Thursday, February 21, 2013

In Which The Warlock Advocates Awesome-Sauce...

One of the biggest issues leveled at D&;D 3.x was the concept of "rules bloat". After only a few years, the game was stuffed to the gills with sourcebooks, splatbooks, accessories, and "Complete" guides that were anything but. Each of these books tried to lure in players with promises of new prestige classes, new skill uses, and new feats.

Ugh. The feats.

How many Feats does
a Hero really need?
Feats, in concept, are a glorious idea. An independent sub-system allowing you to customize your skills and combat options? Sounds great! The problem lay in the fact that most feats simply weren't worth taking. They were either too convoluted or too situational to justify regular use or the bonuses they provided were simply bland. Countless feats providing a ubiquitous +2 bonus to two skills took up page after page of text, nearly all of which went unused.

Other games aren't immune to this trend. Savage Worlds has Edges, Ubiquity has Talents, HERO System has Advantages, and nearly every other saga me out there has some kind of feat-resembling mechanic. And that's fine, but rarely do these feats do more than provide basic mechanical bonuses. The "Ace" Edge, for instance, provides a +2 to Driving, Piloting, and Boating rolls in Savage Worlds. Yes, it's a great bonus, considering the default target number is 4, but it doesn't really fill your head with visions of hairpin turns, ramp jumps, or barrel rolls.

When I sat down to write Cold Steel Wardens, I wanted to ensure that an unpowered vigilante could hold their own against a powered metahuman, using their skills, gadgets, and wits. A good portion of that feel came in creating a skill-driven system.  The majority of any character's points in CSW will be sunk into various skills, not the least of which are the three combat skills:  Unarmed, Armed Ranged, and Armed Melee.

Masteries, however, I wanted to be different.  Rather than simple skill bonuses or the like, I wanted Masteries to represent new and alternate uses for skills, opening new combinations and avenues that could provide entirely new methods of crimefighting.

Unfortunately, I fell into that same trap as so many other games.  The overwhelming feedback I'd received about Masteries is that they were simply too situational and not worth the points.  Why take a +4 bonus to picking locks, when you could spend those 3 points to increase your Fine Manipulation skill and reap a +3 on all uses of that skill, not merely lockpicking?  In revising the CSW beta draft, Masteries had to become more than that.

Batman, leaping into the middle of trouble!
Take, for example, The Batman.  I wanted to have a mechanic that represented Batman's ability to leap down into a crowd of thugs, intimidate them all, and start taking them out without dying under a hail of gunfire.  Batman in CSW might have taken the Brute Strength Mastery, which allows him to get a free Intimidation test at +2 dice, any time he succeeds at an Athletics test in front of a foe.  Pairing with that, The Dark Knight could take the Untouchable Mastery, which penalizes those hapless mooks on any attempt to hit our paragon vigilante.  With only two Masteries and two actions, the Dark Knight can leap down from the rafters, scare the crap out of a group of goons, and even start laying into them with his various combat skills.

If I accomplish one thing through Cold Steel Wardens, I hope to make a game that allows players to walk that line between awesome comic-book invulnerability and the emotional weight of their actions' repercussions.  It's been a long time coming, but this book is going to be amazing!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Which The Warlock Blathers on Balance...

As you can imagine from my prior entry, I'm pretty high on Sentinels of the Multiverse right now.  Our Friday Night group has played it for two weekends straight, with FridayNightWill picking up the base game and both expansions!

So enthused, I decided to register on the Greater Than Games forums, where discussion between playtesters and the community at large has really sprung up.  One of the most vociferous and heated arguments thusfar has centered around three heroes:  the mechanic-themed martial artist Mister Fixer, the gunslinging vigilante Expatriette, and the icebound avenger Absolute Zero.  This argument centers on balance:  simply put, Fixer and Expatriette are viewed by many as underpowered, while opinion on Absolute Zero swings drastically between over- and underpowered, depending on who you ask.

Six of one, one of another?
Somehow, a designer has to make it all balance!
Now, there's an interesting conundrum running in the background here.  What, actually, does balance mean? Are two characters balanced if one person can sit down to play each and still have fun?  Each person's definition of fun varies drastically.  I tend to shy away from playing "cleric-type" characters in RPGs, while favoring charismatic, arcanely-powered blasters.  That doesn't mean that a cleric-type is imbalanced while in my hands, though my personal investment in the character may equate to a difference in gameplay.

Does balance imply mechanical equity?  When different mechanics are in play, the very nature of mechanical equity becomes a qualitative assessment.  Is a universal "+2 to damage for one round" buff equal to a power that deals 6 damage?  Thinking mechanically, one might figure that if at least 3 attacks are made using that buff, it would be as good as, if not better than, the single damage power.  But when chance enters the picture--perhaps through SotM's Villain and Environment decks, or through the machinations of a Wicked GameMaster--that simple equation goes out the window.

Absolute Zero, with two of his key pieces of equipment.
Does his reliance on them make him underpowered?
Or do his maxed-out combos make him king of the hill?
What about opportunity cost?  Decision-making certainly comes into play in terms of balance.  Using the aforementioned heroes, Absolute Zero hinges on having several key pieces of equipment out on the board in order to function on a basic level.  Zero's base power does not affect others--it actually damages himself though additional pieces of equipment allow this damage to be magnified and redirected to foes or even used to heal himself.  However, putting these pieces of equipment into play requires several turns of dedicated actions; actions which aren't spent dealing damage, conquering villains, or removing hazards.  This becomes particularly dangerous when many of the villains in SotM have cards that eliminate equipment or remove heroes' cards from play.  However, when fully equipped with his arsenal, Zero can throw down absurd amounts of damage, wiping the field free of minions and laying the hurt on a would-be supervillain.

Mister Fixer, on the other end of the spectrum, has little set-up time and is much less reliant on equipment and cards in play.  Fixer's base power deals damage to a foe:  very straightforward, though at slightly-lower damage than other heroes with similar powers.  Almost every card that Fixer can play adds to his base damage, though many criticize Fixer's deck for being repetitive--a large proportion of his deck consists of martial arts styles or "tools", each of which Fixer may only have one in play at a time.  In turn, this repetition limits his overall maximum damage, resulting in a lower maximum than other damage-dealing heroes, even as his damage requires less set-up and is more "consistent".

Is simplicity power or weakness?
This is getting a little Zen...
Does Fixer's lack of complexity imply that he's less powerful than Absolute Zero?  Does Fixer's speed of play mean he's more powerful than Zero?  What about his limited options?  Does Fixer's limited damage mean he's less powerful?  Does Zero's complexity and length of set up make him underpowered, or does his optimal upper-range combo push him into overpowered?

Answers to questions like these don't come easily in game development.  Savage Worlds attempted to quantify its racial abilities, putting them on a +/-2 point scale.  However, even when quantified in this way, imbalances still arrive.  Is the ability to breathe underwater equal to a free d8 in Vigor?  Is a free choice of Edge equal to a +2 bonus to get out of Shaken?  Who knows?  

This sort of question has recently arisen with a vengeance, as we've been moving ahead with Cold Steel Wardens revisions.  While metahuman powers seem to be in a good place and the base skills are solid, CSW's Masteries have been somewhat on the weak side.  Masteries are intended to allow additional uses of skills--using the Scientific skill for the purposes of computer hacking or using Athletics as an active defense, tumbling away from enemies.  However, in many cases, they fell into the ongoing issue of providing additional skill dice, given a particular situation.  That's not 'fun'.  That's not 'interesting'.  As such, we're going back to the board with them.

And that's not a bad thing!  We're still locked and loaded to hit our deadlines, with layout samples and art pieces coming in throughout the month.  I'm devoted to putting forward a great game, and I don't intend on being complacent in ensuring that the best possible Iron Age comics game hits the shelves.  We forge on, friends and neighbors!

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Warlock's Review: Sentinels of the Multiverse (Enhanced Edition)

As I've mentioned a few times before, when we can't manage to get everyone together on our Friday night game nights, we typically default to a board game night to unwind after a long week.  With the PlatinumChick still suffering the aftereffects of an upper respiratory infection and our newest arrivals at the table AWOL for the evening, we decided to break out my newest acquisition:  Greater Than Games' Sentinels of the Multiverse: Expanded Edition.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: Expanded Edition
by Greater Than Games
I first became aware of SotM last year at Origins.  Since the PlatinumChick and I arrived later than our Witt-going comrades, our first day was punctuated by some time in the dealer hall, where we sat down for a demo of SotM.  While I was intrigued by the game--we both really enjoyed the demo session and were interested in an eventual purchase--we were told by one of the >G gang that they'd soon be coming with the Expanded Edition with better packaging and a higher-quality cardstock, so we held off on the purchase for the time being.  However, I stumbled into an Amazon giftcard for Christmas, and decided to pull the trigger on SotM.

Sentinels of the Multiverse is a cooperative card game set within the fictional world of Sentinel Comics.  Players take on the roles of the Sentinel Comics heroes, but any comics fan will immediately note the similarities between these heroes and the various DC and Marvel mainstays.  The Indestructible Bunker, for example, is an unabashed Iron Man homage, while The Wraith is a female pastiche of Batman.  Legacy combines Captain America and Superman, while The Visionary evokes Jean Grey.  Even the villains and environments--controlled collectively by the group--evoke classic Silver Age tropes, including a sentient robotic AI, a "lost world" trapped within a frozen wasteland, and even a rampaging alien warlord.

Gameplay is quick around the table and easy to understand, even as the rules on individual cards stack up.  In a given turn, a player plays a card, uses a power, and draws a card.  Individual cards, representing attacks, equipment, or unique powers, can alter this pattern, though the fundamental rhythm remains the same.  At the end of the heroes' turns, the environment and villain each flip a card from their own decks, representing villainous weaponry, minions arriving on scene, or even events like volcanic eruptions or train collisions.

While one would normally expect such a routine to seem redundant, the exact opposite proves to be true.  Rather, the static pattern allows individual games to run quickly:  a single game at our table, with five people each controlling their own hero, ran around 45 minutes each, which allowed us to try out all the heroes, villains, and environments in the set.  However, what really struck me about SotM--and what really made the game for me--was how unique each of the individual heroes felt, despite using the same fundamental mechanics.  Tachyon, a female speedster, benefited most from burning through her deck as quickly as possible, while Bunker relied more on lasting equipment and alternated through three "modes" which allowed him to focus on either acquiring cards, assembling equipment in play, or laying down the hurt on the villain.

The "Sentinels" of SotM: EE.
Each with their own deck, each with their own theme,
each with a totally different feel!
Even characters with relatively similar roles felt significantly different:  Tempest (a Storm/Aquaman mashup), Ra (a fiery Egyptian homage to Thor), and Absolute Zero (a unique take on Mr. Freeze and WonderMan) are all nominally damage-dealer-type heroes.  However, while Ra can lay down huge amounts of single-target damage via his innate powers and one-shot cards, Tempest spreads around the damage with numerous ongoing cards representing his ability to summon storms.  Absolute Zero, mind you, plays differently than both the aforementioned heroes, redirecting cold and fire damage to both damage his foes and to regenerate his own health.  At the very least, this provides fantastic replay value, but the differences between heroes make each one an enigma to be "figured out," even as you're subject to the whims of the shuffled deck.

I only really have one niggling frustration with Sentinels:  while SotM supports play for five players, we found the game fairly easy, winning all five games we played.  Our closest match was one against the alien conqueror Grand Warlord Voss, as the group of heroes we had chosen weren't able to pump off enough damage to take out Voss's dreadnaughts efficiently.  Even then, we still pulled out a narrow win, with two of our heroes finishing off Voss while the others 'assisted' from their incapacitated states.  I get the impression that the game would be more challenging with either three or four heroes, as we were able to control the flow of the game even from the very outset with minimal difficulties.  We even took down Citizen Dawn--a superhuman-supremacist pastiche of Magneto--on her "advanced" mode without many difficulties whatsoever.  Visionary and Haka (a Maori version of the Hulk) managed to lock down her minions with ease, while Bunker and Tempest laid the proverbial smackdown, with Legacy providing support and buffs.  I'd like to try running a three-person game of SotM in the near future, just to see how the game runs with less players at the table.  It seems like four might be the magic sweet-spot.

Sentinels has proven to be a wild hit since its release in 2011, leading to three expansions and a fourth on the way, after the massive success of the SotM: Shattered Timelines Kickstarter.  Each expansion carries its own theme, bringing new heroes, villains, and environments to the table.  Word is that these expansions also increase the difficulty, as the villains and environments in each are meant to challenge experienced players.  That could be a welcome addition, providing additional variety to an already-varied game with tons of replay value.

Sentinels of the Multiverse was really a hit around our table and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next from Greater Than Games.  I'm hoping to pick up Rook City and Infernal Relics--the first two expansions--sometime soon, though I can't say how soon that might be.  FridayNightWill came away from the table looking for where he could buy his own copy, which might be the highest recommendation I could offer.  These guys are doing it right, and it's great to see a self-funded independent project become so successful.  I have nothing but praise for SotM--pick it up, if you're able.