Month: October 2015

when treasure was special

33101bersI’m not sure if the term holds any meaning for a modern gamer, but the BG games are what old schoolers would call a “Monty Haul” campaign.  See, there used to be (and has since been resurrected) a game show called Let’s Make a Deal, during which contestants could very easily win a disproportionately generous prize compared to any skill or effort they put forth, which was in contrast to most game shows, where being good at something in competition with others might earn you a more reasonable reward.  This was applied to D&D campaigns, typically run by new or incompetent DMs, where the characters faced the burden of not having enough things to spend their piles of gold coins on, and the tough choices about which magic weapons to take along on the next adventure.

BG is like this, especially the sequel and its expansion.  Finding that first magic weapon in a character’s career used to be a special moment.  In these games it’s more likely something to be sold at the nearest pawn shop for nothing more than a bigger number in the “Gold Carried” box.  The inventory system doesn’t do anything to discourage the OCD habit of nabbing anything of value, either to horde as part of a collection, or simply to sell.

Not counting random treasure, throughout the BG games there are over 100 instances of magical leather armor, not including uniques.  There are well over 50 long swords +1 alone.  What makes this worse is that the generic examples are nothing more than things to be sold, because the best equipment is always a unique item of its kind.  Combined with the stinginess of many item types — there’s only one buckler +1 — and the ridiculousness of a world awash in magic items becomes overwhelming.

Schools: As they were, as they are, as they will be

I don’t automatically favor any edition of AD&D over any other.  Though, of course, I have my opinions, and one of the strongest is that 2nd edition utterly missed the mark regarding schools of magic and specialist wizards.  1st edition only had one “specialist”, the illusionist, who was as much a complete subclass to mage as ranger was to fighter, and druid was to cleric.  It had its own unique spells, and a spell rank (level) cap of 7.  Unfortunately, continuing that edition’s trend of taking optional rules of limited application and turning them into official rules, 2e decided all schools of magic were worthy of having mage kits devoted to them.  It’s rare that you get the kind of failure they achieved by combining a poorly thought out idea with abysmal implementation such as this.

There are certain schools that no mage in his right mind would deliberately cut himself off from (at least in BG), namely Abjuration, Divination, and Illusion.  Abjuration is a must because it contains virtually all of the spells that can keep a mage safe in combat;  and Divination is the only way to counter the school of Illusion’s numerous spells that also, more indirectly, protect a mage.  So right off the bat, we’ve got three of the eight schools in the Must-Have category, which effectively eliminates their Opposing schools as well from being viable specializations.  There are further reasons for doing so, as will be discernable from the changes I make, but this is already enough to justify the overhaul.  I’ll just put it out there that the idea and execution of opposition schools is one of the worst things ever introduced in a game franchise.

It’s more than just the nuts and bolts, though.  Whatever their other purposes, games are meant to be fun, and how much fun would it be to play an Abjurer in BG2?  Really?  In PnP a Diviner could be extremely powerful;  but in a computer game like BG, where classes play a neglible role outside of combat, it’d be deathly boring.  Kits of other classes follow the tried-and-true formula of granting bonuses to the parent class while removing some of its main abilities.  What do mage kits add?  Nothing beyond an extra spell slot.  What’s the cost?  An entire school of magic, arbitrarily determined and assigned.  The most ridiculous part is comparison between kits.  The differences between an Inquisitor and Cavalier are numerous, and make each distinct.  The difference between an Illusionist and a Conjurer?  Nothing except the particular school of magic each can’t cast.

The fundamental question has two parts:  can you make a mage kit unique without it being over- or underpowered?  And can you do so based on spell schools?  The first question has some points of subjectivity, but only four current schools have any shot at being useful as a kit: Alteration, Conjuration, Evocation, and Necromancy.  You could make a case for Abjuration as sort an anti-mage party buffer, but that’s shaky, and it’s the best candidate of the remaining four.  But of those four, only Enchantment doesn’t contain at least one critical spell no mage would do without, so while Abjuration, Divination, and Illusion are not good candidates for specialization, neither are they acceptable as opposition schools.

back to school(s)

My current idea for mage specialists is to make them more special, but I wonder if just abandoning the school specialization completely wouldn’t be better.  Schools as the basis is less meaningful than weapon specialization for fighters.  Most other kits are based on roles, rather than some arbitrary characteristic.  Sage/researcher, battle wizard, necromancer (classic), etc.

distinctiveness with a limited resource

In the overall picture, nearly every asset in BG2 is geared towards one thing:  combat.  As sad (and still rectifiable) as it is, there are scant few instances in dialogs or plots where a character’s attributes, skills, or even race or class, come into play.  This is certainly the case with magic.  This makes magic a necessarily truncated experience, as the things that can be altered and the ways those things can be altered are both limited:  thac0, damage, AC, saves, and various states like panic, hold, and charm.  All spells outside of the metamagic category are some combination of these effects as either boons to allies or banes to enemies.  Some effects like petrification have a minimum but also static level of effectiveness (one cannot be partially petrified).  Others like panic have a de facto maximum due to widespread immunities or easy to obtain counters.  Both types can be given power mobility by adjusting the saving throws of their effects, and limiting or expanding their range or area of effect.  Other effects, notably damage, are easily scalable and can be crafted to fit any situation.  In essence, there are only a handful of  spells, but by managing the likelihood and extent of these handful of effects, we can have seemingly disparate spells of differing ranks.  (I use the term “rank” instead of “level” when talking about spell levels… er, ranks.)

One way to go would be to simply enumerate all these spells at rank One and scale them thereafter with no need for Two through Nine other than as deliberately expanded options.  Take Charm.  At rank 1, for example, it affects one creature of a specific creature type (humanoid) for a short amount of time with a significant save bonus.  That same rank 1 spell could scale to gradually reduce the save bonus into a penalty, the duration could be lengthened, the target types affected could eventually become universal, and the number of targets increased.  That’s one scaled spell that is doing the job of multiple BG2 spells without any real loss of verisimilitude or variety.  BG2/AD&D just so happened to parse out these iterations in a more arbitrary fashion.  Many damage spells do this exact thing but it seems more natural when the scaled effect is ‘damage’ as opposed to a status effect.

the in-game experience

Deus Ex uses a classic format for a first-person shooter. Others such as Doom had a similar layout. In addition to floating (not being right against the edge of the screen), DX also allowed the player to adjust the color and transparency of the elements.  For a FPS, the player needs nothing to distract his attention from where the action is, so things at the edges of the screen are more for peripheral movement and navigation.  Too much clutter and a player could be flanked, or not be able to locate cover or an escape route.