Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Grand And Glorious Deal

I take a minute every day to check a few daily deal sights like and (they often have good boardgame deals). Recently, gamerati has started doing one of their own, Loot, which is gamer specific.

The schtick, if you're unfamiliar with it, is that every day they put up one deal, usually a good one. Sometimes it's only ok, sometimes it's fantastic, but whatever it is, it's only one thing, and it's only for that one day. Predictably, on most days it's not going to be anything you want or need, but occasionally it's going to be just what you want at just the right price, and that's kind of magical when it happens.

So far, Loot has been a mixed bag. There have been a few cool things I didn't need (like Gamer Paper and Iron Tyrants) but mostly it's been games I've never heard of and don't care much about. But today, they knocked it out of the park, and are offering such a great deal that I decided it was worth dedicating today's post to.

Today's deal, if you haven't already gone to check, is a bundle of the Dying Earth RPG and two of its core supplements (The Kaiin Player's Guide and The Scaum Valley Gazeteer), in print, for $15. That is a jaw droppingly good deal, so much so that I regret that I already own all three books.

For the unfamiliar, the Dying Earth RPG is a Robin Laws game (which, for me, is enough to sell it all by itself) based on the novels of Jack Vance. It is baroque, colorful and magical play with an emphasis on wordplay and style that is very much in the style of the source material. A generic version of the system is floating around out there as Skullduggery, and it's slick, but there's something fantastic about the source material that streamlining loses.

Anyway, this is a great deal, and if you're reading this today, I hope you take advantage of it. Totally worthwhile.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Lesson from Dragon Age II

I've restarted Dragon Age, and right off the bat I have to give props: there's one big difference between the Warrior/Rogue start from the Mage start, enough so that it caught be my surprise even though it made perfect sense in retrospect. So far that's already introduced a few new wrinkles into things. For context, my initial playthrough was as a male rogue without the bonus content (for reasons of connectivity). I've started a female warrior and male mage and have been swapping between them, though the mage is looking to be the one I play more of simply because I'm super curious about how elements of the game play out if you're playing a mage.

The reason I'm so curious to see the game as a mage is that one of the big recurring points of tension in the game is between the templars and the mages. For those unfamiliar with the setting, Dragon Age mages are pretty powerful, enough so to be dangerous, and their power also makes them vulnerable to demonic possession (something which can be made more likely through the use of blood magic, which is high power/high risk). To keep them in check (and because the church dictates that mages should not rule over men), mages are cloistered in "circles", isolated places that are part school, part prison. These circles are overseen by templars, whose jobs include hunting down rogue mages ("apostates") and killing blood mages, as well as being wardens of the circle.

This is a great conflict because it's wonderfully mixed. The mages are unfairly oppressed, but at the same time, the danger they represent is very real, and more, it's a danger that there are few (if any) protections against. At the same time, while some templars are sympathetic to the mage's plight or are genuine defenders, some of them are exactly the kind of bully boy nutjobs you'd expect in this kind of gig. One of the things the game keeps coming back to is that the current solution stinks, but no one has a better idea (and, in fact, you get to see the tragic end of many attempts to find a better idea).

As a final note, there are factors in play in Kirkwall (the city the game takes place in) which have escalated the usual tensions in a circle to an extreme, and they're all nicely human ones, usually the reasonable result of one thing leading to another.

The end result is an unsolvable problem with immediate consequences and personal elements. That's a beautiful combination, and one that you GMs out there might seek to emulate. Historically, we try to steer away from unsolvable problems for fear of disempowering players, but that concern is (paradoxically) diminished by making the problem big enough and putting it smack dab in the middle of things. Life is full of these problems (usually as a result of a difference between what people deserve and what can be done) and it feels false if your game does not.

But simply having these as big abstract problems is rarely very satisfying, either to a narrative or a game. What makes it work in DA2, and will hopefully work in your game, is that it's a constant source of new (addressable) problems. Not only are these problems of immediate concern, each of them puts the (big, abstract) conflict in a personal, actionable, and usually choice-demanding way. When a mage runs away from the circle and you find him, you are making a real choice when you decide to return him or let him go. It matters to that mage and to other people involved, but it also says something about the bigger problem.

To round it out, the tensions that drive the problem come from people, specific people who you can talk and work with. In the case of Dragon Age 2, there are numerous templars and mages who all have strong views and actions to take that contribute to the bigger picture. No one person (even those in charge of the factions) can truly steer the iceberg on their own, but they all contribute [1] . These are the people you interact with for your specific, tactical elements of play (adventures), but because they all have a position relative to this one big thing, you can feel the context of your actions.

Now, obviously, I think this is a page worth stealing from DA2's playbook for your own game, so let me add one last twist: this is not the only such problem in Dragon Age 2. In fact, early on in the game it's greatly overshadowed by another, similarly unsolvable problem in the form of a small army of Qunari that have set up camp in the city. But when that problem comes to a head, it doesn't magically solve all the other problems in the city. In fact, some things get worse, since one problem often keeps another problem in check.

For my two bits, this kind of tension, escalation and context have a lot to do with why Kirkwall feels more alive than many other fantasy cities I've played around in, and while you might not be able to bring the wonderful art or voice acting to your table, there's nothing stopping you from taking the ideas and running with them. Find a problem that's too big to solve, have it create specific, actionable consequences that reflect on the big problem, and have characters in the setting who reflect and shape the problem to give it a face. Then do it one to three more times, and see what you've made. If nothing else, you will probably find you've created and adventure generating engine, and that's no small thing.

(back) 1 - One other very human thing - any given individuals ability to make things worse is usually far greater than their ability to make things better.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gamma World Thought Experiment

Random thought experiment: What would happen if you removed stats from Gamma World?

First, the why: I’m thinking about this because I think they’re the biggest hurdle in the system - they complicate what is otherwise a fast, simple character creation system by demanding a range of modifiers and middling bonuses rather than fast resolution. So, bottom line, the goal of any such change would be to speed up and simplify things.

Ok, so given that, what would it do.

First, attack bonuses need to make up for the missing +3/+4. I don’t really feel too obliged to replicate the chance of an occasional +5/+5 but I’m ok simplifying things into +4/+4, which is to say, just call base attack bonus +4. Done.

Second: Skills. Similarly, let’s just cut to the chase - class skills and bonus skills get you a +8. Done. I actually have another thought about that too, but we’ll get to that in a second. Figure some sort of default for everything else (say, +2) and you're good to go.

Third: Hit points. Treat everyone like they have a 15 con for hit point purposes. A little generosity because, frankly, it’s a brutal game.

Fourth: Defenses. Same logic as Attacks. +4 as the virtual “dex” mod for AC. Figure a 4/3/2 (dealer’s choice) for other defenses.

Fifth…Well, hell, I think that’s it.

There are a few odds and ends to think about. GW has an an interesting model for weapons that splits between light weapons (that use int/dex) and heavy weapons (which use str/con), but that mostly exists to solve the problem of strange stat distributions. The problem is that, really, weapons in Gamma World are a matter of style. We’re not looking to _accurately_ represent the damage of an old stop sign or a razor sharp x-box controller thrown like a batarang. As such, just use whatever weapon stats you want.

So, the thing is this could all work. It’s a little samey-same, but it’s functional, and the assumptions is that the novelty would be coming in from the templates. But what intrigues me is that with a little work, you could do up one more set of templates to speed the process of creation and provide for a little variety in these bonuses.

Tweaking some of the ideas above (going back to +4/+3 and setting up a skill default idea) and you can end up with a template like:

Powers attack: +4 (Or +4/+3 if you really want)
Powerful Attack: +3
Quick Attack: +4
Skill Bonus: +2 (the bonus for any untrained skill)
Bonus Skill: Science (+8 - +12 if trained from template)
EDIT: Weak Skill: Acrobatics, Athletics or Perception (see comments)

Hit Points: 15
AC: +4
Reflex: +3
Will: +4
Fortitude: +2
Quick Junk List: Magnifying glass, Half a dozen specimen Jars, Spiffy lab coat.

Do one of these for every skill - maybe even multiple ones to get other themes - and I think you may have something. No longer are you merely a radioactive cockroach, your a radioactive cockroach ACROBAT!.

Anyway, just a thought.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Choice, Cities and Dragon Age II

I finished Dragon Age II this weekend. I enjoyed it a lot, and will probably get around to reviewing it, but I'll likely do another playthrough first. Partly this is because I like to re-playthrough Bioware games in general, but in this specific case it's because the game REALLY left me feeling like the choices I'd made all along the way lead directly to the culmination of things. One of the reasons I really want to try playing it again is to see how true that is - will things unfold differently, or is it all just sleight of hand? I'll say this: if the impact of the choices are half as real as they seem, Bioware has done something really magnificent here.

Playing the game also got me thinking about tabletop play, and I think there are a lot of lessons to take from the CRPG that could translate well into tabletop. First and foremost, the whole game is, effectively, a single urban campaign. The majority of play takes place within a single city and its surrounding locations. I love urban games, but I've always found them to be a real bear to run beyond a certain point, but this hangs together well enough that it really feels like it could just as easily have been one of the Plot Point adventures that Savage Worlds uses. Yes, there are a few random bits that might feel out of place (mugging seem to involve small armies) but the overall shape of it works very well. This is hard enough to explain succinctly that I'm going to have to chew on it for a while to create a useful set of lessons for people who haven't played the game, but if you do play it, take some time to think about how well it would migrate to tabletop.

The big lesson, and the one that really stayed with me as I played, was how strong the story/roleplaying side of it was. The fights were fun and all, but Bioware (as usual) brought their writing chops to bear to create a situation full of well-motivated characters in conflict with one another and few clear solutions. Part of why I'm so curious to replay the choices I made is that the game goes to great lengths to make sure they have teeth. A lot of times games will offer you choices, but there's one obvious good choice, and you only take the others if you're curious. DAII had more than a few points where the choices were all bad - not in a punitive way, but in a way that made total sense to what has happened. Things like a friend passionately and honestly wanting to do something that's a terrible, terrible idea: you can be loyal to your friend and back their play, or you can (in their eyes) betray them. How do you want to play it?

Oh, and for the weasels (like me) out there who try for the middle path of compromise all the time, thinking that's what the game wants? Yeah, that might work. Or it might mean you get BOTH bad outcomes. You're often better off making real choices.

But here's the thing: they managed to do this with a game that is really about button-mashing ass kicking. The mechanical parts of your character sheet have only a minimum of interplay with these choices. And that drove home a point for me: it's a cop out to blame a system for "not supporting role-playing" - hard choices don't care what system you use. If you're not making them in your play, the problem is not mechanical[1].

Now, to head off the obvious protest, yes, obviously, some systems have built in hooks to drive things towards hard, meaningful choices, but the reality is those are just tools to help get there.[2] The system can't makes choices matter - at best it can force a pantomime of the act of making a hard decision. Choices matter because your game, at your table, either goes there or it does not. If the problem is that you don't know how to go there, then fine. It can be learned, there are tricks that can help get you there. If you want to reach that point, you can do it.

But if you know how, and especially if you know how well enough to complain that X or Y game doesn't allow it, then you need to take a hard look at your table and decide if the problem is that you can't face the hard choices, or that you don't want to.

And if you don't want to, that's fine. But cop to it, don't blame the system.

(back) 1 - I am, I know, more or less equating good roleplay with hard, meaningful choices. That's not all there is to it, and there are a lot of assumptions in there about what hard and meaningful mean, but by and large, I think I'll stick by it.

(back) 2 - One other easy protest is that, as a computer game, it has an easier time pushing things to choices than tabletop, by virtue of things being on rails and choices being from a menu. The latter point is reasonable - tabletop offers you more choices if you're creative - but the former carries less weight than you might expect. It would be true if the choices were arbitrary (and a few are), but when the choice is a natural outcome of the conflicts in the setting, then the only advantage the computer has is one of pacing, and even that is a tenuous advantage. If two people, ideas, forces or whatever are in conflict, then the computer only has one path for things to come to a head. At the tabletop, you have many more options for how that conflict may manifest, but so long as the opposing factors are robust, the problems _will_ come to a head.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Not Really Universal

Cam Banks, the brain in a jar over at Margaret Weis Productions, was pondering the future of games and cited a conversation where it seemed the desire was for "a unified set of RPG rules."

Now, this was just a conversation, on the Internet no less, so it has just about the statistical significance of a gnat's fart, but it caught my interest all the same. Follow RPGs for any period of time and you know that the demand for that unified ruleset is out there, serving as a holy grail for many would-be designers.

This is one of those ideas you buy or you don't. I don't, but I don't hold it against anyone who does. The fact that I think it's asking the wrong question is another gnat fart - more power to them for trying. My sole warning (and this applies to a lot of things): if you reach a point where you feel the only thing that has been missing in solving this big a problem is your unique insight, take that as a reason to re-examine your understanding of the problem.

Anyway, the reason that Cam turns this into an interesting discussion is that it speaks pretty directly to how Cortex Plus is positioning itself and attempting to address one common failing of universal RPGs - that a specific game can produce specific ends more effectively. The CP model, as seen in Leverage and Smallville, is a reasonably thin engine - just enough to tell you how to roll and read the dice and teach a few concepts - with a custom build to reflect the specifics of the game in question. Even setting aside my own fondness for Cortex Plus, this is a pretty smart model. Combine it with the fact that CP is one of the two post-4e game engines to really grab me (the other being Dragon Age) and you've got the formula for some good stuff.

Now, I'm not going to tout this as super novel. Frankly, it's the model that White Wolf has been using forever, but without WW's approach to setting. Nor am I saying this is a panacea - the reality is that as easy as it is to _say_ you just build on a light framework, it takes work. It is entirely possible to suck.

But what does intrigue me is the way the model creates a tiered structure. You have the core game, as held and owned by MWP, surrounded by a second tier of specific implementations (Smallville, Leverage). What grabs me is the third tier, the personal hacks, which are much more derived from the second tier than they are the first. That is to say, the core may remain important for communication and clarity, but the real fiddly bits are outside of it.

This is not to say that an industrious amateur couldn't produce a tier-2 work. Such a thing will almost certainly happen. But for the vast majority of hackers, tier 3 is a sweet spot. They can pick and choose bits they like and add in only enough stuff to feel good about it. It's like knitting without needing to make the yarn yourself. That's a powerful place to be.

Will this stay interesting? I dunno. A lot will depend on what MWP does in the future and how they interact with the fan community. I have a lot of faith in Cam, but the future is fickle. But I'll be curious to see how it goes since it's such an interesting mix of classical and nouveau hacking that I expect very interesting things of it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Necessity of Frustration

I am totally that guy who saves his RPGs regularly so I can go back and explore a different choice. I kept my thumb in the page of choose your own adventures too. I'm a completest, and I hate the idea that maybe I missed some interesting branch or event because of a bad choice early on, so I take steps to protect myself against it. I don't think this is uncommon, though obviously it is a matter of degree.

Computer Games seem to be built on the same assumptions I'm making. Some of this is a function of the medium - if you can save and try something else, why wouldn't you? - but some of it is also habit. We understand completion. Computers and computer interfaces are really good at expressing ideas like percentage complete, but more nuanced ideas can be harder to express within the medium. Most and least are easy, but fuzzy numbers are hard. Plus, for programmers, it's stupid to build content to NOT use. Writing a game which a player will only experience a fraction of might be a great idea, but it's a rough allocation of resources.

This point came to mind while listening to the excellent Walking Eye podcast featuring Ryan Macklin, John Wick and Eddy Webb. Unsurprisingly, it's an great listen, but there's a brief moment of talking about engagement in video games that left me chewing on my own experience and considering that the prices of a compelling narrative in play may be paid out of traditional gameplay rewards, and that price might be too high.

One of the hardest lessons in life is that everything you do is ten thousand things you don't. This is an important thing to learn to understand yourself, and it's also something important to understanding drama. A story that could only have ever gone one way is a poor start as a story, and dead weight as a game. Sure, you can get some mileage out of illusionary choices, or choices that exist solely within tight boundaries, but we've already milked those about as far as we can. If you accept that deeper, more personal drama in video games is a desirable outcome, then I suggest something more drastic is in order.

What is that something? If I had a whole answer to that, I'd be off in Austin making big bucks. But I have bits of it, and the bits I'm really staring down the barrel of is this: Meaningful choices demand that the paths not taken be rich, and doing that well demands a patience for waste and frustration which, I think, is far riskier than most game designers can afford.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Active Stats and Leverage

One other interesting thing that came out of the Leverage game at PAX-east was a discussion of stats. For those unfamiliar with the game, it's worth noting that Leverage has some very normal stats (Strength, Agility and whatnot) but no "social" stat. This may seem a bit odd in the context of a game with such a strong social component, but it's something the book tackles head on. See, it's not that there's no charisma equivalent, it's that EVERYTHING is a charisma equivalent.

To illustrate that, let me point to the very specific case in the game that Logan Bonner's magnificent Grifter made more than a few rolls of "Strength + Grifter". At first blush, that seems like a nonsensical combination, but that's only the case if you think very literally. Instead, in this case, Strength also represented a kind of approach. The Grifter was coming across forcefully, relying on strength of personality (natch) to carry things through, so strength was the appropriate stat. If he'd been talking fast, it might have been Agility.

Using stats this way - to reflect HOW you do things, rather than what you do - is an idea I've grown more and more fond of with time, and I recently heard Cam Banks use the term "Active Stats" to describe them in conversation, and it's stuck with me. It puts a lot more of play in the player's hands, and that's always a good thing.

Now, this is not always easy. Leverage's stats are intentionally backwards compatible with previous Cortex products, if only to make things more familiar to old fans. This means the mapping of stats in this way is not always intuitive, and it's a big reason why I tend to re-tune the stat list when I do a new hack. Interpreting active stats from an existing list is always going to be harder than starting from scratch.

This is why I was delighted to get a mail from Logan Bonner proposing the (awesomely named) FAQ hack for Leverage. While he didn't call it such, he basically proposed a trio of active stats: Forceful, Analytical and Quick. He explicitly excluded an endurance-equivalent as out of genre (and he was right to do so) but in doing so he did a couple of things. First, he proposed a very workable hack - one I could totally get behind - but second he provided some independent confirmation of a suspicion of mine regarding the 4 core active building blocks.

See, my default active 4 are Force, Grace, Insight and Resolve, and the map directly to Force, Quickness, Analytical and the unused fourth. That pleased me because Logan's a pretty sharp guy, and if we both hit on this same pattern, it suggests it may have some backbone.

Anyway, I mention this now for all you folks looking to hack Leverage and thinking about stats. I would absolutely encourage you to pursue an active stat model since I think you'll find it a lot more rewarding in play, and I'd be very curious to hear if other people have active stat models of their own that differ from this 4 pointed structure.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Tip for Masterminds

I only managed to run one game of Leverage at PAX, and despite my degraded health, I think it went decently well. I've found I like paying a lot of attention to what the group takes as their secondary role, since it often tells you a lot about what the group is really like. In this case, we had a lot of Hitter, with the non-violent Thief in the leadership role. The mastermind was the political guy, a former lawyer, and he did a great job with it, and at the same time underscored something that I've been doing to help out Masterminds.

See, a generic Mastermind is a little bit rough to really engage in play. It's so open ended that unless you have a player who likes to scheme purely for the sake of scheming, the Mastermind can be left at something of a loose end. He can do things, certainly, but they're not necessarily things that will distinguish him from the rest of the crew. Worse, the fact that he could do almost anything introduces a degree of option-induced paralysis.

To this end, I've started treating the Mastermind as something of a specialist - the Mastermind picks some arena of expertise, and within that, I just treat his knowledge as absolute. Nate Ford, for example, knows insurance in and out, which extends to things being insured. Other Masterminds might know taxes, high finance, the law or some other professional pursuits. Specialties might also be more abstract, like "being the guy who knows everyone" or the like - so long as the idea is very clear, then its probably workable.

This ends up making very little mechanical difference. Leverage characters are already awesome, and putting a a bit of spin on the awesome doesn't actually shake up the table much. But what it does do is give the table a much stronger sense of what the Mastermind's role is and how he contributes to the team. For the Mastermind's player, it imposes fruitful limitations. Because the Mastermind has a clear strength, when in doubt, he knows he can play to it. It gives a lens to look at problems through, and that can be utterly invaluable. For the GM, it also makes it a lot clearer when Mastermind is the right thing to be rolled. Lastly, it has the thematic effect of giving the Mastermind a stronger connection to "the real world", and given the source material, I think that's pretty cool.

It's a small thing, and like most good Leverage tricks it's a bit of a con, but I put it out there for others who might find themselves in a similar situation.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Keeping Tempo in 4e

I often feel that the places that 4e falls down are often a result of false starts. The game may have the core of a good idea, but fail to pursue it far enough. One of the best examples of this is tempo - the pace of encounters.

Historically, D&D has had a problem with the "5 minute work day", where players would load for bear and go into an encounter guns blazing, using all their big spells for a quick, decisive win. They would then withdraw and rest long enough to recover spells and repeat the process. Numerous GMing techniques have emerged over time to try to mitigate this behavior, and players have responded with more and more clever tricks. It's simply such an effective technique that it will always have some allure.

4e took steps to reduce this by changing the power structure so there were fewer buffs (spells that enhanced a character over a period of time) and fewer one-shot abilities. Characters would always have their at-will powers and usually have their encounter powers, and that left only the daily abilities. This meant that there was no longer the problem of the "useless" magic user being left without options, and that was a big help, but there's still some temptation to go whole hog with the dailies, then recover.

To offset this, 4e introduced a pair of tempo mechanics. First, you'd pick up one action point every 2 encounters, and if you took a long rest, your pool would reset back to 1 AP. Second, some of your magic items would get better after a certain number of encounters. The idea behind these mechanics was straightforward: to provide incentives to keep pushing on rather than just stop and replenish resources. It was a good idea, but fell short in practice. The magic item improvements were fiddly and rarely worth the effort, and the action point economy was...flawed. Setting aside spending limits and slow accumulation, there was a simple piece of math that if you used you AP in your first encounter, there were two ways to get it back: have another encounter or take a long rest. The optimal choice was pretty obvious.

But the thing is, I like the _idea_ of tempo a lot. I really want to give players a reason to conserve their dailies and push on without feeling like they're being screwed.

One obvious fix is to change up the action point economy. Give more points, allow broader use of them and so on. This is an interesting enough topic in its own right, but I worry a little bit about it because decisions of use vs. stockpile always seem to work better on paper than they do in play. It tends to go to extremes of behavior very quickly.

So I'm now considering something much more simple: grant a tempo bonus equal to the number of encounters so far. That bonus applies to attacks and damage but not to defense. So after encounter #3, you're at +3 to hit and +3 to damage.

Now, my first instinct was to back off from that as overwhelming, maybe cut it down to +1 per two encounters even, but I think that's wrong. The bonus needs to be immediate and appealing enough to offset the loss of recovery, and by allowing it to escalate dramatically, you introduce some real choice. After the 5th encounter, you're hell on wheels, but you are probably also very nearly dead on your feet. Do you take a break and give up that huge bonus, or do you push on and risk it? Remember, your defenses aren't going up, so even though you can kill enemies more quickly and reliably, you're still going to be taking hits.

To me, that feels like a more substantial choice. One with real opportunity costs, and one that invites more complex spending behavior than is currently encouraged. What's more, once I get past that reflexive twitch against giving the players an 'abusable' option like this, I think about the things it invites (less whiffing, faster fights but with real risk) and the possibility that it moves the "sweet spot" a few encounters deeper into the dungeon, and I really like it. A lot. Enough that I wish I was running it right this second.

Friday, March 18, 2011

PAX Vs the World

Ok, so in my universe there are only so many important convention. First, since I'm on the East Coast of the US, the cons on the west coast are pretty much right out. This is a shame because my favorite convention in the universe - Ambercon Northwest - takes place outside of Portland, and it also means the various Endgame minicons are of the table. So it goes.

There are also some smaller cons that I make a priority of, notably Dexcon and Dreamation up in New Jersey. I like the atmosphere, I like the people, and they're an opportunity to play, so they go in their own bucket.

But beyond those are the big deal cons, and historically they've been Origins, Gencon and Dragoncon. The classic advice is that you go to Origins to play (or to see people), Gencon to sell and Dragoncon to drink. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I've found it holds up.

When PAX (now PAX Prime) showed up, it didn't really shake things up too much. From my perspective as a tabletop gamer, it was mostly in a different sphere, absorbing the debris of E3. People came back from it with reports of an excellent convention and a broad range of nerdery, and that was nice, but didn't move my needle much. Even if it became a bigger hub for tabletop, its position on the West Coast put it out of my sphere.

But then came PAX East, and things got upended. People came back with stories of a geek mecca, full of video games and technology, yes, but also hours of fun for other members of the geek tribe. And Luke Crane and the Burning Wheel guys reported sales numbers in the Gencon range. I was super curious, as was Fred, so our trip up this year was sort of dual purpose. First, we wanted to go and have an awesome time (we did!) but we also wanted to know if this was something we might want to look at from a business perspective, maybe doing a booth or the like.

As a company, Evil Hat hasn't yet made any decisions, so don't read this as me speaking for that, but I definitely have some personal impressions.

When I can only go to one summer con, I will generally choose Origins. This is not much of a business decision. Origins sales are anemic and it's not a great place for a new release. It is, however, a wonderful convention for seeing people and enjoying their company along with excellent food and atmosphere. Gencon is more work - it's bigger and it's a better sales opportunity, but I find the time to sit and talk needs to be taken in stolen moments and out of the way corners. If I had a big new release, Gencon is probably the right choice for it, but otherwise...

Don't get me wrong. Gencon is a great experience. It's the biggest collection of the tabletop tribes I know of, and if you're willing to put in the work to deal with scheduling, then it can be an incredibly full convention of basically non-stop activity. It's got a great seminar track (maybe the best in gaming) and it's the place that gaming companies are likely to make releases and announcements. But it is very much the meeting of the tribes.

PAX East (and I presume PAX Prime) is a different beast. It's the convention of the broader geek nation, and that means less uniformity, but it also means fewer dividing lines. The people who come to Gencon and buy your stuff because they know it's going to be there. The people at PAX buy your stuff because they _don't_. They are open to the idea of your game, but not married to a lot of the baggage around it.

To me, that's pretty freaking fantastic. And it's a reason that, as a publisher, I definitely want to have some sort of presence at PAX, even if it's just one among many at the IPR booth. For all that it's a sales avenue, it is an even more powerful marketing avenue. We like to talk about growing the hobby and reaching new people, and I genuinely am unsure if there's a better way to do it.

But that's also scary. Thinking about showing games at PAX reminds me of exactly how much we take for granted when we sell within the established community. There's a lot you don't need to do when you are selling to the converted. And as such, there's a reasons that did well are the ones with a rock-solid demo-centric ethos (most notably Steve Jackson Games and the Burning Wheel folks). PAX is a con that gives you the chance to show that your game is awesome, but isn't going to take your word for it.

But all that's through the lens of a publisher. As a player and a nerd, I can't imagine skipping the next PAX. The fun is just there, lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up. At Gencon (and even Origins) I feel like I miss out on a lot of stuff because I'm not in the right place at the right time. PAX felt like all places and times were right.

Bottom line -PAX isn't going to replace Gencon anytime soon. The cons have different priorities and needs, and frankly, I think it would be utterly toxic to PAX to try to absorb too much tabletop. But PAX is raising the bar for Gencon and other big conventions, especially in terms of quality of experience, and it is shaping up as a critical marketing opportunity for game companies. Even if it doesn't go on your calendar, it's going to be the con to watch.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

PAX Downsides

Given the number of wonderful things I've had to say, I should probably give a little bit of airtime to the problems with PAX. There weren't many, but they are worth mentioning.

I've mentioned that food was a little rough. There were actually decent options if you wanted to leave the convention hall, but who would want to do that? Most of the choices were expensive and of dubious quality, but the funniest bit was in the extra food court. I think there had been a last minute attempt to bring in more food options, setting up a new food court down at the lower levels in another of the huge rooms. It was a good idea, but I would guess that the available options were limited, as the food trucks they'd rolled in were all basically carnival food. Thus, we gained $5 pizza slices, fried dough and ice cream. I'm hoping that next year they'll have more time to plan and maybe bring in some real food trucks, assuming Boston _has_ food trucks. I don't actually know if it does.

It is also a convention of lines. Lines for events, and lines on the expo floor. If you want to see something, you are going to wait in line. If you're in one of these lines, especially towards the back, this kind of sucks. The problem is that I'm really not sure what the alternative is. Every model of pre-scheduling or smart-ticketing I can think of has exploitable loopholes, and this is exactly the crowd to exploit them.

Booth babes. I had not been expecting to see any booth babes on the floor based on what I'd read about the show, so I was a little surprised to see some. That said, they were mostly inoffensive. The ones selling hardware seemed knowledgeable and weren't too overdone. The costumed ones handing out bags were in high-quality, in theme, non-skimpy costumes. The Duke Nukem ones were kind of shameless, but I can only complain so much - it's Duke Nukem, the FPS with full functioning urinals. I'm not expecting a lot of class. Also, frankly, you had to wait through a hell of a line to get anywhere near the Duke Nukem booth babes, so all in all, fine. I think my sole objection were the ones mixing drinks at one large open booth, in large part because the announcer was REALLY pushing the booth babe-ness ("Talk to our girls! It's not like real life! They WANT to talk to you!"). So, points off for that, but only so many. It's worth some credit that it was so obnoxious because it was so anomalous.

Lastly, Boston wasn't ready for the crowd. One thing I dig about Gencon is that all the surrounding businesses know that they're getting an influx of nerds. We're mostly well behaved, but we want to do strange things like play games in bars. Indianapolis knows there's money in this, and is very friendly towards is. Boston was taken by surprise, but given the size of the convention, I hope they adapt quickly. This year, I felt like we were seen as a disruption to the business travelers, and that's never much fun.

OK, so there are the complaints. All in all, they come to a very small pile compared to the awesome, but I felt like it would be unfair not to vent a little bit.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lessons Learned For PAX

While I had a fantastic time, there are a few things I need to think about in terms of handling differently.
  • I envy the hair. Fred's very blue hair made him easily identifiable and findable, and had I not been paired with him, I suspect it would have been much harder to hook up with people. Being an overweight guy with a beard and glasses is not quite the camouflage it is at Gencon, but it's still not much of a distinction. Worth putting some thought into a readily identifiable flag of some sort.
  • I need a lighter kit. My Leverage kit (only ran once because I had no juice beyond that) was way too heavy and large, demanding a backpack. Inconvenient, but addressable with better planning.
  • Bags are ubiquitous. I'd been a little worried that carrying a bag would be inconvenient, but about three-quarters of show goers either had their own bag or were carrying one they'd picked up on the expo floor. So, no problem with that. Just need one well suited to the con. Cross-body vertical bags seem the best compromise, and I must give a nod to Logan Bonner's enviably awesome bag in this regard.
  • The lines are long, and you need to bring something along with that expectation. A portable game system (like a DS) is probably a good choice, but line-friendly games (like Zombie Dice) can work just as well or maybe better.
  • If you see something on the expo floor on the first day and think "maybe" then assume it will not be there when you get back. Make your purchase or make your peace.
  • This was not a cheap con to attend. Hotel and food were both non-trivial expenses, made a bit worse by the fact that the area very clearly had no idea what it was in for. However, the con was right by a T stop (Boston's metro) and things don't start in the morning until 10:00, which suggests that this would not be a hard con to attend remotely, probably saving a few bucks.
  • I need to figure out how to pack sandwiches. Lunch was the meal of doom, since it generally meant choosing options inside the convention center, which ranged from "Overpriced and ok" to "Disturbing" to "Carnie Food". Breakfast and dinner were fine, but lunch needs a plan.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


PAX Purchases
I spent more at PAX than I planned to. There weren't many new RPG releases (which is good - a new release would be almost wasted on the PAX audience because almost everything is new) but a few things popped up that ate some bucks.

Microscope - This is a kind-of-but-not-really RPG I bought at the IPR booth after enough curious comments about it online. It's short and to be honest I probably would have been smarter just buying the PDF, but I have these moments of weakness. Anyway, it's a game about creating an interesting arc of history from X to Y (the rise of an empire to it's collapse, the landing of colonists to the explosion of the planet, or the like), effectively making setting creation a game. I enjoy games like this, but there's a final hurdle they often fall short of. Most often they build great histories or worlds, but don't provide a lot of help answering "and now what?". I'm curious to see if Microscope rounds this corner. If it doesn't, then it's in good company, but I can hope.

Inevitable - I got this through what I guess was kind of the unstore booth. It's a wacky boardgame of post apocalyptic pop culture. It is absolutely a very silly game, and while it's but on top of the classic roll-and-move monopoly style engine, it intentionally subverts that and most of the other expectations of such a game to produce something pretty fun. I'm not sure it has infinite replayability because, like any humorous game, things eventually grow thin. But I'm also confident that it has playability beyond "after you've seen everything once" which is usually when humorous games fail.

Puzzle Strike - It's a streamlined dominion clone with a few puzzle-fighter game elements played with poker-chip shaped tokens in under 20 minutes. Hard not to go wrong.

Magic Cards - I blame other people. There were Archenemy decks on sale, and Fred got me one of the planechaser sets, and I then had to round it out a bit. It's a sickness, but I now feel very well equipped for some multiplayer action.

Food - Food was probably the single biggest line item beyond the hotel itself. Despite some concerns, I found plenty of places to eat around the convention, the problem was that they were by and large stupidly expensive. Good, and often worth it, but expensive.

Things I Didn't Buy

Zombie Dice - They pretty much sold out as soon as they showed up. It was very clearly the game of choice for people waiting in line.

A Baseball Hat - ten millions t-shirts, but maybe 2 or 3 booths selling baseball hats, all of whom sold out of grown up sizes almost immediately. Annoying.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The PAX East Fun Factory

PAX East was a fun factory.

That seems like a kind of jokey thing to say, but I mean it in a very literal way. PAX East was a tremendously enjoyable convention, and most of the reasons for that can be traced to how it's run and the decisions that went into it. From my perspective, those practices and decisions are in line with those that make for maximum efficiency in factory production. Or maybe network engineering.

First, there's a lot of "wasted space" including an entire HUGE room used only in the morning for standing in line. PAX East does not take advantage of all the space available to it.

But what looks like waste at first glance is really excess capacity, and very well managed capacity at that. It's designed to handle the maximum load, not the average load, and that's just good design. It means there's always room for things to happen, and that's important later. In contrast, when you have a con that uses all the space available, things break when something overflows or runs late. Problems cascade into the rest of the system. Excess capacity keeps that from happening.

Second, PAX has a strange schedule. There are only a very small number of events, and demand is such that the queue for one usually begins at least an hour before the event. That creates a lot of friction in getting into events, and seems like a terribe way to run a ship. But again, all is not as it appears.

The small number of events is absolutely a chokepoint, but the instictive solution (add more events) doesn't change that. It just creates more, harder to manage chokepoints. Instead, PAX East elevates the chokepoints, putting them front and center. The queues seem inefficient when compared to a ticketing system, but a little thought about that (including questions like when you would distribute tickets) makes it clear that they work quite well. If you _really_ want to go to a panel, you can do so. It will only cost you time.

Still, if that was all there was to it, I wouldn't consider it too much of a solution, so of course there's a catch. See, by elevating the chokepoint that the events represent, PAX implicitly acknowledges that not everyone can be entertained by the events, and so it is necessary that convention itself be entertaining enough (or provide the opportunities for entertainment) to keep people occupied. To that end, there are numerous resources that range from an old style arcade to a console gaming room to the aforementioned tabletop gaming area. This is where that extra capacity pays off because these places can support people seeking the "passive" fun of the convention (rather than the "active" fun of events).

For people who have gone to Gencon or another highly scheduled gaming convention, consider the comparison. If you don't have a scheduled event, what do you do (besides buy things?) I'm sure there are some answers, but I admit. most of my first answers had nothing to do with the convention.

There's another upshot worth mentioning. By limiting the number of official events, but providing excess capacity and tools for communication (like the PAX forums) it encouraged informal scheduling. It also meant that scheduling was the responsibility of the person or group running the event. From private invitations to the WOTC run events, these were not the convention's responsibility to schedule (though the convention did view itself as responsible for _supporting_ these events - a key distinction). A cynic might view that as a invitation or disaster, but it seems to turn out that empowered geeks self organize pretty well.

Not flawlessly though. That's where the last bit of magic comes in. By training and empowering their volunteers, PAX has effectively created factory foremen with its enforcers. Like foremen, they have the tools and the impetus to keep everything moving, and they do so with a smile (and let me give a brief shout out to Zuki and Meatshield). It's not that every problem they solve is a big one - most aren't - but the reality is that most big problems begin with a small problem that has spun up out of control. Putting enforcers in a position to make the small fixes means the big fixes are less likely to be necessary.

Now, these are just a few observations about how things were run. I'm sure others will occur to me, and there are others I completely failed to notice. But from these alone, I'm really impressed at the depth of capacity managment thinking that has clearly gone into things. There are a stack of things that PAX East seems to does wrong (Wasted space! Bad scheduling!) but actually does very right indeed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Breaking the Mould

There is no reason that 4e character classes could not be designed radically differently. WOTC has a clear template for them (a flawed one) and there's a knee-jerk instinct to follow that same pattern, but I don't think anything makes that necessary.

I'd suggest that all that is really required for a functional 4e class is that it have about the right number of hit points, about the right defenses, and about the right range of attacks and abilities. It's not an exact science, but it's not hard to ballpark. If all you need to do is hit those benchmarks, then it becomes much less important how you do so.

For example, you could greatly simplify the game by using each existing class as a means of creating numerous more streamlined sub-classes, by simply taking away choices. The Iron Tempest class begins with these two at wills, this encounter power and this daily, and the power choices (and other choices, perhaps) might be mapped out from level 1 to level 30.

On the other hand, this means that much more radical (or perhaps regressive) ideas could be supported. There's nothing that keeps a 4e character from gaining abilities as he levels, the way that characters did in 3e. It need not even be encounter or daily powers. While those are the norm, it's still entirely possible to adjudicate something that's usable 3 times per day or the like.

Yes, any such model hits the big wall of all third party class creation - it doesn't work with the character builder. That's frustrating. But it occurs to me that it's only a barrier because of the complexity of handling 4e characters as is. If you're going to change the way you think about classes, is there any reason your new vision needs to be so complicated that it requires a tool?

It's an open door. If it was only a little bit open before, I think it's safe to say that Gamma World kicked it wide. No reason not to see where it goes.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hitting the Road

I have never been to PAX East before and I genuinely have no idea what to expect. If the projected attendance numbers are any indicator, this is going to run the risk of being positively overwhelming. I am, I think, very grateful that I'm focused on the fringier elements of nerd-dom, if only to avoid that.

This will also be the first non-Dreamation/Dexcon in some time where I'm not responsible for a booth. That alone promises to be kind of interesting.

However, there's a long drive between here and there. I'll have good company - Fred's heading up with me - but it's long all the same. Long enough that, between leaving early and prep, you mostly get a glorified announcement that I'm heading up to PAX in lieu of a real post.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Arguing Corkscrews

I like wine. I don't know it very well, but I'm open to taking advice about it, what to pair it with and such. I listen to wine arguments and discussions with a bit of detachment because even if the people arguing are knowledgeable and passionate, they're engaged with things that are outside the scope of my simple "I would like a good glass of wine" perspective.

It gets utterly surreal when they start arguing about corkscrews. There are, it turns out, lots of different ways to open a bottle of wine, all of which are potential subjects for argument. What throws me is that this is not even about the wine (at least not in any way that speaks to me) yet the arguments can get even more heated than those about wine. As someone who just wants to open the bottle to get to the deliciousness inside, it's off-putting.

Gamers argue about corkscrews all the time.

Now, don't get me wrong, it can be a lot of fun to argue about corkscrews with other people who also Care Deeply about them, but it's easy for the corkscrew argument to overwhelm the discussion, especially as it gets heated. It becomes hard to see that for many people, the right corkscrew is the one they have, and they're happy with that. And when you describe in no uncertain terms how their corkscrew is crap and how the only good corkscrew is this other kind, then the best case scenario is that they think you're a jerk, and the worst is that they decide that maybe beer enthusiasts will be a trifle more welcoming.

Disagree about the corkscrews if you like, but don't forget that people are really here for the wine.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Other People's Coolness

Getting ready to go to PAX East later this week, and after my week of (still lingering) plague, it's a bit rushed, so I'm going to cheat a bit today and point to some other cool stuff out there.

First, my friend Fred has started with the A part of his Q&A posts over at Deadly Fredly. This is pretty neat to watch, and I admit that I may be tempted to try the same thing sometime. Also, to add my two bits to Question #2 - I think Scion already does Percy Jackson well enough that I'd be hard pressed to try it without feeling like I'm reinventing the wheel.

Next, for other folks looking at the upcoming con experience, Ryan Macklin made a very useful post about the con kit, chock full of useful advice in the comments. If you're also hitting the road to be in a hotel full of nerds, it's worth a read.

I don't currently have a gaming PC (which is good for my free time) but after seeing the trailer for the new Alice: Madness Returns I admit I would be tempted to get one. A modern updating of America McGee's Alice that maybe delivers on the promise of the original? Yes please. Thankfully, it looks like it'll also be out for the xbox, so I don't need a new rig just for it.

Chris Dias wrote a very interesting open letter to WOTC regarding openness to 3rd party publishers. It's a good read, and he hits a lot of points I'm intimately familiar with from our own experience with One Bad Egg. I have no real hope for 4e openness - to go open would require a certain kind of business model which wouldn't really match WOTCs current habits - but it's a good argument all the same.

It's never a surprise when John Harper does something awesome, and these Leverage character sheets are no exception. I hopefully will have a stack of them printed before PAX.

I mentioned them earlier, but I want to shout out to Transneptune games and d20 Pro, both of which have earned spots on my feedreader.

Anyway, all good and worthy things to check out. As for the rest of you, what should I be keeping my eyes open for at PAX? I'm going as a nerd, not a pro, and I admit the prospect of not having a booth to man feels absolutely liberating.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fiction, Fairness and 4e

In my discussion of the role of skills in spotlighting character awesomeness in 4e (or more precisely, the lack of this) the counterpoint of solving the problem in the fiction of the game was raised and I think this merited some attention. There are a lot of issues with games – not just 4e but any other games – that can be addressed in the fiction of the game rather than with rule changes. This is especially true of things that relate to the role of the players in the context of the game. How important and respected the characters are is only sometimes a function of rules. However, there’s a point where this breaks down. When you need to solve a problem for the group, then look to the fiction, but when you need to solve a problem for a character, it’s less reliable.

Let’s look at the specific case of rangers and tracking. If I want to respect the idea of tracing as a Ranger schtick despite 4e’s not doing so, there are a few fiction and technique options available to me. I can certainly have other people _react_ like he’s exceptional (fiction) and I can make his failures more reflective of his awesomeness (You didn’t fail because you sucked, you failed because it was SO HARD that only you even faintly had a chance of doing it! - fiction) but that’s a pretty meh solution. The reactions aren’t very compelling unless they hold water in play. The fiction of failure looks like a good idea on the surface of it, but it leads me to ask when you’re _not_ doing that? If respectful failures are only an exception in your game then I would consider that a red flag.

The last solution is, of course, to make the Ranger’s rolls inherently more potent, or increase the number of situations where I don’t call for a roll. I can certainly couch this in terms of fiction, but the reality is that at that point I’m making a mechanical distinction (whether I acknowledge it or not) and that’s where the ice gets thin. At that point, we have to deal with the reality that someone else in the party can make the roll too, and they (reasonably) expect that the outcomes of their rolls will be proportional. If the Ranger and I both roll a 17 but his outcome is much better than mine, I’m going to call foul.

Now here’s the important point about it being a rule that’s very easy to overlook. My objection is not going to be that Ranger’s shouldn’t be awesome at tracking. If you ask me, I’ll agree they probably should be. Rather, the root of my objection is that this idea has never been communicated clearly or usefully, and my expectations have been violated. I like to assume that most GMs are good enough to make smart, engaging, fun rulings on the fly, and that’s great, but it’s foolish to rely on that. Not because the GM is going to trip up or be a jerk, but because the players have no visibility into a ruling-based process. A rule is a means of communication, and in solving problems (especially problems between players) more communication is almost always better.

Now, obviously, some games call for more or less of this (The Amber DRPG is almost entirely ruling based, while 4e actively strives to minimize the need for such rulings) and more, some tables have radically different ideas regarding how this should be approached. Often, the “GM-As-God” approach has less to do with GM authority than with lack of GM accountability. And if people dig that, then awesome. Go forth and continue having fun.

But the bottom line is this: the fact that the GM can fix things in play does not excuse shoddy game design, and it doesn’t excuse shoddy GMing either.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Interchangeability and 4e

I had a good twitter discussion yesterday about the structure of adventures that lead to me chewing on what it would take to do a breakdown of a fantasy adventure (a quest, at the suggestion of gamefiend) similar to the one in SOTC. This lead to some paper brainstorming, which in turn lead to my realizing something about 4e (and to a lesser extent, D&D in general). Basically, I came to the question of "Why are _you_ the guys going on this quest?" and I hit a wall.

4E characters are, by design, somewhat interchangeable - at least in the context of published adventures. You might need five folks of a given level to clean out the dungeon, but which five folks those are doesn't matter that much (except insofar as you might want a balanced group). Even more problematically, they are universally unexceptional except in their capability to kick ass. They may kick ass in different ways, and those difference matter on a tactical level, but in the big picture they kind of run together.

This is problematic in the case of the quest model where people are recruited based on talents, knowledge or other specific criteria. 4e characters do not have such distinctions, or more precisely, the system does not support such distinctions. And that's rough. You can overcome it around the table in the specific, but that is an extra layer you add to the game.

So, there's the problem: why do these characters matter in the eyes of the setting, other than as interchangeable ass kickers?

The first answer that springs to mind is one that 4e does not answer, and that is the role of classes in the setting. Specifically, is the simple fact that a PC is a member of a class something outstanding? In some games, the implicit assumption is yes. If you have someone in your group playing a ranger, he's _the_ ranger, or at least one of only a few. There might be other guys running around with two swords or looking outdoorsey, but big R Rangers are few and far between. In other games, there are any number of rangers, and you are just one of them.

Curiously, older editions pulled an interesting trick of kind of doing both. There might be any number of rangers in the setting, but the game still gave you big props for being a ranger when it came time to do ranger-y things. Tracking? You rocked. Some big random outdoorsey roll? You got a big bonus. Even if you weren't necessarily unique or rare, it was acknowledged.

4e offers no such acknowledgment, at least outside of the scope of combat, and that's rough. It reveals (to me, at least) that the big problem with the skill system is not the shortage of skills but rather the lack of opportunity to be exceptional within their sphere (since that sphere is, by and large, most of the non-combat world). The difference that being trained in a skill makes is nice, but it does not really create a sense of "AND NOW I'M AWESOME AT THIS" which, I admit, I want at least a little of. I like rangers who can track anything, anywhere. I want a rogue who is the finest lockpick in the realm. Stuff like that helps bring a game to life.

This, in turn, casts a light on something I consider the most problematic dichotomy within 4e - awesomeness vs "zero to hero". Something that probably merits its own post, but for the moment I'm left with the question: If the combat game is all about being awesome, why is the non-combat game about being kind of a schlub?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The New Shininess

So, the Ipad 2 comes out on March 11th, and we finally got to see what the fuss was about yesterday, in one of Apple's now-standard presentations scattered hither and yon across the web. Engadget has a good summary of the details, but there are really few surprises. It's thinner, lighter, more powerful, has cameras (front and back) and costs the same. Oh, and it now comes in black and white.

Now, I don't want to sound too jaded about these points. They're actually really impressive from a technical perspective, and the promised increases in graphical power alone seem to hint at fantastic future uses. I feel like Apple has re-asserted its place of prominence in the market by once again being the price leader, something I still can't believe I'm saying with a straight face. I still look forward to other tablets pushing the market as a whole forward (and I'm definitely looking forward to HP's WebOS tablet - that excites me much more than Android or RIM at this point) but I'm also glad Apple keeps coming out strong, because i think that creates necessary pressure.

Still, as a well documented ipad enthusiast who makes rigorous, daily use of his ipad 1, is it worth the upgrade? Honestly, probably not.

A lot of this is because I'm still incredibly happy with my Ipad's performance and form factor, so incremental improvements in both aren't going to move my needle much. As a practical matter, I'm fairly certain I'll need to buy an Ipad3 when it comes out, if only because developers are lazy, and we're going to start seeing games designed for the more powerful engine that will slog on the ipad 1, but I think that threshold is a ways down the road. Similarly, the addition of cameras are cool, but not compelling. Facetime will excite me more when its more widespread and, honestly, when I can run a game over it. Until then, I'm fine using my laptop for such things.

It may be shallow, but I admit the element about the ipad 2 that I find most jealousy inducing is the cover. Man, they put some thought into that, and as someone who has tried many covers, it really looks like it's a good replacement for everything short of an otterbox defender. It's pretty awesome. Not "buy a whole new Ipad" awesome, but awesome.

I look at the ipad 2 release and what's scary is that it's all about new customers. For folks who carefully avoid Apple's initial releases (due to their tending to be public betas) it's enough of an upgrade to justify the wait. For others, it has just created the secondary market for Ipad 1's at a diminished price point. That's good positioning.

So, barring disaster or windfall, I don't see myself buying an Ipad 2. Though man, you can bet I'm going to get the new Garage Band for the Ipad (which BETTER be compatible with the Ipad 1) because it looks like the program I always wished Garage Band was.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

5 Rounds of Nerdy Math

Someone made an assertion online that a 4e fight is designed to last 5 rounds. That's an interesting assertion, and I've had people express that it both sounds too long and too short. If it's true, it's a very interesting point that allows you to crunch the numbers a bit harder, but it's unsourced, so it's pretty suspect. So I'm going to crunch the numbers a bit here and see how that holds up with the reality. To do this, I'm going to focus on damage dealt, and I'm buying into two strongly held assumptions. First, that a +1 to hit is always better than a +1 to damage, and second that damage is what ends fights. Thus, for illustration, I'll be focusing on damage output. These assumptions are not absolute certainties, but accepting them makes decision making much easier.

Ok, assume a level 5 D&D character with an 18 in whatever stat we happen to care about. Erring on the side of generosity we'll assume a +2 weapon, so with a basic attack we're looking at, what, +2 for level, +2 for magic, +4 for stat, +2 or 3 for weapon accuracy, plus some random +1 for a feat. Baseline weapon is going to be +2/1d10 (battleaxe) or +3/d8 (Longsword). For illustration, I'm going with longsword because, hey, accuracy.

Given all that, that means a Basic Attack with an attack bonus of +12 and 1d8+7 damage (+2 for magic, +4 for stat, +1 for misc), for an average of 11.5 HP damage per round. However, on a crit, that's 15+2d6, which we'll call 22. However, Crits only happen 1 time in 20, so that contribution depends a lot on the hit range.

Ok, so given that, let's look at a level 5 monster. default ac is roughly Level + 14, so that's a 19 AC, so our hypothetical basic attack will hit on a 7 or better. Pretty good odds, 70%. That means that the real damage output (assuming basic attacks) is ((13*11.5) + 22)/20 = 8.575, so call it average of 8.6 damage per round. This, over our hypothetical 5 rounds, that's 43 points of damage (which we will generously assume to be perfectly distributed). How does that stack up? Baseline for monsters is (8 + Con) + Level * 8. Since we're talking level 5 monsters, then that's about 58 HP, which is to say we're about 15 points short of our hypothetical 5 round fight.

Still, since we've just been using Basic attacks to reach this number, that 5 round guideline does not seem too far out of reach with additions bonus damage from strikers, encounter and daily powers, action points, multiple targets and other random factors. There's a lot of extra math I could do here, but I'm comfortable with a gut read here - that it's not too hard to get up to the ~11 DPR necessary for a 5 round fight without excessively depleting resources.

I'm a little concerned at how well that scales though. Let's look at levels 15 and 25.

At 15, we've gotten our key stat up to 22 (so, +6), we've got a +4 weapon, a +7 level bonus, and the feat bonus is now +2 to hit and damage, +3 since we still have a longsword, so +22 to hit for an average damage of D8+12 (average 16.5, 20+4d6=34 on a crit). Monster AC at this point is 29, so we've kept pace - we still hit on a 7+ so once again we calculate damage average as ((13 * 16.5)+34)/20=12.425, call it 12.4.

I'm already kind of worried. That's 62 damage over 5 rounds. In contrast, our average monster is looking at 138 hit points. Where the level 5 fight required only about a 30% bump to make 5 rounds, this is more than 100%. I accept that we'll be looking at a bigger bump (since the encounter and daily powers are more potent, and we're seeing more feat synergy) but even if that's 60% (which would be ~20 DPR) that's a 7 round fight.

By the same math at 25 it's +31 to hit and 2d8+16(25) on average and 32+6d6(53) on a crit vs monsters with an AC of 39, so we've dropped a little, hitting on an 8+. Damage output is ((12*25) + 53)/20=17.65 (or 88 in 5 rounds). Critters are looking at 218 HP, so the gap is even greater. With a 90% bump (to about 33), that's about 6 rounds.

Obviously, this is pretty approximate, and I'm pondering the takeaways. It would be possible to crunch this further - assume a canonical party of 4, add in the bonus for fighter accuracy and rogue sneak attack, assume all encounter powers are used and re-run the numbers to see if it changes the result, but I'd be surprised if it was much more generous than my 30%/60%/90% progression. I admit, I was surprised that the distribution is as tight as it is - if you'd asked me, I'd have expected that Epic tier fights might be at least 2 to 3 times longer than regular ones given the HP totals.

More than anything, I think this gets me thinking about the impact of minions and elites/Solos on fight duration (and it also makes me all the more leery of high level monsters designed to exceed the specs). Elites seem the nastiest, since they've effectively got double HP for double XP, but also have an AC bump that stretches things out. Solos are not so bad, with effectively 4x HP for 5x XP, but the further bump in AC offsets that. To crunch the numbers a little, let's look at the level 5 Elite. It takes 10-11 "man rounds" to drop 2 level 5 critters (that is, to do ~120 points of damage at 11 points per round). For the elite. we're looking at an extra man-round as that +2 bump to AC about a 10% drop in damage, so now we're looking at 12-13 man-rounds. For a comparable solo, we're looking to do 240 damage against an even better AC, something like 29-30 man-rounds (more than doubling, though increasing in line with XP increase).

Minions, on the other hand, speed things up more and more as you level up, despite the fact that the amount of "wasted" effort increases. Consider, with 4 minions making a normal critter, the comparison for effort is to doing 25% damage to a normal critter in one hit. Thus, for example, if a level 5 monster should have 58 HP, then each minion is ~15 HP. Since average damage output is 12.4, that's a good deal. It' smote pronounces at level 25, when the monster might have 218hp - each minion hit is roughly equivalent to a 55 point hit. That's a VERY good deal. It also backs up the intuitive sense that the pricing of minions may be a little askew, but that's another topic.

Anyway, this is all back of a napkin math without any MM3 changes, so I welcome corrections. I'm not yet sure what to think, but I feel like I'm a little bit better armed to go forward. It occurs to me that one advantage of taking the deeper math plunge is that it might provide greater insight into what the "right" damage expressions are for powers. If fights are open ended, there's no good answer, but if there's a target duration (and, by extension, a target damage output) the suddenly there's a potential for a real yardstick.

I'll dig into this more when I have a combination of a spreadsheet and copious spare time, but it'll probably be a few days.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How I Learned to Run a Fight

The Amber Diceless RPG (ADRPG) had a deceptively simple system: players in a contest compared the appropriate stat (there were only 4, so this was not hard) and the higher stat won. Simple as that, except for one small catch. See, while the stat established that baseline of victory, the GM took the fictional situation into account when figuring out the outcome. That meant that it was very much optimal to stack the deck in your favor whenever possible in hopes of overcoming your stat difference.

This absolutely reinforced a sort of backstabby theme by incentivizing betrayal, backstabbing, ambush and surprise, but it also shook up the static, predictable nature of the stats. Sure, everyone knew how a fair fight would go most of the time, but since fair fights were so rare, that only mattered so much.

This introduced some fascinating challenges to players and GMs. For players, it demanded creativity and an ability to really interact with the fiction. It also drove player descriptions towards advantage rather than outcome (something that translated well to the back-and-forth of online play). At the same time, it demanded a great deal of flexibility from the GM because the system provided very little in the way of guidelines for how much the elements of the fiction could really influence outcomes. That is to say, there was no hard and fast way to judge whether or not surprising that guy in his sleep was enough to overcome his badassery advantage. The information was not just obfuscated, it was entirely inaccessible, as it existed purely in the GM's head. The only way to find out was to try.

Obviously, there were downsides to it. The system favored the player who could sync up descriptions with the GM's sensibilities, and it could be arbitrary and unfair at times. Some GMs were entirely comfortable with that, but that possibility was placed front and center, so any GM with half a brain could grasp these risks and understand that she would need to rein in.

On the, it was a boot camp for how to run a good, engaging fight. Everything mattered, and every action was an opportunity to change things up, so you had every reason to bring your A game. As a GM, it forced you to develop a sense of how to interpret the fiction and the advantages it brought. You very quickly go "Ok, he has reach and better armor, but she brought the fight into close quarters, so that reach is less of an asset and may actually become a drawback. She's crazy strong, but he's willing to take a hit to hurt her." then come to a conclusion regarding how all those factors should impact the fight [1], then dynamically update them in reaction to player actions, all while making sure the whole conflict feels brutally real and dangerous to combatants.

(Curiously, while the game had no real guidelines on how to judge the effect of advantages, it had a very nicely tiered set of potential outcomes which, so far as I know, no one ever used literally, but rather took as a lesson of the many ways a fight might end).

It's pretty awesome. Totally subjective. Utterly subject to fiat. But awesome.

Anyway, the other thing this really taught you was to get a strong feel for advantage and diminishing returns, two things that are really essential for making a skill system feel like something other than a number crunching exercise. That, however, is a topic for another day.

[] 1- It's actually because of this that I vastly prefer using relative advantage in combat systems, rather than modifiers for individual weapons, armor and such. Assuming a fair fight (zero bonus), you look at all the situational modifiers (which includes arms and armors) and just assign a bonus weighted by those things. It's super fast, requires minimal bookkeeping, but requires enough practice that I'd hesitate to put it in any published book because I'm not sure how well it would be received.