison appears to be a lot simpler. There is always a majority. Or so you would think. But what if the people forming one party are in fact deeply divided and can't agree on anything? This is what appears to be happening in the United States. The Republicans hold both houses of parliament, the presidency, and a majority of governorships. If they would agree on something, changing the country in their image would be relatively easy. But in reality the one party calling itself the Republicans consists of at least two, if not much more, sub-parties.

The Republicans are the party of the rich. They are the party of the rural poor. They are the party of religion. They are the party of freedom. They are the party of family values. They are the party of the industrial military complex. They are the party of free market capitalism. They are the party of trade barriers. There are so many direct contradictions in their positions that I would consider it to be actually impossible to hold all the values that the Republican party stands for in a single person.

So increasingly the Republican party is the party of "no". They are against pretty much everything. They either aren't *for* anything, or at least can't agree what that something is. They agree that they all are against Obamacare, but the best alternative they could come up with looks a lot like Obamacare with a new coat of paint, and then they couldn't agree on the color of that paint either.

That not only is horribly inefficient, it also is somewhat dishonest towards the voters. Somebody casting a vote for a Republican doesn't really know what he will get. Okay, he could inform himself in detail about the candidates position. But on election day he'll have the choice only between a Republican who holds different values than he does, or a Democrat. Makes you wonder if the multi-party system isn't better after all.

Friday, March 24, 2017
Zeitgeist: Digging for Lies - Session 4

In the previous session the constables of the RHC arrested Kaja Stewart, an illegal arms dealer. So this session started with her interrogation. Kaja Stewart admitted having worked for Mayor Reed Macbannin (their previous case). She claimed that while she was helping the mayor to refine witch oil in the underground laboratory, she had been told that this was for a secret defense program. She only realized that her activities might have been criminal when the constables turned up to arrest the mayor. Not wanting to go to jail, and now without a job, she used the ensuing chaos to empty the safe of the mayor and flee. Having found a number of magical weapons in the safe, access to some more mundane weapons in a warehouse of the operation, and contacts to the thieves guild, she decided to make her living dealing in arms.

She didn't know much about the staff of the ancients, nor about the amulet and blade of the ancients. She had heard that the items came from an archaeological dig site, and had been brought to the mayor by a Danoran tiefling for identification. She couldn't say whether him or any other of the many visitors of the mayor were involved in the conspiracy or just there for regular business.

[DM's note: At this point the adventure as written assumes that the constables automatically make a connection between "archaeological dig site" and the local university and head there next. But as neither the Pardwight University nor it's archaeological department and museum had ever appeared in this or previous adventures, I made a slight change to the story.]

After the interrogation the constables did their usual morning debriefing with their boss, Assistant Chief Inspector Stover Delft. He commended them for having captured the arms dealer, and agreed that they should investigate the staff of the ancients further, given how that staff had summoned strange monsters at the exposition and was a possible danger. However the description of the staff had also appeared in a newspaper article, together with the fact that the RHC had confiscated it. So now the legal owner of the staff had come forward, a Hans Weber, Professor of Antiquities and curator of the Museum of Natural History of the Pardwight University. He had provided paperwork to prove that he had a right to staff, and that he had previously declared the theft of the staff, blade, and amulet of the ancients. Now he wants them back, for an important exhibition at the museum. As the RHC has not much legal basis to keep the items, Delft told the constables to bring them to Professor Weber, but question him at the same time about the staff's origin.

Merian had a contact at the university who could tell them more about Professor Weber, who appeared to be legit albeit a bit full of himself. Professor Weber was able to tell them more about where the staff had come from: Earlier this year an archaeologist from Slate had discovered a ziggurat in the High Bayou region of Risur. The archaeologist, a Dr. Xambria Meredith, had looked around for funding. Finally both Pardwight University and a philanthropist from Danor, Caius Bergeron, had agreed to co-finance the excavation. The deal was that Xambria would send any finds to Caius Bergeron first, who would inspect the items and then hand them over to the university and museum for exhibition. The staff, blade, and amulet were early finds. Xambria had sent them to Caius Bergeron, but apparently something had gone wrong, because all Professor Weber received was a letter from Caius stating that unfortunately the items had been stolen and he couldn't deliver them to the museum.

Then things got even worse: The excavation team was attacked by unknown assailants and massacred. Xambria was the only survivor, and had returned to Flint. She is under severe shock and is suffering from memory loss and confusion. So the university put her in an apartment on site for rest until she could get better. The constables were allowed to interview Xambria, but asked to tread carefully due to the fragile state of her.

Dr. Xambria Meredith could give them a bit more information. The philanthropist Caius Bergeron, a tiefling from Danor, had asked her to look for a specific item: A large disc out of pure gold that he called the "golden seal", full of astronomical symbols from the ancients. Shortly after finding and sending Caius the staff, blade, and amulet, Xambria had in fact found such a golden seal in the ziggurat and informed Caius about it. Caius had then sent a team of specialists, tiefling mages from Danor, to inspect the find. While they were busy inspecting the seal, Xambria had gone to pick up supplies in the next village. When she had come back, she had found the whole excavation team massacred. She didn't see the bodies of the specialists, but hadn't dared to venture inside the ziggurat. In shock she had returned to Flint and reported the deaths to the police and the university. However nobody had returned to the dig site since then to her knowledge. She provided the constables with a map and description how to reach the ziggurat.

From the description of the philanthropist it appeared clear that it was him who had given the blade, staff, and amulet of the ancients to Mayor Macbannin. While the university had lost contact with Caius Bergeron, the constables were able to find him by using their connection to the security chief of the Danoran consulate. Caius was staying in one of the best hotels in the rich North Shore district. He was willing to talk to the constables, but his account pretty much matched the information that they already had. Caius claimed that he had been afraid of the items being cursed, as that was at least a common superstition about artifacts found in pyramids / ziggurats. So he had looked for the local specialist in fighting dark magic, which happened to be Mayor Reed Macbannin. After the arrest of the mayor, Caius had gone to the mayor's manor to claim his belongings, but found the safe in the mayor's office had been emptied. So he had informed the university of the theft. Caius claimed that he had no idea who had caused the subsequent massacre at the dig site, and hadn't heard from his team of specialists since. He assumed they were dead. He could only speculate that some sort of monster attack had happened, and mentioned that the region was home to one of the five titans of Risur, fey creatures of colossal scale and near god-like power. The Voice of Rot was a huge white serpent who controlled the swamps of Risur and the rotting of dead animals.

[DM's note: This time it was the players who remarked that the adventure wasn't very good at providing compelling reasons towards the next step. What to do next was more a result of meta-gaming, with the adventure providing a clear neon-sign saying "dungeon this way", and the conventions of the genre demanding that the group of adventurers checks out that dungeon.]

So the constables decided to head for the ziggurat next. They spent a day getting permission, getting equipment and the like, and then left on one of the few already existing train lines to Bole in the High Bayou. At this point we ended the session.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition official translations

Tonight I am going to play 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons with my regular group of friends. We have been playing together for over a decade, using different role-playing game systems. Of the six players, half don't speak English, so we play in French. And while the majority of Dungeons & Dragons players of the world have moved on from 4th edition to 5th edition, we keep playing 4E for the simple reason that 5th edition isn't available in French. Or any other language than English. So the news yesterday that Wizards of the Coast is in fact planning a localization is significant. They partnered with Gale Force 9 to translate 5th edition into French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese, with more to follow. Already this year, over the summer, the three core rule-books will be released one after the other. I will need to discuss with my group whether and when we want to switch.

While this is good news for me, I know some people who are going to be extremely angry at this announcement. Up to now there was no word at all from Wizards of the Coast on a possible translation. But there is an "open source" / "open game license (OGL)" version of 5th edition rules called the System Reference Document (SRD), also in English. And while I don't know about other languages, on the French side there were not one, but two different Kickstarter projects that have been successfully crowdfunded to translate the SRD into French to create a "French 5th edition" equivalent. However obviously a crowdfunded project doesn't have the same resources as a big company. So the official 5E translation will arrive on the market *before* the crowdfunded translations. And the SRD has minor differences from the official version, with well-known monsters, spells, and character options missing. Being not even much cheaper than the official version, I don't think the crowdfunded translations will do very well. Such are the dangers of Kickstarter projects!

Monday, March 20, 2017
Total War: Warhammer

I bought Total War: Warhammer in a half-price sale and have played it for 16 hours, according to Steam. Time enough to have formed an opinion, although obviously I haven't seen everything yet. This is from the point of view of somebody who like strategy games, but isn't a great Total War fan. Again according to Steam the only Total War game I played more than this is Empire: Total War for 65 hours. So don't expect any deep expertise here.

Given that lack of expertise I started the first game with the one race marked as being easy, the dwarves, and selected easy difficulty level. However that first game was far from easy for a beginner, because the tutorial isn't great and sometimes even misled me (e.g. the advisor said that it might be advisable to lay siege instead of attacking at the first enemy settlement, which turned out to be a complete waste of time). What ultimately killed me was the fact that you need a lot of provinces to pay the upkeep of even a single large army, so you end up having few armies even if you already have a large territory. And at one point I had both my large armies in the south when I was attacked from two different sides in the north. With dwarves being slow and no fast travel except for some quest battles, I just gave up with a lesson learned and restarted.

Other than being slow, the dwarves were in fact a good choice for starters. They earn the most gold in a game where gold is frequently the scarcest resource. And except for the slayer troops, the dwarven troops are all well armored and frequently have shields. Even the archers. Which in practice hilariously makes the dwarven archers better than the elven ones, as your dwarven archers are still alive and kicking once they got attacked by the light cavalry that ran around your front line.

Compared to other Total War games I have played, I appreciate the larger variety of Total War: Warhammer regarding troops and race-specific features. That also includes race-specific diplomacy, with other dwarf tribes being naturally more favorable to you in diplomacy than humans, elves, vampires, or orcs. At first neighboring dwarf tribes were more of a nuisance, as there is no diplomacy option of trading settlements, and I ended up having a lot of half provinces. But in mid-game I had so much favor with my dwarven neighbors that they joined my "confederation", which is a fancy term of saying that they simply handed over all their settlements and troops to me. The first time that happened I doubled my territory and suddenly had 5 complete provinces instead of 2. I suspect that won't happen with other races. It took forever to get to any friendly relations with the border princes. That was annoying because enemies ran through their territories to attack me, and I couldn't cross that same area because that would have been trespassing and gotten me into trouble with them.

I now more or less got the hang of the strategic map and province management. What I find annoying is that defending provinces still is a nuisance. You can't choose what and how many troops to use as garrison. You can increase the garrison by building defensive buildings, but with most settlements only having at max 3 building slots, you don't want to use that option very often. And putting an army in for defense is relatively expensive because you need a general. I don't know how I'll do with races that earn less gold.

There are some other features that either I haven't understood or that aren't all that useful. I can put my army in a tunneling stance, in which they appear to tunnel from A to B instead of walking. I imagine it could work to tunnel under an enemy troop and avoid its zone of control, because that is how the orcs are trying to use it against me. And sometimes that ends with me intercepting them, and there being an underground battle. However the advisor suggested that I could tunnel under mountains, but even if I am in tunnel stance and click on a destination on the other side of a mountain chain, the army moves around it instead of through it. I probably haven't found the right area yet to tunnel efficiently. I hear it can help against attrition from badlands, which would be nifty, because attrition is probably one of the most annoying features of the game.

The main reason I don't often play Total War games is that the battles are in real time, and I've always been more of a turn-based fan. However with the dwarves at least I am doing fine, because they don't relay of fast maneuvering anyway. Enemies run circles around me, and then die. While the AI is definitively cheating and the game sometimes throws unexpected new modes of invasions your way, I'm doing pretty well in my second game. And the real time battles are somewhat less repetitive than they were in Empire: Total War, because the troops of different races are more different from each other.

I don't regret to have bought Total War: Warhammer at half price, but more would have been too much. Which also means that I am not in the market for $20 DLCs to make the elves a playable race, or similar nonsense. Most of the negative comments on Steam are about the DLC policy. The other advantage of waiting for a sale is avoiding the early bugs, which Total War games frequently have. So up to now I haven't encountered any major bugs. The AI still isn't the most brilliant (never was in the series), but the game is quite playable as it is.

Thursday, March 16, 2017
Cheaper than buying a console

For the past 20 years or so I have done most of my gaming on a PC. These days I'm also playing a lot of mobile games on my iPad, but still the PC is one of my major gaming platforms. I don't currently have any console connected to a screen in my household. However in the past I did buy a few consoles, namely a PS2, a PS3, and a Gamecube. In each of these cases I wanted to play very specific games (e.g. Final Fantasy, Red Dead Redemption, Zelda) and ended up buying the console for it. Often I then bought only a few other games, so console gaming never occupied a huge percentage of my gaming time except for short periods of time.

These days I am very much in a "too many games, not enough time" mood. It isn't as if I don't think I would enjoy playing the latest Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, or a PS4 game like Horizon Zero Dawn. But buying a Switch console plus the Zelda game is nearly 400 Euro, and a PS4 plus Horizon is between 300 and 450, depending on which version of the console I take. If there are so many other games, why spend 400 bucks to be able to play a game?

Now I am reading the news that PS4 games will soon come to PlayStation Now, a video game streaming service which works on PCs. I'd need to check whether my PS3 controller works on my PC, or buy a new one, but then I would be able to play a range of Playstation 3 and soon 4 on my PC without having to buy a whole console for it. I do have the highspeed broadband connection required for video game streaming.

I'm not quite sure yet whether I will go for it, but at the very least this option is much cheaper than buying a console. I just hope that one day Nintendo offers something similar.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017
D&D 5th edition challenge ratings

Different people have different preferences regarding character deaths in pen & paper roleplaying games. My previous campaign had about 1 death per year, and that was fine by me. I don't want players to think that their characters can't die, but I do want character deaths to be rare and special. A good part of the motivation for roleplaying games in general comes from character progression, and death puts a damper on that progress and thus on the motivation.

Now 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons basic concept was one of extreme balance. Two characters of the same level have the same number of daily, encounter, and at will powers, regardless of class. While there is some necessary difference between ranged and melee classes, a ranger shooting people with arrows has powers that are very much comparable with a wizard shooting people with spells. Between the balanced classes and powers, and the splitting of combat into more rounds, 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons fight were relatively predictable. Good tools in the DMG helped me to repeatedly design challenging fights in which players were afraid for their lives, but ultimately succeeded in a satisfying win.

5th edition is lacking those tools. Or rather the DMG is trying to provide tools, but they don't really work well for different cases. That is not because the developers didn't put effort in trying to build the encounter design tools, but rather due to the different combat math of 5th edition: 5th edition was built on the idea that extreme balance is boring, and we should have the choice between classes that deal a more constant stream of damage for a long time and classes that are essentially glass cannons, able to deal massive damage for a short time before running out of steam. And because the goal was to make combat shorter, in each round a higher percentage of the total hit points of player characters and monsters needs to be dealt. If a fight is designed for 3 turns, the players need to deal damage equal to a third of the total hit points of all enemies each turn. With these high stakes each turn, a single fumbled attack or a critical hit can determine whether the players win or lose the fight. Unpredictability makes for difficult encounter design.

The tools that 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons has to build encounters are built around a concept of "challenge rating" of the monsters. Which is more or less equivalent to the 4E concept of having an experience point budget for monsters in an encounter. There is a table in the 5E DMG on page 274 in which for each challenge rating you can find both defensive stats (AC, hit points) and offensive stats (to hit, damage). The overall challenge rating is the average between defensive CR and offensive CR, so your monsters can be built more aggressively or more defensive. As long as the enemies are simple monsters with standard melee or ranged attacks, that works reasonably well. There is a lot of disagreement what the correct monster challenge rating should be for a party of n characters of level X, but that has more to do with different preferences of deadliness, as discussed above.

But when I tried to use that challenge rating tool for the villain of the adventure I am planning, an evil sorcerer, I quickly discovered the limitations of that approach. In a world where a player sorcerer or wizard has very low defenses and a few very powerful spells, an enemy sorcerer with high hitpoints and constant damage every turn wouldn't really look believable. The table doesn't even tell you for a given challenge rating what level that spellcaster enemy should be. The monster manual, which has some examples of NPC enemies, suggests that caster level is about 1.5 x challenge rating. But even if I decide on a caster level, let's say making my evil sorcerer level 5 to give a good challenge to my group of players of level 3, I'm still far from having done my work.

The NPC enemies in the Monster Manual all have far higher hit points than a player character of the same level would have. A player sorcerer level 5 would have around 30 hit points. That would be rather low for a boss encounter main villain, because he would risk being killed on the first turn by a level 2 spell or some lucky rolls from the players. On the other hand the suggested hit points for a monster of that challenge rating are over 100, which seems too high for a sorcerer. I think the good compromise is somewhere in the middle of that.

Much more difficult to assess is the damage output of the villain. A level 5 sorcerer has access to level 3 spells, but there are huge differences in the power of different spells of the same level. A fireball, dealing 8d6 damage in a large area, could potentially we a one-shot total party kill for a group of level 3 characters if you consider that a level 3 fighter has on average 28 hit points, which is just the average damage of that fireball. Other level 3 spells for a sorcerer (except lightning bolt) are comparatively harmless and would just constitute minor inconveniences to the player characters. So the caster level and hit points aren't enough to determine the challenge rating of a NPC villain, it depends very much on the exact spells chosen for him.

What I will basically have to do is to determine the attack spells that the villain is likely to cast in three rounds of combat, estimate how many players might get caught in these spells, determine the average damage per turn from that, and then look up to what sort of offensive challenge rating that corresponds. Not an easy exercise, and there is an obvious danger that the real combat will be very much different from that estimate.

Sunday, March 12, 2017
Diving into 5th edition

Besides the ongoing 4th edition D&D campaign I run at my house, I play some 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons at a roleplaying club in the city. And now I decided to run a 5E adventure there as well. While I do like the tactical combat, good balance, and many options that 4th edition D&D has, 5E is definitively more popular, faster, and easier to prepare as a DM.

However one thing I'm still struggling with is building balanced encounters, which might be a problem for the adventure I'm planning. Between the DMG, the encounter building rules in Unearthed Arcana, and the advice you get on the internet there are big differences. The fundamental problem here is that 5th edition re-introduced a strong imbalance between casters and non-casters that 4th edition had removed. A wizard or similar magic-using class casting actual spells (not cantrips) every round has a far higher damage output than the weapon-using classes, but then eventually runs out of spell slots and is reduced to relatively harmless cantrips.

As a result, if you use the official rules the encounters tend to be somewhat too easy, unless you prevent the characters from resting and do the suggested 5 encounters between long rests. That works reasonably well in some settings, like dungeons, but a lot less well in other settings. If you want a mix of combat encounters and role-playing encounters, preventing players from resting becomes a somewhat artificial and strained exercise. You need to invent time constraints or interruptions, just so that the encounters don't become too easy for an alpha-striking wizard. And then you need to invent situations that enable the group to rest after 5 encounters or so despite the constraints you put up earlier.

So no wonder that if you look elsewhere on the internet, people consider the balanced encounters of the official rules as too easy, and prefer higher challenge ratings. However at higher challenge ratings another fundamental property of 5th edition is aggravated: 5E is the most unpredictable version of Dungeons & Dragons due to combat mathematics. Many monsters as well as many spells of players deal a lot of dice of damage, and critical hits double the number of dice. Friday my level 3 paladin was fighting a monster that only had a 20% chance to hit him in his plate armor and shield, but dealt on average 20 points of damage compared to the 28 maximum hitpoints of my character, and had multiple attacks. Even with using all my healing power on myself on my turn, the monster knocked me unconscious by hitting me 3 times in 3 rounds with some lucky rolls.

For the adventure I'm designing, I really don't want to use monsters that can take more than half of somebody's hit points with a single hit, and one-shot a full health character on a critical hit. But if you compare the monsters in the Monster Manual with the "Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating" table on page 274 of the Dungeon Masters Guide, it is clear that most monsters are built around a low defensive challenge rating and a high offensive challenge rating. That results in the typical 5E "fast combat" experience, but is somewhat of a gamble for encounter balance. If every fight lasts only a few rounds with few attacks, the same monster can end up being a complete pushover with unlucky rolls or cause a total party kill on high rolls. A lot of DMs get around that problem by fudging dice. I don't like that method, because it is very hard not to overdo it and basically take the game out of D&D. It also is an admission of defeat, you fudge dice because the mathematics of the system with rolling dice just don't work.

For my adventure I am using a mix of official and self-created monsters. And the monsters I made will be a little less 5E and a little more 4E, lasting a bit longer in combat but also draining the life of the players a bit more slowly. I hope that will solve several of the problems of 5E, on the one side teaching the casters not to use spell slots every turn, while on the other side being a bit more predictable and letting me roll dice in the open. The adventure is designed to have 50:50 combat encounters and role-playing encounters, and if every combat was finished after 2 turns that would be not enough time spent in combat. It isn't so much the number of encounters between rests that is needed by the 5th edition rules, but rather the number of combat turns between rests.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017
Zeitgeist: Digging for Lies - Session 3

In the previous session the constables of the Royal Homeland Constabulary found that the monsters appearing suddenly at the exposition were in fact linked to Mayor Macbannin from their previous adventure. An employee of his, Kaja Stewart, had apparently emptied Macbannin's safe during the events surrounding his arrest. Now she was selling the contents and other black market weapons. The group had set up a rendezvous with her in the evening at a subrail station that is currently under construction close to the exposition.

As the rails for the subrail system were already laid, the group decided to not only go early to the meeting with Kaja, but go under ground in order not to be seen. However when they arrived at the construction site, it was still full of construction workers, and they had to make up a bogus story about following a fugitive in the subrail tunnels. Once the afternoon rains made the construction workers leave, the constables set up their ambush and hid in stacks of construction materials. Only one of them, posing as the buyer, stood in the middle of the station.

Kaja arrives with 2 thugs carrying a weapons crate together, and one very tall and muscular bodyguard in a long coat and hat, who carried a weapon crate under each of his arms. While a bit surprised that the buyer was early, Kaja wasn't too alarmed. However she pulled a box with a big red button out of her coat, ready to use. Merian, posing as buyer, bought a pistol from Kaja, proceeded towards the exit, only to then turn around and attack her to start the ambush.

The tall bodyguard turned out to be a sort of golem, and when Kaja pressed the red button on her box that activated four walking turrets that were hidden close to where the players were also hiding. That somewhat negated the group's advantage from the ambush. The bodyguard had an aura that dealt damage to enemies in range that were attacking somebody else, thus "tanking" to protect Kaja. The thugs and walking turrets mostly fired at the closest target, preferring soft targets to heavily armored ones. That caused some problems to the casters in the group, especially to Aria, who stood right in the open to cast her spells.

The fight didn't go too well for the group for a while. They generally have problems if there are too many targets that are serious threats, and often disperse their fire because they think they can't "ignore" one of the threats. After several turns they had only killed one of the thugs and one of the turrets, while most of them had lost over half their health. But then they finally managed to kill Kaja, and use her box with the red button to deactivate the remaining turrets. That left only the bodyguard and one thug, who were then easily dispatched.

As we had combined the session with a birthday celebration, it was already late when the fight finished, and we decided to call it a day and play the interrogation of Kaja (they had used non-lethal damage to bring her down) in the next session.


Tuesday, March 07, 2017
Why I can live without other players in my games

I fully agree with Gevlon that we moved from a game design where people depended on other players to a game design where you either play solo, or your interaction with other players is deliberately limited in some ways, e.g. by not allowing chat. Gevlon thinks that this ruins games. I am quite happy with the new way. So why is that? Is Gevlon a friendly, social character, while I am a natural hermit?

To get to the bottom of that, we need to look at the kind of interaction between players that was most prevalent in the games that Gevlon is missing today. Consider this thought experiment: You take a big computer and feed it with all the blog posts ever made about MMORPGs. You search for all the occurrences of the word "guild". And then you make a histogram or word cloud of the word coming right after each occurrence of the word "guild". I don't have the means to actually perform the experiment, but I would bet that the most frequent word you would find after "guild" in all MMORPG blogs would be "drama".

Just look at Gevlon's blog itself. How does he describe the other players he is missing so much now? He calls them "morons & slackers". Even I, who spent most of his time in WoW in a social guild, have experienced my share of guild drama. Guilds were never designed for positive social interaction, they were always a means to an end of individual character progress. You *needed* those other people to get the most powerful gear in the game. And the way there wasn't exactly a constant stream of friendship and happiness. Look at what MMORPG blog posts have been mostly about when talking about their guilds: First people complain if others aren't investing as much as they do and become a hindrance to killing raid bosses, and then when the raid boss is finally dead they complain that somebody else got the loot.

I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons for 35 years, and never ever did I have a group in which we needed a complicated "DKP" points system to distribute loot. If friends are people who help you move your furniture, and good friends are people who help you move the body, then where do online friends rank on that scale? Way below, I would say, without wanting to express any disrespect to my online friends. I have met a lot of nice people over my years in various games, but I would never want to have to rely on them. They all moved on over time to other games or other activities.

I find it curious that the people most loudly complaining about the lack of other players being forced to play with them are the kind of people with the most predatory play styles. If you want to make millions in virtual currency from auction house manipulations, or be a renowned player killer in PvP, that works best if you have a large supply of potential victims. If you give the sheep the choice of playing other games in which they aren't being griefed or exploited by the wolves, the sheep wander off and the wolves complain about the "lack of community".

I do think that the genre of virtual world games has failed to provide better positive social interactions, better ways to collaborate between players in which each contribution is valuable and appreciated by other players. As it is, the people who cause you the most problems in a multiplayer game are the people on your team. Games turning chat possibilities off is because that chat was too frequently used for hurling insults. No wonder the majority of players these days prefer games with limited or no interaction with other players. It is because these games didn't live up to the promise of positive social interaction, real friends, and real communities. What is there to miss?

Monday, March 06, 2017
Challenge accepted

Yesterday Gevlon challenged me with the question "Are you finally accepting that games changed for the worse over the last decade? Remember the vibrant community back then around WoW!". No, games didn't change, the audience did. To understand what happened, we need to go back in time and look at what happened with TV:

In 1980, 80 million Americans watched Dallas at the same time in order to find out who shot J.R.. A few years later, in 1983 the final episode of MASH had 106 million viewers. Today even a hit TV show like Game of Thrones doesn't get more than 8 million people in front of the TV at the same time. So, does that mean that 80's soap operas and sitcoms are better TV than Game of Thrones? No, it means that the audience has dispersed. The number of available TV channels to an average household in the USA went up from 10 in 1980 to hundreds today. Ownership of VCRs took off in 1985, DVD players in 2006, and DVRs in 2008. And that's before Netflix and other "video on demand" services made their breakthrough. Today far more people spend more time than in the 80's to watch TV series, but they don't watch the same series at the same time as they used to in the 80's.

The same dispersion is happening to video games. In all of 2013, 562 games were released on Steam. In 2014 that went up to 1769, in 2015 to 2936, and in 2016 to 4811 games released in a single year. And that is just Steam, the number of mobile games is far bigger, three quarters of a million games on the Apple app store alone. Even a niche genre like MMORPGs has 200 different games listed on Wikipedia.

As I said yesterday, for game blogging that is a problem. Just like today you can't start a conversation at the water cooler any more about last nights' episode of Dallas and be pretty sure most people around you did watch it, today I can't write about games any more and assume my readers played that game recently. It would be hard enough if I played games when they came out, but as I said, with Steam sales I now tend to play last year's games.

That doesn't mean games changed for the worse. If it were possible to get a group of game testers today that have never played World of Warcraft before and let them play both vanilla WoW and Legion, I'm pretty sure the majority would prefer the modern version. If the "vibrant community" isn't there any more, it is because that community dispersed over the many games that came out since.

In addition we all get older. Sometimes you hear very old people tell you that sugar was sweeter when they were young. Well, white crystal sugar is a single chemical compound, not a mixture, and so it can't ever change its taste. But in older people the taste buds on the tongue deteriorate, and to them sugar now tastes less sweet. I put a second lump of sugar in my tea myself these days, but I don't blame the sugar for it. MMORPGs taste less sweet to us because of age and experience with these games, the novelty is gone, and so are our guild mates. None of which has anything to do with the quality of games today.

Yes, if you pick a random one of the 4811 games from 2016 on Steam, chances are that the game won't be very innovative and novel. There simply aren't that many genres of games! That doesn't mean that those games aren't good, or that innovative games don't exist any more. They just get drowned out in the flood. I can still sometimes find a game like Beholder and say "I have never played a game like this before". Or I find a game like Empires & Puzzles on the app store and find that while it has very familiar components (match 3 puzzles, heroes collection, base building) it combines those features in ways that are quite good and haven't been done quite so in that combination before.

Just as I think that TV is better in 2017 than it was in the 80's, because I simply have more choice, I think that gaming is better today than a decade or two ago. We just don't watch or play the same thing at the same time anymore, which makes talking about them harder and gives you less of a sense of community. But much of that "community" was an illusion anyway, there is a huge difference in quality between friends and online friends. So overall I think it changed for the better. Until the industry crashes, which is inevitable for any exponential progression bubble.


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