Sunday, March 29, 2015

First thoughts on Pillars of Eternity Combat Mechanics

I'm only a few hours in, but I'm loving Pillars of Eternity.  The mood in the world is terrific, and the writing has been excellent.  So far, it has had something of  Planescape: Torment vibe with its dark, macabre themes, though the setting does not have the wackiness that Sigil did.

The combat engine is fun as well.  It definitely seems built upon something that resembles 4e combat to me.  There are at-will abilities, encounter powers (which are even named as such!), and daily spells.  The exception so far is the cipher, the class I chose to play, which uses a mana-like system with a resource pool called "Focus."  You gain focus by hitting with melee or ranged weapons, and then spend it with your spells.  It's a fun system.

Deflection and Damage Reduction

Armor has interesting differences as well.  Like in 4e DnD, there are four defenses: Deflection (i.e. AC), Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.  Interestingly, while these can be enhanced with magic items, they seem mostly determined by your characters' attributes and class.  Armor, typically, does not enhance Deflection.  Instead, it boosts Damage Reduction; donning heavy armor instead of cloth armor does not change your deflection, but instead adds substantial damage reduction to certain kinds of hits.  Damage reduction can really help, especially given the grazing mechanic: most "misses" actually are grazes in this system, which can leave a small amount of damage.  That graze damage will usually be completely negated with decent armor.

As far as I can tell, there isn't such a thing as armor proficiency.  Instead, the main incentive to not wear heavy armor seems to be a speed penalty.  After each action, be it shooting an arrow, swinging a sword, or casting a spell, there is a recovery period before you can act again.  The heavier your armor, the longer the recovery period.  This can be dramatic; the heaviest armor I've seen so far is still just medium armor, and it has a recovery penalty of 50%!  Therefore, if those numbers are true, suiting up is going to halve your damage output.

I think the main consequence of this is that one needs to have characters specialize in combat roles.  You'll definitely want to have a few characters in a party of 6 who can take on a "tank" role, wearing heavy armor and shields, and using heavy damage reduction to survive on the front lines.  Behind them, you can use ranged attackers wearing cloth or light armor that fling spells, arrows, or shoot guns, and it is those characters who will do most of the damage.  I personally enjoy this degree of specialization, and it stands in contrast to the 5e dnd approach where fighters can serve not only as tanks, but also as legitimate damage-dealers themselves.

It's less clear to me exactly what one should do for a "melee striker"-style character.  I think this is where you end up compromising with medium or light armor, and being careful when engaging to minimize your risk of engaging more than one enemy at once, ensure opponents already are engaged with the tank, etc.

Weapon Choices

The fact that Damage Reduction is such a big part of this game has implications for weapon selections.  In 2e DnD, assuming equivalent accuracy, a fast, low-damage weapon will give you equivalent "damage per second" output to a slow, high damage weapon.  3e and 4e didn't have weapon speeds, but you got similar effects from dual-wielding light weapons compared to swinging a big, two-handed sword.

But if DR is important and common, then you could run into issues where a fast, low-damage weapon can't provide much of any benefit because it can't clear a foe's damage reduction.  I ran into a similar problem while playing The Prophet, which features a lot of foes with damage reduction.  Therefore, you see a lot of folks on the internet boards advocating high damage weapons like firearms, which also have extremely long reload times.

Ultimately, it will come down to how much damage reduction an average foe has, and exactly how much longer the reload times are compared to how much extra damage output you get.  If I was really methodical, I'd get out my stopwatch and start measuring this.  ...  but I'm sure some young buck out there will do this before I get it done!

Endurance and Health

Rather than a single pool of hit points, PoE employs a system that involves a combination of two pools of health systems.  Endurance is a comparably small pool of health.  As you are hit, therefore, it quickly drops in combat.  If you reach zero, you fall unconscious.  Most healing spells and potions work to replenish endurance, as do some skills.  Fighters, for example, steadily regenerate endurance during combat.  Finally, when combat is over, characters almost immediately regenerate all of their endurance.  

In contrast, health is a much larger pool.  As you take endurance damage, you also steadily lose health.  It's unlikely that you'll run out of health in a single encounter.  However, after a long series of fights, you'll eventually start to run low.  This is dangerous, because dropping to 0 health will kill your character, permanently.  Furthermore, aside from a pair of talents (aka feats), I haven't seen a mechanism to heal health aside from resting.  Therefore, while endurance is usually one's concern during combat, health is what will ultimately end your adventuring day.  One can always rest to heal, but you can carry limited camping supplies, and resting may(?) come with risk of random encounters (maybe...I'm not sure of this).

What I like about the system is that, most of the time, character death isn't something that one has to worry about.  Most of the time, you'll bounce back up after a difficult fight, even if you get knocked unconscious.  But at the same time, you have to take damage seriously, because it will eventually catch up with a character, forcing a risky rest out in the wildnerness or within a dungeon.  There is still risk and there are still consequences.

As you can tell, I'm having a blast with this game, and am really enjoying learning the mechanics of this dnd-esque system.  Most of the changes have seemed like very positive improvements, or at least very enjoyable alternative mechanics.  Can't wait to get back in game soon!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pillars of Eternity Released

Like a fair number of people of my generation, my first true DnD experience was playing Baldur's Gate.  I'd played rpg-light board games as a kid.  I'd played computer RPG's before, starting with Might and Magic 3 as my first "real" RPG.  I'd even played some pen and paper games in college.  But Baldur's Gate, released in 1998, was my first foray into true Dungeons and Dragons rules and worlds.  It was a fantastic game, and launched my love affair with other DnD products like BG2, Planescape: Torment, and, of course, the Neverwinter Nights games.  And, based on my play through Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition, the game still holds up quite well.

So when Obsidian launched their kickstarter proposing to build a modern game along the lines of Baldur's Gate, I do remember taking notice.  But then, for some reason, I decided to take a pass.  I'm still not completely comfortable supporting Kickstarter projects, mostly because of the sense of no guarantees.  I've certainly preordered my share of games before, but at least in those cases it is usually only a short time until a game is released.  With Kickstarter, you pay in your money long before a project will ever turn up in your mailbox, and there's always some chance that the project won't ever materialize.

I might need to start rethinking those kinds of concerns, because I almost overlooked this game.  It was really only through a few retweets on twitter that I noticed the game coming a few weeks back.  I've been catching up ever since.

Today, Obsidian officially released Pillars of Eternity, their modern homage to the Infinity Engine games.  It looks really impressive.  The world looks dark and full of flavor.  The interface looks crisp and clean.  The combat looks strategic and tight, with a lot of neat innovations (endurance vs. health, new ways of thinking about character attributes and how that affects builds, etc).  The early reviews have been very positive (92 on metacritic as I write this).

Right now, I'm at 2.87 GB of 6.33 GB downloaded from GOG.  I teach in the morning and my wifi in this part of the house is not stellar, so it's not going to finish tonight.  I have family coming to visit for the weekend that arrive tomorrow.

In short, I can't wait to play.  But I also probably won't be able to play for several more days.  So, I'm going to content myself to read the manual tonight, think more about my first character choice (cipher vs. druid vs. wizard...decisions decisions), and head off to bed.  ::sigh::

Saturday, March 7, 2015

NWN Module Review: Prophet II - The Century of Sorrow by Baldecaran

Mysterious ruins once again play a critical role in this module
Having unwittingly become the center of an ancient prophecy, and dubbed the unmaker who will bring about the Century of Sorrow that leads to the end of the world, the PC sets off for the desert city of Hierathanum.  There, you hope to meet with the Dreamweavers, a group of mysterious dreamers who, like you, are gifted with The Sight.  With their guidance, you hope to learn more of your powers, and hopefully find a way to avoid bringing about the end of times.
Chapter I of the Prophet featured a vast journey with incredible twists and turns, and featured powerfully-written NPC companions who were integral to the plot.  Therefore, it was with some excitement that I launched the next chapter.  It was a well-polished module, with strong writing, good technical skill, and a bare minimum of typos, small bugs, etc.  Area design was about as good as it gets in NWN1, with creative skillful use of custom spectacular custom content.  The "Mountains" tileset has never been used so well as in this series, and I loved many of the other innovative ideas he used.

Combat remained interesting, with damage absorption continuing to play a big role in the success of my character.  This was also true of the NPC's, and therefore required me to do whatever I could to make use of sneak attack damage to avoid lengthy battles of attrition.  While I started the module trying to "tank" with my rogue/ranger, I did find it necessary to reverse things and let my ranger companion be the primary melee character with the majority of the good damage-absorption equipment.  This meant my character wasn't as well equipped, but it made sense to keep the enemies on him: he had more HP, and if the foes were targeting him then I could sneak attack them.

I love Baldecaran's use of the mountain tileset
That all said, I found the module's story to be a bit disappointing.  The first half of the module established the setting and flavor of Hierathanum, but ended up largely just being a blockade to the character's progress in the story.  The elements of the main plot that were present were largely just a rehash of the events of th first module, which seemed overdone.  And when the story did progress...well, it was on rails.  One's choices did not matter.  ....  I fully realize that this is kind of the point of the module--it's about a prophecy, after all--and is what puts the PC in the center of the story's challenge.  But for some reason, it still just didn't ring true the way the same kinds of themes did in the first module.  

In any case, it certainly serves the purpose of setting up the final chapter of the trilogy.  I had a fun time playing in the author's world once again, and I'm excited to see how my character will work his way out of this situation...if he is even able to do so.  The module ends on a dark note, and it's hard to imagine what can be done amid all of the hopelessness.  Here's hoping for an epic solution in chapter III!

My rating: 8 - Recommended to Anyone

More screenshots after the jump!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Sword Coast Legends by N-Space Announced

Wizards of the Coast recently announced Sword Coast Legends.  Here's the trailer video:

As someone who loves the Infinity engine games, not to mention NWN1/2, this is really exciting footage.  But I found it a bit hard to ge ta lot of detail about what exactly the game is.  But having read this interview, this part grabbed me:

GamesBeat: So Sword Coast Legends itself is almost like an old-fashioned Forgotten Realms boxed set? You’ll have other material coming out that builds on that set in the future? Is this right? 
Tudge: Yeah, it’s pretty close. We’ve often talked about — we hope that fans love this so much and play this so much that it becomes the Sword Coast saga in a lot of respects. We have a lot of stories to tell and a lot of places we’d like to visit, a lot of people we’d like to meet. I can see this going for as long as people keep playing. 
Stewart: I’d definitely like that. My ambition for this title from the beginning is for a new group of D&D players, when they talk about getting together and playing D&D this weekend and whatever campaign they’re doing, they’re talking about Sword Coast Legends. D&D is just the shorthand. It still has the DM and the player interaction and the crazy fun joking. But really capturing that essence and spirit. That kind of base set and then the modules that add on top of it and shape it, I love that analogy, because that’s what I see this game becoming, just a different version of that.
The interview is a little all over the place, but this is the basic breakdown as I understand it for the game's pitch:
  • 1-4 player, isometric, real time tactical combat with pause.
  • Modular, single player adventures will be released and available for purchase.
  • Some of these adventures may mirror the thematic story that is current with D&D Adventurer's League, like the recent Tyranny of Dragons and the current Elemental Evil storyline.  
  • Some future expansions will also include new races and classes.
  • A DM mode by which you can stage your own adventures.
  • Built upon 5e rules (I think!).  I'm not sure that they're going to show dice rolls and be that rooted in the rules.  But perhaps closer, I hope, that Neverwinter was to 4e rules?
All of that is pretty freaking exciting.  Here's more on the toolset:
GamesBeat: Are these going to be easier to use than the tools from the Neverwinter Nights games?
Tudge: I’m happy to say, absolutely yes. For me, the promise of what Neverwinter Nights offered was really exciting as a fan of D&D and a person who enjoys being a DM. Even before I worked at BioWare, I got in there and started working with those. I was a little disappointed. I come from an art background. I got in there and learned it, but I was a little — I was looking forward to something far more accessible, something that could get me creating adventures much quicker.
Right from the start, we’ve talked and made sure that is the case, that you can get together at 7 on a Friday night with your friends for a session and you can start in the lobby at the same time as the players and be DMing right away. You don’t have to spend a week preparing for the adventure. You certainly don’t have to be writing any complex scripting.
Stewart: Another point, you remember months ago now, you guys came out and we set up stations here at Wizards. We let everybody at Wizards who wanted to come in and play, whether they worked on Magic or Duel Masters or D&D, whether or not they were a DM. People who knew D&D but were not big video game people, definitely not any kind of technical people, jumped on and were DMing and having fun in five minutes. The whole team here was so impressed at how cool it was to be a DM, but also how you could really DM on the fly without having to have all kinds of crazy knowledge from the outside world.
Tudge: It was interesting, because initially, when you volunteer — when you have a group you’re demoing with and you let them play, nobody volunteers to be DM. Almost every time, one of the dev team ends up DMing. There’s this immediate intimidation. DMing has to be really complex, right? It has to be a lot of work. But I don’t even think the first dungeon run is even done before everyone is fighting over who gets to DM.
That's awesome.  Look at how successful the Neverwinter Nights games were!  Their toolsets were incredibly powerful, but there's no question that they required a massive time commitment to produce something suitable for play.  NWN2, in particular, with its terrain editing system, required incredible commitment to produce even a small module, even after one had mastered the toolset and scripting language.  Module authors have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours producing content.  What they can do is amazing, but I definitely think there is a big market for something that is easier to use.

The game, so far, reminds me a lot of a blend between Neverwinter (the MMO), the Neverwinter Nights series, and the Baldur's Gate games.  Neverwinter has the ongoing content releases that mirror current storylines.  It also has the Forge, a simplified toolset that allows users to build adventures for other users.  But it's set in an MMO world, which doesn't appeal to everyone--myself certainly included.  Here, we have a game that takes those good ideas, but converts them into a modern, isometric, single or multiplayer experience.

So, we have TONS of promise.  This is exciting.  It's right up my alley, and exactly the kind of game that I could go gaga over for years.  If they execute and deliver on what they're talking about, I am going to be desperate to give them all of my money.

The question, of course, will be how well the entire package is executed.  I'll be watching this one closely...but I'm old and jaded enough that I will most likely be waiting for the first reviews to come in before I purchase it.

Update: More Links
Article on PCGamesn - Excellent preview that helps flesh out some of the basic principles behind the game, though doesn't get into the plan for the future.

Monday, March 2, 2015

True Story

My wife is traveling this week for work.  I talked her down to the garage with her suitcase, gave her a kiss, and waved goodbye.  When I got back upstairs, I was greeted by my five year old holding my Chessex mat.  "Can we play the Adventure Game*?" she asked, wide-eyed and excited.

Apparently, they remembered me saying that we could play while the wife is traveling.  We got about three hours in yesterday, and the girls finally reached level 3.  Having fun playing through the Mines of Phandelver.  Tonight we will hopefully have time to kick some Redbrand bottom!

* The Adventure Game (TAG) is our in-house name for Dungeons & Dragons.