Monday, September 26, 2016

9,999 hp

Games that do "big numbers" have really fallen on hard times. You know, the games where numbers are big, low level creatures have no chance of hitting higher-level characters, and hit points rise into the thousands.
D&D 4 was the last game that went big on numbers, adopting a hit point scale about five times old D&D and a to-hit system that all but made hitting something four levels higher than you futile. D&D 5 went back down to a double hit point scale factor and adopted "bounded accuracy" which is really saying "we made sure the to-hits didn't get too out of whack this time." Even D&D 3 and Pathfinder, while keeping the old D&D 1X hit point range (where an orc can have 4hp), puts a premium on to-hits, and AC is king. If they can't hit you, they can't damage you.
D&D 5 shifted defenses to hit-points and evened the AC and to-hit game to a flatter system where everyone can hit you - so hit points primarily determines defense. Pathfinder keeps the original game's lower hit point range but keeps the steeper AC and to-hit game - so AC primarily determines defense. Note this is in a broader sense of "primarily" as the greatest contributing factor of defense. In D&D 5 you are taking damage frequently (your AC works less and your hit points more); where in Pathfinder if you get hit it matters more (you have half the hit points but your AC works harder). Lots of things play into offense and defense, but in a general sense this is how I feel things work in both games as a design goal. This is not to say one is better - this is how things work under the hood of the car, since they both get you down the road.
A lot of today's games live on a flatter power curve, and Pathfinder and D&D 4 are the last two holdouts of the "big numbers" generation of gaming. In both these games the difference between low level power and high level is great, and if you are a low level scrub forget about taking on a high-level foe. In D&D 5, you can get away with being a low level PC versus a foe 4-6 levels higher than you, it is not easy, but it is very possible. D&D 5 shares a lot of power curve similarities to games like Savage Worlds, where the play is all tightly contained within one power envelope.
One of the original "big number" games from the 1970's was Tunnels and Trolls. This is a really harsh "I roll a 10d6+14 total against your 8d6+16 total" type of game, and the difference between the attack totals is the damage the loser takes. It is simple stuff and works well. At low levels it is a fun and tight battle, but at high levels, watch out, you are this freakish Conan type who can slay everything just by shining your sword's reflection onto enemies. T&T to me feels the most like Japanese console RPGs, where a level 12 hero can laugh off level 1 critters with ease, and only the most epic of high-level bad guys are a threat.
It is odd because Tunnels and Trolls is not anime at all and feels so retro and old-school, but it hits the higher-level "godlike" feeling of Japanese console RPGs so well. What is strange about the game is how it embraces that god-like power level and doesn't apologize for it or attempt to balance it out in any way. It is almost strangely refreshing in a way, and it puts the difference between the low level and high level into an abundantly clear focus. In a way it is like a superhero game, but not really since simulating balance between heroes and parity is not an issue. This is a game about raw power and what you lay that hurt down upon, and how things bigger than you can crush you under an even more massive force.

But this power level difference describes console RPGs so well. Walk into the next patch of woods and meet some palette-shifted "forest trolls" that smash your face in just by sneezing on you? No problem, just grind some levels, upgrade your weapons, buy some spells, and get powerful enough that a flick of your pinkie will send them packing. Go into the next area and get your face smashed in again by a red-shifted zombie. T&T can get wildly out of balance, but the overall experience (and yes, even the imbalance of it all at times) is fun.

A lot of game-oriented games try for play-balance. Simulation games try to simulate reality (and make every action hard). Some out there do not care about one-on-one combat balance, and try to emulate a heroic and wildly dangerous experience.

But understanding power level helps you pick the games you like to play, so it is worth talking about. Some people like flatter games, where things feel more realistic and the difference between a dragon and the common man isn't that great. Some people like that dragon to be an epic and powerful force and able to crush the average peasant mercilessly. What happens next is players forge heroes who are more powerful than that dragon by a hundred times. And then face the next terrible force which is unleashed upon the world, and the heroes rise again. Some like it somewhere in the middle.

Monday, September 19, 2016

No Clerics? No Problem?

What do the above two games have in common?

No divine magical power sources or cleric classes. They keep to a holy-less trinity of fighter-rogue-mage where the only source of otherworldly power is the mage. No clerics, no gods, no paladins, no praying for power, and no second column of magical power exists in these worlds - it is just the mage.

The duality of mage vs. cleric seems like a staple in fantasy, right? Well, Tolkien's well-known world of Middle Earth just had wizards as the "magic users" as well, and the beings that could be considered "gods" weren't your typical D&D high-fantasy style gods who gave everyone who prayed to them cure light wounds. The holy-less trinity defines these stories as well, as magic was practiced by mages.

And speaking of no-clerics, then there is Game of Thrones as well...

D&D has always had this injection of spiritualism, even in the original 1974 edition of the game had fighter, mage, and cleric as the trinity classes (thieves/rogues being added later in the first Greyhawk supplement). MMOs are rife with divine power sources, like World of Warcraft and other games. There is always this "occult versus the divine" conflict going on in the more D&D style of fantasy, feeling like Westernized religious values being placed on top of Tolkien-style fantasy to create a conflict of power sources.

And D&D's history with divine beings has been notoriously messy, at least in our experience. The old Deities and Demigods book made gods monsters out of the Monster Manual. They were superheroes and super-characters in D&D 3.5, and finally MMO horrendously under-powered end-game raid bosses in D&D 4. Thankfully Pathfinder and D&D 5 (and games like Basic Fantasy or Labyrinth Lord) leave the monster stat blocks for gods at home and makes the gods stat-less beings, making them something like "Q" in the old Star Trek: The Next Generation lore - there to affect outcomes and make snarky remarks, but as monsters or characters on the tabletop? No way, and no thank you.

Seriously, the injection of "gods as monsters" thing has messed up so many of our campaigns that it leaves a bad taste in our mouths when we play these versions of the game. Whenever the "gods got involved" in our past games the players rolled their eyes, wondered when it was going to end, and wished for the times of searching a dresser drawer full of silver pieces and a giant spider guarding the horde. When a game goes "big divine" it becomes "all about the gods" and the focus shifts away from the heroes and onto a divine soap opera worthy of Greek tragedy. For us, at least, and we prefer the heroes to be the focus of the game, and leave the divine super-characters to the background.

If the Forgotten Realms had that supposed problem of high-level NPCs "messing up" adventures, in our experience and our games it was "super-character gods." Give us a high-level NPC any day, because at least those can be ignored, walked away from, or made enemies of and smacked upside the head every once and a while to keep them in line. Making Elminster a recurring enemy to insult and mess with is fun, while having various gods show up again to stop the party in the real world is not.

But removing the cleric and divine power source entirely? It feels like heresy in high fantasy RPGs nowadays, but there is a simplicity and elegance in the world structure once you remove the "power for worship" access to magic. Power is not gained through faith, but in the three historical forces of humankind: might, deception, or knowledge. Removing faith from that mix creates a darker world, where access to magic is controlled by the mage, and there is no "faith versus knowledge" conflict.

"Faith versus knowledge" can also be summarized as "religion versus science" and you can see why this conflict feels natural to us, but in high fantasy this conflict is typically hand-waved off because we need the magic user to be able to adventure with the cleric and the band of merry men. In many high fantasy game worlds and MMOs you will see the "holy church of X" sitting right beside the "mage college of Y" and no problems whatsoever between them. Does it bother the church that those faithless mages have power equal to their followers? Does the mage college feel threatened by the mass of worshipers who only need to pray for power and not need knowledge?

You take that conflict out and the world feels a little strange, but then again we can't have the cleric and the mage fighting in the dungeon because it would slow up play and start real-world fights when the mage doesn't get a heal, right? Ah, dungeon crawling and the sacrifices we make for party-based play.

Take out clerics and divine power sources, and the problem is removed. Hand-wave the divine-arcane conflict off and it is gone as well, but something feels interesting when mages are the only ones who hold the keys to power. It does feel more Tolkien, and magic feels more arcane and special.

What is the lesson here? I guess it is "know your game" and understand the basic assumptions a game makes changes the world. Don't always be so beholden to the typical tropes of high-fantasy and MMO gaming, and games where divine magic is removed create interesting world models of power and how people acquire the same. What you play is your preference, but be open to games which may take you out of your comfort zone and experience "the power of magic" in a new light.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Throw More People at It!

Pen-and-paper games have breaking points, and these usually involve the "throw more people at it" strategy. A lot of games are very sensitive to the amount of people in an "adventuring party." We found when dungeon-ing, five people is a good practical limit and it gives everyone a chance to shine. We have run eight-person groups, and it feels inevitable that a queue starts forming behind the front rank members, as in most dungeons eight is a lot of people to run a game for, and more importantly - balance.

Area-of-effect attacks multiply party strength, and going from five to eight party members typically allows one or two extra AoE attacks on the board during a battle per turn. In strategy-type games this is a huge deal, at least in our experience, as those extra, well-placed area attacks can cause havoc with even an enemy force that is scaled to equal the party's ability to fight.

Let's say you design an encounter for five adventurers, two orc tanks, a controller, and two ranged attackers. Five-on-five seems pretty balanced. When you go to eight, you may throw in an extra tank and two more ranged DPS to bring this up to an eight-on-eight.

Well, this is where the problem lies. When you start to scale up encounters, you get into the problem of "more is better" and you get these strange "force multiplier" issues when you keep adding more of the same type of enemy.

Tanking in Confined Spaces

Tanks tend to lose power in large groups, because in many tactical dungeon battles, space is limited. When you scale up a dungeon designed for five players to ten players, you often don't think about increasing the size of rooms and halls, and you get these theme-park style lines of people waiting to fight while the actual space for the "front lines" is typically a 10-wide hallway with room enough for two fighters, side-by-side. Even though both the party and the orcs can field three or four tanks each, the dungeon often does not have the space to let everyone fight one-on-one.

So some of the tanks sit there unused, and their power is reduced. This does happen to ranged units as well, since line-of-sight is often blocked by other characters and simply being forced to the back of the group.

Limited Space? AoE Rules the Battle

One of the rules of wart is if your enemy has limited room to maneuver, hit them with artillery. If you scale up a dungeon encounter and don't scale up the terrain, you are naturally forcing more combatants into a smaller space, and multiplying the effect of area-of-effect spells, powers, and attacks. A sleep spell that would have hit two or three in the original encounter is now hitting six. A swipe feat that would have only come into play once or twice during the battle is now used almost every turn as monsters jam the front lines to get an attack in.

Area-of-effect attackers love scaled encounters, and you typically see their effectiveness go through the roof. Single target attackers either have to mass attacks or focus on picking off stragglers, and therefore see their contributions reduced. Single-target controllers of de-buff experts suffer the worst, since in a smaller encounter putting a -2 to-hit on the other side's tank or ranged attacker would have been a huge deal, but now that -2 is just one in a crowd, and that damage that would have been severely affected by a de-buff is still getting through with other attackers.

When you scale an encounter you are giving AoE powers a huge buff.

Ranged Attackers

With four ranged attackers, the orcs can single out and really put the hurt on one of the party members. With two ranged attackers, everyone is taking some damage, and things feel balanced. With four, you are taking out one party member a turn (and it feels unfair). If your ranged attackers can all see one target and attack, you typically "alpha attack" one target at a time with your ranged assets instead of spreading damage. This works on both sides, and ranged power is affected by the terrain.

In open terrain such as large caverns, outdoor maps, and huge chambers; increasing the amount of ranged attackers increases your combat power greatly - even more so than on a one-to-one ratio. You double one side's archers and all let them attack during a turn? You can bet they will coordinate and fire at one target, and this really is the thing to do. Those squishy mages in the back ranks better watch out.

In closed terrain the ranged attackers lose a lot of their effectiveness, such as a 10' wide hall that only allows two tanks to fight side-by-side. Your archers will be sitting in the back of the line taking a smoke break and browsing on their smartphones.

The same goes with monsters, if you are scaling up an encounter in a small room don't go for ranged attackers. You are better off making the individual monsters tougher by a couple levels and leaving them the same number.

The Problem With Tougher

There is a problem with making monsters tougher and leaving their numbers the same. Let's say you decide with your encounter to leave their numbers the same, but double up their strength. You are going to be creating a meat-grinder situation where in close quarters the tanks of the party will take a lot of damage and the encounter will be tougher than it should have been. In open-field battle it may work a little better, because you are letting everyone contribute, but the number of attacks on each side may push the battle in favor of the larger side. The terrain starts to matter a lot when you "toughen up" an encounter instead of scale, because the number of attacks matters, and not forcing one or two players to take the brunt of everything also matters.

The Problem With More

Some games just do not scale well. If a party size doubles from four to eight, you would think that encounter size or CR should be doubled, right? We have run into this many times and felt some game's balancing systems started to fall apart when larger groups were thrown at the system. What about a party size of twenty or thirty? We have played games this large, and while the system theoretically 'works' there is a point where the game starts to break down. The multiplicative power of twenty individual players making decisions far outweighs the game's balancing systems (or even a GM making one-to-one fights) because of a number of design factors unique to each game and the power set.

It's like a superhero game, and you go from a nicely-balanced group of four or five Justice League or Avengers caliber player characters and you double that to eight or ten - a situation that is not that uncommon in comic books and comic book lore, as big fights are popular. You will notice two trends, some characters will become very weak and inconsequential, while others will massively over-contribute. The ones that over-contribute will fight at two or three times their strength because of the over abundance of healing, protective powers, buffs, and coordination from the rest of the group. These over-performers will either be tanks, direct damage, or AoE experts, or a combination of these types.

In a more balanced game with less players, you have more equal contributions and players being forced to fill roles they may not be 100% proficient at, just because someone need to cover this hall or hold the sudden attack off. The AoE, DD, or tank may not get a chance to do what they do best, because there is no one else to capture an objective or perform a story-goal, so they have to step in. With less players, everyone has to share responsibilities in the group, and you have less of the "single purpose" over-performing characters purely focused on pouring out one attack type every turn for maximum damage.

Special Units

It isn't hopeless. If you know the game well enough, special units may make the difference and allow you to balance a larger party without resorting to scaling or toughening up. Let's say the goblins have a pet fire beetle that can spit fire and take a lot of damage. That instantly become a tough nut to crack, and it has some interesting fight dynamics and utility for the goblins. Adding the beetle does "toughen up" the goblin side by one unit, but you aren't doubling up or raising their level to make up for the difference. You may need to add another special unit in there if there are more, but be careful that you aren't just increasing numbers to match.

Special Tactics and Gear

Or, give the goblins a falling rock trap they can trigger when several of the party members are underneath a part of the chamber, flaming arrows, heavy armor, or other combat enhancements in order to compensate for the larger party. Let one stay hidden up near the roof in a small cave with a crossbow, or add a small force that rushes in from a secret trapdoor or "spider hole" in the floor when the party fights their way past it. If you make one side fight smarter, that can add challenge without scaling or toughening up, and it also makes the fight more memorable.

Or Just Say No to Scaling or Splitting

Or just focus on smaller groups where the game was naturally designed to play. There is a point where every game breaks and you have added too many players. More isn't always more fun, imagine a Monopoly game with fifty players. Everybody would be waiting for their turn to come up, and the board would be crowded so badly that only the small group of "first movers" would do well. You will find this pattern in tabletop RPGs as well ,and even in non-tactical story type games, the "first movers" and the most vocal of the group will have the most fun, and determine the direction of the game.

If you break them into groups, you can get some of that original balance back (but not in resource management games, two parties will not be challenged if the adventure was designed around the resource management of one party) - but you are also telling half of the players to wait while the other half has fun. You see this in "story games" where the group of investigators creaks apart to investigate a mystery - the more active and forceful personalities will dominate the play time if the party splits apart.

"Pilot player, sit in the starship, guard it, and be ready to go! We are going to go out and take all the session time in the starport now getting into all sorts of fun and interesting trouble."

It is something you have to think of when planning games, and also use creativity to resolve. You don't want to tell someone who wants to join your group "no" and have them sit out, but you also don't want too many people to join where the game is too easy, too slow, or you end up scaling things up that the game breaks and the adventure falls apart. There is that point where the game breaks, and you need to be conscious of that point - especially when it comes to party size, the type of game you are playing, and adventure design.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Pathfinder: SORD PF

This is an oldie, but a goodie. If you find yourself missing the good-old (or even not so good old by some people's opinions) days of Pathfinder, this PDF is a life saver. If you play by the basic book and even use Trapdoor's Playbook on the iPad to run a basic-book only game, this is the PDF to get.

Imagine a PDF that eliminates the need to flip through the book to reference rules. This PDF was created to help you play the game more accurately, faster, and with a deeper depth of complexity than you are normally used to. The goal was to save at least 15 minutes per encounter, and having used this in play, I can attest it is a huge time-saver and it clears up not only how something should be handled, but sets forth easily-followed procedures to handle complex rules.

Pathfinder's strength is its complexity, so any product that helps you cut through that complexity and lets you enjoy it more helps you enjoy more of the game.

So what is this? It is a 40-page booklet of charts and rules summaries for Pathfinder, covering combat, actions, maneuvers, movement, modifiers, spells, and skills. It is useful for both players knowing what they can do and referees figuring out how to handle things. If you are a new player, it clears up how the fiddly parts of the rules work and how your character's stats are used by the game. If you are a referee, this is your cheat-sheet of notes and helps you run the game 'by the book' across a wide variety of situations.

This Means I Provoked an AoO!

Part of why our group doesn't like the Pathfinder or D&D 3.5 combat systems (for most light gaming sessions) are the fiddly Attack of Opportunity systems in these games, but this PDF makes that easy, and in fact explains AoO so well it becomes clear when it should be used. To be fair, AoO is one of those 'simulationist' sort of combat systems that you can't really remove from Pathfinder because so much of the game's intricacies are wrapped up in triggering, not triggering, buying feats to enhance, and giving melee characters rules to pay attention to (and exploit for effectiveness).

If you are complaining about magic being too powerful in Pathfinder, you are probably ignoring some of the melee combat rules meant to throw some sand in the gears of spell-casting in combat. You threaten any square you can make a melee attack into - even when it is not your action. Using a spell-like ability? Provokes an AoO. Casting a spell? Provokes an AoO unless defensively casting. Quickened spell casing does not provoke an AoO, nor does channel energy. And this PDF summarizes them all.

See? You start applying the rules and spell casting in melee gets a lot more complicated. Your magic-wielding character needs to play by the rules, take a couple hits, and make those concentration checks to keep casting. The rules exist here for a reason, and this lower-level combat sim is one of the huge differences between Pathfinder and D&D 5. You can build a character to take advantage of the low-level combat sim in Pathfinder, and if you enjoy that rules complexity, you should be playing Pathfinder. If you find yourself ignoring the low-level combat sim rules in Pathfinder because of a need for simplicity, you should be playing D&D 5. It is not a question of which game is better, it is a question of what type of game you enjoy better.

I Did Not Know You Could Do That...

The skill reference sheets are invaluable. Did you know a bard with Intimidate and Comedy Performance skills could demoralize all enemies within earshot for 1 round plus 1 more for every 5 points they beat the target DC - just by telling a joke? By the way the shaken condition gives the enemy a -2 to attack rolls, weapon damage rolls, saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks.

"You guys suck so bad you can't even swing a sword half straight."

And bam, the other side sucks at what they do to the tune of a -2 for everything they do just because you walk around making quips like Steve Buscemi. Oh, and that comedy-combo applies to Bluff checks as well, so have fun. You don't need a spell that does this, GM Fiat, or any other special rules - the game handles it. These charts make it easy to come up with fun uses of skills like this for all types of interesting uses, and lays things out in a simple way so when a referee or other player stares at you slack-jawed in disbelief "you can do this" you can show them.

They will inevitably open the book and check, but you will still be right.

And you will be right without having to look in the book.

The Warhammer Method and Appeal

We have played in a lot of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K games at hobby shops, and there is a certain population of players who like to be "good at the rules." If you know your stuff, you can lay your army down, play fast, use the rules to your advantage, and sail through many battles with ease. When you meet another player who can play as well as you, it becomes the battle of two chess masters and an epic confrontation.

But to get to this point - you have to know the rules. You have to be able to recite them from memory, or have a quick reference chart handy that can lay out the rules in an easy-to-understand format and be accessible quickly. Moreover, you have to be right and correct in the application of the rules to an event or situation that happens at the game table.

You seek out players with a high system mastery to play with because this gives you a greater enjoyment of the game. It is the same with Warhammer as it is with Pathfinder. The SORD PF charts can help you get to this high level of play. If you enjoy that 'rules heavy' play, that is, and some people prefer a more simple experience, such as a Savage Worlds or even a D&D 5 style game.

Also, there is a certain magic when you play with a referee with a high system mastery of the game, when the referee can rifle through a list of modifiers and ways to handle something without having to flip through the book. You get a more complete enjoyment of the game, you start to see why the rules were written the way they were, and all of a sudden the way you built your character matters. Or the way you didn't build him or her matters, given the types of things you want to do. This matters in an option-heavy system like Pathfinder, and a great referee will sit down with you and explain why the choices you made on your now dead (and thoroughly sucky) first character were the wrong ones (given the way you wanted to play), and explain to you how you should build your new character the next time to make them work better within the rules.

In a game that protects you from bad choices, none of this matters. I don't usually like games where there are 'bad choices' built in, but the way D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder were designed these bad parts are essential because games with system mastery need both optimal and less optimal paths. To be fair, a lot of the choices in Pathfinder (and even the bad ones) are useful in some situations, but when you are trying to build a specific character, 80-90% of the choices you are presented with are bad choices. You need to know how the system works to build the character you want to play, and the system does not protect you from making bad choices.

We Always Play With This...Always

If we are playing Pathfinder, you can bet a copy of SORD PF is sitting right by my side. DarkgarX also has his copy open and ready near him (as a player) should he want to reference a rule or attempt something which could force a check of the rules. It just makes playing easier, keeps us from flipping through the book, and it saves us time during play - which is exactly what this PDF was advertised to do. Granted, this PDF only covers the basic rules, so if you are a "complete system" multi-book player there may be some holes - but 90% of this information is still highly useful and the other books you play with should just be exceptions rather than the rule.

With the newer Pocket Editions of Pathfinder coming out (and the basic book only Playbook experience), there are more players just sticking to the basics - and that experience is still a great and fun game. For these players, this PDF is the resource to get and stick by, since it saves you time and increases your enjoyment of the game. It is also a 'cheat sheet' towards system mastery, and that is always a noble goal. Being a great player or referee who 'knows their stuff' makes you a more desirable player for groups and play experiences.

Check it out, highly recommended.