Thursday, December 17, 2020

Level Scaling in both RPGs and Computer Games is Stupid!

 I've been playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey. It seems to be mostly good, but does have a lot of bad things in it too. One of them is level scaling. Computer games tend to have that, and I fear even "table top" RPGs with level mechanics may suffer from this design flaw. In fact, the game doesn't have to have level mechanics for the designers (or Game Masters) to fall into perpetrating this mistake.

In case you don't know what level scaling means, I'll put it simply: as the player character(s) advance in levels, the opposition also gains levels.

Levels in general is a stupid, but often used mechanic to indicate how powerful someone is. Usually, following Dungeons & Dragons, levels are really only or at least mostly about fighting ability (in some cases with magic perhaps, but still it's mostly about the ability to cause and to take "damage").

The main problem with level scaling is obvious:
It seems that no matter how good you get, everyone around you also becomes that much better. In effect, your hard earned "experience points" really didn't change anything, you're still just as good, compared to others, as the designer intended.
In some games, this means that the simple town guards that you meet in the beginning will be level 1 fighters, but later on you will meet simple town guards who are level 20 fighters.
In other games (AC Odyssey included) this means that soldiers or your enemies in one area will be mostly level 5 fighters while in another they will all be level 40, because the story of the game is obviously intended to take you to those latter places only later in the game. In some cases, those level 5 soldiers are supposed to be at war with the level 40 soldiers, yet somehow the latter don't just quickly crush the former. Weird, huh? Or plain stupid design, rather.

How should the games (or RPG campaigns) be designed then?
Realistically. That's the simple answer.
First of all, levels would ideally not be used at all. If they are used, the significance of the difference between consecutive levels (e.g. level 1 and level 2) should be small, especially if the game allows progress through dozens of levels.
In fact, there should be a reason why the player character is able to progress faster than normal, if that is the case, be it divine bloodline or whatever. 
Second, and most important, is to be consistent about levels. Town guards everywhere should be pretty similar in quality, unless there is a good reason within the story for some of them to be better or worse than the average.
The world should not change around the player character, but rather stay relatively static, or change according to whatever realistic reasons it does change. In a mundane world, the abilities of soldiers in two opposing armies are likely to be very similar, and also similar to many other soldiers. If on the other hand, a mighty god of war should appear, he might be able to change his followers into much more effective (and horrible) fighting machines. But even those demonic soldiers cannot continuously get better and better conveniently at the same pace as the hero of the story.

IMHO, the above is pretty damn basic for RPG designers/Game Masters. That big game companies still fail at this, after decades, I cannot comprehend. If any company would like to hire me to tell them how to improve their games, I'd be happy to take the job. ūüėÄ

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Player Characters as Traitors in Role Playing Games

I have been surprised during RPG sessions a couple of times by a (to me) strange comment. The surprising element in those comments was the implicit assumption that the Player Characters (PCs) are in that and all cases on the same side. This notion was surprising to me, because early on when I was a player and then also a Game Master (GM), I had been used to the idea that some of the PCs may not be quite so much "team players" as manipulators, or even outright traitors to the rest of the PC group. Sometimes it could be that the personal goals of the PCs were somewhat at odds with each other, in other cases a PC could be a deadly enemy to the others. I call all these kinds of PCs Traitors here.

What follows, are three types of Traitors that can be used in RPGs. There could be others, but these are the ones I wrote down years ago when I was still playing RPGs (as a GM). 

But first, you may wonder why would there be any kind of Traitors in your game? The answer is simple: they make the story that much better, more interesting. If you just have a bunch of "white hats" (to use a Western film term) or Lawful Good D&D paladins fighting against the "black hat" baddies or monsters in your campaign, your campaign is probably going to be na√Įve and boring. Spice up your story with conflicting interests, and you can have captivating drama, even if the basic story is pretty simple and boring.

1. The Traitor by Opportunity

This kind of Traitor is a PC who sees an opportunity for personal gain or advancing his own agenda, or alternatively, is forced into treachery by someone else, such as a powerful NPC or whatever entity. For example, a PC who finds some "loot" in a more or less classical dungeon crawl adventure, but doesn't tell the other adventurers (who may be sworn to divide all loot equally, or implicitly assume such a pact) about it. Or it could be a case of an Investigator being blackmailed into leaking information about the group's investigation to a mysterious third party, or even the cabal being investigated.

2. Traitor as a Manipulator

This kind of Traitor is a PC who is clever and devious enough to be able to use the other PCs to advance his own agenda without the others knowing about it. He might simply be omitting information for personal gain (such as not telling his fellow adventurers that there is a bounty to be collected, so he can collect it alone), without anything more nefarious. But it could also be total disregard for the well-being or life of his group, putting them intentionally in danger simply for his own benefit. This kind of Traitor, even the more nefarious kind, is simply using the others, but he is not directly opposed to their goals, and is not quite their actual enemy. More like a self-interested a$$hole with something to gain from the work of others. An employer.

3. True Traitor

A True Traitor is a PC who in reality is an enemy of the other PCs, or the group he has infiltrated. He is a secret agent, pretending to be friend while scheming against his "friends". He is probably using only indirect ways of harming the others, trying to maintain plausible deniability if caught doing something suspicious. Only in certain situations is he likely to directly attack any of the others, for example if all of the others have been captured or killed, and only one remains to be dealt with, and there is a high probability of success, or because he is forced into attacking by the situation or by his superiors. This kind of Traitor may sabotage the plans and equipment of the group, mislead them, "accidentally" cause alarms during stealth operations, and so on. He may try to manipulate the others into suspecting each other, or to otherwise behave in a selfish manner, in order to thwart the group's plans. 

The main problem with a Traitor like this among other PCs is that if caught too early or at a wrong time in the campaign, there may be difficulty in replacing the PC once the group has dealt with him. It might even be possible among inexperienced players that the other players (and by extension, their characters) will not trust the new PC; confusing the player with the PC, thinking the player is the traitor. But people who have a good understanding of RPGs will not have this problem. Of course the PCs may have good reason for being suspicious of strangers once they realize their group has already once been infiltrated by their enemies.

Using Traitors

If you as the GM are running a campaign with only one Traitor in the PC group, and you keep sending notes back and forth with that PC's player, and only that one player, the other players will quickly (correctly) suspect that PC. So, you should make sure to have private talks with all the players, give all of them some notes once in a while. 

You should, from the start, acclimate your players to a culture of playing where the character sheets are private, and there is some amount of private information in the game that at times becomes public when the PC reveals something to the other PCs. For example, you can have a handout with printed dialogue ready, so that when one PC eavesdrops the guards of the temple the PCs are stealthily raiding, only that player sees the dialogue. Then you take the handout back, but the PC may tell the others what he heard, in which case the handout can become public (depending on other things, like the level of intelligence/memory/communication skills of the PC).

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Good, Old Features in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic was released on 24 October 2006 on PC, according to Wikipedia. I bought it on Steam recently and just played it through. It certainly looks old now, but it has some features some new games unfortunately do not.

The most important of these is that the player is allowed to freely use the basic functions Save Game (As) and Quick Save, as well Load Game and Quick Load. It is mind-boggling, why all games do not have these features.

The second most important feature the game has, is the option to use cheats or "developer's console" as the game calls it. This includes the excellent idea of Buddha mode, which only prevents the player character's death from normal damage (unlike god mode, which presumably makes him invulnerable to damage). This feature should be used in all games. Because of other (bad) features of the game, I used Buddha mode for almost the whole of the second half of the game.

The game also has a pretty nice experience system, in the form of skill points the player is awarded at various points, and can then use to increase skills. The cost to increase a skill, such as Strength, increases the higher it goes (typically up to level 3), and these skills are hierarchically connected so that one has to increase some skills to the maximum level in order to be able to gain new skills connected to them. This is otherwise a nice system, but the player is never warned that the game is short enough and the skill points / experience so rarely awarded that the player can never attain even close to all the skills. 

Alas, I cannot say the game is good. It's good enough to be played through once, but it is completely linear, like most games, I suppose. The only real options the player has, is how to use the aforementioned skill points. The paths is set so hard that there is hardly any difference even between the alternative endings. But at least there's some enjoyment, mostly made possible by the use of the features listed above, which is more than I can say about some more recent games.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Clues and Red Herrings in Call of Cthulhu (and Other Role Playing Games)

Not all clues should point to the right direction.

There have been red herrings in printed Call of Cthulhu (CoC) scenarios, but usually in scenarios all clues in handouts or otherwise point to the right direction to advance the investigation in question. This makes it fairly straightforward for the Investigators to follow them in order to solve the mystery or whatever case they are working on.

What in my opinion should be used more, are actually developed red herrings: not just clues pointing to fruitless, wrong directions, but sub-plots that require the Investigators to follow lines of inquiry that do not advance the main investigation. These lines of inquiry should probably be relatively short, and used only in big scenarios or full campaigns, obviously not in short stories that need to be concise. 

But as part of large story, especially a big campaign (consisting of several connected scenarios), these wrong paths can be used to allow the players to experience and the story's creator and Keeper (GM, game master) to develop parts of the game world otherwise neglected or unimportant. Such stories can be used to introduce new characters to the Investigators. These could be characters from other scenarios, or they could be historical figures. They can also be player characters (PCs) already created by the players, or they can be otherwise interesting characters that can be turned into new Investigators (PCs) if new PCs are needed.

Sometimes a sub-plot that is essentially a red herring from the point of view of the main story/investigation can still be an interesting investigation in its own right. For example, in an investigation into a suspicious cult's activity can lead to an investigation on a murder (or several murders) in the area. Although the Investigators manage to solve the murder, they find no connection to the cult. They may even become convinced (correctly) that there is no connection. This may seem like a failure, but then again they did solve the murder.

One very good type of red herring for an investigation into paranormal phenomena is obviously an alleged paranormal phenomenon that is actually completely natural. The magazine Skeptical Inquirer and the many writings of the famous investigator Joe Nickell provide many good examples of such investigations that can be used in RPGs. Using such stories would probably also educate young players who might otherwise not know about real investigations into paranormal claims.

It would be possible to publish red herrings separately so that Keepers can include them in their campaigns as they see fit.

It is also possible for the Keeper to combine two or even three scenarios, so that the players do not know it. It takes some work, but may be rewarding. The Investigators can begin their investigation normally, perhaps being hired by an NPC. As they gather more and more clues, they will probably be confused a bit, but eventually they should realize they are dealing with two separate mysteries (or whatever).

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Alien: Isolation sucks

There are some good things in the game, but I won't bother mentioning them, because the flaws are too big.

The worst part of the game is the lack of proper save/load game features. It forces the player to keep repeating several minutes of annoying sneaking, and I hate repeating things in games. Level design is also poor, with an almost completely linear path you just have to follow. Stealth games should allow the player to come up with different ways of getting through levels, and all games should have actual decisions for the player to make. You can find neither in this game.

I almost never quit playing a game until I've seen it through, but this time I think I'll have to. And I'm just 5 hrs into the game, probably not even half way through. I just can't stand having to do the same things (walking down the same corridor, checking the same computer, all the while avoiding the alien that I can do nothing about, etc.) over and over again. 

So, I cannot recommend the game. In fact, I'd like to get my money back.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Maxing out skills in CoC

In Call of Cthulhu (CoC) horror role playing game (RPG) there is a cap for skills. I don't like such things, but I just thought of a way that might make them better. I would set the cap at 100%. Using my experience check rule, you have to roll the check above the skill to increase the skill, which will then be increased by exactly one point. The difference to the rules as written (RAW) is the amount by which the skill is increased. IIRC, RAW sets the cap for skills at 99%, which makes the cap arbitrary. In my house rule, at least there is the point that one cannot roll over 100% using d100. 

Now, here's the new idea I just had (which I hope would justify using a cap on skills, which I have never done): 

(1) Once a skill has been raised to 100%, gaining further experience checks to the skill would be pointless as the skill can no longer be increased and so, as per RAW, the checks would be lost. So, the new (and untested) idea is that every two checks on the skill can be exchanged to one check on a related skill.

(2) During character creation, the skill(s?) about Own Language start at EDUx5%. For very high EDU characters this obviously means that some skill points will be "lost". According to my rule suggestion here, instead of just limiting the skill at 100%, the character gains a new language skill at half the points that would go over 100% in Own Language. So, an Investigator with EDU 22 would start Own Language at 100%, but gain a new language at 5%. 

OR: This may actually be too harsh, so instead of losing half the exp checks and language skills during creation, it might be better to just give full points. So, the Investigator would start a new language at 10%, and all exp checks in a skill that already is at 100% could be translated to related skills.

What is a related skill would depend on the Keeper's (GM's) discretion, of course. In my experience, it is very rare for skills to get this high in CoC, so this house rule is pretty redundant anyway.

If you do try my house rules, please let me know how it went. 

I have posted about my experience check rule a long time ago here:

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Far Cry series, or How to Ruin a Game

I recently played through Far Cry 3, Far Cry 5, and Far Cry New Dawn. The first of these was the best. In fact, I had played it once before, and I still played it again, which is unusual for me. I hate to repeat things, so a game that has a story line, a plot, I will almost always only play once. But that's the thing - Far Cry games have open worlds, where you can roam freely, and that I love. "Freeing" outposts is fun. The improvements to that in the later games of the series are good. So, there is much good in these games, but then there are the things that ruin these games, to greater or lesser extent, to me at least.

Where all the games in the series AFAIK fail, is in trying to add a completely linear plot on top of the open world fun. 

These stories have good things in them as well, but this combination sucks. The way the player is frequently railroaded into the next part of the story usually just makes no sense. For some reason, the designers wanted to have the main player character captured several times in some of these games, and even failed to come up with realistic ways of doing that, even though it really wouldn't be that hard. If you want to design a game, do that. If you want to make an "interactive movie", do that. Don't try to do both at once, or if you do, be very, very good. Ubisoft, you are not that good.

Also, the worlds of these games are all way too full of things, especially animals, but also humans. The designers clearly thought the players would want to be constantly fighting something, anything. So, the games are designed for idiots. Fine, but they could easily have added realism options, where the player can choose how densely populated the world is, and also to how likely the animals are (unlike real animals) to attack humans.

How frequently something happens, significantly influences how important it feels.

If combat - and even just encountering people (or animals) - is rare, then those fights become important. The F.E.A.R. series had this right: they understood how to build suspension and atmosphere in those games. Not so in Far Cry, where you are constantly blasting away with your guns.

Consistency in how the game looks and how it behaves matters. Realism is good.

What I mean is that if you have guns clearly simulating (in name and appearance, as well as some statistics like magazine size) real world weapons, and the world mostly looks (and hopefully feels) very much like the real world, then the player will probably expect those weapons also to behave like real weapons. That means, if you shoot a bear in the head with a light machine gun, you shouldn't have to shoot 200 rounds into that head - as you unfortunately have to do in Far Cry New Dawn. If you shoot a human with a 9 mm pistol, they should not be eager to just shoot back at you, at least not all the time. Guns should have effect. In these games, unarmed attacks or attacks with a knife are usually more effective attacks than shooting. It makes no sense. Guns were invented for a reason.

I understand that a game where the player character dies easily may not be popular (although I understand ARMA is, and IMHO that's exactly what made the early Rainbow 6 games so interesting), it does add to the realism. And realism enables willing suspension of disbelief in those hopefully rare cases where that is required. Even more importantly, it enables immersion - feeling like you're really in the world of the game, as opposed to just playing a game from the outside, like Pacman or something.

There is also one recurring thing in these games, as well as in some others. For decades, it has been the standard in PC games that you can save and load, even quick save and quick load the game. For some reason, this cannot be done. (Even ARMA 3 had this problem, which is what drove me crazy while playing it, and I failed to play it through partly because of that.) I find this lack really hard to accept. It should always be possible to quickly and easily "undo" something dumb you've managed to do to ruin your mission, because it usually is something the character would never have done.

There is much good in the Far Cry series - otherwise I wouldn't have played them through even once. But the things they got wrong are infuriating. It's like they had a great game, and then decided to ruin it with stupid additions and very bad design choices. Other games may have done things right. The Stalker series is very good.

So how do you ruin a game you're creating? 

  1. By not knowing what sort of game you are designing in the first place.
  2. By not having the usual options to Save and Load the game.
  3. By ignoring realism.
  4. By not caring about atmosphere, instead just trying to maximize "action".
  5. By ignoring role playing elements, like immersion.
Please, game designers, don't keep making these mistakes!