MMO or Multiplayer?

I was talking with Talyn (a.k.a. Scott) from Pumping Irony over MSN earlier today. We were bantering back and forth about stuff, namely his love for DIKU style MMOs and my weak will towards trying out the next greatest (or most recently updated) MMO. Yes it was a slow day at work, I had this monster app to install which involved manually moving files around and it’s slow as hell to get going… sad thing is, I needed it for one quick test that took me two minutes. Life of a tester.

That got me thinking about why I bother flopping around. Obviously, it’s an attempt at finding that ‘wow’ moment when I first started playing MMOs. Yes, I know, that topic has been beaten to death already by myself and several others. But that thought lead me (with some prodding from Scott) into thinking whether I really want a MMO experience or not?

I think what I really want is a multiplayer game that I can play with my friends. Catch there is, few people are making multiplayer games anymore. At least not cooperative ones and not so much on the PC. I want something as robust as Oblivion and Fallout but with the ability to play with some friends too.

Scott brought up Borderlands, which looks interesting until I read the FAQ for the online play.

“No. You will only be able to play with people using the same platform as you.”

Ugh. I’m not keen on using a console for shooters. I’ve had to do that a little over the last week since I’ve played a little Halo 3 and Call of Duty: World at War with my nephews, but it just feels too alien. I need to play a lot more to get used to using the controllers.

Even then, it sounds like PS3 won’t work with XBox 360.

Still, that game might be on the right track. Multiplayer that caters to action, adventure, achievement and explorer types with a spattering of social on top.

Of course, I could just try to get people into an online NWN2 campaign or something. I do have Mask of the Betrayer I’ve barely played.

I guess I’ll shift my attention/focus away from MMOs (mainly) and move it towards multiplayer, preferably cooperative. That doesn’t mean I’m quitting any MMOs, if anything, it means I might keep DDO around a little longer.

Why cooperative?

There is only so many times you can kill your friends before they stop wanting to play with you. I like sharing an experience with friends and laughing about it later. It also seems less like you’re gloating when you’re playing cooperatively.

Found this site which seems to list some cooperative games available or going to be available soon.

Argh…

Once again, Wolfshead’s entry on the First 15 Minutes of EQ2 was not a “direct comparison”. Anyone who thinks so is either incapable of comprehending the written word or they didn’t read it and you’re going on what others have said.

Oh wait, there is another possibility, you’re a rabid fan with blinders on and you get defensive any time someone rails against your current game of choice.

I think most of us have done this at some point.

Encounter Building… (Part II)

Another one of the changes 4e makes to encounters is that it falls back to the specific XP values instead of relative XP values that 3.x used. XP is awarded based on the creature’s level and type – sort of. They’re set up as standard, solo, elite and minion where roles like soldier, skirmisher, lurker, controller, etc. are lumped together under standard. Minions are 1/4 of the XP for standard creatures of the same level, elites are about two to three times more and solo creatures are about five times the amount of standard creatures of the same level.

In 3.x you piled creatures together and tried to build into a CR or Encounter Level (EL) that matched, passed or was under the average character level depending on how tough you wanted the encounter to be. Even ELs to the average party level were supposed to consume about 30% of the group’s resources so you might have three to four encounters per adventure day, more if the EL was lower or less if the EL was higher.

It sort of made sense but our group ran into a lot of problems with it because the CR and EL calculations assumed a party of four. We have seven.  This made it tough for DMs in the past where we would overshoot the average party level by a few and assume the numbers would make up for it. At first we handled this by taking the average level and adding about two to it – this is how ELs are sort of built (if you have a CR 4 creature it’s a CR 4, if you have three CR 4 creatures it’s an EL 5).

How was that a mistake? Well, creatures CR tended to be (admittedly eyeballed by the designers) aimed at about a right level for when the party should have the means to handle or overcome the creature. For example, by the time the group has access to Raise Dead, they would start fighting creatures with instant kill type abilities. The same could be said for turning to stone or petrification abilities. You’d start seeing more creatures with these abilities.

The problem was we were running into encounters with abilities beyond what our characters were capable of handling simply because sheer numbers doesn’t easily overcome these abilities. Players would die, face really tough ACs and casters would face some pretty hefty Spell Resistance and saving throws making a lot of their magic useless.

Ultimately, it was like throwing seven Kobolds at a level 7 Wizard… the Wizard is going to destroy them with a single spell (oh hai Fireball!). Granted, it wasn’t that bad, but you get the idea.

This CR then determined how much XP the group got for defeating or surviving the encounter. Dividing this in four would be quite rewarding, but dividing it in seven, not so much. This meant facing more of these tougher encounters than designed to advance. A downside to this system is that you have a tougher time using lower CR encounters because the rewards diminish the farther below the average party CR.

We tried to fix this by putting each character level against each CR and simply dividing the reward by the number of players present. This meant a level 8 character would get more XP from an EL 10 encounter than a level 9 or level 10 character would – this makes sense and helped a little.

Eventually, we stopped calculating the group’s EL the same way we did with creatures. I’m using average level over all and building encounters to suit that. The problem there is that in some cases the encounters are far too easy, in other cases they’re not too bad. We only run into some real problems if I throw higher CRs at them or when the creatures have some pretty devastating abilities.

Downside is that advancement is slower. Upside is they get more encounters per level, at least they do when I don’t pad the XP some for RP rewards, non-combat encounters and other spot rewards.

So how is this different in 4e? 4e does not have an EL or CR. Creatures have levels which target them towards characters of equal level. They also reward set amounts of XP, it doesn’t diminish as the character goes up in level (other than it puts less of a dent in the XP req to the next level). A level 1 minion will always be worth 25 XP (then divided by the number of players).

They approach character building sort of like a point buy system. You have a design concept for the encounter and determine how much XP you want to award per character and multiply it by the number of characters in the group (obviously modules in print are aimed at a different amount,  but scaling up is not too hard with this mechanic).

Let’s say I have a party of seven level one characters and I want them to each get 300 XP from an encounter (that’s advancing them 30% towards level two so it’d be a pretty rewarding encounter). I use a pool of 2100 XP (300*7=2100) to buy up creatures.

I might use a bunch of level 1 standard creatures, say about 10 of them (10*100 = 1000) which leaves me with 1100 XP to fill out. I might pop an elite into that encounter (about 250 XP) leaving 850 XP. I might decide to pop another Elite in there or maybe add some standard creatures, maybe I use a higher level creature for the Elite. Either way, I’m left with a bunch of XP which I can spent on Minions (34 of them!) if I want.

This would end up being a pretty epic battle but also be very rewarding (as I noted above, it’s 30% of the way through first level).

If I wanted to tailor the encounter to be less rewarding but also less large scale, I might target about 100 xp per character (700XP budget) and just go with seven standard creatures or I might go with four standards and one elite.

This might sound pretty generic, but it isn’t. Consider that the second encounter could manifest as seven wolves (skirmishers) or seven spiders (lurkers) or four orcs and an ogre or maybe six acolytes and an adept of some evil god. The reward and model might seem the same, but the roles you fill it with could make things very interesting.

It’s an interesting system where the only immediate flaw I see is that a DM might target the XP reward too high relative to the character’s level. There is no (as far as I read) obvious mechanic for a DM to look at an encounter and decide whether it is too tough or too weak other than the total XP reward.

They have kept the Encounter Level mechanic and it is supposed to work by comparing it against the group’s level. It is supposed to wirk similar to ELs in 3.5e with lower ELs are easier, higher ones are more challenging but I don’t know how they get that number. Looking through some of the adventures, I see several that are EL 1 and one that is actually an EL 6. Total XP rewards are pretty high, but I’m not sure where the EL is calculated from. (I’ll look at that up and post it when I get a chance.)

UPDATE: There is a table in the DMG that lists the XP target, size of the group (4, 5 and 6) and what EL it would be for that group.

Now I’m thinking about how this can be adapted and adopted in my 3.5e campaign. It’s not really easy because the XP reward for a creature is really relative (creature CR:groupCL). I suppose I could resolve the XP reward for each CL and use that for a cost to pull from the pool, but I’m not sure how that will work.

Temptations…

I’ve been pretty good this week about not logging into WoW outside of the times I said I wouldn’t. However, I haven’t yet nipped the habit of staying up late (11-midnight). I seem to be filling that time slot with TV or reading through sourcebooks because I’m just too mentally tired to work on work stuff or do some reading for new tech which would require non-fun reading.

I do feel the need to fill that time with something else and MMOs jump to the fore along with some computer games.

I’ve been tempted to pick up Storms of Zehir because Chris (wrote a review which I posted here) is still playing it a ton as are some of the people I work with. Just the mention of it and some of the mechanics was almost enough to get me to down load it. Of course, I then considered that I haven’t played through Mask of the Betrayer yet and I’m holding off on Storms of Zehir until I play that one. I’ve lost my character that beat NWN2 and haven’t been able to get into characters created in MoB. Maybe I’ll create Lannister there…

Aside from that, people have been talking about DDO a fair bit, including two guys from my D&D group who are anxiously awaiting the F2P version of it. That is pretty tempting but I think I’m going to wait until the F2P version is out so I can be sure it won’t crash on start up on me like it did last time.

The other MMO that has me curious is… Darkfall. Believe it or not, I actually registered an account but haven’t bought the game. It’s very tempting but I think doing that would be counter productive to my attempts at focusing on things outside of games in my free (non-family consumed) time.

It’s all just so accessible.

Another temptation has been to send my parents a copy of WoW so they could get into it. I’m sure my Dad would be all over it. He’s still playing Oblivion over and over, making all sorts of characters and builds. He’d be all over the auction house and play it like it was the focus of the game. It’s tempting, but I’m not sure I should – do you think I’d play less knowing my folks are on there too? That’s sort of holding me back from doing that even though I’m pretty sure they’d both enjoy various aspects of the game.

Heh.

Encounter Building…

The more and more I DM in D&D 3.5e, the more and more I realize creating encounters is presented in a poor light. It’s too complicated without enough variation in what a DM can (if they strictly follow the rules) throw at a group.

3.5e creatures have a base stat block which can be advanced or you might slap a special template on there (fiendish, half-dragon, zombie, etc.) and that is how you customize them. This involves a fair bit of elbow grease but once you do the work you can re-use it to some degree.

The failing there is that everything goes up.

Confused?

I’ll use an encounter from last night as an example. The group solidified from their Wind Walk traveling on some ice near an iceberg. Some of them heard some shouts from the nearby ship that brought them here (here being Frostfell in Eberron). Looking up to the ship they say an oversized Sahaugin on the edge of the ship being fended off by the crew.

The Sahaugin was advanced from the normal HD range up to where it would be Large sized and have considerably more HD so it could stand a round of pelting from the party (effectively, a CR 10 creature). I did tie a custom template on but I’m not going to go into specifics because some of the group reads this blog.

The crew was supposed to be semi-weak but I didn’t want them to seem entirely incompetent. There were two factions to the crew; one side that was honest and another that was dishonest – the people hiring missed the Sense Motive check that would have indicated these guys were kind of shady. Once the Sahaugin was dealt with, the ‘bad guys’ decided it was time to steal the ship – they didn’t expect the group to have quick means of crossing a 20 foot gap.

That is where the problem comes up. To make them capable, I’d have to level them up some. By doing so, the end up with more HPs and saving throw abilities than I’d want but the area I wanted them to advance in didn’t go up a whole lot. In short, I wanted minions (4e term) that go down quick if you focus on them but who are capable of hitting and doing damage to the players. The squishy nature I was aiming for was lost.

Now they didn’t last more than two swings, but the intent was for them to be taken down in one shot. The idea behind that was to let characters with Cleave and Greater Cleave have a chance to use them and create some imagery of heroes mowing through enemies, thereby saving the ship. Yes, I could have fudged the HPs to make that happen, but it’s not in the nature of the game system to do that. I was trying to make it work within the system.

Bottom line is that it doesn’t.

Now none of the characters there had Greater Cleave. The group has learned long ago that it is a wasted feat because when you get higher in levels, you’re less likely to get more than one ‘cleave’ opportunity per round.

That is part of the problem with the system. Everything scales up as the characters (or NPCs) level. What I wanted was some guys with a semi-decent AC, low HPs and decent ATK rolls. Can’t do it unless I just make it happen and completely forsake the rules. The other place this fails (horribly) is in the XP rewards. Because the ‘bad guys’ were low level, the EL was barely anything to the group so it wasn’t so rewarding on the XP front.

My group members can tune out, go back to surfing porn or what ever, because I’m about to talk about 4e.

This is one thing I believe 4e does better and I’m trying to squeeze some of their concepts into 3.5e. I thought I could make it happen, but it seems like 3.5e is making some pretty high saving throws.

4e has ‘classes’ for creatures. This is different from character classes, it’s more of a category that can define the intent of the creature or how it should be played – sort of. I don’t have all the specifics here, but what I was looking for above is what is actually called a ‘minion’ in 4e. Minions tend to be very squishy (in fact, I believe they only ever get 1 hp), they don’t reward a lot of XP but they do reward some and they can still have skills or attack bonuses that make them a threat that needs to be dealt with.

Oddly enough, the ‘boss’ type class is actually ‘solo’. Most MMO folks will do a double take on that, I know I did. It’s not that the creature can be ‘soloed’, it’s that the creature is enhanced or beefed up to the point where it should be the only creature in the encounter.

I don’t remember all the others, but it included things like ‘controller’, ‘soldier’, ‘brute’, ‘artillery’, ‘skirmisher’ and ‘lurker’ as categories. Most people have an immediate idea of what the roles for those categories are. Same goes for the DM. Neat thing is you might have the same creature type slotted into those roles or swap out certain roles with other creatures. You might build an encounter of lurkers or brutes and mix soldiers with artillery.

EDIT: They also have two other designations that apply on top of those roles, the “leader” and “elite”. Leaders have additional abilities that work much like Leader type classes for PCs – they can grant bonuses to their allies abilities making them worth focusing on where possible. Elite types are stronger than normal creatures (but not Solo types) and replace two-three of the regular types. They’re useful for eliminating excess numbers in an encounter so instead of having five ogres, you might have two ogres and one elite ogre.

This is the direction they took with the MM entries in 4e. Instead of getting one or two stat blocks for a creature you get a bunch that fill different roles or scale up to other level tiers for you.

That’s a big part of how they allow a DM to whip up a session or encounter on the fly without a lot of prep work before hand.

I’ll definitely be investigating this a bit more and trying out some other concepts on my group. I’m about to run them through a Dungeon magazine (4e) adventure, modified to suit the story and with the creatures converted as much as I can. Hopefully the ‘design’ of the encounter doesn’t get lost in translation.

Bias is a Funny Thing…

It always amazes me when examples of how someone’s experiences, preferences or mood can affect how they interpret things surface on the blogosphere. It really is incredible how large numbers of people can read the same thing and come away with different feelings or views on it.

I love it.

I’m just happy it’s the (MMO) blogosphere and not my D&D group message boards!