Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
My gaming status

My gaming life happens on several independent parallel levels: On the most long-term level, I have been playing tabletop role-playing games, mostly Dungeons & Dragons, for nearly 40 years now. That is currently at a frequency of about one D&D session per week, either as DM or player. On the most short-term level I play a bunch of mobile games, usually just for a few days or weeks before I move on to the next game. In between there are two other levels, my console games and my PC games. I only have a Nintendo Switch console right now, and I mostly use it during my summer holidays, so not much activity there. On the PC I have been playing World of Tanks almost exclusively since Christmas. Of course I also use the PC for D&D preparation, and 3D printing.

In World of Tanks I am currently concentrating on heavy tanks, with the goal of researching all tanks of the Russian tech tree. Right now I have one tank line already at tier X, two at tier IX, and two at tier VIII. The general idea is to also get better at playing heavy tanks in World of Tanks, but it isn't so easy to just even measure performance. Various mods that do that only show me that my performance is very inconsistent. This weekend I managed a campaign mission which I frankly thought was beyond me, as it required dealing 20% of all damage of your team, which is three times the average. But those good results are usually achieved when I am top tier.

As a bottom tier heavy tank, I am not doing so well. It happens frequently that I either advance too much and get shot to pieces in no time, or I don't advance fast enough, and my team wins without me getting a shot in. I have a bunch of games at bottom tier where I landed either no or just one or two hits. One problem is meeting enemy tanks of higher tier head on, and not being able to penetrate their armor at all. So a typical result might be me having fired 9 shots, hit 7 of them, and then having only zero or one penetrations. Yesterday I played that a bit differently, by using HE ammo in situations like this, which increases the number of times I actually deal damage, but then each shot only deals little damage, and the overall WN8 score still isn't good.

I've been looking on YouTube for advice on playing bottom tier, but I have a strong suspicion that the replays shown are not representative at all. People only post "bottom tier" videos if they miraculously managed an excellent result as bottom tier, they don't show their average games. That does happen to me too, but I haven't managed to find a strategy that would guarantee me some sort of minimum result in terms of damage / WN8. The fundamental problem is that the outcome of a battle in World of Tanks is very much determined by how many and which tanks of each team decide to go left or right, and human behavior in a group can be extremely random and unpredictable. If you want to learn the phrase "I am bottom tier again, and my team is full of idiots" in multiple European languages, World of Tanks EU battle chat is the place to go.

I have a few other PC games installed, for example Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, which I picked up for cheap as part of a Humble Bundle monthly. But I haven't even started playing. It is not just that the current "main game" is holding all of my interest. There is also a definitive "barrier to entry" preventing me from switching games too often: When I come home after a long day at work, I don't have the energy to learn a new complicated game. It is much more comfortable to stick to the game you know well for some time.

Thursday, March 14, 2019
Can't hit myself

Wargaming is experimenting with the matchmaker, leading to more battles in which everybody is the same tier or there are only two tiers instead of the normal three. Unfortunately that mostly reveals a design flaw of the game: When tanks meet each other front to front, with a bit of angling, side-scraping or hull-down tactics, most shots bounce of tanks of equal or higher tier. I am currently playing Russian heavy tanks, and I have several tanks that wouldn't be able to damage the same tank in the turret. You die to shots from the side when you leave cover, but you can't do much while in cover. Unless of course the enemy is of lower tier, or less well armored tanks.

This is what I also observed when watching the (not so frequent) videos of good players as bottom tier heavy tanks on YouTube. The trick is to stay well away from the areas where the other heavy tanks are, because you are just cannon fodder there. In spite of being slow and inaccurate, you are better off pretending to be a tank destroyer or medium tank and go play in a different corner. World of Tanks considers all damage to be equal, you don't get more points if you are in a "fair fight".

I'm handicapped in that respect by having grown up before there were online video games, and by still playing tabletop role-playing games. Sitting around a table with friends, there is a value to playing nice, playing fair, because the social penalty for being caught playing unfair or cheating weights more than the win. Online that consideration isn't true. If your status symbol is a WN8 rating, and the game doesn't count who you won against, you'd better be bottom-feeding and seal-clubbing. Heroically holding the side against stronger tanks counts for absolutely nothing, even when it is strategically the right move.

I think the design flaw is that a frontal confrontation between two tanks of different tier in World of Tanks is so all or nothing. The weaker tank just doesn't deal any damage at all. It is much worse than let's say two fighters in D&D of different level fighting each other, because the weaker one there would still do a good amount of damage.

Sunday, March 10, 2019
Gamer culture

You are playing an online team multiplayer game of some kind. After a match you receive a message from one of the players who was on your time. What was that message?

A) "Well played, mate!"
B) A friend or guild request
C) "Fukcing retard!!!"

What does it say about us as a cultural group that C) is by far the most likely answer?

Saturday, March 09, 2019
Deliberately unbalanced

A few years ago I spent a week in Las Vegas. As I am not really a gambler at heart, and know too much about statistics and economics to believe in getting rich in a casino, I decided upon a different approach: I put aside $1,000, determined to lose that money, and then stop gambling. The plan didn't work, I didn't lose the money. I actually won $700, although of course that was much less than we paid for the flight, hotel, and food. But the experience taught me one thing: While *statistically* everybody loses in a casino, practically the thing is designed to have both winners and losers, just that the losers lose more than the winners win. If *everybody* left the casino poorer, that would be bad advertising, you need some people coming home and saying "I won!" to keep up the illusion.

I recently realized that World of Tanks is using the exact same psychological scheme: The games are deliberately not balanced too well. Quite a lot of games end up with one side having lost all 15 tanks, while the other side still has 10 tanks alive. And the matchmaking over 3 tiers assures that the 3 players in the top tier of the winning side have an absolutely smashing success and feel like invincible gods. Meanwhile most players on the losing side get eliminated so quickly, that the loss barely registers. The psychological effect of the huge wins is bigger than that of the quick losses, and so overall people don't become too frustrated. That is reflected by the coverage of the game on YouTube mostly showing those games in which the player is top tier and roflstomps through the opposition. Nobody shows the videos where one of those new French wheeled vehicles manages to spot your bottom tier heavy tank in the first minute of the game, and a combination of tank destroyers and lucky shots from artillery kills you before you left the base.

I don't really mind losing games. I do mind playing in games where I never had a chance to do much. And the huge variability makes it very hard for me to judge how well I am playing, and what I would need to do to improve. I just finished a game with a Mastery Badge "Class I" and a deep purple WN8 of 3,868, which would suggest that I am doing okay. But the game before that I had a tomato red WN8 of 0. Not only can't I achieve much consistency, but I am increasingly convinced that consistency is actually not possible for the regular players, who haven't spent thousands of hours on practice.

Friday, March 01, 2019
Beadle & Grimm's

Beadle & Grimm's is a company making additional material for Dungeons & Dragons, under a license from Wizards of the Coast. Their first product caused quite an echo, because of the hefty price tag: $500 for a limited platinum edition box with stuff to play Waterdeep Dragon Heist. I didn't buy one, that was a bit too rich for me. But they had hinted at making boxes with slightly less stuff for a more reasonable price, so I got on the mailing list of their "supreme marketing goblin" and waited.

To my surprise they now announced a silver edition for $175 not for Waterdeep Dragon Heist, but for the upcoming Ghosts of Saltmarsh. I might actually buy this, but first I looked whether the previous adventure wasn't also available in a silver edition. No luck, I just found comments on Facebook that they are only doing one edition at a time. I find that somewhat weird: As they sold all the copies of their Platinum edition of Waterdeep Dragon Heist, there is obviously still unmet demand, especially at a lower price tag. And it should be easy enough to produce a downgraded version without too much work for them. Strange!

Thursday, February 28, 2019
The power of Facebook

After waiting for a replacement part for my Zortrax M200 Plus 3D printer for 4 months, I complained, politely but publicly, about bad customer service on the Zortrax 3D printers users Facebook group. I got contacted by a Zortrax customer service representative the next day, who took my printer serial number and looked into it. He confirmed that they had to manufacture the part that needed replacing, and said they would send it "soon". A week later the replacement part arrived at the shop, and I now have the printer repaired, up and running. Yay!

Now this might have been coincidence, or it might be that complaining publicly gets you on top of the pile of requests being handled. I can't be sure. But I'm happy it worked out that way.


Tuesday, February 26, 2019
D&D from the players’ perspective

As I mentioned yesterday, I had a lot of opportunities to play Dungeons & Dragons as a player over the last 6 months. That reminded me of something I already knew, but one tends to forget as a DM: The world you create for your players looks very different from their perspective than it does from yours. There are two main obstacles that prevent the players’ world to be the same as the DM’s world: Exposition and relevance. So let’s talk about these for a bit.

Exposition in story-telling is all the background information of the world, the stuff behind the action. That tends to be a perennial problem in pen & paper role-playing games. The caricature is of the DM with the thick binder full of background information on the world he created, most of which the players never get to see. Imagine the whole series of Game of Thrones seen only through the eyes of Samwell Tarly; he gets to see some major parts of the action, but is still completely unaware of 90% of what the TV viewer sees.

Relevance is what keeps the DM from doing more exposition. Stuff that happens in the game only by DM narrative, without the players having any chance to influence what is going on, is not relevant to them. The DM telling stuff about the world for an hour without the players getting a word or a dice roll in is boring. That the evil necromancer terrorizing the village is just doing that to ultimately raise his loved one from the dead is only relevant to the players if it ends up being part of the action, e.g. them coming upon the necromancer just as he raises his love as a flesh golem, or if they can somehow use the knowledge of the necromancer’s motivation to negotiate with him.

To be completely honest, story in role-playing game is often overrated. Most of the “main stories” we play through, whether from published modules or player-created, don’t even rise to the quality of pulp fiction novels. There are a lot of generic characters in a generic fantasy setting. The stories we remember are not the ones carefully prepared by the DM, but the ones about the time our buddy Joe wanted to sneak past the dragon and rolled a critical failure, getting half of the party roasted. It is the interactive part of the story-telling that makes the game interesting. The background story just needs to be good enough to get us started trying to do something.

With that in mind, it follows that the role of the DM is mostly to set the scene with enough elements in it that the players can interact with. Preferably not all the interaction is in the form of combat, even if that obviously is one frequent option. But personally I’d rather have fewer, but tactically more challenging fights than long series of standard battles. This is a bit my current problem with Princes of the Apocalypse, which has a lot of dungeon rooms filled with nothing more interesting than five ogres. While the keeps guarding the entrances of the Temple of Elemental Evil still had some variety and interesting decisions to them, the underground dungeon is a bit of a slog as written. I think that when our current DM has finished running his dungeon and we get back to the Temple, I’ll condense it into a “reader’s digest” version of just the best bits.


Monday, February 25, 2019
Rage of Demons: Sessions 9-11

I haven’t written a journal of my Dungeon & Dragons games for a while, the previous session I wrote about was in June of last year. What happened was basically that I overdid the preparation of my D&D games, which made them feel more like work than like fun.  First I stopped writing about the sessions, then I started to play more often and DM less often, until finally I passes both my campaigns temporarily into the hands of players willing to DM for a while. My 3D printer breaking down seemed like a sign that I was spending too much time preparing, and not enough playing.

The good news is that playing D&D as a player not only gave me a better perspective of the game, but also gave me a bunch of ideas on DMing. One thing I realized was that if a part of the published adventure wasn’t much fun preparing, it often also wasn’t much fun playing. Fortunately that doesn’t apply much to the Out of the Abyss campaign, but more to the Princes of the Apocalypse campaign, in which I will much reduce the number of boring encounters that seem to be fillers for the large dungeons. Sometimes less is more! In the Out of the Abyss campaign I will take back the helm in about a month or so (at a good moment for the player who is now DM for Tomb of Annihilation with the same players and who could use a break from DMing himself). So it’s time to give an update of the sessions we played before the break, when I wasn’t keeping up this journal.

The final battle for Blingdenstone was long, with several waves of slimes before the players could face and beat the pudding king. That earned them the gratitude of the deep gnomes, who then agreed to show them the way out, back to the surface. They then traveled to Gauntlgrym at the request of a fallen NPC companion from the early sessions. There they met the various factions of the Sword Coast and King Bruenor. The news of the various demon princes they had already encountered caused a lot of concern, as the rulers of the Sword Coast figured that the demons would come out of the Underdark to the surface at some point. Best to fight them while they were still underground!

Thus began the second half of the adventure, with the group sent back into the Underdark. But while in the first half the theme was them escaping from drow slavery and fighting for survival, they are now coming with an expeditionary force. And of course they are much higher level now. Their first stop was Mantol-Derith, which was supposed to be neutral ground, a place where the Zhentarim from the surface traded with three Underdark factions peacefully. However on arrival they found the peace had shattered, leading them through a series of encounters that slowly revealed what was going on: A gemstone that made everybody who touched it mad had changed hands in Mantol-Derith. Ultimately they found the gem and destroyed it, and with it Fraz-Urb’luu, a demon lord who had been trapped inside. They also got a magical ring leading them to their next destination, a magical library called Gravenhollow. That is where we will continue the next time we play, with the players at level 9.


Saturday, February 23, 2019
What is winning? Part 2

In the previous post I discussed that it isn’t all that obvious in World of Tanks whether you “won” or “lost” a battle. Today I would like to discuss “winning” further in the context of the out-of-battle rest of the game.

Now in a game that has levels (tiers in WoT), gaining experience points that make you gain levels sure looks like a win. However by that measure you can only ever win in World of Tanks. Every battle gains you some xp, regardless how bad you played. You can lose credits in a battle, but you can never lose xp. So of course gaining just a handful of xp soon pretty much feels like a loss. Especially when you were on “2x XP for the first battle won”, your team won, but you got very little xp because you contributed little. Doesn’t even have to be your fault, I once got into a game which my team won so quickly, with the slow tank I had I never got to fire a shot.

Things get even weirder when you “level up”. I just recently finished researching a higher tier heavy tank, but the experience was somewhat painful: You need to buy the tank, which costs quite a lot of your credits. Then you either need to spend free xp as well, or play the tank with stock equipment, which means it performs very badly. And even if you have the tank fully upgraded, you now play against higher tier opponents; it is completely possible that your old tank was relatively good for its tier, and the new one isn’t, making leveling up feel more like a drag than a reward.

Because I frequently still like my old tank, and I have enough garage slots, I tend to keep both the old and the new tank. The disadvantage of that method is that then your new tank needs a new crew, which will be less good than the old tank crew. In fact I have far too many tank crews in the game. But then, you can’t easily shuffle tank crews around, except to premium tanks.

I do have tier X tanks, the highest level in the game. They have the obvious advantage of always being top tier. However in tier X games the average player skill is much higher than my skill. And there is no “next tank” to work towards when you play tier X, so I rarely do. It appears to me that winning is a bit weird in World of Tanks, and different people end up with their own win conditions in their head.

Monday, February 18, 2019
What is winning?

In case you have never played World of Tanks yourself, and the discussion of "Pay2Win" gave you a wrong impression, I have to state that this is one of the most skill-based games I know. Money can buy you an advantage, but that advantage is small compared to the difference in skill between even a bad and a medium player, and even more so between a medium player and a good player. I would consider myself a medium player, which is to say that if I multiply my own WN8 rating by 15 it comes out in the games I play below tier 10 to be about the sum of the WN8 ratings of the whole team.

Part of that is experience. I have "only" 7k battles played, 6k of which were many years ago. People who played a lot more, and more intensively, know the weak spots of every tank, know every bush on every map, and know where the other tanks are likely to go. So while I have an ambition to in general become better at playing World of Tanks, I am pretty sure that I will never get to Unicum level. I only play a bit on evenings and weekends, and I'll probably get bored by the game long before I master it.

But when we talk about ambition, we need to ask the question what "winning" in World of Tanks actually means. If you are a bottom tier tank (and Wargaming just realized that due to the way their matchmaker works with a 3/5/7 template, people are bottom tier far more often than they are top tier), chances are that whether your team wins or loses wasn't up to you. So if I played well and my team lost, did I "win" or did I "lose"? If I went too far ahead early in the game, turned around a corner and was instantly killed by the 3 tanks waiting there, but my team went on winning the game, did I "win" or did I "lose"?

When I started World of Tanks again after last Christmas, I was fixated on improving my win rate. That turned out to be a very bad idea. My win rate remains unchanged at between 48% and 48.5%, with ups and downs due to lucky or unlucky streaks. So now I am looking more at my WN8 rating per battle. That also is neither very good, nor very consistent, but at least I feel it gives me a better answer of whether I have just "won" or "lost" a game, by telling me how well I did individually. I does happen that I "carry" a game when I am top tier, but that then also is reflected by an excellent WN8 rating for that battle. The only flaw of WN8 in my eyes is that it doesn't work for spotting damage, and thus pretends I am not doing well when I play light tanks as passive scouts.

The advantage of looking at WN8 per battle is that you can decide for yourself the level of your ambition. I'm happy enough if I finish a game at "yellow" level, which is probably way below the ambitions of the really good players.

Sunday, February 17, 2019
Firing gold

I gave up on the idea that firing normal ammo in World of Tanks is somehow a good idea. I got hit by premium ammo so often now at all tiers of the game that it has become pretty obvious that firing gold is the standard. I especially noticed that the highly rated players all fire gold. Firing normal ammo apparently now is for noobs and losers who can't afford a premium account.

That sort of attitude is pushed very much by the design of the game, where normal ammo tends to bounce a lot, even if you aren't a particular weak tank or low tier. The reward system also favours firing gold: Having less shots not penetrating means you deal more damage, and for more damage you get more xp. This weekend is a 4x XP weekend, meaning you get twice as much xp as usual for the first win of the day with each tank. Firing gold ammo for all those first games really pays out in terms of experience gained.

Gold ammo also does wonders for my WN8 rating. I just finished a game as a top tier heavy tank with a 3,949 purple WN8. And for the bottom tier games in which your side gets totally overrun, premium ammo is still the difference between getting a WN8 of 0 or 500. And apart from all the external rewards, shooting at an enemy tank and actually damaging it is obviously a lot more fun than shooting it to no effect.

From a game design point I still think gold ammo is a bad idea. It simply creates a two-class system of advantaged paying players vs. disadvantaged free players. But me giving up on normal ammo is probably exactly the reaction that Wargaming wants, because it makes them more money. However for every free player pushed to pay, there are probably a bunch of free players pushed out of the game, which isn't a good idea.

Saturday, February 16, 2019
Zortrax M200 Plus replacement parts

I don't know if you noticed that I haven't been blogging about 3D printing for months. This is not because I lost interest in the subject, but because my Zortrax M200 Plus printer broke down, after just 6 months. And if that isn't bad enough, it turns out the broken part (stepper motor casing) is not one of the parts that Zortrax sells on their website. I brought my printer to the shop where I bought it for repairs, and they have been trying to get that replacement part since October. No luck yet. Apparently Zortrax said they would have to manufacture that piece extra for me.

I consider that lousy customer service from Zortrax. In a few years larger printer companies will get into the 3D printing business, and they will have a well-organized supply chain and customer service. If the existing 3D printer companies don't get their act together, they will go out of business fast.



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