Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Gemcraft as Game Design Excellence + (Rant) Whining about Gemcraft's Game Design

There are very few games I can think of that really feel as total and feature-complete as Gemcraft does. In terms of game design and "taking a concept to its logical conclusion" Gemcraft is one of those games that just does it right.

If you've never heard of it; Gemcraft is a tower defense game that started as a series of flash games before the developer, Game in a Bottle, eventually made standalone versions of the game. The one I'll be referencing for the rest of this blogpost is Chasing Shadows, because that's the one I'm still playing the better part of a decade later. Yes I know Frostborn Wraith already came out two years ago and is better in basically every way to this game, but I'm not going to talk about it because the art is ugly imo and these games are all infinitely long basically so whatever.

Gemcraft has a lot of neat design choices. Your mana is used to create your gems, which is also your health. I actually really like this because it means that an enemy slipping through to your orb only deducts a small amount of your resources instead of making you lose a limited number of lives- which would always invariably make me reset while playing any other defense game since you usually can't regain lives easily in those games. The game would be unrecognizable without this feature. The cost and reward of everything from gems to buildings to how much mana you get from killing enemies to how much mana is costs to banish them is all mathematically figured and quadratic. This means the game can be played basically infinitely with Endurance mode as things just keep scaling forever. But even the mana pool has a gimmick. There is a "maximum" amount of mana you can have in your pool, but when you exceed it, the pool doubles its current maximum while granting other bonuses. This means there are times where you have to be conservative and save up your mana for either defense against powerful monsters or to reach the cap, you aren't just spending every single point of gold you get as soon as you can. The game also does the thing I love and should be legally mandatory for any tower defense or citybuilder type game and let you take your level-winning setup and strategy and transition that, after beating the level, into infinite endurance mode. (The fact this was apparently removed in Frostborn Wraith is criminal). But the main draw of the game is the gems.

In most tower defense games, your primary tool and "point" of the game is the towers. Towers typically have unique abilities or types of damage they deal and are built in one static location, making positioning important. Towers can usually be upgraded multiple times or level up with xp from kills so you can keep up with the ever growing threat of the waves. Gemcraft flips this basic concept by making your primary tool your gems. Gems can be socketed into towers to fire, but can be swapped around as needed after a short firing delay. The different types of towers in most tower defense games (splash damage, slowing, etc.) are instead based on the gem's colors. This is built into the mechanics of the game; pure gems of one color have much stronger "specials" which are these properties, but gems with a mix of two colors or more have higher damage and stats. This is only a flat bonus for multicolor gems and based on the total mana investment of the gem (how many gems are mixed in) so the ideal gem setup is 2 or 3 colors in a single gem in a tower. Even the entire concept of the game is perfectly suited to its aesthetic theme- gems in real life have various cuts and colors, so it perfectly fits with a tower defense game with gems of increasing grade and mixes of magical and elemental properties.

The reason why this is so engaging is because pretty much the whole game is based around it and it built to support it as a system. So above I mentioned single color gems have stronger specials, right? So there are buildings in the game which are traps- which are built directly on the walking path. Traps attack really fast but do essentially no damage and have basically no range (since they are traps), but have a huge boost to specials. So usually you put gems of 1 or 2 colors max into a trap to apply their specials, where as gems in towers are gems designed to actually kill the mobs. But not only can you do that, you can actually use gems as bombs too, applying some of their effects and dealing a large amount of damage by sacrificing a gem. You use bombs to demolish buildings you've built or destroy random objects on the map, as well as monster beacons that empower nearby monsters. You can bomb your orb at the end of the path to permanently make banishments less expensive. You can even gem bomb incoming enemy waves to enrage them, which makes the monsters stronger and makes the wave have more total monsters- meaning you get more mana back then you invest but giving risk of making the enemies too strong.

On top of this, defeating enemies grants xp for campaign progression and you can replay a level to try and get a higher score. Automatically this concept  just lends itself to tickle my brain. It's very Disgaea-esque, a sort of infinite recursive feedback loop where you bomb waves to make the game harder, beat it and get a higher score, and can immediately replay a level while stronger to get an even higher score again. It's the sort of addictive quality has made me continue off and on playing this same game and game series for years. I've never been any good at it and have never even gotten close to beating any of these games considering the fact they are all absolutely massive. I remember playing the first flash Gemcraft game and being floored by just scrolling the world map and seeing how far it goes, basically an odyssey, and watching the series grow and reiterate on itself over all these years is the exact kind of thing I live for. It's one of those passion projects where it just slowly perfects itself over time. I cannot recommend it enough if you're into that kind of thing.

Art @Palasferas

However, Gemcraft CS has a few things about it I don't like, and mostly, it's based on the gems. The gem colors are a big part of Gemcraft but also change pretty much every game, and possibly because the developer feels the same way. Gemcraft CS has nine gem colors, but because of how they are set up, many of them don't feel useful or are too typecast in one role. See, when I play a game like this in how well designed it is, I kind of expect and wish the entire game is as tightly balanced and creative as it appears, and inevitably get disappointed when that isn't the case. It's not really fair to expect a game that is already really good to live up to some fantasy version of it I've invented in my head, but that's just how I feel.

Side note: Not specific to Chapter CS at all, but gem bombs have always felt wack to me. In the first few waves a single grade 1 gem can kill all the enemies it hits easily. Later on, gems fall off in power so badly they stop feeling like they do anything at all and are merely a waste of mana. Partially this comes from the tower-defense and economy mindset you adopt when playing a game like this. Gem bombs are destroyed when launched, so naturally they are not as efficient as putting a gem in a tower or trap that actually kills and stays around a long time. Naturally this means I never invest skill points into bomb or demolition related skills, making them even weaker. I don't know how viable a "gem bomb" and/or shrine based build would actually be but judging from my own experience and every community post I see about this game I can only assume its remains as a gimmick, not a core gameplay pillar. In a perfect world, gem bombs should be about as equally strong or viable as gems in towers or traps, so that ultra kill-gem you have in a tower should be able to clear like half the screen of mobs but you sacrifice all that mana you invested to do so to balance it. Trying to make this "balanced" with everything else seems basically impossible so I don't envy the game's creator at all in this task.

The same above also applies to shrines. Shrines have gone through a zillion different iterations in this series but the basic gist is shrines sacrifice a gem to deal serious damage, slow, etc. a group of enemies around the shrine. Much like anything else (and gem bombs), the gem's special also shows up in the shrines. However, Gemcraft CS has randomly spawning shrines, not buildings you can elect to build, so they don't feel like a part of your core strategy. Shrines also only hit a small area around them and have a set "special" effect, which have the same colors and symbols of your 9 gem types. For example, a "Slowing" shrine is blue and slows enemies like a blue gem, but it has nothing to do with blue gems and you can use any gem color in it; making it like a static thing that just appears on the map. Bafflingly, any gem you put in the shrine will have that same effect, just scaled base on the mana cost, and earlier versions of Gemcraft already had shrines that have different effects based on what gem you put within. This is how I feel it should already be; a shrine being a way to sacrifice a gem to produce a powerful effect in a small area and deal damage to enemies, with the shrine's damage and special effects being based on whatever gem is put inside of it. Also, Amplifier towers boost the damage and specials of towers and traps, but not shrines. Even more annoying; you can actually put an amplifer next to your orb in the map and that will strengthen it, reducing the amount of mana a banishment takes, but making shrines stronger or charge faster? Too far.

In Chapter CS you can't build shrines yourself, so that makes sense, but the lack of player shrines you can elect to build and boost feels like a missed opportunity. In the same way towers mostly deal damage and traps mostly inflict specials, dropping a gem bomb should be a way to expend a game to mostly deal damage, and a shrine could be a way to mostly inflict specials while also expending a gem(?). As it stands, the only shrine I care about at all is the XP shrine, which grants you a small amount of XP for hitting monsters by using a gem in it, and the HP shredding shrine (yellow) simply because I like to put a grade 1 gem in it at super late endurance levels to see how many tens of millions of damage it can do despite being worth 19 mana lmao.

But the biggest issue of the game by far is the colors.

In Chasing Shadows there are nine gem colors, but some feel redundant and not as useful. One color is Cyan, which used to be the "shock" gem, giving a chance to hold a monster in place while being shocked- a really useful gem in the older games. Now its primary purpose is "Reducing enemy health regeneration". This just doesn't feel very useful or strong at all, especially when green is poison gem, dealing damage over time. Why would I ever use one over the other? Another is purple, which is armor tearing. Purple on its own makes sense; monsters get armor that gets thicker and thicker the higher the waves go, and armor flatly reduces damage taken, so you need something to remove armor. But as classic video game logic goes, dealing more damage is usually better then debuffs. Both these gems also have the secondary problem of having situationally useful specials which you might want to use; but if you did care about their specials at all there would be literally no reason not to put them into a trap to maximize them. Meanwhile yellow (critical strike) and red (new chain-hit) are both extremely useful to put in towers. Now gems don't necessarily have to be perfectly and evenly balanced between if they should go in a trap or in a tower, but you can imagine in a perfect world they'd be equally viable in both, based on the player's strategy and tactics.

The other issue are the two scaling gems. These are bloodhound (black) and poolhound (white). Having bloodhound mixture in a gem gives it a small boost in power for its damage and specials based on the amount of hits it has made, and poolhound boosts the damage and specials of gems it is apart of based on your maximum mana pool. These gems aren't as common as the others but the basic idea behind these is a way to keep scaling your gems when you reach the point in the game where you can't actually scale your gems up any more, as well as a way to endure during really late waves in endurance mode. I don't have any issue with these other then that there is no strategy at all with them. If you have bloodhound you always want it either in a trap to farm hits or in your main kill tower that is constantly firing, and poolhound is only useful for gems in amplifiers or to be used as things like gem bombs or for shrines late game, since they get free stats as your mana pool increases. This is also already somewhat addressed in Frostborn Wraith, which has the "bloodhound" effect on making gems stronger with more hits as a default feature and mechanic of the whole game. I actually dislike this change somewhat because your most valuable gem is already going to be whatever you have the most investment in anyway; adding an XP element to the gems just further decentivizes certain strategies and encourage min-max trap farming nonsense which I don't enjoy as much.

So for these extremely minor complaints, I have drafted up these following changes.

Art @Incoherrant

Firstly; Armor. Armor is a cool mechanic in gemcraft and makes sense; it makes spamming many weak gems not an ideal strategy since enemies will block most of the damage and you need to invest more heavily in a few powerful gems. But gems do start to cap off in range and attack speed at a certain point, so you still need more then one gem to deal with swarm waves- too many small and fast enemies that can push past your slow firing killgem. It makes sense to have it. But Armor Piercing gems are very simplistic. Out of all of the "iffy" gems in this game, these are still the ones I care about and use the most, they are also one of the most common gem colors that are in maps along with orange (mana leeching) and green (poison), at least until you unlock the ability to forge a gem of any color in any map.

The issue with Armor-Shredding gems is that their usefulness as a secondary gem color in a kill gem is questionable at best. In order to fix this issue, I would say make the purple gems have the secondary effect of armor piercing as well. This means any hit with the gem not only reduces armor by a small amount, but gives the shot a small amount of armor penetration as well. So a tower with a purple gem also gets a damage bonus in the event the monster still has armor since it just ignores some. It should go without saying that any of these changes would naturally fuck up the extremely careful balance and math-work of the game creator- obviously this is just a conceptual sort of ideaguy posting, not a thesis in game design.

The second is the Suppression (Cyan) gem. As stated above, this gem just does not seem useful at all. The ability to reduce healing isn't that common in game strategies. By extension, if enemies did regenerate health super fast and this gem was made useful to mandatory, then the game would be almost excruciating to play on any level without them or just flat out annoying even when you do, because enemies, especially giants, would just be a huge pain in the ass to actually defeat. As it stands, I think these gems are sort of meant for 'anti giant' gems, since giants have a lot of health and armor and are the only enemies that will reasonably take more then one or two shots to destroy. Now I should mention that in super late game scenarios you actually need cyan because enemies regenerate so much health but similar to armor it feels like a losing strategy over boosting your damage and just overcoming them that way before you run out of juice. The other annoying thing about this type of gem is it only stops the regeneration that monsters have by default as opposed to reducing all healing effects on that monster, so even if you hit them with cyan they can still be healed by the random battle traits, like healing novas that monsters do when they die to heal other monsters next to them. In this case, I think having the Cyan gem work as a "stop all healing" works better. But what about in a tower? In a tower, the Cyan gem is a dead color to add to another gem, making it another trap-only sort of gem. My method to fix this, on paper, is to give it some kind of percentage health reduction or "echo" hit, where whatever damage the gem does is then echoed by every hit the monster takes for a short time afterwards. However even I have to admit this would probably fuck the game up beyond repair, because anything that deals percentage damage to monsters would quickly becoming the most OP gem in existence in a game with this much power scaling. Echo damage makes the most sense in that regard and is sort of already been added in FBW but is for that game's red gems. The idea of these changes is to make Cyan the defacto anti-giant and anti-unkillable boss gem type.

While typing this; even simpler idea. Make damage from Cyan gems reduce an enemy's maximum health + make health regeneration a percentage thing. This does both and already makes Cyan towers useful (more damage directly), but Cyan traps would be less useful unless it was reversed in some way. Still I think its interesting. The 'Echo' damage concept could work on its own here and just remove healing and regen except by special monsters all together (which is what FBW did anyway) to get the same basic effect. Also also giving gems more then one effect goes against some of the design principles of this game where every gem has one very simple line explaining their power, but there's a lot of complexity hidden behind it. Maybe reduce the monster's maximum hit points based on a percentage function with the traps doing a way higher percentage but the tower making better use of it, since it can actually deal damage.

Third and final is the Black and White gems. First off, I would absolutely change red back into being bloodhound. Looks better thematically and actually fits the name. Second; bloodhound and poolhound aren't bad gem types at all, just very simple and math-heavy. Using both on one gem doesn't really work so you're going to be using black gems on everything that hits a lot, and white on gems in amplifiers or passively. It's also a little complex and difficult to know if adding a white/black gem to a random gem is worth it or not. I can kind of see the point here; these are like base "damage up" gem types, where as the other types of gems have slightly more situational and supportive. For example; you could make a blue/green gem for poison and slowing for a tower, but should you add a white gem? Doing so gives it free damage and stats, but reduces the amount of its specials to poison and slow. BUT poolhound/bloodhound also INCREASE specials of gems it is a component part of as they scale. So is adding a white gem component like free stats or is it worse? If I want to make a mana farming trap, should I add black? Pure orange creates WAY more mana per hit, but black makes it stronger the more hits it makes. I get the idea of black gems kind of being like an "investment", something you make early to farm hits on for late game, where as other gems you can make fresh and use as you need- a reason I disliked the FBW change of making all gems stronger with experience. It's just less intuitive then it should be.

My other issue with gems of these colors, especially white gems, is because of half the appeal of this game. With a game with this many recursive and infinite growth systems; I really really like the idea of taking a powerful high-grade gem and just adding extra small gems into it. Maybe you find them by breaking open containers of the map, or you need just a little bit more damage or armor-piercing, so you just form a random grade 4 gem to mix with your grade 12 omega kill gem to boost its stats a little. You spend mana and time (gem takes time to resocket) in order to get a small power boost. My issue here is I don't actually think the game works this way and poolhound does the exact same thing with less drawback (don't have to spend any mana), which is one of the reasons why I dislike it. I feel like a core idea of the game is how modular and customizable your gems are, how they all combine into each other to become more powerful and beautiful, like a crazed gemcutter-wizard-alchemist-artist sort of roleplaying experience. Poolhound just undercuts this idea of slowly refining and improving your gems through incremental improvement because it is already the "passive scaling" gem.

How would I amend this? I would remove the Poolhound thing entirely. But I like the idea of having 9 gems and I think the white gems look kind of cool, especially when mixed with other colors. So instead I would have the white gems be "Charging" gem types. Basically they're an econ gem, like the orange gem, but instead of mana it generates charge for things. Every hit very slightly gives you energy for your battlefield spells; freeze, curse, tower enhancement spells, etc. Obviously this has a huge capacity to be broken, so the charge power would have to be limited some way; maybe it can only "overcharge" a spell once its already ready, giving a strategic layer of waiting to cast your spells when they're ready to go to build up a buffer so they recharge faster next use, or maybe they just have a hard limit of how much charge they can generate, like 15% total spell charging points per minute of game time, meaning it can help you get your spells out a little faster but you can't just farm infinite spells with the white gems. This would also be extra cool for FBW, because in that game there are new buildings and mechanics like Pylons. In that game, towers shoot at pylons when no enemies are nearby and the pylon will eventually gain a charged shot that deals a ton of damage- basically being a type of building that "stores" damage. White gems could be extra good at charging these. The other idea? Make white gems the banishment gem. Each hit reduces the amount of mana it takes to banish a monster up to a certain amount, essentially being a way to save mana as opposed to gain more. Once again, this would make trap versions of the gem much more useful and giving limited usability for towers- here I think an Echo damage mechanic would be the best. White gems reduce banishment cost AND deal damage when the monster is banished equal to the strongest hit a white gem did before they were banished. Then white towers and white traps basically act as a kind of endgame protection and "life generator" type of build and useful for super long endurance runs which is kind of their intended use already.

Anyways, despite all this whining, Gemcraft is already a great series of games and if you like tower defense games with lots of content, then you should check them out.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Superhero Street Crime Generator







Street Criminals


Assault / Mugging






Arson / Vandalism



Espionage / Fraud / Hacking

Robots / Minions


Terrorism / Hero-Trap





Government Authority (Police Station, Monument, Elected Official)


Multinational Conglomerate (Server-Farm, Offices, Chairman)


City Services (Fire Dept., Bridge, Blue-Collar Workers)


Big Money (Bank, Vault, White-Collar Workers)


Scientific Community (Laboratory, Power-Station, Interns)


Esoteric (Antique-Shop, Old Statue, Aged Librarian)


Locals (Cafe, Park, Random Civilians)


True Victims (Orphanage, Heritage Site, Humanitarian Figure)


Superhero Related (Friend, Secret Identity, Love-Interest)


Part of a Larger Plot or Mystery


Criminals are...


Focused & Well Prepared


Well Prepared




Extra Belligerent


Nervous or Desperate




Scene Complication


This is a Distraction (Roll for the real Crime)


Extra Hostages or Bystanders


Collateral Damage (Weapons or Events)


Inclement Weather / Bad Luck / You're Late


Rival or Henchman Interrupts


Superpower failure / Out of Ammo / Kryptonite

I also made a much nicer PDF version you can find here.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

HotS is the best Moba + Teamfight Mechanics Spitballing

So Heroes of the Storm has officially stopped receiving development- in other words, it's in maintenance mode. It is now a dead game. Long live Heroes of the Storm.

I want to preface this by saying I've played pretty much every MOBA. Back in the day, me and my friends played League of Legends. Later on, we played some SMITE and Dawngate, with a larger amount of time dedicated to Dota 2. I've also played HoN a little bit and even actual Dota in Warcraft 3's Custom Maps (but my favorite custom map was always Wintermaul Wars). I'm only listing off these figures for one reason; to say out of all of them, I feel pretty strongly that Heroes was always the best.

The reason? There's a few- the first is game speed and accessibility. Heroes is a lot faster then the other games, which while not good on its own, it's nice that most games are over at 20-30 minutes as opposed to an hour long slog that a decent number of league games would turn into sometimes. It's less hardcore nature also  certainly helped; removing things like last hits and denies makes the game objectively less skilled based, but the gains in making players on each team focus more on teamfights and teamplay then their own personal item collection is a gain.

Secondly, and more importantly, is the diversity in the game's characters and maps. Even having more then one map is already pretty unique among this genre of game- and while most Moba's focus on having one really well designed and well balanced map, I don't think you lose much by having a small cadre of symmetrical maps with different objectives and aesthetics to break up the monotony. This will feed back into tabletop games eventually, I promise.

But the big thing is the characters. I remember first playing Dota 2 after League of Legends and thinking "wow, they actually let you play characters with abilities that can grief this hard?" like Io being able to teleport teammates around, or 6 second stun AoEs, and things like that. But then you get to Heroes and the unique characters there blow everything else out of the water. Once again, it's less about their inclusion in the game IMO and more about the fact that you can play them which breaks up the sameness of the game. You can play a game as Murky, a very weak murloc with little to no teamfight potential who just ignores half the game to push lanes out. You can play Abathur, who is a useless slug who sits in base and puts his parasite on his allies to empower them halflway across the map. It's very unique and not something other games do.

However when it comes to gameplay; the thing that heroes of the storm does better then any other MOBA is forcing teamfights. Every map has "objectives", which are things like collect X number of objects that periodically spawn, or hold and control one or two points on the map. Typically, these objectives are really easy to do for even one player all by themselves- but whichever team completes the objective they will gain a huge benefit. Typically, large monsters or waves of minions will spawn down one or multiple lane, destroying forts and pushing towards the enemy's core. This means that you can't really ignore objectives or else you'll lose the game; hence the team knows moreso when it's time to "fight" in games without this mechanic. In other words, the game is more heavily guiding or even forcing your teammates to group up- leading to more interplay.

But that's enough about this game; let's talk about teamfights.

Art @Kerasco√ęt

Now in tabletop RPGs, combat is not necessarily the main mode of gameplay; but in both combat and all other forms of gameplay; teamwork and teamplay are pretty much always a given. This is partially because the players have more control over each other (including the GM/DM) and are less likely to go off on their own- both for the sake of the game and as it will be more optimal. In a video game where each player is controlling their own character, no such controls exist. 

Most "fights" are, however, mostly focused on defeating all of the enemies in the most optimal way possible. This makes sense, but is a bit simplistic. In Heroes of the Storm and other MOBAs as well, fights are about that ultimately, but there tend to be several smaller "side objectives" in a teamfight, which come up on a second per second basis. Due to the fast paced and real time nature of the game; certain small objectives come up during the fight which players have to rotate their abilities or focus on as they go. Now it's easy to say that this would just be the same as "playing the game optimally" and "winning" the fight, but often times fights in blank gray room theater-of-the-mind just end up as dealing damage to the enemy until they die with a little bit of target priority and focus fire- I think having more concrete and apparent goals, signposted by the GM, is a better way to set up combat encounters.

This sounds a bit vague, so let's come up with a practical example.

Say you have a character in your party who has taken a lot of damage and is now weak- only one or two more hits will likely kill them. There is an enemy who is about to unleash a powerful attack or spell that will end them; so your overall goal of "winning" the fight has now changed to stopping this attack from going off- since it will allow your teammate to survive and help win the rest of the fight- so you have to use either an action to disrupt this powerful spell (a stun) or focus that target to be killed first. This concept isn't very unique, but the difference is it feels much more real and immediate in a video game, due to the nature of the medium, then in a tabletop game.

I've had experiences like this as well. In one game I ran, a large monster was blocking a corridor and was chasing down the lightly armored Sage. Behind the monster, was the group's fighter, who used his action to slide between the monster's legs, while attacking, to put himself between the monster and the more vulnerable party member. I thought this was a cool example of teamwork in a way that made sense in the context of the game's universe- less "gamey" then if the Fighter had say a "stunning strike" move that interrupted the monster's next attack.

Another example is control points, or "King of the Hill". In a video game, this is a magic circle you need to stand in to change it to your team's color and hold it for a period of time. In the context of a game, you could do this by slaying enemies who enter the circle while staying there, but because it's a game using powers or moves to push enemies out of the circle. In-universe, this context doesn't make a ton of sense. The concept of "holding a hill" is from warfare and battle strategy; hills are good defensive positions because it is harder for enemy soldiers to move up a hill, and because you can shoot down at an enemy while they have a disadvantage to throw or fire arrows up, and so on. But if an commander just told their soldiers to focus on "pushing people off the hill" as opposed to killing them, it wouldn't accomplish much and would kind of defeat the purpose of "holding the hill". Naturally it is this concept and the childhood of game of being on top of a hill as where the video game concept of control points comes from. It's an abstraction of holding key positions or resources made into bounds in a video game, so a computer can arbitrate the outcome of a match.

However, tabletop games and fantasy can give us this style of gameplay. Imagine the burial site of an ancient powerful sorcerer or dragon. It is said that whoever stands on top of its grave at sundown on this day will determine the revived creature's alignment. So if only your good aligned PCs stand on its grave, it will come back as good, but if a bunch of evil orcs stand on its grave, it will come back as evil. The resurrection spell cannot be stopped, but you can help control its outcome. In this fantasy scenario, I actually think the strategy of moving enemy's off the hill as opposed to just killing them outright works best- since you need to ensure that as many possible creatures on the burial mound are good aligned. Attacks in tabletop games can kill but have to deal damage first, have a chance to miss, and enemies who are struck down may still be "alive", just in a dying state, which could muck up the ritual. In this scenario I could easily see a Monk being a great asset, using judo-throws to get orcs off the hill just before the sun goes down and the magic is complete; a sort of primary objective that is more important then "winning the fight".

Saturday, October 22, 2022

8 Magic Songs

[1] Bourree of the Bastard
This song is played at a frantic pace; best played on drums made of human skin or a decaying violin that shrieks. Anyone who hears this song begins to feel both rage and a sensation of revelry at the same time; a sort of casual violence and cruelty overcomes the listener; no morale checks are rolled for those who can hear this song.

[2] Song of the Skyless
This magic song is special to those who have spent their entire lives underground. To anyone who has ever seen or lived on the surface world; the song sounds sort of tinny and wrong, but to those who have only known the underdark or subterranean places, this song is enrapturing. If you play this song to a being who has only ever spent their life underground; treat your reaction check as the highest possible result for this creature. For unintelligent creatures, the song is simply a pleasant noise, so only treat reaction checks rolls as a +1 for the pleasing melody.

What creatures have spent their whole life underground? Dwarves (except nobility) have a 1 in 10 chance to have never gone to the surface. Orcs, Drow, Gnolls, and other cave dwelling races only on a 1 in 4 since they frequently raid the surface world. If creatures are in a group together- assume the ones who can hear the song get the best reaction check but the rest go along as normal- treating your song as some kind of enchanting witch spell instead of a special song just for them.

[3] Melody of Mold
Low, ambient sound usually enchanted on old stone, or more rarely, plays softly from clusters of glowing mushrooms deep underground. Every mushroom, growth, mold, or myconid near the sound becomes resistant to fire- fields of sporecaps are protected by their own natural melodies. Fire only has a 1 in 6 chance to spread when you try to light a room full of shrooms. Blowing them up doesn't work much better- they'll hide underground before popping back up again undamaged. Clouds of spores or pollens are not protected by this spell, so you may be able to clear a safe path through a toxic mushroom swamp by burning the clouds away and giving yourself a brief window to pass.

This sound is considered to be a natural phenomena. Some say it's the closest things that mushrooms have to a God- a sort of proto-creation of natural harmony and cooperation joined together.

[4] Song in a Shoe
This song can be played on any instrument, but always appears as a pair of silver shoes with a unique flair or in the style of the player of the song. These shoes grant fleetness of foot- a traveling speed increase of one sixth or one extra hex per day of travel, and those who wear these shoes are never surprised- but the shoes give off the song with each and every step the wearer makes, making stealth impossible and clearly showing the wearer is under the effect of a spell unless if they have instruments they can pretend to play to cover up the sound of the song.

The Song in a Shoe keeps working for one full day or until the wearer stops walking for more then a turn (going into a dungeon, traveling by boat, riding a mount, or making camp stops this spell).

[5] Ragtime Rites
Fast paced, engaging song played by a group. While most funerals are quiet, mournful affairs, this song is more upbeat and energetic. It has the effect of calming and weakening restless spirits- causing the undead to return to their eternal rest after a bout of spirited dancing. Violent undead, however, will still attack. Each round the song is played, all undead nearby will dance, with restless and evil undead or servants of necromancers taking 1 damage per round until destroyed.

This song is a specialty of the Merrymarrows, who do not take any damage from the song, but it helps get their old bones moving. It is for this reason that the lands they hail from have such colorful funerals; it's an excuse for the skeletons to party while putting down actually dangerous undead.

[6] Goblin Song
This son is performed most commonly by goblins in a goblin war band- which is basically just what happens when more then a dozen goblins get together and get bored of messing with each other. Sounds suspiciously like the Melody of Mold just with scratching goblin singing over it- considering the melody is the goblin's second favorite song they probably just copied it. It has a similar effect, except it applies to all goblins in earshot, who gain +2 temporary Hit-Points.

Whenever this song is played; no actual instruments are needed, just various objects to smash together, bones to clatter, or the occasional cat that they stick pins in to make an instrument.

[7] Lawful Litany
Imbued with the powers of Law, this alignment-based song has a holy sound. If this song is playing, any lawful cleric will Turn Undead as though one level higher. In addition, unholy noise, demonic chants, and spoken curses will fall dead in the throats of the sinners; cancelling or silencing the spells of those of Chaotic alignment.

The twinkling highs and harmonious voice of this song are truly beautiful to hear. It is said that this song is a copy of a copy of a memory of a dream of a holy man once allowed to hear one single song in heaven.

[8] Rhetorical Requiem
Only the name of this song is known to people- the words and how it goes is not. This song is not remembered by anyone who hears it- only those who know how to play. While the song itself is moving, immediately after it is played, all who heard it forget its details and the performance. The subjects of this spell lose all memory of the performance itself; just that they "heard" the song. This also applies to anything said or heard during the song as well- which fades into its performance. You could accuse someone of murder with its lyrics, see their horrified reaction at being found out, and then when the song ends they forgot you ever accused them of anything.

This song has been used by many to fleece patrons, to investigate rumors, to trick and confuse. But be warned, those who cannot hear the notes being played will remember everything they have seen and felt. This is the reason why the wise always keep a deaf man with them when they hear the strings play.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Vagueposting- The Static Dynamic

In the classic Silent Hill 2, there is a part that happens involving this chap where the player is knocked off a high place. When you hit the ground, you are automatically knocked to critical health from whatever health value you are at from before this encounter. Since it's basically required to have this encounter on a playthrough, since it gives you access to a new area, it's something everyone who plays the game will go through.

Isn't that interesting?

Think about it. This is a survival horror game, with limited resources for things like ammo and healing items, with a moment where the player is forced to take damage. This is especially important in Silent Hill 2 as one of the game's endings can be influenced by having taken a lot of damage. There is someone, somewhere, in the world who got the aforementioned ending because of this event- they just happened to be low on healing items when this event happened. Somebody else probably died to a monster afterwards because of the damage; or others had to expend a healing item that would have come in handy at a later portion. While interacting directly with the gameplay, this moment is a scripted event in a story that cannot be changed. This also is not a quicktime event or test of reflexes or planning, since it's something that will always happen that you have no imput or control over.

I think there is a really interesting overlap between these two different worlds of a game; the "game and the story" being normally separate entities, but instead being put together. It's uncommon for a game to actually waste the players ammo in a cutscene where they shoot their weapon, for example, and rare for damage in a cutscene to carry over either. What does this say about the game if it does happen?

The title of this post is a bit of an oxymoron.

When it comes to games, be them tabletop or of the video variety, there is a gradient between static and dynamic. Dynamic games would be games with more interactive, random, or changing gameplay elements that add more factors to any individual play session, where as a game more on the "static" side would be the opposite. More scripted, cinematic, or on-rails for a tabletop descriptor. Something at the absolute end of the "static" side would probably be something like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, where as the most dynamic possible would be a traditional game of D&D or something similar with a new adventure created on the fly by the dungeon master or players every session.

In the most static game imaginable, you might have multiple encounters with a monster or forced resource "checks" where the player loses some kind of counter or resource in scripted sequences. Some concepts like this already exist in tabletop games; such as needing one ration of food per day when away from civilization. This is a mandatory resource that can't be overcome with good rolls (except for maybe a Survival check, but it's not the same as health- you don't lose health every day and only need to use healing potions if you get a bad roll or make a mistake). 

In a game like this, everything or anything that happens could be set in stone and you are simply following along; like literally playing out a movie or a book, scene by scene, needing to make the various checks and expend resources at the right moments. Now I think most people would find a game like this very boring and somewhat pointless, myself included, but in my opinion, the concept of a game with scripted or set "moments" like this is an interesting idea space.

Consider a campaign where the players psychic or cyberpunk brain-to-computer hackerman by the rules lose a certain amount of health/sanity/magic points whenever they use their abilities. However, it is well established early on in this campaign that you must unlock the three computer terminals or mind-control the three lieutenants; thus creating a sort of anticipation and phase of preparation for that player. Because there is a set, established set of things that the player(s) must preform, this scripted "story" sequence becomes part of the game. In anticipation for this checkpoint, you can't expend too many of your magic points or else you'll have to roll on the psychic backlash table or what have you. And after the event, some of your resources are gone without being totally up to the player to decide how to use them.

Also, it should be noted here that a "scripted" or "set in stone" event may or may not even exist in the perception of the one experiencing it. You wouldn't be able to tell if everything that happens in your game was the result of rolls on a random table or predetermined- save for those things that don't flow logically or are thrust upon the players ala a railroad.

Unique Encounters
What exactly is the place of a scripted event or railroaded event in a game or sequence? Most consider it a result of poor GM/DM/QM decision making. I also agree that these are not as fun or interesting in tabletop games then they would be in a video game.

Another example of a similar concept are unique and specific encounters in a game; such as boss fights or enemies that are only fought once or with a specific gimmick. This to me is an interesting idea space; the idea of an otherwise free flowing "game" state that interacts with a set encounter. Tabletop games are rife with this sort of thing for obvious reasons; an encounter with bandits but the bandit leader has a magic weapon or a sorcerer that casts a specific spell, etc. However I consider this more on the dynamic side of this made up spectrum. In the world of video games however, we see something like this much more often, possibly because most of the gameplay is already relatively "static" in how the player can interact with the game world in such a way.

For example; in most games there may be a few generic enemy types. Zombies, zombie dogs, giant spiders, etc. Typically you'll encounter each of these separately in different arrangements. Zombie dogs fought in a hallway is different then zombie dogs fought out in an open field. You can manage one zombie easily but three or more is a hoard that you might find it hard to escape from, etc. If you were suddenly put into a room with a zombie and a zombie dog, that would be a unique encounter; do you shoot at the comparatively more powerful but slow and easy to hit zombie first? Or take care of the fast moving enemy while the slower one creeps up on you? However, this to me isn't a "unique" encounter, though it may be the only time it happens in the game, it is a shuffling of other "game pieces" in the world. However, if there was a random room where once you enter a giant spider crawls over the door to get out and starts spitting webs at you- with you unable to leave until you shoot the ranged monster, this to me would be a very unique and interesting, memorable sort of encounter. It's difficult to describe, but the concept of a "unique" once only asset in a game like that is very interesting to me. Even if you programmed a new enemy type, and only fight it once in a specific area (like most bosses in a game), it wouldn't feel as "unique" then if you had a special encounter with an enemy that did something specific like that.

One little indie game I quite like is an RPG called BUGGERWORLD. It's a bit of a shitpost game but is actually pretty unique in that regard, as every fight in this game is unique, with new art and mechanics each time. The game's scope is so small there isn't even any leveling up, you gain new abilities and/or increases to your base stats simply based on progression in the story- which is entirely linear. Therefore, each battle will be exactly the same from one player or one playthrough to the next. The only "dynamic" element between them would be which and how many healing/restoring items you found and bought in the game and how well you rationed them. Then, the fight itself involves your own player skill to find the right combination of moves and healing/attacking to prevail in the end. If you want to play it yourself I'd highly recommend it; it's only about two hours long and totally free.

In a similar vein, a long running concept I've always wanted to see explored was a game where every single encounter with enemies was wholly unique. As in, every fight has new enemies, animations, and slightly different rules. This concept is something I'm sure many also have; which is unusual and rare in the world of video games, but is actually in a sense the default in a tabletop game, as the player-driven creativity and different context of a fight or social encounter or dungeon crawl or whatever else lifts it automatically out of a generic "template" or creation of different "assets" ala a video game.

But if we really want to talk about a game that feels like a linear, hand crafted journey with what I'm talking about here; then check out Northern Journey. But more on that later.

Potential Uses & Gameplay Enrichment
The concept of games having these sorts of things is not new; and in fact are already named Set-Pieces, which I embarrassingly only remember now most of the way through writing this. I think a real advantage of set pieces is being memorable and shaking up the status quo of a game.

Tabletop and imaginary elf-games also use setpieces too; while I said above I think they're more common here then in videogames and are thus less memorable and notable when they happen, they are still far and away better in the tabletop genre. Mostly because they interact directly with the freeform and problem-solving nature of gameplay in a tabletop game.

Most DMs/GMs have probably already had a couple of really good setpiece fights. Powerful monster chasing you down hallways too tight for it to turn around. Daring stagecoach or train robberies. Combat on or in burning and collapsing structures; or a slowly flooding room, etc. Dangerous terrain that changes during the course of the fight makes for more interesting fights, even in theater of the mind. Of course, the other advantage of tabletop roleplaying games is that fighting is not the only thing you can be doing; but as a simulation of a fantasy world or "adventure novel" these setpiece events don't stick out from the norm as they are usually the norm. The only time they would be incredibly jarring and, thus, capable of capturing the imagination the way I described above was if the majority of encounters in the game were simple, repetitive, with little fluff or deviation. Just empty rooms with combat encounters that end up being resolved by rolling dice a lot and ticking health down and experience up. In other words, the most boring type of campaign imaginable. Hence, the entire concept of these encounters requires a certain degree of sameness in the rest of the whole; and with the unlimited imagination space of tabletop games it kinda defeats the purpose.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Dirt Simple Wealth- Wealth as Treasures Abstraction

I want to make it clear from the outset that any OSR style game, or games with gold for XP, should absolutely not use this system under any circumstance. This concept is more fitting for a generic adventure or high fantasy story game. The granularity and importance of keeping track of individual gold pieces and time is not necessarily something you want for a more casual game; so this method is a compromise between more objective systems and the more abstract wealth-as-a-stat system found in some games.

In some PbtA games, wealth is like an abstract stat. The idea being that anything under your wealth level is not something you need be concerned with; but anything equal to or over your wealth level is a significant purchase and will or has a chance to reduce your wealth level by one degree. The idea behind this system is to more accurately portray a character's lifestyle within the world; a high class noble has no concern over daily lodgings and meals, and can freely buy horses or servants if needed without any impact to their overall finances, but buying a powerful magic spell or a castle would be something they need to carefully consider. On the flipside, a character with a wealth level of one or zero would have to carefully consider how they will make enough money each day to afford their meals or simple services.

The idea is to take the above basic system, but instead of abstract stats or levels, tie your wealth level to each significant treasure you have looted.

Wealth as Treasures
As adventurers explore the world, do quests, and raid tombs, they will eventually come into possession of valuable artifacts. Some of these may be magical or very powerful; as as such will be valuable, but some will be valuable purely for other reasons; great works of art and craft, huge gemstones or precious metals, cultural and historical significant, etc. These are your treasures.

You are only going to be keeping track of significant treasures; typically the namesake of whatever dungeon, tomb, or royal family you're stealing from. If your players make a plan to steal the Mona Lisa, then that would become the significant treasure written on their character sheet. The other paintings and valuables in the Louvre that were stolen fetched you a lot of money, but those are part of the abstraction. Naturally a thief or graverobber will keep the best finds for themselves- so for each of these great treasures you possess, you treat this as one "wealth level".

Your daily expenses are not being paid by these treasures, you are buying your food and servants with the silver coins you looted from the orcs you fought in the dungeon, or you are making a small daily stipend from the local banking guild by stowing your treasure in their vault- but the treasures remains your primary wealth. When you need to purchase something valuable to your wealth-level, you will need to exchange a treasure for it. The DM decides which treasure you are trading away, not you.

So for example; a character with a single treasure; a glorious golden signet ring from an ancient dynasty, will have enough wealth laying around from their previous dungeon haul to buy their daily necessities. But if they suddenly need to buy a good fast horse to get out of town, they will begrudgingly give away this ring, vastly overpaying, to the stablemaster for his finest steed. Now, when you reach the next town over, you will have lost one level of wealth and are struggling, on the run and hungry, until you can find another valuable treasure to add to your character sheet.

Treasures also scale upwards; while the first great treasure you find may be one piece of jewelry or animate portrait, later treasures will be exponentially bigger and more valuable. This is tied together inherently with character progression; more dangerous dungeons have better treasures, so what counts as a "significant treasure" may change based on how many you already have. You can dive into the lagoon and pry open as many giant clams as you wish for pearls; but one or two or a dozen more isn't going to bring you to the heights of wealth and luxury; you'd need something greater.

Once a character has four, five, or six significant treasures; they'll be living like a King and have no issue affording property, income generating businesses, paying servants, and hiring mercenary bands. But if you want a truly exorbitant purchase, like the construction of a new castle, you'll still need to give up one of your precious treasures for it. While your character's liquid wealth has not actually decreased sans one treasure, consider it like losing a bit of the renown and respect they garnered that helped them keep their level of income before; while the local archbishop may be irritated that you won't donate the lost scrolls of the saint to the church; if you lose them again he'd be downright furious, and stop sending rookie healer-priests to your fort for free heals- thus increasing your expenses. Or maybe, you can't get as much money from pilgrims or wealthy nobles on tour who want to see your collection. You get the idea.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Stories for a Bed

You are traveling in the farther reaches of the realm, the backroads, the quiet country. Perhaps you are on your way to an ancient ruin in a far off place, or this is a simple leg of a longer journey. As night falls, you pull into a tiny village. The hamlet is tiny; only a few hundred people live here at most- the largest building is the old stone church on the hill with an adjoining graveyard. You go to a farmer pulling an empty wagon and ask where is the local inn for you to stay that night. All you get back is a stare, and an offer.

Not every town or village is going to have an inn or tavern where you can spend the night. It's too small of a town, not enough travelers- there would be no business! You could just try camping out on the side of the road, but that's a good way to draw even more of the villager's distrust. Instead; more then likely, you'll want to be spending the night with the locals. You probably have more then enough coin for them; but these people are humble, and probably view guests as sacred. You offer them something more valuable then a simple monetary exchange for their service- a look into the wider world.

Hospitality is a very serious thing. It is a sacred pact between host and guest. Groups of adventurers are very likely to be offered a place to stay if they spend any time in the village or if they appear in need in any way. If you think it's unrealistic that a random villager would offer to open their doors to armed and dangerous looking vagabonds and freaks; consider that these armed vagabonds could probably just force their way inside if they wanted- and the villagers know that. Invoking the rights of hospitality solves the problem for everyone.

If your setting is more mythological; then consider the rules of hospitality to be actually magic and the pact actually supernatural. To violate the rules of hospitality is to evoke the wrath of the Gods, the Home's Protector-Spirit, or some other force.

The rules are simple; the Guest must not harm the host, and the Host must not harm the guests. The host offers any accommodations they can provide without too much hardship- usually food and lodging- while the guest must provide a story.

These stories do not have to be true.

The Story Circles
Take out a piece of paper and draw a Venn Diagram with three circles. Draw big. Label one circle Fantastic, one Grim, and one True. Then, use any six sided die.

Your players will be telling a story. Tell them to get creative; recap their adventure to this point, go over what happened the last day, how the fighter lost an eye, whatever.

In most cases, you will be telling a story as a party. In this case, begin the die on the section of the chart that makes the most sense, and keep it on a one. Whenever any player/character adds something to the story- move the die one section towards whichever direction they are veering the story towards. For example; if you begin the story about how you defeated a powerful dragon; start it on Fantastic. If the quarter-master goes into a anal-retentive rant about how they got the wrong kind of goat to feed this specific subspecies of dragon, move it a step towards True, putting it into the Fantastic/True zone, and then move the die's value up to two. 

You can also use this as a rough estimate of time; each value on the die is one turn unit or ten minute interval of time used to tell the story. 

To determine exactly where the die should move each turn, consider the subject matter and how the player tells it. Each "subject" of the story is what moves the die- not details. If you tell about how you smashed a bunch of spider eggs, which attracted the spider queen, who then poisoned and killed a friend of yours- that's all one 'subject' of the story. If you then say you traded these spider eggs to the nearby goblins for safe passage through their territory- that can be a second subject. 

Each circle on the diagram sort of represents a genre of story or overall vibe as opposed to specific elements. Grim stories are anything related to survival, brutality, meanness, revenge, injury, etc. Fantastic are more for anything that is related to the wonderful and mystic- tale of far off lands and true love's first kiss are as relevant as a fight with a dragon. Finally, True stories are are for anything that is both mostly true, grounded, and relevant to the villagers or people you are telling the story to. Talking about intrigue at the divine court of Gods won't count as "True" even if it is, but if you say you slain a local monster- that is relevant. You could also rename this category to "Local" or "Believable", which might work better now that I think about it.

At the end of the story- either when the events of the story are concluded or the players have nothing more to add, check the value of the die. 

How the Story Lands
Check the value on the die first-
One or Two: The story was too short- boring. What about news of the outside world? Where's the adventure, the intrigue?! What a bunch of graceless guests you are. (Nothing)
Three or more: Good story! (Check Gracious Host table below)
Maximum Value on the Die: Too long. The children are falling asleep and the wife excused herself to do some cleaning. (Nothing)

Also; you can use a bigger die (meaning longer, more impactful stories) under these conditions;

  • You have a Bard in the party (+1 die size)
  • Somebody telling the story has a Charisma modifier of +1 or better (+1 die size)
  • You have a physical piece of proof of the story- like a monster's head, wicked scar, or magical treasure (+1 die size)

(Die sizes go d6 > d8 > d10 > d12 for maximum story power) 

Then, check the location of the die on the chart-

If the die is on the Grim portion, then the Host(s) will think you need help. They will supply you with a number of cheap items or low-cost services equal to the die number. If your story had a value of 3, then they will supply you with three rations of food, or the local hunter supplies you with three quivers of arrows, or the old woman will supply you with three pairs of gloves- after all, you did say those frost wolves nearly froze you to death. What a dreadful story! Dress warmly dear.

If the die is on the Fantastic portion, you have brought more wonder and a little bit of magic into the world. You are inspiring people with your stories, and further spreading your own fame just a little bit by telling them. You gain bonus XP. The amount of bonus XP will vary depending on your game- but I'd say something like each character in the party gets (5 x their level) x value of the Fantastic die.

If the die is on the True portion, your stories are the most morally correct and useful to the villagers; not just because you aren't lying but because you are fulfilling the sacred duty of the guest. Essentially, it's a good deed. You could think of this literally, like the winds of fate or the direct intervention by the Gods to reward your kindness, or more abstractly, as a sort of meta-game currency to reward players for staying in character and immersing themselves in the game world. The number of points on the die is written down and the next die roll used by or against the party will be manipulated by that number in their favor. The first arrow shot by an orcish ambush has its To-Hit roll reduced by three points- miraculously turning a hit into a miss.

If your die is on the portions between any of the three categories- divide the die's value evenly among the categories- if the value is two or less, it is ignored. So if you have a story that ends on a Fantastic/Grim note, but only has a value of four, then you get no reward for the story (you can round up for odd numbers at least). You can also see that getting in the center of the wheel makes it impossible to get a reward with a six sided die- it may sound unfair, but remember, you're the one telling an unfocused jumbled mess of a story.

You can also totally use this graph/Venn diagram as a story generator table. Just roll + drop a die over the piece of paper and wherever it lands and its number is the mood and length of the story. So when you ask your hireling where he is been since he creeped out of camp a fortnight ago and he goes off on an epic ballad of saving a princess, you can be sure it's 100% bullshit, but at least it makes a nice story.