Permadeath and MMORPGs

(The following originated in response to a posting on Lum the Mad’s brokentoys.org regarding permadeath as a way of improving online rpgs.)

Surprisingly enough, in the real world (where permadeath appears to have been implemented) people still (a) do interesting things, and (b) live quite a long time. In many paper RPGs permadeath is assumed, and people also (a) do interesting things, and (b) live quite a long time.

Bushido basically implemented the thing your wife suggested about 25 years ago via the concept of karma. Your character dies leaving a certain amount of “karma” — derived from your character’s level of advancement and manner of death (e.g. heroic death or honorable suicide to express a just grievance == huge karma). This lets you build a better character next time.

Actually I think permadeath is a good idea but only one side of the coin. The other side is the tacit model of character development (inherited from D&D but which most RPGs assume) which is “you start as a weeny, run on a treadmill in a desperate effort to make the character you want to play, and then if you’re lucky end up as a super powerful atrocity that you don’t want to play anymore, probably never having been the character you wanted to play in the first place.”

In particular, a typical protagonist from a good story is not incredibly powerful, merely adequately powerful, and usually has a strange smattering of abilities without being a “combat optimized” horror. This is because the character has to make sense as a person with a history (other than “everything he did was with a view to being the ultimate killing machine”).

So:

1) Permadeath would be good thing.
2) Start with the character you want to play (more-or-less).

Finally, there’s a question of implementing (1) without killing people all the time. After all, action adventures are often dangerous.

The way to do this is to deal with most potentially fatal situations in a non fatal way. E.g. instead of characters fighting (at full capability) until dead (another D&Dism), maybe make severe injury kind of debilitating. Then when someone gets hurt, they’re out of the fight, but only if their entire group is wiped out or their opponent would rather finish off an incapacitated enemy than defend him/her-self against a live one, will the character die. Similarly, characters could find themselves imprisoned rather than dead.

Another is to occasionally allow people to come back from the dead via plausible excuses (the way they do in long-running TV shows) but only if the right groundwork is laid. (E.g. getting someone brought back to life might involve a complex quest).

All of this involves throwing off the mental shackles created by D&D.

Redmond Simonsen Passes Away

I never met the man, but he is probably one of the single greatest influences on my life. Greg Costikyan worked with him for several years, and it’s worth reading his blog entries on the subject. There’s also a NY Times obituary.

Update: Greg’s blog is — I hope temporarily — out of order. Here’s a link to my page on the history of wargame design on my Project Weasel site. This page cover a lot of related ground.

One afternoon in 1979

Autumn 1979. I’m in high school in Armidale, a small town in Northern NSW. A friend has suggested I might like to stay after school and check out the wargames … club. (There’s no formal club, just a bunch of people who meet to play games after school, supervised by a teacher who shares the interest.)

My friend is no veteran of the group, he’s heard about it somewhere. (Our school is only 500 or so students, so the fact that this group has escaped our attention for so long is actually pretty amazing.) We go there and are given a rather strange game to play, it’s called Napoleon at Waterloo and it has a small board, which simply and clearly shows the layout of a famous battlefield subdivided into hexagons, on which we place pieces which, somewhat less intuitively, represent formations of cavalry, infantry, and artillery.

An hour later the game is over, and I’m hooked for life.

Unfortunately, for SPI the end was already near. Board wargaming had peaked, and already role-playing games and computer games were eating their market. Within a few years, SPI would be gone. Within 10 years the best “refugee” companies formed from SPI’s designers would be gone.

(Now, I wasn’t entirely new to this kind of game. I’d seen some people playing similar — much less well-designed — games when I was younger. I hadn’t had time to learn the rules, so I had gone home and tried to design a similar game, inferring what the rules must be like from the game layout. The most ambitious game I worked on was an all-encompassing game of interstellar war and colonisation — and in trying to complete it I encountered every problem which SPI turned out to have solved: e.g. what constitutes a complete, usable set of rules?)

The game was from SPI, and Redmond Simonsen was credited with the graphic design of every one of the 400+ games SPI produced in about a decade. SPI didn’t invent board wargaming any more than Apple invented the home computer. SPI invented the process for designing and developing board wargames in a manner that made them consistent (where consistency made sense). SPI credited game designers (Costikyan credits Simonsen with coining the term “game designer”), put play testers and blind testers in its credits, developed standards by which game rules were organized and printed, and developed a process for taking a game from idea through design to testing and publication.

SPI created the games industry. And Redmond Simonsen — along with James F. Dunnigan — created SPI.

Farewell Redmond. RIP.

Secunia, Techworld, Mac OS X, and various Reality Distortion Fields

Recently, a Danish (I am told) internet security firm named Secunia has gotten a lot of free publicity, largely by making the pronouncement that Mac OS X is no more secure than other operating systems, notably Windows XP and its variations, which it considers the most secure of all.

Apple has gotten quite a bit (not a huge amount) of bad press over this, all of it citing Secunia’s Press Release. The most vehement I have encountered is on Techworld.com: Apple Shames Itself Again Over Security.

Unlike some pro-Apple bigots I am not entirely immune to doubting the utter superiority of Mac OS X to all alternatives, so I decided to do a little research. Something, apparently, no-one at Techworld is required to do.

If you visit Secunia’s website, and I suggest you do, try looking at their archives of security alerts, under Apple: Mac OS X, and Microsoft: Windows XP Professional. I won’t link directly, since you should go find these things yourself to (a) prove how easy it is, and (b) demonstrate that I am not cherry-picking my results.

First of all, in their summary graphs and tables, Secunia reports fewer security alerts for Mac OS X (all versions including server) than one variant (Professional) of Windows XP. But, hold your horses, Windows XP Professional is reported as having no serious issues, none, zero percent (out of 67).

But, when you scroll down the page you discover several serious issues listed. Hmm, if there are several, how does this come out as 0%? So either Secunia are incompetent, or dishonest. Certainly, journalists can’t be bothered checking beyond press releases. Well, no surprise there.
What’s more, one of these serious issues has been unresolved for nine months!

And then, there’s the well-known gaping hole of ActiveX (an ActiveX control can do anything it likes to your machine). ActiveX issues are mentioned only once on Secunia’s XP Professional page and shown as having a single serious flaw which has been fixed. (It’s one of the 0%.) Well the fix is that the user has to magically know that this ActiveX control isn’t safe and click “No” while to get his/her daily work done he/she may have to magically know that other ActiveX controls ARE safe and click “Yes”. Whew. Glad that was “fixed”.

World of Warcraft. MMORPG* Suckage. And Other Stories

* Massive[ly] Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (i.e. games like EverQuest)

A while back I saw an interesting diatribe on brokentoys.org (Lum the Mad’s blog) about how it would be nice if there were a critical mass of gamers who wanted to play something other than mage / tank / healer games (pretty much every MMORPG out there, and any vaguely successful one, falls into this category) amd proposed some kind of amorphous global diplomacy thing which made no sense but had its heart in the right place.

I would actually settle for something far less ambitious — a mage / tank / healer game that didn’t suck.

(For those of you not accustomed to MMORPG jargon, a mage is someone who is fragile but does a lot of damage (usually from a distance); a tank is someone who can stand toe-to-toe with an enemy in a fight, not die, and be able to hold that enemy’s attention; a healer is someone who makes wounds go away… Every major MMORPG to date, including those featuring superheroes and “science fiction” settings, is essentially designed along these lines. If you think of these three archetypes as forming a triangular spectrum (like a color gamut) every character option more or less falls somewhere on the triangle).

WoW (World of Warcraft) is shiney and new and we haven’t started to comment on the suckage yet (aside from the obvious — lag, crashes, and downtime), but there’s still plenty of suckage to go around.

  1. As your level increases, content is doled out with a lot of hamburger’s helper, in the form of tedium. I.e. instead of “go kill 20 mobs, collect 15 items, and come back for a reward” it’s “go across the continent to fred, then go across to BFE, kill 200 mobs, collect 10 items, and then go to wilma (in BFE2) who sends you to barney (in BFE3) who gives you a not to take to betty (in BFE4) for your reward.”

    This isn’t clever. This isn’t fun (not the fifteenth time, anyway). This is just EQ with better graphics and dialog boxes instead of /hail.

  2. The reason for the hamburger’s helper is that if you gave people stuff at a decent rate, you’d run out of content. When you run out of content, people stop playing. When people stop playing, they eventually stop paying. Then you go broke.

Is there a solution to this dilemma?

I think there are several, and WoW intends to utilize one of them (by imitating DAoC) but not the others.

  • Make PvP a feature. Folks in my office still play Quake II because PvP never, in a sense, gets old. DAoC didn’t have an end game besides PvP, and WoW will probably be a solid implementation of ideas others have already demonstrated will work.

    But what about…

  • Making the world a little bit dynamic. Not a lot, but a little bit.

    E.g. if everyone is killing monsters of type X, maybe make them scarce. Have quests impact the world in non-trivial ways. Put a tiny bit of state in the world Not a lot, but a little bit. Just a tiny amount would make the world SO much more interesting. God forbid, one server might seem a little different from another.

  • Make quests a little bit dynamic. Not a lot, but a little bit.

    Imagine if all newbie quests weren’t identical. Suppose player A goes to NPC B and asks for a quest and then gets a “slaughter 10 pigs” quest. But player C comes up and gets a “collect 8 eggs” quest. OMG! This could even interact with the oh-so-slightly dynamic world. (When pigs get scarce, more hungry bears and wolves and bandits appear.)

  • Maybe design it as a multiplayer game.It’s amazing to think that after all this time and effort has gone into designing competing MMORPGs, that they’re still fundamentally single-player games.

    E.g. if you are assigned to go kill Fred Bloggs, so are fifty other people. Since there’s only one Fred Bloggs, he/she just “respawns” and can be killed over and over again. Why kill him? He just comes back? Why rescue the princess? She can just kill herself and respawn back safe in the castle? In any event, killing Fred Bloggs does not rid the world of him, so why bother?

    It’s about time someone actually designed one of these games so that this kind of idiocy didn’t exist. Random name generators aren’t that hard to write…

Marketing a non-D20 RPG

Well it looks like ForeSight Second Edition might just be published soon, and my thoughts are turning to the, perhaps unenviable, job of marketing a game firmly based on percentile dice (also known as D100): i.e. a pair of dice which when rolled give you a random number from 1 to 100.

The D20 juggernaut is basically a D&D thing. It’s not clear whether it’s an effort to keep third-party dice manufacturers happy, or a plot to convince people that the morasse of special cases, tables, and bizarre rules that constitute D&D is in fact a “system”. In any event, my reasons for eschewing D20s are technical, much as my reasons for eschewing 3D6 (as discussed earlier).

In any role-playing game there tend to die roll ranges for which exceptional outcomes are assigned. For D20-games these are rolls of 1 and 20. In other words, 10% of all resolution rolls (cases where a die is cast to determine what happens in a situation) result in something outlandish occurring (e.g. an automatic success or failure regardless of the odds).

Shit happens. But should it happen 10% of the time?

Now, in action movies and similar genres from which RPGs tend to take their cures, shit does indeed happen 10% of the time. But unfortunately, the 10% of the time we’re talking about is actually a gross understatement.

For example, a mid-level warrior in D&D will swing his/her sword three times in a single round of combat, which means he/she has three chances to have shit happen. If he/she is fighting a similarly capable opponent, that’s another three chances to have shit happen.

(For the statistically inclined, that’s a 1 – (0.9 ^ 6) probability of shit occurring in a single round — a few seconds — of combat, or roughly 47%. Most fights last several rounds. If this were a movie, this would be like half of fights having something ridiculous happen, such as someone trip over their feet or hit someone in the eye with a lucky shot, the moment a fight started.)

In RuneQuest 2nd Edition, a D100-based system, there were various tiny percentage chances of shit — things like a warrior slicing his own head off — happening every time someone did something. Of course when you did the math (and an article along these lines was posted to Murphy’s rules) you ended up with ridiculous results: in a battle of 1000 warriors lasting five minutes, some insane number would decapitate themselves, some far larger number would chop off their own limb, and so on. In each case the results were simply constructed by taking (1 – probability of ridiculous outcome) and raising it to the power of the number of times the dice would be rolled (50 for ten minutes of RuneQuest combat) — and that’s the probability that you will escape that ridiculous outcome.

When the probability of an extraordinary outcome is 10%, you know you’re in big trouble.

Of course, the extraordinary outcomes in D20 can’t be too ridiculous or the system would seem obviously broken. Instead they’re just low key enough to have lots of silly effects (e.g. because armor does not block damage but instead reduces hit probability, and because a roll of 20 is always a hit, a huge number of tiny attacks will automatically kill someone in plate armor) while not giving the feel of “critical hits” (the finest archer cannot kill a healthy 10th level paladin with a single ordinary shot) while neither implementing any concept of “degree of success” nor producing genuinely unexpected results to create drama.

Before I start rambling too far, I will mention one funny thing. D20 system is in fact D20 + D12 + D10 + D8 + D6 + D4 system. The D20 games rely on a ridiculous set of dice and use them to achieve an unnecessary level of granularity (a weapon either does D6 or D8 damage, nothing in-between).

Anyway, here are two possible slogans for D100 System games.

D100 System. Shit happens, but not 10% of the time.

D100 System. You already have the dice.