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Balance of Battlefield 2

posted Saturday, October 28th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Game Design

Something that I’ve begun to notice by examining the game design of Dungeons & Dragons is that game balance isn’t just something that applies to D&D – videogames frequently take their balance very seriously. While this is old news to MMORPG players who have long been used to patches subtly nerfing and buffing their classes for PvP fairness, I was surprised to realise that the developers of team-based first-person shooter Battlefield 2 had paid a lot of attention to their own game balance.

Battlefield 2 might be as far as you can go from swords and sorcery, but it does bear a few important resemblances to D&D. For one, it’s a multiplayer game where combat, resources and communication between allies is important. For another, the game has a class-based system, where your class determines what weapons and armour you can use and what role you have. Players can organize themselves into self-sufficient squads of between two and six people and team up to go after a goal. Sound familiar yet?

Naturally, in any team game like this it’s important to strike a balance between choices, or else the one or two best choices will simply dominate the play. Consider the much older (and in this blogger’s opinion, inferior) team-based FPS Counterstrike, in which your class was merely a matter of appearance and the power of your equipment was related only to the amount of prize money you were able to spend on it – a poor balancing factor, in hindsight, since it merely penalized players for losing. Gameplay was dominated by one or two powerful weapons and a handful of predictable tactics, not to mention ridiculous techniques like bunnyhopping and pulling out knives to run faster. No doubt you can name countless games in which one weapon, class or tactic simply outclassed all others to the point of exclusion.

We see no such bias in Battlefield 2. Each class is carefully balanced against each other in terms of weapons, armour, stamina and special abilities; and likewise, each weapon a player has, including each of the classes’ special unlockable weapons, are balanced against each other. One does not gain a benefit simply because their team won last round, and wherever they do gain a benefit it’s at the cost of some other drawback or responsibility. No single class, weapon or team dominates the game.

For example, the sniper class (a weapon which largely dominates Counterstrike) is not allowed to dominate due to the prevalence of armoured vehicles, the limitations of the weapon (it’s rarely a one-shot kill) and the sniper’s weakness in close combat (making it risky to capture flags, a major game aspect). The unlockable sniper rifle ignores armour and can shoot through helicopter cockpits, but is less accurate. The assault class has good armour and weaponry, but doesn’t have the sniper’s range and can’t earn points doing things like repairing vehicles (which the engineer can, at the cost of being inferior at long-range combat).

Even the knife is balanced in this game; it can be drawn quickly and is exceedingly lethal, with the obvious drawback that it must be used at very close range against opponents who, more likely than not, are armed with plenty in the way of guns. Interestingly, even the medic’s wounded-ally-reviving shockpaddles when used as offensively are balanced relative to the knife – instantly lethal and even ignores armour, but with a much greater “reload” time. In many cases, realism is compromised for a balance, such as sniper rifles that normally penetrate armour or kill instantly being shown not to do so to keep the game from becoming a ridiculous sniper match. That this can be done without making the game seem unrealistic shows an excellent sense that all game developers in this field should have.

Unrelated to game balance, but relevant to D&D is how Battlefield also makes a point of showing multiple high scores at the end of a round; it’s not just the man with the most points who is commended, but the best sniper, the best engineer, the medic with the most kills (as well as separate awards for the best at healing and reviving), even the best aircraft pilot, and so forth. Thus players are commended for doing their individual role best, which I think is also a big part of what’s good about D&D’s class system. You might not have had the most kills, but at least you saved an ally’s life by healing him, or disarmed the trapped treasure chest before picking the complex lock. I think that’s one reason why both games are enjoyable, because they commend teamwork and in doing so allow each person to come #1 in their own, very vital role, and thus when the team’s a winner, everyone’s a winner.

Dragon 349 – Law and Chaos

posted Tuesday, October 24th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

As I said two weeks ago, I’m in Dragon magazine again, and I’ve finally received my copy on this side of the pond. Turn to page 92 of the November 2006 issue. It’s always exciting to see my own work in print, and it’s interesting to see how the editors have quietly corrected subtle mistakes and made improvements I wouldn’t have considered.

I originally wrote the variant class abilities as variant classes, the Archon’s Soldier (an extraplanar paladin boasting no dead levels) and the Brawler (an unarmed barbarian). Despite losing some focus by splitting the class into abilities, I’m quite pleased at how much more accessible the PHB2 format makes them.

However, I suspect that a few of the edits made for brevity and balance require some commentary.

City Brawler: This is the most significant edit. This ability additionally granted unarmed strike damage as a monk of half your barbarian level – I suspect that “monk’s unarmed strike ability” was inadvertently edited to “Improved Unarmed Strike as a bonus feat”. As originally written, it gave you the equivalent of two-weapon fighting with a quarterstaff at 1st level, rising to a greatclub in each hand by 16th. As printed you’re attacking at -2 to deal 2d3 damage, and losing proficiencies for it!

Additionally, I had the improvised weapon penalty reduced to 0 instead of -2, since improvised weapons are never better than standard weapons. Largely I just liked the idea of a character who doesn’t need to use weapons, and is afforded the freedom to grasp improvised weapons on the fly—bar chairs, rocks, goblin corpses—without having to accept an attack or damage penalty compared to normal weapons.

Finally, I didn’t realise it but I left out two things when when converted this article from variant classes to individual abilities. One, the class had another ability adding half your brawler level as a dodge bonus to AC when unarmoured or lightly so (perhaps too powerful, in practice). Two, some flavour text about brawlers overcoming damage reduction using silver knuckledusters.

Fancy Footwork: This ability was cut for space limitations. It allowed you to trade your fast movement ability for the ability to make two five foot steps whenever you could normally make one (essentially, you can make ten foot steps without provoking an AoO). Does it bend the basic assumptions of the game too much?

Improved Grapple: Trade your uncanny dodge for Improved Grapple as a bonus feat and proficiency with armor spikes.

Devil’s Luck: I originally titled this ability “The Devil’s Own Luck”; now I’d be worried it sounds like it has something to do with the baatezu. Edited for space, I also allowed you to apply the luck bonus to all Profession (gambling) checks.

Aside from the mixup with the City Brawler ability, however, I’m quite pleased with the article as it stands. If you’re interested in some butt-kicking barbarians or demon-hunting paladins, pick up a copy of Dragon #349.

Dead Levels

posted Friday, October 20th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignLinks and ResourcesNews, Reviews & CultureThird Edition

Recently on the Wizards of the Coast site, an article by Kolja Raven Liquette touches on the topic of “dead levels” – character levels at which no specific class ability is gained. The barbarian for example has something at every level, even if it’s as limited as +1 to saves versus traps, whereas the fighter generally only gains one ability at every other level. Gamers are divided as to whether these empty levels are by wholly worthless, or if the increase to hit points, base attack, saves and base attack are still worth it.

Kolja’s article provides filler abilities for the dead levels. Coincidentally I had discussed this before (although not on this site), offering to round the fighter out with a minor but useful ability at the odd levels when he doesn’t gain a feat. Unfortunately, I fear that the Wizards article may have provided too little in the way of benefits to allay the qualms of the powerplayers who had the biggest problem with dead levels in the first place. The other side of Kolja’s dilemma is that if the benefits are too good, DMs everywhere will be swamped with requests to hand out free class abilities. Rewriting something so central as the core classes is really not something we can expect from Wizards of the Coast any time soon.

To be honest—and it’s perhaps unfair to Mr. Liquette since writing game-official rules for Wizards has certain constraints that a blogger isn’t limited by—were I writing this article, I would have somewhat different goals. Kolja’s article provides minor abilities which are mostly flavourful in nature, other than the rogue minor ability which corrects a perceived power deficiency in the class. Rather, I would have taken the route of providing abilities which were distinctly useful, but limited in scope. Consider the barbarian’s bonus to save versus traps; it’s as high as +6 at level 18, but as a balancing factor this bonus applies only to dodging traps. It’s wholly useless in a combat situation, does nothing for dangerous terrain and doesn’t protect against magical or poisoned traps, yet it’s still quite worthy because now and again it does work, much to the player’s pleasure.

On a quick skim, here’s what I might have given to each class to allay the “dead level” mob. Barbarian needs no bonus, in my opinion it’s the best designed class in the entire game. The bard gains some bonus or ability that he can know relevant information about enemies in-combat, sort of blue-mage style. The cleric gains defensive variants depending on deity, alignment, domains or church affiliation. The druid I think is fine since it gains ninth level spells on its dead 17th, but I might bring back 2ed hibernation or plane shifting. The fighter abilities in the article I like, but I might have given him weapon proficiencies or let his Weapon Focus style feats apply to another weapon for free (although in practice fighters really only use one weapon, so an improvement to what 2ed called Bend Bars/Lift Gates does make sense).

The monk’s got nothing empty (although it’s weaker as a combat class because of it), and I’d have to think a while for what I’d give the paladin. The ranger I’m not usually a fan of but on a quick look I think Kolja has it right. The rogue I might have uninventively filled in with the two empty levels with “Special Ability”; at any rate I don’t think it’s realistic for a rogue to work just a well without any tools, and I find myself wondering if it’s okay to give the rogue Hide in Plain Sight at 14th or 20th. On a hunch I’d throw in “take 10 on Use Magic Device” at 14th and Hide in Plain at 20th, but that’s tentative. Finally, the sorcerer and wizard; to be honest, both get along pretty well empty-levelling since they have the best spells and always gain new ones upon levelling up. The sorcerer, of course, is a shade weak overall and I find myself considering route of minor magical abilities (distinct from learned spells since the sorcerer is “naturally” magical in certain, perhaps unique ways), while for the wizard I’d turn to none other than the Arcana Evolved style magister’s staff as an alternative to a familiar.

Wizards need their staffs.

What Are The Odds?

posted Monday, October 16th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
None of the AboveThird Edition

Back in my entry of 9th of October, you may recall I said that “I once did a statistical analysis of your chance of rolling at least one 18; I’ll have to see if I can find it.” As it turns out I couldn’t find it—so I redid it from scratch using perl. The following information assumes a standard “4d6, drop lowest” roll, with no special extras like rerolls or point shift.

The average roll on 4d6 drop lowest is 12.244, compared to 10.5 on a straight 3d6. Your most likely rolls on a straight 3d6 are 10 or 11; this is the basis of the human average as well as minimum and maximums. Of course, a straight 3d6 rarely generates you a lot of high ability scores.

The odds of rolling an eighteen in one roll are 1.620%, or just over one in sixty-two. However, a character has six rolls arranged as desired – the chance of rolling at least one eighteen are 9.337%, a little better than one in eleven. With straight 3d6, such as rolling up a commoner, your chances of an eighteen would be a mere 0.463% – that’s only one in 216.

So if less than one in ten characters will naturally begin with an eighteen, what can be done to increase your chances of getting one one? One solution is to play a character other than a human for once. A quick calculation reveals that counting in the +2 racial bonus, the chances of getting at least one eighteen or higher are 56.757% – more than half.

Here are the statistics generated by my perl script, for your perusal.

Rolling every possible combination of 4d6 drop lowest...
Made 1296 rolls of 4d6 drop lowest. The average roll is 12.2445987654321.
 
Score   Frequency   Percentage   One or more
-----   ---------   ----------   -----------
3               1       0.077%        0.462%
4               4       0.309%        1.838%
5              10       0.772%        4.541%
6              21       1.620%        9.337%
7              38       2.932%       16.352%
8              62       4.784%       25.482%
9              91       7.022%       35.391%
10            122       9.414%       44.744%
11            148      11.420%       51.692%
12            167      12.886%       56.295%
13            172      13.272%       57.443%
14            160      12.346%       54.643%
15            131      10.108%       47.237%
16             94       7.253%       36.350%
17             54       4.167%       22.536%
18             21       1.620%        9.337%

Guess Who’s In Dragon Again?

posted Thursday, October 12th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

My contact in the States informs me that I’ve made it into the pages of Dragon magazine once again. This time it’s my article on paladin and barbarian variant class abilities. Initial reports seem to suggest that the unarmed barbarian variant is significantly nerfed from the manuscript I submitted, but as ever I’ll reserve judgement until I see the article myself.

I’ll post again once my copy of issue #349 makes its way to me across the pond.

How Do You Roll Characters?

posted Monday, October 9th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceThird Edition

For an aspect of the game laid out so straightforwardly in the rules, character generation seems to have quite a variety of house rules. How you roll for ability scores is one of the most varied parts of rolling a new guy that I’ve encountered on the internets. (Yes, all of them.)

Standardly, the game has players roll 4d6, drop the lowest d6 and arrange the results of six such rolls as desired. Back in the mists of time the game used to use a straight 3d6, which led to a lot of average characters. This is the reason why no matter what rolling method you use, ability scores have always ranged from 3 to 18. Second edition AD&D had something like five different ability score methods, wherein the DM could pick which one he wanted to use. I think the modern system of “4d6, drop lowest” is fairly elegant.

Still, it’s not without its drawbacks. Most notable is that you’re deciding a lot of your character’s ability and limitations based on a single set of rolls. While most rolls only affect you in the short term—failing a poison save will generally only punish your character for a few days—a lucky or unlucky roll in character generation will last your entire adventuring career. You might create two otherwise identical fighters, one of whom is far more powerful than the other simply because he was lucky enough to roll an 18 or two. It’s exciting and random, prone to creating power gaps between two player characters, and rewards players who cheat (which is easily done). (I once did a statistical analysis of your chance of rolling at least one 18; I’ll have to see if I can find it.)

Point buy is a good solution, with the drawback that it’s not quite as interesting or exciting because it’s not random. However, it’s more tactical—since point buy systems are generally weighted to make high ability scores much more expensive, players often have to choose between a single 18 or multiple 16s. Another drawback is that there’s a lot of futzing about with points and points-weighting charts, and that the standard points value tends to create characters that look a little pale in comparison to the 18-wielding heroes that come with rolling ability scores.

More straightforward are standard arrays of ability scores which are arranged as desired. My own array, designed to allow ridiculously powerful characters to compensate players for losing out on the excitement of rolling, is 18/16/16/14/12/10. Standard arrays are picking up popularity on the internet, making me wonder if I’ve helped propogate the meme in some way. Another popular array is 18/16/14/12/10/8, although I ditched the 8 myself because I don’t like heroes running around being less charismatic than commoners. My own array’s double 16s also reward players who play dwarves —what we used to call demihumans—who can use this array to start with a highly coveted two 18s.

Here are some more specific variants that I’ve seen used:

  • 5d6 drop lowest two is a higher-powered variant on the traditional rolling system. You get a higher distribution overall with this method, so characters tend to be powerful.
  • Reroll ones, an idea that can be applied to any rolilng method, helps prevent the problem of rolling low numbers. Any dice which come up a ’1′ are rerolled. Generally, ones are only rerolled once each.
  • Points shift is a method my former DM used consistently before he moved away and forgot to get his copy of Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil back from me. This rolling variant allows you to move a certain number of points, usually one or two, from any ability score to any other. Naturally, the minimum of 3 and maximum of 18 (before racial bonuses and penalties) still apply.
  • Iron Heroes points buy is a simplistic, but versatile system—I would expect nothing less from Mike Mearls. Simply put, you begin with ability scores of all 10 and have a certain number of points to raise those on a per-point basis. However, raising an ability score above 15—15 to 16, or 16 to 17—costs 2 points, while increasing a 17 to an 18 costs four points. This is the system I currently use; I offer 26 points, but you may prefer either more realistic or heroic ability scores than my players.

So which should you use? Dice are more exciting, plus it really means something when you roll high ability scores. Points buy is fairer, but can be more time-consuming. Standard arrays are quick and easy, but tend to favour classes that only need one good ability score rather than multiple average scores, and players might crave the excitement of rolling characters randomly. Which on you choose really depends on what kind of game your players will enjoy the most—try to pick the right one for your game.

Pagerank 4 at last!

posted Monday, October 2nd 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Site Announcements

I’m pleased to announce that this blog has reached the lofty heights of Pagerank 4. That’s two whole points higher than the previous score, so it seems that we’re going places!

For those of you who aren’t web development afficionados, Pagerank is Google’s scoring system for determining how popular a website is depending on how many websites link to it. (The rarely-attained maximum score is 10–perhaps only two dozen websites currently hold this score.) Google recently updated their Pagerank statistics for the quarter, and I’m pretty pleased to find that my site has jumped two notches from PR2 to PR4.

By comparison to other D&D websites, PR4 places me on an equal footing with Martin Ralya’s Treasure Tables. At PR5 we see Mike Mearls‘ livejournal and d20srd.org. The official D&D website, meanwhile, shares the commendable Pagerank 6 with ENWorld. Can anyone find a roleplaying games website with a higher Pagerank? Comments are open.

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