Monday, 16 August 2010

Time ...

I thought I would talk about the topic of "Time" this week. It is an especially difficult topic with respect to D&D (or any CRPG that involves time for that matter) simply because in almost every gaming situation the process of passing time varies from one action to another: From combat rounds to spell durations and even to timed events over days, weeks or even months. In D&D, the passing of time is handled by the DM who determines how much time passes in the world after each player action. In a CRPG like NWN, however, managing such events (in modules that do not have a DM at the helm) are not so straight forward without a robust time system being in place that can cater for the various player actions. As an aside, I found it interesting to read how the D&D rules regarding time have changed over the years: In the 1E rules, time was considered "of the utmost importance"; in the 2E rules, the importance of time became "decided almost entirely by the DM", and by the 3E rules, there is no index reference to it at all. In fact, the 1E DM's Guide even stresses in capitalised letters that, "YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT." So, one question is, just how important is time and its keeping?

Party Time Keeping First of all, however, I want to ask the question just how do our party of intrepid adventurers keep track of time for themselves? The passing of a day is fairly obvious, and so tracking periods of time in days, weeks and months should be considered straight forward enough, but what about more intricate time tracking? Our guide for this comes in the form of equipment that the PC can purchase from a merchant according to the D&D Player's Guide. In the 3E rules, a PC can purchase an Hourglass (25gps) and a Water Clock (1000gps); the latter not being portable. There is also the possibility to refer to a sundial on a sunny day. However, I think it may also be assumed that some ingenious gnomes will have produced a better time piece at some point in time (if you pardon the pun), but, like the Water Clock, this would be well beyond the basic adventurers need considering its cost. The bottom line is, in general, the adventurer does not need to keep track of time to the minute. For the adventurer, the most critical time they will most likely need to observe is when a ritual might be planned to take place, like the midnight hour on the first day of the year. In such circumstances, the adventurers would normally lie in wait at the site until the event occurred, thereby avoiding the need to be too specific. In my own module, Better The Demon, the recognition of a new hour is also handled by magik(*): Towers with enchantments placed upon them will chime at a new hour without the need for interaction. (*) Magik with a "k" refers to objects containing magic, rather than magic with a "c", meaning from a creature.

Game Time Keeping Most CRPGs will not track time from minute to minute, and even if they did, they would normally have a means of fast-forwarding time when required. In most NWN modules (my own included), time is scaled in such a way to allow it to pass quicker than in real life. For example, in Better The Demon, 15 minutes real time equates to 1 hour game time. However, this is not the case where combat or certain spells are involved, which can be confusing if not recognised. For example, a spell that lasts 1 minute per level will last for 15 minutes for a 15th level wizard. This spell would actually last 15 minutes real time, which equates to 1 hour game time. How one interprets this time difference is a matter of perspective during play. (See Amorphous Time below.) Furthermore, when a PC rests, time can be moved forward or not, according to both where they rest and how they rest. For example, in Better The Demon, resting at an inn will always assume 8 hours game time moves forward (regardless of when resting was started), whereas if the party chose to rest (to pass time by waiting until dawn or sunset), then only the number of hours to the specific time will pass. If there is only one hour to dawn, then only one hour will pass when rested. Better The Demon also introduces the concept of Personal Time, which I will discuss next and answers the question of how they rest.

Amorphous Time & Personal Time I have mentioned this before, but will mention it again as it is an important feature to grasp with respect to the passing of time in Better The Demon. To keep the game running smoothly and to prevent a "resting every few minutes to regain spells", resting to regain spells works around a Personal Time frame. Basically, the assumption is made that a PC can rest to regain spells once every 8 hours, and as long as they do not regain them more frequently than this, then they can rest at any time without moving time forward for the rest of the group. I call this Amorphous Time, because time effectively shifts according to the individual player's perspective. I go into an example of how it works in this post: Resting & The Passage of Time. You can also read how time affects party attrition in this post: Hunger & Vigour System.

Is Time Important? I suppose the answer to this question depends upon your own gaming background and just how much of a stickler you are when it comes to such things as resting, spell recovery, timed events and its effect with respect to travel. For me, all this is important, and so I like to make sure time is well catered for. This is why in Better The Demon any form of overland travel will be counted; all resting will be monitored and spell learning periods will be adhered to. (Time for item creation, however, will be instantaneous in Better The Demon compared to time taken in D&D.) Some may argue that adhering to these time elements is superfluous to the story and that time can be moved forward according to the stage the player is at. However, I have always seen D&D as a "free environment" in which the player can immerse themselves and follow events as they see fit. They may wander into new events and quests that demand their time, which in turn may apply time constraints when trying to complete other events. The point being, using time in this way adds a dimension of urgency to the game and causes the player to consider their actions more carefully. For example, if a cure for a poison is not found for the princess by midnight, then she dies. In this case, any form of travelling would quickly add time and so it forces the player to work within the limits that the remaining time offers them. Basically, using time in this way helps remind the player of their own limits, even when they are playing the hero.

Date System Every campaign world with a decent background and ecology usually has its own date system based upon its own historical world events. Toril (of Faerun fame) has its own unique date system and Better The Demon also has one. The problem with a world having its own calendar with different days and weeks has, thankfully, been solved by a great piece of custom work by Edward Beck's (aka 0100010) and his Custom Calendar GUI. Depending upon just how involved you want your calendar system to be, this custom content may require more coding. The personal touch it adds to the campaign, however, is well worth the effort and is very rewarding. You can see a screenshot and more info about the date system in this post: Keeping A Date.

Time To Conclude It's obvious that not every module needs a solid time system in place to allow a fun time. However, if a builder intends to present their work as a campaign (with events occurring over time throughout the world), then I do think there is a strong argument for the case of having an established time system in place. It also depends on your approach to the game and whether you prefer what is now referred to as "hard core rules" that include items and conditions that are affected by time like some of those I mentioned earlier. Yes, it involves more effort to make work, but I believe if done correctly, it can add a great deal of depth to a module transforming it from a good module into a classic module. It's true that playing with the added element of time is more difficult, but I believe the rewards for succeeding with it included are also that much more satisfying.

Time For You That's my take anyway, but what about you? Builders: How do you handle time? Do you stick with the default system or have you altered it in any way? Builders/Players: Does being allowed to rest, heal and relearn spells at any time appeal to your style of play, or do you prefer a stricter setting and background to play? Players: Do you keep track of the date at all? Do you believe timed events are important or not? Basically, tell me what you think about time in the modules you build or play!

IMPORTANT INFO: Any time constraints I use will NEVER stop the player from finishing the game. They are not to be included to frustrate the player, but to add a different slant to the game. Time constraints will have a biggest impact on when a player can rest and recover HPs and spells. Otherwise, time constraints that cannot be circumvented in any way will only appear in side quests. This gives the player a reason to choose a different path to play on a potential replay.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Party

"Dungeons and Dragons" (D&D) has always been about taking a party of adventurers into unknown lands and dangerous dungeons in the search of adventure, gold and fame. Yet just how big can the party be and who exactly makes up the party? What is the difference between a PC, cohorts, companions and henchmen? Many of you may already have your own ideas about this, but I hope to set out what I believe are the differences between them and how they will play in Better The Demon. To help illustrate this, I will refer to the great Lord of the Rings film, using Frodo as the main character.

Party Size: To begin with, there is nothing to stop a player from playing a party of only one character in size: their avatar and nobody else. Also, in a multi-player game, each player can play just their single PC and nobody else, but when they join together then the party size will be as big as the number of players in the session. Yet in both the single-player and multi-player game, players often like to either play more than one character determined at the "party creation" screen or find other characters that will join their company along the adventure. Determining how the players(s) take new members into the party will determine just how faithful those characters will be.

The Player Character (PC): There can only ever be one main PC for each player. This is also referred to as the player avatar: the character that represents the player within the fantasy environment. This character will always behave as the player controls them (unless dominated in some way) and will stay with the player throughout the adventure. They would represent the leader of the group of PCs that the player is playing. (In a multi-player game, an overall party leader is chosen from all the PCs that represent the different players.) In my example, I see Frodo as the character that would represent the main PC within Lord of the Rings.

Cohorts: Sometimes, however, a player likes to make their party larger than a one-man band and looks for fellow adventurers to accompany them along the way. Since the release of Storm of Zehir (SoZ), a gap has been filled in the NWN system to come closer to the D&D environment. That is, a party creation system has been introduced that allows players to create their own party with more than one character from the start of the game. In D&D, a player was always allowed to play more than one character in this way if they wanted to, and was actively encouraged to do so if there were not enough players to create a reasonable size party full of PCs. These additional characters, known as cohorts, were seen as devout followers of and always dedicated to the leader PC. As such, their statistical make-up was at the control of the player and they behaved very much like a PC as far as control was concerned: a player could always rely on knowing they were on their side. Continuing my example, Sam, Merry and Pippin would be cohorts to Frodo.

Companions: Before the introduction of cohorts (via SoZ), the closest a PC could come to finding allies for the adventure ahead came in the form of companions (unless playing with other PCs in a multi-player game of course). A companion is often (but not always) represented by an NPC ally, who is ready to help with the party cause or simply tag along for the company. As such, their motive is not always clear and they are often only to be trusted all the while they remain in service with the party. A difference of opinion or a change of influence can often end the relationship quicker than it started, and this could be catastrophic if it happened at a bad time like in the middle of negotiating terms with an enemy. As such, a companion's statistical make-up is not usually at the hand of the player. The initial build certainly isn't, with any further build being determined by the module creator at build time. Although, companions are similar to cohorts in that the player can normally control them in every other respect while they remain in the party, by having full access to their character sheets and inventory. In my example, Gandalf, Strider and Boromir would all classify as companions. In this case, Gandalf and Strider remain faithful to the main PC, Frodo, whereas Boromir does not.

Henchmen: At the bottom of the barrel and very much of the "cannon fodder" level come henchmen. Now this is not always the case and there are some very close relationships with some henchmen that may come close to companionship, but as far as gaming characters go, then, unfortunately, henchmen are the Star Trek red-shirts of the D&D world. Players have next to no control over henchmen except that the henchmen will generally support the main PC in a battle, but not even this is assured. They will often only accompany a party if they are paid in gold coins (in advance), and only then all the while the PC acts in a way they agree with. Henchmen will usually be the first to die in a party, the first to run away or leave and the last person you should trust. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but as a general rule, players have the least control over henchmen and are only able to issue basic commands to them. While not quite in the same vein, Gollum could have been considered a henchman in Frodo's party. However, I also see the many soldiers-at-arms as allied henchmen for Frodo as well.

Better The Demon

I hope to allow all these character types in my module and have them interact according to their type. For instance (and subject to spell domination), cohorts can be possessed and controlled by the player all the time; companions can have the same control all the while they are not following their own motives; and henchmen can have simple commands issued to them, but cannot be possessed and controlled. Therefore, for players who want complete control of their characters, then they should only rely on cohorts (create a party using the party creation system). For those players who don't mind a little variation or less control of their characters, then take on board some companions. If you really don't want any attachment, then maybe it will be possible to pick up the odd henchman, but don't rely on them lasting long. Furthermore, all characters may respond with comments (even the main PC if possessing another character at the time) subject to events, location and condition; allowing the party to feel more alive, responsive and interactive.

What's Your Favourite Party?

Finally, I would like to ask readers what is their favourite party build? Do you like to go it alone, or build a large party? What size party do you like and what classes would you include? Tell me your party build and why you think it is the best option.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Combat & Roleplay

A little while ago, I asked fellow blog readers to give their preference to a module's design. The blog post was titled: A Module Referendum (Poll: A Hung Module?) The idea was to find out what style of game readers preferred. At the end of this post, I ask readers for further feedback. Here are the results:

ROLEPLAY: Of the forty responses, it was interesting to learn that there is still a slight preference for a combat and roleplay (27%) combination (with minimal puzzles involved) over the combat and adventure combination (25%), which prefer puzzles over roleplay. Looking at the roleplay and adventure (puzzles) standalone preferences, roleplay is still preferred by 3 to 1 players. Comments made by an Anonymous poster and ElfinMad suggested to me that more concise conversations may be the way to go rather than larger monologues. What the poll results don't make clear is whether people also associated the term "roleplay" with using their PC's various skills outside of conversations as well as within. Interpreting the results as I see them, it would suggest that around 65% of players prefer modules with roleplaying in them than without.

COMBAT: Without doubt (and probably as expected really) 85% of players have a definite desire for combat in one form or another, with only 15% of the votes having combat at the lower end of their gaming preference. An Anonymous poster at the time said that they preferred more specialised encounters with more unusual monsters than monsters at every turn, and this was seconded by a comment by ElfinMad. Without further feedback, I am going to make the assumption that this would be the general agreement with perhaps an exception of around 2-5% who may simply prefer a good hack and slash regardless of foe.

ADVENTURE: Interestingly, the adventure preference did not score as high as I thought it would do, coming in at around 55% of players who like to have puzzles in their game. I should point out, however, that there are still twice as many people who prefer a more focused adventure (puzzle) oriented game (5%)to a focused combat one (2%). Furthermore, this result may have been skewed by the fact I included "exploration" as part of the description in one of the options. I was pleased, however, that both of the posters (Anonymous and ElfinMad) had a definite preference to having puzzles in their game, as this would also be one of my own preferences.

Personal Preferences

Personally, my own favourite combination for a module would probably be along the lines of an "even split", with perhaps more of an edge towards puzzles and exploration over roleplay. My own score divided over 100% would be something like:

Combat 40%: Combat for me can be any type of creature as long as it makes sense for the situation and potentially offer a challenge. I don't mind areas where there is no combat at all, but do like to be able to test out a newly acquired weapon from time to time. As a large proportion of the game is about acquiring new items and overcoming adversaries, then it is no surprise that I also find this part of the game important.

Adventure 40%: For me, however, there must be as much adventure as there is combat. By adventure, I include exploration, discovering texts, using skills and solving puzzles! I love being challenged in this way as it allows me to develop my characters in a way that I feel I can use to overcome different obstacles other than resorting to combat. As long as puzzles fit the situation, I am prepared to overlook the style of the puzzle. E.g. Logic puzzles are still a fun diversion to get past a lock. In some respects, I see how I "adventure" through a game more like roleplaying (playing my role in the game) than what is considered roleplaying when interacting with NPCs.

Roleplay 20%: Roleplay is necessary. Personally, however, I can often find NPC conversations difficult to appreciate and, like other comments made at the time, I prefer NPCs to keep conversations to the point and not veer from the main issue. I can see the attraction in using one's PC skills to change a conversation path, but only if it gives a benefit of some kind for doing so. Most of the time, however, NPCs appear a means to an end to me and simply act as the go-between to getting to grips with the story proper. In this sense, I see NPCs more as the story providers than a gameplay aspect and so do not mind less of this in my own style of game.

Better The Demon

How will my own module score? I think the final result will probably be close to an "even split", but with results possibly being skewed by my own playing preferences. If I was to hazard a guess at the final outcome, I think it will probably be something like:

Combat 40%: There will certainly be some areas that will not have any combat, but at the same time, I hope to include areas where players will be able to visit time and again if they like chance encounters (like world maps). All monster encounters should make sense, and I hope to ensure combat is not included simply for the sake of it. I will also try to make combats vary according to different creature abilities. Every creature can be attacked (except on some rare occasions), but there are always consequences.

Roleplay 30%: With respect to roleplay, I will try to include as much variety as possible and involve PC skill options whenever and wherever possible. I will try to ensure conversations are kept concise as possible, but also allow slight variation for those who prefer to develop the three main conversation skills: bluff, intimidate and diplomacy. Success in these will give XP rewards, which I hope will make conversations objects of fun and play as well as developing the quests and main story.

Adventure 30%: I love designing modules with adventure in mind, probably because my background is one of a DM and I always enjoyed watching players try to solve a puzzle to get past a certain point. Where possible, I have tried to include different puzzles for different points in the game. Most of them allow for an alternative means to solve them (bypass them), but there is bonus XP for solving them. Furthermore, bypassing a puzzle costs the PC in other ways that a player may prefer to keep.

Give Your Personal Feedback

What about you? Now is your chance to give a more precise score (from 100%) of how you would prefer your game. If you are a player, tell me your personal scores for the different categories. If you are a current builder as well, then give me feedback on how you have designed your module. Furthermore, if there is a category you think should be added or a comment you would like to make about this, then please do.