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Conclave’s music and art direction

By now most of you have probably seen that we’re running a Kickstarter to fund the last stretch of Conclave’s development. (And if you haven’t, go check it out! This blog post will be here when you get back.) We thought we’d talk a little more here about aspects of the game and the development process that we could only touch on briefly there.

One of the pleasures of developing Conclave has been getting to watch (and hear) Sam, Chris, and Devin turn our ideas and sketches into works of art that evoke our setting in a visceral way. Take Sam’s initial composition, “Turn of the Age”:

Each of the five races of the Kin is represented musically in the piece:

  • cello for the mezoar
  • the chorus of voices for the lumyn
  • drums for the forgeborn
  • flute for the nix
  • harp for the trow

In addition, Sam came across a rare stringed instrument used in medieval times called the viola da gamba, which he uses to suggest an ancient and otherworldly (but not alien) atmosphere.

Chris also weaves details of the setting into his character portraits. Two of my favorites are ones he’s done for the nix:

Long ago the nix discovered Spiritcraft, one of the five great magical Traditions. Though the Tradition has since spread to other races of the Kin, the nix retain a strong affinity for the beings of living magic that seem to spring forth from Orn. You can see one example in the first portrait, though not all spirits are as cute as that one.

There’s a more tragic tale behind the second portrait. One of the last realms to fall was Charn, which was betrayed and usurped by the great Spiritcrafter who became known as the Heresiarch. The nix in the image still wears the hawk-inspired armor of a soldier from that northern land in honor of his ancestors who died defending it.

We’ve just released an update that makes it easier for all party members to visit the Vault of Arms between quests and to see which quest was selected. After a player selects a quest, the game now displays a streamlined version of the Quest Map to the other party members as they proceed to the quest. This version shows the details of the selected quest as well as the usual Vault icon, which you can click to change your character’s equipment before heading onward:

We’ll be making other improvements to quest selection in the future, but we wanted to get this one out to make sure everyone can take advantage of the Vault. As always, let us know either here or in the Issues forum if you have any problems.

You won't be seeing this again.

One piece of feedback we often get is that Basic Attack is superfluous, and should get the axe.  We agree, and in fact planned to remove Basic Attack many, many months ago, but the task got displaced in favor of more important things (like, say, providing party chat, or implementing battlefield terrain).  However, we’re finally getting around to making this change as we spend some time on smaller tasks like this that help the overall game experience.

So why did it take so long for us to get around to removing Basic Attack?  Even a change like this has consequences that you’re likely to miss until you really take a careful look and think the whole thing through.  First of all, most of the enemies in Conclave have Basic Attack.  Coming up with a set of replacement abilities – most of which are just flavorful renamings of the same effect – isn’t hard, but it takes time to assign each replacement to the right foe.

The larger complication, though, is that Basic Attack is occasionally relevant to the Vanguard and Beacon.  Both the Rogue and True Bow have abilities that are strictly better than Basic Attack (Deft Blow and Prescient Blow, respectively), and the Runecaster isn’t supposed to be whacking anybody on the head anyway, but Vanguards don’t always want the movement associated with Charge or the off-balance penalty of Wild Swing, while the Beacon may not want to move an opponent with Pushing Blow.  (What about Lead by Example?  More on that in a moment.)

This means that the Vanguard needs a new at-will attack that, like Deft Blow and Prescient Blow, is always better than Basic Attack.  Why better?  Well, we don’t want anybody to feel penalized by having selected an archetype whose base strike is just lamer than that of the others.  Meanwhile, those base abilities are part of what provide identity to each archetype:  you want to be able to picture the Rogue getting clever with a blade, and the True Bow anticipating where her enemy will be moments before she looses her arrow.  The Vanguard deserves the same, and that’s what it will receive with its new Basic Attack replacement:  Smash, which ignores a point of your target’s Protection as the force of your attack pushes right through intervening armor.

With the Beacon, we wanted to make sure to provide a base strike that’s better than Basic Attack even if you are playing solo.  This is in keeping with recent changes to Rally and Turn the Tide to make them affect the Beacon as well as any party mates.  Lead by Example doesn’t currently meet this test.  One easy option would have been to apply the same +5 attack bonus to the Beacon that its buddies already enjoy.  That’s an option we almost took.

In the end, though, we’ve chosen a different approach.  Here’s Lead by Example 2.0:

Make a weapon attack.  If you hit, you and all adjacent allies become inspired.

We like this for a few reasons.  One is that conditions like inspired are already visually represented on the interface, while simple bonuses remain hidden (for now).  Conditions also have other interactions in the game:  they may last multiple rounds, they can be zapped by nasty enemy mojo, there are abilities that depend on having a certain condition, etc.  Plus the flavor is stronger than before:  you have to hit, and if you do, everybody is literally psyched (well, as literally as a character can be in a game like this!), as opposed to receiving the abstraction of a numerical bonus.

Finally, this addition allows us to remove Battle Call from the Beacon.  That might seem like an odd thing to cheer about, but it helps us firm up the identity of the Beacon as a battle leader – somebody who does, indeed, lead by example – saving the on-demand inspirational effect of Battle Call for an archetype we’ll be adding to the game down the road.

The addition of Smash and change to Lead by Example has other consequences for the Vanguard and Beacon.  Adding Smash necessitated removing an existing ability from the Vanguard, as we want all archetypes to have equal numbers of abilities.  We chose to move Defiance until level 2, Sweeping Blow to level 3, and then to remove Shattering Blow entirely from the Vanguard’s ability progression.  Waiting until level 2 to get Defiance is a pretty minor change, as characters achieve level 2 so quickly; it largely affects the perception of the archetype as new players are browsing them during character creation.  Sweeping Blow is a powerful ability, and also one that becomes more relevant at higher levels where you are more likely to be outnumbered, so we deemed it appropriate to wait until level 3 to grant it.  Shattering Blow is partially obsoleted by Smash, and therefore probably won’t be missed.

Meanwhile, with Battle Call no longer needed, we were free to give the Beacon a new ability at level 1.  Feeling the Beacon to be slightly underpowered, we were happy with this result.  The Beacon now gets Fend Off at level 1, Haft Blow at level 3, and a new ability called Whirling Strike at level 5.  Putting Fend Off at level 1 increases the party-helping abilities of the Beacon, further defining the archetype.  Haft Blow really helps the offensive output of the Beacon, letting it serve better as the battlefront leader we want the Beacon to be capable of being.  Whirling Strike does the same.

As always, let us know your thoughts on the changes we’ve made!

Up until this point, equipment has been a pretty minor part of Conclave.  When you create a character, you get assigned some basic items; at levels 3 and 5, the Council upgrades one of these for you.  You have no say in what you get, no opportunity to customize your weapons or armor or anything at all.  With the release of the Vault of Arms, that will all begin to change.

The Vault of Arms is a new place you can visit from the map.  At the Vault, you can use your Renown – the stock of faith and reputation you’ve built up with the Council – to take equipment from the Conclave.  Weapons, armor, shields, and other miscellaneous items are all available for your use.  You are only limited by the Renown you’ve built up.

When you see that brown tower appear on your quest map, you'll know the Vault is open for business.

So how do you get Renown?  Simple: by completing quests.  Each quest will earn you some Renown to “spend” in the Vault.  (Note that there may be other ways to get Renown in the future.)  I say “spend” because you never lose your Renown; your Renown simply puts a limit on how much equipment you can “check out” from the Vault.  For example, perhaps my True Bow has accumulated 500 Renown.  I might use it to borrow a Rastanhi heavy bow (250 Renown) and a bronze scale cuirass (also 250 Renown), say.  Later, I might decide to trade those items back in, and take out an Ashenweald spirit bow (500 Renown).  I can make these changes any time my party isn’t on a quest.

Why did we go with this model instead of the familiar “accumulate treasure, spend it at the shop” approach?  Flavor was the main driver.  We wanted a place where characters could go to choose from equipment that would scale up as they grew more powerful and faced greater challenges, but the traditional RPG shop is a bit of a flavor disaster: where do shopkeepers get all this great stuff?  If they have it, why are they spending their time running a shop?  But the Conclave itself has resources – smiths, artisans, some practitioners of magic – and should be able to keep characters equipped appropriately for a long time.  Renown provides an alternative currency that fits the flavor of the game better than gold and limits what the Conclave will make available to characters.  Prove yourself, and you will be rewarded with greater trust.

Mechanically, we also get the opportunity to maximize player options in tinkering with their characters’ equipment.  In a shop-based model, you lose money on each transaction: if you buy a bow for 50 GP, you can bet you’ll get a lot less than that if you sell it back.  That means experimentation is costly.  We wanted to make experimentation cheap, or more precisely free.  This means you can customize your equipment to the needs of a given quest, if you see fit.  Will this be fun?  We’re betting so, though we will also be keeping a careful eye out to make sure players don’t feel like they have to be changing equipment all the time in order to maximize the way they match up with each quest.  One reason we think we’ll be okay is that equipment will still play a fairly minor role in overall character power after the Vault is released (though it will be somewhat more important than it is today), so there’s no huge need to fiddle constantly with equipment.  Ideally, people who enjoy playing with equipment will have lots of fun, and those who don’t care as much simply won’t need to.

Some of you might be saying, “Sounds cool… but what about loot?”  Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten how much fun it is to find that awesome and unexpected sword while out on an adventure.  The Vault is just the first step – albeit a big one – in our larger plan for items within Conclave.

When will the Vault arrive?  Well, we pretty much never talk about release dates – that’s just begging for trouble – but it’s fair to say you don’t have long to wait.  Really.

A peek into the new Conclave portraits

A few months ago, we decided to go ahead and pull the trigger on commissioning new portrait art for Conclave.  Those of you who are a part of the Conclave Facebook and Google Plus groups have probably seen preliminary sketches of the new portraits; today, we’re going to show you a bit more of what they’ll be like in practice.

But first, why new portraits?  Portrait art matters a lot in Conclave.  As with any roleplaying game, portraits can help you visualize your character, aiding you in identifying with it and making the game come to life a bit more.  Unlike many such games, however, Conclave’s portraits show up just about everywhere.  Whether you are choosing which of your characters you wish to play with right now, forming a party, chatting, or fighting on the battlefield, those portraits are shorthand identification of your character.

Meanwhile, we came to see a few too many collisions where two party members would share a portrait.  This can get pretty confusing when you log in and are quickly trying to see your situation in a combat:  you can’t just rely on picking out your unique image from the battlefield, because it’s not actually unique.  With ten portraits, this happens fairly often.  Simply upping the number of possible portraits cuts down on these collisions a lot.

Another factor is that it can be difficult to find a piece of art that does a good job of depicting certain combinations of race, gender, and archetype within the game.  If you are a female forgeborn Vanguard, great:  we’ve got you covered.  But what if you are a trow instead?  Are you okay looking like this?  With new portraits in the mix, it’s much easier to find an image that really fits your character.

Finally, we simply love working with Chris Rahn, the artist who painted the original portraits, and our selection for the new ones as well.  Chris is an art director’s dream come true:  fast, responsive, and able to quickly grok what you are going for with a minimum of specific direction.  His work with light and glows is just fantastic.  There’s a maturity, a seriousness, about his art that distances it from all-too-common fantasy schlock, a maturity that’s important to the Conclave game experience.  And it’s all just so darned pretty.

Okay, enough background.  Let’s see some new portraits in action.  For today, we’ll only be seeing final artwork for the forgeborn; you’ll have to wait for the rest until we make our next release.  When will that be?  Soon… very soon.

Here’s how step three of character creation will change:

Note that this is a preliminary screen:  things will change before launch.  (Certainly, the first portrait will be at full resolution!).  Only one of the two new portraits shown will actually be a part of this release:  every race/gender combination will have now have two choices available, bringing us up to twenty total portraits.

And here’s how a new portrait looks like in action.  He looks like he’d make an excellent Vanguard, helmed and with a weapon strapped to his back, or a great Beacon, calling the troops to battle.

To see sketches of other upcoming portraits, please join our Facebook or Google Plus groups.

State of the Game, April 2012

With so many new feature and performance releases for Conclave in the past couple of months, and with dramatic increases in our audience over the same period, we realized it was time for a properly comprehensive look at what we’ve been doing, what Conclave players have been doing, and what you can look forward to in the near future.

While Conclave was technically released in October of 2011, we didn’t really start talking about it until mid-February.  Since then, traffic to Conclave has quadrupled, thanks in large part to players spreading the word.  As we hoped, all those new players gave us a lot more information to work with in identifying good and bad parts of the game; not only could we see, numerically, where players were getting hung up, but our fabulous players also gave (and continue to give) us tons of helpful feedback through UserVoice.

Mid-February also saw a major feature release for Conclave.  Some of the biggest changes:

  • Players could join parties mid-quest for the first time, instead of having to wait for the party to finish their quest to do so.
  • We opened all quests up to solo play, not just the very first.
  • We added new ways to invite other players, like posted links and Facebook.
  • We updated quest selection from a simple list of available quests to our new map-based approach.

And so on; you can find the full changelog here.

As our traffic picked up and we began to gather more feedback, we used it to guide additional changes to the game:

  • We launched our first gameplay video to help new players more quickly understand the game.
  • We added new email controls that give players the option to turn off unwanted email notifications (eliminating many spam reports!).
  • Clickable terrain graphics were introduced, providing advance warning of hurtful (and helpful) terrain.
  • We added many performance improvements, including a 3x reduction in lag time between one player acting and the next seeing the result.

So what about the future?  Per Yoda, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”  But here are some things we expect to do soon:

  • Show you who in your party is currently online while you are playing or chatting.
  • Provide a better system for finding other people to play with.  Specifically, we want to be able to find players in similar time zones, and/or with similar expectations for how often they’ll play.
  • Loot!  You want it, we want it, you’ll get it.

It’s been a big couple of months, and we plan to keep that momentum going in months to come.  Let us know if you have any questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them!

Sometimes it’s difficult to get a tabletop RPG going in person: friends move away, or you just don’t live in an area where many people want to play. Since the three of us at 10×10 Room are divided between two major cities, we know what that’s like.

To help with that, we’ve created Bones, a dice-rolling app for Google+ Hangouts. If you’ve never tried one before, a Hangout is a group video chat that supports extra features like screen sharing. With Bones, now you can roll dice and share the results with gamers no matter where they live:

Bones for Hangouts Screenshot

To play with Bones, you’ll need a Google+ profile. Then click this button to kick off a Hangout with the app:

Start a Hangout with Bones

After that, you’ll be able to select Bones from any Hangout you kick off; you won’t have to keep using the button. Check it out and let us know what you think!

p.s. Hangouts are also handy for playing our web-based RPG Conclave face-to-face.

If you’ve ever wondered what Conclave looked like at various stages of its development, here’s your chance. Those of you who are sensitive to crimes against good graphic design might want to skip the first few screenshots.

1. In the beginning …

Our very first prototype of Conclave had no graphics. We were too busy trying out ideas for gameplay, but even at this early stage you can see that we quickly settled on a tile-based battlemap for the combat part of the game:

Combat Iteration 0

2. You ought to be in pictures

It didn’t take long for us to get sick of looking at a text-based interface. We grabbed some placeholder graphics, came up with a preliminary layout, and switched to the default “fantasy” font, which on many browsers is the overused Papyrus:

Combat Iteration 1

3. Things start getting real

As you can see, we tested a few different dimensions for the battlemap. We started with 8×12, briefly went as small as 5×7, and finally settled on 7×9. We also made and commissioned some real graphics, replaced Papyrus with other typefaces, and began to experiment with different layouts:

Combat Iteration 2

4. The ninety-degree turn

One of our first conclusions from these experiments was that we needed to switch the orientation of the battlemap to make better use of the horizontal screen estate afforded by most monitors:

Combat Iteration 3

5. Bigger, better, brighter

Up to this point, our iterations had been fairly incremental and straightforward to implement. Our next one was not. We decided to:

  • upgrade the quality and size of the battlemap backgrounds so that they could cover pretty much the whole user interface
  • switch from a straight grid to a staggered one that behaves more like a hex map, which had some profound implications for our code and mechanics
  • cap the party size at four rather than six
  • add more effects to the battlemap: inaccessible squares would be darkened, the token of a character hiding in shadows would be made slightly translucent, and so on

The result:

Combat Iteration 4

6. What condition my condition was in

We haven’t made major changes to the battlemap itself since then, but the other interface elements have changed quite a bit as we’ve improved the game. We added persistent conditions like burning, bleeding, and off balance, and we made it possible to review prior events in combat. Both those features required us to rejigger the interface a bit:

Combat Iteration 5

7. Good things come to those who give feedback

Since the start of Conclave’s public beta, we’ve made some tweaks based on the feedback we’ve received. We added timestamps to chat messages and an icon to indicate party leadership. We also made it easier to find and manage the party’s settings:

Combat Iteration 6

I think it’s safe to say we’ve come along way since that first text-based prototype. I expect we’ll continue making changes, both big and small, as the game evolves.

[This is part two in a series of posts on probability and roleplaying games.  You can begin with part 1 here.]

Who else remembers these?

RPG designers haven’t always looked at the role of probability in action-taking in the same way.  In fact, over time, those designers have made it more and more likely that players will succeed at their actions.

What’s the most common thing players do in RPGs?  They try to whack a baddie on the head.  So let’s start from there and see how likely, historically, you’ve been to successfully whack that baddie.  And let’s narrow it further and look at fantasy RPGs:  what happens when a fighter-type tries to smack a goblin with a sword?  How often does he hit?

If we jump in the Wayback Machine and head to the days of 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, said fighter’s chances ain’t looking so good.  A 1st-level human fighter with Strength 16 – average for a fighter using the recommended method for rolling character attributes – has only a 30% chance of hitting a lowly goblin with his sword.  That’s right:  just 30%.  Now, there were a lot of quirks to AD&D’s system are worth exploring in their own right, as they show other ways in which the genre has evolved; for example, all 1st-level characters had exactly the same chance to hit our poor goblin, but fighters were vastly more effective at higher levels, which is very different from how most modern games handle level progression.  Still, for now, we’ll just stick with our simple number.

In other words, back then, a character could be expected to fail at this core action over and over.  Fast forward to AD&D’s 3rd Edition, and the picture looks somewhat different.  Take the 1st-level human fighter again, still with Strength 16.  He’s got +4 to hit – +1 from having a level of fighter, +3 more from Strength – and he’s facing a goblin with an AC of 15.  This gives him exactly a 50% chance to hit.

Now look at the 1st-level human fighter of today.  He has a Strength of 18 if we use the standard score array and assign his +2 racial bonus to Strength.  This gives him +4 to hit from his strength, +3 more from using a long sword.  We presume he chose the one-handed combat style, for +1 more.  We assume no other bonuses from feats, and that he’s just using his basic attack, instead of a power like Sure Strike.  There’s not just a single goblin for him to face, but most goblins have an AC of 16.  Now he has a 65% chance to hit.

What we see in these numbers is a direct and dramatic climb in the chances of success over the years.  This change can’t have been accidental:  just take a look at the notes on variant rules in the 3rd Edition Dungeon Masters Guide to understand how sensitive the D&D game design team was to the impact of much more minor rules changes than than these.  The designers made a conscious decision to have players succeed more and more often at their actions.

Okay then:  why has the number changed so much over time?  I think there are four interrelated answers:

  1. Success is fun.  While letting players succeed with their characters’ actions all the time takes away the benefits of dice-rolling, players will nevertheless have more fun if they succeed more often than they fail.
  2. Inaction is boring.  Failure usually results in nothing happening; a miss in combat, or a failed skill check, is usually wasted time.
  3. Wasting limited resources feels frustrating.  If I can only cast a certain number of spells each combat, or can only use my special power twice per day, I’m going to save it up for when it matters; when the time comes, I want it to be likely to count for something.  (You can see 4th Edition D&D take this a step further by introducing a number of daily powers that are guaranteed to have at least some effect, albeit a reduced one, even if they fail.)
  4. Failing takes time.  Assuming that the rate of foe failure is similar to that of characters (not always true, but close enough), introducing more failures means that the time it takes to resolve a conflict in a game is directly lengthened by the chance of failure, without changing the eventual outcome.

Now, you can have too much of a good thing.  The previous post already explored a bit of why succeeding all the time isn’t necessarily good.  Consider also what happens if the time allotted to a conflict is compressed by a very high rate of success:  that leaves fewer opportunities for player decisions, fewer chances for tactics and dramatic roleplaying, fewer moments where a gamemaster or computer can spring a surprise on the players.

But the point is that the people in the know – the Dungeons & Dragons designers, reacting to ever increasing amounts of data – steadily hiked up the chance of success, because they saw reasons such changes would improve their game.

Now, another factor started to appear in the ’80s, and has proceeded to become ever more significant, which is the rise of computer RPGs – games which began as followers in the trends set by paper and pencil RPGs, but have since switched roles to become leaders.  More on the impact of CRPGs, and the evolution of Conclave’s own use of probability to decide the results of actions, in the next post.

A great roll... but why are we rolling in the first place?

One question a game designer must ask is how often players should be able to succeed at the actions they take.  In many games, success is automatic:  you can’t fail to use a capturing move in chess, say, or to buy a property in Monopoly.  In fact, the majority of non-electronic games are based off of automatic success.  This is not to say random elements – the roll of a die to determine movement, say, or the cards you draw from a shuffled deck – but most such games limit the actions you can take through randomness, rather than leaving up to chance whether or not you will be able to successfully take your actions.

RPGs are one major exception to this rule.  Another is wargaming, roleplaying’s ancestor: Dungeons & Dragons evolved out of Chainmail, which took the mechanics of wargaming and applied them to the swords and sorcery genre.  As part of its inheritance, Dungeons & Dragons relied heavily on dice to determine if player actions succeeded.  (In fact, early editions of Dungeons & Dragons offered options to use dice to handle almost anything you might want to do in the game, from creating dungeons to determining which of twenty forms of insanity a character might develop if rendered insane, to figuring out what might happen if you mixed a potion of invisibility with a philter of love.  More on this topic later in this series of posts.)

Later RPGs questioned the centrality of dice in the game, with many seeking to reduce randomness, and some eliminating it entirely in favor of some mix of gamemaster and player dictate.  Often this came from the desire for stronger storytelling:  both gamemasters and players rebelled at having a story shredded by a particularly ill-timed lucky (or unlucky) roll.  But most RPGs kept dice.  Why?

One reason is that dice can be exciting.  Randomness – uncertainty – creates tension and variety.  This is pretty obvious!

But a second reason is that randomness helps enhance the sense that the RPG is a simulation of reality.  RPGs inevitably seek, to varying degrees, to simulate some version of reality, some cosmos.  In the real world, we are used to the idea that our actions will not always succeed or have perfectly predictable results.  The abstraction of the die roll provides a simple path to creating the same situation for our characters and their foes.  It’s easier to imagine ourselves into the bodies of our characters when we can’t know if they will succeed or fail within the larger world.

Additionally, as simulations, RPGs must handle a huge variety of possible actions, situations, and outcomes.  The RPG must be able to provide appropriate results depending on whether your warrior is trying to hit a cowering kobold, a veteran swordsman, an ancient dragon, or a deity (!).  Probability is a great mechanism here, expanding success from a simple digital yes-no to an analog range.  Boardgames cover a vastly smaller set of situations; with a simple possibility space comes the possibility of using simpler tools for resolving actions.

So die rolling is good, right?  Hold on there, sparky!  If there’s one thing any game designer, in any genre, knows, it’s that too much randomness – too much of that uncertainty mentioned above – can spoil the game-playing aspect of a game.  Players want to have control, too; they want to feel that their skill has an effect on the outcome of the game.  RPGs are funny beasts in many ways, and one is the tension they experience between giving players the unpredictability and simulationism enabled by die-rolling, and the desire to exert control.  Mess up this equation, and your game will become less fun.

What’s more, dice rolling takes time.  Every die roll involves a wait, and potential distraction from the flow of the game as a player digs for dice, adds up the results, and the roll gets checked against various charts and sheets to produce an outcome.  Such is not a concern with computer games, but you can bet that card and board game designers worth their salt take this sort of thing into account.

Having looked at some theory behind randomness in RPGs, we can next look at how randomness has evolved in RPGs over time – and what it looks like for today’s CRPGs.  That will be the topic of the next post in this series.

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