Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
World of Tanks Challenge Events

The "American Challenge" event finished yesterday on the European World of Tanks servers. The basic premise is that you can get a premium tank for free if you grind a large amount of missions during 10 days. The grind has 10 stages, and each stage is harder or grindier than the previous one. Quickybaby, a World of Tanks YouTuber/Twitch streamer and top level player tried the previous challenge on his free to play account, and it took him 60 hours. Not a casual-player friendly event, or is it?

As it turned out, I kind of misjudged this. I completely ignored the event, and concentrated on the Top of the Tree event instead. But then I noticed that I was getting stage rewards from the American Challenge event from time to time. Because while the Challenge is a grind, it isn't an *extra* grind. No, if you just play for some other purpose, or even just for fun, as long as you are using at least a tier VI tank, you slowly accumulate progress towards the American Challenge.

At the end of the Challenge yesterday, without actually having done anything for it, I was at stage 7 out of 10. Which means I got 7 packs of stage rewards without any extra effort. And then I realized that the event was even better than I had thought: While you need to finish all 10 stages to get the premium tank for free, each stage counts for a 10% discount. So I ended up buying that TS-5 premium tank for 70% off, which made it really quite cheap. And its a really good tank, a bit slow and cumbersome, but with very good frontal armor and gun, which makes it an excellent face-to-face brawler.

Which brings me to a sidenote regarding armor in World of Tanks: It works better than the math would suggest. I realized that while playing through the French heavies Top of the Tree event, because I found that these lightly armored French heavies are worse than the math would suggest. Whenever an enemy had the choice between shooting me or shooting the tank next to me, that enemy would choose to shoot me. That is a consequence of the reward system of World of Tanks, both the official one and the inofficial WN8 rating system: They both reward damage dealt above anything else. If you fire a shot at something heavily armored and don't penetrate, you just took a big loss to your credits earned, xp earned, and WN8 rating. So the logical consequence is that everybody first tries to shoot anything that has light armor before aiming at anything well armored. In terms of game design that is bad, I would say the reward structure of World of Tanks is pretty bad. But if you have a heavily armored tank, it is an advantage.

I will still try to finish the Top of the Tree event this month, as I am already at tier IX. But overall it turned out that the American Challenge was actually the event that gave me a tank that I will continue playing. The French tier X heavy is probably not going to be played much, and I already sold the tier I to VIII ones, and will sell the tier IX once I got to X.


Sunday, April 14, 2019
Skyless Realms

While I do 3D print miniatures for my Dungeons & Dragons tabletop games, I don't have enough artistic talents to sculpt those miniatures myself. As many people who print D&D miniatures, I mostly print the designs of Miguel Zavala aka mz4250, which are available for free on Shapeways. He has miniatures of everything in the monster manual, as well as specific collections for WotC published adventures. However lately I have participated in two Kickstarter projects for .stl files for 3D printing. One of them is called The Skyless Realms.

I really liked the models in this project. And Kickstarter projects without physical delivery are somewhat more likely to succeed. This one was no different, I got my files in time as promised. And the miniatures are really quite nice (see photos below). Now the designer obviously didn't have a license from WotC and wanted to avoid all copyright infringement claims. So it's called "The Skyless Realms", and not "The Underdark". And in no way is there any mention of the WotC campaign Rage of Demons with the Out of the Abyss adventure. It just so happens that the miniatures in this collection coincide exactly with the monsters in that adventure. :)


Friday, April 12, 2019
Rage of Demons: Session 12

After a break of several months, during which the same group played a different campaign with another DM, we went back to the Rage of Demons - Out of the Abyss campaign with me as a DM. Previous events can be found here. Among other things the break had given me the opportunity to solve a problem: In this second half of the adventure, the group is leading an expedition force with 24 NPCs; how do you handle that in combat? I decided that the NPCs weren't supposed to be too effective or outshine the players, and that managing them shouldn't take much time. If we would roll for every attack of every NPC, combat would take forever.

Finally my solution was to treat the expedition force NPCs as 5 groups. I printed 3D tokens representing each group, and created a mini character sheet for each group. Each group has as many hit points as the sum of its members, and is treated like a single entity, except that it might take more damage from area effect spells. Instead of attack rolls, there is a simple table of how much damage the army entity automatically deals to enemies of a certain range of armor classes. Likewise monsters just deal their average damage to an army group if they attack it. Using these new rules, we played through a "random" encounter with a group of demons, and that went quite well.

After this warm-up fight, the group reached Gravenhollow, a magical library run by Stone Giants in the Underdark. Between the magical properties of the library to give information on the past, present, and future, and the Stonespeaker Crystal the group had received from a Stone Giant in Gracklstugh, the group was able to find out what had happened: Under the influence of the Demon Queen of Spiders Lolth, the archmage of Menzoberranzan Gromph Baenre cast a spell to summon demons at a location infused with faerzress, a mysterious magical energy of the Underdark. This enhanced the spell's power to a degree where it summoned all the demon lords from the Abyss into the Underdark at different locations. Lolth's goal is to take over the Abyss while the other demon lords rampage in the Prime Material Plane.

In Gravenhollow the group also met Vizeran DeVir, an exiled drow archmage and rival of Gromph Baenre. He told them that he had a plan to reverse the demon invasion, but wouldn't want to talk about it in the library, so he invited them to Araj, his tower. On the way there we played through another fight, against driders in a narrow tunnel. Surprising how terrain as simple as a straight but narrow tunnel can have a huge impact on tactical combat, the fight was fun. Arriving at Araj, the group then learned Vizeran's plan: He wanted to cast a ritual that assembled all the demon lords at one location in Menzoberranzan. As the worst enemy of a demon lord is another demon lord, he is counting on them eliminating each other, with the group just having to kill the weakened survivor.

However to cast the ritual, Vizeran needs a shopping list full of magical ingredients, which the group has to collect from various locations in the Underdark. That list basically spells out the rest of the adventure, with ingredients like fresh purple worm eggs giving the players a good idea what challenges might lie ahead. So we finished the session at this point, with the group advancing to level 10.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019
This looks more like the real game to me

In World of Tanks I am currently concentrating on the current Top of the Tree event, which lets you work through a particular tank line faster. This month it is the French heavy tank line leading to the AMX 50B. So I was looking for videos on how the tanks of this line play, and for once ended up on Twitch instead of on YouTube. I found Quickybaby's AMX 50B Tech Tree Showcase, in which he plays through all of the tanks of the line in a Twitch live stream (you need to fast forward to the 2:00:00 mark of the video to see it).

Now YouTube videos, including those of Quickybaby, are often carefully selected replays showing the players having great results. I find them a bit depressing, because they make it look so easy to have constantly big wins, and my reality in World of Tanks doesn't correspond to that at all. So the Twitch live stream made me feel much better. Sure, Quickybaby is a far, far better player than I am. But even he gets into games (at 2:38:00 in the video) where his French ARL 44 heavy tank is bottom tier, the rest of his team is just plain incompetent, and he gets annihilated by artillery without being able to do much. And his win rate on that particular day wasn't exactly great. Welcome to my world, Quickybaby!

I still believe that World of Tanks is deliberately unbalanced and designed to give those very inconsistent battle results. On the positive side it allows average players like me to occasionally have these great battles where we seem to carry the game and end up with a purple WN8 rating and tons of medals; on the negative side only few players in a 15:15 game can possibly have this experience, and so you need to sit through a series of bad games in order to have these occasional great battles.

Thus the challenge becomes to have fun in battles that aren't going your way. The good news is that I am now at tier 8 in the French heavy tank line, which is where the heavy tanks with auto-loaders start. That means I can shoot 6 shots in quick succession, and then have to reload for a very long time. In losing battles, this is a great feature. A World of Tanks battle frequently starts slowly, with people trying to hide and not expose themselves. At the tipping point the winning side then frequently rushes in and overwhelms the losing side. In a typical tank you might get one shot in at that point, and die before you reload. In an auto-loader tank you might possibly be able to empty your whole clip into the onrushing horde before going down. That makes you feel a bit less useless, and greatly improves the result in terms of WN8, credits, and experience for the losing battle.


Tuesday, April 09, 2019
World of Tanks now with more win for your pay

Something you don't often see, Wargaming announced that with patch 1.5 premium account holders would still pay the same, but get a bunch more benefits. You get more experience point bonuses, more credits, additional daily missions, and a bonus for playing with friends in a platoon. You also get to blacklist one additional map you don't like.

I assume that the idea is to get more free players to convert to paying customers. We will have to see whether that works.


Monday, April 08, 2019
Core shell model of games

A lot of games are designed following a model which you could call a core shell model: There is some core activity of gameplay (which, given how prominent violence is in games, is often a battle), and then a shell around it, which has everything else. The shell often has progression elements, like management of experience points and levels, talent or tech trees, and sometimes non-progressions elements like the story. A typical player in a typical game of this sort constantly jumps between the core and the shell: Does a battle in the core game, then levels up his character in the shell game, to go back to the core battle with a stronger character.

Core and shell are fundamentally different, and only the core is viable on its own. You could imagine many games like Fortnite, League of Legends, or World of Tanks with only the core, and no shell. In World of Tanks you could theoretically just have tank battles, without any tech tree progression, any tank equipment research, any crew skill management, and the like. In fact, since I tweaked some settings in my mod pack for World of Tanks, I now get a display at the start of a battle which shows how many battles in that particular tank each player already did. And I am always surprised that some people play thousands of battles in the same tank. I recently saw a guy who had twice the number of battles in this one tank than I had with all of my tanks together. I assume that these players just like to play this favorite tank of theirs, and don't care about the shell elements of World of Tanks. After a certain number of battles you have the best possible equipment, and your crew skill development has slowed to a crawl. The shell of World of Tanks has events, and features like "2x (or even up to 5x) experience points for the first win in each tank" that encourage people to play many different tanks. But doing just the core battle always with the same tank clearly works as well. Having no core wouldn't work, even idle games but in fake battles with little or no interaction instead of skipping the core totally.

Regarding the recent discussion on paying to win, or paying for power, for me it makes a big difference whether you pay for more power in the core game, or in the shell game. World of Tanks has pretty much shifted all the power you can pay for into the shell game, you can pay for faster advancement, or for getting tanks directly for cash. The separation isn't 100% clean: The so-called "gold" or "premium" ammo, although not buyable directly with gold any more, are still much easier to afford with a premium account or after farming credits with a premium tank. And premium ammo gives a definitive advantage in the core battle game. And some people would argue that some of the premium tanks are "overpowered", although I must say that most of the premium tanks are definitively underwhelming. (I don't buy premium tanks any more unless people complain about it being too powerful, like the Defender currently on offer.)

But even if the separation was complete, the question would remain what part of the game is really "the game", and what is a "win" in the term Pay2Win. Quite a lot of games have some mechanic where paying results in faster advancement in the shell of the game. As being of higher level or tier then usually doesn't give you an advantage in the core game, because you are simply matched against other players of the same level, faster progression doesn't really make you "win" more. But then some people consider the progression part of the game, in the shell, more important than winning or losing battles, so faster progression is exactly the kind of "win" they want. At least in World of Tanks I had exactly the opposite experience, that playing at higher tiers was less fun for me than playing at lower to mid tiers. If I am paying for faster progression (which I am, in the form of the premium account), it is more to be able to unlock more different tanks and tank lines faster, than to reach tier 10 in one line (which I rarely do).

One thing World of Tanks doesn't offer, which would be the completely opposite idea, would be for players to be able to pay for guaranteed top tier in all their battles. Now *that* would really feel like paying to win for me, and thus not really fair. The top tier tanks tend to dominate in a battle, or at least are much more likely to than the bottom tier tanks. If you listen to the chat, you can always hear people complaining about being bottom tier tank again, even after the recent matchmaker changes, so I'd guess this option would sell very well. But I guess in the interest of the game being perceived as fair even to free players, this isn't really a viable option to introduce.


Saturday, April 06, 2019
What's the minimum payment for Pay2Win?

Somebody calling himself SynCaine, who might or might not have been the blogger Syncaine, had an interesting argument in a comment on my previous post: It matters how much you can pay to have an advantage in a game when we consider whether it is a Pay2Win game. If you get advantages for paying something reasonable, like a subscription to a MMORPG $10-$20 per month, it is okay for you to have advantages over the free players. Especially if paying more than that isn't giving you any more benefits above those other players who paid some sort of virtual subscription. It is if your advantages are continuing, and you could spend hundreds or thousands on a game and still get more and more advantages, that it becomes a "whale game", and really Pay2Win.

I find the idea interesting, because instead of splitting the population in two groups (payers and free riders), it splits it into three groups (whales, subscribers, and free riders). Many of the arguments and horror stories about in-game purchases are about whales or addicts. The idea that a game could have two levels, one for free, the other for $10-$20 per month, and that the paying customers would enjoy some benefit over the non-paying customers, appears a lot more acceptable.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 03, 2019
Vive la France!

I pretty much ignored last month's Top of the Tree event in World of Tanks until the last week. Then I found out that I kind of liked the format, which gives you specific bonuses and advantages for playing through a specific tank line. Of course having started very late I never actually got to the top of the tree in the German Maus line in the March event. But then Wargaming announced another Top of the Tree event for the French heavy tank line for April, and so I have been doing that this week, and plan to continue until the end of the month.

Now I am playing World of Tanks like a "whale" or "wallet warrior" or however you want to call a paying player. I got used to playing that way back in 2011, when Wargaming gave me free gold every day for some time, which I think they still do for various influencers (which these days are YouTubers rather than bloggers). These days I have to buy that gold myself, but I don't mind, and its usually tens of dollars in a month, not hundreds or thousands. Yesterday, after having seen that I kind of like the French heavy tank line, I spent €20 on a special Top of the Tree event booster, which gives the 5x bonus for victory three times per day instead of once, plus some other extras. That is going to be a nice boost at the higher tiers!

But more importantly my whale play style means that whenever there is an period in which experience from tanks that don't need it any more can be converted into free experience at a better exchange rate, I do that for all the experience I have accumulated with my various elite status and premium tanks. I had up to half of million of free experience that way, and still have over 300,000. Which is a lot. And it turns out that especially for French heavy tanks this free experience is extremely useful. Several of the French heavy tanks suffer from their stock equipment, especially the gun, being absolutely awful. That makes them an awful grind until you got enough xp to get the good gun, which frequently requires you to first get the improved tracks and turret. Being forced to play a number of games with a gun that doesn't penetrate anything makes the French heavy tank line somewhat unpopular. But I never play stock tanks. I never use free experience to research tanks, but I exclusively use it to directly get a freshly researched tank from stock level to good equipment level. And it turns out that those mid-tier French heavies are actually quite good once they have their best gun.

One special case is the B1, the tier IV French heavy. Its best gun is a tier III gun, which is generally still bad for a tier IV tank, and especially awful if you get into a tier V match. But that particular gun has another property which is good for wallet warriors: Its premium ammo has 50% more penetration that the regular ammo. Which means that for the B1 I was loading only premium ammo, and was doing quite okay, at least against same or lower tier tanks. Damage per shot isn't great, but rate of fire is, and both dispersion and aiming time are good for a heavy tank gun.

In summary, I'm enjoying the April Top of the Tree event, presumably because it appears to be more Pay2Win than the previous event, and I end up having a lot of success.


I killed the bastard

One of the strong points of Dungeons & Dragons is that you don't need to be good to enjoy playing it. A "bad player", who doesn't know half the rules, can't remember his spells, and hasn't got a clue about tactical combat, can still be a fun person to be around, contribute to the story, and be a positive element to the game overall. However, regardless of whether a player is good or bad at D&D, there is a kind of person that can cause problems, the disruptive or "bastard" player. The kind of player who is always shoving his way into the limelight, not giving the others room to play their characters, and who deliberately tries to spoil the enjoyment of everybody by ruining the story.

Unfortunately in one of the campaigns where I am player, we had such a bastard player. Now the general advice on how to handle disruptive players is to do it "out of character", the DM speaking with the problem player between sessions. However that approach apparently didn't work in this case, and the player in question got more problematic with each session. While first he was just trying to steal all the attention, he later became more and more bold in trying to derail the story, and even harm the characters of other players.

The reason that this is problematic is that pen & paper role-playing games have a strong, unwritten, social contract: Whatever characters the players have chosen, they need to arrange themselves in order to end up with a common story, in which the group pursues a common goal. If everybody wants to go in different directions, the game becomes unmanageable, and just falls apart. Thus it isn't uncommon to have let's say both a paladin and a rogue in a group working together, in spite of their values being very different. Conflict between characters can be played out in the form of arguments, but not in the logical conclusion of parting ways, or fighting each other. D&D, especially 5th edition, would be a horrible system for PvP anyway, because players have relatively high damage output and low hit points (while monsters usually have lower damage output and higher hit points). A fight between two wizards of equal level would be decided by the initiative roll. A disruptive player can use the social contract as protection, while making the game less enjoyable for the other players by not being willing to compromise, and effectively forcing them to follow his directions.

So last weekend the bastard player in that campaign I was playing a paladin of vengeance in pushed the envelope too far. Twice during the session he exchanged blows with other players, not deadly, but still doing damage. And then we basically reached one of the climatic points of the story: We had traveled through the jungle for a month to find information about a lost city, and learned that a naga living in a ziggurat had that information; we had reached the ziggurat and overcome its magical protections, which resulted in us being teleported into a small (6x6 squares) room with the naga. And before anybody could say anything, the disruptive player shouted out "I cast fireball!". Which a) roasted the whole group due to the room being so small, and b) would force the group to attack the naga NPC instead of talking to her, which would have seriously derailed the story.

At that point I had enough, and having won the initiative, attacked the bastard player instead of the naga. As I said, D&D isn't really suitable for PvP; my paladin is built around having multiple attacks, based on DEX instead of STR, and dual-wielding a pair of scimitars. Normally the plan is to roll lots of attack rolls, thus increasing the chance of a critical hit, and then using Divine Smite, because critical hits also double the damage dice rolled for that. However in this situation I didn't care about critical hits. I just used Divine Smite on each of my three attacks. In PvE that isn't a clever move, because you burn your spell slots very fast and run out of resources quickly. But in PvP it is all about having the bigger burst damage faster than your opponent, and three attacks with Divine Smite deal an average damage which is far higher than the hit points of a character, especially one who just burned himself with his own fireball. So I killed the character of the bastard player in one turn, and then apologized to the naga, getting the story back on track.

The surprising thing was that the disruptive player seemed to be quite pleased with that outcome. I had the impression that somehow he *wanted* us to kill him, and give him an easy way out of the game, instead of just telling us that he wanted to quit. So he left, and all the other players and the DM expressed their relief of being rid of the guy. I guess that sometimes people have difficulties resolving their problems in an appropriate manner in real life, and that handling the situation "in character" is sometimes easier for them. Well, problem solved!


Saturday, March 30, 2019
Second Chance Blown

As it turns out the new PvE mode of MtG Arena is a huge disappointment. Most importantly the AI is playing very badly, much worse than the AI in Magic Duels or other previous incarnations of Magic the Gathering on a computer. Something as easy as selecting the obvious creatures to block an attack isn't mastered by the MtG Arena AI.

Now for a new player the game gives you five mono-colored decks. Then you get xp for every practice mode win, so you level up to a cap of 30. And for each level gained you gain mastery orbs, which you can place on a board to get additional cards for your favorite mono-colored deck. Later you can even get five two-colored decks. Now this is not a bad system, especially not for real new players: You get to play against easy decks repeatedly until you learn how to play, and what the main characteristics of the five colors are. As a "new player experience" that is much,  much better than having to play against the sharks right away.

However for anybody who already knows Magic a little, the system falls flat. The AI only ever plays the same five mono-colored decks that you got at the start. While your cards get better, the AI doesn't get better decks. And it doesn't get any *more interesting* decks either. So long before you reach level 30 and get all the additional cards and decks out of the practice mode system, you are already extremely bored by playing against the same simplistic decks over and over with no challenge whatsoever. That also means that "practice mode" fails to do what is said on the label, help you to practice real decks.

What I found really mean was that the main screen of MtG Arena very prominently shoves quests and quest rewards in your face. Oh look, I can get gold for winning a game, or for playing 20 white spells! So I get my white deck and win a game in practice mode, and nothing. What the quests simply don't say is that their conditions aren't triggered in practice matches. That also means that after you reach level 30, practice mode simply doesn't have any rewards at all any more. Now I could understand PvP mode giving better rewards than PvE mode, but PvE mode giving nothing beyond enabling you to get a set of starter decks is a killer.

In summary, MtG Arena now has a better new player experience, but which still fails to give the player the cards and skills he would need to even start playing competitively. And MtG Arena still hasn't got a usable PvE mode.

Friday, March 29, 2019
MTG Arena - Second Chance?

While I had a look at MTG Arena during the beta, I at that point considered the game unplayable, because it didn't have a PvE option. Magic the Gathering basically invented the Pay2Win principle a quarter of a century ago, long before anybody even thought of the use of that principle in computer and mobile games. Any online version of Magic that only offers competitive play against other humans is just a gigantic trap, which will lead to you either spending lots of money, or giving up in disgust after being continually trounced by people who spent more on the game than you did. And of course in any online PvP game you will have to deal with other people who are more likely than in the real world to be willing to show you the bad side of their characters, feeling protected by distance and anonymity.

Since then, MTG Arena was officially released. I have no information how successful the game is, but I remained skeptical, especially when they tried to lure players with a $1 million prize pool for competitive online play. So I never installed the release client. But I still remained on their mailing list. And now MTG Arena is announcing, among other stuff in their March update, "expanded early player progression" and "Practice Matches" against an AI. With my two biggest concerns about the game thus being addressed in some way, it is time for me to install the game and see what they did.

I haven't gotten far yet. As I haven't played the release version previously, the game really considered me as a new player, and I was put directly in a tutorial game that explained me how mana and creatures worked. As the new player experience is something I consider important, I will play through the rest of the tutorial, and see in how far it is now possible to play MTG Arena without playing against other human beings.

Friday, March 22, 2019
3D Printing status

My Zortrax M200 Plus has been repaired, and after a bit of further fiddling with it is now producing satisfying prints. I'll show some examples below. Now obviously these are still not the quality of store-bought miniatures. For example you can clearly see the print layers. The models in brown I treated with acetone vapor, which improves the surface aspect. The others I haven't treated yet, and I'm not sure I will bother.

In the end these figurines will mostly be looked at from arm's length away, on the middle of a table on a battle map. The main requirement is that the players can tell which figurine is the beholder, and which one is the basilisk, and I think this is clearly the case here. And they are cheap: The human-sized figurines are below 5 grams of material, including losses from printed rafts and supports. The large sized ones are below 20 grams. And the material is regular ABS, costing just 2.5 cents per gram. So even a large figurine costs me less than 50 cents, while a store-bought Reaper Bones human-sized figure costs $3.



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