Tobold's Blog
Sunday, January 14, 2018
 
Skill vs. Gear in Zelda - Breath of the Wild

I have played 120 hours of Zelda - Breath of the Wild now, and my main game character is advancing very nicely; I'm now able to kill boss mobs and tough mini bosses with relative ease or even farm them when required. More because I was interested in the technology than because I needed the boost I bought a couple of amiibo, which are Nintendo's "toys-to-life" figurines: You can scan them with your controller and have the amiibo appear in your game, or trigger some sort of bonus effect. But because I was relatively advanced in the game already when I got them, they didn't really change much.

So I was wondering how much of an impact it would make if one had those amiibo right from the start of a game. Now normally you can have only one save game in normal mode and one save game in master mode for Zelda. But that is per "profile", so you can easily just create another profile and start a new game from scratch without affecting your main game. I did that, and it turned out you can't use amiibo at the very start. You need to play until finishing the first shrine, and then you can turn the amiibos on in the options. And at that time the treasure chests you get from amiibo contain stuff like rusty or travelers weapons; which are still useful that early in the game compared to tree branches and bokoblin weapons, but certainly not game breaking. You need to finish the whole "tutorial", that is all four shrines and get the paraglider, before the amiibo result in the "normal" treasures, e.g. the guardian amiibo drops guardian weapons and shields.

So while I was testing that, I had another idea: You can finish the tutorial in well under 1 hour, so how does a new character in an 1-hour old game compare to a character that has been played for 120 hours? If your first character was lost and weak, was that because you were still learning the game, or was that simply that he didn't have the stats and gear you get from playing a long time?

So I took my new character without even exchanging the first 4 spirit orbs to the toughest place in the game, Hyrule castle; dressed in the starting shirt and trousers, and equipped with nothing more than can be found in the tutorial. And I am happy to report that I was doing quite well there: I basically cleaned out the place, except for the game end boss of course. I got the complete royal guard armor, which involves getting three pieces from the bottom, middle, and top of Hyrule castle. And I didn't just sneak through the castle, but actually killed even tough mobs like moblins and guardians. Of course then I found lots of awesome weapons, so my new character now has a very impressive armory, much better than anything you can get from the amiibo.

In short, knowing the game helps a lot, and the best way to get great gear early is using that knowledge to loot the toughest places in the game. I probably won't play that second character much, because doing the same 120 shrines again isn't going to be all that fun, but it is interesting to know that in Zelda - Breath of the Wild skill beats gear.

Thursday, January 11, 2018
 
Elemental Evil: Session 11

In the previous session the group entered Rivergard Keep, the second of the elemental evil surface keeps. More by chance than by design they had managed to enter directly into the main building where the boss resided. However the boss was described in the adventure as being a wereboar who was out hunting at night. So the group ended up looting his room without having killed the boss. But that only got them treasure, and not the elemental key they were after.

Searching the building further resulted in them finding a group of commoners sleeping in a dormitory next to the kitchen. They carefully abducted one without waking up the others and questioned him. That gave them a bit more information about the keep and the boss, including the fact that he was out hunting and would return later in the night. But first they searched the great hall and found a letter in which somebody from Red Larch warned about a group of troublemakers, giving the description of the group. They also found a secret door, leading to a staircase downwards.

They followed the staircase and ended up at a landing of an underground river, complete with two rowboats. So they boarded those and followed the river further. However the river was guarded by a group of aquatic ghouls, who managed to topple one of the boats, which made the combat somewhat more interesting. Poppée the wild magic sorceress tried to save herself with magic, which resulted in a wild magic surge that ended up randomly summoning a unicorn. The unicorn was understandably confused by being summoned into water, and decided to "save" Poppée by teleporting her and itself out. But of course the others didn't know what happened, only that Poppée had disappeared. After killing the ghouls it turned out that the way was blocked anyway, by the same sort of portal they had already encountered near Feathergale Spire, requiring the 4 elemental keys to open. (An addition of mine to the adventure to prevent them from randomly wandering into a dungeon of 4 levels higher than the surface keep).

The group went back up into the keep and in the courtyard also found back Poppée. However in preparation of the adventure I had decided to randomize the time of return of the keep boss by letting the group roll for an encounter every time they crossed the way the boss would take home. And by chance this encounter now took place. As the boss had an entourage the fight was challenging, with a priest of the water cult casting sleet storm on the group. The group managed to kill the opponents without waking the rest of the keep up, but the paladin got bitten by the wereboar.

As the boss had the elemental key on him, the group decided to flee and leave the rest of the water keep be. On the one hand that was understandable and consistent with their actions in the air keep. But technically they are skipping a bunch of combat encounters and thus xp. I think I need to make sure that they don't kill the boss of the next keeps too early and rush through the adventure, the adventure isn't designed for that.

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Sunday, January 07, 2018
 
Civilization VI

I haven't played Civilization VI yet. I am a fan of the series. But I have too many games and too little time, and I didn't want to pay full price for yet another iteration of the same game. I was still waiting for the price to come down below $30 when I got the news that the full Civ 6 game has been ported to iOS. Yes, you need a newer iPad to play and it is battery-hungry, but it is the *full* Civ 6, not a toned down mobile version. That is pretty remarkable. So I downloaded the game for free, which lets you play 60 turns with the Chinese empire to see how it works. And then I balked at buying the full version for $60. I didn't even want to pay that for the PC version, and for an iOS game that is very expensive.

So while I was still pondering what to do, I got another piece of news: You can this month get Civilization VI (PC version) plus 2 expansions plus a collection of other games in the Humble Bundle Monthly for $12. That is basically a subscription service where you pay $12 per month to get a bundle of games every month. But if you only want Civ 6 you can of course unsubscribe after 1 month. As this is the lowest I have ever seen Civ 6 go for, I ended up buying the game that way.

Not sure when I will get around to actually play it, I am still very busy with Zelda - Breath of the Wild. But as an opportunity to get Civ 6 cheap this is certainly worth mentioning. The offer is available until the end of the month.

Saturday, January 06, 2018
 
Nailing down the Switch

I am still happily playing Zelda - Breath of the Wild every day on my new Switch. However I had to buy some accessories to make that work smoothly. After trying it out once I abandoned the idea of playing with the Switch as a mobile device: I found the screen too small for Zelda and the 2-hour battery life not sufficient for my needs. So I was playing on my TV, with the two Joy-Con controllers attached to the supplied grip, which makes them feel very similar to a gamepad. However the supplied grip has no electric connection at all. Thus at the end of every day I had to unhook the two Joy-Cons and attach them to the main console for charging. Not very practical, and somewhat fiddly.

I considered two solutions and ended up buying both: A wired gamepad controller and a Joy-Con charging grip. The charging grip has the advantage that you can still play wirelessly, and just need to plug in the charging cable in the evening. The gamepad is rounder and slightly more comfortable to play with; however the one I bought doesn't support motion control nor near-field communications.

In summary, I basically nailed down my Switch and turned it into a regular console, with no more need to remove the tablet from the stand. I can see the appeal of having a mobile console, but unless somebody invents better batteries, the Switch isn't that for me.

Thursday, January 04, 2018
 
Multiplayer today

In the movie Full Metal Jacket one character says that he wants to go to interesting places, meet interesting people, and kill them. When I look at the list of Steam's best selling games in 2017, it appears that this is what most people want: Multiplayer gaming today appears to be nearly exclusively about going to interesting virtual places, meeting interesting people online, and then killing them. In games that have some form of collaboration (to kill other players), collaboration is often the weakest point of the game, leading to much toxicity and hate. Hate towards your team mates, not the opponents, mind you. I'm a bit depressed about what our gaming behavior says about us as the human race.

Where are the massively multiplayer online city building games? Multiplayer online survival games in which people cooperate instead of torturing each other? Why did MMORPGs basically die out as a genre on Steam? How did humanity evolve and create civilization in real life, but fail to do so in virtual worlds? I really think that game designers missed something big here: In real life the incentives obviously favor collaboration over bashing each others head in; how great could a video game be if it could manage to reproduce those incentives and create virtual worlds in which people want to cooperate?

Tuesday, January 02, 2018
 
Understanding Out of the Abyss

*Spoiler Warning*: This post contains spoilers about the Dungeons & Dragons adventure "Out of the Abyss" (OotA).

My first contact with Out of the Abyss wasn't great. I was a player in a campaign based on that book, but the DM was a) inexperienced and b) had removed the starting chapter and removed it by a series of other adventures before leading us down into the Underdark. Now I can see the motivation for that: OotA starts the players as slaves of the Drow, in shackles, without gear; a start that is both somewhat cliche for the genre, and not the most pleasant one for the players. However after preparing the adventure now for another group I see how this start is absolutely essential to the adventure. Removing it leads to exactly the problem we had, that is wandering through the Underdark with no motivation, being unclear of the goal and purpose of the adventure.

The whole first half of Out of the Abyss is motivated by that start: The players escape and are pursued by the Drow. They are looking for a way back to the surface, while having to survive a harsh and strange environment, and having to find means to equip themselves. It is dark fantasy, it is a game of survival. And it doesn't work without that start in slavery. If you ever want to play this, ask your players first if they are okay with a dark survival campaign instead of the more generic heroic fantasy.

To understand Out of the Abyss one needs to see how it inverses the sandbox approach of certain other D&D adventures, for example Princes of the Apocalypse. In Princes of the Apocalypse the dungeons and encounters are described in much detail, but it is left to the DM and players to figure out how to get from one dungeon to the next. That doesn't work very well, because the dungeons have different levels, and playing them through in an order other than by level results in problems. Out of the Abyss takes a very different approach: The main story from the start to at least the mid-point, escaping from the Underdark, is linear. You best play chapter 1 first, then chapter 2, then chapter 3, etc., because it makes sense geographically and story-wise. But what exactly happens in each of the chapters is left open and is to be created by the interactive storytelling between DM and player. Chapter 1 is very clear about this being about a prisoner escape, but how exactly the players escape from prison is left to them. If they don't do anything the DM has some events that will push them in the right direction, but ideally the DM first lets the players try their own ideas, and allows any half reasonable plan to succeed. The goal is for the DM and the players to both drive the story forward. D&D should never be adversarial, and for OotA it wouldn't work at all if the DM didn't "help" the players to escape.

One of the early highlights of that approach is chapter 4, Gracklstugh. There you get a complete description of a Duergar city in the Underdark, complete with who the different power factions are and what their interaction is. But you are left to play that city as a sandbox, the adventure doesn't tell you where to start or which faction to support. Played right this might be a great short city adventure on its own. The obvious disadvantage of the approach, and thus of all of Out of the Abyss, is that it requires a great amount of preparation and/or improvisation from the Dungeon Master. This is very much a campaign for expert DMs. And I'll find out in how far it works with newbie players, because that is who I am going to play it with.

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Sunday, December 31, 2017
 
Tobold's Game of the Year

This year my prestigious (that is to say totally unknown) game of the year award goes to, *drumroll*, The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch. None of the other games I played on various platforms this year comes even close to the level of craftsmanship of Zelda. It is an explorer's paradise: Huge is both quantity and quality of handcrafted features in the landscape, the next discovery feels always right around the next corner. No procedurally generated landscapes here! There is a great mix of different challenges, from fights to puzzles to riddles to crafting, which always keeps you entertained.

This game really is a "system seller": if you can afford to spend $400 on a game, buying a Switch to play Zelda is totally worth it. And because it is hundreds of hours of gameplay you do get your money's worth back in entertainment (some people tried to finish the game as fast as possible and the fastest speedrun of 100% completion took already 49 hours). And inversely I'm not sure buying a Switch without Zelda is worth it, unless you are a fan of Mario (I like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battles). The non-exclusive games on the Switch tend to be older and overpriced. And the Switch's famous "mobile" mode is somewhat hampered by low battery life.

What makes Zelda such a great exploration game is the absence of any invisible walls. If you see something ahead of you, you can get there. It might need a bunch of stamina food to get to the top of the highest mountain or building, but you can get there. And there is probably a reward too for getting there. The terrain isn't just there to walk or climb on it, it often has tricks to deal with the local monster population: You can roll down a boulder into the bokoblin camp to crush them, or explode their camp by throwing a bomb barrel in their camp fire or set grass on fire. You can open a drawbridge by shooting the ropes that hold it up with fire arrows.

The landscape never feels empty. Besides finding major stuff like the 120 shrines, you can also discover the 900 locations of Korok seeds, or the countless resources from mushrooms to ore. Interaction with your environment is fun because the game always goes a step beyond what you'd expect from other games: My niece tried to feed her horse a carrot and I was surprised to see that it worked! I was equally surprised to see that while I couldn't kill chickens by hitting them with a sword, they did lay eggs when I did. Or got angry and called all their rooster friends that attacked me. :)

Another feature that makes Zelda a great game is how it handles difficulty. Don't be fooled by the game's colorful look, it can be quite challenging. You will die. Many times. But fortunately the game isn't punishing death all that much. Which means that you'll be back in the action and trying again in no time. And sometimes again. And again. Until you finally manage that challenging fight or puzzle, or you give up and decide to do something else first. And the game also constantly challenges your intelligence: Unless you look everything up on the internet, you need to figure out quite a lot of how the game works by yourself. Ultimately you end up having quite a lot of control over the level of challenge: Different zones have different monster difficulties, so you can go the easy way and do them in the right order or skip ahead to farm harder monsters for better weapons. You control the difficulty of puzzles by deciding how much help you want to get from sources like YouTube. And if the normal mode of the game is too easy for you, you can switch to the much harder master mode, which makes Dark Souls look like a game for wimps. If you want the game easier, you could also use Amiibos (haven't tried those yet) to get various gear, or a horse, or a wolf pet.

In summary, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a great game. It fully deserves its 97% Metacritic rating. The game doesn't just play well, it also has far more handcrafted content than other open world games. Recommended!

Monday, December 25, 2017
 
Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to you and your family!

I’d write my thoughts about my Switch, but frankly I’m still too busy having fun with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battles. And I haven’t even started Zelda or Super Mario Odyssey yet!

Saturday, December 23, 2017
 
How much are readers worth?

I received a mail from an MMO website that it was for sale. I didn’t even know that there were auction sites for websites. Probably because I never considered my site as a business. I feel honored that people come to my site to read my thoughts. The idea was never to attract a maximum number of readers and then somehow monetize them. (And if I had wanted to do that I should have cashed out a decade ago, when this was still a popular blog.)

The site on sale boasts 30,000 YouTube subscribers, 9,000 Facebook fans, and 4,000 Twitter followers. And you can “buy” all these fans for $1,000 or best offer. That suggests that one fan is worth between 20 and 30 cents. However the site hasn’t had much content in the past few weeks, and those “fans” might be long gone, never to return. Especially if the new owner of the site creates little new content, or somehow changes the scope. So at best buying an existing website is a starting boost that gets the word out faster than if you created the same new content on a brand new site. Websites are dynamic and the real number of readers / subscribers / fans / followers depends very much on the current quality and quantity of content created.

Not only is buying a web site possibly a bad deal for the buyer. I would also consider it somewhat dishonest towards the fans. Imagine buying tickets to a concert and on going there finding out that the band you liked sold their name to another band, whose music you don’t like!

In summary, this blog is unlikely to be sold. I’m sticking to an earlier promise that I can’t be bought for less than $100,000. And as this site was never worth this much, you can be pretty confident that as long as there is somebody writing here, it will be me.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017
 
Planning a new D&D campaign

As I mentioned before, I am somewhat disappointed by official Dungeons & Dragons adventures these days. The one that comes in a box, the Starter Kit, is great and easy to run. The others, which come as hardcover books, are more problematic. It took me a while to realize that some of those campaign books aren't in fact adventure modules like the ones from previous editions. Rather they are campaign settings with the odd encounter or dungeon thrown in. They are background and starting point for a campaign, but with much of the actual campaign and story line incomplete.

The intention is probably to get to a more sandbox style of role-playing. However I find that this causes a problem for preparation: I find that D&D sessions where the DM is well prepared run a lot smoother. If the sandbox style is too open and the DM *can't* prepare and has to improvise everything, the game session becomes a lot more laborious. That is especially true if the DM uses visual aids, like I do: Battle maps, 3D printed miniatures, handouts, etc. all require preparation.

The advantages of full sandbox mode of infinite freedom are also somewhat illusionary. Most of the time players act on little or limited information. The freedom to go north or south isn't worth much if the decision isn't meaningful because you have no idea what happens if you go north or if you go south. But of course full sandbox or strictly linear gameplay aren't the only two options, there are compromises in between the two. And that is what I will be going for in my campaigns in 2018. Basically I will present the players options, but with sufficient information to make each option meaningful. Instead of telling them that they can go in any compass direction they want (which isn't how humans tend to travel anyway), I present them with a fork in the road with road signs to two different places, and some knowledge (e.g. with history checks or from passing travelers) what is going on in those two places. A meaningful choice between 2 locations is better than full freedom to go anywhere, just to face the same random encounter tables because otherwise there isn't anything there.

For my Princes of the Apocalypse campaign this is already working well enough. I gave the players some information about the evil elemental cults, including an idea of relative strength. They usually know about at least 2 different locations where they could go next, and what cult is likely to be there. Which means I can prepare both places and be prepared for either choice. But I did use magical portals to block off the deeper dungeons, which not only I would be not prepared for, but which would also be not much fun, being much higher in level than the players.

Next year I'll try to start a new campaign with new players at my local role-playing club, using the Out of the Abyss campaign setting. So over the holidays I have time to read the book front to cover, and fill out the blanks with the missing story line and alternative options. As I recently wrote, I learned from a good DM / group on YouTube that I shouldn't worry too much about the story line, but rather make sure that there is enough opportunity for players to contribute to the story with their own ideas. Which means presenting situations in a way that make it clear that players can do other things than just roll initiative and attack. I still believe good tactical combat encounters are important and they are usually fun to play for the players, but they aren't all there is to Dungeons & Dragons.

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Thursday, December 14, 2017
 
Wondering what comes next

The liberal world order has been defined as standing for "greater individual freedom, greater choice, support for democratic forms of government, a fundamental faith in free-market capitalism and private enterprise, a belief in constitutional forms of government with divided powers, an independent judiciary, separation of church and state, a strong support for free trade and an aversion to protectionism, among other things". Obviously there is a lot to like about these values. Most economists believe that this system is the one that is best suited to the creation of wealth. However the predominance of the liberal world order in the last 30 years has also demonstrated that while the system is good for the creation of wealth overall, it isn't all that good in the distribution of that wealth. That not only leads to a lot of opposition, but is also somewhat self-defeating in the long run: Concentrated wealth is less good at further powering the economy than distributed wealth.

In the USA and a lot of other places the current main opposition against the liberal world order comes from the right, from nationalism, protectionism, populism, and ethnocentrism. However if you look at those right-wing forces enacting policies like the current US tax reform or the Brexit from the UK, it is likely that the right will not solve the problem of wealth distribution any better than the liberal world order (and will presumably create less wealth in the first place). Blaming foreigners and the media will only get right-wing politicians so far until the people realize that they aren't in fact "better off than they were four years ago". It is that, and not the whole lot of unrelated shouting about various values, that ultimately will bring change. The liberal world order failed the people, but the conservative version isn't doing any better. So I'm wondering what will come next.

One likely answer is in the form of people like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. The economic left might one day look like a good answer to people whose main concern is wealth distribution, because the economic left has always stood for redistribution of wealth. However the economic left also has some policies in their book that hinders wealth creation more than necessary for a fair distribution. And they have a long history of ending up with "more equal than others" policies that aren't in fact much closer to a fair distribution of wealth than the conservative version.

What an optimist could hope for would be a reformed liberal world order, the same values as above but with a priority for wealth distribution and against too much wealth concentration. A vision like in Robert Reich's Saving Capitalism. However if you look at how the world previously solved excesses of wealth creation, there are only few examples of peaceful solutions (e.g. Theodore Roosevelt) and lots of examples of the wealth ending up destroyed or redistributed through war and revolution. A pessimist would buy gold coins instead of bitcoins.

Monday, December 11, 2017
 
Is story important?

I am currently watching a series of YouTube videos (overview page on this blog) of a group currently playing Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, the official Storm King's Thunder adventure. I watched some of their video on previous adventures, and must say that they are both better than average players and their videos have better than average production values. What I found particularly interesting in this series was that I have read Storm King's Thunder and dismissed it as basically unplayable. But they are doing just fine playing it. Why?

The keyword here is suspension of disbelief. Storm King's Thunder starts out in a very linear fashion with a series of events befalling a fortified village. Within one week the village gets bombarded from the air by giants in a floating castle, then the residents move out and find shelter in a bat cave where they get captured by goblins, the goblins start looting the village, the adventurers arrive and start killing the goblins, then the Zhentarim (a semi-evil political faction) try to take over the empty village, and then a horde of orcs attacks. (In the videos the DM replaced the orcs by more Zhentarim, but added an deus-ex-machina dragon saving the village). So the adventure for the group consists of searching through the abandoned village and killing the goblins, then beating back the Zhentarim, then beating back the orcs, and then finally going to the bat cave and freeing the kidnapped villagers. Then the villagers send them to another town very far away for rather flimsy reasons, and there the adventure loops backs to the giants. As far as stories in D&D adventures go, this is one of the less believable ones. But of course if you don't care and just enjoy the ride, a lot of fun can be had.

It reminds me a bit of MMORPGs, where the story can also be rather weak, but is basically just an excuse to lead people to gameplay. In the D&D videos the story leads not just to gameplay in the form of combat, but also to fun situations where the DM describes a situation in more detail and the players come up with all sorts of plans and ideas instead of just rolling for initiative. A good group and a good DM are the ones where the players constantly fire off ideas, and the DM rolls with them. Then the actual story of the adventure becomes a less important backdrop, because the important story is the one that evolves from the players being in unusual situations. The art as a DM is to get people to play that way. I'm working on that.

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