Blog Archives

Hitting a Nerve

Tobold wants me off his lawn. He has a history of political posts that claim “centrism” despite being wrapped in the language of right-wing culture wars, and the recent Races are racist post is no exception. In it, he laments:

It is a sign of the times in which artists live in constant fear of being attacked for slights they never intended that Wizards of the Coast in the first playtest material for One D&D removes stat modifiers from races. In the new version of Dungeons & Dragons, choosing your race is mostly cosmetic. Orcs aren’t strong anymore, instead they “count as one Size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push, drag, or lift.”. And to avoid comparative negative stat discrimination, positive stat bonuses are gone as well. The “2-3 feet tall” halflings are now just as strong as the “6-7 feet tall” orcs, in order to avoid racial discrimination. We will have gnomish barbarians and orc wizards.

Gnome barbarians and orc wizards, oh no!

Let’s take a moment to talk about the game design topic though.

This change just reflects what modern multiplayer game design figured out a decade ago: prescriptive racial modifiers only encourage min-maxing and otherwise limit design space. Look at the state of endgame World of Warcraft. Does anyone still think it is a good idea that the race you chose on the character select screen should have such an impact on raiding or M+ or PvP 15 years later? Maybe you say “yes.” Well, the end result of that is a faction imbalance so massive Blizzard finally buckled, and is making most activities of the game cross-faction in the upcoming Dragonflight expansion to prevent the entire edifice from collapsing.

Which is good idea, by the way, because factions are dumb too. “Let’s divide our playerbase and foster different and hostile identities.” Oh, now people are quitting in droves because they are stranded on dead servers/factions and none of our world PvP systems are viable. *Surprised Pikachu face*

Compare all that with, say, Guild Wars 2. I think technically each race has a special ability, but they are irrelevant at all stages of play, which allows players to pick a race based on aesthetics or fantasy. Want to be an Asuran Warrior instead of Charr or Norn? Go for it. One of my first characters 10 years ago was a Sylvari Engineer, because the thought of a plant-person running around with a flamethrower was hilarious to me. Still is, actually. If GW2 was more “traditional” fantasy surely I would have negative modifiers for being around flames, if I were allowed to be an Engineer at all.

Was any of that what Tobold really wanted to talk about? Nope:

I am not sure what purpose races serve in a fantasy role-playing game if there isn’t actually any difference between them. If they are all the same and lack profile, races have been effectively removed in order to appease the thought police. But races remain nominally in the game, because a much bigger part of the D&D customer base would be deeply offended if you’d just remove all fantasy races. It is a bad compromise that will make nobody happy. The thought police will still be triggered by the mere existence of the word “race” in the rulebook. And the players will have lost interesting options in character creation. Can’t we just admit that the real world is complicated, and be allowed some refuge in much simpler fantasy worlds?

You would think that a centrist is all for “bad compromises that make nobody happy,” but the follow-up comments demonstrate that is not the case. When I pointed out that, historically, CRPGs gave female characters Strength penalties for similarly dubious reasons, he replied with:

So you are saying that god is sexist, because (s)he made women less strong than men? I don’t understand your objection to a game rule that reflects reality.

Well, there it is. A Rogue can make a successful Reflex Save in a broom closet hit by a Fireball (which also sets nothing on fire) to avoid all damage, but it’s important for reasons that fantasy game rules reflect “reality.” But only certain “realities.” And those certain reflections of reality are more important to a game’s design than, I dunno, any consideration of what the design leads to, e.g. prescriptive race/class combos that force players to choose between their own fantasy and numerical success. Nevermind the extra social pressure to be helpful that inherently comes from being a part of a group.

While I had been trying to avoid the bait, the third time was not the charm. In an unnecessary paragraph, I threw in this at the end:

“Of course, that’s not the real issue here, is it? I guess you’ve traded your armchair game designer hat for an imitation MAGA one so you can fill your retirement with Boomer culture wars. Which… OK, I guess. Perhaps you can make a little safe space around the D&D table where you can’t get triggered when the “thought police” removes your +2 modifier.

In retrospect, not my proudest moment. However, it certainly hit a nerve, with Tobold going off quoting “They came for the socialists…” and how evil triumphs when good men do nothing.

Here’s the thing though: if you use the word “woke” as a pejorative and talk about the “thought police” being “triggered” while also apparently defending gender-based modifiers as being a justified reflection of (fantasy!) reality… you may want to take a moment and ponder on what “left of center” even is. This is not neutral language. Unless it was being used ironically in a way I did not detect, it hits about the same as Ron DeSantis’ victory speech wherein he used the word “woke” 5 times in 19 seconds:

“At the end of the day, we were not going to let this state be overrun by woke ideology,” DeSantis said. “We will fight the woke in the businesses, in government agencies, fight the woke in our schools, and never surrender to the woke agenda. Florida is the state where woke goes to die.”

Perhaps even pointing that out is ipso facto thought policing, in which case… weewoo weewoo, I guess.

I understand the desire to keep politics separate from one’s hobby. Although, that sort of presupposes politics weren’t already deeply ingrained from inception – art is usually a product of its time. What I do not understand is how or why this particular hill is the one to die on. Not only does it make no practical difference to the experience of D&D – you literally can make up whatever rules you wish or use any edition to run your game – it is not particularly interesting game design in the first place.

Indeed, here is a quote from the Principle Rules Designer for D&D, Jeremy Crawford:

“For quite some time, we have not liked how the choice of race in the game had often too much weight on the player’s choice of class,” Crawford admitted. “Fans often talk about this—that connection between race and class is not something we as designers actually desire. We want players to pick those two critical components of their character and choose the two that really sing to them so they don’t feel like they’re pigeonholed. [In Monsters of the Multiverse] people will get the floating bonuses we introduced in Tasha’s Cauldron. If somebody is making a character, and wants to recreate the bonuses that existed previously, the advantage of the floating bonus system is they can do exactly that.”

Here is another one:

“Contrary to what many people might think,” said Crawford, “those ability score increases that are in those different options, they’re not there for game balance purposes. They are there strictly to reinforce the different archetypes that have been in D&D going all the way back to the ’70s. […] It really has been just about archetype reinforcement, and because it’s not there for game balance reasons we give people the option in Tasha’s Cauldron to take whatever those bonuses are […] put them in any ability score you want.”

If you want a traditional, archetype-driven high-fantasy campaign wherein Orc babies light up when the Paladin casts Detect Evil, go right ahead. I personally ran D&D campaigns for six years that featured nary a dungeon nor a dragon. Do what you want!

But if you are insistent on being outraged by this change, irrespective of your ability to articulate a game design counter-argument, cloaked in the language of far-right cultural wars, maybe some introspection is in order. And if the notion of introspection itself feels like self-censorship to be fought with the strength of Niemöller… well, you kind of got your answer right there, eh?

WoW Mercenary Mode

In increasingly typical WoW fashion, Blizzard came up with an incredibly convoluted solution to a rather easily solved problem:

In an upcoming patch, we’ll be adding a feature that allows you to act as a mercenary for the opposite faction in PvP. Whenever your faction is experiencing a long wait time to get into Ashran or unrated Battlegrounds, agents of the enemy faction will appear in your base in Ashran (Stormshield for the Alliance, Warspear for the Horde). These agents will allow you to enter Ashran or Battlegrounds disguised as an enemy player, and actually fight as the opposite faction.

When you compete as a mercenary, you’ll still earn all the same rewards you would have by winning or losing as your own faction (with the exception of faction-specific achievements). You’ll also have your race automatically changed into one appropriate for the opposite faction while you’re still inside the Battleground or Ashran. Perhaps most importantly, however, you’ll experience much shorter queue times, as our matchmaking system will be able to fill up groups much quicker!

To understand exactly how convoluted Blizzard is being, just read this bit of “clarification”:

On racials: The current intention is that the system swaps your race entirely, including your racial ability. We recognize that that puts Humans in a weird spot, so we’re looking into some options there that aren’t “spend your Honor/Conquest on a Medallion.”

It is difficult to imagine a worse implementation, even if I can kinda-sorta-maybe see why Blizzard is going this route. I mean, for better or for worse (hint: the latter), race matters quite a bit in WoW – if you are fighting a Forsaken character, you know that Fear will be less useful against them, while snares will similarly be less useful against Gnomes. This state of affairs makes the easier solution of “stay the same race, but change the character model” largely impossible unsavory. At the same time, it is exactly because racials are so important that this Mercenary implimentation is unwieldy. Not just for Humans turning into anything else, but Night Elf Druids losing Shadowmeld means they’ll lose a roundabout Vanish that might have been an important component of their character strategy.

I was going to add a further example of Blood Elf Paladins losing Arcane Torrent and becoming crippled Paladins, but let’s face it, only Alliance will be getting the Merc option anytime soon.

All of which is terribly ironic given the state of affairs just a year ago. Remember back in May 2014 when Blizzard was offering free Faction Transfers from Horde to Alliance to assauge queue times in the other direction? It makes me wonder if it wasn’t necessarily the Human racial that imbalanced the factions per se, but rather the instant level 90 that came with Warlords that allowed those on-the-fence Horde to seek greener racial pastures without committing dollars to a faction transfer.

How the tables have turned.

Hmm… I wonder what was released in November 2014?

In any case, in that same post I offered what I consider the best solution to the faction imbalance dilemma: same faction BGs. They already exist for Rated BGs and Arenas, no convoluted mechanical changes necessary. And as I also suggested in that post, if the whole lore and feel of the game is paramount – despite Warlords throwing it away with time travel and alternate universes – there is still an easy solution: sub-factions. It’s not Alliance vs Alliance, it’s Alliance vs Scarlet Crusade. Or Horde vs Twilight Cultists. Would it be weird for Scarlet Crusaders to be defending Frostwolf structures in AV? Sure, maybe. Although it shouldn’t be much more weird than random Alliance characters being faction-changed and defending the same thing under the Merc system.

Incidentally, that sort of highlights why the Merc system isn’t likely to work all that well. More specifically, it’s an “other guy problem.” Queue times suck, no question. But as an Alliance player for more than half the game’s history, let me tell you that instant queues that lead to inevitable losses aren’t all that great either. As an individual, you are better off letting other people utilize the Merc system to give you faster auto-wins. Same faction BGs literally even the playing field, taking away all advantage you might have had based on faction strength.

I dunno. Overall, I am a bit sympathetic to Blizzard’s plight in this regard. The rational design approach would be to get rid of the two factions altogether, as the concept of mutually exclusive factions like Horde and Alliance are quite a bit outdated and inevitably imbalanced. At the same time, there is so much pondorous prescedent, that the potential blow-back from angry veterans would be extreme. Most people are joking when they talk about hatred for Gnomes or whatever, but others are serious insofar as faction identity goes. Blizzard has amped up the faction differences for years and years – remember the motorcycle competition not too long ago? – so complete integration would be a more obvious shark-jumping event.

These halfway solutions though? It’s bad design. Imagine a year from now if the faction balance has shifted back to Horde, and Horde Mercs are entering BGs as Humans. Do they keep their PvP trinkets? Do said trinkets automatically transform into something else?

There are really only three elegant solutions to this problem overall:

  1. Change the Human racial.
  2. Disable all racials in PvP.
  3. Same-faction BGs.

The first is something that’s going to need to happen eventually, wailing and gnashing of teeth aside. It could be changed to either be slightly worse than otherwise default PvP trinket (+15 second cooldown), or Blizzard could be more radical and give the ability to everyone and then come up with something new for Humans. Remember, the Human racial used to be a button that increased the ability to see through stealth; which was still better than the garbage Draenei have been stuck with since inception, but nevermind. The second option of disabling racials is more of the nuclear option. But only the third solution is likely to solve the queue-time issue on a permanent basis.

Mercenaries are a cool concept, but “becoming the opposite faction” is clunky to the extreme, and unlikely to solve the underlying issues to any great degree. I mean, if racials are the underlying issue, getting Alliance to temporarily turn into Horde isn’t going to do anything – Alliance will still win on the aggregate power of their racials. This might be a stopgap queue solution, but it’s development time better spent on something more long-term. Like same-faction BGs.

Dry Watercooler

The latest Dev Watercooler is out concerning major changes in the upcoming WoW expansion, and yet it is one of the most content-free ones I have ever read. I’d say it was all bones and no meat, but you can usually suck some marrow out of bones. But this? This tells us nothing. And so we’re going to have to fill in the blanks with our own rampant speculation.

Stat Squish

There is but one new morsel concerning the Stat Squish (emphasis added):

It’s important to understand that this isn’t a nerf—in effect, you’ll still be just as powerful, but the numbers that you see will be easier to comprehend. This also won’t reduce your ability to solo old content. In fact, to provide some additional peace of mind, we’re implementing further scaling of your power against lower-level targets so that earlier content will be even more accessible than it is now.

That is just about the only possible concern there was with the Squish, so I’m glad it’s taken care of.

Racial Traits

To keep racials more in line with one another, we’ve decided to bring down the couple high outliers, then establish a fair baseline and bring everyone else up to that. We’re accomplishing this by improving old passives, replacing obsolete ones, and adding a few new ones where necessary. Ultimately, our goal is to achieve much better parity among races.

Know what would be really nice? What they consider a fair baseline.

I almost wonder though, if I am parsing that paragraph correctly: is anyone else getting the sense that perhaps activated racials are being left alone? Blizzard did mention Berserking (a Troll racial) as being “extremely powerful,” but I find it difficult to imagine how, say, Every Man for Himself could be redesigned to be equivalent. Unless maybe every race is getting some kind of PvP-ish active racial and then the passives will be the PvE knob. All I can say is that I’m happy this is getting looked at, as I have regretted rolling my paladin as a Draenei since pretty much the beginning – Gift of the Naaru has consistently been the most useless active racial in the game.

Ability Pruning

For Warlords of Draenor, we decided that we needed to pare down the number of abilities available to each class and spec in order to remove some of that unnecessary complexity. That means restricting some abilities to certain specs that really need them instead of being class-wide, and outright removing some other abilities. […]

One type of ability that we focused on removing is temporary power buffs (aka “cooldowns”). Removing these also helps achieve one of our other goals, which is to reduce the amount of cooldown stacking in the game. In cases where a class or spec has multiple cooldowns that typically end up getting used together (often in a single macro), we merged them, or removed some of them entirely.

Two interesting bits here. The first is a sort of roll-back of the “bring the class, not the spec” theme of the last two expansions. It’s possible that they’re not talking about the sort of active/passive raid buffs that made it easier to get a 10m raid together, but it’s a bit hard to imagine how else it would work in practice. I mean, are we talking about removing Heroic Strike? Slice N’ Dice? Only letting Frost DKs have Dark Simulacrum while Unholy DKs get Necrotic Strike? This is way too vague. But my point is that if these currently-class-wide abilities have any utility at all, only allowing one of the specs have them is going to create a demand for that specific spec. Which is fine in the abstract, I suppose, but it’s definitely a movement away from specs being more of a play-style decision than a mechanical one (outliers aside).

The second part about cooldowns is both welcome and terrifying simultaneously. Some cooldowns are simple macro-bait, but others… well. I hate to fall back on sacred cow terms like “iconic” and “class defining” but some actually are. I don’t think Blizzard would remove Avenging Wrath, for example, but that is almost always paired with Guardian of Ancient Kings. In fact, that’s pretty much the most classic (and visible) example of cooldown stacking I can think of. Perhaps both will stay in the game, but Ardent Defender/Divine Protection will be removed or rolled into Prot’s version of GoAK. What of the many Hand spells though? Lay on Hands? Could we see Devotion Aura go the way of the rest of the Aura spells? I could see Devotion Aura absorbing Divine Protection pretty easily…

At some point though, this is definitely something that can end up hurting.

Crowd Control and Diminishing Returns

The diminishing returns list up to this point has been a study in Rules Lawyering gone amok. “No, no, no. That’s not a Fear, that’s a Horror. And Controlled Stuns are nothing like Random Stuns.” All in all, there are 11 categories and 2 additional abilities that only DR with themselves. Which is not to say that the various categories didn’t serve an important function – making a wider variety of class/spec combinations viable in Arena – but the prospect of being locked in a CC chain almost indefinitely is a high price to pay.

Here is the shakedown according to the post:

  • Removed Silence effects from interrupts. Silence effects still exist, but are never attached to an interrupt.
  • Removed all Disarms.
  • Reduced the number of Diminishing Returns (DR) categories.
  • All Roots now share the same DR category.
    • Exception: Roots on Charge-type abilities have no DR category, but have a very short duration instead.
  • All Stuns now share the same DR category.
  • All Incapacitate (sometimes called “mesmerize”) effects now share the same DR category and have been merged with the Horror DR category.
  • Removed the ability to make cast-time CC spells instant with a cooldown.
  • Removed many CC spells entirely, and increased the cooldowns and restrictions on others.
    • Pet-cast CC is more limited, and in many cases has been removed.
    • Cyclone can now be dispelled by immunities and Mass Dispel.
    • PvP trinkets now grant immunity to reapplication of an effect from the same spell cast when they break abilities with persistent effects, like Solar Beam.
    • Long fears are now shorter in PvP due to the added benefit of a fear changing the players position.

It’s difficult to get a read on how the DR merge will play out right now, especially considering we’ll supposedly see CC get cut altogether from certain classes/specs. At a glance, I can say that melee classes are likely getting the bigger end of the stick here with the removal of Disarm effects + ranged class CC nerfs. The Druid vs Paladin match-up won’t be so one-sided now that we can bubble out of Cyclone. Hunters are getting screwed with Scatter Shot + Freezing Trap being on the same DR. Warlocks are getting especially hosed with their panic-button instant-cast Horror effects diminishing the follow-up Fear, which is itself getting nerfed again anyway. What is that, 10 years of Fear nerfs in a row?

In any case, that’s about all the blood I could squeeze out of that Dev Watercooler stone. I appreciate birds-eye dev articles as much as the next guy (and probably a bit more), but I felt this one was really lacking in specifics. I suppose we’ll start connecting the dots once everything is data-mined on MMO Champ, although by then it’s likely everything will have changed again.


Words cannot describe my disappointment.