Toldain Darkwater, Skyrim Edition

On Christmas Eve, someone on my Google+ stream mentioned that Skyrim was on sale for 33% off. (For the next 3 hours or something). I was lost at that moment.

The rest of my family had already been playing it on their gaming computers. Lobilya and Thing2 had been playing it since launch. (And swapping stories about it at shared mealtimes, too.) Thing1 spent her savings on an XBox360 and the game. Given she plays her XBox on the TV in the same room where my gaming computer is, I could hardly not stop and watch her while flying cross-country on Randolph the Reindeer in Vanguard doing the latest Unicorn Rescue.

So I was primed. It took most of the evening to download, which was fine, because Christmas Eve was otherwise taken up with presents and food and general celebration. At your left you see the PC version of Toldain Darkwater, Skyrim Edition. Unfortunately my fabulous red hair is covered by that hood. It’s cold, you see…

The game is achingly beautiful. For example, the lighting effects. That shot was taken at the top of the mountain on a cloudy, stormy day. The light is very white, and very dim. It’s different at other times and places. The walk up the 7000 steps made me very nostalgic for the backpacking trips I took as a teenager.

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One of my favorite novels by Roger Zelazny is Roadmarks. It describes a road that is a time travel mechanism, traveling along it moves one through time and space and there are exits at many interesting places in history. Chapters are labelled either One or Two. Here’s what Roger said about it:

“I did not decide until I was well into the book that since there was really two time-situations being dealt with (on-Road and off-Road—with off-Road being anywhen in history), I needed only two chapter headings, One and Two, to let the reader know where we are. And since the Twos were non-linear, anyway, I clipped each Two chapter into a discrete packet, stacked them and then shuffled them before reinserting them between the Ones. It shouldn’t have made any difference, though I wouldn’t have had the guts to try doing that without my experience with my other experimental books and the faith it had given me in the feelings I’d developed toward narrative.”

Bethesda is no newcomer to making Fantasy RPG games, and the world of their games has been developed over several titles. Skyrim’s full name is Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim after all.

Skyrim reminds me of Roadmarks for two reasons: First, it’s full of non-linear storytelling. There is a Main Plot, much like chapters labeled One in Roadmarks. But that is such a small, small part of what makes the game interesting and engaging. It’s not so much that there are a lot of side quests to choose from as there are entire lifestyles to choose between. You can develop and express your character by joining the Empire or the Rebels (they are called Stormcloaks). You can marry someone and set up a household (or many!)[EDIT: You can have many houses, not many spouses. You only get one of the latter, but it can be of whatever gender you wish.] You can aspire to political power, stay in an ivory tower or be a hermit, it would seem. You can aspire to be a master smith or enchanter. You can try to collect all the books in the game. There’s no reward for it particularly save for the satisfaction.

The other similarity with Roadmarks? Dragons. In the case of Skyrim, lots of them. I’m hoping to write another post about the battle I had with a Dragon this morning.

But this post is about the sandboxiness of Skyrim. After the initial stuff, which is pretty linear, I went over to a den of bandits to clear it out on behalf of the Jarl of Whiterun. When I finished it, I looked up at the mountain it was on and thought, “Hey, that sort of looks like a path up that mountain, I wonder if I can go up it.” I could.

I climbed to the absolute top of that mountain. On the way up, I ran across a Vigilant of Stendarr (The God of Mercy). He invited me to visit their lodge on the other side of the mountain. When I got near the top of the mountain, there was a little shrine there, with fires burning and offerings made. I’m not sure to whom. The peak was nearby. I climbed to the top of the rocky outcrop, just because it was there. Just below the outcrop was none other than Talsgar the Wanderer, a bard who likes to get out of the inn and have adventures, dammit! He had apparently just bested two bandits. On that mountaintop.

Continuing down the other side I found a temple to Mehrunes Dagon, which was locked. And well it should be, since, as I found out later (through reading in-game books!) that Dagon was at the center of the Oblivion Crisis (Elder Scrolls IV, I think), and must needs be safely locked away. I kept walking.

I visited the lodge of the Vigilants of Stendarr (The God of Mercy). Their slogan is “May Stendarr have Mercy on you, because the Vigil will not!” Yes, they’re crazy. But they were nice enough to me.

I kept walking. I fought a few creatures and ended up on the northern coast in Dawnstar. The Jarl there was Skald the Elder, but he acts like a child, and everyone says so. When they aren’t talking about the nightmares they are having. There was a priest of Mara there, and Toldain is a follower of the Goddess of Compassion, regardless of her name, so I helped him. We set things right at the Nightcaller Temple, but he had a habit of saying, “Oh, did I forget to mention…?” In the end, the nightmares were ended.

There are so many more adventures. Those all were Two. Eventually I got back to One.

When the Nintendo64 came out, it brought 3D graphics into everyone’s living room. Miyamoto Shigeru, in making Mario64 demonstrated that 3D meant a lot more than something looking nice. That game had a lot of non-linearity in it, along with a dose of “whatever works, works.” There were known solutions, but not prescribed ones.

Skyrim adheres to this and makes it so much bigger. Combat isn’t about memorizing a sequence of button pushes to get you through a game level. But it does have a fair bit of “fast-twitch” to it, more so than DDO. It’s definitely heir to FPS games. Aiming matters, unless you aren’t an aimer but a summoner or a basher. Then it doesn’t matter. Much.

I’m nowhere near an expert on this kind of game, I’ve focused mainly on MMO’s and economic sims. But it seems that the accomplishment of Bethesda on this game can be summed up in three maxims:

1. If you can see it, you can go there.
2. When you go there, there will be something to do.
3. If you can do it, it will work.

Most of my very considerable RPG experience has been with other people. My only wish is that I could do this, or something like this, with other people.

(UPDATE: “Morrowind” corrected to “Oblivion” Crisis in reference to Mehrunes Dagon, a very Lovecraftian name, by the way).

The Face is the Most Important Part

I just finished reading the best post ever about female plate armor, a topic of long-standing interest here. It’s written by someone who makes armor. No doubt for SCA. Via the most-worthy tumblr Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor.

Here’s a taste:

Any artist working with human subject matter will tell you that the face is the most important part of the character. A headshot by itself can tell you everything you need to know about who a person is and how they feel. Sex appeal can come entirely from a beautiful face, the body doesn’t need to be naked as well.

I argue that this:

is more appealing than this:

The bare chest and boob plate add nothing to the femininity, sexiness, or appeal of the character. Focus on the face for character appeal, let the armor be a reflection of the setting and her role within it.

Well, that’s kind of hyperbole to make a point. I wouldn’t say they add nothing. But the face and the eyes, as he says, rule.

And the red hair. I’m just saying…

So, the question I’m pondering is: If it doesn’t add anything, why do we keep doing it? Is it because the artists/medium in question can’t do the former?

In Praise of Pink Sneakers

Amina Mae Safi wrote a guest post at Geek Feminism Blog about having a Ladies D&D Night.

Last night, we had our first meeting. We began the processes of picking out our characters, and, obviously, learning much about one another in the process. We drank cheap wine, discussed who we’d take to the Yule Ball, made esoteric references to Tim the Enchanter, got excited about speaking Draconic and hacking shit up in dungeons, all while feeing free enough to admit excitement over planning our characters’ costumes and buying pretty dice.

No one derogatorily accused anyone of being “girly” the entire night, despite swooning over a couple notable nerd-girl heartthrobs (Han Solo, Sirus Black) or waxing nostalgic on old boy band crushes. It was the most comfortable I’d felt around a larger group of nerds in years. I was free to be a girl, in my own sense of the word, and free to be a nerd, in my own sense of the word as well. There were pumpkin Rice Crispy Treats and there was a suggestive drawing of Matt Smith on the walls.

What I’m trying to say, rather wordily, is that I felt actually a part of a community for the first time in my geeky life.

I love geek women. I’m married to one. She probably likes playing D&D more than I do. She doesn’t make Rice Crispy treats, and she isn’t all that fussy about clothing, either. She does, however, get excited about speaking Draconic, hacking shit up in dungeons, buying cool-looking (“pretty” doesn’t really enter her vocabulary) dice, and Sean Cassidy (We have to count him in the category of “boy bands” don’t we?). I think she leans to Han in preference to Sirius, she tends not to like facial hair. Although head hair of the fabulous red persuasion is quite to her liking. However, she’s taking ME to the Yule Ball, thank you very much.

For some reason, I associate geek women with pink sneakers. Not the really fashionable ones, but the big clunky ones that go up to your ankle. They are meant for srs bznss! If you are woman and a geek, and you don’t wear pink sneakers, I’m cool with that too. I’m sure there are lots of you, I’ve worked with many such women. Pink sneakers take something which seemed to denote a “boy”-hightop basketball shoes – and claimed it for girls, too. In my mind, it’s simultaneously a stupid, gross oversimplification, and a fun metaphor. And for the record, I don’t think Mrs Darkwater has ever worn pink sneakers, but I could be wrong on that.

I played one long tabletop campaign in the Call of Cthulhu system with four women, one of which was only there for part of the time. There were three other men playing, too, and the GM was male. We each had multiple characters, typically switching between them depending on which part of the plot we were advancing. One of the characters Mrs Darkwater played was male (we call that “gender bending”, it’s been part of my RP since the beginning.) Another woman also had one character who was male.

We once spent one entire run in Paris in 1926 while the women characters in the group stopped and shopped. The male characters represented the patient and the impatient. One of the women players had some books of fashions in that day, and we had a glorious time. The run ended with one character, the young actress, missing the train (The Orient Express, of course) and having to hire a motorcycle with a sidecar to catch up to it.

That run turned out to be one of the most memorable of the entire seven years the campaign ran, even though there were no cultists, aliens, or dark gods to be seen. Those would come later.

I would say that I don’t understand why any man would not want women at his RP gaming table, but I think I do know. At least, I think I can think of at least one reason.

To be a man is to have your masculinity always in question. People will be eager to tell you that you aren’t a “real man” and that they can show you how, for a small fee. Or if you will do their dirty work, that will make you manly, too.

This masculine insecurity drives men to find activities that signal that they are men, rather than “not a real man” (I don’t really think that “not a real man” is synonymous with “woman” by the way.). One of those activities might be Dungeons and Dragons. It’s happened that way for a lot of men, I think. They first played in their youth, when most activities were gender-segregated because of, “OMG COOTIES”.

That wasn’t what happened to me. I first played D&D in grad school, with a woman GM, and a group of male players that flipped a coin for each character to determine its gender. (At least one of those players, I found out later, was gay as well.)

We had a rocking good time. The GM had some romance subplots, but they weren’t front and center during the run. When we played women characters, we tried to make them as believable as we could, and we were probably about as successful as we were with the male characters.

But we had fun. For me, fun with D&D and later with MMORPG’s has always involved women. Sometimes, sexual feelings do come up, and I’d bet that that’s true for women, too, in most any mixed group. Sometimes.

But that wasn’t the point of our group, so that stuff didn’t get any oxygen during our sessions, out of respect for our group. (I know of several relationships that started over D&D or MMORPGs).

To me, its fun to have different viewpoints at the table, and the true joy of tabletop RPG is getting into a group head space. It’s like a great big canvas that the GM has sketched an outline on, and we’re all filling it in and embellishing it. And I mean that not just in terms of character, but in combat, too. Combat is character. (If you don’t know what I mean, try watching “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” again with this in mind.)

Sometimes, other players will bring in some twist that will take everyone’s breath away. You can almost think of it as a derail, but really, we embrace it as an embellishment. This requires a DM to be pretty flexible about plots, though.

And so, people who are different than you are become an asset. As long as there is accord on the basic social contract of the campaign, diversity adds to the enjoyment of the game, it doesn’t subtract.

So men, relax a little. Brace yourself to ignore the catcalls of “not a real man”. If anyone tries to shame your masculinity, give them the Braveheart treatment (shown above). Well, at least in your imagination. You’ll feel a lot better. They have an agenda, and it isn’t to your benefit, count on it. They are trying to drive you away from something that you love! If there are women at your table, DO NOT hit on them, not there, not during the session. That breaks the social contract of an rpg session, which is to focus on play. It will irritate everyone else. And don’t shame them for doing stuff that you wouldn’t do. There might be consequences, it’s true. Know that the consequences might make the story more interesting.

To women, I say “show up”. If you’re new to the game, listen and read. Ask questions. There’s a lot going on, and some of the advice you’ll get is really useful, others not so much. But feel free to play your character. Don’t worry about “being a woman”, be yourself, and know that it’s ok. A little mental Braveheart for you might be good, too.

What everyone needs to do is find some accord on the basic social contract of the game, and that goes for all groups, not just the mixed gender ones. The group needs a few ground rules about how the game is going to work, and logistics. A few such possible rules:

  • Explicitly say that you’re going to let players make mistakes and have failures. You can expect them to learn from these, but have a good time with it. Laugh when things go wrong. It makes a better story.
  • It’s probably best not to bring sexual material into the game unless you are really, REALLY sure that everyone’s ok with it. I mean REALLY sure. No, not that sure, even more sure than that.
  • Don’t allow unlimited cross-table advice during combat. We use a mechanic called “idea roll” which is INT based if someone wants to suggest a course of action. Or they can shout out something short ON THEIR TURN. Otherwise, they can shut up. Maybe the new girl (or guy!) has a dumb idea, but maybe it isn’t that dumb after all.

Finally any group needs a shared goal or focus that will pull the characters together. It might be rescuing kittens, it might be toppling evil overlords (Did I say “overlord”? I meant “protector”!), it might be pulling a heist. As long as everyone is on board with this, the group can tolerate an enormous amount of diversity. The way RPG’s usually work, as long as that stubbled-cheeked, cowboy-boots-wearing, mass-murdering psychopathic lunatic is helping you, they get a pass. Why shouldn’t the same go for the bubble-gum-chewing, pink-sneaker-wearing, fashion-conscious psychopathic lunatic?

D&D 4e Strikers: Math First

UPDATE: I initially did the calculations using the wrong figures for Sorcerer Chaos Bolt bounce damage. Both weapon pluses and the Sorcerer secondary attribute bonus are added to the bounces. In addition, the secondary attribute bonus gains +2 at paragon tier. This makes the Sorcerer stack up very, very well, though the Ranger and Avenger still beat it on the difficult targets.

In a bit of a departure, I’m going to talk about tabletop RPG, and I’m going to indulge my love of math and graphs and analytics. You have been warned.

Both Ameron and Sndwurks of Dungeon’s Master have claimed that the Avenger class is “broken”. Ameron wrote “Avenger – worst striker ever” last March. I thought comments to that post had pretty effectively rebutted the claim, until recently Sndwurks posted a redesign of the Avenger class.

We engage in redesign or tweaks of classes all the time, so I have no issue with that. By all means, people should not play classes they don’t like, and feel free to fiddle with them to get classes they do like.

But I have a problem with the idea that Avengers are “broken” – meaning that they don’t acheive the damage output that other striker classes, particularly the Rogue and the Ranger, do. I think this is mistaken. So, I made a spreadsheet and a bunch of graphs. (I told you this post was going to be geeky!)

This post is going to cover the math. In the graphs below, I look at damage output of Rogues, Rangers, Avengers, Barbarians, Warlocks and Sorcerers.

I present graphs of damage per Standard Action (DPS) versus the roll needed to hit the mob. I think that mostly pluses to hit even out between the classes. There may be a few exceptions to this, but they will be relatively easy to deal with after the fact.

Arcane classes don’t get the proficiency bonus to their attack modifier, but they generally attack defenses other than AC, which means that these effects tend to cancel each other out. It isn’t perfect, but that’s the assumption we’re going with. For now.

In the scenarios below, I’ve generally assumed no feats are chosen to that add damage. I think these feats generally even out between the classes, and their effect is usually pretty easy to incorporate. Ability modifiers are assumed to be 5 in heroic tier and 6 in Paragon tier. The Paragon tier graphs assume that characters have picked up another +2 to damage (other than magic weapons/implements) somewhere along the line.

All damage calculations are based on using the expected value of any die roll. So Rogues are assumed to use a Short Sword (1d6 = 3.5) plus 2d6 (=7), plus Ability modifier damage (5).

Barbarians and Avengers are modeled with Greatsword. Greataxe is arguably better, but the proficiency modifier is one smaller. That can be modeled as a tax of 5% of damage output, that makes Greataxe damage output equal to .95*(6.5+5)=10.95 versus Greatsword = 5.5+5 = 10.5. High crit makes it a little better still, but the effect is pretty small. Barbarians use Devastating Strike, which adds an additional 1d8(4.5) damage to every hit. Avengers use Oath of Enmity, which allows them to roll twice and use the better roll, including crits.

Warlocks use Eldritch Blast plus their Curse (1d10(5.5) + Ability(5)+1d6(3.5)).

Sorcerors use Chaos Bolt and add a second ability score. I assumed that the second ability modifier was equal to 3. I think such builds are possible. Chaos Bolt will bounce when an even number is rolled and attack a nearby target, dealing 1d6(3.5) damage on a hit, with a possibility of further bounces. No target may be hit more than once. This is (1/2 + 1/4 + …)*3.5 = 3.5, assuming there are enough targets. But there aren’t enough targets, so we’ll call the damage contribution from bounces 2, which is roughly equivalent to saying there’s an average of two extra targets.

For Rangers, we face two separate questions. First, should we use melee attacks, for which scimitar is the best one-handed (all Rangers dual wield, right?) or do we use longbow with its superior damage? Second, do we Twin Strike or not?

The math works out like this: let

W be weapon damage, including any magical plusses, etc. that would be counted on both damage rolls of a Twin Strike,

Ph be the probability of a hit,

A be the Abiility score modifier,

HQ be Hunters Quarry damage, and

MHQ be (1-Ph)*HQ.

For maximum damage output, Rangers should use Twin Strike instead of any other At-Will power (or Basic Ranged Attack) when W+MHQ is greater than A. That is if the weapon damage, plus the proportion of Hunter’s Quarry that you aren’t going to lose is bigger than the rangers Ability score modifier. Here’s a chart of MHQ and W+MHQ for Heroic and Paragon tiers.

As the caption says, rangers should pretty much always use Twin Strike. For a longbow, which is what’s shown, W+MHQ starts out at slightly over 5 and improves as targets become more difficult, because taking two shots gives you a greater chance of dealing HQ damage. At paragon tier, W+MHQ starts at 8, assuming only a +2 weapon. Do you think an ability score modifier is going to be 9 at paragon tier? I don’t. With a scimitar, W+MHQ starts at 4, not 5, so it might be the case that the easiest targets should be attacked with something else, but it’s not going to matter much.

The second issue is which weapon to choose for the Ranger, longbow or scimitar. (They’re going to be dual wielding, so scimitar is the clear melee choice.) Longbow has more base damage (1d10 vs 1d8) but scimitar is high crit, dealing 1d8 extra damage on a critical hit. Here’s the chart:

Longbow wins over Scimitar. Any pluses to damage apply equally to both weapons, typically. No particular Ranger can switch like this between weapons, because they use different ability scores. (Unless they have twin 16′s or something.) Both builds are fine builds to play. But for purposes of comparison with other striker classes we want to put the Ranger’s best foot forward, and that best foot is Twin Strike longbow.

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Ok, that’s all the preliminaries. Now for actual data. First with non-magical weapons, like you might be a first level.

There’s no real big winner, but the Ranger is at the top of the pack. The Avenger is below par for the easiest third of targets, but after that climbs to the top on the hardest targets. If you’re saying to yourself, “but those never come up”, I’ll address that later. This is just the data.

Soon characters get magic weapons. Magic weapons are modeled by adding 1 to damage, and an extra 1d6(3.5) of critical damage per magic plus. Just for fun, let’s look at some +2 magic weapons, appropriate for higher heroic tier.

The Twin Shot longbow Ranger has now emerged from the pack. This isn’t spelled out directly in the PH, but pluses to damage add to all damage rolls and since the attacks in Twin Strike are rolled separately, each damage is a damage roll. So they count twice.

The Avenger with Oath has caught up, being slightly behind only on those targets needing only a 2 to hit. Rolling twice means an Avenger is never actually missing these targets. Everyone else (except the Ranger) has those “I rolled a 1″ moments. Additionally, the Avenger, like the Ranger, is getting a lot more criticals. So the Avenger is at the top of the pack on the harder targets.

The Barbarian is the laggard. However, the extra damage die of the Barbarian is built-in, it does not depend on any circumstance or positioning. it does not have to be set up, it can’t be taken away by any normal means, so that’s probably an ok tradeoff.

The Ranger in one campaign I run has a Vicious longbow +2. Vicious weapons deal an extra 1d12(6.5) per plus on a critical hit, rather than 1d6. So let’s model that.

This doesn’t change things much relative to each other, other than boosting the Ranger and the Avenger, who make two rolls per standard action, doubling the chance of a critical hit.

Let’s look now at paragon tier. I assume that key ability scores are now providing +6 to damage, and that the Sorcerer has boosted his secondary as well, giving him +10. I also add another +2 to damage for things like Weapon Focus and damage type specialization. Sneak Attack does 3d6(10.5), Hunters Quarry and Curse do 2d6(7). Devastating Strike add now 2d8(9) damage. Can the Avenger keep up?

Yes, it can. The Ranger continues to excel, but the Avenger is right there in the pack on the easiest target, and matches the Ranger on the difficult targets. The big surprise for this tier is the Barbarian. Because he gets extra damage in d8′s instead of d6′s, it starts to tell.

We haven’t discussed either the effect of tactics and cooperation, or the difficulty of enemies. That will have to wait for another post. Looking at these graphs, I’d have to say the Avenger is working as intended, and not broken at all. If anything is broken, it’s the Twin Striking Ranger.

That’s all for now.