Black Box Bosses

Your players have finally confronted a boss in your campaign and one of two things happen: The battle is over so fast that the party wonders why he seemed like such a threat at all. Or, you as the DM pull punches to try and keep the party from being wiped out. Now don’t get me wrong, you might be playing in a group that wants everything to live and die by the dice, and that’s cool. But if you want more feel from the big boss fights in your adventures, this might be a way to accomplish that.

Imagine that you have a orc war-chief that your party is facing. And you want the fight to really sap the party’s resources and push them hard, but you don’t want them to die fighting this opponent. A way to think about this is to give the war-chief a small number of hit points that might normally go down in one or two hits from your players, but only players who are bloodied (at or under half their hit points) can actually damage this boss. This has the potential to really drain the party. Especially if they have potions and healing spells. This orc war-chief could seem all but invincible if the party is working hard to stay at max health. You could even go further by having the war-chief not have any hit points, but instead, only required to be hit 3 times by any bloodied player to be vanquished.

At this point, we’ve made the fight last till we want, but we’ve also possibly just made it worse. If the orc war-chief, for example, can one-shot some of the player characters, this isn’t going to be a fun fight as they each get mowed down. Imagine how you want the war-chief to feel to those he is fighting. In this case, let’s assume we want a plodding, slow, feel to the war-chief that makes the characters feel like they need to keep moving to avoid getting hit. Let’s mark the war-chief a large creature and give his great-axe attacks a reach of at least two. Each turn, the war-chief can only attack with his axe once, but we’re going to treat this more like a spell than a melee attack. The war-chief can target any square within two squares of himself and make an attack, but he can only target where an enemy was at the end of his last turn. The attack should be devastating (1/2 their hit points at least) for anyone who tries to stand toe-to-toe with the war-chief, but if a player has kept moving, they should be safe. And if you really want them to keep moving, you might give the great-axe attack secondary damage to anyone within two squares of it that does half damage (1/4 the target’s hit points at least) and forces a con check to prevent being knocked prone.

The war-chief needs some more extra abilities to really add some character, but the meat of the boss fight tells us a good story about what kind of enemy this is, it’s beatable, but will come at a cost to the characters. I would consider adding a war-chief shout that can cause fear or something similar. Perhaps even having the chief be able to start with a bow that behaves much like the great-axe, but have him drop it (and switch to the axe) once a player is threatening his space. Maybe even give him a charge or similar attack that bowls the players over if they stick together.

I hope that conveys the idea of a boss that serves your narrative more than a designed enemy that follows the mechanics.

Volkswagen Atlas

Last year we purchased a new car to replace my eight year old Subaru Outback. We wanted something with more interior room and similar capabilities as the Outback. We wanted to wait for the Ascent, but we couldn’t even see a preview model and 80% of the Ascent’s were already sold before they were available. Below are my thoughts on the Atlas so far.

The Bad

The infotainment system seems to lock up sometimes, and about 20% of the time, there is no audio from my iPhone. When the system locks up, the App function just shows a black screen. The good news is, I discovered I could hold down the power button for about tend seconds and the entire system restarts. That’s a little nicer than having to stop and start the car. When I plug my iPhone in, I can tell there is a problem because the system reports a speaker with an X on it when I try to change the volume. Re-seating the cable to the iPhone fixes it. I’ve tried replacing the cable, and I’ve even changed phones.

Anytime Park Pilot is invoked, it will interrupt CarPlay and “lose its place” for lack of a better term. If you have music playing and GPS is set, it seems to work. But if GPS is waiting for input, Park Pilot seems to reset it. I had a chance to drive a Kia Soul while on a business trip, and it seemed to not suffer from this problem.

Seat position controls and memory for multiple drivers. I don’t even know how to explain the complexity of this system. My wife’s Acura has this feature, and it is very simple and easy to work with. But the Atlas makes you do a key dance to get seats in the right position depending on what key last locked and is now unlocking the car. The Acura just has two buttons, one for each saved setting, that you can press if you used the wrong key, or you are both in the car. The Atlas saves the seat position for the user when the door is locked by their key. And it resets settings to the user based on the key that unlocks the car. So, if my wife has the car set to her settings, and forgets to lock the car, then I have to unlock it with my key to get to my settings. But if I don’t use her key to lock it, it will over-write my settings with hers when I use my key to lock it. So I end up having to get her key, lock it, then unlock it with my key, and it’s back to my settings. It’s a bad system and whoever designed it should feel bad.

Adaptive cruise control has some trouble knowing when a car has moved out of your lane. I’ve never owned a car with adaptive cruise control, so this might be a very common problem that isn’t specific to the Atlas. I know that there really is just one radar sensor up front and it’s not aware of the car it’s monitoring in relation to lanes and other things, so it’s understandable. I just wish it were better. Perhaps other systems are more capable. At a minimum, it would be nice to be able to have a normal cruise control in addition to adaptive cruise control.

Gas tank is too small. I wish it had a larger tank. I knew this when we purchased it. It’s not a deal breaker, but the range till empty in the dashboard is the real kicker. It will say you have 240 miles left, for example. If you reset the trip odometer at that point, it becomes obvious that you really only have 120 miles left. The range till empty gauge appears to have a built in 2x multiplier. Kind of depressing and underhanded.

The gear indicator in the driver display. This is a minor issue, but I think it revealed to me how bad the general user interface is in the Atlas. If I switch to economy mode while driving, the gear indicator will switch from “D” to “E”. Very nice and a good way to know if you are in economy mode. It also can switch to “S” for sport. But if the car starts up cold, and you are in economy, what does that indicator show? “D”. Of course, it never shows what mode you are in unless you switch while the car is running.

Hard to tell if your headlights are on or off in auto mode. This is another bad user interface design that seems to be the hallmark of Volkswagen design. When using the auto setting on the headlights, there is no dash indicator that lights are on or off. There is a high beam indicator, but if it’s raining and you wonder if the lights are actually on, your guess is as good as mine. It actually might be better if you can see the outside of my car.

Remote range is poor. My wife and I decided that with our young child, having remote start would be nice so that on really hot days and very cold days, the car could be cooled off or warmed up before we get in. But we have a garage. And if you are, for example, parked in a giant parking lot on a hot day, you won’t be able to get the car to start until you are about 30 feet away (assuming you have good line of sight to the car). As you can imagine, it makes this feature pretty worthless. Even Volkswagen’s Car-Net app won’t let you remote start the car.

Third row seats are virtually unusable for tall people. With the head-rests down, they dig into your upper back. With them up, they are passable but make me feel like my head is being pushed forward. The third row may not be the most comfortable seat for a larger passenger, but I expected something that was not uncomfortable for a twenty minute ride.

Daylight savings time is a toggle and not automatic. I guess I should be happy I don’t have to hold down a button to change the hour manually. The car has a SIM chip in it for Car-Net to work. So I know it knows the location, time and date. So there’s no reason for this to be a thing to think about.

SD Card media assumes Windows style file formats. When you are traveling to Canada, for example, you don’t want to use up precious bandwidth on your phone streaming music. The local SD card with music on it is a great way to have a backup of local music to listen to on a trip. Unless you own a Mac, or use Linux. Then you have to just through hoops to make sure all your mp3 playlist files are properly formatted to a Windows format.

The good.

Automatic windshield wipers. These work pretty well. I like not having to generally even think about windshield wipers and these allow me to do just that.

Lane assist works well most of the time, even in rain. Lane assist isn’t really all that great, and I assume that’s the case in most cars. When I can’t see the lane indicators is really when I need it, and based on how it works, it can’t see the lane either. But, otherwise, it’s pretty smart and not annoying.

Front seats are pretty comfortable for long trips.

Lots of USB ports. There’s no shortage of places to plug devices in.

Second row seats are easy to use and move. Third row access is good. Getting in and out is easy. There’s lots of good legroom all around. And headroom is good even in the third row.

Looks good. Some people say the Atlas looks like a Ford Explorer, but I think it looks better than that. I do like the look and the profile of the Atlas. It looks stout without being a giant box. I’m often surprised at how small it looks given the interior room.

I towed a 3850 lb camper with brakes and it did ok. I actually suspect the trailer weighed a bit more, but it did a good job. There were a few hills and the VR6 engine did well. I think that over 4000 lbs, I wouldn’t want to tow something across the country. But, something around 3500 lbs might be fine.

Bioshock Infinite: the video game we deserve

Rating: one out of five


At least it looks pretty

Bioshock Infinite is a video game about shooting guys in the face. It’s a video game about sweet gibs, rad decapitations, and about having all the guns ever. It is a game about magic shields and eating canned goods off of corpses of policemen to restore health. It is a game about drinking potions and having holes appear on your hands and racist vampires who carry coffins and shoot crows at you. It is about having a pet who picks locks but who asks you to pick up lock picks from trash cans. It is about a girl who will periodically interrupt important plot points to throw you a jar of salt. It is a game about robotic George Washingtons chaingunning you.

It is also a game about god rays through windows. About some really pretty flying buildings that explode around you as you shoot black people and Irish people. It is a game about pressing A to throw an apple to an orphan and play a guitar. It is a game about pressing X to hook policemen in the face.

It is a game about shooting a rocket launcher at ghosts.

It is a game about how every person is fundamentally an asshole. About how racists and their oppressed are really the same thing if circumstances are only slightly altered.

It is a game about saving a damsel in distress.

But most of all, Bioshock Infinite is a game about how nothing matters, because there are infinite worlds and you can just move around between them and whatever. Stuff happens for no reason and the rules are arbitrary.  And I guess there are gods.

The only constant is that it is so much a video game.

Keep it in the client

Why do I ever need to leave your client to play your game?

I recently achieved the maximum level in Rift and was awarded a nice weapon from a raiding adventure with a guild. I set about looking for an enhancement for this item only to be confronted by an auction house full of things like “Incandescent Savvy Rune”. There is no way to get the Rift auction house system to show me things that are useful to my character. It’s just a list of things that I have to spend time examining and researching. And, this is only the list available for sale. I don’t know if there is anything I could use that I could purchase elsewhere, or ask someone to make for me. I could go to a 3rd party website and look this information up, but even those do not tell me anything about these enhancements. Why am I reduced to fumbling through your game, guessing through trial and error as to what I should be spending my in-game money on?

This experience seems to be a very common issue that most MMORPG players have come to accept. After spending time leveling up with every decisions being of no consequence or being made for the player, they are suddenly faced with questions that the game seems at a total loss to answer. How do they play their class so that they don’t cause their raid group to waste time dying over and over? How do they know what gear is the best gear for what they want to do? How do they even know what options are available?

A player should not be dependent on a fan site to enjoy playing your game. Even if they do, why wouldn’t you build a browser into your game that allows players to visit it without alt-tabbing, running a second computer, or quitting your game?

Item data and community information.

Players want information. They actually need information to enjoy a game. The players don’t live in the game world, but their characters do. Their character probably know things in that world, from years of living there, that the player does not know. Such as, what craftsmen can create to enhance armor and weapons. Let me see this all in-game. Let players review items, potions, armor, etc. Let them post boss strategies and videos. Make your game the best place to find this information.

Finding a guild.

If joining an in-game player run organization is important to the players of your games, why make them leave the game to participate? Bringing guild recruitment into the game can root the guilds into the world and show players that they aren’t just secret societies that exist outside the game. In most games, if it were not for guild names showing above character heads, you might not even know that guilds existed. Where are the guild recruiting posts on the kiosk in town?

Use your client to collect more player information.

The MMOG developer has many different tools to determine what is and isn’t working in their game. How many people actually use those rare and hard to find potions? Do people run the same content over and over? How do most people die in a certain location? All gathered through the game itself. In my experience, the only time an MMORPG publisher or developer has asked me what I thought was when I cancelled the game. That’s far too late to be asking players what they think of your game. In addition to that, forums probably aren’t representative of the player community, but the people actually playing your game for more than ten minutes are.

Use the client to gather meaningful feedback about how much people enjoy your game. Take several questions you have for your players, and randomly ask them a new one each time they quit. Keep them as yes/no questions and you’ll get actual feedback from players. Not from malcontents on the forums or just people who are angry at your game.


A game divided into shards has many different “copies” of the entire world running in parallel with different populations of players. For the purpose of this article I am talking primarily about the sharding mechanism used by MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, Rift, etc. This is a hosting technology or method, and not a game design decision. Shards have been around for a while and are a simple method of handling lots of players.

Shards separate your players.

Ask anyone who has started playing a sharded game and they can tell you the problems of picking which shard to play on. Friend group A is on shard X and friend group B is on shard Y and a player will have to choose which group to play with. Dividing your players from all their friends means smaller groups and a higher chance that they will fold when a few people quit. A sharded game doesn’t have a single fifty thousand player community, it has ten five thousand player communities. And, if your game has factions, you might have twenty communities of two thousand five hundred players each. Each cut making the potential pool of team-mates smaller for the players.

Shards are inflexible.

When an MMORPG grows, or shrinks, shards get in the way. There is no smooth waxing and waning in population. As the population shrinks, shards need to be consolidated to keep each shards population healthy. As the population grows, new shards are added, yet new players want to play with friends already playing the game. Guilds and players are shuffled from shard to shard to try and keep populations dense. In practice, as populations shrink, several shards become desolate and empty of players. Even if the overall game community is a healthy size, the perception of the game being empty is a negative impact on the players. The reverse effect is having players wait too log in a queue because there are too many people on their shard. Even if shards can be added quickly, transfers of characters are still required to actually reap the benefits of shards.

The net result of shards is that the only method to “balance” populations across them is transfers. One possible solution is to make transfers between shards transparent, effectively turning shards into instances. Another options is to design the hosting system to scale without sharding. Sharding is another method of managing MMORPGs that is long in the tooth and should not be used any longer.


Levels are a mainstay of most modern RPG games. And for a single-player game, I do think a leveling system can work well. I don’t think that is true for an online game, specifically for a MMORPG. The more I play them, the more I grow to hate leveling and the problems it creates.

Levels segregate players.

Games like World of Warcraft and Rift penalize players of different levels who want to play together by limiting the experience points gained by the lower level character. If you aren’t willing to carefully moderate your playing and experience income, you will be unable to play with your friends without penalizing them, or you will just need to wait till you are both at the level cap to play together. Net result here is that levels restrict who you can play with.

Levels break the 4th wall to control a players progress.

These games also use levels to prevent you from experiencing content before you are the appropriate level, and make previous content worthless once you have out-leveled it. There are plenty of other methods to restrict content to players by using thematic, in-game, in-character methods. Levels serve as an arbitrary throttle to players advancing through the world and exploring places. Some enemies are just “better” than others at killing you. Levels become an immersion breaking system of content consumption.

Levels go away regardless.

The irony of a level based game is that when most people are at the level cap, their level becomes irrelevant and they are basically playing a level-less game. This is the sweet spot for guilds and friends who want to play together. So why does it have to come at the end of a pointless level ladder climb? The game still offers power upgrades and growth, but sans levels.

Levels divide your game into two.

A game with levels will fall into two parts. Leveling game, and the post leveling game. These two games are played very differently. The leveling game is mostly played like a single player game, and the post leveling game is mostly played as a multiplayer cooperative game. Players who like one, might not like the other. Players who learn one, if they play long enough, will have to learn another to keep playing. Players who like your post leveling game, might not like playing your leveling game to get to the game they like. As a game creator, there seems to be little time to actually teach anything to a player except the leveling game. The post leveling game is often a “you’re on your own” game. Why make two games?

Wasted content.

Levels beget level cap increases, which makes your game daunting to newer players and trivializes previous end-game content. A game with a level cap, that then increases that level cap, turns all of the end-game content for the previous level cap into pointless content. Why would a new player spend time trying to raid level 50 content when level 51 quest rewards (added from the previous expansion) are equivalent? It would be more efficient to create content that drives character growth rather than let character growth drive your content. Even without a level cap increase, parts of the leveled world become trivial content for players. There is no reason to ever return to a previous location to help other players or to re-visit for new challenges in a previously visited area. New content at lower levels can only be experienced by playing the leveling game anew.

The MMORPG genre is aging, and it’s not seeing a lot of innovation. Many conventions, such as levels, are included because “that’s how an MMORPG works.” A few games have abandoned levels as I describe them, and those games are better for it. Games like Planetside and EVE Online, for example. If game designers don’t re-examine mechanics like levels, the genre is doomed to repeat itself into obscurity.

Rift and Education

Rift isn’t exactly a brand new invention. It’s obviously, a take on World of Warcraft, which is a take on Everquest, which is a graphical twist on MUDs, etc. Nothing new under the Sun and all that. Thus, it inherits many design concepts from it’s predecessors. Some good. Some bad.

Like many people, I purchased Rift online. I received no manual, nor did I purchase a strategy guide. I suspect that many people who play this game do not have any written material to help them with the game. Like many video games, though, Rift does use in-game help to teach a new player how to play the game. It tries to teach you how to move by using the keyboard keys and mouse. It teaches you basics of how a common MMORPG works with looting, questing, etc.

But, when you get to the higher levels, the game (like others before it) is silent. No pop-up to tell you that you’ve reached (or are nearing) the highest level and that you should start preparing to take on new challenges like raiding.

Rift doesn’t expect its players to know how to use the keyboard to move, but Rift certainly expects them to know how the end-game works? Seems backwards to me.

Running Games on my Netbook

I seriously don’t know what’s up over there at Wizards of the Coast. But, as I am fond of saying, it’s not my company to run into the ground.

The latest monster builder/catalog is pretty lacking in features and capabilities that I want as a customer who runs Dungeons and Dragon games for friends. My concern isn’t really for this one product not rocking my socks off. Really, it’s about the little things in it that, in my eyes, reveal a future that D&D tools will take over time. In short, the lock-down is on like Donkey Kong. This new tool doesn’t allow copy-and-paste of information. It doesn’t allow linking to images with a DDI login. The only way to get information from it is with a screen-capture.

There’s no guarantee things will continue like this. It’s possible that each of these decisions was just a coincidence. Maybe it was just easier. But, to be honest, the realist in me couples these things with the move to online only tools and other decisions made by Wizards of the Coast and it’s just depressing. The RPG community as a whole is growing smaller each year and the largest and most popular brand in that community is not trying to grow their market. Every step down this path means people are forced to jump higher and higher hurdles to play their game.

So what does this have to do with me running D&D games on my netbook? It has to do with the tools I use to run D&D games. Let’s look at my options.

  1. Pencil and paper. It’s classic and old-school, but I just don’t have the time anymore. Especially with the fourth edition of D&D. Tracking conditions, hit-points, initiative, delays, readied actions, etc. Not to mention jotting down NPC names as I make them up and making notes for future plot points. Pencil and paper just isn’t viable anymore. In a pinch, I can do it. So this remains the backup plan.
  2. Masterplan. This is a nice tool and I really like many of its features for designing adventures and running combat. But, due to a cease and desist letter from Wizards of the Coast, you can not move libraries of monsters and other information between computers. I’m not going to spend hours preparing for a D&D session on my little netbook when I have a desktop with a nice large screen. That limitation seems minor, but if I need to throw together a quick encounter on the fly and run it, I would have to enter all my data on my netbook in advance. Not to mention that there is no way to import monsters from the new monster builder, or the compendium. You can only import monsters from the old Adventure Tools offline application. If you want to use Monster Vault monsters, you have to import by hand. Nuts!
  3. MapTools. I just participated in my first online D&D game as a player, and we use MapTools. This is a sweet tool for playing a game totally online. But, it’s a bit heavy for my netbook to run just to track combat. Not to mention that I would have to, again, manually enter all the monster information by hand. Even with a clever modification from the community, it won’t read information from the new monster catalog since you can not copy-and-paste from it.
  4. inCombat 4e. The paragon by which I judge all other tools. It’s effecient and clean. It does combat tracking well and is 100% integrated with iPlay4e. Until recently, it was just as limited as Masterplan. But with a quick bug report, Andrew Siefer quickly turned around a patch allowing me to screen-capture stat-blocks from the new monster catalog and paste them into inCombat 4e. This means I can quickly go into the new monster catalog, re-skin a monster and adjust its level, then screen capture the stat-block and put it into inCombat 4e. I can save the monsters as an encounter and have them ready to go at a moments notice. In short, this tool is doing what I need to run a session from a computer.

I know that Wizards of the Coast is working on a virtual tabletop application. It’ll be online only. I’m not sure I’ll even be able to use that to run a face-to-face game. Does Wizards of the Coast even want people to keep running games in person anymore?

Off the Rails

After running Keep on the Shadowfell, Thunderspire Labyrinth, and a couple Scales of War adventures, I’ve gone off the rails. I’m making it up as I go along. And it’s nothing like I remember. But one thing is for certain, combat is going to be much easier to keep interesting. I was never happy with the pre-written adventure combat and while I could have spent the time making them better, I might as well have written them from scratch.

Our aggressive warlock has already found out that these new encounters mean business. Muhahaha.

Cute little mice?

Most of my time running RPGs has been of the variety that has the game master driving the players through scenes and settings. Many of the adventures I have run that were pre-made tended to be giant scripted set pieces that the players would be pushed and pulled through. Not unlike meat through a meat grinder. And, there is nothing inherently wrong with this method of playing and running games. A good game master can make that roller coaster feel like a wild ride. But, many times I feel like my roller coaster is more like the tea cup ride at Disney World. Not that I’ve had to wake up players for their turns to act (yet).

I read about Mouse Guard and I was gifted a copy by some friends. It’s a very different sort of RPG than anything I have played or run before. It places an emphasis on players taking ownership of their characters and what they will do in the world in a way that is very different than other games. It’s not that I think other RPGs are incapable of having these qualities, but they aren’t emphasized like they are in Mouse Guard.  The concepts of turning a team mission into personal goals, and being rewarded for completing them is a nice way to hand over the reigns of what’s going to get done to the players. I also really enjoyed the methods of conflict resolution that elegantly tiptoe around failure with more obstacles and success at a cost. All things I enjoy enough to try and fold back into my 4e games.