Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Probability Part 1: Randomness is a A**hole

I am talking about probability in this post. All discussions of probability involve foul language on my part. Consider yourself forewarned.

Play enough games and you will start thinking about odds. How often can you succeed? How often will you fail? The fact that games use dice (and sometimes cards) to generate success and failure makes the odds easy to figure out. Rather than dig into details and figure out the odds, a lot of my gamer brethren dive into the world of luck, superstition, and even prayer (Seen it once. It worked). For the rest of us there is the angry tentacle monster known as probability theory. We are subject to its random outcomes every time we roll the dice, and most of us never really take the time to understand it.

One of the most infuriating concepts in probability is the idea randomness. For me, it helps to think of the concept as an old-school Greek god. His name is Kaos and he's an asshole. Kaos does not care about you at all. He gives no shits about who you are, what you've done, or what you want. He doesn't love you, but he doesn't hate you either, but he sure as hell isn't listening to you. You are less than an ant to him. In addition to the not caring about you, he has all sorts of other problems. Most important, his memory is so bad that he makes Alzheimer's sufferers look like they have photographic memories. He pretty much forgets things as they happen, leaving him totally clueless as to anything in the past. He also can't look into the future. I'm not talking about prophecy here. I mean he can't plan where to go for lunch, or even how he will spend the next five minutes, or five seconds. That shit is just beyond him.

So what does this crazy bastard do? He shouts out numbers because he thinks it's funny. Every time you roll a die Kaos gleefully yells out the number he wants to see. He can't remember what the last roll was, and he has no clue what he'll want on the next one, but in the moment he will be happy with his choice and you get to suffer the consequences. On the next roll he might shout the same number, or he might not. He doesn't know what he's going to do. If you stand far enough back from this insane amnesiac bastard you can suss out a few things. Mainly, he likes all the numbers about the same, so if you listen to him shout a few million times, then all 6 numbers on your six-sided die will come up about the same amount. Thing is though, they often don't. You look in there and find the asshole deity called out 3 twenty times in a row just for shits and giggles. Another time he went over a hundred tosses without calling 6. Bottom line: randomness means there's no pattern and you cannot predict future outcomes of the dice. You are at the whim of an insane God on the worst power trip imaginable.
All you can do is play the odds and remember that each toss of the die is totally new to Kaos and you and all outcomes are equally likely. Unless the die lands balanced on an edge. In that case the asshole has noticed you and is totally fucking with you. Roll again and keep in mind he just forgot what he was doing.

Summing Up
You cannot defeat Kaos. You cannot outplay him. His power is narrow but unstoppable. To all those gamblers out there thinking their number is due, it isn't. Kaos doesn't care about your bullshit. To all those players who think their dice are hot, cold, or hating you. You're wrong. Kaos doesn't care about you either.

But I will leave you on a hopeful note. Despite all of Kaos' power and indifference, he has a glaring weakness that we can twist and exploit: he's an idiot. He can only call his numbers. He has to call his numbers. Knowing this, we can bend those numbers to our will. Next time, I will explain how.

Monday, 6 July 2015

These Hands Are Not Idle

No posts don’t necessarily mean no work. I have been doing stuff, and perhaps even things of late. Outrider Studios’ webpage, after languishing in update purgatory is looking clean and spiffy with a new sleek design that I had absolutely nothing to do with. I just saw the finished product, and said, “ Ooh, that looks good.” I might take a more active role in redesigning some of our sub-sections, but we will wait and see on that.

As for Me
I’ve been working on Warbirds… stuff. We are almost there on a few new bits and pieces for the game. As per usual, I can’t talk specifics or deadlines. Keep your eyes open, and we will announce something soon enough. My other Warbirds project is one I can talk about: I’ve been running it for my weekly D&D group. We took the summer off from the 5th Edition to do some other games and give the new kids some non D&D experience. Right now I am running a Warbirds mini-series, and will follow it up with some Wars of the Star kind.

So far Warbirds has been a big hit with the players, but they keep running into what I would call “conversion problems.” The players like the setting, and they like the fast, variable air combat, but they are having some trouble with converting from the D&D mindset. Most of them build characters with good air combat abilities (a Warbirds design feature) but without great personal combat skills, and thus they should be avoiding personal combat at all costs. Yet time and again they stand their ground when they should run for the copious amounts of cover that I am always sure to provide. In other words, they keep getting shot. Now I designed the rules with a lot of give in them to allow PCs to get in Pulp gun battles without them all ending up in the ER, but I have actually had to relax the rules even further just to keep players playing. Here’s the hack I made for my own game.

Warbirds Alternate Injury Rules “It Ain’t Nothin’”
If you want to have maximum heroic action with minimal injury interruptions you can employ the “It Ain’t Nothin’” rules. Under these rules, characters knocked out of the fight never stay out for long. A character with the Medicine skill can make a difficulty 6 roll to immediately give a character back one point of health. This will probably take the form of a quick bandage followed by an injection of painkillers and adrenaline. On a failed roll the character remains out of the fight until the end of the scene, at which point the character gains back one health as if they were down but not out. Success on the roll immediately makes the character up and fighting,  and they can act normally (with the listed penalty) on their next action. Remaining injuries heal at the standard rate. These rules no longer apply when a character’s life goes on the line.

Some Madness
One or two of my players fell in love with the Mad Science in Warbirds, and one made it his sole goal to become a mad scientist. Being a magnanimous being, I indulged him. He then discovered that Mad Science is expensive. Even buying a basic workbench requires Fame 3. The high barrier to entry keeps Mad Science rare, and makes the Mad Scientist PC really earn their cool toys. My player, however, wanted a shortcut. Being a malicious being, I indulged him. So I created a new Mad Science item:

Discount Workbench
Cost: Fame 2
Mad Scientists love shortcuts, and starting mad scientists need shortcuts just to get started. Those who cannot afford full price for proper tools can cheap out on the hardware, and get inventing right away. This discount workbench looks like a normal workbench, but is made with defective materials, sub-standard parts, and shoddy workmanship. Its storage containers leak, its tools rust, and the whole thing starts to stink something fierce a few weeks after it’s installed. The workbench functions exactly as it should until the Mad Scientist fails a creation or maintenance roll. After the failed roll the GM may force the scientist to take a critical failure (“It’s Perfect!”) regardless of the actual dice outcome. The GM has total control over which rolls are regular failures and which ones are critical, leaving the Mad Scientist character confused as to what is actually going on. Alternately, the GM can roll a d6 with a 50/50 outcome: 1-3 regular failure, 4-6 critical failure.

Other Work
A young gamer approached me about taking a look at his game. My first action was to try waiving him off the whole RPG creation gig. It’s not that I don’ want young people creating new RPGs, I do. It’s just that I want them to do it with their eyes open. I told him all the standard stuff about how there’s almost no money to be made, and making RPGs has more to do with seeing ideas through than having the next great idea (I think everyone has the next great idea at some point. I have at least 2). After my wave-off attempts I tentatively agreed to give his work the editorial once over. I don’t know where this will go, but... I'm an editor now, hooray?

(Cait, Patrick, I just want to be clear that I am in no way shape or form an editor and the work that you do is both brilliant and vital to the company's continued success. Love you guys!)

Next time I will get technical. I want to about to talk about the probability monster.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Steve Versus Homeworld

I've been gaming for quite a few years now, but I have actually been playing video games far longer than I have been playing tabletop games. I didn't play my first tabletop game until about 1993, maybe 92. In contrast, I played my first video game on the old Vic 20 computer system in the early 80's. In honour of my long video game history, I am going to discuss my experience with a single game: Relic's 1999 RTS classic, Homeworld.

Steve's (Lack of) Skills
First, some background on my video game abilities. Despite many, many hours of dedicated play, I am pretty bad at most video games. Over the years there has been 1 or 2 that I played enough to be passable at, but I have never been a top skilled player. The reasons for this are varied, but I will focus on a few highlights. Reason the first:I am a clumsy, uncoordinated sort of person. I don't excel at sports, music, dancing, or anything that requires grace or timing. This carries over into my fine motor skills. My so-called "twitch" reflexes are always a little behind.Playing any sort of game that requires twitch reflexes ends with me losing, especially if I'm playing against other humans. Reason the second: I have a bad habit of engaging in "non-optimal play". My competitive spirit seems to be a little lackluster, so instead of finding the optimal way to win a game, I tend to pursue a strategy that matches my mood. I know this is non-optimal, and I just don't care. Winning is just not important enough to me for me to ruin whatever "idea" I have in my head for what a game should be. These reasons, combined with several others, are why I prefer tabletop RPGs.

The Damned Game
Homeworld released back in 1999. I was in my 3rd year of college. I remember the advertisements for Homeworld in the pages of gaming magazines from the time (magazines made of real paper!). At first I was confused at what Homeworld was, then I became skeptical, and then finally excited by the hype. How could I not?
This is from 1999. It still looks pretty damn awesome

I pre-ordered Homeworld, upgraded my computer to run it, bought it on release day, and dived into its brilliance. The game blew me away. Its music is still with me, with its beautiful choirs and haunting melodies. The voice acting matched the music, with awesome chatter for combat ships, and subtle, nuanced voices for major characters. The game had a graphical fidelity unlike anything I had seen in 99, and ship designs were excellent.

That just leaves gameplay. Homeworld is a 3D real-time strategy with spaceships. You collect resources, build units, and wage war. The game has a limited resource bottleneck, forcing you to make tough decisions about which ships to build, how to employ them, and how much you are willing to risk. After each mission, surviving members of your fleet can carry on to the next, making risk management even more important. The other thing to note: It's tough. Homeworld has no difficulty settings, it has a set difficulty for you to overcome and it sets the bar high.

Repeated Failures
I love Homeworld, but I have never beaten it. I tried first in 99, and then again maybe 2 years later. I forgot about it for over a decade, but I found an old copy on Amazon back in 2012. I was surprised when the old game worked on my system at all, but I was most surprised when things went even worse for me this time around. I am terrible at this game.

Non-Optimal Play
So let's talk strategy. Why do suck so bad at Homeworld? The answer is I'm playing it "wrong". I looked at a bunch of strategy guides, and they all recommended the same optimal strategy: Don't kill enemy ships. First you damage them a bunch, and then send in your salvage ship to steal them and re-purpose them. Build your fleet up by stealing the enemy's and making it your own. This alleviates the resource bottleneck, and allows you to build a large and powerful fleet. 

Fuck. That. Noise.
I am not playing this game to wound and salvage the enemy. I'm playing to kill him and avenge my people! (the story of the game puts me on solid ground with this one). Wounding and stealing enemy ships gives me ZERO satisfaction. I want blast my enemy into space dust. Apparently, this desire to engage in this fun but non-optimal play style cripples my chances at beating this game. Well, I don't care. I am in this to destroy my enemies, and that is exactly what I will do.

Last Chance to Dance
This extended rant comes on the heels of the HD re-release of Homeworld. It's a beautiful remastering of the original game, and I am looking forward to playing it one last time. Will I play the game differently? A little. I will be more careful about ship losses and how I spend resources. I will quicksave frequently and not be afraid to lose progress to try something over in a better way. But I will not abandon my non-optimal play. Doing so, despite the higher probability of success that it will bring, would make the game un-fun. I do want to win, but I want to win on my terms. Anything less would be cheating. It would not be cheating the game, but cheating myself, and that is something I cannot do.

We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming later. Right now, I have a fleet to command and enemy ships to destroy.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Creative Construction

After a long absence that I will not be explaining for once, I am back. Let’s just dive right in.

My weekly 5th Edition game continues at the local game store. Life does obstruct this game from time to time, but I persevere, and my players are seeming to have a good time. Today’s blog is about last week’s adventure, and specifically, the monster I put in it. 

Quick back story: the PCs are working for a powerful church in the hopes of earning a resurrection for their dead comrade. While on a mission, one player used a very unreliable artifact to save the day. The side-effect was the opening of a sealed gate to some demon dimension or other. The players had to then travel to gate and close it with the same unreliable artifact. Problem in the way: Something got out.

That something was a nameless horror. It being nameless, I get to name it, so I shall name it Phil. Phil was a fun challenge for the PCs, primarily because they didn’t know what to expect. You can’t find Phil in any monster manual or guidebook. I made Phil entirely from scratch… or did I?

Phil is a giant, blind, enormous crab monster with dozens of spear-like segmented legs. He radiates fear like a dragon, casts magical darkness at will,  has 300 hp, AC 20, and a fun attack mechanism. His spear-legs tap their surroundings to echolocate their targets and then strike with such unerring precision that it’s a dex save to avoid them. Every round that a PC stays in range of Phil’s claws, more legs strike out, doing more and more damage as his targeting solution improves. For the record, I like Phil.

So why is Phil the way he is? Because he was custom built for facing the party. I designed him to take on all the PCs at once, inflict damage that got worse as the fight went along, and included multiple ways to get around him (which no one noticed or bothered to use). In the end, the party beat Phil down, but not before he savaged several of the PCs and dropped two of them to 0 HP.

Afterwards, one of my players, a young teen (most of my players are young teens), asked me how I thought him up. I didn’t give a very satisfactory response, and said something like, “I’ve been playing RPGs for over 20 years, and designing them for 5, I just kinda figured it out.” So young player (who is also an aspiring GM) here’s how I thought up Phil.

Time Crunch
I knew I was working with limited time. My game had to run in under 4 hours, and there was a lot of stuff leading up to Phil, so I had to limit the time allotted for the final battle. That means one big boss instead of a group or team of bosses. 1 boss means less book keeping, a simpler combat sequence, and less for everyone to keep track of. Despite the Phil’s heap of hit points, and high AC, running one big bad is faster and easier than lots. Also, Phil’s attacks were all saves made by the PCs instead of me rolling the dice. This meant there was even less for me to track.

Large Party
Phil needed to take on 7-9 PCs so to make a threat I need him to be able to do a lot in a round. He also needed to survive a lot of punishment, as I know my PCs can pour out buckets of damage. The first idea that came to mind was an octopus or other larger creature with lots of limbs. Phil got his armoured carapace (and thus high AC) from a similar monster in the first half-life video game, that giant spikey crab monster was terrifying then. I’m sure it would be now. So Phil can attack a lot, and he can hit every PC every turn. His armour class makes him hard to hit, and his high HP ensures the PCs won’t take him out with a few lucky hits.

Creating Fear
Phil is scary. He lurks in darkness,  and taps at his surroundings to “see.” I got the idea of an echolocating monster from a recent episode of NPR that talked about blind people using clicking noises to echolocate. I knew that knocking on the table like Phil’s claws would build tension before I revealed him. Phil had the magical fear spell to back me up on creating tension, but I knew it would be better to pull it off by making him menacing before the fear spell hit. Once the PC’s dispelled Phil’s darkness I tried to describe him as being as alien as possible, and tap into that innate human fear of things we don’t understand. I was aiming for something akin to a Cthulhu Mythos horror, I’m not sure how well that worked out, but the players seemed nervous and off-put, so I achieved at least some success.

Phil was not a true Cthulhu monster in that he could be killed, and he had certain built-in weaknesses. The biggest weakness, that only some of the PCs realized, is that Phil was immobile. They found him hulking over a vineyard structure in partially destroyed convent that contained the aforementioned dimensional gate (sidenote: Convent with demon gate is an idea straight-up lifted from a New Orleans ghost tour I attended the week before the game). Phil was stuck, though, he could lash out with his spear claws, but he lacked the strength to drag his armoured carapace anywhere. Several of the PCs realized this, held back, and attacked at range. Phil could only return fire with a relatively weak firebolt spell. Phil’s second main weakness was spin-up: he need  several rounds of targeting a PC before his attacks did full damage. If the characters had played smarter, moving in and then out of range of his attacks, they would have faced a much lower risk.

Ultimate Demise
Those who take great risk earn great reward when they succeed. One of my PC’s allowed himself to be impaled by Phil in the hopes of getting in closer for a better attack. Phil did his level best to devour this daring fellow, but failed, so when Phil’s HP got low, I planned to let this PC land the killing blow. As it turns out, the PC landed the attack that crossed the 300 HP threshold, so there didn’t have to be any fudging of the numbers on my part. Phil died and the PC’s then closed the breach. A good time was had by all, except for Phil. 

In Conclusion
I created Phil to fulfill a specific need in a very specific amount of time. I gave him stats that I knew would work for my game, and drew inspiration from science, Cthulhu mythos, aquatic creatures, psychology, legends, and video games. No part of Phil is truly original, but my blending of so many elements hopefully made him seem as though he was. By building my own monster I put all of the players back on their heels, creating the uncertainty and fear that people feel when they face the unknown. Phil fought, Phil died, and the PCs prevailed. 

Good game, Phil.
Rest in peace.