Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 17, 2019
Games and money

I spent €100 on a "Fort Know" special offer in World of Tanks this month, giving me 12,500 gold and 12.5 million credits. I used the gold and credits on a few projects I have, testing out crew books and playing through the Italian tech tree. And it struck me how this purchase was at the same time exaggerated and normal, being both expensive and cheap. And how that relates to the weird economy in which we live in.

Games in general are cheap. The price of a top of the line console or PC game hasn't change much over the last few decades, its still around 60€, no inflation adjustment. And between stores selling used console games and Steam sales on PC, you can often get those top games a bit later for half the price. Furthermore a game with the features and graphics of a decade ago would today be sold as an indie game for under €20, and there are some excellent cheap games around. In other words, €100 buys you a lot of game today.

However this pricing is somehow linked to an overproduction of games, and an outdated concept of games as being toys for children, which need low prices. The customers for games on the other hand are getting on average older, and with that often more affluent. €100 is a lot of money if you need it to pay rent, buy food, or get your washing machine repaired. However once you earn enough money to have no more problems paying for all of these necessities of life, the 100 Euros become "discretionary income" that might be spent on things like a nice dinner with your spouse. And if you look on what people spend their discretionary income on, €100 is not very much. There are a number of hobbies and sports in which €100 doesn't get you very far. If you wanted for example to take up skiing, buying the equipment and going on a ski holiday for a week once per year would set you back thousands, and you'd get a lot less hours of enjoyment out of it than from a computer game.

When I was young the idea that if I would study hard and work hard I would have a good chance at financial success was still very prevalent (and it sure worked out for me). The idea isn't all that popular anymore, and prospects for young people are not quite as good anymore. But if you add some additional constraints (e.g. study something useful, not whatever you like best), there is still a strong correlation between effort put in and reward gotten out of the economy. You can still work hard to become let's say an engineer and end up being among the 10% top earners in your country. Now of course the top earners pay more rent, maybe eat more expensive food, and drive more expensive cars. But overall the percentage of what you spend on the necessities of life goes down when your earnings go up, and that leaves an increasingly large part for that "discretionary income", which you can spend for the not-so-necessary stuff in life. Walk through a high-end shopping mall, and you'll see store after store filled with expensive stuff that nobody really needs, but which is nice to have if your interests are in this area and you can afford it. And we are not talking top 1% vs. bottom 99% here, already at the 50% line the mean US household has a discretionary income of several thousand dollars a year. It is just that the discretionary income goes up much faster than overall income, and so €100 represents very different things for people on different positions on the economic scale.

All this to say that I can drop €100 on virtual tanks without batting an eyelid, and I feel as if that isn't all that unusual. The very fact that various online games sell you something with a €100 price tag suggests that there are customers for these things. But I know that for other people the idea of spending €100 for some virtual stuff sounds absolutely preposterous. And I don't blame the game companies; they just adapt to this economy of inequality, where some people have to play for free because they are short of money at the end of the month, while others can spend €100 easily. If you wanted to change that, you would need to change the way that the capitalist economic system distributes the wealth it creates, and that wouldn't be a very easy task. Complaining about sparkling ponies in online games is just complaining about one minor symptom of the economy, the root causes go much deeper.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Different people have different reactions to Pay2Win schemes in games. Some rage-quit, some just accept it as sign of the times. My usual reaction is wanting to try it out, to see how good/bad it really is. And then I have the excuse that I'll blog about it. :)

That brings us to World of Tanks, the new crew books, and the Chi-Ha tank. Or tanks, rather, as there are two of them which are pretty much identical, except that one is a Japanese medium tank and the other a Chinese light tank. Just shows how arbitrary the classification between medium and light tanks really is. The Chi-Ha is a tier III tank, and tier III is in my opinion the tier where the game actually begins. Tiers I and II are very random, and battles are over too quick. Tier III is good for testing purposes, as you never get to see tanks two tiers above you, and the frequent battles in which you are top tier are all on just two maps: Abbey and Himmelsdorf. That makes tier III relatively good for testing things out.

The other reason I'm testing out crew books at tier III is view range. At tier III the typical view range of most tanks in the battle is relatively low compared to the size of the battle map. The Chi-Ha tank not only has a good base view range, but more importantly for this particular test has a dedicated radio operator. So with crew books I can boost my view range via two crew members, the commander and the radio operator. The overall effect is that the boosted Chi-Ha can reach the maximum spotting view range in the game, 445 meters, using binoculars. And then some if you add premium consumables.

While there are other tier III tanks with even better view range, they are either slow to get into position, and/or have inaccurate guns that can't really fire that far reliably. The Chi-Ha not only can get into a good position early in the game and spot enemies at long distance, he can then also shoot them with reasonably good accuracy. And that long before the enemies can see the Chi-Ha. Which overall enables the Chi-Ha to act as the "invisible tank", shooting enemy tanks that can't shoot back because they don't see him. And that even without the help of bushes, like on the railway tracks in Himmelsdorf.

Of course that doesn't happen in every game, because you never know which way the enemies are advancing, and how aggressively they are about it. But on average I am doing extremely well in my Chi-Has. Yeah, I got and boosted both of them, so I can keep playing one when the other is stuck dead in a long battle. Compared with my usual performance I can say that this "paying to win" actually works, I am doing better in these tanks that I boosted with crew books than I am doing in other tanks. In the Chi-Ha the effect is very noticeable. While the crew books certainly also improve the performance of any other tank, the increase might well be less in other cases, and it is harder to notice a few percentage points of improvement. But crew books definitely improve your chances to win.


Thursday, June 13, 2019
Crew Books

World of Tanks was patched to version 1.5.1 this week. And one of the new things are crew books. Now you get one of the smaller crew books per nation for free, and you can randomly get others as rewards the same way you can get the recently introduced blueprints. But what has far more impact on the game is that you can buy large crew books for credits. 2 million credits buys you a crew book that would raise a totally new crew directly to have one full skill. 6 million credits for three books gets that crew directly to two skills and working on the third. And that is pretty huge, it would take you hundreds of games to level up a crew this high.

Now credits are supposedly the common currency of World of Tanks, available both to free players and players who pay for the game. However the game is balanced in a way that free players tend to be somewhat short on credits. With a premium account earning you a lot more credits per fight, plus added credits from a daily mission and the "reserve stock", and added credits if you play with a premium tank, you can see how credits are a lot more abundant for paying customers. Also you can buy special packs like "Fort Knox", which gives you 12.5 million credits plus 12,500 gold (which theoretically you could convert into another 5 million credits) for €100. So the stereotypical "wallet warrior" can spend €100 and get the crews of three different tanks to two skills each.

Why is that important? Well, the first skill you'd take for everybody would be brothers in arms, which when everybody of a crew has it increases all the basic skills of the entire crew, so the loader loads faster, the driver drives better, the gunner shoots more accurately, etc.. Then as second skill you take sixth sense for the commander, which is extremely useful for knowing when to pull back, and useful stuff like camouflage, repairs, or extended vision skills for the other crew members. In short, a tank with a two+ skill crew will perform significantly better in battle than the same tank with a lesser skilled crew. So crew books are actually "Pay2Win", increasing your chance to win battles, not just letting you advance faster down some tech tree. That is somewhat unusual for World of Tanks, they were just about to nerf the other Pay2Win aspect of the game, premium ammo.

Crew books further expose the fundamental problem of game design World of Tanks has: The matchmaker considers two tanks of the same tier and type as being equally strong, regardless of player rating, equipment, crew skills, or any other stuff. Sometimes you get lucky and in a 15 vs. 15 random battle everything balances out more or less. But often it just doesn't, and you have one side with better players driving tanks with superior stats against newer players with stock tanks. I don't like those games, even if I happen to be on the stronger side. Walkovers are boring.


Wednesday, June 12, 2019
Zeitgeist 5E - Session 1

We had originally planned to do a "zero" session of Zeitgeist, in which I explain the setting to my players before they generate their characters. But we had a lot of time Sunday afternoon, and creating a 1st level character is fast, so we already started playing. Good that I had already prepared and brought the prologue adventure. Why prologue? Well, the first real adventure in the 5th edition version of Zeitgeist starts at level 3. Normally I'm okay with a campaign not starting at level 1, but because this world is so different from the standard D&D worlds, I thought it would be better to play a short adventure that introduces players to the world and to the modified story I prepared for the campaign.

In my 4th edition Zeitgeist campaign we played up to the early parts of adventure 3, before I noticed that the rest of adventure 3 wasn't great, and adventure 4 was just downright impossible to prepare and play. But the start of adventure 3 has a cool dungeon, the Ziggurat of Apet, and so I recycled that one for my prologue. I placed it on Axis Island, which is one of the important locations of adventure 1. And as adventure 1 starts 7 years after the Fourth Yerasol War that was fought around Axis Island, I made the prologue about the end of that war. The players are a squadron of soldiers in the war, which gives a better explanation of why they are working together than "you meet in a tavern". :)

So the players fight for the kingdom of Risur, which uses magic, against the kingdom of Danor, which is in a magic-dead zone and uses technology. Risur is losing the war, because mages run out of spells faster than cannons run out of shot. The king of Risur ordered his army to be equipped with these newfangled firearms, but the soldiers aren't well trained with them and get constantly beaten by the Danorans. At the start of the adventure the players are defending the last fortress on the island, Fort Henry. But the Danorans managed to get a cannon across the bay and the fight is again going badly. However fate intervenes with a strange shift of reality: Suddenly the players see themselves and the whole battlefield shifted to a parallel world, the Shadowfell, where the dead rise as zombies and it is constantly raining under a grey sky. The shift lasts less than a minute before the battlefield is back in the real world, but it wasn't just an illusion: The dead *have* moved, and everybody is soaking wet from the rain. And so is the Danoran's gunpowder, so the constant firing has ceased. The group of players is led by Sergeant Stover Delft, who now leads the group on a sortie to capture the cannon. Simple fight against the Danorans who are now reduced to use their muskets as clubs.

After the fight I gave the group the xp for level 2 (I don't think playing level 1 for long is fun), as well as handouts from the satchel of the Danoran lieutenant. Apparently the Danorans are interested in a nearby "ruined temple", the Ziggurat of Apet. Now one of the reasons why I wanted to play this campaign again is that for the 4E version I had the battlemaps for all the encounters printed as posters. Only campaign for which I did this, because printing a poster costs between 10 and 20 Euro, and I needed like 20 of them, and found that to be a bit expensive to use them just once. So now I am recycling the battlemaps, including the one for the Ziggurat of Apet. But of course for a dungeon that means that the players see the layout of the dungeon unless you cover stuff up with post-its. So I said that one of the papers was a map the Danorans made of the Ziggurat, which nicely explained why they "knew" the layout. They also found a chart of the planets, explaining the role of the planets as elementary planes in this world. And they found military orders (paraphrased, I didn't create a real handout for these) that said that Danor was interested to take Fort Henry because of a "secret project" regarding the Ziggurat next to it.

So for their valor in capturing the cannon in the battle, the player squadron with NPC Sergeant Delft is being sent to explore the Ziggurat and find out what the secret Danoran project is. In the first room they find a hidden chest, and their sergeant orders them to stand back, while he gives the chest a kick from the side to trigger any potential needle traps from the lock. However the trap is of course a mimic, which nearly bites the sergeant's leg off. So the group needs to explore the Ziggurat without their sergeant (which was the purpose of that encounter). First room is one of the highlights of the dungeon, and puzzle room in which colored switches make bridges and barriers appear and disappear. They figure out the correct sequence and make it through the room.

In the next room there is a strange bronze device, touching which closes the door to the puzzle room, so that they now need to find a new way back. The device seems to be a sort of planar map, showing how the Feywild and the Shadowfell are connected to the Prime Material Plane. The device works like a sort of mechanical calendar, showing when there will be portals between the worlds. The axis that connects the Shadowfell and the Prime Material World is shown to be, you guessed it, at Axis Island, so there is apparently a permanent portal there. One room further, after killing a few zombies, the group discovers the corpses of some Danorans; they lie dead on a pentagram inlaid in gold on the floor, which they apparently damaged to recover the gold. The group can find out that the pentagram was some sort of seal, but it can't be repaired. Then they come to another room, which apparently holds the portal, a bubbling surface of black witchoil, which against all probability is vertical instead of horizontal. Before entering the room, they decide to first explore the way back to the entrance.

That turns out to be a very good idea, because the way back to the entrance is lined with several traps. The traps have an elemental theme, and can be identified by symbols engraved in the wall that correspond to the chart of planets they have. For example the trap with the symbol of the first planet corresponds to the plane of fire, is a fire trap, and can be deactivated by using fire on the symbol. They find the way out taking only a bit of damage, and having deactivated the traps now go back to the portal room. However approaching the portal triggers the portal, releasing an endless stream of regular and large zombies from the portal, as long as anybody living is in the Ziggurat. So they have to flee, which is now much easier, as the traps are deactivated. They make it out alive, transport Sergeant Delft to Fort Henry, and find that Risur has evacuated the fort. They follow the army to the evacuation point, find the army already gone, but get picked up by a clipper the king sent especially to rescue the "Heroes of Fort Henry".

At this point we stopped the session. The players could level up to 3, and in the story there is a 7-year gap until the next adventure starts. I'll talk about fleshing out the characters during that period in another post.

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Thursday, June 06, 2019
World of Tanks ammo revision

Wargaming announced that on the test servers you can try out the proposed changes to premium ammo. In a great example of obfuscation the change to premium ammo is that premium ammo doesn't change at all; instead everything else changes. So instead of lowering the damage of premium ammo, tanks get higher hit points, and regular ammo gets higher damage. The overall effect is the same, but it looks less like the nerf it really is.

I foresee some unintended consequences of this. One is the WN8 rating, because in the formula damage is the biggest factor. Basically the formula tries to measure your "skill" by dividing the damage you do to the damage that the tank usually does. Deal more damage than the average and you are a good player, deal less damage and you are a bad player. The idea never really worked, because it ignores lots of other contributions that a player can have to a win for his team, most noticeably spotting and assisting. But if you increase the hit points and basic damage of all tanks, you also increase the average damage with which to compare your performance. So all the battles you fought *before* the changes will look as if you had done rather badly, and everybody's WN8 will drop. The more battles you have fought in the past, the harder it will be to get back to your previous WN8 rating. A "reroll" account, where an experienced player starts over with a fresh account or has his account reset, will have much higher WN8 rating than veterans of equal skill who keep their accounts.

Now not everybody cares about WN8, and because it isn't an official Wargaming rating, the developers might just ignore this problem. Another unintended consequence however will be harder to ignore: Tank balancing. So tanks in World of Tanks simply have guns with relatively low penetration. So the use of premium ammo isn't the same for different tanks: I have tanks which never use premium ammo, because the regular ammo is already good enough and cheaper; but I also have tanks which *only* use premium ammo, because the penetration with the basic ammo is just too bad, and the gun not accurate enough to reliably hit weak spots. Tanks that had to rely on premium ammo previously will effectively be nerfed. And that includes a bunch of premium tanks, while previously the policy was to never nerf tanks that cost real money. Somebody who spent 100 Euros on a Pz. II J will not be very happy if his expensive tank is now effectively nerfed by 25% compared to the other tanks.

I won't play on the test servers, as I don't really have the time for that. But I will keep watching the premium ammo development, because it could change World of Tanks very much. Maybe mostly to the better, but there will be some collateral damage. 


Sunday, June 02, 2019
Prime triangle

I have an Amazon Prime subscription. I like it, because it gives me another Netflix-like video streaming service with a different selection of films, bundled together with free fast shipping from Amazon. So I have been subscribed to Amazon Prime for years. World of Tanks I have only been playing again since Christmas. And since the start of this year, World of Tanks has been in a partnership with Twitch Prime: If you have a Twitch Prime subscription, you get World of Tanks goodies every month, in so-called care packages at the last day of each month.

Now up to then I didn't have a Twitch Prime account. Before World of Tanks I never watched Twitch. However since then I found that some Twitch streams of World of Tanks are more interesting to me than YouTube videos, because the YouTube videos are carefully selected "best" games, and edited. A live Twitch scream shows you that even a top ranked player sometimes makes stupid mistakes, or ends up in a very bad team and loses the game. I feel I learn more when I watch a good player in an average, un-edited game than when I watch him in this once-per-week game in which he manages to kill 10+ tanks. But as you don't need a Twitch Prime subscription to watch games on Twitch, there isn't really a good reason to pay money for Twitch Prime.

The good news is that I didn't have to. Because Amazon owns Twitch, and if you have Amazon Prime, you get Twitch Prime for free. Which means that because I have Amazon Prime, I get the monthly care package in World of Tanks for free. In the latest care package, Echo, there was something special: A tier 7 premium heavy tank, the King Tiger (captured). Apparently that only works as long as you are subscribed to Twitch Prime, if you cancel that subscription you King Tiger becomes inaccessible. But that is obviously not a problem for me anyway, because I plan to continue subscribing to Amazon Prime regardless of World of Tanks. So now I have a rather nice heavy tank, with a good commander, Hank "The Tank" Morgan, and a bunch of special missions this month to get oodles of experience points and build up the rest of the crew. While the previous care packages had useful stuff like consumables, a bit of gold, or a day of premium account, getting a premium tank is way more valuable. And all that for free, if you already have Amazon Prime. Nice!


Saturday, June 01, 2019
Playing in the right league

I own 85 tanks on my main account in World of Tanks, and that is just a fraction of the around 500 tanks that are in the game. So one of the most fundamental questions in the game is "which tank should I play next?". And the answer to that is complicated, as it very much depends on what you want to get out of the game.

One simple answer is provided by the tech trees. Today is the first of June, and a new "Top of the Tree" event is starting. If you are interested in Russian tank destroyers, and I must say they aren't a bad choice anyway, it would be a very reasonable choice to play whatever tank you have that is highest in that tech tree. That way you get some added bonuses and advance faster towards the Object 268, the tier 10 of that line. So, as I already have the tier 9, the Object 704, I will surely play that one several times a day for the next month, until I reach the 268. (And yeah, I know, the Object 268 Version 4 might be a better choice, but that line doesn't get the added bonuses).

I just had what is a "good game" in my Object 704. I placed top in damage with 2,773 points of damage caused, 2nd in xp at 797 xp base (6,291 xp with various bonus multipliers). However that performance just got me a Mastery Badge "Class 3", which is the lowest mastery badge. There are a lot of players that are far better than me in tier 9 and 10. I seem to be okay at hiding in bushes, but when I play tier 9 or 10 medium or heavy tanks, I usually get massacred. The XVM mod suggests that the average WN8 rate in these games is about twice of what mine is, so I always feel as if I am playing in the wrong league.

Now no tier is immune against having to face players that are way better than you. Some excellent players play low tier tanks, a practice called "seal clubbing", because really new players don't stand a chance against a good player with a good crew and fully equipped tank at low tiers. But the average of player skill is lower at lower tiers. So the art is to find the right league. So unless there is a special event that pushes me to playing a specific tank, I usually choose to play between tier 3 and 7. While the average WN8 in these matches is impossible to predict, usually it is around my own, so the games are challenging without being hopeless. It also appears to be the best choice for improving my skills: While when I started World of Tanks again my WN8 was dropping, it has now stabilized and is going up again.

One of my favourite tanks I discovered while playing through last months "Top of the Tree" event. I never got to the top of that tree, I gave up at tier 8 because I didn't like those British medium tanks all that much. But I had enormous fun at tier 3 with the Cruiser IV, which ticked all the right boxes with me: It is fast enough, and has good burst damage with the Bofors cannon, so I can play the tank aggressively. But as a light tank it also has good camo rating and spotting, so where necessary I can hide in a bush and ambush the enemy. I like to drive forward quickly at the start of a battle and hide behind a bush or corner, laying in wait there for some enemy who doesn't expect an opponent that far forward. Then I empty my magazine quickly into him, and get the hell out of Dodge. Great fun!

And that leads me to the other possible way of choosing which tank to play: Ignoring the events and tech trees. It is perfectly feasible to find your favourite tank, and just play that one. Well, ideally you find two favourite tanks, because then you have something to play if you die early in a battle and need to wait for the battle to finish before getting your tank back. And the big advantage of this method is that there is no reason to spend money if you just want to play those one or two tanks and already have them. World of Tanks can really be Free2Play, if you want.


Tuesday, May 28, 2019
Internet fame and influencers

By the standards of the time over a decade ago, I once was what is today called an "influencer", somebody who puts content on the internet which might influence people to buy certain products, not that I ever did much advertising. Of course blogs are now completely outdated as social media, and with the growth of social media the 3,000 viewers per day I had at the peak of this blog would today not be considered as much. But while I was watching content on Twitch and YouTube of modern-day influencers with hundred thousands of views, I was struck by a thought: The modern-day content appears to be much more work intensive than blogging.

I never was much interested in monetizing my content. I only put up a "buy Tobold a coffee" donation button, and that one has netted me less than a thousand dollars over a decade. So I did stick to my day job, in which I am reasonably successful, and so I am well-off financially. I blogged before going to work, or during my lunch break, or in the evening. The decline of my blog, which I think resulted from a mix of the decline of blogging in general, the decline of MMORPGs, and my declining interest / time spent blogging, has never been a problem for me. Neither financially nor otherwise; I got my "15 minutes of fame", and that was enough for me.

Today's influencers seem to be much better paid than I ever was for creating content, but also to put in far more hours. Twitch streams often go on for hours, and while YouTube videos are a lot shorter, they need a lot more editing. And influencers are usually expected to be present on several social media at once, so a Twitch streamer probably has YouTube videos as well, and a presence on one of more other platforms, like Twitter or Facebook.

In short, while my blogging was a hobby, and any money I made was a token of recognition, today being an influencer is basically a full-time job. And I am not sure that this is a good idea. Of course to many people this might sound like a dream job: You play video games on Twitch and get paid enough for it to live from that income; you are your own boss, and make your own work schedule. However from all I hear about what you can earn as an influencer, there is only a really, really tiny number of people who "get rich" that way. The typical YouTuber / Twitch streamer earns enough money to make a living, but not to buy a Ferrari, or even much in the way of savings. It's a bit like a career in sports, where a small number of superstars makes big money, but a large number of people who went into that career just make enough to get by.

I consider that somewhat dangerous: Internet fame is notoriously fickle. Most influencers are young adults. What are they going to do in 10 or 20 years, when they have gotten replaced by a younger generation, and their income has drastically decreased? Twitch and YouTube don't have a pension plan. And "I spent the last 10 years playing video games on Twitch" isn't exactly a selling point on a CV if they try to get back into the regular economy. So, no, I don't think I missed the boat by never switching from blogging to streaming / YouTubing. I'm quite happy with my day job, and wouldn't recommend "becoming famous on the internet" as a career path to anyone.

Monday, May 27, 2019
Rage of Demons: Session 15

In the previous session the group had explored The Labyrinth and fought a demon lord to get a drop of his blood. Back in Araj they got contacted by Basidia, the un-corrupted ruler of the myconids, to warn them that the Fetid Wedding is about to start, a ritual in which Zuggtmoy attempts to use a distorted wedding ritual to take control of Araumycos, a continent-sized fungal life-form.

Teleporting there, they get some help from Basidia: They let themselves get infected by spores which enable them to make mental contact with Araumycos, and at the same time protect them from the corrupted spores of Zuggtmoy. However their meeting with Basidia gets interrupted by an attack of oozes, three black puddings and two ochre jellies, which reminds them that Juiblex is still around and an old rival of Zuggtmoy. Trying to make contact with Araumycos triggers his defenses, as he has trouble telling friend from foe due to Zuggtmoy's corruption. So the group fights four fungal otyughs, again without much trouble. Then they persuade Araumycos that they are friendly and get transported into a dream plane. There Araumycos exists as a mountain-sized brain in a giant stone skull, and he asks them to enter the skull and cut out the part corrupted by Zuggtmoy.

However Zuggtmoy interferes and appears in the dream, attacking the players. Although her spore attacks don't work, she is still a very powerful opponent, and the group only beat her with quite some trouble and several characters down. They then cut out the corruption and free Araumycos from Zuggtmoy's influence. On leaving the dream they realize that they are still in the same state as they were before they entered, and the dream fight wasn't "real", and didn't banish Zuggtmoy. However the wedding has been crashed by Juiblex, and the two demon lords are battling it out in the distance.

By the time they get there, Zuggtmoy has been defeated for real, and banished back into the Abyss, while Juiblex is still standing, but weakened from the fight. So the group attacks Juiblex, especially Arkoy, who has history with him. Arkoy tries to summon a divine intervention, and succeeds. The intervention comes in the form of a powerful banishment spell, which Juiblex can only resist if he rolls a 20 (and he doesn't have any Legendary Resistance auto-succeeds left). However Juiblex still has advantage on all saving throws, and manages to roll a 20 on one of the dice, resisting the banishment. Combat commences, but Arkoy in the next turn casts his own banishment spell, and this time Juiblex rolls low, and gets banished back into the Abyss. With this big success, two demon lords gone, we ended the session.

(I gave the group the choice to either make haste and play through to the end of the campaign in this session, or to stop early at this point and still have enough material for a final session.) 


Sunday, May 26, 2019
Defining the social contract

If you play Dungeons & Dragons with different groups or a group where people leave and join over time, it isn't uncommon to run into situations where different players have different opinions on how the group and its members should act. The often cited example is a group of "good" heroes with one player wanting to play an "evil" character. And while the game rules can give you a pretty good idea what the effect of a fireball spell on a group of peasants and their village would be, the question of whether the group should burn down that village is not covered by those rules, but by a social contract which is much less well defined.

Many groups have two bad habits in that regard: The first is that a player can announce any action without checking with the other players before, and that actions stands and can't be reversed. Thus the wizard who got insulted by the peasant and announces the action to cast the fireball on the village has effectively decided for the whole group, without their consent. Maybe the other players wanted to play the campaign in which they rescue the princess and become renowned heroes, not the campaign in which they are hunted by the king's forces as outlaws. The second bad habit is that players often avoid stating what they want, but hide behind their characters ("My wizard is very proud, so I had to burn down the village when I got insulted").

My current Rage of Demons campaign is nearing the end, and we decided that we would play a 5th edition Zeitgeist campaign after that. Now in Zeitgeist I don't even use alignment, good and evil, as many of the conflicts in it, e.g. technology vs. magic, or industrialists vs. unions, would be very difficult to fit into the straight-jacket of the simplistic D&D alignment system. That gives a lot of room for conflict between players. And as this is the group which had in another campaign an experience with a very disruptive player, I thought it would be helpful if I define the social contract a bit better before we even start.

My proposal will be to allow any player (including the DM) at any time to call for a timeout, to discuss "out of character" a situation, or an action that has been announced. The group must then come to an agreement, by majority. That agreement can stop or reverse the announced action, e.g. "no, you don't cast fireball on the village". That is even true if the character of the player who announced the action is alone, and "in game" the group couldn't possibly intervene. The characters can agree to disagree, but then have to come up with a compromise (e.g. the wizard is allowed to harm the insulting peasant in a more subtle way that can't so easily be traced back to the party).

The underlying reason for this rule is that Dungeons & Dragons is a game of interactive storytelling, and every player (not their characters) must feel comfortable with the story that is being told. I do hope that the rule that I impose in this particular campaign will also be adopted as a "best practice" for other campaigns we are playing.

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Saturday, May 25, 2019
Playing a bard in 5E D&D

Last year I got a bit overloaded between work and being the DM of my D&D games. So I arranged myself with players from my two large campaigns that someone else would take over, at least temporarily, as a DM, and I would switch to the less work-intensive job of a player. That worked out fine, and in one of the campaigns I am already back to being the DM. But I think that in the other campaign I made a bad choice of character class when choosing a bard.

Now I don't want to give you the impression that the bard is a bad class. I actually played a "college of swords" bard in a different campaign that was lots of fun. But this bard is "college of lore", and in this particular campaign he really doesn't work out all that well. In every fight I can do something really powerful once: Turn an enemy into a sheep, turn a friend into a Tyrannosaurus Rex, give advantage to all my friends, disable several enemies at once, heal 20d6 over 10 turns, and lots of similar things that don't usually involve damage. If I fail, I can try something else next turn. But if I succeed, I am basically done for the rest of the fight: I need to keep up concentration on that spell, otherwise it expires. Which means not casting another concentration spell, and trying not to get hit. So I end up casting my basic cantrip, vicious mockery, but that also is more of a support spell and doesn't deal much damage. The overall effect is that if a combat takes more than a couple of turns, I usually end up being quite bored at the end.

I think the problem is less with the bard, than with the concentration mechanic in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I understand why it is in the game, to prevent spellcasters of having active several powerful spell effects at once. The famous invisible flying wizard of previous editions is no more, and that is good. But in terms of players getting to do something fun at every turn of combat, concentration really gets in the way badly. It works okay-ish for hybrid classes that can cast spells and fight, e.g. the paladin. But even then you basically need the war caster feat to not permanently lose concentration. My paladin is using his spell slots for divine smites rather than for casting concentration spells. The overall effect is that players drift towards spells without concentration, which also tend to be more damage-dealing spells. That makes the game flashier, and a lot of people enjoy that. But somehow I feel that this edition is losing a part of the charm of previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons because of it.


Friday, May 24, 2019
World of Tanks Black Market

World of Tanks just introduced a new feature, the black market. In order to make that more interesting, and in line with the theme, Wargaming didn't explain how that new feature worked, you have to find out for yourself. So in case you are too lazy for that, and would like a spoiler, here it is:

The black market is accessible via the "Store" button in your garage, the one to the right of the "Garage" button. Then you have to choose the top tab on the list to the left to get to black market. And there you will find ... more often than not nothing at all. But if you happen to look either at 6 am or 6 pm, or shortly after, you will find premium tanks for sale for credits, not gold. For example I just now bought a FCM 36 Pak 40 tier III French tank destroyer for 3.5 million credits. However there are always only 20,000 of them for sale, and if you are too late, you are out of luck.

Why would this black market be interesting? Because the premium tanks for sale are tanks that aren't otherwise available. Stuff that has been in the game, but removed from sale previously, like the tank I bought. Tanks that might be a bit unbalanced: The FCM 36 Pak 40 has a crazy view range for its tier. However these tanks are by no means cheap. If you wanted to pay cash, you would have to buy gold for over 30 Euro and exchange it to credits to get the FCM 36 Pak 40. The previous tank M 41 90 mm GF was 5 million, or about 50 Euro.

However most people who will buy these tanks probably won't use their wallet. Because you are only short of credits if you are playing for free, and/or advancing through tech trees, constantly buying new tanks. If you have a premium account and mostly play your favorite tanks, without using much premium ammo, you might easily have millions of credits accumulated. The recent patch 1.5 added another 10% to your credit earnings for premium account holders. In consequence some people shoot premium ammo even when it isn't necessary, just because they can easily afford it.

In short, the black market is probably designed as a credit sink by Wargaming, to remove excess credits from the World of Tanks economy. That is probably a good idea, but it has its pitfalls. I just played a tier III game, which had several FCM 36 Pak 40 on each side. As these tanks are very slow, and powerful mostly when hiding in a bush and using their superior view range, both sides ended up camping in the back, which makes for very long games, and more draws. I do hope that once the first excitement over these tanks is gone, they get a little less frequent.



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