Monday, 16 March 2015

Odyssey, the arena and why I want more of it.......

Sometimes I write loads for an update – and then realise I need to summarise - and sometimes that summary gets really long as well......

Case in point this hit four pages with a lot of background and explanation and asides before I realised – lord that is long and not finished.

So short version. The larp Odyssey is based around arena combat – it has stands – and I genuinely enjoy sitting in the stands with wine and sausage watching as people beat each other up with foam rubber swords for my amusement.

Sadly Odyssey is coming up towards the end of it's designed life (4 more events and it's done), it's not been a commercial success and so it seem unlikely that another company will choose to make something else based around an arena.   Which means no more arena fights for my entertainment because as far as I know Odyssey arena focused combat is as far as I now unique (do tell me if I'm wrong I might well break my “PD only” rule.

Since a picture speaks a 1,000 words I'll use this photo to show you why I want there to be more arena based larp.

Because from the looks on there faces something amazingly cool has happened – and they all got to see it. Apparently at the last Empire one of members had an awesome drag out fight with the opposing general – I know this because the person playing the general came by to thank him for it. I was on that field – I had no idea........

So following a couple of long conversations with some fellow Odyssey people my brain starting ticking over what you might do – game design wise to try and keep the arena combat but sort out some of the problems.

Problematically the bit of Odyssey I do – the god game – works (and works well enough to be moved into Empire as the Eternal game). So I have very little direct experience of the arena – this is based on conversations with people – so it's possible I've got the wrong end of the stick. I should also say that I've nothing but the highest respect for the people that designed Odyssey – that it works at all is a tribute to there vision. So it's very possible that more skilled game design minds have already look at this problem – but hey it's been rattling around my head so I best get it out so I can think about other things.

First step to solving a problem is working out what you think that problems actually are.

Firstly as a warrior the number of fights you can take part in is pretty limited. Basically you get to take part in one attack and one defence a day. Those fights are intense – but short – the great battle for Athens took 5 minutes for example. So you get twenty minutes of action over a weekend – which is a pretty low action to time ratio. There are quests as well but it’s an issue.

Secondly – at game release – the amount of stuff that warriors could do that was not arena based was limited – which meant people spent some time distracted. Profound decisions have worked hard on that area of the game to their credit – and I think somebody turning up who used to play but stopped would find a very different game. Some of this is that there are just more quests per player now (and they sorted out the issue where we once sent the whole of Persia to deal with some bandits – there were about ten of them – they very sensibly put down there weapons when the 80 or so players appeared and scowled at them).

Thirdly - while the arena seeks to give you epic combat where skill matters – it does not guarantee it. So you can turn up to a fight to discover your opponents have given up so they can concentrate on another fight or on the flip side you are the other fight and superior numbers are about to roll you into the ground.

Problem number 3 is especially bad when combined with problem number 1 – because only have four fight sucks when two of those are terrible. This then gets worse when you realise that number of people is a key factor in a fight, so of course you are going to do everything in your power to outnumber your opponents to win. The game does have a feedback mechanism for this – the Gods want entertainment – but that feedback mechanism is a confused channel compared to winning which is clear (made less clear because the Gods are also very keen on you winning as well….).

Fourthly – every epic moment requires that some other player fails. Some people are much better than others in a fight so some people are just going to keep getting those epic moments. One of the great things about Odyssey is that the truly great warriors stand out – there names are shouted across the arena but one of the bad things is that some people are just never going to get that moment and be an also ran.

Problem four might be solvable – magic/buffs/general shinies can be a great leveller. But there are two reasons that does not quite work – the in game reward cycle and rational choice. The reward cycle means that the really good people tend to get the shinies - the person that just dropped 4 opponents with a dramatic flourish is the one going to get noticed, is the one going to get the shinie toy (and lets me clear they deserve that reward). But the net effect of that is that the winner gets stronger while the loser has even less chance next time around. The second time is rational choice- magic only makes so much of a difference compared to skill. I’m not a brilliant fighter - bit of a flapper who hides behind a shield if I’m honest. You could magic me up the wazoo and I know I’d still get torn apart by anybody half way decent – so why bother magicing me up the wazzo in the first place? Save that for more useful people.

So what do you need to do.

There are two things you need to sort out more then anything else– the first is you need to get people more fights. The second is those fights have to be more balanced at least in numbers – because it's numbers that really determine if a fight is going to be a walk in the park or not. Fortunately I think the solution to both of those is the same – control the numbers going in. Have fixed numbers on each side.

They don't have to be the same number – because imbalanced fights can create epic moments – but they need to be 9 vs 6 not 20 vs 1 – and the people signing up to that fight have to know what they are getting into.

Background wise – you stop using the arena as a proxy from battles and treat it like an actual arena – with preset limits solely intended to ensure amusement to the crowd.

That removes some of the dead space that can exist in Odyssey – the sacrifice attack to force the opponent to burn resources – that takes 30 seconds but has a half hour slot because it was not clear what exactly was going to happen. If you've got a 9 vs 9 battle scheduled you can call that 15 minutes - and away you go. On the other hand if you've got a 30 vs 30 grudge match then give them the full 30 minutes slot.  You can also drive action by having a timer - attacker wins by the end or the defender does.  Means the attacker has to do just that - attack.

If you are controlling how many people then the cunning and manipulation has to be who is fighting each battle. Which means rather then the Odyssey 'War leader says we go here' each player needs to be involved in arranging where they personally are fighting. Which is good as it gives you something to do. You can make groups - I fight with my brothers only - but there smaller, informal and flexible.

That means you need to limit the number of fights people can have – otherwise you'll just send El Tasty the finest swordsman into every single fight (also you need to give everybody a go). But rather then a hard limit – use increasing resources – it costs more and more each fight you go into. So at some point you have to ask your self 'do I want El Tasty or do I want to save my money for another day?'

Finally giving people the chance to shine. Well the obvious solution is leaguing – split the player base up into skill ranks. Trouble with that is – what if El Pretty Good manipulates things so they stay in the bottom league and slaughter people? I think a better solution is to have sets of weapons – and then have some fights limit the sets of weapons that are allowed in that fight. So this character fights ambidextrous, this character fights sword and shield, this character fights with a two hander. This battle is only for two handers – that gives you a better chance to shine in your chosen field the one you are best at. It's not perfect but then neither is leaguing.....

The devil is in the detail – but a game based around an arena with those rules – provided you managed to make the stakes high enough (and one things Odyssey does do is make you care about those fights) might well solve some of the issues. Oh don't get me wrong the devil is in the detail – how much does each extra fight cost – how to do you manage the paperwork and ensure that somebody does not get missed out and end up with no fights at all?

But this is 'short version' is long enough I think......

Background wise – for some reason I think decadent empire with a gilded class (relatives of the Emperor perhaps) kept from the true power by utterly Machiavellian civil service but given this one route to struggle amongst themselves for privilege and status. Perhaps with the Byzantium fervour about chariot teams thrown in – a faction you support for the joy of supporting that crosses religious, economic, and social boundaries.

Edit - changed something about Odyssey life cycle because I'd got the wrong end of the stick somewhere.


  1. (Dammit, just lost my post because i wasn't signed in ¬_¬)

    One possible solution, have mercenaries as opposed to conscripted soldiers. Generals pay fighters according to their skill and a budget is set for each battle, wages increase with every battle survived, more if they were on the winning side. With the money, the soldiers can opt to buy better equipment buffs, but like mysteries they're one shots, or limited use so their upkeep costs increase as well.

    I'm aware that this is pretty much how Warhammer works but it does mean that a general can choose to take many unskilled, poorly equipped fighters against a less numerous but highly skilled and well equipped force, and still have a fair fight.

    You'd also need to have a pretty good in game economy to stop anyone from getting a monopoly and just throwing money at a problem but that would encourage other players to have a support role as armourer, alchemist, surgeon etc.

    1. That might well work - but I suspect it might be difficult to balance. How many grunts is one really good swordsman worth? How to I distinguish between these two people - and if I decide they are the same and one is better then the other - what happens to the worse one?

  2. It would be difficult to balance, yes. If I were to do it, I'd use a system that was significantly lethal (eg, without armour you get one hit and you're down) so that even if you are tooled up, there would be a fairly high of injury/mortality. I'd also factor in healing times that if you were injured, you'd have to sit out a number of battles, which means generals would be more cautious with who to out in which battles.

    Of course, a high turnover also leads to cookie cutter characters. Tricky.

    1. The high warrior death count at Odyssey may well be a factor why there are more and more priests and philosophers over time....Die and either come back as the same stats or try another part of the game.... But priesting is a lot less dangerous so people tend to gather there......

  3. I think the underlying problem is that the focus of the game is no longer the arena. The endgame scenario of the breaking of the World Forge takes precedence, since whole territories are being wiped off the map. You can't really account for that strategically.

    I also understand that early on, PD had to address the balance of the game due to the initial size of Persia and Greece; the end result of that was a lot of people not just changing class, but leaving the game entirely. There's no better illustration of that than our own group.

    For my part, death in the arena was never the issue. I enjoyed the fights, and had some great moments, but as a warrior I could never get any traction outside of the arena; and when I thought I was actually getting somewhere, the whole action just turned into vapeware. I noticed that regardless of my actions in the arena, kudos and reknown always seemed to go to other warriors, basically because they had a better PR/fanbase.

    Roleplaying wise, the most engaging role I ever had was one event as Prince Yunan. I didn't really get to do what I wanted to do with Izak, (ie be an assassin); partly because of a lack of framework within our group (a soldier needs orders!), and also that curiously, Philosophers in Odyssey make for better assassins. As such, I was ready to retire the character and was waiting for an opportunity to give him a grand exit.

    In conclusion, my experience of Odyssey has been bittersweet. I can see this great game unfolding before me, but never seem to engage with it directly; relegated to a supporting role in a tale of heroes, 3rd archer on the left.

  4. I know you never quite settled in Odyssey - I'm not sure I was ever a good foil for the rest of the Scorpions as I was always meant to be the happy face of the Scorpions.

    You are not the only person I know who feels that way - and I'm not quite sure why. Arena changes alone would not change that.

  5. I wouldn't actually change anything in the arena. As a stand alone element, it works very well. It's all down to how it sits with everything else going on in the game. I just think it's kind of jarring that the centre spectacle of the game has a diminished impact, or (worst case scenario) is actually irrelevant, to the final outcome of the game.

    In essence, it's like playing in a game of Risk where you're not actually allowed to win.

    I suspect that that may have been part of what fuelled the Persian apathy in the lead up to the big Hellas Phoenicia Vs. Persia fight last year. Before they'd even set foot in the arena, the Immortals had largely convinced themselves that victory was impossible, due to all the imagined buffs that they believed HP to have been given by the Gods.

    Ironically, it was the perception that almost guaranteed Persia losing, not disregarding the effort HP made in training like hell to ensure survival. All credit to them. I didn't mention this at the time because people were getting quite defensive about it, but after reviewing the video footage, it was pretty clear why Persia lost that battle.

    From my perspective, all the meaningful actions happen outside the arena (and for the most part behind closed doors), and we gladiators are there merely to entertain. The mechanics of the game prevent us from using effective tactics or strategy to achieve victory, and so the fights are basically exhibitions.

  6. Interestingly I've always felt my role should be devoted to empowering the warriors because that's the only thing that really counts...... A field where I've mainly failed. The success I have had have been Persian wide useful - not the scorpion useful......