Tobold's Blog
Sunday, September 23, 2018
Linear fighters, quadratic wizards

I played Dungeons & Dragons all weekend long, two 6-hour sessions of a new campaign in the Witcher universe. I'm playing an unexpectedly effective bard, specialized in melee combat, less in magic. But the bard remains a hybrid character, between spellcaster and fighter, and that makes the difference between the two concepts very evident.

In 5th edition D&D, fighters and other non-spellcasters have a rather constant output of damage. It is modulated by chance, sometimes you hit, sometimes you don't hit, sometimes you roll high damage, sometimes you roll low damage. But mostly you do the same attacks every round, with a decent average damage. Spellcasters work with a different model: The have a number of spells they can cast per day, and on average those spells are more powerful than the attacks of the non-spellcasters. But once they run out of spells, they are basically reduced to cantrips and less efficient weapon attacks, which deal less damage than the non-spellcasters.

At low levels this is reasonably balanced: The spellcasters have limited amounts of spell slots, so they either preserve them, or run out. That gives the non-spellcasters opportunity to shine, especially in long fights, or when there are lots of fights in an adventuring day with little opportunity to rest. The so-called "linear fighters, quadratic wizards" problem appears a mid-level, and gets worse with high-level characters. Basically the non-spellcasters keep getting a bit better with every level, improving their combat stats, improving their proficiency, or getting additional attacks. But the spellcasters get much better over time: They get both *more* spells, and *better* spells. Instead of running out of spells and having to cast cantrips that are less good than non-spellcaster attacks, they only run out of ultra-powerful high-level spell slots, and still cast lower level spells which are better than anything a non-spellcaster can do. The concentration rule makes spellcasters in 5th edition a bit less overpowering than in editions 1 to 3.5, but they still rule at higher levels.

The Dungeon Master can modify this a bit with the kind of encounters he presents, and how many encounters he puts between two opportunities to rest. Many damage spells are area effect spells, and thus gain in power when there are lots of enemies around, preferably close together. Fights against a single big monster is more of a gamble for spellcasters; they might have spells that effectively neutralize the big boss monster, but usually that involves the monster failing a saving throw, so it is not a sure deal. A big fireball is less efficient on a single big monster than on a group of smaller ones. The number of encounters per adventuring day is a big tricky, because lots of fights one after another fit well into a dungeon setting, but less well into some other settings.

One of the consequences of this linear fighter, quadratic wizards problem is that campaigns rarely reach high level. The disparity in power becomes so annoying that the group falls apart, and then starts another campaign at lower level again. Even many of the official WotC published campaigns end somewhere between level 11 and 15, and there aren't any campaigns getting mid-level players to the level 20 cap. I also like the solution of the warlock class, which has few spells (only 4 spell slots at level 20, compared to 22 spell slots for a wizard), but recovers them more easily, and casts them at high power. But seeing that people disliked the much more balanced 4th edition, it seems that the linear fighters, quadratic wizards problems is here to stay.

Thursday, September 20, 2018
How long is a lifetime?

I received a notification that the credit card which I used a long time ago to pay for my lifetime membership of Lord of the Rings Online has expired in 2013. I'm told "To link a new card for automatic renewal of subscription Lifetime VIP in project The Lord of the Rings Online ™, click here. Otherwise, your subscription will be cancelled on January 1, 2038.". So apparently a lifetime is 25 years after your credit card expires.

I think I won't link a new card. I'll have to live with the fact that I won't be able to play any more in 2038. :) This Lifetime VIP membership turned out to be a bad idea years ago, as I didn't play LotRO all that long. In addition the game went from subscription model to Free2Play model, so the lifetime membership made even less sense. I think I had a certain idealism at some point in time in which I believed that MMORPGs would be eternal and the gaming model of the future, but that turned out to be not the case.

Monday, September 17, 2018
Destiny 2 is Pay2Win

I'm joking. Mostly. The term Pay2Win has been misused so much, that it has become nearly meaningless. So when I made an observation of facts in Destiny 2, I couldn't really tell who would consider that as Pay2Win, and who wouldn't.

The fact is that if I enter a PvP ("Crucible") match today in Destiny 2, I am a burden to my team because I am only level 20. This is because I only have the basic version of the game. If I wanted to achieve a higher level, there is nothing in-game that I can do. I need to pull out my wallet and buy the DLCs and Forsaken expansion. Thus only if I pay, I could possibly "win" in PvP.

Of course that is the same as with any MMORPG in which expansions increase the level cap. If you don't buy the expansion, you can't level up. And if you can't level up, you can't compete. Kudos to Blizzard for at least making all expansions before the current one free. For Destiny 2 you can't even use the Forsaken expansion if you haven't bought the two previous DLCs, which is why there is a "legendary edition" which contains everything. Many people would not consider this "Pay2Win", because DLCs and expansions are primarily sold as being additional game content, the level cap rise is secondary.

While I enjoy a bit of shooter gameplay from time to time, I am neither very good nor very interested in PvP, or "winning" this sort of game in general. My initial interest in Destiny 2 was low, and I only ended up buying it because of a $12 deal from Humble Bundle Monthly. Buying the $20 DLCs or $60 "legendary edition" of the expansion doesn't really make sense for me. I finished the main story, but I can still do some "adventures" or just do some open world content when I feel like shooting some aliens. I don't know how many hours I played Destiny 2 (there is no internal system to determine /played time, and the external websites that offer it don't appear to work for me now), but I guess I played the game enough to consider the $12 I paid to be not wasted.

After playing so many MMORPGs and expansions, I am a bit weary of full-price expansions. By definition an expansion isn't a new game, but just more content for something you already played. There is a high risk that paying the price of a full game for an expansion ends up being bad value for money. But as people get attached to their characters and want to progress them further, they are willing to pay for that further progress, more than just for the new content. So in a way Pay2Win isn't a completely inaccurate description of the situation.

Sunday, September 16, 2018
Cooperative multiplayer thoughts

From a purely theoretical point of view I find people working together online a better idea than people trying to kill each other online. However if you look at chat, forums, and other places where gamers talk among each other, it becomes clear very quickly that cooperative multiplayer is a source of extreme frustration and anger. In team vs. team games in which the community has been described as "toxic", you will find that most of that toxicity is directed to people on the same team, not the opposing team.

After having reached the level in Destiny 2 where I get access to "strikes", which is Destiny's way of saying "LFG dungeons", I came up with a theory of why cooperative multiplayer is so problematic. I believe that it is much easier to tune single player difficulty to the right level. With only one player, knowing his level and gear/stats enables a game to provide him content of a challenging but not impossible difficulty, because the effect skill has on the performance of a single player is limited. But if there is a group, the effect of skill, or rather coordination between the players, makes the possible range of power of a group much wider. You can easily see that in places where a game makes it possible for a coordinated team (e.g. from a guild) to fight a team of random strangers. Coordination, especially the use of voice chat, makes a team far, far more powerful than a team that doesn't talk to each other.

Some people, like Gevlon or the Jacksonville shooter, are obsessed with the idea that the purpose of a game is winning. I always believed that the purpose of a game is playing, that is exploring options without having to fear consequences too much. What if I tried this crazy stunt move? Can I circumvent this challenge instead of facing it head on? Cooperative multiplayer makes this "playing" of a game much harder, while having the potential of making winning easier, if the other players on your team know what they are doing. If fun in games comes from a learning experience, the guy in the team who is there for the very first time and is probably having fun figuring out how this works ends up being a drag and a problem to his team mates, who are just there to win.

Theoretically clever game design could work around this problem. A game could estimate better how new and thus how proficient a player is, and get a better and better idea of the skill of a player by keeping score of his individual contribution over time. That would enable the game's matchmaking system to work much better, both in team vs. environment and in team vs. team mode. However the fundamental problem of matchmaking is that the better the game is in matching the right players together, the longer the wait for that match to happen becomes. So most matchmaking algorithms in games are very basic, and lead to the above mentioned problems and toxicity.

My preferred solution would be games in which the performance of a team isn't subjected to a simple fail or pass test. If you don't need to "win" against AI or another team, cooperation becomes much less contentious. For example in games like A Tale in the Desert people can work together to dig holes or build pyramids. Any contribution to such a task is a positive contribution, even if somebody is for some reason bad at this particular task. A guy carrying bricks slower than the others is still better than the guy not being there at all. Wouldn't it be great if we could have more games in which people could work together without constantly frustrating and angering each other?

Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Designing a dungeon for D&D

I’ve been playing D&D twice now in the past weeks as a DM using a small dungeon of up to 10 rooms, built in 3D printed tiles. I would like to do some more of that, but I am out of ideas for interesting dungeon rooms. I’ve been looking for ideas via Google, and noticed that a lot of the suggestions I can find on the internet share a common flaw: They don’t share the fun with the players, they are only (possibly) fun for the DM.

I talked earlier about decision points. Many of the suggested ideas have those decision points; but the reasoning behind what happens remains completely obscured from the players. For me as DM it is always important to look at any dungeon room both from the perspective of the DM, and from the perspective of the players. If the DM information says that a room has this or that function, I also wonder how the players are supposed to find out. What do they see when they come in? How can the consequences of their actions enlighten them to what is really going on? In the stuff I read these questions frequently aren’t answered: As DM you get told what the room does if the players behave in a certain way, but not how they can find out what to do. In extreme cases the players are supposed to do random stuff until a door opens and they’ll never find out why.

In his Theory of Fun Raph Koster explains that fun for players is the result of understanding game elements. Yes, being able to open the treasure chest is important for a D&D player, but if there is a puzzle or trap involved, it is more important that the player *understands* what this challenge is about and how to solve it. A dungeon location with a rich backstory but no way for the players to find out about it is a wasted opportunity. I’ll keep looking for better material for my dungeons, but it is hard to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Any suggestions?


Saturday, September 08, 2018
Humble peeve

I like the idea of the Humble Bundle Monthly: Once per month you get an offer to buy a triple-A game for $12, and you get a bunch of indie games thrown in for free. I bought Civilization 6 and Destiny 2 that way, both way cheaper than any other offer, and some of the lesser games I got in the bundle look interesting too. Because of this I am still subscribed to the Humble Bundle Monthly newsletter, although it is a bit spammy, informing you of the monthly offer once a week. And while I am having a negative reaction to the current offer, Overwatch for $12, this is just because it pushes a wrong button for me, a pet peeve.

I have been playing MMORPGs for many years, more than a decade, and spent a considerable amount of time not only playing them, but also analyzing them and blogging about them. In my mind MMORPGs had a great potential to become online worlds in which we would want to hang out forever, but they never fully realized that potential because of lack of courage and innovation on the side of developers and game companies. So the trend faded, and even I am not playing MMORPGs any more, because they evolved into a bunch of derivative and repetitive chores instead of living and breathing worlds.

While I am somewhat okay with MMORPGs having gone out of fashion, it makes me angry what came and replaced them: Online multiplayer PvP games, from League of Legends to Fortnite. To me these games are the essence of all what I hated about bad MMORPGs: Competitive, hate-filled places instead of social, collaborative ones. Players being lured in to serve as content, so that game companies save money on creating content. Exploiting player’s weaknesses for virtual gambling in the form of lootboxes instead of subscriptions. It is as if a sociologist studied MMORPGs for years, discovered all human weaknesses in online games, and set out to exploit as many of them as he could for monetary gain.

So, sorry Humble Bundle, but I think that games like this are a plague upon gamers, and I wouldn’t even play them if you paid me $12. I just hope the trend fades away in another decade.

Sunday, September 02, 2018
Is your Zortrax M200 Plus making a clicking noise?

After having a lot of trouble trying to print with PLA on my Zortrax M200 Plus, I finally discovered what the problem was. The symptoms I had were that my PLA wouldn't print at all at the typical PLA temperatures of up to 210°C, but the printer would make some clicking noise. At higher temperatures the PLA finally came out of the nozzle, but not as much as it should be. The result was very bad rafts, but which due to the high temperature stuck very much to the printed piece and couldn't be removed.

Finally the whole system broke down and wouldn't print at all any more, just making that clicking noise. Cleaning and then changing the nozzle didn't help. Ultimately I had to open the extruder to fix the problem. What turned out was that the Zortrax M200 Plus only has a single roller in its extruder, without a second metal roller to press the filament against while transporting it. The PLA I used had a very smooth surface, and is rather hard. So the roller couldn't grip the filament right and didn't push it properly into the heated channel and the nozzle. The clicking noise the roller slipping of the filament.

The only solution was to go back to ABS, which is softer, and thus the roller gets a better grip on the filament. But I have to say that I am a bit disappointed with the Zortrax extruder: All other 3D printer extruders I have seen up to now are using two metal rollers, and not just one.

Friday, August 31, 2018
Destiny 2

I didn't buy the latest World of Warcraft expansion. So if you would have asked me last week whether I was still playing MMORPGs, I would have said no. Instead I am playing other stuff. Just recently I started playing Destiny 2, a game I picked up for $12 as part of a Humble Bundle Monthly. And I was thinking of the game as being just a shooter. Then this week I couldn't play one evening, because there was a big patch and the servers were down. And I realized that Destiny 2 was a MMORPG after all, in all but name.

You have a character, complete with a level, a class, and gear. You do quests, or you participate in public events. There are lots of other players around when you go to town. There is a PvP system if you want (I didn't). And while I never did it in Destiny 2, I remember from Destiny 1 that you can also play in a group. So except for the fact that combat is done with guns instead of sword and sorcery, Destiny 2 plays very much like a MMORPG.

In some ways the genre of old style MMORPGs is dead. The big excitement is over, there are very few new MMORPGs of the old style coming out, and especially the subscription model of MMORPGs is on life-support. But some of the elements, the "lots of players on a server playing together" stuff, and some elements of progress and game flow, are very much alive and can be found in lots of new games. My hope for MMORPGs to develop in living and breathing online worlds never came to pass, but the genre sure developed into something else, more violent, and more competitive, that I am not so much interested in.

Thursday, August 30, 2018
What remains of the games we played?

This week there was a short news piece in the gaming press that Square Enix was removing an older JRPG from Steam, The Last Remnant. You can still buy it now, and if you own it you can play it forever, but from next week on you can't buy it on Steam any more. Prompted by that, I decided to have a look at that game. I didn't remember having heard of it at all, and thought that maybe it was one of the many games I missed over the years. Turns out I didn't miss it: I had bought the game in 2009, played it for nearly 50 hours, and written a review on my blog. I just had completely forgotten everything about it.

Even reading my own review and looking at the trailer and screenshots on Steam didn't bring back any memory. Complete blank, as if I had never seen it. That made me a bit sad. Not just because I am getting old and forgetful, but also on a philosophical level: What remains of the games we played, if not our memories? My Steam library is getting twice as depressing: Not only is it full of games I bought at some sale and never played, it is also getting full of games that I played and don't remember.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018
Loot boxes, gambling, and regional restrictions

A lot of games these days have loot boxes or equivalent systems, where you can buy a random collection of in-game items without knowing exactly what you will get. From time to time you hear stories of people who went completely crazy with those, spending thousands of dollars on the search for some legendary in-game item. In consequence various authorities have looked at loot boxes and considered whether people needed to be protected from them by applying gambling laws.

Now this is a bit tricky. On the one side the person buying a loot box clearly considers the contents of that box to have some value, otherwise he wouldn't buy the box in the first place. On the other side the content is only every useful inside the game, and usually can't be traded, thus there is no possible monetary gain. With gambling laws being different from one country to the next, the outcome of the decision whether loot boxes are gambling can be different. In April Belgium decided that loot boxes were illegal under Belgian gambling laws. As a consequence this week Blizzard removed the ability to buy loot boxes for Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm in Belgium.

Now I don't play either game, but I understand that in both games loot boxes only contain cosmetic content (although one might argue that Heroes aren't cosmetic content in HotS). But the news still made me wonder what happens if a similar solution is applied to games in which the contents of a loot box give a player some game advantage. It is one thing to decide to want to play a "free" game for free; it is another thing if you want to buy an advantage and it depends on where you live whether you can do so. Pay-to-Win-if-you-are-not-Belgian sounds like a really weird and really bad concept to me. Note that similar laws have been proposed in some US states, so it would be completely possible for loot boxes to become illegal in Minnesota, but not in some other states. We might end up in a situation where your location determined via your IP address determines what games you can play and how, and using a VPN gets you in trouble for circumventing gambling laws.

My preferred solution would be game companies getting rid of loot boxes altogether. They could still sell the contents, but without the random gambling aspect.

Saturday, August 25, 2018
A game is a series of meaningful choices

Depending on which source you believe, game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as a series of meaningful choices, or a series of interesting decisions. I was thinking of that after a game of Dungeons & Dragons that forced me to refine my thinking about decision points in dungeon rooms. To explain, let me use an example in different variations: Imagine a basic setup in which there is a tiger and a treasure in a cage (let's say the cage bars are magical and don't let arrows and spells through), and there is a lever that opens the cage to release the tiger and let the players access the treasure. Now imagine different variations of this basic setup:

Variant A: The lever, cage, tiger and treasure are all in the same room. Although there isn't a visible connection between the lever and the cage door, the function of the lever is easy enough to understand. The players need to make a relatively straight-forward decision about whether they want to fight the tiger for the treasure or not, or they could try to come up with a different solution, like first organizing a pile of meat before opening the cage. I think this variant offers a meaningful choice and should be fun, but it might be a bit on the too easy, too obvious side.

Variant B: The players come across the lever in one room, but the cage is in the next room that the players haven't seen yet. I'd consider this actually to be an improvement over variant A: The setup rewards players that are careful, because once they open the door to the next room, we are basically back to the more obvious choice of variant A. Impatient players, who just pull the lever without having seen the next room, will hear some noise in the next room, and on opening the door will understand what the lever did when the tiger attacks them directly. The choice is still meaningful, the decision still interesting, and maybe even more so because it requires a bit more forethought.

Variant C: The players come across the lever in one room, but the room with the tiger is at the other end of the dungeon. If the players pulled the lever, much later in the game they will come across upon either an empty cage with a treasure in it, a roaming tiger, or both. But they will not know that this was caused by them pulling the lever. The game of D&D that I played yesterday had a lot of encounters of this variant: The group came across a lot of different stuff to interact with, but in most cases the consequences of that interaction were unclear both before making the choice and after making the choice. There was no explanation of what the things we encountered meant, and no way to find out the history or meaning of it all. I assume that some of the interactions we did caused some of the things that happened to us, but I can't be sure.

Variant D: There is no cage and no lever. There is just a room with a door which leads to a tiger guarding a treasure. This is "old school D&D". And while the lack of a decision point makes this a far less interesting design, I do somehow favor variant D over variant C. Because for me variant C is a decision point with no meaningful choice, which makes the decision not very interesting. In short, I believe that a good dungeon for D&D needs to explain the consequences of their decisions to players. If they don't understand what they did, it all becomes just random interaction with no meaning.


Thursday, August 23, 2018
Don't tell them it's 4th edition

The Vault of Iptiz dungeon I ran past weekend was a success, with both me and the players having a lot of fun. So I'm planning another session for next week, and this time I'm designing the dungeon myself. But I am keeping some of the design elements of the Vault of Iptiz: I am using tiles to build the dungeon, I am limiting myself to a size of dungeon that when built with tiles will fit on a table, and most importantly I am using dungeon rooms with lots of decision points.

A decision point in dungeon design is anything where the players have to make a meaningful choice: Do I pull this lever? Do I try to balance over this narrow bridge? Do I open this chest? Sometimes these decision happen out of combat, but having decision point in combat much enhances the experience. A fight that happens in some special environment where the terrain gives modifies movement, or gives cover, or confers advantages or disadvantages, ends up being a lot more memorable than the same fight against the same monsters in a bare room.

Now 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons has a strong "old school" vibe, and a lot of the dungeons you can find consist mostly of bare rooms with monsters and the occasional treasure in it. Also the monsters in 5th edition are more frequently rather simple, having just an armor class, hit points, attack, and damage values. 4th edition, which was too complicated for a mass market and was played at lot less than 5th edition, made more frequent use of tactical influence of terrain and nearly every monster had some special powers and unique attacks. 5E combat is faster, but can easily feel a bit generic and repetitive.

So what I am trying to achieve is the best of both worlds. Using 5E rules and thus relatively fast combat, I am using 4E encounter design principles: Terrain interaction, environment manipulation, and monsters with special abilities. That includes using more homebrew monsters that are variations from some original in the Monster Manual. The result is combat encounters that are different, more epic, and where you can't use the same standard tactic every time. I just don't tell them what edition those design principles are coming from, because 4th edition has such a bad rep. See? I'm holding the 5th edition Players' Handbook, so this must be 5E! :)



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