Monday, June 23, 2014

Rewarding Degenerating Gameplay: Lessons from Gijón and Pernambuco

This post is about game design.  Just bear with me.

In the 1982 World Cup Group stage, the West German and Austrian teams found themselves in an odd situation.  With the Algeria-Chile match already played, the West Germany-Austria meeting in Gijón, Spain would be the final match of Group 2.  Based on the point spread of all four teams in the group, West Germany and Austria knew exactly what results would allow both to advance: a marginal (1-2 goal) West German victory.  After West Germany scored in the first half, both teams settled into what was effectively pantomime.  For the remainder of the 90 minutes, they politely passed the ball in their respective halves of the field, opponents occasionally making halfhearted challenges - but no real scoring attempts.


The strategy was transparent to everyone, from the announcers to the angry crowd.  Though popular culture condemned the match with names like Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón (Non-Aggression Pact of Gijón) or, even more pejoratively, the Anschluß, it ultimately allowed both teams to progress out of the Group stage.  West Germany made it all the way to the final.

To half-solve the problem in subsequent World Cup Group stages, FIFA scheduled the final two matches for any given Group to take place concurrently.  In the case of West Germany-Austria, it would have prevented the teams from building a strategy based on the outcome of Algeria-Chile.  However, FIFA didn't really fix the underlying issue, which was the design of how teams accumulate points in Group and how those points determine who advances out of Group.  And now, on Thursday, June 26th, it's possible we could see a repeat of the Non-Aggression Pact of Gijón at Pernambuco, Brazil, when Germany faces USA.  As in 1982, due to the point spread between Germany, USA, Portugal, and Ghana in Group G, both Germany and USA will advance in the event that they draw - regardless of the results of the Portugal-Ghana match happening simultaneously.  Given the widespread condemnation of what occurred at Gijón in 1982, it's unlikely to happen again, but nothing in the rules would prevent it.


When designing the rules for any challenge-based game, regardless of the form it takes, it's important to consider how the structure of the rules may promote working against the spirit of the game.  What designers allow players to do may inadvertently reward behavior that even the players themselves find to be boring and unenjoyable.  If these behaviors are advantageous enough, players will gravitate toward them with increasing frequency until they become the de facto "correct" tactics and strategies for play.  One of the most commonly-discussed features that produces this effect is save scumming.  Being able to save and load your game at any time is extraordinarily valuable for players, if simply for convenience.  However, the way save/load works in conjunction with other mechanics can strongly promote reliance on save/load to overcome difficult situations.

As an example, many role-playing games use virtual dice to "roll" a check when attempting to overcome a single obstacle, such as a locked door.  In such cases, the player typically has one "try" on any static obstacle.  In practice, they effectively have as many tries as they want as long as they are patient enough to reload.  This type of interaction doesn't test players' skills in any new way, it doesn't ask players to attempt any different tactic, and given the "one try" system the designers put in place, it seems to go against the spirit of what the designers were trying to accomplish.  While players love succeeding at overcoming obstacles, the percentage who love doing it via save/load is probably very low.  Even so, that's what the game's design promotes doing for the best outcome.

By writing all of this, I have no intention of placing any blame or fault on the players.  In challenge-based games, designers present obstacles and create the rules and tools for overcoming those obstacles.  Players can hardly be faulted for finding and taking advantage of shortcomings in how the systems interact.  In the aftermath of Gijón, both teams had to deal with the anger of World Cup fans - especially fans of the Algerian team, who had been denied a chance at moving on due to the West German/Austrian collusion.  And there is no doubt that the players who suited up and went on the field that day did not spend their young lives dreaming of strategic pantomiming.  Still, FIFA's rules promoted that behavior - and still promote similar behavior.  A repeat of Gijón at Pernambuco would produce justified howls of outrage.  Still, a paraphrase of the old maxim applies: don't hate the players, hate the game design.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ars Magica Longevity Rituals - More Gradual Aging for Magi

I read an entry on Timothy Ferguson's blog about how to re-model Ars Magica 5th Edition Longevity Rituals for more interesting flavor and to shift the apparent aging of Hermetic magi.  Because AM5 lacks a core central mechanic for adding and removing Virtues and Flaws post-character creation, Warping and Mystery Cults effectively became the de facto ways for doing it in supplemental books.  While I don't think Mr. Ferguson's idea of longevity ritual as a Hermetic Exoteric Mystery is a bad one (especially for flavor, which the RAW longevity ritual rules conspicuously lack), it doesn't address how Hermetic magi age.  I.e., it does not fundamentally alter how the Aging tables work, nor definitively when magi will start adopting Longevity Rituals.  That is, arguably, the larger problem with the RAW: given good enough rituals, many magi will look like they are in their 20s-30s well into old age.

Mechanically, I believe the simplest way to address this is by adding a new "apparent aging" range to the bottom end of the Aging table.  The precedent for this can be found in the core Aging table itself.  Aging Crises are a big deal in AM5.  Even if you resolve any given Crisis, you still acquire Decrepitude and potentially a bunch of Aging Points.  To make Aging Crises a potent threat even at relatively young ages, both 13 and 22+ on the standard table result in "sufficient Aging Points... to reach the next level in Decrepitude, and Crisis".  Since most characters start rolling in their mid-30s, that means that, barring modifiers, a roll of 9 (+4) would immediately result in Decrepitude and Crisis.  13 remains a real threat for most characters unless they have a truly solid Longevity Ritual.  It's a landmine on the Aging chart relative to the results around it, but its presence is important because it significantly increases the probability of hitting Crises at young ages.

Similarly, putting an additional apparent aging range low on the Aging table may seem unintuitive, but it can produce the mechanical results you want.  By overlapping the main apparent aging range (3+) with a negative range, you can create a higher probability that magi will slowly continue to gain apparent age even with powerful Longevity Rituals.

E.g., we could add an apparent aging increase result between -5 and -7.  Let's say a maga has a total of -7 to her Aging roll due to Longevity Ritual (-10), being a maga in a Spring (-1) covenant, and her real age (37, +4).  The die rolls produce these results:

10-7 = 3, apparent age increases by one year
9-7 = 2, no apparent aging
8-7 = 1, no apparent aging
7-7 = 0, no apparent aging
6-7 = -1, no apparent aging
5-7 = -2, no apparent aging
4-7 = -3, no apparent aging
3-7 = -4, no apparent aging
2-7 = -5, apparent age increases by one year
1*-7 = on subsequent die, 5+ = apparent age increases by one year (and other deleterious effects on a 9 or 10), 2-4 = no apparent aging, 1 = roll again and quadruple

As another example, with -12 to the total roll, the maga would still get an apparent age increase on a roll of  7, 6, or 5 (-5, -6, and -7) and would have a ~48%+** chance of hitting an apparent age increase on a 1 (subsequent rolls of 3, 8, 9, 10 or potentially another 1 would do it [and worse]).

So even with a very strong ritual, there's always a good chance of hitting an apparent age increase.  Magi aren't guaranteed to hit those numbers, but over the course of many years, they are much more likely to hit them.  And if that probability isn't high enough, you can extend the range from -4 to -7 or -3 to -7, which would result in the magi apparently aging at about half speed.

* Since Aging rolls are stressed with no botch, the potential for an apparent aging increase will change based on what result a 1 on the die would normally yield.  However, this is also true with a lot of results on the standard table due to how exploding dice work.

** I'm not doing the exact math on this, but a quadrupled roll of 4 or higher will always result in an apparent aging increase (at least) and an another 1, in addition to being extraordinarily unlucky, would guarantee Crisis.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Homebrew Rules for Certamen Experimentation in Ars Magica 5th Edition

After longing to play in an Ars Magica campaign for decades, I finally got my chance.  I've been playing in one for the past six months and running another for the past three.  Playing the game (in its 5th Edition) has revealed a lot of cool and a few not-so-cool things about the mechanics, but it's a ton of fun overall.  I especially like how downtime is used and how characters can experiment with magic both in adventure sessions and during their off seasons (the unit used for downtime).

I've been playing a few characters in our saga, most notably Venzi Lüin of Tremere, a disputant who fights in certamen, magical duels, for his covenant, Mont-Mercure, in the Normandy Tribunal.  Based on our experiences and what I've seen online, certamen is not something comes up often in many Ars Magica sagas.  The core rules can be likened to grappling rules in most editions of A/D&D: seldom used and often dreaded.  However, that didn't stop Atlas Games from expanding the basic certamen rules in Houses of Hermes: True Lineages.  As my character is a disputant, I often play him as someone who is looking for an opportunity to duel.

Recently, I realized that my development of Venzi as a disputant would probably trail off sometime in the character's late 40s (he just surpassed me in age -- 39).  He can master two special styles (found in HoH:TL) but otherwise he will continue to develop his arts and forsake the things that drive other magi: spell research, item research, apprentices, and familiars.  These things add little to nothing to the disputant's dedicated dueling arsenal, which is defined primarily by his arts and three arcane abilities: Finesse, Penetration, and Parma Magica.  Spending time on spells and apprentices means time not spent on keeping the dueling arsenal at peak power.

When choosing arts for a duel, there is a small bit of psychological strategizing that goes on.  The duelists want to pick arts they are strong in that their opponents are not strong in.  Learning about your opponents through the use of Order of Hermes Lore can help discern what their strong and weak arts are.  Knowing that your opponent can veto one of your choices, you may "throw" an initial choice out with the intention of seeing it vetoed.  Still, once the arts are chosen, the process of moving from round-to-round is largely a matter of attrition.  If you fight in the "style" of a school rather than as a master, you have the option of switching from round to round.  You also have the ability to spend vis, a resource of raw magical power, in the course of the duel, but there are not many more choices to make.

Because Venzi will be focused on dueling for his entire wizardly career, I wanted to extend the rules to develop more oddball aspects and give dedicated duelists the ability to develop new styles on their own.  HoH:TL describes how to achieve Breakthrough Points through original research in the Bonisagus chapter.  Similarly, Ancient Magic describes how to integrate non-Hermetic magical concepts into Hermetic theory using a similar system that works in parallel.  Despite the description of the Harenarius virtue in HoH:TL, which states that the harenarii are the most likely magi to develop new certamen styles, there are no rules present for doing so.

To fill in the gaps and extend my interest in Venzi's development, I have created a system that hybridizes the rules from original research and non-Hermetic integration.  These rules should give advanced duelists goals to work toward as well as the dangerous, chaotic thrill that other magi feel when fooling around with arcane experimentation and the Extraordinary Results chart.  These rules haven't been playtested, but I hope you may find them of some use.  Thanks for reading.

***

Developing New Certamen Styles

Magi can develop new certamen styles by applying Lessons they learn from fighting duels.  Each duel they fight is like a tiny artifact they can obsess over for new techniques and applications.  Experimenting with these Lessons is risky and time-consuming, but over time can allow duelists to develop Breakthroughs for certamen just as a maga may develop Breakthroughs in original research and Hermetic integration.  Once the maga achieves a basic Breakthrough, the research coalesces into a new style. After years of continued work dueling with the new style, the maga can become a rare and celebrated figure in Hermetic circles: a Magistra Certamenis, the master of her own new style.

Dueling Lessons - From the Ring to the Lab

In any season following one or more certamen duels, a maga can spend a season attempting to gain a Lesson.  Lessons can be used to augment study of the arts and arcane abilities in the short term, but are more valuable for their ability to help develop entirely new styles of certamen over a longer period of time.

It doesn't matter if the maga won or lost, but she must have dueled "on stage" as a meaningful part of the story (as determined by the storyguide).  The maga may initiate this study in the season immediately following the duel or later, but once a new season has passed in which the maga dueled on stage, she can no longer attempt to gain a Lesson from the earlier season of duels.  To gain a Lesson, the maga must make a stress roll of Intelligence + Magic Theory against an ease factor of 18.  The Harenarius virtue adds three to this roll and the troupe may rule that some seasons of duels grant additional bonuses.  An ordinary or uneventful duel adds no bonus, but a truly extraordinary duel may add as much as +3.  Note that the maga does not roll for each duel, but for the season of duels and the troupe should consider all of the duels together.

On a botch, the maga thinks she has gained a Lesson, but does not.  She realizes this after she attempts to apply the Lesson, which always results in an additional wasted season.

Nature of the Lesson

The nature of the Lesson is judged by the troupe and should be connected to the nature of the duels but in all cases relate to at least one form, one technique, and one arcane ability used in certamen (finesse, penetration, and parma magica).  The troupe's determination defines how the lesson may be applied.  E.g. in a season with one duel involving Creo and Herbam that was resolved with lightning-fast initiative, the troupe may decide the lesson may be applied to Creo, Herbam, or Finesse.  In a season with multiple duels involving various forms combined with Perdo, and in which the duels lasted a long time due to high resistance totals, the troupe may determine that the Lesson may be applied to Perdo or Parma Magica. The most notable duel involved the use of Ignem, so that is the form the troupe agrees can also be applied to the Lesson.

Applying the Lesson

Once the troupe has agreed upon the nature of the Lesson, the maga may choose to apply it in any future season.  It may only be applied once, but there is no time limit on when it may be applied.  When a lesson is applied, the maga must apply it while learning an art or arcane ability connected to the nature of the lesson.  The normal source rules apply, but the maga cannot apply the lesson while receiving instruction from a teacher.  She must have time to experiment while incorporating the lesson.  The experimentation also always requires a lab (even if the maga is studying vis).

Roll a stress die on the Certamen Experimentation: Extraordinary Results chart for the results.  As with normal arcane experimentation, the maga may add from +1 to +3 worth of risk bonus before the die is rolled.  However, this bonus is also the additional number of botch dice that must be rolled.

In all circumstances other than disaster and complete failure, for every 5 experience points (rounded up) you gain using this method you gain 1 Breakthrough Point.  This also applies to experience gained in Magic Theory and shifted arts on the discovery or modified study tables.

The Seed Is Planted: A New Goal

Once the maga achieves a Breakthrough Point, you should declare what the Lesson and subsequent Breakthrough have motivated the maga to discover.  In certamen research, the end goal is always a new style, but you must define what that style is going to accomplish that the other existing styles do not.  Over time, your research may shift how your style develops, but it's good for the troupe to know what you're going for in the long run.

A New Style: The First Breakthrough

When the maga has acquired 30 Breakthrough points, she has developed a new style of certamen.  This new style is gained as soon as the final Breakthrough point is acquired.  The player and the troupe decide what the nature of the style is based on the maga's earliest stated goals, the duels the maga has participated in, and the types of results that appeared during her experimentation.  Like other certamen styles, this can be taught to other Hermetic magi, but there is no "master" level in existence.  A maga who uses their new style in at least 5 duels and/or teaches their style to 5 students will earn 15 experience points in the Hermetic Reputation: Magistra/Magister Certamenis (magistra in this sense indicating their role as an academic master).

Developing the Style: Working Toward Mastery

Once the maga has developed a new style, she can only progress in it by repeating the initial process, but she must use her new style in duels "on stage" to devote Lessons toward another Breakthrough.  If the maga does this and moves from 30 Breakthrough points to 45, she will have become a master -- the first master -- of her new style.  This mastery applies even if the maga has already mastered a school of certamen (or two, in the case of a Harenarius).

At this point, the maga may determine (with the troupe) what mastery entails and if it has changed even the basics of the style.  If the style has changed since its inception, any magi who already knew the "old" version can be updated to the new way if they learn mastery -- or if they simply take another season of studying with a "corrected" disciple of the style.

A maga who uses her mastered style in at least 5 duels and/or teaches mastery of their style to 5 students will earn another 15 experience points in the Hermetic Reputation: Magistra/Magister Certamenis.

Defending the Style

Certamen, being binding in "all matters", is a sensitive subject for many magi.  Depending on how successful the new style is, it may draw attention from bitter disputants, curious quaesitores, and other sources of criticism.  This may provide even more opportunities for the new "Magistra Certamenis" to defend her style both at tribunals and through continued dueling.  Peripheral Code rulings dealing with certamen are not common, but the possibility is always there.

Certamen Experimentation: Extraordinary Results

Extraordinary Results Chart
Roll Result
Botch Disaster
0-4 No extraordinary effects
5-6 Cicatrix Certamenis
7 No benefit
8 Complete failure
9 Special or story event
10 Discovery
11 Modified study
12 Roll twice more on this chart

Disaster: You fail miserably.  Roll a simple die + risk modifier - Perception, and compare to the following chart:

Roll Result
<=0 You spot the disaster before it occurs. Your season is still wasted; see "Complete Failure."

1-2 Lab accident.  Your lab takes one season of damage (reverting to -3 if a standard lab, or complete ruin if a half-established lab)

3-4 Personal injury.  You injure yourself, taking damage equal to a simple die + the source quality of your study material (yes, even with Parma Magica).

5-6 Explosion!  Your lab is ruined and you must roll a simple die for each valuable possession you keep in your lab.  On a 0, it is destroyed.  You take an amount of damage equal to a simple die + (2 * the source quality of your study material).

7-8 Your experiment backfires in such a way that the entire covenant is threatened, either through fire, the summoning of a major threat, or some other calamity the storyguide makes up.

9–10 You gain Warping Points equal to the number of zeroes on the botch roll. Roll for Twilight if you gain two or more.

11+ Roll twice more on this chart.

No Extraordinary Effects: Your experiment does produce any exceptional results but still counts toward your certamen Breakthrough.

Cicatrix Certamenis: You develop a dueling "scar" -- not a physical mark, but an ingrained habit in your certamen technique connected to the art or arcane ability you are studying. Some scars are beneficial and reflect that you have mastered a powerful tactic  or gained confidence from your experience. Other scars are detrimental and represent either the incorporation of a bad habit or the development of a psychological block connected to your duels.

Roll a simple die and add your risk modifier and compare to the appropriate chart.  If you roll a result you already have for the same art, you gain no special insight and no Breakthrough Points.  Cicatrices certamenis should be tracked for each type of Breakthrough. They can help shape the direction the new style takes.

Art

Roll Result
1 Transformed Image - Your half of the shared illusion is transformed or exaggerated in an unusual way when this art is used in certamen. The nature of the transformation is determined by the troupe, based on the nature of the lesson.

2 Weak Response - When you use this art for defense, any successful hit on you (whether or not it does damage) reduces your next attack total by 1.

3 Overcompensation - When you use this art for defense, a successful hit on you will reduce your next attack total by 1 and increase your next defense total by 1.  If you score a successful hit while using this art to attack, it increases your next attack total by 1 and decreases your next defense total by 1.  Both events could potentially occur in sequence, canceling each other out.

4 Strong Response - When you use this art for defense, any successful hit on you (whether or not it does damage) increases your next attack total by 1.

5 Gloriola Desperationis - Your experimentation has caused you to become careless with vis in duels.  When you use vis in certamen to boost this art, you run a risk of causing actual damage to yourself.  For each pawn you use on a roll, make a stress die + Stamina + Concentration roll against an Ease Factor equal to the number of pawns used x 3.  If you make the check, nothing unusual happens.  If you fail the check, you take +2 damage for every pawn spent and mometarily gain the so-called "halo of desperation" from energy coursing over you.

6 Powerful Momentum - Immediately following a successful attack with this art, you gain +3 to your defense for the next round.

7 Sloppy Aggression - After you successfully land an attack with this art, you suffer -3 to your defense for the next round.

8 Urna Volubilis - You have developed a precariously-balanced use of this art.  The chaotic "rolling jug" grants boons and horrible misfortunes in extreme circumstances. When this art is used for attack or defense and a 1 is rolled, the final die is always assumed to be a 10 regardless of what the re-rolls are.  Conversely, any botch roll always has an additional botch die added.

9 Pars Imaginis - You have figured out a way to trick onlookers into believing you have used -- or not used -- vis with this art by masking reality through the shared illusion.  You must commit to the ruse before rolling and suffer -1 to your final result for every three pawns of vis (or part thereof) that is being masked or faked in the process.  Separately from the attack or defense rolls, you then make a stress die + Presence (if attack)/Perception (if defense) + Guile roll to determine the effectiveness of the trick.  Subtract 1 from the total for every pawn of vis being masked or faked.  The opponent and onlookers can detect what's happening with a stress die + Perception + Awareness.  Tricks of this sort are not against any ruling of the code, though serious sticklers frown at them.

10 Flinch - When you suffer the loss of a fatigue level from a successful attack while defending with this art, you must make a stress die + Stamina + Concentration roll against an Ease Factor of 9.  If you fail the roll, you suffer -3 to attack and defense on the following round.  If you botch, you immediately cease concentration on certamen and drop your half of the shared illusion.

11 Warping Surge - When you roll a 1 when using this art for attack or defense, before re-rolling you may choose to add +10 to the final result at a cost of 2 points of warping (meaning an immediate check for Wizard's Twilight).  The warping takes effect concurrently with the action, meaning the maga could win or lose the duel and immediately enter Twilight.

12 Ars Vicaria - You have accidentally discovered how to surreptitiously substitute other arts for this art during certamen.  However, it is by no means foolproof.  You must decide to make the substitution (only forms for forms, techniques for techniques) before you roll and must describe to the troupe what art is being is being substituted and how this is disguised in the shared illusion.  A stress die + Perception + Awareness vs. an Ease Factor arbitrated by the storyguide determines whether or not the opponent or any onlookers notice what has happened.  Though this phenomenon has not been seen frequently enough to receive any tribunal rulings -- and thus is not explicitly covered by any Peripheral Code -- maintaining a stance of victory when caught employing a "proxy art" is broadly condemned by magi.

13 New Side Effect - You learn something else about using this art in certamen.  The effect is either of no mechanical benefit or has equal benefits and drawbacks as arbitrated by the troupe.

Finesse + Art

Roll Result
1-2 Confident Start - If you win initiative at the beginning of a duel, you may apply +3 to the total generated by the related art in the first round (only). You may not gain this bonus in circumstances where you decline initiative, but you may take it in circumstances where it is declined to you (e.g. when dueling against a master of Hoplomachus).

3-4 Nervous Start - When this art is one of the two used in a duel, you may not apply Confidence to your initiative roll.

5-6 Rising Tempo - When this art is involved in certamen, you gain +1 to your initiative on every round following the first, up to a total of +3.  This has no benefit in circumstances where you win initiative, but it may allow you to eventually reverse the combat order.

7-8 Falling Tempo - When this art is involved in certamen, you lose 1 on your initiative on every round following the first, up to a total of -3.  This causes no problems in circumstances where you already lost or declined initiative, but in cases where you win initiative, you may eventually drop behind your opponent.

9 Seize Advantage - When your opponent botches while you are using this art (actively, on the contested roll), you both re-roll initiative.  It does not replace your current initiative total, but if you win the roll, your opponent loses his or her next turn.

10 Stumble - When you botch while you are using this art (actively, on the contested roll), you both re-roll initiative.  It does not replace your current initiative total, but if you lose the roll, you lose your next turn.

11 Calculated Opening - When rolling for initiative at the beginning of the duel, you may take a penalty equal to your Finesse score and apply it to the associated art on the first round.  This bonus applies regardless of whether you win or lose, but cannot be used in situations where either party declines initiative.

12 Nictus Infelix - When using this art in certamen, you must make a stress die + Perception + Concentration roll against the opponent's stress die + Presence + Concentration or lose your first attack (even if postponed).

13 New Side Effect - You learn something else about using Finesse with this art in certamen.  The effect is either of no mechanical benefit or has equal benefits and drawbacks as arbitrated by the troupe.

Penetration + Art

Roll Result
1-2 Probing Attunement - While attuning your shared illusion in a duel where this art is used, you can attempt to discern the opponent's score in this art before initiative is rolled. You roll a stress die + Perception + Penetration against their stress die + Presence + Parma Magica to determine success. The opponent will become aware of your attempt, but will not know whether you are successful or not.

3-4 Exposed Offense - While attuning your shared illusion in a duel where this art is used, roll a stress die + Presence + Guile against your opponent's stress die + Perception + Awareness. If you fail, your opponent learns your Intelligence + Penetration total.

5-6 Rising Offense - After you first hit with this art, you accumulate +1 to your Weakening Total on subsequent hits with this art in the same duel, up to a total of +3.

7-8 Falling Offense - After you first hit with this art, you accumulate -1 to your Weakening Total on subsequent hits with this art in the same duel, up to a total of -3.

9 Prensa Parmam - When you attack with this art and exactly match your opponent's defense, you may choose to re-roll your attack.  However, you must accept the second result.

10 Pilum Curvum - When you attack with this art and exactly match your opponent's defense, your Weakening Total is halved for the next round.

11 Sundering Blow - If you score a hit with this art, you may decline to in inflict one or more Fatigue Levels in exchange for -4 to the opponent's Resistance Total for the rest of the duel.

12 Impetus Malus - Each time you use this art to successfully hit an opponent in a duel, you must roll a stress die + Stamina + Concentration against an East Factor of 9 or lose your next attack (intentionally going full defense with Hoplomachus does not count).

13 New Side Effect - You learn something else about using Penetration with this art in certamen.  The effect is either of no mechanical benefit or has equal benefits and drawbacks as arbitrated by the troupe.

Parma Magica + Art

Roll Result
1-2 Sensitive Attunement - While attuning your shared illusion in a duel where this art is used, you can attempt to discern the opponent's score in this art before initiative is rolled. You roll a stress die + Perception + Parma Magica against their stress die + Presence + Penetration to determine success. The opponent will become aware of your attempt, but will not know whether you are successful or not.

3-4 Exposed Defense - While attuning your shared illusion in a duel where this art is used, roll a stress die + Presence + Guile against your opponent's stress die + Perception + Awareness. If you fail, your opponent learns your Stamina + Parma Magica total.

5-6 Rising Defense - After you first defend with this art, you accumulate +1 to your Resistance Total on subsequent defense rolls with this art in the same duel, up to a total of +3.

7-8 Falling Defense - After you first defend with this art, you accumulate -1 to your Resistance Total on subsequent defense rolls with this art in the same duel, up to a total of -3.

9 Prensa Gladium - When you defend with this art and exactly match your opponent's attack, you may choose to re-roll your defense.  However, you must accept the second result.

10 Manus Prava - When you defend with this art and exactly match your opponent's attack, your Resistance Total is halved for the next round.

11 Blunting Deflection - If you defend with this art and are hit but your opponent fails to exceed your Resistance Total with their Weakening Total, your Resistance Total gains +3 for the rest of the duel. This may only occur once per duel.

12 Praesidium Inconstans - Each time you use this art to defend against an opponent in a duel, you must roll a stress die + Stamina + Concentration against an East Factor of 9 or you are unable to use this art for defense on the following round.

13 New Side Effect - You learn something else about using Parma Magica with this art in certamen.  The effect is either of no mechanical benefit or has equal benefits and drawbacks as arbitrated by the troupe.

No Benefit: Your experimentation produces no unusual results.  However, your Lesson does generate progress toward your Breakthrough.

Complete Failure: You get nothing from your efforts, and your season is wasted. Roll a simple die. On a 0, you lose your Dueling Lesson and cannot re-apply it. Otherwise, you may attempt to apply it again in a subsequent season.

Special or Story Event: Either some effect not covered elsewhere occurs, or, at the storyguide’s option, an event unfolds as a result of your work which involves the entire covenant.

Discovery: Roll a simple die and add your risk modifier.

Roll Result
1–4 You gain 15 experience points in Magic Theory.

5–6 You gain 15 experience points in Finesse, Penetration, or Parma Magica.

7–8 You gain three experience points in one of the Arts that is part of the Lesson.

9 You gain enough experience points to bring one of the Arts that is part of the Lesson to the next level (or three experience points, whichever is greater).

10+ Roll twice, and reroll this result if it is generated again.
Modified Study: Roll a simple die and add your risk modifier.

Roll Result
1–3 You receive half the expected experience points for your study.

4–6 You receive double the expected experience points for your study.

7–8 Half of the experience gained does not go to the original study topic, but to Magic Theory.

9–10 Experience granted by the study is applied to a different form, technique, or arcane ability used in certamen, but always with a like type (forms for forms, techniques for techniques, arcane abilities for arcane abilities).  This is not chosen by you, but by the troupe.

11+ Experience granted by the study is applied to an entirely different art or arcane ability used in certamen and not even within the same category.  I.e. a form grants experience to a technique, an arcane ability grants experience to a form, etc.  This is not chosen by you, but by the troupe.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Queen Needs No Advocate

http://youtu.be/h2N_OMp3T8I

In my career, I've been fortunate to spend a great deal of time involved in system design.  Much of that time has been spent implementing or modifying established systems (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons and Fallout's SPECIAL system).  Before I was employed in the industry, I spent a lot of time developing my own tabletop systems and modifying the systems of others, so this has always been something I've enjoyed doing.

There are many pitfalls to system design and I believe most designers trip those pitfalls by moving into implementation details too quickly.  I believe some keys to success in system design (and for design in general) are to establish clear goals, to frame what those goals will accomplish in terms of player experience, and to continually return to those goals and player experiences to ensure that nothing was lost in the details of implementation.

I believe the most well-executed systems are ones where thoughtful players can accurately discern the designers' goals simply by scrutinizing the systems in action.  Though not all players need to be able to do this, the ones who care to do so should be able to.  Designers who succeed in creating systems that can be "reverse-engineered" in such a way have captured the soul of elegance in design.

I sometimes look to traditional games for mechanical inspiration.  One of the ones I think of most often is chess.  Clocking in at over 1,000 years of play around the world, chess has had a lot of iteration time.  I'm not an expert on chess strategy and I'm not a particularly good player, but I know chess well enough to take some simple lessons away from it.  Two that I often rely on are lessons of obvious value and orthogonally equivalent value.  These two lessons can be summarized by examing three chess pieces: the queen, the knight, and the bishop.

When I look at any system, I examine both the system's design as well as the content that uses the system.  I believe this is something that system designers should always do.  A system is only as good as the content that makes use of it; content that fails to make use of a system (or vice versa) will always create a disappointing experience.

The queen is typically the most powerful piece in chess (though not the most valuable; that role is reserved for the king).  The queen's movement capabilities combine the lateral movement of the rook with the diagonal movement of the bishop.  Even if you are learning chess for the first time, the fact that the queen combines the movement of two other pieces makes her relative power clear.  A rook's ability to perform a castle, the knight's excellence at creating forks, and a the pawn's ability to capture an enemy pawn en passant are all capabilities that take a while for players to appreciate, but not the queen's movement.  The queen's value is obvious.

Gameplay consists of players making (more-or-less) informed decisions about what they need to do to overcome an obstacle.  It is not enough for the obstacle to be clearly defined and communicated to players.  They also need to have a clear understanding of what tools are at their disposal to solve the problem.  In chess, the player's primary tools are his or her pieces.  Though circumstances determine the value of pieces on any given move, no one needs to advocate the fundamental value of the queen in chess.

As an extreme analogue in video games, it's unlikely that many players need to be told what the value of the HECU RPG is the first time they find one in Half-Life.  After being pursued by a relentless Apache helicopter over numerous maps, the player winds up in a cave with the RPG on the ground and the Apache hovering outside.  Players typically snatch up the RPG and blast the Apache in moments.  Though the HECU is not the "queen" of Half-Life's weapons, it has obvious applicability in the circumstance where it appears.

When designers develop tools, we should strive for clarity of primary purpose in a player's tools.  The more obvious we make the value of the tools at a player's disposal, the more quickly the player will spend time fully engaged with the obstacles at hand instead of trying to figure out what they aren't "getting".

Chess has various informal ranking systems for the relative value of pieces.  The rankings are not used for scoring, but they are used to give players a rough idea of the strategic (not tactical) value of those pieces.  In the most commonly used system, pawns have a value of 1, rooks have a value of 5, and queens have a value of 9.  Knights and bishops are both rated at 3.  Bishops move diagonally, always staying on their starting color, and knights are the "funny moving" pieces of chess, hopping two squares horizontally or vertically and one square vertically or horizontally, passing over other pieces along the way.  Though their tactical applications in any given circumstance are completely dissimilar, the common ranking systems give them equal (or close to equal) strategic value in chess.

Whether chess' numerous contributors intended for them to be equal in value by design or players collectively determined they were equal in value, today's players generally regard them as being so in spite of their radical differences.  I.e., players treat them as having orthogonally equivalent value.  Knights and bishops are considered equivalent in an orthogonal sense because their mechanics and applications do not overlap but they commonly create the same amount of benefit for players.  Though bishops can move infinitely along their color, potentially from corner to corner, they lack the knight's ability to move over pieces.

Dungeons & Dragons commonly presents choices in such a fashion.  The most obvious examples are spells, which are grouped by level.  In most editions of A/D&D, haste and fireball are 3rd level wizard/magic-user/sorcerer spells.  Though the tactical relevance and application of these spells varies wildly, the games' designers established them as being equal.

When we design tools for the player to use -- abilities, gear, options, upgrades -- options with ostensibly orthogonally equivalent value create interesting choices for the player.  They also lend themselves to increased clarify of purpose.  The more tools overlap in function, the less obvious it is to players why a given tool exists.  The less tools overlap in function, the more those tools seem suited to a specific circumstance.

While these are high-level design concepts, creating choices with obvious, easily differentiated values can make the low-level details much easier to execute and build upon.  When a player is presented with strategic or tactical choices, he or she is always fundamentally asking the question, "Why do I want to make this choice instead of any of the others?"  As designers, we want to communicate the answers to their questions as elegantly as possible.  Ideally, the design of the player's tools and the game's content should be self-advocating, allowing players to reverse-engineer our intent and their range of choices without a word of explanation.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

JSawyer.esp - v5.1

A helpful modder going by the handle xporc graciously addressed some issues in my mod that I was having trouble resolving.  After some back-and-forth to fix some display issues, JSawyer v5.1 is ready.

Here's a high-level overview of what's substantively changed:

* Hardcore (H2O/FOD/SLP) thresholds have been set to 400/550/700/850/1000 as originally intended for the mod.  The HUD indicators now match this.  However, because all "Hardcore" HUD indicators flip over at the same values, this means we had to change the Radiation thresholds (and Rad Child) to match.  This means you can go a little bit longer before suffering ill effects from Radiation, but since the Hardcore acquisition rates are all faster than normal, I think players will still be doing more maintenance overall.
* A bunch of dirty edits I had previously made have been cleaned up.
* Various oversights have been fixed (details in the readme).

N.B.: Some of these fixes may not appear if you replace the mod for a game in progress.

As always, it is available here:

http://diogenes-lamp.info/jsawyer_fnv_mod.zip

Thanks to xporc for his help with these problems.  I will be using v5.1 as the starting point for a future v6 (if it is needed).

JSawyer.esp - v5

An updated version of JSawyer is now uploaded in the usual place:

http://diogenes-lamp.info/jsawyer_fnv_mod.zip

I have been unable to load the mod in FNVEdit to adjust the Dehydration/Starvation/Sleep Deprivation values, but here is the small list of changes since last time:


v5 Changes:
===
9.29.2012
* That Gun added to The Professional list
* Wanderer's Leather and Highway Scar Armor placed in Mick and Cliff's stores respectively.
* Ranger Battle Armor renamed to Lucky Battle Armor.  Stats adjusted, Reilly's Rangers decals removed.  Placed in Cliff's Store.
* Has Backpack flag checked on Power Armors.
* Bent Tin Can = Tin Can! recipe added.  It turns Bent Tin Cans into Tin Cans!!!!  WOW!!!!

7.21.2012
* All primary quest XP in DLCs reduced by 66%.  Edits were made in the quest scripts.

8.8.2012
* Replaced accidental secondary placement of duplicate Mercenary's Grenade Rifle with the Sturdy Caravan Shotgun.
* Fire Axe and Knock Knock added to Never Axed For This challenge weapon list.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

the black hound - what its deal was

In the course of following our countdown over at Obsidian, a lot of gamers have been discussing past IPs we've worked with. One of the common subjects is The Black Hound, a project some of us at OEI worked on at Black Isle. It's also something I worked on as a NWN2 mod in my spare time. There's a Wikipedia entry for it and a few lore sites kicking around. Some of the info on it is accurate and some isn't, but I think the details are less important than what we were trying to do with it. I can't speak for everyone who was on the project, of course, but TBH was important to me for a lot of reasons.

When I came to Black Isle, the majority of the studio was working on Planescape: Torment. I was the webmaster for that project, but I desperately wanted to work in development as a designer. I had spent a huge amount of personal time in the 90s playing 2nd Edition AD&D in the Forgotten Realms. Working on Icewind Dale was a dream come true. Yeah, the game had a smaller story focus, and yeah, it didn't have companions, and yeah, and was linear and dungeon-focused, but I was making a real AD&D video game in the Forgotten Realms.

Icewind Dale II is the first game I was credited as lead designer on, but I was the lead designer on TBH first. I felt that the Dalelands, bordering on the Moonsea, presented a cool subsection of the Realms and a crossroads of cultures that would be interesting to explore. We could build a personal story, focused on how you fatefully intersected the life of someone hell-bent on doing something crazy. Like many Realms adventures, this wasn't a world-shattering event, but something locally catastrophic, like Moander appearing near a town and devouring a huge swath of the landscape. It's just one of those crazy Realms stories where bands of adventurers and the Cult of the Dragon start throwing fireballs and leveling villages while the townsfolk run for cover.

Some people have suggested that I hate high fantasy or want to subvert high fantasy. Neither of these are really true. I just don't like how most stories handle high fantasy: both too seriously and not seriously enough. Too seriously in the sense that a lot of fantasy conventions are considered so sacred that you can't touch them (or even question them). Not seriously enough in the sense that the scenarios and the characters don't feel like they tackle the obvious questions raised by the settings they're placed in.

As an example, the Red Wizards of Thay (an FR magical organization/magocracy) underwent a transformation between 2nd Ed. and 3E. They became a "kinder, gentler" trading nation forming magical mercantile enclaves in lands that would let them in. The thing is, 2nd Ed./3E Red Wizards probably look pretty weird to Cormyreans and Dalesmen. They shave their heads (including the women), speak a different language, and have a lot of magical tattoos. They're also darker-skinned. After a few centuries of being regarded as pariahs everywhere west of the River Sur, they show up in these places and are doing business -- questionable business -- in broad daylight.

The FR designers did something interesting in shifting their MO between 2nd Ed. and 3E. The not interesting thing to do (IMO) with that shift as a scenario or story designer would be to have a pack of bad guy Thayans in an enclave with the good guy locals saying, "Those darn Thayans are up to something, please help us, heroes." I was intrigued by the idea that a Thayan enclave could contain a "new guard" of diplomatic Red Wizards and an "old guard" of fireball-hurling hardasses who aren't allowed (or are discouraged from going) outside. Some of the new guard genuinely want to mend fences. Others simply want to use it as a way to re-establish safe power centers and observation posts in lands where they previously would have been killed on sight.

The new guard use concealing/lightening makeup, don wigs, and wear "western" clothing to fit in. The old guard chafes at having to conceal their heritage and suffers under the jeers and slurs of locals if they dare to appear in public. The new guard speaks with good and proper "Common" grammar and pronunciation, not stumbling over foreign sounds and linguistic concepts. I thought it would create a more interesting and nuanced relationship between the Thayans, the Dalesman, and those who interacted with them, lending sympathy to the traditionally "villainous" and creating a more agonizing struggle between the sub-factions of the Thayans.

An old evil wizard who strokes his beard and cackles as he unleashes chain lightning on random townsfolk isn't particularly sympathetic. But suppose he were a veteran Red Wizard who watched his fellows succumb over the years in service to the zulkirs and was forced to "step aside" as young diplomats smooth talked their way into trade relationships with their former enemies. He has to endure the insults of locals, hear them mock his clothing, his pronunciation, his skin, his culture. And when he expresses his frustration to his new (younger) "superiors", he's treated like an anachronism, an old artillery cannon left to rust and rot on a forgotten battlefield. That dude may still wind up casting chain lightning on townsfolk, but if we weave a compelling story around him, the player should feel that there's more to him than that.

I've been rambling here a bit but let me get back to the main point: The Black Hound wasn't really *~ sUbVeRsIvE ~* "this ain't your daddy's RPG!" fantasy. It had elven ruins and fire genasi and Ilmaterian paladins and Maztican sorcerers and crypts full of undead -- all the stuff that made the Forgotten Realms the crazy blend of hardass adventurer-heavy, gods-mess-with-things, cults-and-dracoliches-under-this-rock D&D fantasy it always has been. I, and I think we all, just tried to approach the world with open eyes, asking, "Okay, so let's suppose all of this stuff about the Realms is true. What does that really mean for how the people in it live their lives?" It made the world more dark and grim, and sometimes that consideration wound up bucking convention, but we didn't set out to invert fantasy conventions just for the sake of doing it.

I regret that the team wasn't able to complete The Black Hound, and not just because of the time and passion we all invested in it. Some of my best tabletop RPG (and CRPG) memories come out of the Forgotten Realms. Huge, crazy, "how many more Volo's Guides can there be?" Forgotten Realms. I think those scenarios were memorable because the DMs/designers made compelling scenarios and the players gave a damn about each other and what was going on. If you take fantasy for granted, yeah, no one's going to get much out of it. I don't think we took anything for granted. We had an opportunity to make something that celebrated high fantasy without being enslaved by its conventions. In retrospect, there are a bunch of personal design choices I look back on and cringe at, but I don't regret the time I spent on it at all. When you enjoy the process of making something that much, it's hard to consider it time wasted. We had a lot of fun while it lasted.