Monthly Archives: May 2010

Wicked Nights Playtest Results

I ran a playtest tonight of Wicked Nights, my vampire IAWA hack. Good times- horribly grotesque situation, morally dreadful characters, and some horrible events. (Wasn’t too much in the way of gross imagery in play, but there was certainly the potential for it to go there.)

Rules wise, we tested Use It, Risk It, and my Simplified NPC Dice rules. Use It Risk It was a hit, and I enjoyed the ease of use of Simplified NPC Dice. I think I want to put both to further practice, but they showed promise.

The creating vampire rules seemed good- it puts the player doing it in quite a bit of a risk, making you vulnerable. Also, the vampires seemed sufficiently inhuman and nasty. Good deal.

Good playtest. Looking forward to more!

Die Macher, Die Acher

Consider that title a badly mangled pun about auctions. And aches. It’s there if you stare at it enough.

Last night I got a chance to play Die Macher, which is widely considered one of those games everyone should play at least once. It is 26 on Board Game Geek’s top 100 games. (Then again Twilight Struggle is number 3, so what the hell do they know?)

The game takes four damn hours. There’s tons of fiddly bits. (But not as many if it were Fantasy Flight Presents Die Macher). There is some needless randomness. But at the heart of it, you have a very tight, vicious auction game.

Lots of games you might not expect to be auction games have auction elements- any sort of bid for first player can play a role. Battlestar Gallactica has auction elements. (This is most evident when you have a skill challenge that people vocally differ on, such as brigging someone or freeing them from the brig, or when known cylons play into challenges.) CCG booster drafts are an auction.

What’s an auction? You have some resources that you turn, usually into another type of resources, which turn into points. One or more of those rates of exchange is variable, set by interplayer relationships.
(I suppose you can have a game where you bid directly for points- but that seems rather simplistic and unengaging. Take Six is the closest I can come up with, but that involves forming sets, which might be construed as another resource.)
For Sale is probably the simplest example of this: in the first round, you bid money for houses. The bids keep going up, and when you drop out, you take the worst available house. Bid the most, pay the most, take the best prize. Bid the least, pay the least (nothing in this case), take the worst prize. That goes on until all the houses are gone. Then we bid on checks- everyone secretly selects a house, and we see the checks that are in play. Bid the most, get the best prize. Bid the least, get the worst prize. Checks are worth victory points. (So is money, so you have an incentive both to save your money, and make sure your houses gain more income for you than they costed.)

Most auction games fit this feedback cycle. You have a primary resource that you use for bidding, which you turn into other resources, which you use to actually do stuff. Stuff gets you points. Because there’s a layer of mechanics between the first type of currency and the points, you can’t be certain what the second type of currency is actually worth. The fun of an auction game comes from making that estimation- both of the ‘actual’ value of the resource, the opportunity cost (what else could you do given the same resources?) and how much you’re willing to pay to make sure someone else doesn’t get it.

Take another example, you have Beowulf, which has as it’s primary resources cards with various symbols. Through various challenges, you can turn these into points, or into other things- treasures, more cards, really special cards, or avoiding bad things. How many points is a card worth? How many points is one of the tier 2 currencies, like a treasure, treaty, or special card worth? Those are the judgment calls one has to make. Often the prize itself is a currency in another auction- feedback.

In a Magic booster draft, the auction cycle involves the primary resource of picks, a secondary resource of cards, a tertiary resource of your actual deck you build, and a victory condition of games won. Everyone gets the same number of picks, from a reasonably balanced starting platform. You turn a pick, the right to take a card, into a card. You turn lots of cards into a (hopefully) competitive deck. You win games with your deck to do well in the tournament. (Which is also an auction, because that gives you prizes, which make your collection position better for trading and constructed events…) Consider how the dynamic of the auction changes if feedback elements are introduced- if after winning a game, you get to take a card from the loser’s deck (gaining more cards), or games where you get to keep all the cards you draft (those cards go directly into your metaresources), versus those where the rares go to the winners. Or if you drafted decks from two packs, played a game, drafted cards from another pack, played another game, drafted cards from a fourth pack, and played a final game.

So what’s this got to do with Die Macher? Essentially, too much feedback, and resources which are too random. The resources you have are money, dudes, media, special cards, opinions (sorta), and polls. Money buys dudes and media at a fairly fixed rate, and opinions change slowly that your primary resource is certainly money (it’s also the only thing not worth points of any kind.) The only two things with an actual bid on them are turn order and opinion polls. Right of turn order should have obvious benefits to any seasoned game player. The opinion polls are basically a random boost or penalty to a certain player in an area. They are very potent, but unreliable- and they are one of the biggest interfaces with the other players. I liked the feedback cycle created by many of the game components (which are really too complex to explain here), but the fact that the primary thing you bid on sometimes doesn’t even help you when you get it- that seems a bit odd for such an otherwise precise game.

Future Fantasy: The Assassin

I’ve been playing a lot of Mass Effect recently, which has put me in the mood to work on Future Fantasy. Here’s the first five levels of a class which I thought would be easy, but wasn’t: the Assassin, a class which totally isn’t a reskinned ranger. It looks like a reskinned ranger, but trust me, it isn’t.

Check out the PDF here!

Best of Dominion, Part III

So, it’s been a while since I talked about Dominion. What are my favorite cards from Seaside?

10: Pirate Ship
Okay, I actually hate the Pirate Ship. But it is a game-changing card. Play lots of Pirate Ships early, then play them later for massive money making. It also makes other players think twice about buying money.

9: Island
Island is a great card- it encourages you to buy points early, because it lets you score points while getting them out of your deck. Normally points are something you don’t want in your deck early- Island reverses that trend.

8: Lighthouse
What I like most about the Lighthouse is that it’s the opposite of the Moat. The Moat you play after the attack, Lighthouse you play before. When you’re playing an attack card, you don’t know if they have a Moat, but you can tell if they have a Lighthouse. It’s a bit weaker in that regard, but changes the paradigm. 2 coins (1 this turn, 1 the next), however, is quite strong.

7: Haven
Haven is probably one of the best of the 2 cost cyclers, letting you shelve a card for next turn- an extra action, half of a combo if you think you might be able to put it to better use, extra coins if you have more than you need.

6: Outpost
Taking two turns in a row is always fun, especially if you got a combo with some of the other duration cards. The fact that you only get 3 cards makes it less strong, but if you have lots of cards like the Caravan or the Haven, you can make that turn much more potent than it would be otherwise.

5: Navigator
The Navigator is a great card. 2 money, and look at your top five cards, and discard or rearrange them. Don’t like the hand you’ll get next turn? Ditch it! Comboing the Navigator with extra actions and card draw? Choose exactly what you’re going to draw. Or combo with the Pearl Diver to put bad cards on top of your deck before discarding them.

4: Treasure Map
The Treasure Map is one of those cards that you look at it, and need to make sure you read it right. Put four gold on top of your deck. Yeah, it’s pretty darn good. But you need two of them, which can make it risky to pay off. Best with other deck manipulation cards (like the Haven, Navigator, or Pearl Diver, for example.)

3: Fishing Village
My favorite variant on the village, and the most powerful. Over two turns, it gives 3 extra actions and 2 coins, for the low cost of 3. Nuff said.

2: Smugglers
My personal pick for most fun card, Smugglers always get you something good. While you have less choice compared to say, the Workshop, the ability to get 5 and 6 cost cards is potent. And your opponents will buy those cards if they can. I’ve seen the Gold deck run out because of Treasure Maps, Smugglers, and the Explorer, a 3-card combination I call “Dominion on Crack.”

1: Tactician
No card in the set is more interesting than the Tactician. You’re essentially giving up one turn of buys (unless you have +coin actions) for a super-turn, and a super-turn it is: 10 cards, 2 actions, 2 buys. Typically you can do more with 10 cards than you could do with 5 cards twice, which makes this such a great card.

Honorable Mentions:
The Explorer, part of the trifecta of Dominion on Crack, the very potent Merchant Ship, the potent Treasury, the targeted-curse Embargo, and the interesting Ambassador, who gets rid of your junk and gives it to the other players.

D&D: Playing With the Equation

Anyone who’s Dungeon Mastered D&D 4th edition for even a little while should appreciate how easy it is to make a balanced encounter. Pick a target level, pick some monsters, add up their xp values, and make sure it’s within budget. It can get a little trickier if you don’t always know how many players will show up for the game (I balance my encounters for five, and write down what to add or subtract if I get the full 6 players, or only 4 for a given session.) But the basic equation is fairly simple.

Experienced GMs might want to consider playing around with the formula.

Here’s two examples:

First, a few weeks ago, I ran a fight between seven thirteenth level characters (!) and two dragons. I wanted it to be a big fight where the characters would have to use most of their dailies. As a result, I’d be looking at a target encounter level of 16. But I knew I wanted to do something different- present these dragons as cunning, ambushing creatures, and use terrain heavily.

The plan was that the dragons would have several pit traps around the first combat area- the Copper would stay close to the ground, and shift around, encouraging characters to come close to it, and the Blue would stay in the air, raining down lightning. Once a character fell down the pit, the Copper would follow, ravage the single character, and if bloodied or outnumbered, would fly through a trapped corridor, rigged to collapse, which it would trigger from the other side, to both do massive damage to the party members, and make it hard to navigate (one would have to Squeeze and crawl to get through after the rockfall stopped). Then there was a host of Gargoyle Harrier monsters on the other side (11th level lurkers), who would further fight the characters while the dragon(s) retreated to their inner sanctum.

So yeah, a huge battle, without any time to rest- if the party would try to take a short rest after dealing with the gargoyles, for example, the dragons would come charging out in full force. I had three full Paizo battlemaps ready for use. What actually happened, by the way, was that they forced the Copper down the hole themselves, then split up, taking the falling damage and going after it en masse, marking and putting conditions on it so it couldn’t easily make its escape, and finally pushed it to the ground, triggering the tunnel collapse on its corpse. Meanwhile the paladin used Knightly Intercession to pull the blue to the ground where they could put the whallop on it.

But here’s the total force in the encounter:
Custom Adult Blue Dragon (level 15 elite)
Custom Adult Copper Dragon (level 15 elite)
5x Sandy Pit Trap (level 15 lurker trap)
Cave in Tunnel (level 15 lurker trap)
6x Gargoyle Harriers (level 11 lurker)

By the rules, that’s 15000 xp worth of assorted baddies, or roughly an 18/19th level encounter for 7 characters. In practice, traps (pit traps especially) are overcosted, and the Harriers are not meant to be fought at the same time as the dragons. It’s still a nasty encounter, and would be nastier still if the players weren’t clever to finish it without having to face all the opposition.

Last week I ran an encounter featuring a chase through the city. There was a drake-pulled cart driven by an NPC, with the unconscious (player absent) Paladin, and several dragon eggs (rescued from said dragon encounter) in the back seat. I had several city map tiles placed in a winding fashion, so the cart would have to navigate them to get to a teleport circle. The fight started with 10 archer minions scattered on various rooftops over the map, an a Bearded Devil and several Legion Devils blocking their way. The cart would move a certain distance on its own, or player characters could take command of it to move it the way they wanted to. The reins of the cart changed hands several times during the encounter.

At the end of every round of the encounter, I rolled a single d6. On a 4-6, enemy reinforcements showed up, trying to stop the players from getting out of the city. Also, at the end, there were several enemies waiting for them.

The starting force included:
Bearded Devil (level 13 soldier)
4x Legion Devil Hellguard (level 11 minion)
1x Legion Devil Veteran (level 16 minion)
10x Jalalabad Archers (level 13 custom minion)

The ending force included:
Hulan the Glorious (a reskinned Drow Blademaster, level 13 elite skirmisher)
5x Jalalabad Dervishes (level 13 custom minion)

The Reinforcement rolls generated:
Jalalabad Outrider (level 13 custom skirmisher)
Human Gladiator (level 14 elite skirmisher)
5x Jalalabad Archers

Again, by the rules, that’s 7180xp worth of adversaries, or for 5 characters, a level 16 encounter. However, in practice, only a fraction of that value was attacking the characters at any given time, and the focus of the encounter was not on clearing the board of enemies. It was first on getting the cart and party to the destination, and then on getting away (there were two possible skill challenges to end the encounter- an Arcana based one to speed the teleport ritual, and a Social based one to talk down the enemy commander. Either one would end the encounter.)

The takeaway then, is when is using more creatures in an encounter a good decision?

*The party doesn’t fight all of them at once. For an encounter where there are waves of enemies, but they don’t all fight the characters at the same time, you can get away with having more enemies. This is probably the best way to do a traditional dungeon map with lots of tiny rooms and a monster in each one. As the party fights one monster, they draw the attention of more, and more and more of the map gets used as the encounter goes on. Maybe the whole dungeon level is a single encounter!

*Some condition vastly overvalues the xp value of the monsters. I’m of the opinion that pit traps are undervalued compared to a monster of the same level- they get one attack, then they are pretty much out of the fight unless forced movement is in play, but that’s something that generally the players have more access to than the GM unless the encounter is specifically built towards that. But any monster can be overvalued; suppose you’ve got a party full of fire-using characters. With Fire being the most common resistance in the game, you might turn that on its head and let them fight a host of Fire-Vulnerable creatures- such as Chillborn zombies. For a level 6 party with multiple fire-heavy characters, 8 Chillborn Zombies (technically a level 9 fight) is likely to be much easier than it looks- a great way for those fire users to show off and feel vindicated!

*There’s something at stake other than killing or being killed. In the second example, the party was just trying to get away. You could turn that on its head and have an escaping villain with waves and waves of minions between him and the party. Can they cut their way through the wave to put the conditions on him they need to stop his escape? (Probably. Player characters seem to be really good at that sort of thing. Make them work for it!)

*There’s an alternate victory condition. The second example has a skill challenge to end the fight. A fight that ends when a single badass leader is slain (especially if the players can figure this out, perhaps with an Insight or other skill check) can be much easier if the players focus their fire on that sole badass leader. Or maybe there’s a switch for a castle gate that let’s the King’s cavalry storm in- but an advance force of awesome adventurers is needed to get past all the evil wizard’s men that are between them and it, creating an environmental challenge. (Put lots of things to climb onto and jump from, and multiple paths to get there, and you’ll have a recipe for an encounter based on movement and getting to a key location, not just clearing out the other guys.)