Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Of Reliability and House-Rules

You should not have a favorite weapon, or any other exaggerated preference for that matter. To become overly attached to one weapon is as bad as not knowing it sufficiently well. You should not imitate others, but use those weapons which suit you, and which you can handle properly. It is bad for both commanders and troopers to entertain likes and dislikes. Pragmatic thinking is essential. These are things you must learn thoroughly.
- Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

This post was originally a comment in response to tyflec's comment on my post on spell selection and reliability (reproduced below for ease of use).  It got a little long, though, so I decided it warranted its own post.
I feel like gravitating towards perfect reliability spells is sort of what you get for going combat-as-war. If everything is going to do its level best to kill us, and we don't have some kind of guarantee that they'll be on an even footing with us, then we as players simply can't afford to use spells that aren't reliable. Now, if you wanted to make a status-effect spell worthwhile, why not make it save-partial as opposed to save-negates? Like Blindness, say. If Blindness always blinded someone for at least one round, with a save determining whether they were permanently blind or not, it would be much more useful. Or, you could make it save-ends with a minimum duration of one round. That would solve the problem of perma-blindness instantly ending a fight, which is also not very fun. Although a minimum-one-round spell does lend itself to chain-casting to keep the creature blind for as many rounds as you have wizards... 
I disagree that desire for perfect reliability is a symptom of combat-as-war; I think it is more of a problem of general human risk-aversion.  Humans dislike failing more than they like succeeding, as a rule.  Perfect reliability means no failures, which is awesome, and something we'd expect most any reasonable human to pursue.  Further, I think that there is a case to be made for unreliable single-target spells in a combat-as-war game like ACKS.  If you're up against a 20 HD dragon and you've got one round to cast a spell, you're a damn sight better off casting Charm Monster than Fireball, because it absolutely will survive the fireball, but it might roll a 1 on its save against the Charm Monster, and then you will survive (and have a useful new ally).  An unreliable chance of success is sometimes better than an reliable certainty of failure.  Of course, an even better plan would be to run away, or, if playing combat as war, to not have gotten yourself in that position in the first place...

I think a better counter-argument for "reliability focus follows from combat-as-war" manifests itself when we look at 3.x character design (say for Tim's campaigns) and unreliable mechanics.  When we design 3.x characters, we usually design towards a specific concept or purpose, and then our satisfaction with the game is strongly correlated with how well we fulfill our intended function in combat (I'm a little bit this way, and it seems very true of my conversations with Alex; what with Shin Yao and Torrison I think you (tyflec) may be of somewhat the same mind).  When the mechanic we want to build around is unreliable because of the way the system implements it (save-or-suck casters, maneuver fighters, crit-fighters), we end up disappointed because we feel like we're not fulfilling our Aim In Playing, the successful application of the chosen mechanic, frequently enough for the game to be worth it.  Hence the push we see from you and Tim and others to make these mechanics more reliable; you want to build around them, but they are sufficiently unreliable as to be unsatisfying if you make their application your sole aim.  Thus, even in a combat-as-sport setting we still see this reliability problem within our group.

Getting from reliability to your second point about status effects, I'm not really concerned with making status effects 'worthwhile'.  At this point I'm of the mind that parts of the game are tools for different purposes, and my aim is to figure out how to play it well, to learn which tools are good for which tasks, and to build characters with a broad enough array of tools to meet a wide variety of challenges successfully.  If you want to play a dedicated save-or-suck caster, go for it...  but pick your targets and know their weak saves, bring a wand of magic missiles for mindless undead foes and a crossbow for golems, and don't complain when a reliable damage caster one-ups you most of the time.  Save-or-sucks are a good way to dispose of a weak foe or two quietly and with high reliability, in situations where bloodstains, fire, and screaming aren't going to work (eg, infiltrating a castle, hold-personing sentries), or to try for a lucky knockout-punch against a big foe.  Why are we trying to make them something else?  If you're a save-or-suck specialist, then yeah nice packaged level-appropriate encounters against foes with good saves are going to be frustrating, because the guy with the fireballs is going to be effective all the time and you're only going to be sometimes.  Take it as a challenge; what're you going to do about it?  The easy way out is to not play specialists!  Use the right weapon for the right fight.  If you must be a specialist, seek out situations where you can leverage your specialty (knock-down, drag-out fights probably aren't those, for this sort of specialist).  Play smarter, hop the railroad tracks, and tell the DM where he can stuff his balanced encounters as you Charm Person Warduke's family rather than the baddy himself.

Mostly I'm kind of tired of a trend I've been seeing in this group for a while.  xk says it well:

Our first reaction to issues in a game is usually to start proposing rules changes and stealing rules from other systems.  Rarely are we willing to admit "I chose a dumb thing to specialize in" or "I applied this tactic in a situation where it was clearly a dumb idea."  Tactically, we're idiots, a lot of the time, and we absolutely do not pay attention to what the system is telling us about how it wants to be played.  We adapt slowly and infrequently, and we just keep doing the same thing that our characters were 'built' for, even when it is an awful plan.  But instead of admitting that we're bad, we shift the blame to the rules, and decide to go mucking around with those.  Rather than having our characters adapt and diversify like people in a 'real'-esque world would, we bend the laws of physics because it saves face.  And then hey, we get to look fancy because we're doing Game Design and out-thinking the professionals!  Feels good, man.

But the game never gets better, because some guy (possibly me) will eventually choose to super-specialize his character in touch-range-only necromancy or fighting with two shields or some other Clearly Stupid But Mechanically Vaguely Plausible Idea, so we keep contorting the system to make that viable, and (more often) houserules cause cascades of unintended consequences and then we have to patch those...  It's even better if you add supplements and other peoples' houserules from the internet.  Been down Houserule Road, burned several home games over the years.  Sorry dad; I think I might've finally learned my lesson.

At this point, I'm all for clarifying and interpreting places where the rules are unclear, or for altering the rules to better conform to the intended setting, but changing the rules for the sake of 'making the game better' is not currently of any interest to me.  The fact that the few alterations I made to ACKS were arguably causal for some of the terminal issues with the campaign leaves me very leery of altering things without fully understanding them and properly considering the implications of the changes I'm making.  The flaws of a game, in my experience, are often with how the rules are being applied, with the way it is being played, rather than with the rules themselves.

If a class or strategy 'sucks,' the interesting solution isn't to patch it; it's to either not play it, or to figure out a way to play it which makes it not suck, and to diversify your strategy so that you're still useful in some way when you come up against a hard counter to your standard plan of engagement.  When I say "Dismember is a bad spell for PCs, the thief is an awful class, and 3.x archers are terrible", there's an implicit "but I challenge you to prove me wrong in action, using the tools present in the system-as-written."  When Dan's TB rogue sucked, the general opinion within the group became "TB rogues suck," and I responded by building Asmir and running him in a way which did not suck.  I'm actually seriously considering running a thief for Drew's ACKS game for just this purpose; the group is convinced that thieves are bad, and for every time I try it and end up dead, the victory when I do finally crack it and play a successful thief will be all the sweeter.

In sum: I'm tired of asking and being asked, "What about removing action points, or adding inherent bonuses in place of magic items, or banning certain feats or classes, or making guilds available to non-thieves, or building custom trade hijinks for non-criminal venturers, or making domains available to sub-9th characters, or improving sunder and save-or-suck?"  I want to play the game, really play it, adaptively and with a chance of defeat, rather than playing with the game.

...  but if you absolutely must make new save-or-suck spells that are Save Partial and strictly better than the current versions, at least make them higher level and give them new names, for god's sake :(


  1. For the record, I still think that venturers should have a non-thief domain option. They get a whole bunch of flavor which is mostly legitimate, and then "like a syndicate but with venturer apprentices." Frankly, for an otherwise unique and useful class, that seems sort of lazy. Just my two cents.

    1. The other logical thing to my my mind would be to give them something like an Explorer stronghold, where it has to be out in the wilderness, and to flavor it as a caravanserai or fortified trading post, with caravans arriving instead of mercenary followers. They already get some wilderness stuff, and if you dropped their arcane casting, you could get even more (or higher HD, which are nice out in the woods too...).

      The other trouble I have with venturer as a class design is that getting spellcasting at like 8th level is nice and all... but it's little and pretty late, and it costs the class a full quarter of its build points, which could be used for other things that would make the class more useful across the entire level range. Might have to build a personal Muleskinner class that doesn't get the casting but gets more wilderness stuff and a wilderness stronghold...

  2. The mindset of "someone wasn't having fun, we should change the rules" probably comes from us trying to playtest Aeronauts so often; it's just something we've gotten used to. I hadn't even considered the idea of trying to find the combination of rules that makes a feature work, rather than ignoring it or trying to fix it. In order to play that way, I think you'd have to make sure that everyone in your group wants to play that way, i.e. with all of the rules, setting, etc. intact. Although, now that I think about it, maybe that just makes it a different kind of challenge. I was going to bring up the example of "the DM says you're all fighting magic-immune golems for the entire campaign, so your wizard is useless" but then I thought about buff spells and terrain-altering spells and I realized that there's probably no case where a class in a game is useless in every situation.

    Huh. I don't think I've ever played in or DM'd a game like that. I've always been really focused on making sure everyone's engaged and having fun playing their characters all the time, rather than trying to have them figure out how to use their characters themselves. I wonder if that's bad?

    I was going to say something about how a quick house-rule fix to help one person feel more engaged and useful, especially if you're running a more railroad-y story-based game, might not be so bad. Now, though, I think you have a really good point in that house-ruling might disrupt part of the game and decrease enjoyment across the board, if you're not careful.

    It's stuff like this that makes me wish I could sit down and play a game or two with the designers of a game, to see how THEY think it ought to be played. I've been pretty sure for years that none of us play 3.x the way Wizards plays it.

    1. Ah, ok; I thought it might be related to aeronauts dev work, but wasn't really sure. Also, thanks for taking this reasonably; I wrote it late and night and didn't do a whole lot of editing, so I was concerned it came off a bit harsh.

      And yeah, "If someone isn't having fun, we should change the rules" was something Trailblazer and Pathfinder did, too - look at TB's casting and resting changes, or their sneak attack and crits against undead changes, or Pathfinder's changes to combat maneuver size modifiers (divided by 4 across the board). It's a design philosophy present in the games we were playing last year when aerodev was in full swing. Heck, 4e does it too by making it difficult to build a character who is terrible. I think there are probably cases where you could be shafted playing 3.x by the book; a fighter in a game with all incorporeal flying foes, or a rogue in a non-TB game with just undead with lifesense (not evadable with stealth skills), but those are pretty out there, and I'm not really seeing one for casters except "This entire campaign is running in a wild-magic or antimagic zone. Good luck!" But honestly that DM is probably a dick... or running Midnight, Dark Sun, or a similar maliciously exotic setting :P

      And I don't know about bad, or even really unusual for folks our age who play the variety of systems that we do. I think there's a level of mechanical innocence involved in a fair bit of successful help-houseruling; "X's character wants to do Y but is bad at it, so we'll boost Y only for X and not change it for anyone else." We have a tendency to make rules universal, across all characters and monsters, which sets up both powergamers to bring in a character leveraging the rules changes (perhaps even multiple fixes to independent problems that were not intended to be operated together) to great advantage, or for the monsters to take the changes and use them to really crush the PCs. If we're willing to make changes individual in scope, then the impact is probably lessened (this is how I hear about a lot of story-gamer groups making dangerous changes without horrific repercussions). Gets weird with suspension of disbelief and fairness, though.

      What's especially interesting about 3.x is how the way WotC played it changed over time; early 3.0 had a pretty different flavor from late 3.5, for example. Probably the closest we can get is looking at the original 3.0 AP (Sunless Citadel through Bastion of Broken Souls) and the designers' notes. The Alexandrian has some interesting commentary on an early shift in the fanbase during 3.0 that Wizards then picked up on and started running with, while Sean K. Reynolds was one of the 3.0 devs who got cut before 3.5, and had some interesting things to say about it as well as some parts of 3.0. Honestly though I'm kind of convinced that 3.0 wasn't really sure what it was trying to do; "Let's take AD&D2e and make it better", they said, and then they collected houserules and polished it and published it. But AD&D2e was already running into the story vs sandbox problem (taking sandbox / exploration mechanics and using them to run a story) with things like Dragonlance, even before 3e. So I think the problem of intent, and the separation between designer and other DMs, goes back further than we realize...

  3. You make some pretty good points. As someone who claims to actually be a "game designer", one of my biggest pet peeves is listening to people pitch suggestions to me about games that they don't fully understand. Sort of funny that I failed to recognize that I was doing it too.

    I think probably the best example of us doing this was with those encumbrance rules in Traveller.

    As far as house-ruling goes, a lot of that impulse for me definitely comes from doing the design work on Aeronauts, but the thing about Aeronauts is this: every change we make is tentative, potentially temporary. One thing I've learned over the time I've worked on it is that Intuition is good, but Testing is better. We might think "oh, the game would be so much more fun if X", but then when we actually try it, it ruins everything. When you're developing a game, that's perfectly acceptable, you roll back the changes, and no one gets hurt since it's understood to be a risk of playtesting.

    The thing about houserules, is that frequently, we make them and apply them based on Intuition, but we're not testing them. It's a trial by fire. We put them straight into _real_ games, that we're trying to _enjoy_.

    Over the years we've definitely all experienced changes in our gaming philosophies, almost certainly from playing with each other. In particular I think this is a recurring lesson for me. Difficulty, bending your mind, that can definitely be fun. I find that you usually bring up things I haven't thought of.

    1. Yeah, the Traveller encumbrance thing was what got me started blogging, honestly. It was a case of "we changed this part of the system without understanding it, and oh man the consequences." I guess in some sense looking for that sort of situation was the original purpose of this blog; nice that I've found some more of that in ACKS :P

      And yeah, part of the issue with houseruling ACKS was that it was very hard to roll things back. Like, going to Drew and saying "Look, all your thieves desert and your population quits growing because you're sub-9th" was going to be a real hard sell. Took too long for things to come to a head, and by then people were invested in the changes we'd made :\ I guess next time I should keep a list of "here's the things we've changed", and every couple sessions go through and go "OK gents, how is X working out?" Give things a good trial period before accepting them as canonical...

      And thanks!

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    1. Mmm... I'm not sure it was a last minute patch to make the MU less powerful. I lack historical perspective on that period of the game's evolution. But, I will say that I think I disagree. As I've talked about before, and as Roger has discussed too, the wizard's limited access to very powerful resources encourages him to play in a cunning, analytic fashion, in keeping with his character's nominal intelligence. In short, I don't think it was a last-minute rules hack so much as a designed choice to encourage a particular type of play focusing on scouting, preparation, resource management, and smart choices.

      Spells that permit a save to negate the whole effect are about risk management; one defining theme I have noticed about old-school dungeoneering is the choice between increased risk and increased reward (or perhaps not a reward but a resource saving). Take the example of a locked chest. You can break the chest, which is fast (saving the resource of time), but the noise you make may bring nearby monsters a'calling (high risk of HP resource cost). You can have the thief try to pick the lock, which is quiet (low risk of HP expenditure), but has a risk of failure (moderate risk of time expenditure). You can burn a casting of knock if you have one ready, saving you both time and HP resources at the cost of spell slots (low risk, but expends a valuable resource up front). Or you can try to get a sense of the weight of the chest, determine that there's probably not much treasure in it, and ignore it, saving time, HP, and magic, but generating no treasure (or if you brought a mule, carry it out for later opening).

      These sort of tradeoffs pop up all over old-school play. C hits the nail on the head with this post: "Your choices struggle to conserve resources... What can you gain from the encounter, versus what you have to lose? Information? A quest? Fighting and losing hit points?... How slowly are we willing to move (i.e. how many random encounters are we willing to expose ourselves to) bringing this treasure out of the dungeon?" That's exactly the sort of thinking going on in choosing which spells to prepare, too. I see save-negates spells as just another risk management question - Are you willing to take a risk for a potential encounter-win via a save-negates spell, or are you risk-averse and going to prepare something reliable but with a lower potential payoff?

  5. The thing about ACKS is you can, in the game itself, make your own new spells as part of the rules (though the framework isn't explicit about partial effects). If your mage dislikes save-or-suck, then he can make a slightly different variety of spell that fits his tastes (an innovation that could be taken as bending the laws of physics to his will, because that is half the fun of being a mage). Really though, I think having a varied list with spells that work radically different from each other is the best strategy.

    1. Sure; that is indeed part of the fun of being a mage in ACKS, and there are rules for calculating the level of such altered spells. And yeah, they play more like sorcs - one of the better pieces of 3.x sorcerer advice I read was "As much as you might like to take all the offence spells, don't. Don't take all the summons either. Or all the illusions. If you wanted to be a specialist, you should've been a wizard. Tactical versatility is your strength; don't handicap yourself by choosing a focused spell list." The same mostly applies to ACKS mages - being able to solve a bunch of different problems is better than being able to solve one problem a bunch of different ways (though the d12s often have something to say about it... we once had a spellsword whose spells were Sleep, Hold Portal, Wizard Lock, and Knock. We called him the Dooromancer).