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Differences between tactical mods


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#1 DavidW

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Posted 13 September 2007 - 04:13 PM

I'd originally intended to post this under the "opinion of Improved Anvil" thread, but that thread seems to have got so off-topic that it's going to be easier to do it in a new thread. So here are some thoughts about what makes tactical mods different from one another. Basic theme: it's not exactly about "good" vs. "bad" mods, more about the demonstrated fact that different people want different things out of their tactical mod.

I'm going to use, as examples: Tactics, Improved Anvil (IA), and my own Sword Coast Stratagems (SCS) - the TUTU version and the upcoming BG2 version. I want to make very clear that I'm not doing this as an excuse to sell my mod! - obviously I prefer it, or I wouldn't have written it, but equally obviously there are plenty of people out there who it doesn't suit and who'll have more fun with another AI mod.

That said, here are ten questions that you might ask to work out if a tactical mod is for you:

1) Is it customisable?

At one extreme, you've got Tactics (or Improved Battles, come to that). It's modular by its nature and so it's very easy to choose exactly the components you want.

Not all mods are innately modular like that. SCS, and IA (and Big Picture, come to that) muck with various interrelated aspects of the game, and the bits they muck with are chosen precisely because they interrelate. (Sikret introduces lots of new scary golems and then changes the spell system so as to include anti-golem spells; SCS makes Protection from Normal Missiles stop magic missiles too and scripts wizards on that assumption.)

At that point it's a bit of a judgement call what to do. SCS errs on the side of extreme modularity: you can still pick whichever arrangements you want, even if that leads to a slightly odd mix. IA errs the other way: it's all-or-nothing, pick the whole shebang or don't pick anything at all. (BP isn't far off that.) The advantage of my strategy is that it lets players pick and choose just what they want; the advantage of Sikret's is a more stable install and less risk of choosing some really mad combination of options.

2) Is it compatibility-friendly?

Again a judgement call. There's a liberal strategy (SCS's): maximise technical compatibility, let the user worry about conceptual capacity, work to minimise possible clashes. And there's a conservative strategy (IA's): don't risk a user having a messed-up experience and not appreciating their mod by mixing it up with another mod.

In a sense, G3 modding philosophy (if there's such a thing) is in the middle here: technical compatibility is maximised but most people have in mind a relatively (cmorgan-style, perhaps?) tame install. IA (or NEJ) are at one extreme; mega-modding is at the other.

(Tactics isn't wildly compatibility-friendly, but that's an accident: it's an old mod, technical compatibility was harder in those days.)

3) Is it faithful?

This is kind of hard to pin down, but I mean something like "is it in the general spirit of the original BG2 / the Forgotten Realms"? A mod that does nothing at all except improve AI and targetting definitely passes; a mod that adds lightsabers to the game definitely fails. But in practice things are usually murkier than that. (Ascension is very faithful, for instance, even though it adds "cheesy" abilities to bosses, because it doesn't really go beyond the general flavour of ToB in doing so.)

There's no particular virtue to being faithful. Bioware isn't God. But some people (me, for instance) like the flavour of the existing game and want to keep it. Others are bored as hell after their 1000th replay and want variety.
I'd say that Tactics is not especially faithful, nor is IA; I hope that SCS is.

I say again: this is a design choice, not a criticism. Sikret says of IA that it's a "long-term project to revolutionise BG2" (I'm quoting from memory). SCS absolutely doesn't aim to "revolutionise" anything. Take your pick.

(There's also a subgroup of players who are after a slightly different notion of "faithful": namely, "faithful to 2nd edition PnP D&D. That's not what I mean here though.)

4) Is it holistic?

That is, does it uniformly modify the game environment or does it just tweak individual encounters? Does every mage get enhanced or are there still lots of stupid ones?

In principle, holism is always good. More is more (plus, it helps realism). In practice, it comes at a price, because BG2 has hundreds or thousands of creatures and it takes forever to write material for all of them. IA modifies encounters more-or-less creature-by-creature, and inevitably that's a huge project and lots of creatures aren't done yet. SCS modifies pretty much everything, at the price of having relatively few distinct scripts: every single SCS mage uses the same script, for instance. Hopefully it's relatively hard to spot because the scripts are very long and cover a lot of possible situations; even so. I went this way because I find it jarring when some enemies are bright and others are stupid; players who want to maximise the variety of the challenges that are improved might not want to go with holism.

(Tactics does something in the middle, incidentally: it modifies whole groups of creatures - mages, beholders, illithids - but leaves many others alone, and it's not always completely careful about ensuring [a]all[/a] creatures of a given type are covered.)

5) Is it exploit-blocking?

By "exploits" I mean things like off-screen cloudkill, extensive use of invisibility, repeat thieving, etc, etc. You can take one of two lines on this: you can alter the rules so as to make them impossible, or you can do the best you can within the rules and accept that this won't always work. In SCSII, for instance, creatures try to run out of Cloudkill, but they're only medium effective; in IA, often their regeneration rate is so high that clouds don't matter. In SCSII, very few creatures can do much about traps, so only the player's self-restraint really stops them from trapping their way all the way to Ch.10; in IA, even relatively mundane creatures like Roenall's wizard are trap-proof.

The case for relying on players' self-restraint? It's hard to block exploits without overkill and a feeling of unrealism. The case against? It can spoil players' immersion in the game if they have to restrain themselves rather than being able to do anything they like within the rules.

SCS and Tactics basically don't block exploits. IA puts a high value on blocking them.

6) Is it transparent?

That is, can you normally tell from context, things you're told, and general BG2 experience what sorts of powers and immunities a creature has, or is the only way to work it out through trial and error - and, often, through many reloads. You can reasonably predict that liches are immune to nonmagical weapons and that fire may not work that well against fire giants, but if a human mage is immune to 5th level spells then it's going to be almost impossible for you to guess that.

Whether you like transparency has a lot to do with how you feel about reloads and metagaming. Some people (like me and Berelinde) prefer to reload hardly at all on the grounds that it feels less immersive and realistic. Others find that only through non-transparent special attacks / defences is the game still adequately challenging.

SCS tries very hard to be transparent. Tactics is fairly transparent, with some exceptions. Ascension is semi-transparent: lots of creatures have random immunities but they're usually not so high that you can't hurt them. IA is not transparent at all, although arguably it gets more so as you get the general hang of the mod.

7) How hard is it?

A rough measure of this is: how often do you want to have to reload? Hard to measure in practice, though, because people have different styles. And "hard" doesn't mean "clever", of course: you can make the game harder in more or less crude ways.

IA is generally agreed to be very hard indeed: all but the best players reload extensively. SCS, Tactics and Ascension are roughly as hard as each other, and much easier than IA.

8) Does it have double standards?

That is: can the enemies do things you can't do? This is a bit vague, of course (as I've noted elsewhere). Firkraag can do something you can't do: breathe fire. A beholder can cast ten uninterruptable spells per round. etc. But generally speaking, if enemies cast uninterruptable spells, have undispellable ultrahigh resistance, or put eighth level spells into their spell sequencers, the mod has double standards.

(I'm leaving out pre-battle buffing; that's a special case.)

Everyone agrees that double standards are in principle a bad thing. But there's also a widespread view that it's the only way to compensate for players' vastly higher intelligence compared to the computer, so (again...) saying that a mod has double standards isn't really meant as a criticism.

Tactics has a lot of double standards, normally at the script level: it force-casts a lot of spells, notably. Ascension and IA try quite hard at the script level to make their creatures play by the rules, but they extensively modify the creature files in ways that aren't usually available to the player (immunity to traps, ultrafast casting, uninterruptable casting, and the like.) SCS has a pretty sustained go at avoiding double standards, though it isn't quite perfect (see below).

9) What is its targetting like?

How carefully does it decide to use its spells?

This is hard work from a scripting perspective, and hard to work out except by playing a lot and/or by carefully dissecting the code. But to (say) target a charm person spell on the nearest PC who's not already out of action in some way and who's not charm-proofed, magic resistant, improved-invisible, or protected by spell turning, takes about 300 lines of code. (Very few entire scripts in the original game are that long). So most mod-writers take a lot of shortcuts. That sometimes works and sometimes doesn't; it can be relatively easy to catch them out if your strategy isn't quite what the mod-writer anticipated).

It is possible to hold out for really careful targetting all the way through (SCS tries very hard to do this) but it isn't cost-free. Leaving aside the cost in time and effort for the modder, it has two big problems:

i) it leads to crazy-long scripts. The longest SCSII script is 19,000 lines long, which is too slow for older computers and occasionally causes short lags even on modern ones.
ii) it leads to psychic opponents. Enemies detecting your Minor Globe of Invulnerability is one thing, enemies seeing that you're wearing a Helm of Charm Protection is arguably another; but it's hard to avoid this sort of thing without making enemies into the sort of morons who'll try fireballing you ten times even though you took no damage any previous time. (There is a well-known way around this, but it roughly doubles the length of the script).

So there are principled and practical advantages of sub-perfect targetting. On the other hand, it's kinda cool when enemies walk to the edge of cloudkills, avoid melee with creatures protected from their weapons, re-cast their own protection from magic weapon spell as soon as their first one is dispelled, hold off from casting further offensive spells on someone about to disappear into an Imprisonment effect, hold off their magic missiles until there are badly-wounded enemies to finish off, etc - all of which are only possible with serious targetting.

10) Does it have an arms race?

Does it provide, as well as enhanced dangers, enhanced rewards? (e.g.: powerful magic items; more experience).

Some people want improved tactics and only improved tactics. Others think that with great risk comes great reward. (Of course, that means that the next risk is still more challenging - etc, etc.

SCS borders on the puritanical - no new rewards at all. Tactics gives out lots and lots of rewards. IA is (or at any rate was) built around the idea of collecting and making ultra-powerful items; on the other hand, through various different means it tries to keep the arms race a bit under control.

Edited by DavidW, 13 September 2007 - 05:18 PM.


#2 Caedwyr

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Posted 13 September 2007 - 04:16 PM

Interesting read, and good summary.

#3 cmorgan

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Posted 13 September 2007 - 04:46 PM

And a good reminder of the main premise of all modding - that everything a modder does is a trade off. There is enough room out there for just about every playstyle conceivable, and hopefully, eventually, a mod that gives every playstyle an enhanced experience. Cool stuff.

Edited by cmorgan, 13 September 2007 - 04:46 PM.

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#4 Cashews

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Posted 13 September 2007 - 05:04 PM

That said, here are ten questions that you might ask to categorize a mod:


As much as I enjoyed your post DavidW, I fail to see the need to categorize any mod beyond its basic purpose. To know that a certain mod is a Quest Pack or a Banter Pack or a Tactical Pack should be enough. The only way one can truly categorize a mod is through the demands of the players and that's unreliable in itself as every player will want something different from a mod. Some will want a full immersion and will go for a TC, some will want to be able to customize their install as they see fit and will go with multi-component mods with minimal compatibility issues.

You can't please everyone.

#5 DavidW

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Posted 13 September 2007 - 05:18 PM

@Cashews: sorry, terminology clash. I didn't mean "categorise" in the sense of "work out what category on the modlist to put it in". I meant "here's a set of questions to ask about a tactical mod if you're thinking of using it".

#6 berelinde

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Posted 13 September 2007 - 05:22 PM

Cashews, I can't say I agree with you. I'd prefer to know what kind of mod I'm installing. When I build a routine installation, as opposed to the testing behemoth I've got now, I want as much comparative information as possible when selecting the mods I install.

I appreciate this post very much.
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#7 Cashews

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Posted 13 September 2007 - 06:13 PM

@Cashews: sorry, terminology clash. I didn't mean "categorise" in the sense of "work out what category on the modlist to put it in". I meant "here's a set of questions to ask about a tactical mod if you're thinking of using it".


Oh darn! Me and my bad english. :(

...but if you put it that way, I can't but agree with you.

However...

1) Is it customisable?

At one extreme, you've got Tactics (or Improved Battles, come to that). It's modular by its nature and so it's very easy to choose exactly the components you want.


Yes and no. The problem with both Tactics and Improved Battles is that they're not consistent. You cannot take either of these mods and say that they're like this and that they do that. Some components are very well done and some other would need to be changed completely. So yes, these mods are customisable, but only if you know what to expect from each component.

3) Is it faithful?


How so? From a rollplaying perspective or from a roleplaying perspective? Admittedly, most tactical players will lean toward the technical side of things (rules and stuff). They want new and improved tactical challenges, not extra banter. That being said, one cannot like Baldur's Gate without liking the basic themes and settings. Get rid of those, in the name of extra challenges and you may lose a great deal of interest form the players.

4) Is it holistic?

In principle, holism is always good.


Yes it is, but there's a huge number of encounters in both BG1 and BG2 which are just wrong. Most components from Tactics or Improved Battles are simple encounter enhancements... and that's not a bad thing. While AI and creature improvements should be the basis of any tactical mod, encounter enhancements add something severly lacking in the modding scene: new stuff which isn't NPC stuff. As much as I may enjoy the fact that Joe Wizard and Ben Fighter are not as stupid as they used to be, the impact of a new or improved encounter will be completely different for my gaming experience.

8) Does it have double standards?
Everyone agrees that double standards are in principle a bad thing. But there's also a widespread view that it's the only way to compensate for players' vastly higher intelligence compared to the computer, so (again...) saying that a mod has double standards isn't really meant as a criticism.


As long as its not overdone, its not a bad thing in itself. The problem is that some modders will cheat their way out of it. Double standards are a tool and one who can and should be used intelligently.

#8 Guest_Stu_*

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Posted 14 September 2007 - 04:38 AM

Good work DavidW, very diplomatic and well set out.
I particularly like your point on the arms race - often people wish to have the items that grant the 50% physical immunity to enemy X, without thinking of the connotations (i.e. the next enemy will have to be able to dish out twice as much damage to kill you...and will probably require a pretty uber sword to do so). Balance is generally quite hard to achieve whilst maintaining both difficulty and transparency.

One tactical addition that I have particularly enjoyed is the Chosen of Cyric encounter in aVENGER's Rogues Rebalancing mod. The enemies are essentially exported PC's at a comparable level to the player and get no advantages beyond pre-casting, traps (they ambush you, and this is shown in a cut scene) and what is granted by their items. So to compare it to the list:
1. It is customisable, there are a number of components to the mod and each one can be chosen independently.
2.It's (mostly) compatibility friendly (the new rogue HLA's were identified incompatible with IA(which adds new HLA's as well))
3. It's (imho) very faithful, there are multiple routes to resolve the situation, with many dialogue options and ways in which to approach the encounter
4. It probably isn't holistic; it has some pretty cool additions to thieves and bards, their strongholds and adds some abilities, but certainly doesn't change every enemy in the game (just the aforementioned encounter and the thieves guilds)
5. Isn't really exploit blocking, the battle ground is pretty small and there's wards to prevent your escape, but there aren't any rule changes to stop you from doing things.
6. It's fully transparent, all their abilities are based on their class and their items are available for looting
7. I (personally) think it was very difficult, though there isn't too much of an advantage in meta gaming (apart from realising that bum rushing isn't the greatest option)
8. Does it have double standards? - none (the enemies in the encounter are all based on player characters and they don't do anything that would not be available to the player and his/her party)
9. I'm not really too sure on the targeting (I haven't looked at, nor would I understand the code), but they do tend to cast power word death as soon as you get below about 1/2 health.
10. Is it an arms race? - The items gained are fairly powerful and I was using a few into the end of ToB, I don't think too many 'Chosen of Cyric' battles would hold up, simply because you'd end up with a ridiculous number of very powerful and expensive items.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that even with a fairly high time allocation for a component and a fairly clear vision of the desired outcome, it is almost impossible to create a tactical situation that will cover all the points outlined. Different decisions in the mod's development will almost certainly exclude it from achieving the theoretically perfect outcome in the rest of the checklist.

#9 Guest_Guest_Raven_*_*

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Posted 14 September 2007 - 08:24 AM

Hmmm this is interesting.

DavidW, about difficulty in relation to IA:

When you start playing IA, it seems really difficult for most people. This is a due to a combination of two things, I believe:

1- Not knowing how best to win the battles or their relative difficulty - I remember when I first played IA I reloaded over and over in some battles I eventually realised I actually had no chance to win and had to abandon.

2- The unfortunate fact that the beginning of IA is actually by far the hardest part of the whole mod (assuming you are playing with a balanced party of 5-6 characters). The most effective tactics are not available until some ways into the game. Even going down the path of least resistance quest-order-wise you run into some really tough battles.

Later in the game things get easier since you know what to expect. The same tactics you used successfully in one fight suddenly work a treat with some minor modifications in the next fight and so on.

So, one of the problems IA has is that it takes time to learn how to play it successfully at all. The mod favours a certain style of play that is non-intuitive for most players who have had success in other tactical mods. Another problem is that the simplest IA go-to tactics (by which I mean those which are likely to help in all battles if not win them outright) that players come across first leave out to some extent characters like mages and thieves.

In the process of testing IA 4.3 I played through most of the SOA part of the mod for what was for me the 4th time. In the process I experimented a lot with different tactics (not just the go-to ones I knew would work). And I learned some interesting things. Here's an example: something players complain about is mages being ineffective in IA. In fact, in my test party of 6 it was my sorcerer who was by far my most useful character. And not just for buffing and debuffing!

I guess what I'm saying is that just because characters like mages and thieves can't be used in IA in the same way as they are in other mods/vanilla game doesn't mean they can't still be really useful and powerful. It just takes a while to figure out how. For lots of people life's too short to do that given that IA can get repetitive and it's a lot of effort to play the whole thing through multiple times.

#10 Cashews

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Posted 14 September 2007 - 10:37 AM

Cashews, I can't say I agree with you. I'd prefer to know what kind of mod I'm installing. When I build a routine installation, (...) I want as much comparative information as possible when selecting the mods I install.


I agree. That's why I find a good Read Me so important. Every time I install a new mod (and often when I re-install a mod I already know), I go through the Read Me to better understand what I'm going to install. And if the Read Me isn't comprehensive enough I google-up the mod and browse through forums, in the hope of finding extra infos, complete reviews, commentaries and bug reports, just to be sure that I know what I'm getting myself into.

My point was that basic categorization should be exactly that: basic. Keep it simple, keep it comprehensive and new users or players will not be thrown off by a mod simply because they do not understand what its basically all about. Just make sure that the Read Me is thorough.

That being said, I appreciate how DavidW (intentionally or not) compared his tactical mods to other tactical mods out there. That's something other modders should do to, although some may lack the subtlety and humility to do so effectively.

#11 CamDawg

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Posted 14 September 2007 - 10:56 AM

/me kisses players who actually read the readme

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#12 berelinde

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Posted 14 September 2007 - 11:04 AM

I don't necessarily want to read what the modder wrote about his own mod. Sure, DavidW is objective, but not all modders are.

And last I checked, few tactical mods included *any* analysis of their contents in the readme.

In short, I like the 10-points list.
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#13 Guest_Luan_*

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Posted 15 September 2007 - 12:26 AM

Wonderful, objective, and non-biased post!

The 10 points would be very good to categorize and inform players what they are getting when they choose a particular tactical mod. Unfortunately, there just aren't many fully encompassing tactical mods out there so a well-written readme is probably more pertinent.

So far I've played tactics4iwd2, SCS (wonderful job btw, I would never consider replaying BG1 again without it, and am greatly looking forward to SCSII), tactics, and IA.
(Someone let me know if there are other good tactical mods to try)

Each has their strengths and weaknesses, though I guess they don't necessarily need to be classified as "weaknesses". Each simply has a different focus, the extent to which their objectives are achieved are all subjected to the particular players taste.

#14 Lemernis

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Posted 15 September 2007 - 03:39 AM

Thanks for the window onto the modder's world of considerations when it comes to this kind of scripting. I'm much better educated now about the tradeoffs faced during conception and design of a AI/tactical mod.

And thanks also for the gentle reminder that ultimately it boils down to a matter of preference/playstyle for each player. So far my experience of AI mods I managed to play through SCS, Irenicus' dungeon with Tactics, and quite a bit into Chapter 2 with SCS II (beta).

In the small sampling of the Tactics vs. SCS II comparison, I appreciated both mods for what each has to offer. I've had a fun time with both. I have yet to try Improved Anvil.

My enjoyment is now even more strongly based on a recognition of the fact that the modder (or mod team) has a particular set of goals in mind, and has made particular set of choices.
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