May 28 2021

Writing Game Mechanics For a Plot Device

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Enigma Sector is intended to be “big tent” space opera the way D&D is “big tent” fantasy, so it pulls from a lot of sources, and of course Star Wars is a big one. One of the things I’ve been trying to fit into the game is “ion damage” as it’s presented in Star Wars. We see four clear examples of it:

  • Jawas zap R2-D2, he keels over
  • Controls of Luke’s snowspeeder become ionized and he crashes
  • Hoth ion cannon disables a star destroyer and the transport ships breeze past
  • Y-Wings hit a star destroyer with ion torpedoes and disable it, allowing a hammerhead corvette to play billiards with it

It could be that ion damage is the “stun setting” that knocks out Leia in Ep IV and that she uses on Poe in Ep VII, as well, that’s harder to say. That’s how I’ve been treating it, anyhow.

But the common element of all of these is that ion damage, while not inherently lethal, is presented as a one-punch fight ender*, which can have its place when it’s a plot device, but poison when you want to have a playable game. The biggest question it leads to, however, is “If you have a cannon/torpedo that can one-punch a star destroyer, why wouldn’t you just do that all the time?” Or to put it into game terms, if you give the players in your game an “I win!” button, they’ll just press it over and over. And if you give the enemies the same button, the only real contest becomes the initiative check to see who can hit the “I win!” button first.

(*Sort of. The Hoth ion cannon fires four shots, and we see two connect, while the Y-Wings in Rogue One just pummel the star destroyer with something like six hits, and that’s explicitly after the shields being knocked down “made an opening.” But in both cases, the star destroyer goes from “fine or mostly fine” to “dead in space” in a matter of seconds.)

So this brings us to ion weapons and spaceship combat. My original idea was that a hit from an ion weapon would knock down a ship’s shields, which is kinda-sorta what we see in the case of the star destroyers: the first hit mucks up the shields, and the followup hit(s) muck up the controls. Since all the hits happen in rapid succession, we don’t get to see if the star destroyers could recover from the first one in time. But that led me to imagining my players, in their own little not-quite-the-Millennium Falcon, being swarmed by enemy fighters with ion guns that lead to a super-fast death spiral of the shields going down and staying down. I’ve already established that ion weapons have shorter range and do less damage than blasters, but that add-on effect is still hella powerful.

(In the case of Luke’s snowspeeder, there’s no indication that the walkers are firing ion weapons, so I’m assuming that would come under the heading of system damage: the regular blaster hit incapacitated the ship for a round and, being next to an enormous obstacle (i.e., the planet), the snowspeeder crashed into it. That incapacitation just happened to come in the form of ionized controls.)

So how do I fit ion weapons into that Venn Diagram sweet spot between “doesn’t add math,” “is worth doing sometimes,” and “doesn’t become the only thing worth doing”? I started looking at monster debuffs for inspiration here. 4E was full of “controller” monsters, who all pretty much did the same thing: “Piddly damage, and the target is dazed (save ends).” Dazed in 4E was roughly analogous to 5E’s version of the slow spell: attackers had advantage on you, you could move or attack (but not both), and you couldn’t use bonus actions or reactions. That’s not bad, honestly. (Slow tweaks the numbers and adds some stuff about spell failure that isn’t really relevant here.) 5E’s major monster debuffs come from grapples, poison, or petrification, which all do variations of the same thing. Grapples hold you in place, poison gives you disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks, and petrification starts with being restrained (can’t move and attackers have advantage) and gets worse from there.

So let’s break these down…

  • Grappled (immobilized): Having a movement speed of 0 can range from being immaterial (if your plan was to just buzz around shooting anyway) to being a game-ender (if your plan was to escape to the jump-point). There is a vague vibe of “moving fast = hard to hit, not moving = sitting duck” that isn’t reflected in the rules per se. That leads to…
  • Restrained: Your speed becomes 0, as above, but attackers have advantage against you, and you have disadvantage on Dex saves. This is a heck of a debuff, especially when the enemies pile on, but while you can’t move, you can at least still act. This pretty accurately reflects ion damage as presented, but it’s also dangerously close to the “becomes the only thing worth doing” category.
  • Poisoned: You have disadvantage on attacks and ability checks. Probably the worst thing you can do to a rogue because it tends to kill sneak attack, but is mostly a nuisance for everyone else, and also doesn’t model the desired result.
  • 4E-style Dazed/5E-style Slowed: You have to choose whether to move or attack (choices are interesting!) and have a fairly significant debuff, whether it’s advantage for your enemies, or -2 AC/Dex saves for you.

Of the choices, I think I’m liking the 4E dazed the best. (Hey, 4E wasn’t all bad.) In 4E, “save ends” meant that at the end of your turn, roll 10+ on a d20 and the condition went away (rather than being impacted by your stats like a 5E saving throw). This was a key part of the design: debuffs were meant to sting, but they were also meant to be something you could shake off fairly easily, on the grounds that being hamstrung through the whole fight was anti-fun. And I still want that to be the case here: tying recovery to a Constitution saving throw would make it way too hard for small ships to recover, and way too easy for big ones. So how about something like this…

Ionized (Condition): The vehicle’s controls are locked up by ionization. The vehicle can’t take reactions, and it can’t move unless it uses the Dash action. Attackers have advantage against the vehicle, and it has disadvantage on Dexerity saving throws. At the end of the vehicle’s turn, roll 1d20: the ionization effect ends on a roll of 10 or higher. The vehicle may also end the effect by using its action to spend a hit die as damage control.

This could also work for droids being hit by ion weapons as well. Whattya think?

-TG

Mar 14 2021

Shady, Rogue or Bard? Time To Choose

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Shade-Of-the-Candle Takes It Easy... But Takes It
Yes, Shady, choosing is very hard in this case.

WARNING: Lots of rules rambling ahead. Read only if you are a big ol’ D&D nerd.

So last night Shady hit 6th level after a fun session fighting against the most cheerful demonic bounty hunter ever. So now I have to actually choose, Rogue or Bard? Neither option is great immediately—6th level rogue gets her expertise in Investigation and Persuasion, but nothing else changes. 1st level bard gets her a new skill, a new proficiency, a small handful of spells, and three uses of bardic inspiration per long rest.

So neither choice is about what happens at level 6; they’re really about what happens at levels 7, 8, and 9.

If Shady sticks with rogue, at 7th she’ll get evasion and more sneak attack, at 8th she’ll hit 20 Dex, and at 9th she’ll get that awesome Panache ability and still more sneak attack. If she jumps over to bard, at 7th she’ll get Jack of All Trades (double-bumping her Initiative on top of her swashbuckler boost), at 8th she’ll get Blade Flourish (which is a game-changer ability) and Two-Weapon Fighting*, and at 9th she’ll finally catch up with that 20 Dex.

The problem is, I want all of this stuff for Shady! Panache especially is something that suits her perfectly, that whole “piss off the baddie so they chase only you—but also can’t actually GET to you” annoyance/avoidance tanking strategy goes all the way back to her fight with Kresthianze the black dragon. Having a mechanical backup for what she’s been doing purely through RP would be very nice.

On the other hand, in play, Shady’s biggest weak spot is totally her AC. The pattern with her, from the mimic that one-punched her at 2nd level, to the fight in the warehouse, to fighting Gornstard the Wailer last night, has over and over been:

1) Combat starts
2) Shady gets almost one-punched before she even gets a turn
3) She spends the rest of the fight either out or reeling from the first hit

To a certain extent, this is the rules working as intended. Rogues are glass cannons, and even swashbucklers—who are intended to get in melee and stay there—are expected to jump in and out, hide, and generally be evasive more than durable. Fortunately, Uncanny Dodge is a big mitigator here—when I remember to actually USE it—but the fact remains that Shady’s paltry 16 AC is her big ol’ Achilles Heel.

But short of magic items (and man, she is looking for that Cloak Piratey Longcoat of Protection), the only ways for her to boost her AC are 1) maxing Dex, or 2) Blade Flourish—either of which she can get at 8th level, it’s just a matter of which.

20 Dex will set her AC to 17 whenever she gets attacked, before she gets a turn or after, all the time. Blade Flourish, using the Defense option, potentially adds +1d6 to her AC (typically putting it around 19), but only after she’s made an attack, and only up to three times per long rest. It also boosts her already-crazy speed and bumps her damage on the initial attack roll.

The biggest thing is that going the bard route gives Shady the 20 Dex at 9th level—which means that in terms of AC, she gets both of the boosts by going the bard route, at the expense of a bit of sneak attack, evasion (which has not been a factor so far since we don’t have a lot of fireballs flying around, but might become one if more dragons start showing up), and, of course, panache.

I dunno; I keep going around and around and not being able to land. All of this is solved by 15th level, in which she has all the bard and all the rogue she wants and everything after that is gravy… but what are the chances of any campaign getting there? Generally not considered good. That’s what makes this a tough choice—whichever direction she chooses is likely to be the only choice she gets.

-TG

*Theoretically it would also open breastplate + shield, but even if the breastplate looked like a leather battle corset, the Dex cap would make it a net wash, and I just cannot see Shady carrying a shield. Dusk does, because he’s a fighter-flavored-with-rogue, but Shady is not a gird-her-loins type.

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Mar 05 2021

My Weirdly-Specific Skyrim Modding Wish

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The Akorithi Twins sell from a cluttered market.
The Akorithi Twins sell their wares from a market with two flying pennants and walls embedded in other walls. Just an ordinary day in modded Skyrim?

I, am a goofus.

I had Skyrim running, patched and modded all to heck, but running. It was fine. Everything was fine. But something kept annoying me.

Solitude is too damn small.

I mean, the cities in Skyrim have always been little more than a single neighborhood with delusions of grandeur. If you put ALL the Skyrim cities into one place, you’d have something roughly the size of the Village of Bree in Lord of the Rings Online, yes? Skyrim’s cities are stupidly small. I’m used to that.

But not Solitude. I can’t accept it. Solitude is the New York of Skyrim (or possibly the London would be a more apt comparison). It’s supposed to be a major seaport and one the biggest cities in the world, it has no business being one street smaller than some single historical castles. I live near a shopping mall that is literally bigger than Solitude. And since Solitude is where Shady will end up spending most of her time in my “ultimate wishlist playthrough” (long story), I decided to go ahead and mod it up right.

For a long time I ran with Great Cities: Solitude, which definitely beefs up the docks area, but lacks personality. Mostly it adds empty fronts and a few NPCs wandering around. This time I decided I wanted something that felt more alive for all of the cities generally, so I landed on the JK’s Skyrim + Dawn of Skyrim combo (with some additional mods for other towns), with Solitude Expansion to add some life to the docks. That helped, but it still wasn’t quite there, maybe 65-70%.

And then, I looked at Enhanced Solitude. This is a mod that basically takes a baker’s dozen of the modder’s favorite Solitude mods by disparate authors, rearranges them into something like a cohesive whole, and also adds a whole new neighborhood as well as expanding and redecorating the existing ones. In short, if you want Solitude to feel alive, Enhanced Solitude is the one you actually want.

Why don't more mods put advertisements in town?
Have you ever been to a city that DIDN’T have signs promoting shops? But I’ve never seen it in a fantasy RPG before. This one detail sold me on Enhanced Solitude.

(The same author has a docks mod intended to go with it, which includes elements of Solitude Expansion, and it’s nice but buggy and, well, the author is not exactly helpful about it.)

Unfortunately, Enhanced Solitude is not compatible with the JK/Dawn combo. Like, at all. As shown in the top image, combining them adds duplicate NPCs, artifacts all over the place, it’s a mess. Of course, this is only really a problem in the overlapping parts of the city (i.e., the market)—the new areas added by Enhanced Solitude are fine. The author provides a “patch” that essentially tears out the JK/Dawn stuff by the roots… but that also breaks Dawn of Skyrim’s changes to other cities (“Hmm, why are half the textures in Whiterun broken all of a sudden?”).

I don’t want that. I want the mods to play nice together. I could go through and manually delete offending items and clone NPCs in the game via console commands, but that could lead to instability and would be instantly negated if I ever ran an update. No, the only “right” way to merge these mods and have it stick, would be to create a patch. And so began my descent into modding tools. If I could just “suppress” or hide/undo the parts of Enhanced Solitude that conflicted with JK/Dawn, I’d have the best of both worlds! And what’s more, I could upload the patch to Nexus and let all the other people who want the best of both worlds to share in my handiwork.

A week later, I’ve dug into SSEedit, Creation Kit, even looked at editing models in Nifscope. I’ve watched tutorial videos on YouTube until my head spun… and at the end of the day nothing to show for it but a file called “Enhanced JK’s Dawn of Solitude” that… doesn’t actually do anything. It’s not that I couldn’t figure this out eventually if I was willing to keep banging my head against it, but the real question is… why am I doing this?

The western district of Solitude, that isn't there for 95% of players.
Is one more neighborhood for my digital catgirl to mostly never go to, really worth staying up until the wee hours night after night for?

It’s a nice little neighborhood, it’s got a bath-house and a bookstore… but will my experience of playing Shade-Of-the-Candle really be that much better for it? I can delete the extra actors and random junk around town with the “disable” command and have a mostly-working town that just has a few bottlenecks of idle markers where they don’t belong. I could have done that three days ago and been actually playing the game. Why am I fighting with this? Or for that matter, I had my 65-70% without Enhanced Solitude at all, why not be content with that. I have art commissions, writing, job hunting to do… all of which are infinitely more important than making a fictional town that’s not even mine seem just a little less fictional.

Hyperfocus? Perfectionism? Pure mule-headedness? I dunno. Maybe part of me thought getting into modding might lead to some kind of creative outlet that wasn’t as frustrated as my writing and art have been of late, but that hope is forlorn I suspect.

But all that said, if there’s anyone out there who IS experienced at modding and knows what they’re doing, who’d like to walk me through the process of making these changes I want, please let me know! ‘cos I think I’ve hit a wall with my current understanding and have no idea what to do next.

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Jan 16 2019

Shade-of-the-Candle and Her Swords (Personal Art)

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Shady considers combat something of a failure state– making wisecracks at somebody who’s dead isn’t half as much fun– but if she has to fight, she’ll straight up murder you. >.>

She employs an acrobatic, free-wheeling dual-cutlass combat style that emphasizes wild leaps and flashy, unpredictable moves… you’re never quite sure if she’s attacking, she’s running away, or you’ve just bled to death from a million tiny cuts.

(Can’t believe I forgot to post this here! My online presence needs a cleanup, I think…)

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Jun 01 2016

Someone to Overwatch Over Me

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DVaGneech and TracerBlitz by the-gneech on DeviantArt

Taking a little break from Ghostbusters [1] to get into Overwatch. This is a fun action-oriented online game from Blizzard (makers of World of Warcraft [2]) which is being described as a “hero shooter.”

What’s a “hero shooter”? I have to admit I barely understand the term myself. The shooter part is easy– the controls and interface are standard FPS. The “hero” part apparently refers to the fact that instead of controlling a single player avatar or character, you choose from a variety of characters depending on the needs of the team and the situation. So if your team needs a damage dealer to lead an assault, you might choose the jetpack-boosting soldier, but if they need to defend a point you might choose the sniping archer.

Overwatch has 21 characters currently, broadly grouped into “offense,” “defense,” and “support,” with subcategories of “tank,” “builder,” and “sniper.” Gameplay is fast and woolly: you are grouped up with five other players (either friends you’ve pre-grouped with or randomly-selected players of a similar level/rank) and tossed into an arena against a team of six other randomly-selected players (or AI foes of choosable difficulty). There are basically two missions currently: conquer waypoints, or escort/deny a moving payload.

I’m told it’s somewhat like Team Fortress 2, but as I’ve never played that, I can’t address it.

Now normally this isn’t the sort of thing I would expect to get into, being pretty much all action and no plot. The “payload” being delivered or blocked isn’t even identified beyond being a thing on a truck (it looks vaguely like a giant electromagnet). And I couldn’t tell you what made me interested in checking it out, other than a vague hole in my nerdery where LotRO and Borderlands used to be. But once I decided I wanted to play it, I found myself going on a long and painful journey into the underworld, by which I mean Windows gaming.

The Exciting Adventure of Gneech vs. His Computer

My gaming PC was quite beefy once upon a time. Specifically, around 2008 or so when I bought it to be an awesome platform for playing Lord of the Rings Online. It served me well in that capacity for a long time, and it never had the slightest problem with Borderlands 2, so I fully expected it to be capable of running Overwatch.

Ha, ha, silly me. How was I to know that Microsoft and/or NVidia had imposed mandatory retirement on my video card? (In fairness, the card design is 10+ years old, which is a very long time in the world of computers. But the thing still works! Assuming the fan motor stayed good it’d probably keep on working for 10 more years if the software would support it.) After much wailing and gnashing of teeth about not being able to afford a contemporary gaming rig, I finally took a gamble and bought a new card, basically a 2014-ish version of the same card. Any better/more powerful? Not really, as far as I can see, but it has DirectX 12 drivers, which the old one doesn’t, and that’s what was required for Overwatch to work.

However, the new card and the old system don’t really get along very well. Windows keeps polling the card like the guy in Smooth Criminal: “Video are you okay, are you okay, are you okay video? Video are you okay, are you okay, are you okay video?” But the video card, trying valiantly to render things the game is throwing at it, doesn’t answer quickly enough, so Windows decides, “Oh, the video card must have crashed, let’s reset it.” Which kills the driver, and by extension, kills the game. Usually about 10-30 seconds before the end of the match I’m currently in. -.-

Now this PC (currently on Win 7) is eligible for an upgrade to Windows 10, so I thought that might fix it. I tried to upgrade to 10 before, only to have it keep crashing on the old card, which was not supported by Windows 10 because reasons. I figured, “New card! Specifically states compatible with Windows 10 on the box! Maybe this will fix everything!”

Ha, ha, silly me. So I upgraded to Windows 10… which absolutely refused to acknowledge that there was any graphics card at all other than “Generic Display Adapter.” And you know what Generic Display Adapters don’t do very well? Render 3D objects. So, while I did eventually get Overwatch up and running under Windows 10, it was completely unplayable.

So… finally… I rolled back to Windows 7, and I’m living with a 40% chance that any given match will cause my computer to crash. :P The (relatively) good news is that if it’s going to crash, it usually does it early on. If I can get past five minutes in the game, it’ll probably be stable until the end of the session.

I have had a fan very generously offer to build me a new machine and bring it to BronyCon in July, for which I’m super-grateful! Let’s face it, if the worst thing about the whole situation is that I have to wait a little over a month to reliably play the most current video game, I have it pretty damn good.

The Exciting Adventure of Tracer’s Butt

Although the gameplay is fun and engaging in a pure-action kind of way, it’s really the art and character design that appeals to me about Overwatch, as evidenced by the pic at the top of my buddy Inkblitzer and me rendered as D.Va and Tracer, respectively.

And honestly, even then it’s only a few of the characters who stand out. Certainly none of the male ones: with the exception of Winston (who is still basically Beast from the X-Men) they’re all the same tired old tropes of “Weary Soldier,” “Sheriff Shooty McCowboy,” “Wangsty Grim Samurai,” “Cackling NOT-the-Joker With a Bomb” and so on. But Tracer, the game’s mascot, is a Peter Pan-style gadfly who teleports around poking her enemies with sticks (well, bullets, but still). D.Va, my particular fave, is a Korean gamer girl with a bunny on her chest and a giant pink mech who flings herself into crowds of enemies like an enormous bowling ball, knocking them all for a loop. Finally there’s Zarya, who is basically a Rule 63 version of The Heavy from Team Fortress, who deadlifts her giant plasma gun in character introduction screens and regularly invites everyone to the gun show.

The prominence of female characters in the game (and quite probably the fact that they’re way more interesting than the male characters) has of course led to all sorts of internetty nonsense about it all, most famously about a victory pose for Tracer that people decried as being too much about showing off her butt when the character generally isn’t sexualized otherwise. Given that Widowmaker (super-cliche femme fatale sniper in a skintight bodysuit) is all about her catwalk strut, and that Mercy (the healer who literally has wings and a halo) is all “tender goddess,” the complaint was basically “Can we have one female character who is not primarily rendered in terms of the male gaze for a change?”

Blizzard, to their credit, said, “it’s a fair cop” and changed the victory pose, but by then the dweeby fanboys had latched onto the whole business of butts, which can make looking for Overwatch fan art an exercise in eye-rolling as you encounter one “Durr hurr hurr!” Tracer’s Butt piece after another. :-` It’s a minor nuisance, but still causes side-eyes around a character who is otherwise fun and engaging.

Still! It’s a minor issue at best and doesn’t really impact gameplay. So far everyone I’ve encountered actually in the game has been either typically uncommunicative (it’s hard to type in the team channel and shoot at the same time) or has been very nice, with few or no dickweeds encountered so far. While the basics of the game are simple, actually going up against live players is incredibly challenging– I finally had my first victory last night, and it was very satisfying to finally feel like I was getting somewhere after my first attempts were so sad. The game rewards study and perseverance, and that’s a nice feeling I’ve been lacking for some time.

Will I still be playing in six months? I have no idea. Will anyone? It depends on where the game goes, if indeed it goes anywhere. People have been playing Team Fortress 2 for something like a decade now with no signs of stopping. With no single-player story to “beat,” the only way to play the game is in matches with other players, which can be a blessing and a curse. There is no real finish to the game, which means you don’t get people going through the single-player, being “done,” and wandering off. On the other hand, if it gets to the point where players become scarce and every match is made up of one or two humans and a bunch of AI foes, it could become a ghost town real quick.

It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out! And it’s nice to be in on something new for a change. ;)

-The Gneech

[1] Sort of. The first draft is actually finished and I’ll keep posting about it in a day or two.

[2] Can you believe there’s a movie coming out for that? XD It actually looks pretty entertaining in its own schlocky way.

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