The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 15
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 May 2014, 10:45 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune found out how to control the cards of the Deck of Many Things they had been collecting. That turned those cards from a curiosity into a bunch of powerful magic items. So we started this session with distributing those cards, the players taking turns choosing the cards they wanted. Then the group headed towards the second entrance of the vaults, some ruined barracks. In the barracks the group encountered two carrion crawlers and a bulette, which attacked from below. The carrion crawlers were relatively easy to kill, leaving the bulette as main enemy. And the heroes used the cards of the Deck of Many Things to great effect to hit the bulette with various status effects like stun and petrification, making the fight quite an easy one.

Heading downstairs from there the Favorites of Selune came to a room with a moon of Selune on the floor, and frescoes showing minotaurs venerating Selune on the walls. In the middle of the moon was a chalice, and a gnoll shaman was trying to get to that chalice. But whenever he approached, flames shot out of the ground. The group attacked the shaman and the other 3 gnolls in the room, but the gnolls fled into the next room and closed and barred the door behind them. The group's priest approached the moon on the floor, and provoked no defense reaction, so that he could grab the chalice, which turned out to be the chalice of the dragon that they had been looking for.

Now the group was still in combat, because there was the possibility to break down the door and go after the gnolls. As nothing happened for a round, I diminished the count of the escalation die to zero. And I waited for the players to decide whether they wanted to go after the gnolls, or leave the place to bring back the chalice of the dragon to Sir Oakley. They did neither. Instead the warlock and the rogue came up with a plan to open another door in the room to see what was behind it. And when they saw two minotaurs and a demon in that other room, the rogue shot an arrow at the demon. All that while they technically were still in combat with the gnolls.

That ended as you would expect it to: The arrow "pulled" the minotaurs including the demon and some minotaur reinforcements towards the players. On hearing the demon roar and the heroes in combat with the demon and minotaur, the gnolls opened their door again and attacked them from behind, nearly killing the wizard (who already wasn't too happy that the others had opened that second door). As the players had managed to pull two large encounters at the same time, there were a LOT of monsters attacking them. So the adventurers ran away. And as the gnolls and the minotaurs were somewhat hostile to each other, and neither of them wanted to be between the adventurers and the others, nobody followed the Favorites of Selune upstairs. At this point we ended the session.

It has to be said that "dungeons" don't make a lot of sense in any game, pen & paper or MMORPG. Why are there so many monsters living so close to each other, and why don't they all come running when the first group of them is attacked? Obviously there are genre conventions at play here, which make a dungeon possible in the context of a RPG, for gameplay - not realism. But those conventions require that the players stick to them: The monsters will not come running by themselves from the next room, but if you deliberately "pull" them, they will. So even if there was a certain logic to verifying what was behind the second door, opening that door and shooting and arrow at the monsters behind went against those dungeon conventions. The players were just lucky that the wizard survived with 2 hit points, this session could well have seen our second death of the adventure.
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New player guide to role-playing: Ask me anything
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 May 2014, 7:38 am
Without wanting to turn this blog into Reddit, I could use some more feedback on my "New player guide to role-playing" series of posts. Before I go off on some tangent nobody is interested in, I'd rather ask my readers whether there is anything in particular they want to know about pen & paper role-playing games. Please, use the comment section of this post to ask me anything you want to know about RPGs.
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D&D Insider support for 4th edition
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 May 2014, 12:26 am
4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is a complicated game: The rules are distributed over dozen of books plus errata, and building a character or monster takes some time. 4E is greatly helped by the online tools that Wizards of the Coast make available to D&D Insider subscribers: The compendium of all the rules, the character builder, and the monster builder. Plus you get access to Dungeon Magazine and Dragon Magazine online. So I've been paying those $5.95 per month (12 month subscription price) for some time, because I consider it well worth it.

Now even if I wanted to, I can't switch to 5th edition when it comes out. Half of my group isn't speaking English, and while 4E exists in French, WotC hasn't sorted out translations for 5E yet. So I will need those 4E online tools still for a while. And I'm obviously worried that WotC just switches them off in a "let's get everybody to move to 5E" sort of marketing push.

Having not found any clear statement of WotC on the issue, I made use of modern social media: I sent a tweet to Mike Mearls, D&D Lead Designer. I asked: "Can you rename 4E to "D&D Tactics" and keep up support for the online tools? Or do you need to push people into 5E?". And to my surprise, I got an answer: "online tools will remain functional as long as we have enough people subbed". I find that a very reasonable answer. They don't promise support for forever, but as long as enough people subscribe to D&D Insider for 4th edition to pay for the tools, they'll keep them up. That might get complicated some day if D&D Insider gets 5E online tools as well, as they would need two separate subscriptions to know which version people are paying for. But at least 4E will have some online legacy support for the moment.
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Speeding up pen & paper role-playing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 May 2014, 12:41 pm
I was listening to an actual play podcast of a role-playing session in the Pathfinder system and it was a single combat that took 2 minutes of game time but over 2 hours of real time. The encounter had been designed for 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons and then translated into the Pathfinder system. 4E encounter design tends toward the epic, with the players facing different monsters and many different things happening. And that podcast confirmed my suspicion that what makes combat encounters in 4E take so much real time is that epic design, and not a fault of the rules system.

Having said that, I believe that real time speed of combat depends a lot on organization. On the side of the players the issue is usually how well the players know their characters. It makes a huge difference whether a player knows his attack bonus and damage by heart, or needs to look it up every time he attacks. I've played some games like Rolemaster where you ALWAYS needed to look your attacks up, because attack results were found on weapon type vs. armor type tables, and that of course was horribly slow. 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons can get slow when players don't know their powers and need to read them when it is their turn. The various incarnations of 3rd edition D&D, including Pathfinder, can eat up time when players aren't very familiar with the various combat modifiers, and there are lots of calculations going on.

The same consideration that knowing your powers and combat modifiers speeds up combat also applies to the DM. But as the DM usually has more than one monster to play, and doesn't play the same monster in every fight, it is a lot harder for him to have everything in his head. So then it becomes a matter of preparation. After some experimentation I found that it helps enormously if I put everything I need for one encounter in one A4 plastic pocket: Battlemaps, tokens, initiative riders, monster stats, and a sheet with the monster hit points on it, which I use during combat to note status effects and damage.

Now some people prefer a "theater of the mind" approach to combat, without maps and tokens. But to me that approach means that I can't prepare things as well any more. It works fine for small encounters, but as soon as there is a lot of stuff going on in a battle, you lose a lot of time re-establishing where everybody is in relation to everybody else. That was very clear in the podcast I mentioned above, which didn't use maps. So not only do I like maps and tokens / figurines for a more tactical approach to RPG combat, I also like them for their contribution to speed. They save a lot of time explaining how close or far you are from friend and foe, or questions of line of sight.

In my campaign a combat lasting 2 hours isn't unheard of. But then that would be some epic fight with 6 players on one side, and several types of monsters on the other side, complicated by a lot of terrain effects or surprise events. And narrative description of combat events takes some time too, and so does the players arguing over strategy some times. But the important thing is to keep things going forward at a pace where nobody ever gets bored while waiting. I think I'm doing pretty good at that now, after 2 years back in the saddle as DM. And my players rather spend 2 hours in an epic boss fight than 2 hours dawdling about in some role-playing situation in which for some reason the party goals and path forward aren't obvious. But that would be a subject for another post.
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New player guide to role-playing: Character creation
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 May 2014, 1:35 am
In the first part of this series I talked about how the role-playing and the game part of a pen & paper role-playing game (RPG) sometimes have conflicting goals: You want smooth progress for the game, but interesting challenges and obstacles for the role-playing story. Nowhere is that conflict more evident than in character creation, so I'm talking about this point next.

Most RPG systems let you make choices on character creation which affect the combat performance of your character. For example if you want to make a fighter, it is possible that the system allows you to put your highest ability score into strength, and that then makes hitting things with a sword easier. You probably also can choose a race for your fighter, and then some races have bonuses that make them better fighters. Thus, just like one would do in a video game, one is tempted to do some min-maxing and create the dwarven fighter with the best combination of ability scores and skills and feats that the system allows you to make. Sometimes rules systems are a bit complicated, but with a bit of study it is always possible to make the best possible character for a certain role. But should you?

The problem is that there is usually just one optimum. So if you play more than one campaign, you end up meeting a lot of dwarven fighters. And because that is such a stereo-type that it appears in lots of books and movies, many of those dwarven fighters are played as having a character similar to Gimli from the Lord of the Rings. Add an elven ranger to the party, and you get role-playing dialogues that aren't really anywhere near original.

I am not proposing to go for the opposite. Don't make an extremely weak but intelligent fighter, one who barely can lift his sword but can discuss philosophy. Combat is an important part of most RPG systems, and you don't want to completely gimp your character. But if you want to make a fighter, you should consider making some more interesting choices if they don't have a too bad effect on combat performance. If a halfling fighter only hits 5% less well than a dwarven one, consider whether that wouldn't be more fun to role-play than something stereo-typical.

A similar consideration is also true when creating a background story for your character. Some people tend to either not create one at all, as a completely unattached character has the most freedom, or to create a background that they hope will give them some advantage, like coming from a rich family. But character background is really something that a player should discuss with his DM. Ideally character background provides story hooks that weave into the campaign story and provide personal goals for characters that go beyond the group goals. So you need to speak with your DM about what his campaign is about, and what sort of character goals he can work with. While personal goals are a good thing, you also don't want them to diverge too much inside the group. Groups work best if the personal goals of one character aren't incompatible with the group goals and the personal goals of the other characters. Some conflict is good, but not so much that it tears the group apart.

In 40 years of pen & paper RPGs, nobody has ever won a game. It simply isn't a competitive game where you try to do better than the guy next to you. It is a collaborative game of interactive story-telling, which involves some game elements like dice rolls. So if you create a character, try to make a character that lends itself to creating an interesting story. The halfling who became a fighter when an evil necromancer ruined his father's merchant business probably ends up having more interesting encounters and personal involvement in the campaign than yet another Gimli the dwarf lookalike.
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Samsung Galaxy S4 - Poor customer service
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 May 2014, 8:36 am
For Christmas my wife gave me a Samsung Galaxy S4. Half a year later it is malfunctioning, due to a swelling battery. Samsung acknowledged that as being a manufacturers fault, and publicly offered to replace those batteries. But in reality it ain't that easy.

The website told me to visit the closest Samsung Service Center, they won't just send you a replacement battery. So I drive into town to go there. The guy in the shop also is aware of the problem and the replacement policy. But he doesn't have any replacement batteries, nor can he tell me when he'll get them. In addition to that he demands a proof of purchase, but of course I haven't bought the phone in that shop, and didn't even think I needed to take that proof with me. What more proof than the swollen original battery does Samsung need?

So I went home and looked on the internet again. A third-party replacement battery for the Samsung Galaxy S4 is $13.99 at Amazon. That is probably less than what it cost me to drive into town. And the battery is delivered to my home and soon, instead of me having to go to the Samsung Service Center repeatedly in the hope they get a battery in one day.

Dear Samsung, your poor customer service might have saved you from having to replace my battery, but you lost a customer in the process.
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New player guide to role-playing: The basics
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 May 2014, 2:11 am
Pen & paper role-playing rules systems like the upcoming 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons are frequently made by veteran gamers for veteran gamers. You learn them by playing with somebody who has played before. But if for some reason you don't have anybody to teach you how to play, and just got the rules and friends to play with, starting role-playing is far from obvious. Thus I decided to write a new player guide to pen & paper role-playing in multiple chapters, starting with this chapter of the very basics.

The very first thing you need to know about role-playing is that there are no rules. This is why I can talk about role-playing without limiting myself to a specific system. I have played many different editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but also many other rules systems, fantasy, horror, and science fiction. And what I'll say here applies to all of them, even if I might use fantasy game examples and D&D terms. Unfortunately there being no rules doesn't mean you can't go wrong. Ultimately the purpose is for you and your friends to have fun together. That does require some degree of mutual respect and consideration: You have the freedom to role-play as you like, but so does everybody else at the table; and at the end the overall result should be an interactive story, not a cacophony of voices each trying to impose their vision on the other.

Most pen & paper role-playing systems manage to impose some degree of order by appointing one of the player to be the game master, or dungeon master (DM). Every other player plays usually a single character, with all the characters together forming a group of adventurers. The DM plays everything else. The whole world. He plays every character that the players meet (so-called non-player characters or NPCs), every monster, and he even represents the world itself: He describes what you see, and he will answer you if you ask for a detail he didn't mention in his description.

Thus at its most basic form, role-playing is a sort of dialogue between the group of players and the DM. The DM describes a situation, like a temple with a statue with ruby eyes and a big bronze gong next to it. And the players describe what their characters do in this temple. Do they want to climb up the statue and steal the rubies? Do they want to ring the gong? Do they want to tip-toe through the temple to get somewhere else? While the description of the DM gives the players some obvious hooks for possible actions, the creativity and imagination of the players and DM are the only limits. Sure, you can ring the gong. But if that temple is on top of a snowy mountain, maybe at some later point in the game the adventurers will use it as a sled to slide down the slope of that mountain, fleeing from the temple inhabitants angry about them stealing those rubies.

The DM usually prepares the game. He will have a plan of the different rooms of the temple, he will know what monsters or NPCs lurk in there, and he will have thought about what happens if the players try the most obvious things. Thus he will know who will come running if the players ring the gong, and he'll know the details of the deadly trap protecting the ruby eyes. But as the players are allowed to use their creativity and try anything they like, the DM must be ready to improvise when they come up with something less obvious. If the temple inhabitants are supposed to come running through a door, what happens if the players use the big bronze gong to block that door? Usually the DM should reward any good idea from the players with some positive outcome, so in this case the players should at least gain some time before the natives are able to remove the blockage.

There are two goals to the actions of the players and the reactions of the DM. The first one is to create a story, together, interactively. The second is that most pen & paper role-playing game systems do not only have a role-playing part, but also a game part. Characters are represented by a piece of paper with various numbers on them, the character sheet. The character sheet tells you how strong your character is, what skills he has, what magic spells he can cast (if any), what weapon he wields. And there are systems in place where by successful adventuring the characters earn gold and experience points, which improve the numbers on the character sheet and make the characters stronger.

The two goals are sometimes at odds with each other. You want your character to earn gold and experience, but if there are no obstacles and challenges in the way, that will make for a rather boring story. One of the main roles of the DM is to put those obstacles and challenges in the way of the players to create a better story. That doesn't mean that the DM plays *against* the players. As the DM has unlimited resources, he could easily kill the player characters, which wouldn't be much fun for anybody. The DM plays the attacking monsters and dangerous traps so as to make the story more interesting. That temple wouldn't be much fun if there were no natives and traps guarding those ruby eyes. Sometimes even players create challenges and dangers. Sounding that gong is probably a bad idea, but a player might do it just for the fun of it and to see what happens. But there needs to be some sort of agreement between the players in how far any one of them is allowed to endanger everybody. If the players agreed to not ring that gong, everybody should stick to that agreement.

If there are no rules to role-playing, how do you know if you did it right? Well, if you had fun at the end of the session, you did it right. Regardless of how a different group of people would have played through the same situation, what counts is the fun that you and your friends are having. If you still remember years later that time when Bob's character tried to climb the statue to the ruby eyes, fumbled his dice roll, slipped and banged against the gong, alerting the whole temple and starting a frantic escape, the session probably was a success.
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Does the world need another edition of D&D?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 May 2014, 8:58 am
Ardwulf used to write about MMORPGs, and these days writes about pen & paper roleplaying games. Now who does that remind me of? ;) Anyway, he wrote a post on the upcoming 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Which is well worth reading, and I agree with many points of that post. What I don't agree with is this statement:
Some have questioned “whether we need a new edition of D&D.” The answer is obviously that “we” don’t. “We” are by definition the existing audience, with a plethora of different incarnations of D&D rules to choose from already. Some of us have been happily playing a favored edition for years or even decades. There’s no reason for someone in such a position to buy into a new edition. There never has been. But the world needs a new edition of D&D, and always does.
Why would the world need a new edition of D&D?

As I see it, 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is a great game, but would ideally not have been called Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, but rather "Dungeons & Dragons Tactics" or something similar. So now WotC is releasing a 5th edition which is basically pretending that 4th edition never happened. It tries to solve some of the inherent problems of editions 1 to 3.5, but without performing the same rupture that 4th edition did. So while one could argue that the world needed "Dungeons & Dragons Tactics - mistakenly named 4E" because it is a new game, I would say that the world does not need yet another badly patched version of 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

I believe the world does need an affordable and accessible mass market pen & paper roleplaying game. Unfortunately there is just no edition of Dungeons & Dragons that was produced this century that fits that description. I don't share Ardwulf's hope that the $20 starter set of 5E will play this role, because WotC doesn't have a good track record with starter sets. They frequently end up being a hobbled version of the game, limited to low levels, and not actually very good at explaining what a pen & paper roleplaying game is. But editions 3.5 (and Pathfinder), 4, and 5, are all editions of ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons. The BASIC editions of Dungeons & Dragons have not been produced or seen new editions since 2000. What the world needed would have been a new version of the Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons Game, basic D&D in a box, for the price of a board game.

4th edition is not a particular good game for total beginners, not even after they made it slightly more newbie-friendly with the Essentials edition. But neither was 3.5, and neither will be 5th edition. 5E is full of bad rules that already were bad rules in 1st edition AD&D, and that WotC doesn't dare to touch due to the protests they had to endure from hardcore fans when they released 4th edition. 5E doesn't simplify anything, it just tries to fix inherent imbalances of earlier editions by adding additional complex rules layers on top. They just announced that character creation in 5th edition was so complicated, that they wouldn't include it in the starter set, but put it online instead.

A large amount of rules is inherently hostile to creativity and roleplaying. What we need is a game with extremely simple rules which teaches people how to roleplay. We need to go back to basic D&D, where an elf was a character class, and all weapons did 1d6 of damage. Having lots of different race/class combinations and skills and backgrounds and all that to choose from is all very nice for veteran players, but it just won't do to teach new players how to play a roleplaying game. 5th edition, just like 4E and 3.5, is basically unplayable unless you have an experienced player teaching you the game. That is not how a new dawn of a next era of roleplaying looks.

The world does not need a new edition of ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons. It needs a very different product to get young people away from their screens.
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Not all quests are equal
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 May 2014, 6:59 am
The discussion this week on this blog about quests mainly showed that the term is far too broad. People complain about quests, but in reality it isn't all quests they are opposed to. Of course we want some hand-holding (preferably optional for alts) at the start of the game to explain the game mechanics to us. Of course we want some form of story-telling to happen which explains us the lore and background of whatever we see in that virtual world. What we don't want is and endless series of being told to kill 10 foozles or to carry an "important message" to an NPC 10 meters away.

In the current adventure of my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, Madness at Gardmore Abbey, there are quests. There is one main quest, collecting the 22 cards of the Deck of Many Things, and over a dozen side quests which serve to tell the history of the abbey, or to direct players to locations they might otherwise have missed. The overall idea is that at the end of the adventure the players not only are in possession of the Deck of Many Things, but also in possession of the history of that artifact, so as to enable them to make an informed decision on what to do with it. None of the quests is completely trivial or involves "grinding" a specific number of enemies. The main quest, and one side quest about finding sacred vessels, do not give the players the information where exactly to look for the items. Rather the idea is that the players will do ALL the encounters in the adventure and therefore ultimately find everything that there is to find. It would be totally possible to play the same adventure with the same encounters without using any main or side quests, but that would give a less interesting result and story.

What I do like in Wildstar are quest series which do similar things than the quests in my D&D game: Telling me a story about a location and letting me interact with that story. What I don't like is two particular things:
  1. I don't get a choice how to interact with that story, other than either following the story line or not. I don't get to choose whether I trust the quest giver and I don't get to make any moral decisions. I'm just a stupid grunt who is doing what he is being told.
  2. I receive instructions about things to do which are somewhat arbitrary and don't really relate to the advancement of the story. The famous "dickwolf" cartoon from Penny Arcade, before becoming a PR disaster, was meant to be about that issue: Why would a quest ask me to free X slaves, or kill X monsters, and not all of them?
Both cases are obviously due to technical and financial limitations. "Free X slaves" is a kind of a placeholder in the story, representing the player/hero freeing "the slaves" in the story. If you wanted to represent that by him actually freeing all slaves, you would need to deal with the question of how the player knows when the task is finished, and how his freeing the slaves interacts with the player next to him freeing the slaves as well. Wildstar has "adventures" with decision trees, but for normal quests having multiple choices and better story logic would require a lot of costly phasing, and loss of the little remaining multi-player atmosphere.

And then there is the issue of how much information a quest should give the player. I remember one quest in the original Everquest where you were asked in the dwarven city to go out and find a certain dwarf, without being told where. That dwarf was in another city on the other side of another continent. The result of that sort of quest design was that people used the internet to find out where they were actually supposed to go. Even far more hand-holding games like World of Warcraft STILL have third-party websites that list all quests and give hints on how to solve them in case there was the slightest ambiguity left in the quest description. So games are giving more and more detailed instructions, with arrows pointing out exactly where to go and what to click on. I don't remember which game it was, but I remember playing one game where you could click on the quest tracker to auto-run to the quest location. So on the one hand at least some people demand very detailed instructions, but on the other hand these detailed instructions remove any sense of exploration and adventure from the game.

I know what I prefer, but I don't know a solution that would make everybody happy. It is hard to imagine a working system that gives different degrees of hand-holding to different players. Even if players would be happier with having to explore a bit more, chances are they would go the path of least resistance and turn on all quest help features if they were optional.
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Supply and demand of games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 May 2014, 3:23 am
Jeff Vogel recently claimed that the indie bubble was popping because there were simply too many games chasing the same, barely growing, pool of gamer money. That is simply a matter of supply and demand. While casual and mobile games have increased the number of gamers a lot over the last decade, the new gamers spend a lot less on games than the core gamers.

That is going to make it difficult for games that are, or are perceived to be, expensive. And for once I don't want to talk about MMORPGs here. Instead I am somewhat worried about the future of Dungeons & Dragons. The core books of the 5th edition just have been announced, and there are (as usual) three books you need to play: The Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Monster Manual. And they cost $50 per book, for a whopping total of $150. And then you don't have any of the $30 adventures yet, or dice. There are six dice in the $20 starter set, so if you buy that and one adventure, you are at $200.

Now somebody is going to remark that the D&D books were never very cheap. But as I said in the beginning, times have changed. When I started playing D&D over three decades ago, there weren't many alternatives if you wanted to pretend to be an elvish wizard. Now a fantasy game on your mobile phone can be had for less than the price of a cup of coffee. $200 buys you a LOT of games in Humble Bundles and Steam sales. In the long run D&D isn't so bad, because your initial investment can last you and your friends for a very long time. But that initial cost might put a lot of people off.

It is good that the first 5th edition product is the $20 starter set, which at least gets new players a basic pen & paper experience for not much money. But from there to the real thing is a huge step. And the pricing strategy to me looks like a step backwards from how 4E Essentials were priced. I am sure a lot of D&D veterans, grown up and having money, will buy the 5E books. But as a product to attract new players to the hobby it seems less than ideal.
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Quest-free MMORPGs?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 May 2014, 10:08 am
When I asked people whether they would play Wildstar, I got quite a lot of people saying that they wouldn't want to play any quest-based MMORPG any more. While I completely understand the sentiment and am likely myself to quit a game because I just can't stand being sent on yet another errand any more, I also see a problem: A lack of alternatives. I don't think I played a quest-free MMORPG since Ultima Online. Even games that are far more sandbox than World of Warcraft, for example A Tale in the Desert or EVE Online do have some form of quests / missions / tests or whatever else you want to call them. Yes, you can play these games without doing those missions, but you can also play World of Warcraft without doing a single quest, so that isn't saying much.

The future doesn't look much different. Whatever innovations Everquest Next and Landmark are introducing, an absence of quests is not among them. Even if you buy the latest single-player game with some sort of world exploration content, like Watch Dogs, you will see quest objectives popping up all over the place. In some strange sort of boomerang development, the idea of gamification ended up where it started, and now most games have layers upon layers of gamification features. Many of which end up, like quests, being an endless to-do list, telling you what you are supposed to do in the game. Apparently we aren't trusted to find out ourselves.

So while in theory a MMORPG without quests could exist, I have a hard time finding a practical example. Do you know of any MMORPG from this century that has no quests or missions?
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Will you play Wildstar?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 May 2014, 1:06 pm
So the Wildstar open beta is over, and nothing happening any more until the headstart in two weeks. Time to make a decision, especially if you tried the game in the open beta: Are you going to play Wildstar on release?
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My position in the edition wars
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 May 2014, 2:01 am
There recently was a commenter on this blog who expressed his anger at me playing, writing about, and thus somewhere promoting the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, instead of a previous edition, or the next edition. In D&D that is known as the edition wars. Psychologically that is the same well-known effect as people being angry about somebody playing a different MMORPG than they are. Pen & paper games as well as MMORPGs consume so many hours, that they become akin to a lifestyle choice. And somebody choosing a different lifestyle than you are is perceived as a threat, as it calls into question whether your choice was the right one. But of course every choice can be the right one. The golden rule is that if you are having fun, you made the right choice.

A pen & paper role-playing game is a complex interaction between players and the dungeon master, so complex in fact that no computer game has come anywhere close to simulate it. It is so complex that no rules system has ever managed to govern this interaction flawlessly. Every single edition of Dungeons & Dragons and every single edition of every other pen & paper role-playing game has flaws. There are simply irreconcilable differences between the two main objectives of a pen & paper role-playing game: Simulating a fantasy world and playing a game.

Personally, whenever I am given the choice between something that leads to better gameplay or something that leads to better simulation, I always choose gameplay. Thus the simple reason why I prefer 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons over other editions is that 4E is the most game-centric of all the editions.

Basically I am not interested how somebody thinks a wizard "should" work in a simulation. Magic doesn't really exist, thus any simulation of it will be just fine. What I am concerned about is having a group of people around my table who each get equal opportunity to shine in the game. The concept of class balance is fundamental to MMORPGs. You would not want to play a MMORPG in which the wizard after a certain level is infinitely more powerful than the warrior, or in which the wizard gets to choose from a dozen hotkeys to press, while the warrior only gets one or two. In a way a MMORPG is a role-playing game that has been sped up by a large factor, which helps social issues to erupt earlier in a MMORPG than in a pen & paper game. A pen & paper game with bad class balance will run into exactly the same social problems as a MMORPG with bad class balance, but will do so much slower. By having played pen & paper games for over three decades I realized that one player having a much more powerful character than another player is a surefire recipe for implosion of a campaign, even if it might take a year or two to get there. It is possible that some players deliberately want to play a weaker character, but you can't rely on that.

In 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons every single player works fundamentally like a wizard, only with a different set of spells. The warrior has exactly as many powers to his disposal as the wizard has spells. Just like in a MMORPG every class has the same number of abilities and talents, 4E provides a group with a fully balanced class system. So when I see that the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons is removing that class balance from the game again to go back to interesting spell-casters and boring melee characters, I consider that a deadly design mistake. Even if you add more dice to roll to the melee classes, in the long run they simply can't compete against classes that have lots of options in the form of spells. And while proponents of that system frequently claim that there are players who prefer "simpler" classes, funnily enough all those proponents play spell-casters themselves. Simple classes are just not a viable long-term solution, not in a system where the players of those simpler classes see that after a few levels the spell-casters totally dominate the game and have most of the fun and the options.

I am well aware of the downsides of 4th edition. It is not a system I would recommend to start role-playing with, as the books don't explain role-playing very well and inexperienced players can get bogged down in endless combat. But these are flaws that I as an experienced DM can compensate for. I cannot compensate for an inherent lack of class balance in a system.
Tobold's Blog



Of trolls and campaigns
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 May 2014, 3:19 pm
In a pen & paper role-playing game, like in any other multi-player game, players sometimes disagree on how a player should play his character. A good DM never gets embroiled in that sort of discussion. Instead, things just happen in the game which give a player a new perspective on his character. :) That is both more subtle, and usually more effective.

One of the players in my 4E campaign played his wizard like a pure damage dealer, concentrating on fire spells. I didn't mind for most of my campaign, until another player rolled a new character and chose a sorcerer. So now the group was not only heavy on dps, the wizard also had direct competition in magical damage, and by a class which was actually designed to be played like that. So I decided to show him what else a wizard can do. When the group was fighting an undead ice mage, a fire spell by the wizard triggered "The Ice Curse" on him: All his fire spells were replaced by ice spells until the curse would be broken. Thus for the last two sessions the wizard has used ice spells instead of fire spells. And it turns out he likes it. He also got a magical Staff of Winter from the undead ice mage, so now he wants to keep the curse and the ice spells. So far, so good.

Now the Madness at Gardmore Abbey adventure we are currently playing is coming nearer to its end. I already have the next adventure lined up (Stubborn co-wrote it). But because I like to be a bit more prepared in advance than just the next adventure, I also started reading the adventure I wanted to play after that. I had selected that adventure some times earlier because it is the WotC "official" first adventure of the paragon tier (level 11 to 20), and that is where my players should be at the end of the next adventure. So I started reading P1 King of the Trollhaunt Warrens. And quickly realized that this adventure wouldn't do at all, because of how I had messed with the spells of the wizard. Obviously the adventure is full of trolls, and in D&D they can only be permanently killed by attacks with fire or acid. I can't put those mobs in front of my wizard after I took his fire spells away! He would be quite justifiably angry.

Now I could choose another paragon adventure for my campaign. But I think having finished the heroic tier would be an opportunity for something more than just the next adventure of the next tier. By that time we will have played that campaign for 3 years, and I think starting a new campaign would be a better approach. When we started this campaign, it was the first time I was the DM for this group, having played with them only as a player before. I had to find back skills that had become rusty. And we started 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons for the first time, which isn't a very easy system. So while I am quite pleased how this campaign has worked out, in hindsight I also see its flaws: As an episodic campaign, stitching adventures from different sources together, the campaign story is weak, and the world generic. As I started the campaign in a special "zero level" mode, most of my players don't have a background story at all. And the players choose their characters before knowing how the game really worked (although the zero level thing helped there).

So what I would like to do starting somewhere next year is to play the Zeitgeist: The Gears of Revolution Adventure Path. That is a whole 4E campaign full of adventures that comes with its own unique campaign world. So this time my players already know the 4E system, and I will start the campaign by explaining that unique campaign world to them, and what their role (as a group) in that campaign is. Only then do they get to create characters, and I'll use some rules from other systems (like 13th Age's "one unique thing") to create backgrounds with my players for their characters. I asked around, and it seems my players also like the idea (or are just happy to play anything I prepare). Zeitgeist is really a great example on how to get the best of both worlds, 4E tactical combat rules and great role-playing. I'm looking forward to this.
Tobold's Blog



The invisibility of fake reality
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 May 2014, 4:00 am
The Wildstar open beta is currently making a bad impression on players due to a bug with the nameplates. Sometimes you simply lose them, and it turns out that it is surprisingly difficult to play when the monsters you are looking for aren't having nameplates floating over their heads. Why is that so? I think it is a matter of how we trained our brains to look at these virtual worlds.

If I go in my garden and see a stone, I can interact with that stone. I can lift it up and check whether there is a bug under it, I can throw it, I can kick it. If I see a stone in the virtual landscape of a MMORPG, chances are that there is absolutely no interaction possible with it. It is basically just painted on the 3-dimensional texture surface of the virtual world. In fact, most of the things I see in a virtual world can't be interacted with. The few things I *CAN* interact with are helpfully marked with nameplates, sparkles, or other strong visual clues. In the real world a task like "go out into the woods and find me ten small lost objects" would be extremely difficult. In the virtual world that is a standard quest, and the sparkles and visual clues make it easy enough.

Play these games for a while, and your brain begins to automatically ignore everything which isn't marked at being interactive. An object without sparkles or a nameplate can't be interacted with, so it is not important in the context of the game. So it becomes invisible, you don't notice it at all any more. So if now you have a bug that removes this visual hint that something can be interacted with, everything becomes invisible. When the quest asked you to kill 10 rats, you never looked for rodent-shaped creatures. You looked for creatures with a floating sign "Rat" on top of them. Remove the floating sign, and you aren't trained to look for them in the other way, by shape identification. Especially not in visually overloaded landscapes.

On the one side I find the idea interesting that you could have a game with no nameplates or other visual clues. What if we could interact with every tree and stone and every object in every house? But as I have played games like Skyrim in which more of the objects in the world can be interacted with, I know that this can get annoying pretty quickly. Who wants to click through lots of vases, barrels, and boxes to find some herbs and vegetables? Having a non-interactive fake reality in the background is probably necessary for good gameplay. Too bad that fake reality has become invisible to us.
Tobold's Blog



First come, first serve?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 May 2014, 3:39 am
Yesterday the name reservation for players who pre-ordered Wildstar started. Or rather, it didn't. At least the first two attempts of opening the name reservation failed miserably as the website just crashed. And that happens not only to NCSoft. Blizzard's website for buying Blizzcon tickets had exactly the same problem. Basically by giving things out on a first come, first serve basis you set up your own website for a distributed denial-of-service attack of your own making.

Now I don't consider first come, first serve a particularly fair system. For example the Wildstar name reservation started on a Tuesday at 11 am US time. Why would somebody who is usually at home at 11 am on a Tuesday have more right to his name than somebody who is working regular hours? The Wildstar name reservation system caused a lot of anguish because that reservation isn't server-specific. So the first one to reserve the name "Cupcake" blocks that name on all server (at least on all servers of one region, not sure whether US and EU are linked in that respect). As it is the name went to whoever was lucky with getting a reservation in before the server crashed, or while it was up for a minute later, and presumably people with a faster internet connection had a better chance to get their name reserved than others.

A much better and fairer system would be a lottery. That would work especially well for items like Blizzcon tickets. Everybody who wants a ticket should have a sufficient time period to declare that he wants one, and then the tickets get distributed by lottery among all takers. A modified version of that could also work for name reservation, e.g. everybody writes down a list of his top 3 preferred names, and then every contested name is decided by lottery.
Tobold's Blog



Good timing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 May 2014, 2:55 am
I honestly don't believe that MMORPG companies release their games and expansions strategically to put a spoke in the wheels of the competitors. I think that there is so much internal pressure and factors affecting releases that guesswork on possible competitors release dates rate rather low in the decision making. Every expansion of World of Warcraft has been accused of being released to hinder somebody, but in hindsight they just were released like clockwork every two years, always in the period before Christmas.

But the human brain is wired to find connections where none exist. And thus it is only too easy to consider the Wildstar release date as being carefully planned to be 2 months after the release date of The Elder Scrolls Online, but nearly half a year before the next WoW expansion. If the marketing division of Carbine planned this, they would have hoped for player reactions exactly like this: People getting bored with TESO after the free month, and ready to switch to Wildstar after 2 months.

Now for the record, I have beta tested both games. I prefer the colorful graphics and atmosphere of Wildstar over the subdued tones of The Elder Scrolls Online. And between two rather similar combat systems, I do prefer the Wildstar one for giving much better feedback to the player what is going on. And that is pretty much all that made me choose Wildstar over TESO. I do not consider The Elder Scrolls Online a fundamentally worse game than Wildstar. The flaws it has are mostly shared with the competition. As my tastes developed from high-intensity MMORPG player to low-intensity MMORPG player, the "level up to the cap, then play raids/PvP" model all these games share now feels like "level up to the cap, then stop playing". Both Wildstar and TESO have some horizontal content, but are still vertical games at their core, with a virtual Game Over screen at the level cap.

I can imagine playing The Elder Scrolls Online at some later date. But I'm sure not paying two monthly subscriptions at the same time. How much I can play is limited by my available time, so paying for two games means getting only half the value for my money. And then, as the "I quit TESO" blog posts are rolling in, you can't help but consider that the game will go Free2Play next year.
Tobold's Blog



Fluff dragon
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 May 2014, 12:35 am
Since September my 4E Dungeons & Dragons group is playing through Madness at Gardmore Abbey, and by the time we will have finished it will have taken us nearly a year. But it isn't just the size of the adventure which is epic, it also is by far the best "sandbox" adventure I ever played. It is really interesting to see how the players can choose freely where to go, and still the overall story ends up being told in puzzle pieces that click together to give a complete image.

But if we talk about boss fights, we need to talk about the downsides of Madness of Gardmore Abbey. For some reason the designers felt they had to add some fluff encounters to the mix, combat encounters that do nothing to advance the story. And in fact feel a bit random, a bit as if somebody had picked a page randomly from the monster manual. In some cases suspiciously sequential pages from the monster vault. And one of these fluff monsters is a dragon.

As I told in my journal, I gave my players some hints when they approached the dragon's den. I simply didn't want them to open a random door and find themselves face to face with a dragon. Dragons are supposed to be somewhat special, and not a random monster encounter. And as the players didn't want to tackle the dragon right now, and have a tendency to keep boss fights for later if they can, I figured that the dragon would make for a rather good final combat encounter in the abbey.

There was just one flaw in that plan: The players have been since very early in the adventure on a quest to gather three sacred vessels to help Sir Oakley to purify the temple of Gardmore Abbey. And as written in the adventure, the third vessel they are missing is in the dragon's hoard. Which basically forces the purification of the temple to be the last encounter of the abbey, an encounter which I personally find less suited for the grand finale. I would at least want to give my players the choice what they want to do last. So I sneaked in and stole the sacred vessel from under the fluff dragon's belly, putting it somewhere earlier in the way of the players. It is then up to them whether they want to purify the temple first or want to fight the dragon first.

Either way, that combat encounter will just be to wrap up the exploration of Gardmore Abbey. The real end of the adventure will be the decision of the players what they will do with the cards of the Deck of Many Things that they found. I am very much looking forward to that, because it is a really difficult decision for the players, and not just some boss fight.
Tobold's Blog



Cooperation in MMORPGs
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 May 2014, 10:20 am
One thing MMORPGs are surprisingly bad at is getting a group of random strangers together to have fun. Jeromai is describing his experience with Wildstar dungeons:
"People say that Wildstar dungeons are fun. And challenging. It really makes me wonder about how and what they define a challenge. Mechanics-wise, yeah, they’re complex and interesting. But learning how to perform them well seems to be much less of a challenge than assembling a properly prepared (read: gear and build) group together in the first place. If one considers the random nature of the PUG as part of the challenge in a difficult dungeon, then I could also say that getting a precursor in GW2 is so fun-and-challenging because one is battling a most cruel RNG in the form of Zommoros’ Mystic Forge. Personally, I’m left feeling less ‘challenged’ per se, and more helpless. It’s the same sort of challenge as the Marionette. You could teach until your tongue turns blue and ultimately, your progress is still at the mercy of someone else not screwing up. It is RNG. RNG you could skew in your favor by joining an organized community – a hardcore dungeon guild, or TTS marionette-running instances, fer example, but still RNG, rather than a challenge that one can defeat through one’s efforts."
There was a time when I was a hardcore raider. But even in a hardcore raiding guild you get this helpless feeling. I've been a healer in a boss encounter where everybody was still alive at the point when the boss enraged, making me feel helpless in view of insufficient DPS. And I have also been in the situation where I didn't play for a while, got invited by friends into a raid on coming back, and felt helpless like the weak link of the raid, the guy being carried. Neither situation is pleasant. You don't want other people to make you fail, and you don't want to make other people fail. But trying to always be with a group that is exactly as good as you are and exactly as well equipped as you are is practically impossible.

Rohan was analyzing the claim that players in EVE Online could be useful on day one, and found that it relied on there being no maximum group size and no scaling of difficulty. Another game where a player is useful on day one would be A Tale in the Desert, because of the same effects: If the group project is collecting a million bricks to build a huge building, every additional player making bricks is welcome, regardless how good he is at that. And to some extent, vanilla World of Warcraft also had that. Decent guilds could run a 40-man raid with just 30 players and succeed, which gave them 10 slots for invites where you weren't too worried about how well they played. But overall dungeons and raids with a fixed number of players do badly in making people feel friendly towards each other, because you always would like to replace the weakest link by somebody better.

Wildstar does some things right by giving full kill credit to everybody who participates in a fight. Which means that if you have a quest to kill a boss mob, and arriving there you find somebody else already fighting, you jump right in. And usually the other player won't mind, and be happy he gets the fight done faster. Unfortunately Wildstar also does some things very wrong, Jeromai calls the game bipolar: "Kill certain mobs or reach a certain area and a Challenge will pop up – asking you to accomplish something within a certain time limit. If you manage it, you get a random roll for some bonus loot. Which I found rather fun, up until the point where I found the area denuded of mobs and unable to progress any further while my clock was running down, because there were five other players in the same area as me trying to do the same thing. (Cue HEAD SLAM and heartfelt CURSE TO THE GODS for the stupid traditional MMO model of competitive nodes and competitive quest completion.)". There is a cow-tipping challenge in Algoroc which sounds really fun, but ends up being one of the most frustrating early experiences in the game because of this design. Hell is other players.

I faintly wonder if EQ Next will have a better approach to cooperation. If there is really a dynamic world where players care whether a village is burned down by orcs or defended against them, there could be a design where the difficulty of the orc attack was fixed, and every additional defender would be a help. That could make players feel a lot better about the presence of each other than current designs do. Here's hoping that some day an cooperative end game design can be found that doesn't make players hate each other.
Tobold's Blog



Simulated evil
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 May 2014, 3:04 am
Multi-player games can be used as a platform for communication, which opens them up to real evil forms of cyber-bullying. But in this post I want to talk about something different: Games that make you do evil things to NPCs. When I recently wrote that the Wildstar open beta had started, one reader commented: "Also couldn't stand the humour (one of the first quest had you torturing and burning spies or something).".

[Spoiler Alert: Bhagpuss, don't read this now!]

Wildstar depicts one faction, Dominion, as being evil in a supposedly humoristic way. So the player frequently ends up playing the stupid goon who pushed the button to torture somebody without having been fully aware of his actions. One quest has you bring supplies to the natives of Nexus, do quests for them, and even play ball with them, only to later reveal that the supplies were poisoned, the village is now dead, and the natives now hostile for the rest of the zone. Okay, so you get to kill the guy who sent you off with the poisoned supplies, but the whole story leaves you with a bad aftertaste. You can't even opt to not deliver the supplies, because then the quests for the second half of the zone don't open up.

In a way this affected me more than playing a serial killer in games like Grand Theft Auto. Yes, I know, no real humans were hurt in doing this quest. But the quest made me feel like a tool for evil, and not like a hero. It didn't fit with the role I wanted to play or thought I was playing. World of Warcraft caused some stir back in 2008 with a single torture quest, but that was a rarity. And Horde was never depicted as being actually evil, your evil-looking orc is constantly doing good acts and is extremely helpful to every stranger with an exclamation point floating over his head.

I very much prefer games like SWTOR, where you actually have a say in these matters, where you can choose between good and evil. Games that force me to act against my own morality only drive home the point that I am playing on rails with no choice and no influence on the story. I can only choose not to play.
Tobold's Blog



Need Wildstar help
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 May 2014, 5:25 am
Can anybody direct me to a good site for Wildstar theorycrafting? Wildstar has a complicated stats system where the same stat gives different bonuses for different classes. And then you are trying to figure out whether you rather want more assault power, more strikethrough rating, or more critical hit rating to best increase your dps. I'm a bit lost.
Tobold's Blog



The language effect
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 May 2014, 2:48 am
The first role-playing system I played in my life was Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye). The next two were Dungeons & Dragons and Midgard. So how did we choose these games? Simply, it was the only role-playing games available in German in the 80's. How many teenagers do you know who are fluent in another language? It happens, if the parents speak different languages, but to most teenagers marketing a pen & paper role-playing game that is not in their native language would be a tough sale. Adults are more likely to speak a foreign language, but pen & paper games are so heavily language-dependent, that playing them in a foreign language is tough. Believe me, because I do.

My current campaign is 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, and we are playing in French, which is bloody hard for me. But then half of the players don't speak English, so we don't have much choice. And we are also limited in the choice of what systems to play: Not every role-playing system you know in English has a French translation. In fact I wrote a mail to WotC to ask them whether D&D Next would be translated into French, and received a reply that there were currently no plans to do so. 4th edition was still released simultaneously in English and French, but the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons will be for English-speakers only. They stopped translating D&D into German 6 years ago. Pathfinder on the other hand is currently available in both French and German, which helped them beat D&D in sales numbers.

You can play a MMORPG with a lot less mastery of a foreign language if it isn't available in your native tongue. But still there are quest texts to read and NPCs to talk to, so a game simply sells better if it offers multiple languages. Both TESO and Wildstar offer English, French, and German on release, a language selection that is shared by many other MMORPGs like SWTOR or The Secret World. World of Warcraft is in addition to that available in Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Chinese. Especially Chinese makes a huge difference to the potential size of your audience and thus player numbers, not just for WoW, but also for EVE Online for example.

The smaller the game (whether pen & paper or MMORPG), the less likely it is to come in multiple languages. That creates a vicious circle, where the small game can afford only English, but then is limited in growth because it comes only in English. So remember, especially for pen & paper system, if I don't play your favorite system with my group, it might be because of the language barrier.
Tobold's Blog



About where the fun is
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 May 2014, 10:09 am
I very much recommend Chris' article on where the fun is. The only thing I don't agree with in that post is the theory that we resist change because "knowledge is currency" in geek-to-geek social interaction. I think the reality is much, much simpler: We all have memories of previous fun. And most of us are unable to realize that we have changed. Which leads us to look for fun exactly where we previously found it. What I consider proof for that theory is an observation on Kickstarter: Kickstarter projects for games that try to recreate old games from 20 years ago do significantly better than anything original. Nostalgia is a very strong force on Kickstarter.

Unfortunately looking for fun where we found it before is a recipe for disaster. It goes directly against Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, that fun is about learning something new. But even game developers making a new game base it on the games they personally had fun with before. It isn't just marketing guys in suits that push game development towards an endless series of clones and sequels.

As a blogger I am well aware that innovation is nearly impossible if you ask people for their opinion. Whenever I propose any feature for an hypothetical future MMORPG which is different from what World of Warcraft currently does, I am being told that "players don't want that" and "this will never work". But in reality we do not really know what features exactly made World of Warcraft such a success. People bought the whole package, without giving indication of which details might still be improved upon. That resulted in games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, where the developers thought that they had found a significant improvement to WoW's basic recipe with voice-over story-telling; but it turned out that this wasn't what people were actually missing, and that the feature cost a lot for very little added fun. Just adding minor tweaks to the old "quest until level cap, then raid" game structure isn't going to produce a huge hit in the future.
Tobold's Blog



Handling transition into encounters in 4E
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 May 2014, 8:40 am
I consider 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons to be the best available rules system to play tactical battles between a group of fantasy heroes and monsters. But as I wrote yesterday, the D&D 4E rules aren't very explicit on role-playing and interactive story-telling. And some of the rules that make total sense in the context of a tactical tabletop game don't make sense at all in the context of a role-playing game outside a combat encounter.

The example I recently had problems with is the rule that unless a character or mob is both out of sight AND specifically making stealth skill checks to become hidden, everybody always knows the position of everybody else on a  battlemap. As I first played that wrong and then the group and enemies not seeing each other any more caused quite some chaos, I can say with confidence that this rule makes sense for a tactical tabletop game. But it would make no sense at all outside combat.

Imagine a tavern fight. The rules say that if for example there is a cook in the kitchen who is a possible combatant, the players would be aware of his presence, even if the kitchen door was closed. But if I used the same map of the tavern for a non-combat role-playing encounter in the tavern, it would feel strange if the players could sense the presence of the cook in the kitchen behind closed doors. I would not have any problem of them trying to listen for noises from the kitchen, if they were interested. But I wouldn't assume that the players always know the exact number of people in a building the moment they enter it.

That gets especially tricky if you plan an ambush. Rules as written would require you to roll a stealth check for every ambusher. That isn't all that obvious. On the one side you wouldn't think of let's say a skeleton as being a monster that is particularly stealthy (all those rattling bones). On the other side, being undead and presumably very patient, a skeleton hidden in a closet shouldn't make any noise at all. So what is the stealth skill of a skeleton in a closet, or the difficulty rating to detect it? The rules say to use its give dexterity modifier plus half level, but that results in a rather low value which would make an ambush from a skeleton jumping out of a closet practically impossible.

My solution to this would be to use the rules as written (group passive perception vs. single stealth skill check for the monster), but to give the ambushers a bonus to the skill check depending on the situation. A kobold hiding in the foliage next to the road probably wouldn't get one, but a mummy in a sarcophagus would. And I wouldn't hesitate to make that bonus a big one, if the whole scene depended on it. In the end the goal is a story-telling one. A failed ambush by kobolds who couldn't keep still while trying to hide next to the road makes a good story. The group hearing the mummy in the sarcophagus doesn't.

Given the typical tactics of the group I am playing with, with most players preferring to stay as far away from monsters as possible, I might need those rules more often. When I put a battlemap on the table with monsters on, and ask the players where they are on the map, their answer is always that they are on squares a good way away, outside the door, off the map (apart from the person who opened the door). I have a blank battlemap just for the purpose of displaying those off-map squares. Thus the question of how far the players went into the room before they noticed the monsters is an important one for my campaign.
Tobold's Blog



Rules on how to play roles
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 May 2014, 2:18 am
A pen & paper role-playing game consists of two major parts: Combat encounters, which are following a set of rules. And interactive story-telling, which is a lot more free-form. That duality causes some problems. As Mike Mearls remarks in his latest D&D developer post, earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons often assumed that people already knew how to role-play, and thus just provided the rules necessary to handle things like combat, spells, or skills. That kind of backfired on them in the reception of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, where apparently some people who didn't know better just played the game as a series of rules-based combat encounters and then people complained that this wasn't a role-playing game any more.

D&D Next is trying to do better with a character creation system that has tables on which you can roll a die to find a personality trait or an ideal or bond or flaw for you character. So you end up with a character who has marked on his character sheet that he has a "relentlessly optimistic attitude", strongly believes in charity, owes his life to the priest that took him in when his parents died, and is suspicious of strangers and suspects the worse of them. My problem with that is that it solves the problem only for the people who didn't have a problem in the first place. Somebody who knows and understands role-playing will be able to either pick personality traits from those tables or make up similar ones that fit his character and work with that. Somebody who hasn't got a clue and uses dice to create a character will end up with a personality which isn't necessarily workable, and quite likely alien to the player.

In short, rules are a bad approach on teaching people how to role-play. Unfortunately the best approach on learning how to role-play is playing with people who do it well, which isn't something WotC can sell as a product (well, they could, but that would transform them into a gaming service company, which would be quite a daring move). The best solution I could imagine for a company like Wizards of the Coast is to make a big chapter in the Player's Handbook "On Role-playing", with examples and detailed explanations on why role-playing can be a good thing; but without putting role-playing into a corset of rules. Outside the context of company profits, we would basically need one book on how to role-play on the market, and that would be valid for quite a lot of different pen & paper RPG systems.

There are lots of different ideas and systems that help with creating characters with a personality and a background. I do like 13th Age's "one unique thing" for example. What I don't believe in at all is random dice rolls in personality creation, and rules that make a certain amount of role-playing mandatory. Role-playing is something that I would want to encourage, but not force upon my players. Tools like personality traits are starting points to get players thinking about who their character is, what his motivation is, and to induce interactive stories that go beyond simple stereotypes.

I've been playing with the same people for over a decade, first as fellow player, then as DM. Few people are able to play very different characters, often distinctive personality traits will be the same in all the characters they play over the years, because they reflect personality traits of the player. If your player is a pessimist at heart, rolling a "relentlessly optimistic attitude" on a personality trait table will be next to impossible to role-play well for him.

Having said that, for my next 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign I am trying to do better in the role-playing area. The current campaign has cookie cutter characters, with only one player having worked out a background for his character. And with the campaign being "episodic", that is consisting of a string of not well connected adventures, the personal story aspect of role-playing is falling short. So the next campaign will have an over-arching story, and I will spend more time with each player in creating each characters background. Most importantly that will include giving the players a detailed description of the world and the role of the group in this world before they go and create characters. That way we have a better chance of getting a group of characters which fit in the world and the story, and can have interesting role-playing interactions with that world and each other.
Tobold's Blog



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