Saturday, August 29, 2015

Creating Magic Items in D&D 5th Edition

As I've mentioned in some recent posts, I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition with my gaming group, and we have absolutely loved it. Our group actually started together playing Pathfinder, and on the whole we've found D&D 5th edition to be superior in almost every way. But one thing I enjoyed in Pathfinder was some pretty detailed rules concerning crafting magic items. Granted, the way that system works, it's almost trivially easy for players to do this, but at least there are detailed rules to guide them. In comparison, in D&D 5th edition the rules for crafting magic items are paper-thin, and seem more tacked on than actually integrated with the system. Considering the sheer number and variety of magic items described in the Dungeon Master's Guide, this seems like a pretty major oversight.

Now that said, I actually like the removal of what one author termed the magic item economy, where it was trivially easy for characters to buy and sell magic items to their heart's content. Nevermind that even the average merchant would never be able to afford the tens of thousands of gold selling price, or would be hard pressed to ever find a buyer for said item. Making magic items rare and the ability to craft them a lost art certainly makes for a better default gaming experience.

Nonetheless, I still wanted crafting rules that would work within that framework. And since the current rules set doesn't include them, and since I couldn't find anything online that I liked, I had to create my own. Here's a sneak peek:

Given the default environment for 5th edition, most magic items are considered relics of a previous age that are generally beyond the knowledge of the typical magic practitioner to create. In fact, recipes for how to create even the most common of magic items (such as a potion of healing or a first level spell scroll) are still considered uncommon treasures valued at hundreds of gold pieces (DMG 141). As such, the creation of any magic item is a major accomplishment, and one that should not come about without a considerable investment of time and resources.

Step-By-Step Creation Overview
1. Acquire the formula for the magic item.
2. Acquire the components needed to create the magic item.
3. Meet all of the prerequisites for the magic item, including achieving minimum character level, preparing each spell that will be produced by the item, and acquiring all of the material components for not only the magic item but also for each of the spells.
4. Calculate the total creation cost, the time required, and the difficulty of the skill check at the end of the creation process.
5. Complete the creation process by spending the required costs and time, make an Arcana check against the appropriate difficulty, and determine your results.

If you are interested, I would love to have a few more people who are familiar with D&D 5th edition take a look at the whole document and give me some feedback. If that's you, feel free to drop me a line and let me know.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Transparency in Video Game Design

As any longtime reader of my blog knows, I am a devoted gamer of both the digital and physical media. And one of the fascinating effects of the ubiquity of the tablet is how the distinction between a video game and a board game is beginning to shrink. Indeed, many of my favorite board games are available as video games!

So when a link came across my Twitter feed to a presentation by Soren Johnson (former lead designer for Civilization IV and current lead for Offworld Trading Company), about what video games can learn from board games, I was immediately intrigued. I've linked the entire presentation below:

Okay, I'm guessing most of you didn't actually watch the whole video. It's pretty long and geeky, so I can't blame you if you didn't. You really should watch it. But if not, here's the gist of it:

What defines a board game is not the fact that you play with physical components. Instead, what makes a board game unique is the level of transparency in the game. All of the mechanics, by necessity, must be fully explainable to the end user; otherwise they don't work. And it is this transparency that creates such great games, fostering deep engagement, player comfort, and meaningful choice.

Now I'm a major fan of Johnson's Offworld Trading Company, and I can definitely see how he has applied these concepts to that game. So if you want to see these concepts in action, I would definitely encourage you to check it out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

One Final Thought Concerning Leagues

As I was preparing my post last time discussing the announcement by Wizards regarding the return of leagues to Magic Online and the reasoning behind beginning with Standard Constructed leagues rather than Sealed, there was one other point I neglected to include. Ever since I discovered Hearthstone, I have urged Wizards of the Coast to study what makes that game so successful and to apply those lessons to Magic Online. Given the massive success that Hearthstone now enjoys, it appears that Wizards has indeed taken notice.

While obviously the exact details have not been disclosed yet, Constructed Leagues will offer the same sort of asynchronous tournament experience that Hearthstone now offers in its Arena game mode. Way back in November I noted that this seemed to be the way that Wizards was taking leagues on Magic Online, and the latest announcements have only confirmed this.

In both Hearthstone Arena and Magic Online Leagues:
  • You practically have no time limits when it comes to deckbuilding.
  • You have the option of playing out your matches over a short or long period of time.
  • For each match, the software attempts to pair you against an opponent with a similar record, but priority is given to getting you a game as quickly as possible.
  • You play a set number of games, with prizes determined solely by your record (without any consideration as to who you played or their respective records).
  • You can enter the tournament as often as you wish.
Obviously, Magic Online ran leagues long before Hearthstone was even in the conceptual stage. But nonetheless, it is interesting to see these similarities.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Initial Thoughts on Leagues Announcement

Since I seem to have gotten into the habit of commenting on recent news regarding Magic Online, I thought I would finish out the week by discussing the recent update from Wizards of the Coast regarding the return of leagues. Now clearly this is a contentious issue, with a long history of Wizards making promises that leagues would be returning "soon," as well as being one of the ways that they justified the painful switch-over to version 4 of the Magic Online client. So what did we learn from this update?

Leagues now have an official release date, with a progressive "roll-out" scheduleThe code is scheduled to go live this next week, but will only be available to an internal test group, and then a wider but still closed beta, with a target of going public sometime in mid September. But as many people have noticed, this is something fairly different than the leagues in the past. These are not Sealed events, but instead are Standard Constructed format. Why would Wizards do this?

In an effort to get a quality Leagues experience delivered sooner, we changed course from the more complex Sealed Deck League to the simpler Constructed League. This allowed us to focus on key League functions and performance without worrying about deck building, adding cards to a deck mid-League, and running multiple stages that Sealed Deck Leagues include. This saved both development and testing time. It also allowed us to double down on load testing and make sure we can support the large number of players we want in each League.

While the delay is unfortunate, the work delivered has created a much better foundation upon which to build the future of Leagues. We've upgraded our testing capabilities, especially around load testing, so we can do more testing faster. We've refined the Leagues infrastructure to allow better scalability, so future releases should be easier. This all translates to a better Leagues experience for you out of the gate and as we deliver addition features and support.

While you may be disappointed by this, in my opinion this is good news. Wizards realizes they have a terrible track record when it comes to their online experience, and as such wants to take things one baby step at a time, rather than trying to release everything all at once. Of course, this means that even after these leagues go public, the community still won't have what we've been waiting for. Worse, since the primary reason many players preferred leagues was the low cost of entry, these leagues will probably not any cheaper than participating in other Standard events online. On the other hand, when Sealed leagues do finally return, there is a greater chance that they will actually work as intended, as the overall systems for the leagues will have been rigorously tested and refined by that point in the distant future.

For me, the bottom line is that while I probably will not play in these Standard leagues (since I have no desire to invest the required funds to do so), I do see this as a positive sign that real progress is being made towards returning Sealed leagues to Magic Online.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Some Thoughts on Magic Online, Part Two

Last time, I wrote about the recent decision by Wizards of the Coast to replace tickets with Play Points as the primary way that players enter Constructed events on Magic Online. I discussed how the decision was obviously unpopular with most people who play the game, since this is essentially replacing cash prizes with, for lack of a better term, Monopoly money - a currency that only has value within the game itself rather than actual monetary value. I stressed that, in my opinion, this is part of a calculated move to eliminate the ability for players to "make money" by playing Magic Online. Today, I want to discuss why Wizards of the Coast might decide to make such a move.

For months now, people (including myself) have been lauding the success of Hearthstone as the premier example of what an online collectible card game should look like.  But what we seem to have perhaps overlooked is that in Hearthstone, real money only flows in one direction - into Blizzard's coffers. With money, the only things you can purchase are either card packs or adventure-style expansions. And because there is no secondary market and no trading, there's no way to later recoup any of that investment, save for performing well in high level tournaments. Outside of that avenue though, no matter how well you perform in either ranked play or in the Arena, your only rewards are dust (an in-game currency used to craft new cards), card packs, or gold (an in-game currency used to purchase card packs and/or adventure-style expansions). Again, money flows into the game - but it never flows out.

I suspect that Wizards of the Coast may be moving towards such a system. By eliminating tickets and replacing them with another currency that cannot be traded or otherwise sold, you eliminate the ability for players to ever get any money back out of the game. In fact, if Wizards takes the next step and eliminates tickets altogether, they will essentially wipe out the secondary market altogether, since tickets are the defacto way of buying and selling individual cards. Even if trading continues to be an option, without a currency to trade, I am uncertain if online dealers such as MTGOTraders could continue to exist, since their only business model would be to sell individual cards for real money through their website - cards that could only be obtained by purchasing large numbers of packs from Wizards themselves and cracking them all open to resell individually.

This would also, as it turns out, explain why Wizards decided back in early February of 2013 to raise the cost of redemption from $5 to $25. Prior to that, one could conceivably obtain all the cards from a set online, redeem them for physical copies, and then sell the paper cards for a small but decent profit, particularly if you could offset the online costs by skilled play. And while I haven't run the numbers, I suspect it is now much harder to make a profit on such a transaction. This would certainly fit the model of eliminating online play as a method of making money while still keeping their promise to allow players to redeem online cards for paper ones.

Honestly, I hope I am wrong. If this is the direction Wizards is actually going, this is bad news for many of the online vendors who make a living off the Magic Online economy. But it certainly would be following in the success of Hearthstone, and potentially could turn major profits for Wizards of the Coast in the longterm. We shall see.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Some Thoughts on Magic Online, Part One

It's been an interesting summer for Magic Online.

It's been about a year since the permanent transition to version 4 of the online client, a transition that was designed to allow future improvements but also brought with it a great deal of confusion and frustration that ended up alienating a lot of what I would term the casual players on Magic Online. But since that time, the overall experience seems to be getting better. Bugs were addressed, load times decreased, and generally things are working the way they are supposed to, or at least as well as they ever have.

But then last month, Wizards made a major announcement that they were radically changing the way that Constructed events would work going forward by introducing a new currency called Play Points that would exist alongside tickets. Play Points can only be earned by playing in Constructed Events, can be used as an entry fee for almost any event (both Limited and Constructed), but otherwise cannot be traded for or obtained in any other way. Alongside this change, Wizards also increased the entry fee for Daily Events up to 12 tickets (or an equivalent amount of Play Points) while essentially decreasing the overall prize payout (since you were now awarded Play Points rather than tickets). Finally, Wizards also essentially eliminated Daily Events for Pauper, Legacy, and Vintage, replacing them with what amounts to 8-man queues.

Not surprisingly, the response from the online community was overwhelmingly negative, leading many people to sell out and walk away from the game. In fact, some have estimated that in the course of two weeks the Magic Online economy lost 12 percent of its value. And while lots of players are certainly still playing on Magic Online, there is still considerable grumbling about this decision.

If you're interested in the economics behind the decision, how it affects your expected value from an event, or anything of that sort, you'll find plenty of information on that available elsewhere. What I want to explore is why Wizards made this decision, and why players are so upset by it. Actually, I think the reason is pretty simple: Wizards is eliminating the ability to "make money" in Magic Online.

Tickets, as a commodity, have an actual monetary value. They can be purchased for approximately one dollar, can be traded to players or bots for cards, and can even be redeemed for actual money from a variety of different sources. None of these are true of Play Points. Their only value is letting you enter into another event. So even if the only change Wizards had made was to replace the tickets given out as prizes with an equivalent amount of Play Points and left everything unchanged, players would still be upset. It's as if you've gone from awarding cash prizes to awarding Monopoly money. Playing for Monopoly money still might be fun, but it's certainly not the same thing as winning cash.

And it doesn't take a genius to figure that out. Sadly, this means that Wizards probably knew very well that this change was going to be very unpopular. Yet they did it anyway. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is an intentional, strategic move on their part to accomplish a particular goal. But why would they want to eliminate the ability to win actual cash prizes? And what are the potential changes in an economy where what you own in Magic Online doesn't have any actual value? That's what I want to explore next time.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Why You Should Play D&D 5th Edition

As I mentioned in my summary of GenCon 2015, I had a blast participating in some D&D Adventure League sessions. In fact, I have been playing in a longterm Dungeon and Dragons 5th edition campaign since the beginning of summer, and I can honestly say it's the most fun I've ever had with a pen and paper roleplaying game. So today I wanted to share with you my top 5 reasons why you should be playing D&D 5th edition.

5. It's the quintessential D&D experience, done in a way that is fast and easy to play for GMs and players alike. One of the clear design goals of this edition was to make the game more streamlined, and it shows. Everything from character creation to combat to skill checks is simplified and moves quickly while still retaining the look and feel that most people associate with the D&D franchise.

4. It's surprisingly compatible with much of the "old school" D&D content. For the first time in its history, you can seek out some of the old first edition modules, swap out the monsters with their 5th edition counterparts, and run them with very little effort at conversion. Given that many people still remember these old adventurers as some of the greatest modules of all time, and that many of them are even available online for free, this is a very nice feature.

3. There's not a ton of content to master. At least to me, D&D 3.5 and its stepchild Pathfinder are absolutely bloated with new rules, new spells, new races, new classes, and what feels like an endless succession of options. For someone just coming back to roleplaying, that amount of content can be overwhelming. But at least thus far, Wizards has been slow to release much in the way of new rules, and those that exist are generally available for free as part of their seasonal Adventure Leagues.

2. Characters are created with distinct backgrounds and archetypes within a particular class, creating diversity even among characters of the same class. With 12 different character classes, all of which come with multiple archetypes, paired with 13 different backgrounds and 9 races, you end up with a lot of variety among different characters. Even better, much of this diversity is more background driven and less about power-leveling.

1. It's a whole lot of fun. Is there any better reason to play anything? This edition of Dungeons and Dragons has proven to be so much fun for me and several others that I've introduced back to the game. And excellent shows like Critical Role only add to the enjoyment I've had with this game.

So what are you waiting for? Order a copy of the Player's Handbook, find a group, and get playing!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Origins for Standard Pauper

As I've said so many times before, now is a great time to be part of the Standard Pauper community. Not only do we have two great Player Run Events that run just about every week, but we also have an abundance of great content about the format. With the release of Magic Origins online, and the beginning of new seasons for both MPDC and SPDC, everyone is trying to figure out how the new cards will impact the metagame. But it's not like you have to figure all of this out for yourself. Instead, we've got four different sites with great reviews and metagame analysis of Standard Pauper and how Magic Origins will affect it:

1. MagicGatheringStrat's weekly podcast reviewed the set over two recent episodes, which you can find here and here.

2. Standard Pauper enthusiast and co-host of SPDC (and often-time guest host for MPDC) rremedio1 wrote an excellent review of the set for the StandardPauperPlayers blog.

3. DrChrisBaker, host of SPDC, also completed an entire video review of the set, with highlights on his most recent blogpost.

4. And last but not least, we have my own exhaustive set review broken up into Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

And if you know of any other content for Standard Pauper on another site, please let me know in the comments, and I will add it to this post. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Izzet Midrange

Yesterday the first event of the Season 30 of Monday Pauper Deck Challenge kicked off. We had 19 players, with a fairly diverse Top 8 (in fact, 8 different archetypes!), but it was JogandoPelado's Bullying deck that captured the trophy. Yesterday's event was also personally significant, as it represented the first time I've actually played Standard Pauper since the end of May. And let me tell you, it felt good to be back. Not just because I managed to get into Top 8, although that certainly helped. No, it felt good because I actually enjoyed my games, even when I was losing terribly.

After seeing the success of the creature-less Izzet Token Control decks last season (including this excellent build that Cabel ran to 1st place in SPDC 30.01), I was curious to see if you could take that same shell, take out all the tokens, and instead make the deck play out more midrange by including some Prowess creatures that would have synergy with all the spells being flung around. I also wanted to test out Mage-Ring Bully and see if it was as good as what I was hearing. So here's the deck that I played:

Izzet Midrange
Top 8 in MPDC 30.01 by gwyned
4 Bloodfire Expert
4 Lotus Path Djinn
4 Mage-Ring Bully
12 cards

Other Spells
4 Fiery Impulse
4 Lightning Strike
4 Voyage's End
3 Anticipate
3 Divination
3 Ojutai's Summons
3 Treasure Cruise
1 Negate
25 cards
8 Island
7 Mountain
4 Evolving Wilds
4 Swiftwater Cliffs
23 cards

Lotus Path Djinn

So there's not much that's new here. I thought all three creatures played out very well, particularly with all of the combat tricks that could be pulled off with all of the Instant speed spells at my disposal. As you can see, I ended up cutting not only most of the token generation, but almost all the counter magic as well, save for the three copies of Disdainful Stroke in the Sideboard. I also swapped out Magma Spray for the new Fiery Impulse, and overall I was happy with that change.

Based on my experience, I would like to look for ways to improve the match-up against both Jeskai tokens and MonoGreen, possibly by including more permission spells in the Sideboard. But my difficulty with those particular matchups could also be chalked up simply being out of synch after such a long break from the format.

Anyway, yesterday's event was a blast! Thanks to everyone who participated. And I hope to see many of my readers next Monday for our next event.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

GenCon 2015, Part Three

Living local to Indianapolis, I had the opportunity most of last week to travel to GenCon, self-described as "the original, longest-running, best-attended, gaming convention in the world!" Over the course of three days, I played a variety of different tabletop games, attended some writing seminars, and got to participate in several sessions of the Dungeon and Dragons Adventurers League. So all this week, I'll be blogging about my experience at GenCon this year. Today, I'll finish off with some thoughts about all the gaming I did this year.

It should go without saying that if you're going to GenCon, you should probably play some games. So that's what I did this year. I played more than my fair share of board games in the main hall, and even watched other people play games that were so popular that I never could get a seat at the table to play them. But my big discovery this year came at MayFair Games (publisher of the hit game Settlers of Catan), where I learned that they have a deal in place that you can earn different colored ribbons for demoing different games within their section of the exhibit hall, and once you have a set of all five, you can redeem them for a one-time 50% discount off any one game sold at the convention. So I spent Friday afternoon and Saturday morning not only earned my five ribbons, but also helping my wife and friends earn theirs as well.

And with this achievement unlocked, I proceeded to buy what turned out to be the most expensive game in Mayfair's lineup of games - a game that debuted last year called Caverna: The Cave Farmers (which I will be sure to review soon). Caverna retails for nearly $100, so my 50% off discount was quite nice. I also ended up purchasing a fun game called Evolution, which I will also be reviewing soon. As they say, to the victor goes the spoils:

Overall it was a great experience, and one that I can't wait to repeat next year. If you've never been to GenCon, believe me you're missing out. It truly was the best four days in gaming!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

GenCon 2015, Part Two

Living local to Indianapolis, I had the opportunity most of last week to travel to GenCon, self-described as "the original, longest-running, best-attended, gaming convention in the world!" Over the course of three days, I played a variety of different tabletop games, attended some writing seminars, and got to participate in several sessions of the Dungeon and Dragons Adventurers League. So all this week, I'll be blogging about my experience at GenCon this year. Today, I want to discuss my experience with the GenCon Writer's Symposium.

For over 20 years, the GenCon Writer's Symposium has offered attendees at this event the opportunity to attend seminars hosted by some of the best speculative fiction authors of our time, favoring practical topics designed to help new and aspiring writers the opportunity to grow and hone their craft. This year, the Symposium offered over 140 hours of programming, with more than 75% offered free of charge with admission to GenCon. They featured more than 70 fantastic authors and experts, including 2015 Author Guest of Honor Terry Brooks, Special Guest Chuck Wendig, Bill Willingham, Kameron Hurley, Patrick Rothfuss, and Cat Rambo.

Unfortunately, one of the luminaries who was not in attendance was Mary Robinette Kowal, who was scheduled to teach a seminar on short story writing which I had paid to attend. She ended up having to cancel her appearance for personal reasons, which was quite disappointing, as that seminar was probably what I was looking forward to the most. But between my wife and I, we attended well over 20 hours of lectures over the course of the weekend, and while the quality varied somewhat, a great deal of the material was absolutely fantastic.

The highlight for me, however, was actually getting to attend the live-recording of one of the best writing podcasts ever called Writing Excuses, which I blogged about several years back after my wife was awarded a scholarship to their first ever Writing Excuses Retreat. While neither Mary nor Brandon Sanderson were in attendance, our live audience had a blast listening and even interacting with Howard Taylor and Dan Wells. It will probably be quite some time before those episodes go live, but once they do, I have no doubt you'll be able to hear my wife laughing at several points in at least two of the episodes. In any case, I'll certainly let you know when those episodes are available.

Next time, I'll talk about my experience playing the amazing variety of games.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

GenCon 2015, Part One

Living local to Indianapolis, I had the opportunity most of last week to travel to GenCon, self-described as "the original, longest-running, best-attended, gaming convention in the world!" Over the course of three days, I played a variety of different tabletop games, attended some writing seminars, and got to participate in several sessions of the Dungeon and Dragons Adventurers League. So all this week, I'll be blogging about my experience at GenCon this year. Today, I want to discuss my experience with the D&D Adventurers League.

Participating in the league at GenCon is fairly straightforward. You sign up for whichever sessions you are interested, pay a small fee, and roll up your character according to their guidelines, which are very close to the standard character creation rules for 5th edition. These sessions are actually run for dozens of people at a time, broken down into individual tables run by gamemasters who are paid for their time. They are also restricted to characters within certain level guidelines, and to play a character higher than level one, you need to have completed previous sessions with the wider Adventurers League organized play (although not necessary at GenCon). 

I ended up creating a Human Monk specializing in fire magic (thanks to the Human Variant that lets you take a feat at level one), and for my first session was paired with a party that was the maximum for that particular module. I basically hid in the back and used my marginal ranged abilities, especially when we found ourselves facing off against hook horrors and xorns who were part of an attempt by an elemental cult to retrieve an artifact stolen by a dwarf who we were hired to protect. In the end we defeated all the attackers, allied with the band of dwarves sent to retrieve the artifact, and closed the elemental node that the artifact opened. 

Over the next two sessions, I helped defend a village against marauding beasts, was captured by a group of racist mercenaries, and was conscripted as a gladiator to satisfy the whims of a local city. I actually ended up dead in the arena, thanks to failing my death save four times in a row (which essentially required me to lose a coin flip four times). Even worse, this was my last session of the convention, and after four hours of play, I ended up forfeiting everything I had earned in that session (although at least I did retain my now level three character).

Overall, I had a very positive experience. The organizers did a great job assigning me to a table, the gamemasters were friendly, knowledgeable, and kept the games running smoothly, and on the whole the modules were varied and interesting. Despite the fact that I ended up dead, I had a great time in the process, and I definitely intend to play more at next year's convention. I only wish my schedule allowed me to travel down to some of the game stores in my area to participate in other Adventurers League games, but sadly they only play on evenings that I am otherwise engaged.

Next time, I'll talk about my experience at the writing seminars.

Monday, August 3, 2015

More Game Updates, Part Two

Like I mentioned early last week, between a work trip and GenCon, my content schedule was running way behind. Later this week I'll be posting more about my awesome GenCon experience. But with all that going on, I not only failed to get my Standard Pauper article finished up for today, but also never posted the second half of my post from Thursday about the updates to some of the great indie games I've been playing. But better late than never, as the old saying goes!

Since I first wrote about Lethis Path of Progress, there have been not one but two content patches! This has quickly become my number one choice to play in my scant free time over the past month or so. It's a strange and quirky game, and at times can certainly seem a little rough around the edges (particularly where the translation from French is less than perfect), but the small team of developers have done an excellent job keeping the updates coming. The latest patch brought cheat codes, a long awaited trade system for the sandbox game, a bunch of new decor items, and some small tweaks to the happiness system, which recently made its debut. If you haven't tried this game yet, definitely check out some of the Let's Plays on YouTube to see if it's right for you. Personally, I'm having a blast!

And that's it for today. Now, back to work on my other neglected content...