Archive for the ‘ Game Writing ’ Category

Monsters for every season

Recently, I stumbled upon an amazing creature collection on Deviant Art.

It turns out that the artist, Nicholas Cloister, is launching a new service that will supply you with monsters at rock-bottom prices.

But who needs monsters?

Well, everyone! From dungeon masters to RPG publishers, from ebook writers to game developers (like myself).

The monsters are excellent not just at the concept level but are also very detailed and well-drawn. All are supplied at print resolution (7000x7000px!) and come with descriptions and even with sample encounters.

Agi Septhoron


Hurry up and sign up quickly because the first 1000 members will be getting the monsters for free, when 2000 members are reached.


Sources of Inspiration, part I

When it comes to fantasy unit design, I find three constant sources of inspiration:

  1. Historic – that is the most obvious and often works flawlessly. Make your choice from Varangians to Teutons to Tartars. The big downside is avoiding cliches and meeting the player expectations. For example, making Teutons to be light-armored archers will surprise your players a lot!
  2. Word combos – sometimes a cool word combo will trigger associations for a unit design. Most often, I’ll keep the coolness for the name itself and the description will twist it a bit around. For example, the Gutrippers are one of Riftforge’s elite assassin battalions. However, the description states that they started as kitchen help before moving on to active duty (but the nickname remained).
  3. Music – for a long time, I’ve only focused on cool names and here rock and heavy metal come in handy. From the Ironmaidens to the Blackhearts (Joan Jett’s band) to Harvesters of Sorrow. Unfortunately, I have a problem with all of these – they are too literal, so the direct association breaks the immersion.

So music is relegated to inspiration about LOOKS!

Yes, punk rock becomes tribal, black leather becomes cultist/savages, and disco… Well, I’m still processing disco but it’s hard to top disco when it comes to flamboyancy, so it shouldn’t be hard to place it with a highly-individualistic race.

Exercise One: Here’s an over-the-top punk-rock-new-wave band from the 80s, see if you can find a place for it in your game design.

Now tell me you’ve already thought about putting a ripped pantyhose on the face of a character. No? Well, now you know it looks great. For the record, I first heard Sigue Sigue Sputnik in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, so sometimes it takes 20+ years of movie watching experience to pull off a single unit.

Temple of Gameplay Evil

As a big fan of tactical RPGs, I often browse GOG for old games that have stood the test of time.

I have re-played Icewind Dale a few times through the years but I wanted something a bit different, yet D&D. So I reviewed the comments and found that at with the Christmas promotion, you can get The Temple of Elemental Evil for just $2.99.

I quickly realized that I have completely forgotten how unforgiving the D&D system is. My observations (rant) in bullet-format:

  • Missing – I am level 4 and I still miss a lot. I have missed continuously for four rounds of combat where all my 5 characters attacking a single enemy
  • Damage – your enemies miss a lot as well but when you get hit, you can be killed instantly (at low levels) with damage exceeding HP of the wizard well into levels 4+.
  • Prior knowledge – the game is designed around a lot of saving and loading. When I exited the first dungeon, I was half dead. I was greeted by 13 fresh new opponents!
  • No retreat – there is no way to retreat from a battle, so you have to know in advance what enemy you’ll be facing. There’s also no room for a lot of missing or high damage (see 1&2)

The game is extremely hardcore and I like that. At the same time, I feel that the D&D combat system creates a whole host of issues (above). The way to address the unpredictability of the results is to tweak the hit chance, the weapon damage and the hit points. It’s so basic, yet D&D continues to rely on arcane D20 concepts that produce extremely erratic results when samples are small.

These quirks force you to save and reload often (thank God for quicksave and load), which diminishes any sense of accomplishment. It also justifies you to abuse the AI any way you can find, from sleep to entanglement, to shooting through a door that’s too small to fit the ogre in the other room.

Apart from combat itself, the other major issue is the flexibility of the class system. As someone who haven’t played a D&D game in 10 years, I had to follow a step-by-step guide in order to generate a working “party”. It is extremely easy to gimp your characters with your stats in a way that is irreversible. The other reason to follow a guide is the added element of “surprise” when you realize you have leveled up pickpocket and there’s no one in this game worth pickpocketing!

In short, it front-loads 90% of class decisions. I know WotC have tried to address this by adding flexibility with all the multiclassing options. However, multi-classing quickly veers into gimping territory as there are only a few viable archetypes.

Balancing rock-paper-scissors

Despite what “academic” game designers say, rock-paper-scissors is a valid approach to balancing classes. When done right, it is highly intuitive (though I never felt that paper beating rock makes sense conceptually).

Case in point: we have assassin units in Riftforge. Based on WoW and many other RPGs, people who play assassins expect that:

  • They can beat any ranged class, IF they get to them stealthed; at the same time, they will be killed, if said ranger spots them from afar<
  • Tanky warriors should be attacked from behind, when engaged with someone else (or at half health)

Which means that the rock-paper-scissors model that any designer working on an RPG has to be aware of is assassins > rangers > tanks > assassins. Deviations will need to be explained over and over. Use a tutorial, different artwork, or specialized unit names.

Let’s examine Zynga’s new game – Empires and Allies. The game offers combat and it is 100% based on a rock-paper-scissors model.

Zynga: Fighters beware, bombers at 2 o'clock!

Navy: Battleship beats Gunboat (Submarine), which beats Carrier, which beats Battleship.
This rock-paper-scissors wheel is spun in the right direction. When in doubt, I always start with the strongest, most-recognizable relationship. In this case, it’s Carrier beats Battleship. It has been proven historically (no new battleships since the 50s) as well as by such examples as Pearl Harbor. Submarine beating Carrier is definitely something that can happen, which is why carriers always travel with a Carrier Group, i.e. heavy escort.

Army: Infantry beats Artillery, which beats Tank, which beats Infantry.
This one isn’t as good as the navy one. The problem is with artillery beating tanks. Historically, this relationship runs counter to everything from the Charge of the Light Brigade to Desert Storm. There was a period during WWII when anti-tank cannons were viable but they disappeared soon after.

The way to solve this is to emphasize that this is howitzer type artillery (as the artwork indicates) and start with mortars (instead of cannons), upgradeable to Howitzers and so on. They beat Infantry (very intuitive) and get slaughtered by Tanks (equally intuitive). The infantry is already armed with bazookas, so minimal art changes are required.

Airforce: Bomber beats Fighter(!), which beats Airship, which beats Bomber.
Now this one is simply ridiculous. Yes, there is one historical exception: the Flying Fortresses during WWII have downed hundreds of Axis fighters, though many more were downed by the fighter escort.

However, modern bombers like B52 (Cold War legacy) and B2 (ultra-modern) in practice lack any anti-aircraft weaponry. The attack animation of the Bomber (just bombs) doesn’t help either. I doubt there’s even a single case of a bomb hitting an enemy fighter (in flight).

The solution again will require the wheel to be spun in other direction as Fighter beats Bomber is definitely the most recognizable relationship. Attack helicopters like AH64 can kill fighters with a missile (Sidewinder). The only strenuous relationship would remain between bombers and airships. I guess the easiest way to reduce the cognitive dissonance would be to redo the airship artwork and include an alternative attack animation for bombers (rockets).

Kindle RPGs

Have you “played” any of those fantasy RPG books back in the day? I know I did my fair share of them.

Thanks to Bat in the Attic, I discovered a new way to enjoy Fighting Fantasy books – on Kindle!

Kindle will roll the dice, manage your character sheet, etc. It is combining the ease of use of a computer RPG with the traditional book format.

Recommended book for $4? Get The Warlock of Firetop Mountain! It comes with the original B&W artwork so it’s a little art gem too.

Writing unit descriptions

I am a bit sick of all the high/epic fantasy descriptions.

It’s OK when it comes to dungeons or areas but when it comes to units or skill descriptions, it gets ridiculous. I don’t need an epic description for a fireball, I have been playing AD&D since 1992.

So we took a bit of a different turn for the unit descriptions in Riftforge. The title is “epic”, typical fantasy fair.

However, when it comes to the description itself, we take the title and try to have fun with it. It will be only a few fans that read the description anyway, so it pays to reward them.

Exhibit A: Gutrippers (veteran raiders)

A rather unlikely candidate for an elite assassination battalion, these women started out as kitchen help in the Raider barracks. Their unusual enthusiasm for blood and guts, however, quickly ensured that they were moved to active duty.

Exhibit B: Firesmiths (veteran rangers)

One might think that singed hair and eyebrows are part of the uniform of this particular unit. Admittedly, some firesmiths have gone the extra mile and shaved their heads clean. In their minds, there’s nothing worse than your hair catching fire at the wrong moment. Except maybe losing one’s eyebrow pencil.

Exhibit C: Silverlight (veteran guardians)

These elite chargers are assigned to the Sisterhood to act as protectors. They are the Riftforge’s only real “knights in shining armor”. The adverse weather conditions on Manirak, however, have put quite a strain on keeping the metal armor in its immaculate condition.

The other elite troopers say that if the Silverlight spent any more time cleaning and polishing, they should be moved to the Sisterhood’s maid quarters.

Everybody hates healers

I just stumbled across this post form Ghostcrawler, who’s got the unthankful job to explain to the WoW healers why Blizzard hates healers.

Now, before you get into his 2-page post and the 600+ comments below it, let’s make one thing very clear: Everybody hates Healers! Even healer hate healers, judging by the comments.

The reason is quite simple: healing was never meant to be a player activity. The fun factor simply isn’t there. Yes, you had MediPacks in Doom and a good player needed only a few, while bad players couldn’t pass the level because they always got hurt more that the MediPacks could heal. Similarly in Diablo 2, a bad player had to go through two dozen full rejuvenation potions in order to kill Diablo.

Healers became part of the MMO triad (tank-healer-nuker) because game designers decided that the way to create a challenge for a 20-person raid was to bump up the boss’ hit points to a bajillion. Even if the boss hit for 1HP, it took 30 minutes to kill him, so the tank needed a lot of healing. In practical terms, someone had to push the heal button every once in a while alt-tabbing to watch Starcraft replays on Youtube.

The solution is radical but simple: Remove the healer PC and substitute it with a NPC (i.e. a real heal-bot). Make it upgradeable, so it keeps up in level and that’s it. Most people (I know) have put those conveyer jobs of the industrial age behind them, no need to re-apply for the Healer position. At least, that’s how it is at Riftforge.

P.S. To make matters worse, most healers are females played by males. So there, they are no single women either.