Browsing the blog archives for August, 2008

Steamed

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Games, Personal, Technology

For those of you who don’t know, last weekend was a “free demo” of Team Fortress 2 for people who don’t already own it. I know a couple of people who wanted to try it out, so we coordinated a little get-together to play together so I could show them some of the ropes.

Now — I expected it to be extremely busy. And it was. What I didn’t expect was that Steam would not even let me start a program on my own computer. The message I got was along the lines of “Our servers are too busy to allow you to start this program.” Come again?

This is the stupidity of schemes like this. I can’t even start a program that’s on my own computer. And it’s not like this game is like World of Warcraft or any other game where you’re constantly connected to a game developer hosted server. Once you’re in the game you’ve got your local client and a server hosted somewhere else, there’s no step involved where communicating with Valve is required at all, so it’s just a matter of copy protection schemes getting in the way of me playing the game.

Comparing Feats

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Games, Tabletop

In 4th Edition D&D there are two generic feats that I’m considering taking. I wanted to do a bit of math to see which was better, and I figured this might be useful for other people as well.

Feat 1: Toughness
Effect: Gain 5 additional hit points per tier (ie, gain 15 total HP over the life of your character).

Feat 2: Durable
Effect: Gain 2 additional healing surges.

On the surface, these seem pretty similar. I want to look at the breakdown at a couple different points to see how that pans out.

Scenario 1:

Blank
Wizard, 10 Con
Level 1 HP: 20
Level 1 Healing Surge: 5
Healing Surges: 6
Cumulative HP: 50
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 61
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 60

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Wizard, 10 Con
Level 11 HP: 60
Level 11 Healing Surge: 15
Healing Surges: 6
Cumulative HP: 150
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 172
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 180

Blank
Wizard, 10 Con
Level 21 HP: 100
Level 21 Healing Surge: 25
Healing Surges: 6
Cumulative HP: 250
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 283
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 300

Scenario 2:
Wizard, 18 Con
Level 1 HP: 28
Level 1 Healing Surge: 7
Healing Surges: 9
Cumulative HP: 91
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 105
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 105

Wizard, 18 Con
Level 11 HP: 68
Level 11 Healing Surge: 17
Healing Surges: 9
Cumulative HP: 221
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 249
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 255

Wizard, 18 Con
Level 21 HP: 108
Level 21 Healing Surge: 27
Healing Surges: 9
Cumulative HP: 351
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 393
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 405

Scenario 3:
Dragonborn Paladin, 18 Con
Level 1 HP: 33
Level 1 Healing Surge: 11
Healing Surges: 13
Cumulative HP: 176
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 194
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 198

Dragonborn Paladin, 18 Con
Level 11 HP: 93
Level 11 Healing Surge: 26
Healing Surges: 13
Cumulative HP: 431
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 467
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 483

Dragonborn Paladin, 18 Con
Level 21 HP: 153
Level 21 Healing Surge: 41
Healing Surges: 13
Cumulative HP: 686
With Toughness, Cumulative HP: 753
With Durable, Cumulative HP: 768

In conclusion, it looks like Durable is the overall winner, especially when we consider that HP continues to rise all the way to 30th level. With another 9 levels of HP, the amount of healing done by a Healing Surge will continue to increase, making each of those two additional healing surges more worthwhile.

However, Toughness is surprisingly better than you’d expect, and for the most part keeps pace with Durable. It’s also got the benefit in that it’s actually increasing your real HP pool, meaning you’re slightly harder to take down in a fight all things being equal.

4th Edition Flaws, part 2

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Games, Tabletop

I mentioned in my previous post how I was kind of unhappy about how my Warlock (ranged striker) plays compared to some of the other classes in the game.

As I already said, it seems like melee-oriented attack bonuses fly around a lot more than spell-based ranged attack bonuses. You’ve got an ability modifier, you’ve got a weapon proficiency, you’ve got feats, you’ve got combat advantage through flanking, and you’ve got a lot of stacking buffs from support classes.

I also feel compelled to mention that pretty much every spell is ranged 10 (Magic Missle is the exception), where bows are ranged 20. And, I’m sorry to say, but ranged 10 is just silly. Most things in the game move 6 squares. Elves move 7. You can double move and not incur any sort of defensive penalty, and easily get yourself into melee combat with a ranged combatant. I’m not really interested in realism here, but I’d think that, the point of ranged attacks being to shoot enemies at range, that you’d be able to hope for at least one round of firing before enemies are upon you.

I haven’t found this particularly problematic, but mainly because my character doesn’t pose an exceptional threat that deserves going out of the way to target. At least in my understanding, a Striker character is supposed to be doing substantially more damage than other characters. Not so. I find that other members of the party regularly hit as hard as I do.

Why? Again, that there are substantially more feats and cooperative abilities dealing with boosting weapon damage than there are for spell damage. The few feats that exist for spells are relatively unimpressive in comparison (being designed for the Wizard’s AoE attacks, rather than the Warlock’s single-target damage). And at this point I just don’t have the confidence that I’ll be making a good choice — Assuming we play to say 15th level, who’s going to say I’ll still want a feat that only affects Fire damage? Unlike a weapon user, a spellcaster can’t count on something that applied to his spell continuing to apply to future spells.

Another example: Warlocks have a ability called Curse they can apply to the nearest enemy, and when they damage that target they do 1d6 additional damage. Rangers have an ability called Quarry that they can choose on an enemy, and when they damage that target they do 1d6 additional damage. Rogues get a similar ability in Sneak Attack. Both Rogues and Rangers get a feat which increases this additional damage from d6 to d8. Warlocks don’t.

In fact, as a whole, the Warlock has almost no choices. At level one you choose your “pact.” Your pact grants you your two known at-will powers, you do not get a choice. Once you have chosen your pact you have already chosen your paragon path, because they are tied together. There are only four feats specifically for Warlocks in the entire book, and three of them tie into which one of the three pacts you chose (you only can choose the feat associated with your pact).

Even though I’ve been kind of anti-supplement for awhile now, I’m actually looking forward to whatever splatbook Wizards may put out for arcane casters, because the Warlock is sorely lacking in options, and they really do need substantial improvement in terms of choices to stand up to other classes.

4th Edition Flaws, part 1

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Games, Tabletop

So I’ve been playing in my group’s 4th Edition campaign for awhile now, and I think I’ve got a good enough handle on the game so far to feel out things that could be done better.

4th Edition is pretty convoluted when it comes to tactics. Once a combat gets going, you’ve got every class slinging around some kind of marker onto enemies, or enemies slinging them back. Positioning matters, and there are a number of abilities that allow constant repositioning. When people say 4th Edition is a miniatures game they’re not kidding – I don’t see any way to play this game except with miniatures.

The character I’m playing is a Warlock (a ranged striker), and I’m noticing a couple of things about the game.

Typically, when a character makes an attack, they roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier and a weapon proficiency bonus. That’s all well and good, except as a Warlock I don’t get a weapon proficiency bonus, because all of my attacks are “spells” and don’t use a weapon. On the plus side, my attacks aren’t usually hitting enemies’ Armor Class, but rather their Fortitude, Reflex, or Will defenses. This means I can potentially target the enemy’s weakest defense, which will compensate for not having a weapon proficiency bonus.

Thing is, how am I as a player supposed to determine what defense is an enemy’s weakest defense? I’ve purposefully avoided looking through the Monster Manual and finding info on enemies the GM has thrown at us, but it seems like I’m just hamstringing myself. As far as I’m aware there’s no game mechanic I can use to say, “I want to look at this creature and assess its weaknesses.” Sure, you can guess the extreme cases reliably – The musclebound savage, the darting creature, the brain in a jar – but the problem is when you’re talking about Joe Goblin who has a 15 in everything except Fortitude. You can’t even count on spellcasters having low Fortitude anymore because lots of spells factor in Constitution, and Intelligence counts as a Reflex defense.

Furthermore, it seems like melee combat is, frankly, just a lot more interesting tactically. If a combatant charges they can gain a +1 bonus to an attack roll. If you’ve got a friendly Cleric nearby, they can use Righteous Brand to give you a bonus to hit equal to their Strength modifier. If you’ve got a Warlord, they can allow you to shift a square (great for setting up flanks, which grant +2 to attack rolls against the flanked target) with Wolf Pack tactics, or boost attack and damage by his Charisma modifier with Furious Smash. And all of this before you consider things like feats that can add further bonuses to weapon users, but are basically entirely lacking for spell-based attacks. In short, there are a lot of cumulative conditions and interesting interparty tactics that take place for melee characters, and not so much for ranged.

It’s a bit of a nuisance to feel like the game has purposefully left my character out of “the loop” of combat tactics. Where everyone else is constantly coordinating with other characters, my choices are mainly about where I move, which enemy I target (The already-beat-up one, or the one who is hanging back?) and what attack to use to try and get a better chance to hit. It’s a lot more interesting than 3rd Edition on an individual level, surely. But none of these choices really play into the fun of coordinating with other people, except on the level of “I’m going to attack the guy back there so he doesn’t try to shoot at you guys.” Sure, that’s a valuable role. But it’s nothing like saying, “I’ve marked this guy, you move here, provoking an attack from him, but I’ve got this bonus going from another party member, and when he goes to attack you, my mark activates I will attack again with all X, Y, and Z that we have synchronized for this perfect moment of execution.”

When you can pull something off like that with your friends it feels great. When you’re off on your own rolling your d20 and hoping to make a difference in the big picture? Not quite as much.

The Watchmen Is Horrible

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Art, Culture

After seeing The Dark Knight recently and being exposed to The Watchmen trailer, I finally decided to sit down and see what this graphic novel was all about. Surely, I thought, there must be a reason why this graphic novel is universally lauded in this subculture. So I read The Watchmen.

I don’t regret reading it at all. But I do regret forgetting that most people have no taste, and those who aren’t, the ones who are always promulgating the comic-books-as-serious-art-form idea, are aspiring-to-be tasteless. That’s my fault for forgetting that these people are just remora catching on to the big sharks in the water.

On some levels I think The Watchmen is kind of interesting. It’s got an ending which is such a huge Deus Ex Machina that it puts Deus Ex Machina to shame. At least in a Greek play, if you are going to have a Deus Ex Machina, the existence of said god is understood to be true within the context of the world of the play. Which is to say, if Orestes is being chased by the Furies, and he cries out to Athena to save him — And then she comes and saves him — The world of the play has already established for us that Athena exists, and if she comes flying in on stage it’s not breaking any of our expectations. Now if, say, we were watching a play about say, Willy Loman, and in the final act Athena pops in without being mentioned at any point prior in the play — That’s exactly what the climax of The Watchmen is.*

Then we’ve got the whole Black Freighter incident, which in some ways reminds me of the Greek Chorus. I suppose the main difference being, the Greek Chorus actually served a purpose beyond reiterating and framing the action onstage — They served both an aesthetic and narrative purpose in driving the story. The Black Freighter, on the other hand, pretty much drags the whole plot down for me. Yes, yes, parallelism, get on with it. This whole side-narrative actively reduced my enjoyment of the main narrative, with nothing more to show for it than my own irritation at the pretense of parallelism equalling depth.

And, well, there are about a hundred other reasons that this comic was an unenjoyable read for me, from its lax worldbuilding to its unlikeable characters. But more importantly, I think is addressing the idea why Watchmen receives all the praise anyway — “It was the first.”

While Art History and the like loves to make a big deal out of firsts — The modern realm of literary and art theorization is built up on a foundation of incestual and incessant self-referencing, and it’s easy to point to firsts (or, more commonly, to designate a first). But I’m not particularly fond of this sort of notion of “progress,” at least not beyond the idea of sophistication of craftsmanship.

So while The Watchmen may have been first, I think it’s pretty inevitable that lessons in characterization learned from books, plays, television, and movies would have come to comics with or without The Watchmen. The cross-pollination is inevitable given the universality of media. And concurrent works like The Dark Knight Returns pretty much prove the point. The innovation here in being first (or rather, being designated first for expediency in a certain critical narrative) was coming, whether or not Watchmen came about. There’s probably even room to argue that, due to The Watchmen being raised up by certain cultural activists, the process was actually retarded.

The Watchmen’s major appeal to me was in the ways it utilized the comic medium in ways that many other comics I’ve seen do not do. And, although I can respect the technical merit of multiple encroaching simultaneous narratives like we have with the Black Freighter, the virtuosity of this technique doesn’t add to the story, or otherwise make for a more entertaining experience.

The closest analog that comes to mind is the virtuoso guitar work common in metal bands — As incredible as it may be to be able to play with that level of intensity, the end result is often less viscerally satisfying than more simplistic but well-executed musicianship. Even on the intellectual level where I can appreciate what Alan Moore is trying to do, the experience is often marred by Moore’s own craziness (The most apparent case-in-point, how he takes psychic power as a given in the story of The Watchmen).

I have a bit of trepidation about the upcoming movie — On the one hand, I fully expect audiences to hate it. It’s a bleak story, it’s a complex story, and it’s nothing like you’d expect from a “comic book movie.” That gives me a bit of hope, because even though we may hate this comic book for different reasons, at least it might become culturally acceptable to point out that it’s bad.
On the other hand, I also expect that if people are primed enough about how “good” Watchmen is, they’ll believe it even if they don’t actually like it. In which case it will be even more frustrating, because instead of hearing from one random person how cool it is when Dr. Manhattan demolecularizes some Viet Cong, I’ll have to hear about it from every random ten year old with an internet connection.

*I am not referring to genetic engineering here, since the universe of The Watchmen establishes genetic engineering. I’m referring to other aspects of the plan which are in-credible.

Diablo 2 Was Not Grey

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Art, Games

Apparently, after the Diablo 3 announcement and promotional/demonstrational videos, a couple thousand deluded Diablo 2 fans signed a petition asking for the colors in Diablo 3 to be toned down. This was followed by some silly Photoshop dabblers using the desaturate slider on some of Blizzard’s screenshots to turn down the intensity of the beautiful colors and effects Blizzard has shown to us so far.

So now the Art Director for Diablo 3 has sat down and taken a look at the screenshots and made some comments on why they chose the art direction they did. It’s a pretty interesting look into the rationale of their choices, although the reasons should be pretty apparent– Nevertheless, for things that seem obvious when spoken about in design principle terms, a lot of smart people consistently get this wrong in practice. So perhaps worth reiterating.

The most amusing bit of this story for me is just the patina of nostalgia that is obvious from people who are petitioning for a “darker” feel. Diablo 2 was not all that “dark” at all. 4/5 acts had major overland areas that were substantially non-greyscale. The lands around Tristram, the desert, the jungles of Kurast, and the Barbarian homelands… None of these were dominated by a grey color palette, not even the snowy areas of act 5. Act 4 was pretty grey, but it’s uh, Hell. As for me, I’ll be really happy to see vibrant greens and autumn hues, and then watch it all fall away as my character descends deep into the nightmare of Diablo’s realm.

More on 4th Edition

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Games

I mentioned in my previous post that I was kind of unhappy about the organization of the 4th Edition Player’s Handbook.

I also wanted to riff off of that and say: On the one hand, I think the Player’s Handbook is quite a beautiful book, as are all the other core books. The whole impression is extremely colorful, with great action shots of cool characters doing cool things. I even had a great time just flipping through the Monster Manual and looking at these pictures of the monsters, and envisioning how I could use these creatures in a campaign.

That said — The art in 4th Edition bugs me. As much as I can enjoy looking at what are, generally speaking, aesthetically pleasing images, the art in 4th Edition doesn’t depict a game I want to play. Lets be clear here, I had the same general problem with 3rd Edition, whose art style could be described as “focus-grouped fantasypunk.” I get very irritated when the point of every single spread is to showcase some stupid generic fantasy mix of human, elf, halfling, dwarf, and now dragonborn and tiefling. Then we’ve got individual pictures with an inexplicable array of races, sexes, crazy hairstyles, tattoos, piercings, clothing styles, weapons, glowing runes and energy forms, and everything else.

Not that this is anything new, really. Like I said, I have the same problem with 3.5. The artwork is always so focused on presenting “cool” or “possibility” that the impression that I take from it is, “Here are all these possibilities for cool things that might show up in your game. None of them matter, however, because if you’re playing a cool dragonborn fighter, you’re just playing a human in a dragon-suit who kills stuff. No matter what suit you choose to wear, your choices for these kinds of things don’t matter, because they’re only flavor choices that don’t affect the game. And enemies you fight? Yeah, they don’t matter, they’re just there for you to kill.”

On another note, my biggest gripe with 4th Edition is the ludicrous GSL (Game System License). Even though I think Paizo’s Pathfinder is doomed to be a failure because of the goal of maintaining backwards compatibility with 3.5, I’m hoping they eventually produce something similar to 4th Edition but under the OGL. Any self-respecting D&D player, which is to say, any D&D player which puts substantial effort into playing the game in non-Greyhawk, non-Forgotten Realms, homebrewed settings should be extremely wary of 4th Edition. Check out this link at Paizo for more.

Why do I care about the GSL vs. the OGL? Well, just as an example. My own campaign setting which I have used in one campaign comprised one city … With about twenty pages of backstory, twenty pages of discussion of culture, several maps, artwork images, breakdowns of populations, major NPCs backstories with portraits… In short, for a simple campaign I do serious amounts of work. I don’t ever really plan on publishing that sort of thing, but if I wanted to make a PDF for sale, why should I have to worry about Wizards of the Coast saying, “Hey, your independently created Prestige Class for Order of the Shining Star (or whatever – something generic) infringes on something we’re going to publish in Splatbooks Unlimited, volume 24. Stop publishing your product now.”

Another, more relevant example: Mike Mearls posted a really cool encounter scenario with like seven or eight dynamic elements to spice up an encounter that would otherwise devolve into “I attack. I rolled a 26, so I hit. I do 36 points of damage.” Someone posted in the comments that this encounter scenario is so cool that things like that could warrant a book full of awesome encounter settings. That sounds like an amazing idea — But anyone who published such a thing for 4th Edition under the GSL? You’re open to getting your license revoked at any time for any reason, at the whim of Wizards of the Coast. Who would put up with that? I know I wouldn’t.

What’s worse? Technically, creating any sort of character creator, generator, or other utility for D&D 4th Edition is prohibited by the GSL. Why? Basically because Wizards of the Coast had the idea that they were going to be able to run Gleemax and D&D Insider — A subscription based service for GMs and players to have access to their books on the computer, have character generators, a virtual tabletop, etc. But, as everyone who remembers 3rd edition and its Character Generator software remembers, Wizards of the Coast sucks at developing software. They can’t even keep their message boards running smoothly, they’re unavailable half the time I try to go there. So D&D Insider is vaporware at this point, and Gleemax has already died. This is definitely not confidence inspiring.

I guess I can cross my fingers in hoping that maybe Wizards will realize they are incompetent and lighten up on the software restrictions in the GSL, but I’m not hoping for much.