Thursday, March 14, 2013

SA 2.0 Dev Blog #11: Blood Oath

This is What I'm Not Writing About

  I had originally started writing a post about the powers used to kill people dead. Unfortunately there's some discussion we're still having around certain powers that need to be resolved before that post can be completed. Specifically we're working with the concepts surrounding Element 1, 2, and 3 in the game. Currently the replacing nature of element attacks makes element 3 superior in almost every way to element 1 and element 2. (As a shifter I prefer element 2 simply because of the lack of solid level 2 powers available compared to level 3 powers).
  Really, no character benefits from having both element 1 and element 3. Also, the choice nature of element is horribly uncannon. I rarely see element used for anything but fire even though the specific gift or power that the power represents if often times specifically another element. For Black Furies it represents Wasp Talons, for Corax it's Hummingbird's Dart. Also powers that should specifically have elemental restrictions (such as something from Rego Aquam or Creo Ignam which under the current system allow people to go Darth Vader on someone) don't really have rules to restrict them making any restriction a significant nerf rather than something that helps define flavor of an attack.
  In attempting to balance this out we want to split out attacks that generally do Agg (fire), attacks that always do Agg (A new <type> of damage called Agg), attacks that do agg to a specific faction (silver, sunlight, stygian steel), and attacks that don't generally do agg to anyone (water, stone). I'll say that balancing this with the new energy limitations has been a significant challenge and we're not there yet. But that's not what I'm here to tell you about. I'm here to talk about blood oath.

One of the Weirdest Rules at SA

  The current blood oath rules represent one of the weirdest and most awkward rules in all of SA. I'm specifically talking about the 5 blood is too much rule. Now this rule has a lot of history as to how it came into being. There's much of that history I don't even know. But currently 5 blood in one sitting creates a blood oath that lasts for 24 hours. This means that vampires will routinely share 4 blood (also blood vials are 4 blood) and then stop specifically to avoid getting oathed. This represents a number of problems from a canon perspective. In canon a blood oath is formed by drinking a single point of blood from a single vampire on three different occasions. Then bam, you're oathed. Drinking from another vampire at all is considered very dangerous and is often times used as a punishment.
  Additionally the regular sentence for blood oath is 1 year to life, in SA 24 hours is the timeline. Looking at the rules for blood oath this makes sense. It's a relatively easy thing to get out of if you don't want to be bound because it basically makes you the total slave of your regent. Blood Oaths can very easily strip away the playability of a character turning you into an unwilling butler. Because of this the 24 hour timer makes sense for the current rules set but the current rules set doesn't do a great job matching canon.

The Problem with Canon

  One of the issues that you encounter using canon as a base line is that canon isn't really designed for LARPs. Where it has been converted to Minds Eye Theater it's designed for a slower pace, rock-paper-scissor's LARP where everyone can pull out their character sheet. So there's a number of things that are just plain difficult to do in a LARP setting. One of which is to take OOG notes. While teaching allows for a somewhat sensible pause to find a pen and write down what is being taught, blood oaths don't always offer the same flexibility. If we tried to move to a 3 sip total system (or 3 sips within a year) someone would need to track this. I've seen notable issues at LARPs where people were arguing about if this was drink two or three, when the last one was and if it still counted. One thing we don't have much of in SA is across game tracking. There's a couple of questions about taint, what you were taught, some stuff like that. But nothing as stat intensive as tracking one drink from Cecily, two from Morosa, two from Brennis, one from... you get the point.
  In the end if we wanted a more canon system we'd need to keep it manageable for players. Also the length is another issue. While a year in a tabletop game is fine, it feels excessive in a LARP. Especially considering that in a tabletop game you can leave, go to France and meet fine and interesting people there. In a LARP you can go to Durham but what happens in Durham, stays in Durham. Finally, if we wanted it to be more canon it needed to be more adoration less slavery. The do every command the person wishes is a bit overboard. You should want to please them, but becoming under a long term "Obedience: Do as I say" isn't generally the best form of character development. This doesn't mean that the teeth need to be kicked out of a blood oath but some toning down and ramping up seemed in order.

One Event

  Time periods in SA exist in a number of exponentially increasing increments. Most all aspects of the game fall into one of the following time periods: Immediately, 10 seconds, 1 minute, 10 minutes, 1 hour, at sunrise/sunset, or one event. There's some slight variation on length as some powers may last until sunrise or sunset or until the end of an event. But generally speaking these are the timeframes the game is based around. (As a side note a power tends to last for anywhere from half to double of it's stated duration on average considering counting speeds). I'd like to note that 24 hours isn't really one of these timeframes. It exists currently in the single case of Blood Oaths but once you reach this kind of duration it is better to revert to something that is more clearly delineated. For length of a blood oath the duration of these that makes the most sense is in the event magnitude. But tracking 6 events (one year) becomes a significant difficulty, especially since the question of alternate characters and missing games makes it a murky question.
  In the end the best way to handle this in a way that players can track without difficulty is to make a blood oath last for an event. But the possibility of ongoing blood oaths needs to be real to give them a strong canon feel. So rather than focusing on the duration of the oath, we made a rule that focused on the way to get rid of it. An blood oath lasts until a thrall has been played for a full event without consuming any blood of their regent. This gives ample opportunity for the oath to be upkept while preventing it from simply being dodged by playing other characters. It does mean that if an oathed character attends an event and their regent doesn't they can become free of their bondage. In a LARP setting this seems fair for the characters on both sides of the oath.

Three Drinks?

  The three drinks rule from canon is a real problem especially at a LARP. With an endless time frame it works fine but I've already discussed how this becomes a problem. When we look at time frames the only real one we have to work with is one event or sunrise/sunset. Trying to remember if you drank at the last event or not is too problematic to include. If we're going to cut down the time, in order to make blood oaths remain viable we'd also need to cut down the drink requirements. The problems with one drink have been apparent, especially if we're moving to a sip system. However, two drinks is a manageable number within a single event.
  Canon would dictate that these would need to be on different nights (resetting at sunrise, or sunset). One option was to have the "day" reset at both sunrise and sunset to open up the number of opportunities for creating a blood oath. The concern with this was that it would make oathing an NPC virtually impossible. The majority of NPCs see a couple of hours in game per event. Our game doesn't make following them home, going to their house and finishing the oath after sunset an option. If oathing an NPC was to be a functional possibility it would need to have a shorter gap between drinks than any measure of days.
  This brought us to our other time period options. With the number set at two drinks, immediately felt way too short. You could just grab someone and feed them once, stop and feed them again. This lacked some of the planning, plotting, RP and scheming that should be involved in bonding a target. 10 seconds and 1 minute faced the same problems as immediately. 10 minutes or 1 hour seemed to be closer to the right number to place as a gap between drinks in order to form a bond. With several NPCs staying IG for not much more than an hour it could make it incredibly difficult for someone to catch an NPC before they head off if you had to wait an hour. This left 10 minutes as the most reasonable time frame. It's enough time that if you're using force to create the bond you could have killed the person anyway and it is short enough that you probably don't need to watch the clock to have another chance to pull off the oath. Most importantly, it's long enough to require a good scheme as to how you'll pull it off.

  Final decision: 2 drinks within the same event, but not within 10 minutes of each other.

But What Does it Do?

  Considering that we had added steps back into the oathing process we could have steps of oath mean something. This means that one drink brings up that feeling of affection and interest (possibly making the final step easier to pull off). It brings the canon back to the power of a vampire's blood drawing you towards them.
  We also moved more canon with the power that the oath holds over you. No longer do you obey every command, you simply can't break powers with willpower that your regent uses on you. So you can get dominated around like a slave, but it's costing the regent energy to do so.

All of the following effects apply to a Thrall:

    Thralls always see their regent in the best light possible. Any negative characteristics are overlooked, and the best of intentions are always assumed.  The thrall has a very deep affection and respect for the regent that may or may not manifest as romantic love.
    Thralls may not use willpower to break from any power used by the regent.
    A thrall will never willingly harm their regent. This means the thrall will not attack the regent, and will make every effort to ensure that the regent does not come to harm. If a thrall thinks that staying close to a regent and fawning over them would be dangerous for the regent, they will keep their distance, and so on.
    A thrall will do everything within their power to protect their regent. This includes defending them from attacks, lying for them, and volunteering any information they think will help protect their regent.
    If a thrall comes under the effect of a power that forces them to act in a fashion contrary to the oath, the power takes priority over the oath.
    When the oath expires, the former thrall still sees their former regent in a positive light, and assumes that all emotions and actions they performed were of their own free will. It requires a great deal of evidence for a former thrall to see their actions as anything other than their own choice. The change in view from thrall to former thrall is seen as natural, as if the former thrall’s infatuation with their former regent had simply faded.

As you can see these rules are still very favorable for creating thralls and the increased duration makes it a very nice thing to have. But it gives the thrall a bit more flexibility as to how a thrall will play his character. Overall we like this approach because it's more canon, more fun, and doesn't require that weird 4 is fine but 5 is bad thing that is currently floating around at game.

Monday, March 11, 2013

DRM: We brought this on ourselves

  The recent release of SimCity points to the final determination of the next era in video game releases. While Diablo 3's "always online" approach frustrated some people with the requirement of handing over control of your game to Blizzard, the Diablo franchise has a long history of online play with Battle.Net. Along with other Blizzard titles, the intention of the game was designed as a multiplayer experience, with a single player option. While Diablo 3 requiring connection to Blizzard to play isn't exactly what we wanted, we can accept that in some ways it does make sense.

  Not so with SimCity. The 2013 release of SimCity is the first in a long franchise of Sim games with any kind of online or even multiplayer experience. Sure, Sim's Online came around, but one MMO does not an online franchise make, (see Final Fantasy as an example).  Even though back in 2003 with SimCity 4 people begged for the ability to make the game multiplayer with competing or cooperating cities working in tandem, SimCity was always a single player experience. For me Sim games were always the strange past time I'd slip into in hotel rooms or on airplanes. When you're stuck somewhere wasting time you can still get a feeling of accomplishment from increasing your population, earning a few thousand simoleans, or taking a look at an old course you built in SimGolf.

  But the new SimCity follows Diablo 3 in making a game with a notable single player experience and taking it all online. Even before the arrival of the connection issues that have plagued the game in the first week since launch the interwebs have been furious with this approach to Digital Rights Management by Electronic Arts. In late 2012 when news of the "always online" setting of SimCity was announced, city builders were crying foul. Not surprisingly all of the pleading with SimCity 4 for a multiplayer experience was quickly forgotten as this new deal with the devil emerged. We wanted multiplayer, but not corporate control.

  In the end, SimCity has released with an "always online" system and has been plagued with connection issues during it's first week of release. While this is an endless frustration for single player gamers it comes as no surprise to MMO gamers who have a long experience of unstable launches, even for solid games due to connection and stability issues. With this the big question is "What does the multiplayer option bring to the game?"

  So far the answer is not much. You can sort of work with people in your region and share some resources and services. You can get fire helicopters that will fly to other cities when there's a fire. You can play in a region with your friends and visit their city (a cool little limo shows up in their city with your name on it). There's also the ability to sell certain resources and power to the global market in an expanded way from SimCity 4. But these are pretty trivial changes especially considering that the cities in the same region don't back up against one another like they did in SimCity 4. All this points to the real reason for an "always online" release, DRM.

Digital Rights Management

  In the gaming world digital rights management (DRM) is generally considered the symbol of evil corporate overlords squeezing every last penny out of consumers. Really it's a bit more simple than that. From a corporate perspective with regard to games DRM manifests as a method in which the company hosts servers on which the game is played. This sort of environment is no surprise for MMOs in which the servers provide for the shared experience and provide a level playing field between gamers. It's kind of like the bowling alley keeping your scores and handicap on record so you can't set up a bunch of plastic pins in your bathroom and bowl a 300 game. This isn't the only kind of DRM that exists, but so far it's the only kind that gamers have previously encounter regularly. For most MMOs you end up paying a monthly fee, or under the free to play model you get limited access unless you pay a monthly fee. Though some games have broken out of the subscription or micro-transaction model, like Guild Wars, the online and multiplayer aspect of these games justifies the need to use the companies servers.

  With SimCity it doesn't seem necessary as everyone is primarily looking for a quality single player experience. The addition of multiplayer "features" that don't add substantially to game play means that from a players perspective the online experience is more likely to be a negative one, than a positive one. This is significantly compounded by the connection issues people have been suffering through in the first week of the game's release.

  So why would EA do this? The answer is simple, piracy. The Sim games are among the most commonly pirated games for the longest period of time. The 2003 release of SimCity 4 is still easily available, as is SimCity 3000 and 2000. Even some of the remakes of SimCity classic can be found online. The replayability of these games encourages people to look them back up five years later to play around some more. The sheer number of Sim games that our generation has played but never bought is staggering. In the end, we've brought the DRM model on ourselves.

Copy Protection

  While DRM is a dirty word in most consumer circles, copy protection has a long history with SimCity. I remember the original Macintosh SimCity which came with a two page dark red document with city names and small icons you had to match up and enter in the code in order to play the game. If you lost the red paper, you couldn't play the game. The paper was specifically designed to be unphotocopyable (we tried, even in color) and long enough to dissuade copying by hand. Other early games had you type in the 8th word on the 43rd page of the rule book when you started the game. No rulebook, no game. More recent releases moved to the "CD in" model in which you had to have the CD in your computer in order to play the game.

  All of these methods of copy protection have been defeated by video game pirates who have cracked the code of the game to allow it to run without a CD or have used virtual drives to tell the computer that they have the CD when really they don't. There are websites with the old table from the original SimCity and the manuals of old have been scanned and made available for all to see. The only set of games that haven't been able to be cracked are the always on MMO style games. In a age of game downloads rather than purchased boxed sets, using account management inherent in the game purchasing software just makes sense. If the company controls the system, they can verify one account logged in per purchased game, and no one can steal it.

  There are tons of other issues that come with server base games. Servers go down, they're unplayable in a internet dead zone, and most importantly, at some point the company will stop providing the service as the game is no longer profitable for them. No longer do you own a game. You've more bought a lifetime subscription card at the local batting cage which will last until the ownership changes, the place closes down, or the machines get upgraded to no longer accept the old cards. These are the issues being raised by gamers worldwide about the new SimCity release. But in the end, we've made it in a companies best interest to have complete control of their game. It can't be stolen, loaned to a friend, installed on multiple home computers, and, eventually, it can be taken out of service forcing you to purchase a newer version of the game.

  As gamers we hate that it has come to this, but really this is a problem that our generation has cultivated and exploited for too many years. While SimCity's rocky launch points to all the problems with this system, I don't think we're going to see it going away any time soon. The answers we're hearing from Maxis and EA are more servers and solving stability problems not moving to offline play. In the future we'll see more server stability at launches, but not more offline games. DRM is the future that we've made for ourselves by twenty years of playing too many free games, working around copy protection, and filesharing. It's time we own up to it and admit that if we want to play big title games in the future, we're going to have to play them on company terms and corporate servers.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

SA 2.0 Dev Blog #10: Status Attacks

  Dealing with status attacks has actually been one of the most difficult aspects of the new rules set. Status attacks are sort of a weird in between in the game. They're attacks that like damage effects are targeted at the body, but work more like mental attacks as far as how they cause the player to react. The hybrid combination of effect and target really places them in the middle of nowhere as far as the rules go.


  Resisting status is done with Resilience, which for 2 energy you can resist the attack in whole. This makes resilience not only a great power, but a must have power. Being hit with paralyze is an assured way to drop any target without resilience. There's a couple ways to become immune to status attacks such as form of war and form of vapor, and you can also pick up an additional resist with the merit Hardy. Even if you do have one of these, you probably still need resilience to avoid getting chumped.


  The problem we found was both that Resilience was too good, and status attacks were too good. Not having Resilience was basically a death sentence. Having resilience basically made all status attacks useless. This led to people either ignoring status as an attack method all together or making a single status attack to see if their opponent had a defense and then being disappointed with the result. If it was resisted, status was ignored and people moved on. If it stuck, they probably won the fight.
  Another problem was with the tiered nature of status attacks. For the most part it made no sense to use any other attack than paralyze if you had it because it basically equated a win in a fight. Other status attacks simply didn't measure up. This meant that they didn't have utility, they simply had superiority by getting the best power and ignoring the rest.

Trials and Tribulations

  I want to give some idea of the number of different things we tried for status resist to give a picture of the experience we went through. We tried lots of stuff.

1. Resist with health - We tried what it looked like if you resist status by paying 1 health.
  The thought here was that we could differentiate it from damage and mentals by making the pool it drains from separate. Unfortunately, this didn't work. It did make people more likely to take low level mental attacks but it was still an auto resist for paralyze. Basically status attacks ended up just being throwing a packet for 1, which wasn't much fun for either side.

2. Break with Resilience - We tried to see what it would look like if you broke a status for 2 energy much like our current rules for breaking a mental.
  The though was that people would at least take the effects initially then break out once it really mattered. In reality, every status got broken all the time. Status became less useful than it currently is because everyone could afford to break it and it really didn't feel right for status.

3. Free resist for people without resilience - The idea here was to make it so people could pay a lot (5 health) to resist a status attack without needing a power.
  This was also pretty lame. It did succeed in giving people without resilience an out but it didn't feel good for either side. Both the attackers and defenders were nonplused by this scenario.

4. Free status attacks - We added some status attacks that didn't cost energy.
  This worked surprisingly well. Having some weak, level one status attacks that didn't cost energy helped make the auto resist mantra die out. If someone can just pepper you repeatedly with a status attack, you're likely to stop and take it rather than fighting against it. It still makes Paralyze an auto resist but it does help the spread of powers where there's times you'd throw the freebie rather than spending the energy on big attacks.

5. Side effect on resist - We looked at having resilience ding you somehow.
  The big question here was how. I creasing the cost was one way to add more ding, but that's not really helpful. We found -1 damage to actually be a decent counterbalance to resisting. It made aggressors weakened even if they were able to resist status attacks. It also made the new avoidance rules slightly more powerful as an attacker that was swinging 2 could be dropped to 1 with a status attack. That significantly decreases the damage they're capable of putting out.

Combined Approach

  In the end combining 4 and 5 seemed workable. Having variable cost powers means that people can push in with status attacks and still see some results even if their attack is resisted. What it ended up doing was making it so that if you have a status attack it is definitely worth throwing one at a target in combat. If they resisted you still got some bang for your buck. We basically made it so that if you use resilience you take a status effect that decreases your attack damage by one. We also made this a free status attack replacing wither.

WITHER (Status)
Cost: None
Call: “Wither”
The target's maximum damage with boffer attacks is reduced by one.  Umbrabound creatures in the umbra may use this power across the Gauntlet by saying “Breach” before the sig call.

  However, we still had the problem with some of the bigger status attacks. Paralyze was an auto resist but it left the downside, but we had just made tossing the first status attack into combat more worthwhile. If you didn't have resilience, you were more likely to be chumped. This meant we had to tone down some of the bigger status attacks so that they weren't an immediate win/lose power. Instead we wanted to make them powers to control the flow of the fight, not simply dominate it. The big powers that needed to be clarified were Paralyze, Body Wrack, and Venom Blood. We wanted these to impose significant restrictions, but not be an auto-win for a fight. Because even if your opponent resists the attack, you're still getting some effect.
  Pay some special attention to how each of these powers works and think about when you'd use each one. There's some very subtle changes that makes each of these powers very unique.

Cost: 1 energy
Call: “Body wrack”
The target must take a knee while screaming out in pain. The target may not make status, mental, touch, counted touch, or packet damage attacks.  Umbrabound creatures in the umbra may use this power across the Gauntlet by saying “Breach” before the sig call.

Cost: 1 Energy
Call: “Paralyze”
The target is held in total paralysis unable to do anything other than regenerate. This power ends immediately if the target is attacked or damaged.

VENOM (Status)
Cost: 1 energy
Call: “Venom”
The target must roleplay being ill and may not make any attacks.

DISABLE (Status)
Cost: 2 energy
Call: “Disable”
For the duration of this power the target may not expend energy for any reason.

Now for the teacher part in me. I'm curious to see how people are putting all of the rules we've shown so far together. You'll notice we increased the cost of disable to two energy. There's a very specific reason we did this based on previous posts. Can anyone tell me why?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Understanding Literacy in the Digital World

  The recent NCCE conference was full of experienced computer professionals. Much like a college library, it was full of students bustling about sharing their favorite texts, discussing their recent readings, and people searching for answers to difficult questions. Access to the riches of a library is generally reserved for those who are able to read. Much the same could be said about the riches of the internet and digital literacy. George Couros’ Keynote address focused on the very concept of digital literacy and how to spread it throughout a school community.

  The keynote address brought together a number of ideas that I had been working through in my own mind with a very clear and succinct thesis. Digital literacy much like reading literacy, must be taught in a literate culture. Just as we expect teachers to model effective literacy techniques to budding readers, we must expect teachers to display effective digital literacy techniques to students if we expect them to grow up as digitally literate individuals. This poses a significant challenge as a number of students already seem ahead of their teachers as soon as a technological device is placed on the table.

  The focus of this struggle is that students already exist in many domains that many teachers have not yet ventured into. Communications such as texting, facebook, and twitter are a mainstay of student interaction that vast numbers of educational staff avoid. The cause of their aversion is that they are not fully digitally literate. Digital literacy in today’s world is far more than being able to operate a computer and perform its basic functions. Digital literacy must include not only how to read and write, but also how find the book and where to place the writing.

  One aspect of literacy that is not taught very frequently is the aspect of publishing your work. Publishing feels like some distant process that only writers do and it is long and difficult. Most commonly, students feel that their work isn’t good enough to be published. However, the digital realm is heavily predicated on people publishing their work. Work in this case can range from something as simple as a 144 character tweet, to a paragraph facebook post, to a blog post, to an entire ebook or website. While our conventional systems for teaching reading and writing are sufficient, only sharing student work with their teacher is a digitally illiterate act.

  What the keynote address made me realize is that the online portfolio concept that my school is using only addresses a small part of the need of students to become digitally literate. In the current model students in their junior and senior year gather and produce a website that represents some of their best work. They then give commentary on the work they’ve done. While this is fantastic that students are sharing their work with the world, starting at 11th grade is far too late. Student websites should be started in elementary school where students can share and store the totality of their school work. They should be constantly building and refining the website as a method of sharing their work with the world. Only through constant interaction with the internet can we hope for students to learn to be truly digitally literate. In order for this to happen, teachers should be doing the same with their work.