Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Making Characters, All the Way Up
One of the things I did at Wizards back in the day was create and then maintain what we called the "Pre-Fab Four:" Mialee the wizard, Jozan the cleric, Tordek the fighter, and Lidda the rogue. Each one lived in its own Excel spreadsheet, with one tab for each level. Whenever we needed a party for a playtest (or just for benchmarking), we'd print out the relevant level. It wasn't the prettiest character sheet, and it wasn't the smartest spreadsheet (though it did do basic calculations for you). It worked, though—we used the Pre-Fab Four year after year.
For 3.0 we actually had all of the "iconics"—Krusk, Vadania, etc.—statted up 1-20. I did first drafts on about half of those and second drafts on nearly of all 'em. Whew!
And along the way we killed a lot of trees. The spreadsheets had a bug we never could squash where the "Number of Copies" field always had an arbitrarily large number…19,000 or so. You had to remember to fix that each time you printed, or the printer would merrily empty itself of paper creating a huge stack of Liddas for you.
Anyway, this was before DDI and before the character builder. So making those PCs one at a time was a handcrafted effort. My mandate was to make straightforward but not suboptimal choices. Tordek, for example, was a sword-and-board (OK, sword and axe) fighter rather than some sort of spiked-chain wunderkind. I wanted any intermediate-level D&D player to be able to sit down and play a Pre-Fab Four character right away.
Make characters from level 1 to level 20 four times in a row—gear and all—and you get good at it, eventually. (Or at least you get more efficient.) But it still took hours…maybe a day for the nonspellcasters and more than that for Mialee and Jozan. Nowadays DDI and a less gear-centric game would make it a lot faster…except that there are 30 levels now.
Handcrafting the Pre-Fab Four made me a lot more aware of what each class was capable of, which items, feats, and spells were key…all sorts of stuff. And I'm pretty sure that a similar effort in 4e would make anyone a better D&D player.
Do It Yourself
So here's one way to get better at D&D: Take your favorite character class and build it one level at a time, gear and all, until you hit 30th level. Trust me: You will become an utter brainiac about your class.
Alternatively, pick a specific level—5th and 11th are solid choices—and make characters at that level for lots of classes. Try making a 5th-level character for the class of every other player at your table. You'll be amazed at how much you learn about your buddies' PCs. You will become Mr. Teamwork at your table.
I'd suggest that rather than going for esoteric builds, you stick with "straightforward and solid choices." Remember, you're doing this to learn, not to "win" at D&D with your extreme power-munchkin-sauce.
Don't stress out too much about the choices you make. That's not the point. The point is to put yourself in assessment mode—to feel the "this power or that power?" question at each level. If you do that, you learn about both the options you chose and the options you didn't choose.
And look at it this way: Your choices will certainly be better than the DDI Character Creator's Auto-Pick function! (Seriously, they should just turn that function off. No guidance is better than horrible, misleading guidance.)
Out of Context: Don't you dare call me toffee-nosed!
Music: Black Crowes, Amorica
Monday, December 21, 2009
Monday, November 23, 2009
Friday, November 20, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Almost all of this can be done on a trial account. And if an MMO hasn't hooked you by the end of the free trial, it doesn't deserve you, your time, or your money.
Take Time on Your Portrait and Name
You'll be staring at it as long you're playing EVE--and there's no way to change it. So get something you want to look at. One other thing to consider: Much of the time, you'll be looking at a small, icon-size version of your portrait. Make sure the three main elements (your head, your shoulders, and the background) aren't equally light or equally dark. Shoot for light/medium/dark, split up however you like.
Likewise, you're stuck with your name. So make sure it's cool.
(Note from the future: As I was typing this, Tycho from Penny Arcade was thinking in parallel. Check it, yo.)
Play Through the Tutorial
The "Crash Course" tutorial is pretty good. It takes a couple hours, depending on how much you explore the interface. When you're done, you should have some cash, a ship--and most importantly, you'll have a decent idea of whether EVE is for you. If you're intrigued, keep going. But if that wasn't interesting, move on to some other game.
Play Through the "Career Advancement" Missions
You'll get three dudes who each have an eight-part quest line. Play all three, all the way through. The order doesn't matter, probably--although I did the soldier one first and got a combat-worthy frigate that I used in the mining and trading mission strings. You'll get several ships and some new skill books with these missions. And more importantly, you'll get a taste of the different roles you can play in EVE.
Buy Skill Books
At this point, the gravy train of free stuff is largely over. Visit the market and buy whatever skill books you want/need. The certificates screen is a useful guide. Certificates don't do anything in and of themselves. It's a useful way to describe "skills you'll need if you want to fly that badass cruiser," though.
Learn to Learn
Your first priority should be to acquire skills that enable game activities. For example, if you want to outfit that new Tristan with a scout drone, go ahead and get the Drones skill and spend the minutes required to get level 1 in it. But early in the game, you don't need higher levels of the skills. The NPC ships you face early on...well, they aren't exactly ninjas.
Instead, train the Learning skill and the five Attribute-specific training skills (Iron Will, Eidetic Memory, and so on) up as high as you can, as soon as you can. Why? They reduce your training time for every subsequent skill you learn...including themselves!
When you visit the market, you'll also see five other Attribute-specific learning skills that are crazy expensive (from your vantage point as a noob, anyway). Those stack with the basic five learning skills, and you'll max those out when those prices aren't quite so daunting.
Don't Fly Anything You Can't Lose
Yes, get insurance, and yes, you should watch your accumulated skill points so you know when to upgrade your clone. But don't rely on clones and insurance payouts to get you back on your feet. Your hull may be insured, but you'll lose all those fittings and whatever's in your hold if somebody blows you up. And if they destroy your escape pod, your clone will wake up just fine, but you won't have any cyberware you bought. ('Cause it's a clone, see?)
My initial thought is to keep three-quarters of my wealth in my wallet and fly around with the remaining quarter. But that's just a rule of thumb to guide my newbie explorations. Once I'm established, a better metric would be something like, "Fly around in something that takes no more than x hours of foo to replace." I'm not sure what my tolerance for x is. And "foo" is an activity: mining, courier missions, Traveller-style trading, missions, "ratting" (beating up NPC pirates and taking their stuff), or whatever my chosen "pleasant and reasonably lucrative grind activity" is. Speaking of which...
Find a "Pleasant and Lucrative" Grind Activity
This task is where I am in the game right now. I'm spending an evening or two doing each of the following, keeping track of how much ISK I make. It's not the most scientific undertaking, and the "answer" doesn't have to hold for more than the medium term. It's as much an exploration of different roles as it is an exercise in finding economic efficiency.
* Mining, probably in a 0.6 or 0.5 system. I have neither the firepower nor the friends to go for the really lucrative stuff. But I'm a noob, so that's just fine.
* Missions. Telling my starmap to show me systems with available agents was a revelation. Lots to do there.
* Ratting. Gotta spend a little on salvage sensors, etc., but this might be right up my alley as a grinding activity.
* Trading. Again, I have neither the capacity nor the knowledge to make a killing on the market. But me and my freighter can probably make a "bruising."
* Contracts. The courier stuff is what I'm thinking here. You can't do this stuff on a trial account. This is a "can you read the contract and adequately assess the risk?" as much as anything else.
Out of Context: "Why do I have to be the salt shaker?"
Music: Jeff Buckley, Grace
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
As I said last month, I'm intrigued by Eclipse Phase for two reasons. First, the game itself is simultaneously cyberpunk, postapocalyptic, and hard SF. But those elements don't seem stapled together. The backstory makes them cohere rather nicely. Second, the reusable body as an answer to the death question...that's fantastic.
There a few quibbles I struggle with, of course. Reasonable game designers differ on whether it's better to start a core rulebook with character generation and only a veneer of world detail, or really spread the world out in front of the reader, then get on with character generation after the game has established its context. I'm militantly in the former column, and the fact that I don't get even a whiff of the actual game until page 114 and no character creation until page 130...well, insert exasperated fist-shaking here.
Second, I have a problem taking uplifted animals seriously--and that says more about me than it does about the concept. I loved Startide Rising, to be sure, but I can't help but consider chimps and dolphins as comedy delivery devices, not menaces. Like I said, it's a problem that exists within the nest of vipers that is my head.
Out of Context: The life of this clean desk is perpetuated in righteousness.
Music: Pearl Jam, Backspacer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
I downshifted my World of Warcraft and Aion play this fall so I could survey a bunch of different MMOs--partly out of professional curiosity and partly because I'm ever hopeful of a transcendant game experience. (Yeah, yeah, every junkie's like a setting sun; I get it.)
I played some nifty games. In general, MMOs have their collective act together. But the one I'm continuing to play this fall is EVE Online. And frankly, no one's more surprised than me.
My expectations were low. I'd heard about how hardcore it was--how unforgiving. I've long had a fascination with the EVE community; it's great to observe as a spectator. And the game itself is an outlier by almost every measure. The game design, the UI, and even its player population curve all confound the MMO norm. So EVE is an interesting case study, and it's fun to read about all the warfare, espionage, and skullduggery. But is the game any good?
My answer is an emphatic yes! (But keep in mind I've been playing only a few weeks.)
Here are two key things that surprised me about EVE.
Hardcore, My Asteroid
Everyone says this about EVE--fans and critics alike. The EVE community wears EVE's "hardcore" nature like a badge of honor. But it's not hardcore in the sense that it's hard to learn or complex to play. In particular, if you're comfortable theorycrafting as an endgame raider in WoW or being a dungeonmaster in D&D (any edition), you're going to find EVE...well, not easy, but you'll be totally comfortable with its complexity. Really, if games are your chosen hobby, there's nothing in EVE that's crazy complicated. In some respects, it's easier. The game is less timing- and twitch-oriented than WoW or Aion (to pick two examples), and I'm basically a spaz, so that's good.
The other way people describe EVE as hardcore is that there are big swaths of the galaxy that are full-on PvP zones, and there's no expectation of fair play. Go there, and you'll get squashed like a bug. But really, it's not that bad. New players have tons to do in equally big "higher-security" swaths of the galaxy. If you follow one simple rule--don't fly around in a ship you can't afford to lose--you'll be just fine.
It's Terrific for Deep-Immersion Roleplay
(This space left blank for the obligatory "Wait, what?")
In EVE, your "character" is a head-and-shoulders shot on a viewscreen, and so is everyone else. You never walk around your ship or the space stations you visit, much less the moons and planets. When you interact with others (PCs or NPCs), you see them on a viewscreen or read an email from them (or maybe you'll voice-chat if it's another PC). You don't even have a crew on your ship, NPC or otherwise. Eighty percent of the time, you're looking at your ship flying in space, and the other 20% of the time you're looking at your ship floating in a hangar (or at least it's in the background while you work the stock market and get business done).
With your character at arm's length from you, how can this be a good roleplay environment?
I think the answer lies in EVE's interface, and in particular how it meshes with its genre.
When I'm playing EVE, I'm looking at a close exterior view of my ship. I have a window that shows my sensor array and lists what ships, asteroids, etc. are nearby. I have another window for communications, and a HUD near the bottom that shows the status of ship systems like weapons, shields, and thrusters. The game will superimpose friend-or-foe data on anything I can see on my viewscreen. And I have delightful contextual menus for things like "autopilot," "approach," "dock," and what have you. I'm not hitting a thruster button and doing manual roll/pitch/yaw for my ship. The computer does all that for me.
In other words, Dave-the-player's UI for his computer is almost exactly what Dave-the-character's UI for his ship would be. Play EVE in a dark room, and you're experiencing the game world almost exactly as your character is. And that's a recipe for immersion.
Contrast that with WoW, where I see things my character doesn't, like the minimap in the corner of my vision, the health bars of my adversaries, and their names and guild affiliations floating over their heads. With EVE, it's a freakin' computer, so of course you'd expect it to supply navigational data, battle damage reports, and ship IDs on mouseover. Your expectation is different because it's a hard SF game with a hard SF mindset.
So Are You Hooked, Noonan?
Not yet, but color me intrigued. I remember telling people all the time, "The thing about WoW is that the game changes at 60." (Now it changes at 80, I know.)
EVE will undoubtedly have those horizons, too--lines that change the game once you cross them. I have no earthly idea whether I'll like the game I find beyond those horizons. I still can't fathom that one PC game (WoW) fascinated me for four years, and I certainly don't expect other games to pull that off. But I can tell you this--the noob experience for EVE is a lot friendlier than I'd heard. And you can really immerse yourself in the mindset of a capsuleer.
Out of Context: "We need to tell her she's a particle."
Music: Fitz and the Tantrums, Songs for a Break Up, Vol. 1
Monday, October 12, 2009
I don't play D&D for a living anymore, but I still play D&D. And my half-orc rogue was recently petrified, so it was time to make up a new character. (We still have a rogue in the party, so I didn't lobby too hard for a "rescue the statue" effort.)
We didn't have a controller of any stripe, and I wanted to roleplay a sophisticate, so wizard was perfect. The party had been dealing with the githyanki all along, so my githyanki orb-of-imposition wizard was born.
I stacked all the save penalties I could find--and there are quite a few. Right now I can impose a -10 save penalty once a day. Give me another level, and I think I'll be up to -14. That's what I call a lockdown, and it makes simple stuff like the sleep spell pack quite a controllerish wallop.
I'm not the only one who's ever discovered this--I subsequently saw the Character Optimization board thread on the Orbizard. This character lets me scratch an itch I've had ever since I worked on the wizard, long before 4th edition saw print, and I wondered whether you could stack the save penalties high enough to make it a sure thing. (Answer: Yes!) Recent additions like Adventurer's Vault and an invoker paragon path make it potent from the early teens onward.
But it's interesting to actually play with a "sure thing" like that obscene save penalty. Playing the character becomes fraught with tension. Because I know I've got such a strong combo, I have to carefully assess each combat situation and really deploy it where it counts. That's often harder than it looks. Right now I have an "I probably win" button, but knowing when to press...that pushes some other skills pretty hard. So it's not as much of a gimme as it appears.
I'm reminded of my days as the managing editor of the Magic: The Gathering magazine, during the Urza block. Until the banhammer came down, there was an extraordinarily strong deck in Type II (Standard) constructed play called "Tolarian Blue" or "Academy" or something similar, depending on whom you were asking. The engine of the deck was pretty simple--throw out a bunch of no-cost or low-cost artifacts, use the Tolarian Academy card to get one mana for each artifact in play, then use Stroke of Genius to either draw a bunch of cards yourself (if you didn't have enough mana or cards to pull off the win yet) or force your opponent to draw so many cards that he ran out. Oh, and you'd use Mind Over Matter and discard a card to untap Tolarian Academy twice in a turn.
When you look at the pieces of the combo, it's not too hard to grasp. It wasn't until you actually built the deck and tried to play it that you realized how tricky it actually was. You had to know how many of the key combo cards were in your library and what your chances were of pulling them with a given Stroke of Genius. In the hands of a Magic Pro Tour regular, not a big deal. But you could beat a lot of ordinary civilians who'd assembled that deck, because it was bah-roken, but it wasn't easy mode.
So that's the feeling I'm getting with my orbizard right now. The question of threat assessment is keeping it interesting for me.
And since I'm crossing the streams anyway, I think there might be a powerful D&D build that uses Magic's concept of graveyard recursion. There are already some ways to get those per-encounter and per-day attacks back into your proverbial hand. Are there enough to be fully recursive? Probably not...yet. But I'll bet that build emerges in another year or two, as more parts of the combo see print.
Out of Context: Brains!
Music: Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009
"It" being "me," that is.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
...is me, apparently.
DOTA was a big deal among the game designers at Wizards for a while, but I never got into it because its rise happened to coincide with the craziness of designing 4th edition D&D. But designers on the cardside were fascinated with it--and when those guys are fascinated with something, you pay attention.
Once the exhibit hall closed at PAX yesterday, my buddy Cam and I went to the freeplay areas. Eventually we decided to try Demigod, a commercial take on the genre that DOTA spawned. And man, did I get hooked. We played Demigod--badly, but still--until the wee hours of the morning.
My list of "games to try on Day 3 of PAX" now includes two games that bill themselves as spiritual successors to DOTA. I've been sampling a lot at this show, but so far, finally seeing what all the DOTA fuss was about is the highlight for me.
Out of Context: "Look! We made him look like he's holding his breath!"
Music: The Electric Light Parade song, believe it or not
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Consider this a big footnote to all the "Appendix N" stuff I wrote about back in March.
D&D is a great game with a storied history--heck, it's a cultural touchstone even for those who can't tell you what the material component for stoneskin is. And probably the biggest linguistic signifier for that cultural touchstone is the blank of blanking.
The blank of blanking? Think of all the D&D magic items built with that construction: +2 sword of undead slaying, ring of jumping, boots of striding and springing (a double!)...you get the idea. There's nothing like that blank of blanking construction to put a big neon "This is D&D" arrow on whatever you're saying.
Watch any comedian for proof. When Stephen Colbert sets up a D&D joke, the delivery device is the blank of blanking. If he talks about his +3 sword of bear-killing or whatever, he's using the blank of blanking to say, "Hey, I speak the lingo, see?"
So Where Did Blank of Blanking Come From?
To figure out where D&D got the blank of blanking in the first place, let's turn again to Appendix N of the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide: Gary Gygax's reading list of inspirations for D&D. Look at the usual suspects--Tolkien, Howard, Moorcock, Vance, Leiber--and you come up dry. Not much blank of blanking in there at all.
Even Jack Vance, who certainly had a knack for naming magic items and magic spells, doesn't employ that particular construction very much. The "Blankerson's blanking blankament" construction (like Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion) is totally Vance, though.
To find the first blank of blanking, you need to search deeper into Appendix N. Specifically, to Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, where a dagger of burning figures prominently. I can't say for certain, but I can't find an earlier prominent blank of blanking. And for further evidence, the dagger of burning was always italicized--and you can't say that about Sting or Stormbringer.
As a side note, Three Hearts and Three Lions is also the likely source for D&D trolls. The notion of a troll that regenerated everything but fire damage...I can't find a folkoric origin for it. I think Gygax grabbed that from Anderson, too.
If you're a game designer in the fantasy genre, you're probably going to be inventing blank of blanking items for your whole career. And you've got Poul Anderson to thank for that.
Out of Context: "So what's in an Asmodian, anyway?" "Bitters, I'd imagine."
Music: None. Enjoying a quiet office before walking over to PAX.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Thursday, August 27, 2009
OK, let's recap:
• There's nothing inevitable about Tank/Healer/DPS or Defender/Leader/Striker/Controller.
• You can't find good examples of those roles in the fantasy literature that inspired D&D (and thus MMOs). You can't find it in comic books or Star Wars, either.
• Tanks emerged because early D&D created a popular class (the magic user) that could not survive under ordinary circumstances.
Which brings us to...
I'll be brief here, because the healer role grows from the same root as the tank role, only more directly: Gary Gygax's simulationist streak.
The simulationist in Gary followed a very reasonable line of thinking: If you get stabbed nearly to death, it should take you days or weeks to recover.
What could be more reasonable than that? It makes perfect sense. But as anyone who has run a long-term campaign knows, long recuperation times can be hell on the ongoing narrative. It's no fun to clear out half a dungeon, then come back after a few weeks to find that the dungeon has realistically been reinforced.
It's worse if some players need to recuperate, but others don't; that's a recipe for splitting the party. And those long recuperation times wreak havoc with any sort of time deadline before the Great Evil Event happens. As a DM, you want that tool in your toolbox.
And it's just as bad on the NPC side. It's not exactly good drama for the PCs to nearly beat the Big Bad Evil Guy, then retreat, then come back a few days later and stab him as BBEG lies there in a hospital bed.
Gygax-the-simulationist wasn't going to allow unrealistic natural recuperation. But if magic is involved, then verisimilitude isn't threatened and all is well, right?
Thus, the cleric: A class that's mandatory not so much for in-battle healing as for its plot-saving fast recuperation. Even a single cure light wounds each day means vastly less time in the village and away from the action.
That's why for 35 years, having a cleric was pretty much mandatory (and even in 4th edition, having a leader makes life a lot easier). Without that healing (or a small fortune in consumables), you ran out of hit points, and then you ran out of fun. You had no other way of getting those hit points back quickly--in combat or between battles.
Gygax's desire for realistic natural healing yields a class (the cleric) that becomes mandatory because it keeps the plot from grinding to a halt for hospital time. MMOs pick up the healer role when they pick up D&D's role differentiation. And bingo! We have another role that seems like it's always been around, but really it's just rooted in a simple but profound design choice made back in the '70s. Had Gygax said, "Screw it--you get your hit points back after a turn (10 minutes) resting," you wouldn't have your leader role today.
Out of Context: It is indeed considered disrespectful to climb me.
Music: Ba Cissoko, Electric Griot Land
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Friday, March 13, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
• Tank/DPS/Healer for MMO character classes; and
• Defender/Striker/Controller/Leader for 4th edition D&D (and less overtly in previous editions)...
...came from somewhere, but they didn't inevitably emerge from player psychology. Players are all too happy to hop roles whenever they get the chance.
Stop! Sidebar time! It occurred to me that I should have explained something better yesterday. What I'm trying to get at the root of is why we wound up with the specific roles we wound up with. The fact that we wound up with roles at all...well, I regard that as inevitable, but it's interesting to ruminate on other role schemes we could have wound up with.