Tobold's Blog
Sunday, April 18, 2021
How important is NPC animation for you?

This is Sebille. Sebille is a NPC companion, an elvish rogue with a complicated backstory, in Larian Studio's Divinity Original Sin 2.

This is Astarion. Astarion is a NPC companion, an elvish rogue with a complicated backstory, in Larian Studio's Baldur's Gate 3.

In game, both Sebille and Astarion are relatively small on the isometric map, when you play at a usual zoom level. You only really "see" their faces when you talk with them. As as you can see from the above examples, Sebille is a static portrait, while Astarion is fully animated in 3D. All 5 NPC companions in Baldur's Gate are fully animated and voiced in long dialogue cutscenes. And those scenes are graphically far more demanding than the isometric maps and UI. In other words, a significant chunk of the budget for Baldur's Gate 3 went into replacing the portrait of Sebille with an animated Astarion. And I wonder if that budget wouldn't have been better spent elsewhere.

As a player of D&D, I would like to see all 12 basic D&D classes in Baldur's Gate 3 (13 with the Artificer). I would like to see more subclasses, I would like to see more spells. And I would like to see a lot of quality of life improvements to the somewhat clunky UI, and the horrible inventory management system. And instead of all that, I get an animated Astarion. For me that animation isn't doing much. Yes, it's pretty, but I'd rather have a better user interface and more character choices.

What do you think? Are animated NPCs a reason to buy one game rather than another for you? Or do they provide relatively little bang for the buck, which should have been spent elsewhere?

Friday, April 16, 2021
Curse of Strahd - Session 4

In the previous session the group started to get their revenge on the coven of night hags that in the Old Bonegrinder windmill, ambushing one of them on the road, away from the others. Hags are much less dangerous when not in the coven. So this session started by the heroes taking on the other two "sisters" in an assault of the windmill. That was a harder fight, but they managed to kill one hag and made the last one, Bella, flee into the ethereal plane. She might come back later to haunt them in their dreams. In the attic of the windmill they found the Tome of Strahd, one of the three artifacts the fortune teller told them about, and an important source of information on the history of Strahd, and how he became a vampire.

After this, they went back to Vallaki. There the merchant they saved two sessions ago, Vasili von Holtz, introduced the group to Lady Fiona Wachter. Lady Fiona was opposed to the rule of the Baron Vargas Vallakovich, who had made it illegal to be not happy, and organized a festival every week so that the happiness would keep Strahd away. Lady Fiona proposed a coup at the next festival, and the group agreed to tackle the baron's main enforcer, Izek Strazni. Apparently there was an old rivalry between the von Zarovich family and the Vallakovich family, and Lady Fiona proposed to the group's paladin/hexblade Gustav von Zarovich to become the new baron.

So the festival starts, and rain spoils the main event, where the baron tries to light a sun made out of wicker. Gustav takes the opportunity to mount on the fountain in the central square and hold a speech, proposing to overthrow the baron. Combat with Izek and some guards ensues, but the group wins that relatively easily. However, meanwhile the citizen of Vallaki have risen up as a mob and are deposing the baron. Everything is going according to plan. Except ...

On the way to the baron's house, Vasili von Holtz and Lady Fiona call the group into a side alley and thank them for their role in overthrowing the baron. And then Vasili transforms into his true form and is revealed to be actually Count Strahd von Zarovich! The whole encounter with the group "rescuing" him was staged, so that he could gain their trust and manipulate them into doing his bidding. The group is shocked, and realizes that this means that Strahd could now easily capture Ireena. So they leave town towards the village of Krezk, and the Abbey of Saint Markovia, taking Ireena with them for protection. With that, the session ended.

This session was pretty fun. One of the big difficulties in campaigns against a powerful archvillain is how to let the group have their successes, while still making it appear that the villain has his wins too, and is getting more and more present and dangerous. This session did exactly that, the group won every battle, and feels as if they are losing the war. Great for a horror campaign!


Thursday, April 15, 2021
Divinity Original Sin 2

I was a fan of Divinity Original Sin from Larian Studios, and not only played it through once, but then played it half way through a second time, spending 130 hours with that game. But while I bought Divinity Original Sin 2, I hadn't played it up to now, because, you know, too many other games. So I kind of skipped it when I started playing the latest Larian Studios game, Baldur's Gate 3. Now I have to say something blasphemous: I don't really like Baldur's Gate 3. To me it feels so *unfair*. Dungeons & Dragons 5E puts a lot of restrictions on players, but balances that by putting the same restrictions on monsters. In Baldur's Gate 3, we still have those restrictions on the players, but the monsters don't follow the rules. To somebody knowing 5E rules very well, it feels a lot as if the monsters are cheating. Okay, most AIs cheat, but some do it less visibly than others. So after a fight where the enemy not only cast mirror image, but then was able to cast spells each turn with each one of the images, I got fed up and stopped.

But as I was still in the mood for this type of heavy computer role-playing game, I went back and started playing Divinity Original Sin 2. And I must say that I like it much better. The flow seems much better, and the monsters visibly use the same powers that you have, which makes it feel a lot fairer. I am aware that part of that is the difference between playing a game in "definitive edition", as compared to "early access". And the definitive edition has some weird design choices: The developers added "gift bag features" that improve various things in the game, for example inventory management. But if you activate those, the game tells you that because you are using mods, you won't earn achievements anymore. I don't care about achievements, but I that to be very strange design. The gift bag "autopack" feature that sorts items into bags according to category is very useful, but I wouldn't consider it as a sort of cheat that makes the game too easy.

Speaking of mods, I also installed a mod from the Steam Workshop called "Let there be Tooltips!", which fixes another UI flaw of DOS2: When pressing the ALT key to highlight items you can interact with, the mod makes it so that *all* items you can interact with are highlighted. In the original game, lots of items, even very basic ones like crates, don't show up. Really, that is more of a player-created bugfix than a mod.

What is absolutely brilliant in DOS2 is the ability to easily respec your characters, with barely any restrictions. You can build a completely different party out of the characters you have. I'm playing with Sebille, Ifan Ben-Mezd, and Beast. If I go for a second playthrough, I can take the three other companions, enjoy their different character stories, but without that locking me into certain character choices. The ability to respec also makes me feel more relaxed about my deliberately underpowered choices: For pure power it is obviously better if your character skills work well together. But I have, for example, both fire and water powers, which sometimes cancel each other out. The advantage of using all sorts of powers is that you get to know them all, and have more fun with more variety.

I have already played 40 hours of DOS2, and I am still in Act 1, out of 4. And I am level 7, out of 20 or 21 (soft cap). So still a lot of game to go. I have to say that the quest system isn't ideal is telling you what you should be doing next, your quest log tends to be overloaded with stuff that you can't really do much about right now, so it is easy to lose track of your goals. But then, just going everywhere and revealing all the fog of war on the huge map works pretty well. Overall I am having a lot of fun with Divinity Original Sin 2. I just hope that in a few years Baldur's Gate 3 will be as good as this.

Friday, April 09, 2021
Baldur's Gate 3 Multiplayer

I had the opportunity yesterday to play Baldur's Gate 3 in multiplayer with 3 friends. That worked, for small values of "worked". But mostly it gave of the impression that BG3 has been designed from the ground up as a solo game, and then somebody decided that it needed a multiplayer mode, and some dev hacked up just enough code to allow the marketing department to be able to write "multiplayer" on a press release.

One thing we found out to our detriment is that everybody has to be there for the start of the campaign. We had one player who could only join 2 hours later, and the game didn't allow him to make his own character. He could take over one of the NPCs, but that was it. There also isn't much in the game that would allow players to communicate. We basically communicated on a completely separate Discord server. That was very necessary, because the game allows players to go in completely different directions, which has a potential for a huge mess.

Fundamentally, if you choose to play multiplayer, you simply play through exactly the same campaign as in single player. Including going through exactly the same thousands of lines of dialogue. Any player in the group can start a conversation, and then the others either have to just wait it out, or they can watch the dialogue. They can "vote" for a dialogue option, and the system shows who opted for which, but only the person initiating the dialogue can actually choose or make rolls. With all of us having already tried the game solo, going through the dialogues again, or waiting for somebody in the group to do so, wasn't much fun.

The turn-based combat as a group was fun, but there really wasn't enough of it. Also there is this strange system of shared initiative, where if different players have the same or similar initiative roll, they act simultaneously. Certainly done to speed up things, but of course we had some situations where two players targeted the same enemy, and the first killed it, while the second player's attack then failed and he lost his turn.

Where the multiplayer game really needs work is in communication between players. What decisions in the game need to be made together, and which ones are individual? For example, curiously, if any player presses the short rest button, there is directly a short rest for everybody, no approval from the others needed. But for a long rest there is a system where everybody needs to approve before it happens.

If you have a group of good friends, it is possible to play Baldur's Gate 3 together. It would be absolutely unplayable with a bunch of strangers. And even with friends it feels more like a shared single player experience than really a multiplayer game.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021
It's an RPG, not a dating simulator!

I moved from Pathfinder: Kingmaker via Solasta: Crown of the Magister to Baldur's Gate 3 (Early Access v4). And while Baldur's Gate 3 is clearly the "prettiest" of the three, with the biggest budget, in some ways it is the weakest of the three in terms of tabletop style gameplay. That starts with very simple things like the game hiding dice rolls from you: Only a few skill checks have a very visible roll of a die; of the other rolls, some can be checked in the combat log, while others are completely invisible. If you mouse over a target, a percentage chance to hit appears, instead of a d20 roll needed to hit.

But far worse is that we are back to the concept of only having one main character to control. And, even worse than in Kingmaker, this time there is no way to customize your NPC companions beyond making a few choices when leveling them up. And at least up to now, there isn't much choice. And with the 5 companions figuring prominently on all sorts of loading screens etc., it doesn't look as if more than a few will still be added.

So, if you want for example to make a main character other than a cleric, and you want to have a cleric in your group (which is a very sensible choice, tactics wise), you will have to take Shadowheart. If you don't like the Trickster domain she has, or don't like her alignment or goddess, tough luck, there is no other choice. She, and the other 4 companions, have foregone tactical flexibility and traded it in for a long backstory, with long animated dialogue options, and options for romance, and even sex.

Crap, I wanted a CRPG, not a dating simulator! And no, I don't want romance and sex options in my Baldur's Gate 3 multiplayer game either. I mean, how creepy is that? I have played tabletop D&D using both male and female characters, and I have played with both male and female players, using characters of different gender. And the only way to make that work is to keep sex out of role-playing. Unless that is what you want, in which case I'd recommend a different system than D&D.

Baldur's Gate 3 is also rather linear and on rails with the story. You can't just run around and have maybe some random encounters and have a bit of fun with tactical combat. All combat encounters are fixed and scripted. So if you want to roll another character and play again, chances are that at least half of your group consists of the same NPCs as your first playthrough, and the combat encounters are somewhat similar. Unless your specific goal is to romance another NPC, the replayability isn't great. I have to say, I am somewhat disappointed. This is not really the D&D game I wanted. Solasta is a lot less polished, but a lot more fun.

Saturday, April 03, 2021
Mixed feelings about vaccine passports

After flailing around aimlessly for a few months, the extreme right wing of the Republican party has finally found a political theme on which they a) disagree with the Democrats, and b) can actually claim some relevance to regular people: Vaccine passports. States with Democrat governors like New York introduce them, states with Republican governors like Florida make them illegal. What gives?

While both sides over the coming months will oversimplify their point of view and paint the other side as deranged lunatics, the issue is actually rather complicated. If a business is closed because of a risk of spreading the Corona virus, should that business be allowed to open to people who by having been vaccinated are of much less risk?

One of the reasons that the subject is touchy is that the reason why somebody is or isn't vaccinated will vary. Vaccination rates throughout the world vary. If a person would like to be vaccinated, but vaccinations in his country progress slowly and following some priority list on which he figures lowly, that person would reasonably be upset if for no fault of his own he is excluded from going to a restaurant, while other people are allowed to go. In Belgium, where I live, less than 12% of the population are vaccinated, and most of those are over 65. Imagine a government trying to pass a law saying that only pensioners can go out, go on a vacation, go to a cinema, or eat at a restaurant. It is clear that this wouldn't be very popular.

On the other side, the reason why the extreme right is fighting against vaccine passports is that there is a strong overlap between anti-vaxxer nutjobs and right wing nutjobs. Imagine a country in which everybody who *wants* to be vaccinated *is* vaccinated. In such a situation, a vaccine passport would serve as a strong public health incentive to get vaccinated, which would be a good thing.

The 18th century philosopher Kant designed a philosophy in which good and evil depends on reason, not religion. He devised a very simple test, the categorical imperative, to find out whether an action is good or evil: Simply imagine what would happen if everybody did this action. On this basis, it is very clear that is everybody was an anti-vaxxer, there would be millions more deaths from Corona, and the pandemic would last much longer. Anti-vaxxers basically are selfish bastards that rely on everybody else being reasonable and getting vaccinated for their health. But "forced vaccinations" wouldn't work very well in Western democracies. So a vaccine passport could be an extremely useful "nudge" for people to get vaccinated, because it gives them a selfish incentive to do so, instead of relying on them to be willing to do good for the greater community. Any scheme that relies on people being selfish, greedy, and/or stupid is likely to succeed. Schemes that rely on them being selfless and enlightened tend to fail.

My preferred solution would be that vaccine passports should only be introduced once a large majority of citizens has had at least one opportunity to get vaccinated. Let's say at 50% vaccination rate in the country. Then the vaccine passport becomes a useful public health measure driving the numbers up to the level of herd immunity (and yes, we aren't totally sure how high that is exactly, 60% to 75%). If somebody is excluded from visiting a restaurant or taking a plane because he didn't want to contribute to the fight against a pandemic, that is fine by me.

Thursday, April 01, 2021
Time to update?

I have an iPhone 7 Plus. The current generation of iPhones is 12, so 7 is relatively "ancient", from 5 years ago. And while my employer doesn't want to pay me an iPhone, I now have an opportunity to buy one a bit cheaper via my employer. So I am tempted to buy the latest and greatest from Apple, an iPhone 12 Max Pro.

The main reason against buying a new iPhone is that even with a rebate these things are quite expensive. And it isn't as if a 5-year old iPhone isn't working anymore, it just doesn't have all the bells and whistles that have been added over the last 5 generations. In addition to that, my usage of my mobile phone during the last 12 months was minimal, for obvious reasons: No business travel, and lots of days of home office, where I tend to use my iPad more than my iPhone.

But then, we all hope that the lockdown will be over next year. And while I certainly not somebody who wants to change his smartphone every year, I think that every 5 years is a reasonable rhythm for an upgrade. While I can buy a previous generation iPhone a bit cheaper, if I want to keep it for the next 5 years, I'd better take the latest generation now.

I'm a tall guy, 6'3", and I have big hands. I took the 7 Plus because the 7 was too small for me. So now I'd rather have the Max version, with the 6.7" screen. That gets me a bigger screen for my old eyes, bigger keyboard for my phat fingers, and as an added bonus a bigger battery. I can see how somebody more delicate than me might prefer a 5.4" screen Mini model, which is just over half the weight of the Max model. But the electricity consumption doesn't scale with size as much as the battery size does, and so the Max has 50% more battery life than the Mini. In more practical terms, a Mini heavily used all day is likely to run out of battery before the day ends, while the Max heavily used will still have 25% charge left at the end of the day. Back in the days of Nokia, a mobile phone on standby might last all week, but that was before it included a full computer and multi-media system.

I'm still debating with myself. Obviously I don't "need" an iPhone 12 Pro Max, strictly speaking. But then there is a certain degree of planned obsolescence in iPhones. The battery is aging, and the newer iOS versions tend to be more power hungry. And the newer versions always have better screens, better camera, and added features like MagSafe and LIDAR. In the end, a new phone is "nice to have", rather than "needed". But then, I haven't done much real world shopping or leisure travel lately, so I might just feel like spoiling myself.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Solasta: Crown of the Magister

Over the course of the month of March I played Pathfinder:Kingmaker for 184 hours. I stopped after having "conquered" a second kingdom, basically completing the main game, and skipping the end game, which wasn't very appealing to me. While I did like to play a computer role-playing game that is based on tabletop rules, I'm still not a big fan of the Pathfinder rules, and I found several aspects of the Kingmaker game somewhat annoying. So I tried Solasta: Crown of the Magister next. That is a game I backed on Kickstarter in 2019, which is now in Early Access on Steam. The isometric interface is somewhat similar to Pathfinder: Kingmaker, but the game is based on 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons rules.

Already the change of rules system has a profound impact on gameplay. Compared to Pathfinder, which is based on D&D 3.5, the 5th edition is a lot simpler and streamlined. You don't have to juggle anymore whether your +2 competency bonus stacks or doesn't stack with the +3 enhancement bonus. And of course there is my personal preference for D&D 5E, which is the system I play on (virtual) tabletop. While on paper both Pathfinder and D&D have 20 levels, D&D campaigns usually don't go as high. And in D&D the powers of the classes are less front-loaded, which makes complicated multi-class characters less advantageous. So, D&D is simpler, while Pathfinder is better for fans of theorycrafting complicated character builds.

For Pathfinder: Kingmaker I played the "enhanced plus edition". Unsurprisingly that edition is a lot more polished and bug-free than the early access edition of Solasta, which should reach version 1.0 only later this year. Otherwise the main difference is that the isometric map in Solasta is divided into cells, and that in 3 dimensions, while Kingmaker is 2D without any squares or hexes.

One thing I like a lot more in Solasta is that you create all 4 characters of your group. In Kingmaker you only created your main character, and choose among the companions you meet during the game. There is a "mercenary" system in Kingmaker, which allows your companion to be created yourself, but that gives you a stat penalty, and the mercenaries are silent and without character, compared to the voiced premade companions. Solasta manages to give your 4 characters a distinctive character and voice in game, based on your background choices, and animated with the face and body choices you make. Making your characters yourself avoids the problem of not knowing what classes and specs of companions you will meet later, a problem that Kingmaker shares with Baldur's Gate 3.

While I am having fun in the early access version of Solasta in spite of the occasional bug, there are a few things I like less. The devs are clearly immensely proud of their 3D system, and so there are lots of scenes where you have to move in 3 dimensions, and enemies that can attack you while hanging upside down under the bridge on which you are standing. That is combined with an extremely complicated light system, where that monster under the bridge might count as "unlit", and give you disadvantage on attacking it. So the game added more different cantrips with different light spells to the game, which is all a bit excessive for what it does. Once in a while it is fun to drop a rock on a monster, but it doesn't add *that* much to the experience.

But apart from that, Solasta is a fun enough game. I'll fiddle around with the early access version a bit, and am looking forward to the release version to play the full game.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

A reader asked me what I thought of Auroboros. At that point I thought nothing of it, because I hadn't heard of it yet. So I looked it up, and it turns out to be a sourcebook for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, made by the new company of Chris Metzen of World of Warcraft fame. There will be a Kickstarter for it starting on April 20th. Auroboros will be a campaign setting for D&D, with some added features like new races or spells.

Am I going to back that Kickstarter? Probably not. The one disadvantage that playing D&D on Roll20 has, is that using third party material is really, really hard. And even in pen & paper, a new campaign setting means a lot of work for the DM. That "Worldbook: Lawbrand" from the Kickstarter is clearly several hundred pages long.

Most of my campaigns use the Forgotten Realms as campaign setting. The advantage is that I know the setting well, having played with it for decades. As a generic, high fantasy setting, a great number of different D&D adventures either play there, or can easily be made to fit in there. I consider using a different campaign world only when I want to switch to a different genre: I used the Zeitgeist world for a more steampunk-ish version of D&D, and now Barovia for the gothic horror D&D campaign I'm currently running.

I am also somewhat concerned about the time aspect: With a Kickstarter this year, the first book probably isn't coming out before next year. And then that is just the campaign setting, and we will have to wait some more time before we also get adventures that make use of that setting. By the time the Auroboros product line is complete, WotC might have announced the 6th edition of D&D.


Thursday, March 25, 2021
Why doesn't Sony sell $1,000 Playstations?

As my newsfeed includes various global, tech, and gaming news, I'm still seeing news about PS5 shortages. Yes, in March 2021, "Walmart has PS5s in stock" is still headline-worthy. And from an economics point of view, this totally doesn't make sense. A console selling on eBay for twice the price is bad, because the added money goes to the wrong person, some scalper. If from the eBay price we can assume that the market value of a PS5 is $1,000, it should be Sony who is asking that price. Because then they could put the added revenue into more production capacity or other good use. The money in the scalper's pocket is helping nobody.

As Sony knew that the demand for their new console would be high, they could easily have said that the launch price for the console was $1,000, and then over time dropped the price to the "normal" level. The effect on the market would have been the same, with the more desperate fans buying a console at an elevated price, and the more reasonable customers deciding to wait. But if all that extra money had gone to Sony, they would have been able to ramp up production with the extra cash. And in the end, both the company and the consumers would have been happier.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Making bad democracy worse

One man, one vote. Ideally in a democracy every vote counts the same. In reality, due to representative democracy bundling votes into one candidate, the power of individual votes can depend on where you are voting. But in most countries the variation is minor. A notable exception is the United States of America, which has one of the most unequal systems of voting of all Western democracies. For the senate, every state, regardless of size and population, gets two senators, making votes in smaller states a lot more powerful. And the somewhat weird electoral college system for the U.S. presidency makes it so that a lot of votes don't count at all: If you are a Republican in California or a Democrat in Alaska, turning up for the presidential election has a zero percent chance of affecting the outcome.

An optimist would hope that politicians would be working on making elections in America more fair. But in reality both sides are very busy trying to game the system to their advantage, making it even less fair. Republicans try to make voting more difficult, hoping that it affects richer, whiter voters less than poorer, blacker ones. Democrats are trying to add new states, like Washington D.C. or Puerto Rico, hoping to permanently shift the balance in the senate. Republicans try to use the U.S. census and gerrymandering of voting districts in order to make sure a white minority keeps the majority of political power. And of course both sides deny that any of this is power politics, but paint their efforts as making elections more fair.

I have been predicting political violence in the USA on this blog before January 6, and I was right. There is actually an easy trick that allows you to see into the future: Study history and look for parallels! Abraham Lincoln supposedly said that "You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.". As much as US politicians try, you cannot create a system that permanently disenfranchises a large number of voters, and have stability at the same time. The USA is perilously close to the point where the losers of elections will never recognize the result anymore, and sooner or later that will blow up in violence.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Quadratic wizards

I'm still playing Pathfinder: Kingmaker, with my second crew. Apart from the companions that the game offers you, my group has a wizard as a main character, and a sorcerer as a mercenary. Both of them are specialized in damage spells, like fireballs. And because Pathfinder is an old school RPG system, this is very unbalanced in my favor. Only at low levels are these characters weak, because they don't have many spells to cast every day, and the spells are not very powerful. But by mid-game these characters are extremely overpowered, because now they have lots of spells, and the spells are extremely powerful. This is what is known in RPG design as the "quadratic wizard" problem, that the power of these spellcasters doesn't go up in a linear fashion with level, but in a quadratic one.

Now I've battled my way through several scripted events in the game that involve a large number of enemies. I got assaulted by a large zombie horde, and a complete barbarian tribe. In a situation like this, a fighter would take forever to take out the enemies, as he can only ever hit one at a time. But with area effect damage spells from fireballs to chain lightning, I can take out large numbers of enemies much quicker. Spells like ice storm can also slow down the enemies and prevent them from reaching me before they have been grilled to a crisp. So this second playthrough is going a lot smoother than the first one.

The designers of Pathfinder: Kingmaker obviously were aware of that imbalance. None of the companions in the game is designed around using lots of fireballs. There are no wizard companions, except for a wizard / rogue / arcane trickster, which works more with spell sneak attacks than area effect damage. And there is absolutely no sorcerers available as companion. If you make a main character that isn't a wizard or sorcerer, and you don't use any mercenaries (NPCs where you can choose the class yourself), you can well end up without having much AoE firepower, which makes the game a lot harder.


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