Sunday, June 15, 2008

4th Edition D&D Mini Review

The books arrived on Monday and I had a chance to play 4e yesterday afternoon. I have to say that I enjoyed it very much. I thought the combat system was much more interesting than previous versions, the classes all had unique abilities, and the skill system is a more streamlined version of the d20 system. Play was a bit slow, but I expect that to increase with experience. Overall, I thought it was a big win.

The game is an evolution of the 3e/d20 game system. The core mechanic remains the same... roll a check against the appropriate skill/defense with a d20, but a lot of other things have changed. All attacks, defenses, and skill checks get a bonus equal to 1/2 your level (FRD). This makes save tables, BAB tables, and skill points unnecessary. Also, all combat actions now require a skill check, so your Magic Missile requires a Intelligence check vs the opponent's Reflex save. In practice, its a nice evolution of the d20 system.

I think the class abilities are what really make the game interesting. All classes have unique abilities, giving each class a well defined role (actually, a choice of two related roles). There are abilities than can be used once a round ("At Will"), once an encounter, and once a day, with the daily abilities being the most powerful. The At Will abilities are your basic attack, but often have other secondary affects, like push back the target, or give an ally a bonus, or force the target to attack you, and so on. What makes them interesting are the combinations that result, especially cross class combinations. It really makes the combat dynamic, where combatants move around to try to get advantage, or are knocked back by powerful attacks, or fire and retreat back to cover. And yes, the monsters all have similar abilities, making even low level monsters somewhat challenging.

Overall, I was very happy with the game. We only did a couple of combat encounters and a couple of role playing encounters, but that's normal when learning a new system. We haven't done a lot of exploring yet, so I don't have much experience with the new skill system (i.e., searching, opening locks, etc.). I'm playing in a couple of sessions at Origins. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Introducing World of Fogecraft

I've had long conversations with friends about designing an MMO that would address all of our concerns. In this post, I'm going to describe "World of Fogecraft", a hypothetical MMO that we can use as a backdrop for more discussions. While we will focus on issues concerning MMOs, it will also apply to all types of RPGs (pen & paper and computer).

To provide a base level for the discussion, World of Fogecraft, abbreviated WoF, will implement a fantasy setting similar to old school D&D. Its perfectly valid to assume that standard archetypes will be present: fighters, magic users, priests, and rogues. Mobs will run the gamut from normal animals (wolves, bears, etc.) to humanoids (orcs and kobolds) to undead (skeletons and zombies) to all sorts of fantastic creatures, up to and including dragons.

The world will consist of three different zones: Capital City, Dinglewood, and The Borderlands. Capital City is an area much like Stormwind in WoW (or Waterdeep or Greyhawk City in AD&D). It is a large city that provides a base area where characters go to train, buy supplies, etc. Dinglewood is an introductory area that is mostly civilized (think Elwynn Forest or the Dalelands). It has several farms, mines, woods, and a small village. Most of the quests will revolve around securing areas from predators (like wolves) or stopping incursions of bandits/kobolds. The Borderlands is located on the edge of civilization. The only settlement is a Keep, with monsters patrolling beyond its walls.

I plan to expand the discussion to include all aspects of the world, including questing, classes, rewards, and so on. Please feel free to comment on or question any of the assumptions. And if there is a particular aspect of the game that hasn't been mentioned here, I can always add a post to kick off that discussion.

What I Want to See in an MMO

I have been playing World of Warcraft for a couple of years. I am in a casual raiding guild on a PVP server. IMO, it is one of the three best games that I've ever played (along with Magic and Advanced Squad Leader). Still, there are a number of things that would make a better game. Here are my top three items.

1. Allow players actions to "change the world".

As a player, I want to feel that my actions make a difference. I want to feel that killing bandits makes the town safer, or that I'm helping to uncover some long, lost artifact. Its disappointing when you kill the bandit leader, only to see him respawn in 30 seconds.

I'm not sure what the correct answer really is. You want everyone to have a chance to experience everything in the game, but is it really necessary for everyone to experience identical content? For example, a quest chain might have four different final encounters, but identical rewards. That solution would require some coordination between players, since it might be weird if two players are on the same step of the chain but have different objectives. If done right, it could give the players the illusion that their actions have changed the world.

2. You are what you wear, i.e., character roles.

A lot of systems have very well defined character roles in accordance with the MMO trinity: tank, heal, DPS. A lot of classes end up shoe horned into a particular role. In addition, the set of gear and skill requirements for PVP and PVE can be quite different. I think it would be more interesting if classes had the ability to adapt to different roles in different situations. Perhaps it could be a mix of gear and/or skills that allow them to easily switch between two different roles. I think its perfectly acceptable that a character geared/skilled for a particular role should be superior to a character that is set up to be a hybrid. That's the "cost" of flexibility. The key is to have the value of flexibility offset its cost.

How would I like to see this implemented? First, I would make it very easy for players to switch roles. Perhaps a change of gear would work in a pinch, but you should be able to easily re-spec for a particular adventure. Second, I would give classes interesting abilities that can be used in different ways. For example, a magic using class might have a spell that transforms them into a fighter (similar to Mordenkainen's Transformation for old school AD&D types). They would be limited in what magic they could use, if any, but they would have "magical" armor to compensate, turning them into a poor man's tank. They probably won't be able to tank a high end raid boss, but they should be able to handle a lower level instance with some play adjustments. The system should reward the players for adapting to situations.

Thinking about it a bit more, it might be possible to get rid of the trinity altogether. I played D&D for years before I knew what the trinity even was. You might be able to design a system that rewards a balanced party as opposed to the formulaic one. Who knows...

3. Remove the "Hamster Wheel".

This is my biggest pet peeve of all. I can't stand the fact that you have to run the same dungeons over and over again to get everyone all of the items that they need. World of Warcraft has taken this to a new level, so pretty much everything requires some form of hamster wheel. In addition to the gear grind, it has money and reputation grinds. As a business model, its fantastic, since it keeps that subscription money coming. For players, however, it can be very tiring.

I do understand the desire for progression, where you have to complete dungeon A before you have a chance to complete dungeon B, and so on. Players also want to feel that their characters are continuously improving. I think the key is to provide enough end game content to a) keep people busy and b) feel like they are accomplishing something. Perhaps some variation of world building, or maybe politics, or some sort of epic adventures would provide for an interesting end game.

Anyways, these are three areas that I think can be improved in MMOs. They are not easy problems, but I do think that you can create a successful game if you can solve them.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Field of Glory: First Impressions

I finally had a chance to read through the Field of Glory rules. At first glance, they look pretty cool, although i'll have to play them to make a final judgement.

Every troop type has five different characteristics: quality (poor to elite), training (drilled or undrilled), type (heavy infantry, knights, light horse, etc.), armor (unprotected to heavily armored), and weapons (swordsman, bows, spears, etc.). In addition, certain troops are designated as skirmishers while others are termed shock. The different characteristics help define the capabilities of the various troop types. Troops are organized into units, which contain anywhere from 4 to 8 stands. Players can organize the units into battle lines by combining battle groups.

The game is played in alternating player turns. Each turn has five phases: impact, maneuver, shooting, melee, and joint action. In the impact phase, the active player makes all charge declarations and the inactive player responds to each of them. After the units have charged, there is a special round of combat. In the maneuver phase, the active player moves his battle groups across the map. Some maneuvers are more difficult and require a successful die roll to perform while simple moves are automatic. Eligible units can fire in the shooting phase, and close combat occurs in the melee phase. In the joint action phase, both players move commanders, move routing troops and their pursuers, and attempt to rally units.

Combat is performed in a similar manner in all three phases. Each side totals the number of stands in contact or shooting, which determines the number of dice they will get to roll. To determine the score necessary for success, the system uses an interesting mechanism called "Points of Advantage" (or "POA" for short). The POA define matchups that provide an advantage for one side or the other. For example, Longbow vs Knights is a POA for the Longbows, Impact Foot gets a POA during the Impact Phase, and so on. As you can see from the examples, the POAs vary between the three types of combat (shooting, impact, and melee). This allows the system to model interesting differences between troop types. Gauls are Impact Foot, so they have an advantage when they charge, but Romans are Skilled Swordsman, and will gain an advantage if the combat drags out. On paper, it is quite elegant.

That's the game in a nutshell. I have glossed over a few details but have described the major features. The rules are fairly clear and contain illustrations that help clarify each concept. I'm really looking forward to trying them out.