Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Future Armada

Way back in March I mentioned Future Armada in a post about the Fate system. With the demise of the d20 license the creator of the series, Ryan Wolfe, emailed all of his customers to let them know that he was uploading new versions of the older ships minus the d20 logo, and with a few minor corrections where errata had been found.

This prompted me to take another look at my collection, and I'm still amazed at the quality of the product. The ships are beautiful and the deckplans are both beautiful and well thought out in terms of what humans would actually need on board a starship. For example, far too many deckplans tend to leave out rather essential plumbing fixtures. Passengers and crew aboard a ship from the Future Armada won't have to search frantically for a restroom that doesn't exist.

The ships themselves all share a common backstory in the form of the so far minimally detailed "Future Armada" universe. This lets the ships be described with a story and crew, but the universe itself is generic enough that they can easily be adapted to other settings. Prime candidates would be Star Wars Saga Edition or Serenity (the latter of which already features deck plans designed by Ryan Wolfe). They work less well with systems that feature strict starship design rules, such as Traveller, but could be used in those kinds of games if the GM is willing to be flexible in interpreting those rules, or just decides to set them aside for the campaign.

The scale of the ships range from tiny one man fighters and small Millenium Falcon style freighters to the giant 2400ft long Invictus carrier and the Argos III deep space port. They also have a nice mix between 'practical' and 'adventuring' ships. The latter are suitable ships for small adventuring parties to have while the former are things like the Prosperity class modular container freighter and the already mentioned Invictus. Ships that fill obvious roles in a science fiction setting, but which aren't likely to be owned by the players.

Every single one of these designs provides inspiration for adventures, if not entire campaigns, set around them.

For example, the latest release is the Misfortune Container Ship. The Misfortune is an aging Prosperity class container ship officially named the Fortune, but which has had a long history as a hard luck ship. A few paragraphs go into the history of the ship and the very real reason behind why it has had such an unfortunate history (I won't spoil it by saying what it is). This seed alone could easily make for an interesting adventure set aboard the ship, but there's also a few more paragraphs that work up a specific scenario that the ship could be used in.

The Misfortune product also shows one of the other strengths of the Future Armada series: modularity. Almost all the larger ships in the series use modular floor plans that can be combined in different ways to make different ships. The Misfortune includes three layouts. The basic Prosperity class container ship, the Prosperity Alpha that replaces the containers with regular cargo bays, and the AJAX military transport that radically shortens the ship, adds basic weaponry, and makes other changes to better suit the design for transporting cargo to the surface of a planet in the midst of military conflict.

One final strength of the line represented in Misfortune is the extra attention to detail. In this case the Sherpa class freight hauler stands out. Detailed in the product because it happens to be carried as a shuttle aboard Prosperity class ships, this little ship is essentially a one man cockpit and set of engines arranged in a framework designed to match up with a single modular cargo container. They're basically space semi-trucks, especially when the long haul option is added to the package that includes a little extra storage and a restroom (a bed is included in the basic package). The ship isn't just mentioned, it's given a complete set of plans including ten different modular containers running from the basic freight container to a specialized bounty hunter layout with holding cells and work areas.

The result is a ship that could be used for any number of NPC encounters or as a 'starter' ship for a small adventuring group or solo player, and this wasn't even the main feature of the product!

I just can't get enough of the Future Armada sets and highly recommend them to anyone running a space based science fiction RPG.

The only thing that would make them better for me would be if someone would put out a line of miniatures based on them.

Edit: I forgot to mention that the ships all come as pdf files, usually at least three separate ones: an overview file with the background text layouts and pictures, a full color deckplan file, and a more printer friendly black and white line art deckplan file.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Despite all the plans I had for things to do while my wife is off visiting her family, I've found myself mostly sitting in front of the computer playing video games. I currently am subscribed to three MMOGs (yes I'm sick, but I also plan on canceling two of them soon, I'm just not sure which two). I thought I'd go ahead and give my impressions based on my dabbling.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Liche King: It's WoW with more levels. Nothing really new here. That's not to say that the expansion is bad. It's actually quite good, just nothing much to talk about in terms of gameplay if you are already familiar with WoW. One of the reasons I upgraded my computer was that I was running into problems trying to run my Priest in the new areas, so I haven't had a lot of experience with the post-70 game yet. I have spent some time playing a Death Knight and they are fun, if only for the fact that they're a bit overpowered, at least in PvE. I've been blowing through quests that my Priest struggled with at the same level.

Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning: WAR is the main reason I upgraded my computer. I actually bought the game before I could run it. I love the setting, and it's great fun to see a lot of the Warhammer world come to "life" in the game.

The funny thing is that I don't generally like PvP, and WAR is all about PvP (or RvR as Mythic likes to call it), yet I still really like WAR. I even created a new character specifically to PvP as much as possible. Jumping into the instanced PvP battles is easy to do, although the waits are sometimes long, and while they're mostly just wild melees they are still good fun. Unlike in WoW where if I go into a pick-up group for PvP I can expect to lose 99.9% of the time, in WAR my win/loss ratio has been around 2/3.

The couple times I've tried open RvR it's been fun too, but these areas are where the guilds are dominating. If you aren't part of a team you get slaughtered. The trick though is just finding a team, even if it's just a one time deal. The couple of pick-up teams I've joined have held their own. People seem to have a pretty good idea of what their role is. I'm not sure if this is because of the game, the players, or me just being lucky, but so far I've been impressed.

Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures: This game wasn't even on my radar. A license I'm only a moderate fan of, a release that was very buggy, and system requirements that are so high that even with my new system I have most settings turned down pretty low. I only picked it up because it was in the bargain bin for $10. Natually, it's the game I've been playing the most.

I've gotten to Level 32 and so far it's been an excellent single player game. Seriously, I've grouped twice and both times were merely to be polite to people who invited me. I've turned down multiple grouping requests at other times because grouping seems to just slow things down. Based on in-game global chatter this must change as you reach the higher levels, but for now I'm just enjoying following the story as I play through my single player game that other people keep wandering in to.

There is actually a story here too. You start the game having lost your memories and gained a strange mark on your body. You then spend the game searching for your lost memories, learning the meaning of the mark, and attempting to stop a great plot that is behind it all. You don't spend all your time following this specific story, in fact you only have about one quest per 10 levels that specifically follows it, but it's always there in the background.

You spend most of your time following other side quests. There are a lot of side quests, and most of them are parts of chains that make up mini stories. Unlike most of the chained quests in WoW, many of these chains are completeable within the level you start them at, so you can run through the complete story in one session instead of having to stop and find some other way to gain XP because the next step in the chain is too hard for you to attempt.

There are so many quests available that you can do some picking and choosing, either based on the offered rewards, or on your roleplaying preferences. For example, I see my character as someone with a few morals, so I pass on the more morally dubious quests. I still have more quests than I can accomplish before outlevelling them.

The only bad thing is that everyone has the same basic story, so I can see where levelling up a second character could be a lot less entertaining than the first time through, even with all of the available quests to choose from.

Despite spending all this time with it now, I'm almost certainly going to cancel AoC in January when my free month is up. As fun as it is now, there simply doesn't seem to be an end game that I'd have much interest in. The team based PvP of WAR and WoW interest me more as an end game.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

To the 3.5 Diehards

If I play D&D it's going to be 4th Edition, but if you still prefer 3.5 then you should check out Monte Cook's Collected Book of Experimental Might. Previously available as a pair of PDFs, this is a collection of house rules by Monte Cook that could arguably have become 4.0 in an alternate universe.

I have the first of the PDFs which I bought as a hard copy from a print on demand service. It does a complete overhaul of the magic system while still retaining the Vancian core. As I understand it, the second PDF did something similar for the non-magic classes by revamping the feat system. If it was half as well thought out as the magic then the combined book should be extremely useful for anyone who didn't get what they were looking for from 4th Edition D&D. At $29.99 it's not a bad deal either. I paid that for just the first half of it! If I thought that there was any chance I'd ever want to run a 3.5 game I'd buy it.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Uncharted Seas

A picture of my Uncharted Seas Dragon Lords and Iron Dwarves straight out of the box. I haven't even put the sails on the Dragon Lords yet. For scale purposes, the islands are Gale Force Nine islands for WizKids Pirates game and the dice are 1/2" dice. You can see representatives of all three classes of ships for both races in this picture as well as the frigate turning and arc of fire template.

In one of my posts about podcasts I warned about listening to This Week In Wargaming if you valued your wallet. Naturally, I didn't take my own advice and the result is that I decided to pick up the rules and a couple of starter navies for Uncharted Seas from the Warstore.

The guys at TWIW have been pretty enthusiastic about this game, and after getting a chance to read through the rules and push the models around the table a bit I have to agree. Uncharted Seas is a set of fantasy naval rules. Amongst truly old school Games Workshop gamers this will immediately invite comparison to Man O' War, GW's fantasy naval rules from back in the day. My opinion is that if you still miss Man O' War, then this game could very well scratch that itch.

First, the background. So far it's fairly minimal, but gets the job done. The initial four navies are the Imperial Navy (humans), Iron Dwarves, Orc Raiders, and the Dragon Lords (Melnibonean style elves). The story is that all but the Dragon Lords originate from the Old World and have fairly recently discovered and begun to colonize the New World. In doing so they have encountered the Dragon Lords who already claim dominion over the New World. The background allows for conflict between all four races as well as internal conflicts between different factions within the same race.

Unlike the Old World, which is one big continent, the New World is made up mostly of island chains with a few larger land masses. This explains why naval warfare has come to be the dominant means of power projection in the region.

The rulebook mentions plans for further expansion, both for the existing races and the introduction of new races, including more traditional Elves.

The rules are simple, but capture most of the feel of age of sail style fighting. Turns begin by rolling initiative and then players take turns activating squadrons of ships in initiative order.

The wind is handled simply by it not having an effect unless you are sailing directly into it (actually within about a 45 degree arc of directly into it), at which point your movement costs are doubled as long as you do so. There's also a chance once per turn of the wind shifting.

Turning is handled using three templates, one for each class of ship: frigate, cruiser, and battleship. This makes movement a simple affair.

The same templates also show arcs of fire for the three classes, which brings us to line of sight. In the basic rules frigates do not block line of sight from battleships, otherwise everything blocks line of sight, both ships and islands. Ships firing broadsides basically have two 45 degree arcs to trace line of sight from, one at either end of the ship. If both have line of sight, then the ship gets full firepower against the target. If only one has line of sight then firepower is halved. This makes it a little more tricky to maneuver the larger ships to bring their full firepower to bear since the two arcs are spread further apart.

Damage is handled by rolling a number of d6 equal to the firepower of the attack. Generally 4s and 5s are single hits, and 6s are double hits that get rerolled for the possibility of even more hits. This can be modified by various factors so that 3s can be hits, or 4s can be misses. This system makes it possible, if unlikely, for a lucky shot from a frigate to sink a battleship if the shooter keeps rolling 6s on the rerolls.

The total number of hits are compared to the damage value and critical value of the target, if they equal or exceed the damage value then the target takes one damage point. If the total hits equal or exceed the target's critical value then the target rolls on the critical hit table instead of taking a damage point. If the shot was so good that the number of hits was twice or more the critical value, then the target has to roll once for each multiple of the critical value done.

Damage is handled in the same way when handling ramming, collisions and boarding actions. The only differences being how to determine the number of dice to roll. The result is an easy to understand and use system that should be fast playing. Most record keeping can be handled on the table with tokens, although some paperwork may be necessary, especially in larger games, to keep track of critical hits taken.

There's one further factor that adds more depth to the whole system: the card decks. Each player gets a 26 card deck. Thirteen of the cards are common to all decks, and the other 13 are specific to the race being played. Each player gets to draw a number of cards equal to the number of squadrons in their fleet, up to a maximum of five. The cards are played during the game to give advantage to certain rolls, or to cast special magical effects, and are refreshed at the end of each turn. Depending on the nature of the card they are either played at the beginning of the turn, when activating a squadron, when attacking, or in reaction to another player's action.

Between the ship stats and the race specific cards there seems to be enough differentiation between forces to give each navy a distinct feel without requiring a lot of special rules.

The basic game includes stats for three ships for each navy: one frigate, one cruiser, and one battleship. Spartan Games has already released stats for new ships for each navy, including a dragon carrier for the Dragon Lords that introduces air power to the game, heavy cruisers for the Dragon Lords and Iron Dwarfs, a new battleship class ship for the Orcs, and a troop transport for the Imperial Navy that gives them marines. Other units that have been mentioned for the future include submersibles and further air power.

There's also a set of sea monsters to use as random encounters in some scenarios. The rules for all the new units have been offered as free pdfs at

The game has an affordable entry cost. The book itself is about $28 at the Warstore. Starter fleets range from around $40 to $45 for all but the dwarfs who are only around $25 because they don't need the white metal sails that the other forces use. Starter fleets give you six frigates, three cruisers and a battleship, plus the card deck for that race. Enough to play the scenarios from the rulebook and get a good feel for the game.

If you pick the dwarfs as one of your navies you can get into this game with two complete forces for less than $100! I can't think of another miniatures game that comes in at that price point.

The miniatures themselves are single piece resin hulls with white metal sails for those ships that use sails. Quality is good with some minimal work needed to clean up the bottom edge of some of the resin pieces. Detail is good without going overboard. Painting up a navy should be a quick process. I plan on just spraypainting a basecoat, picking out a few details and then hitting it with a wash before sealing it with a clear coat and calling it finished.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Quick Impressions

I've been glancing through a lot of RPG stuff recently, but haven't had the time to go through any of it with the level of detail needed to do a full review. Instead I'm going to give a few comments here covering things I noticed so far and wanted to share.

King of the Trollhaunt Warrens: It's not set in the Nentir Vale, and doesn't make any effort to connect to the H series of adventures. I expected the H, P, E series of adventures to be more of a level 1-30 campaign, not a set of largely unconnected adventures that just happened to go from levels 1 to 30. There's at least a suggestion of what direction the setting lies from the Nentir Vale, but I think more could have been achieved here.

Martial Power: Rangers rock. I was already a big fan of the Archer ranger and they get some interesting new paragon paths, but the Beastmaster ranger is going to make my choice difficult if I ever get to actually play. The only drawback to this book is that by adding even further options for Defenders, Strikers, and Leaders, it makes the Controller role look even more straightjacketed. Hopefully the Arcane Power book will give Wizards at least a couple of new builds, if not a completely new Controller Class or two either there or in the PHB2.

High Guard: I open the book and the table of contents is for Mercenary. Come on guys! You were doing so well, don't pull a Mongoose and blow it. Your brand is rapidly becoming synonymous with poor quality control, whether it's in editing or production.

It's a shame, because the content seems pretty good (aside from a good deal of further errata). The deckplans for the capital ships are interesting and something that has been largely missing from Traveller, but why change canon unnecessarily? There's already an established set of plans for the PF Sloan, yet someone felt the need to completely alter the shape of the ship and create new ones.

It was nice to see the plans for a superfreighter included. Hopefully we'll see more of that if there's ever a Merchant book done.

Scum and Villainy: I think that Star Wars Saga Edition may be the most consistently good RPG product line out there right now. Although it got a slow start due to the resources being devoted to the launch of 4th Edition D&D, every release that has come out has had something for everyone, players and GMs alike. Even the weakest book, Threats of the Galaxy, still had a number of new talents, equipment and playable races scattered through the book. It may be a good thing that I'm not running a Star Wars campaign, because each book that comes out makes me want to run a campaign based on it. So far we've had the Knights of the Old Republic setting, the Dark Times setting in the Force Unleashed, and now the Fringe setting in Scum and Villiany.

I haven't had much time to actually read Scum and Villainy yet, but among other things it's got rules for smuggling, bounty hunting, equipment modifications and Jawas. I am so playing a Jawa if I ever get into a game.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fallout 3

I finished up the main storyline in Fallout 3 a few days ago and I think it's the most fun I've had with a video game in a long time. Usually I get frustrated or bored with these games long before they're over, but that didn't happen with this one, and it wasn't because it was short. I didn't keep track, but I probably spent at least 40 hours playing it.

I've tried to pin down what it is that made it so fun, and I think it was a number of things. Possibly the biggest factor was the ability to play on "very easy" difficulty. While some people view having to replay a certain part of a game because they died as a challenging puzzle to solve, I just see it as something that breaks my immersion in the game, and forces me to repeat content I've already seen. The "very easy" difficulty level let me enjoy the game. Combat was fun instead of frustrating, and didn't feel like it was just a cakewalk, even though it mostly was.

Having to walk across country to discover new points, but then being able to auto-navigate to those points once you found them was also an important factor. It makes a nice compromise between immersion and convenience. Of course, this isn't something unique to Fallout 3 (Fable 2 uses the same basic idea), but it is well implemented. Also, the navigation system gives you notice when you are near sites of interest, and points you in their direction, keeping you from having to just constantly wander the countryside at random hoping to stumble across something interesting. This is very important in a game that features a wide-open world.

There are some issues with the game, but they're minor. A few of the layouts get repetitive after a while. The metro stations in particular get a bit old after going through a couple dozen of them over the course of the game. The same goes for the Vaults themselves, although most of them are completely optional as to whether or not you explore them, so it's not a big deal.

That leads to one of the biggest things I liked about the game, the ability to explore as much as you feel like. I could have finished the game in half the time if I'd simply stuck with the main storyline quest, and it's pretty obvious which quests are part of the main story. Instead, I took the time to track down clues leading to side quests in between doing the main ones. When I got tired of doing the side quests, then I continued on with the main quests.

One issue to be aware of is that when you finish the main storyline the game is over. You can always go back and start again from a saved game, but you don't get the chance to continue exploring the world after completing the main quest. I knew this from reading about the game, but the game itself doesn't let you know this until after you're locked into the final scene. Given that wide open games like this generally let you continue on after completing the main quest, there should probably have been more warning that that wasn't the case with this one.

I may even return to the game to do some of the side quests I skipped, but for now I got exactly what I wanted out of the experience: a fun time without a lot of frustration mixed in.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

More Podcast Follow Up

I've added This Week In Wargaming to my list of subscribed shows. Don't listen to this podcast if you like miniatures wargaming and value your wallet as it tends to review a lot of cool new stuff which you'll then want to buy.

My reservations about Podhammer appear to have been misplaced. I still think the anniversary episode was crap, but everything I've listened to since then has been pretty good. I went ahead and joined the Inner Circle as part of the package deal with the 40K Radio Freebootaz. I think that for $20 for both of them it was a little pricey but still worth it, but it's not quite worth $15 for each yet unless you just want to support them because you like them. As they continue to add content to the members only section the value will increase.

I caught up with the Order 66 podcast, and I stand by my earlier rave review. Even though I still don't play the Star Wars RPG, it remains my favorite podcast.

The Instance has fallen off my list simply because I'm not playing WoW at the moment. I'll probably return to it when I return to WoW.

40K Warcasting hasn't updated since I subscribed to it, but that's the nature of podcasting. These hobby casts are the result of just one or two people's efforts, and can easily be derailed or delayed for a variety of reasons. I hope that the guy behind it can eventually find the time to return to it.

I've been trying out some new casts since I'm starting to run out of things to listen to now that I'm caught up with the Order 66. I'll probably talk more about some of those in the future after I have listened to a few episodes.

The Force Unleashed

I'm a sucker for Star Wars. I'm not a complete fanboi anymore, I have yet to see the Clone Wars movie and I think a lot of the prequels sucked, but I am still a big fan. As a result, I consider The Force Unleashed to be a mixed bag.

It's one of the better stories to come out of the Star Wars franchise in a while, but the gameplay is mediocre at best. You play Galen Marek, the Starkiller, apprentice to Darth Vader. Through a series of missions the story of the birth of the Rebellion unfolds, as well as the personal struggle between light and dark within the Starkiller. The story has a good mix of solid drama, action and the feel of Star Wars. Guest appearances by characters from the prequels, the original films and the expanded universe all serve to tie the story more closely into the Star Wars universe. The new characters introduced into the game are worthy additions as well, particularly Order 66 survivor Jedi Master Rahm Kota.

Unfortunately, the gameplay itself is repetitive at best and annoying at worst. For me good game design allows for multiple solutions to a problem, but the Force Unleashed only has one correct solution to each problem, and worse yet, similar problems often require different solutions, making a mockery of logic. For example, locked doors. In a good game you should be able to approach a locked door in multiple ways: bash it down, pick the lock, or find a key are three good options. In The Force Unleashed each locked door can only be opened in one arbitrary way, and it's not always the same way. Some times through use of the Force push power, sometimes through the use of the Force lightning power, sometimes through use of the Force grip power, but always only one of the three will work and you never know which one until you try. It's silly and frustrating.

Worse, the game has jumping puzzles. I hate jumping puzzles. At one point in particular I had to fight through half a dozen enemies, use Force grip to raise a platform, jump onto the platform, then jump onto a further platform. The problem was that the platform was at the extreme limit of my jump range, and took me several tries to get across. Each time I failed I had to fight through the same bunch of enemies. Worse still, while the enemies weren't difficult to beat, they were annoying to fight. This leads to another problem.

Frustrating and annoying is not the same thing as challenging. Opponents that constantly knock you off your feet so that you can't do anything are not challenging, they are just frustrating. The game has too many of them. It isn't as bad as it could be, but it is bad enough.

Finally, there are some un-Star Wars like game mechanics. The most obvious is that the lightsaber is pathetically weak. Even at the highest damage bonus levels it takes multiple strokes to slay simple Stormtroopers. I understand it's tough to allow for movie like damage capability while making for interesting game play, but it's still annoying.

Fortunately, the game is still worth playing if only to get the story. Unfortunately, it's not going to be worth playing again, not even to unlock the alternate ending cinematic (which you can find with a quick google search anyways). Lack of replayability, combined with a relatively short playtime, means I'd recommend renting this one.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Tale of Two Civies

Two new Sid Meier's Civilization games came out recently, and like the fanboi that I am, I had to try both of them. Civilization IV: Colonization for the computer and Civilization Revolutions for the Xbox 360.

The first one I got was Colonization. Seeing this game come out was a bit of a surprise to me. I was a big fan of the original Colonization, but it was probably the least popular of the early Civilization type games that included Master of Orion and Master of Magic.

Colonization puts you in the role of one of the major European powers that colonized the Americas. You build up your colonies until you're ready to break away from your mother country in a revolution. You win by being the first player to successfully win a revolution.

My initial impressions of the new Colonization were very favorable. The game played like I remembered the original one playing right up until I got to the endgame. Simply put, the endgame revolution is far too difficult. I was pretty shocked since I started on an easy difficulty level which in Civ games usually means that you almost have to try to lose in order not to win. Not in Civilization IV: Colonization! Based on comments on the web it looks like the difficulty setting actually does nothing, or at least nothing noticeable to many players. Achieving a victory requires a very narrow and specific strategy, without any of the ability to explore options and play around at lower difficulty levels. That's not something I expect or accept in a Civ game.

Hopefully they'll fix this in a patch eventually, but in the meantime I have to rank this as possibly the worst Civ game ever, and that includes the games that didn't have Sid Meier's name on them.

Thankfully, Civilization Revolutions is an entirely different story. This adaptation of the game to the console is a great success. In simplifying the game for the console they managed to distill it down to some of its best elements. The result is a game that can be played to completion in a couple of hours from start to finish, and yet give you the same satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment as a game of Civilization IV that takes many times longer to play.

I find that the shorter playtime allows for more experimentation with strategy and tactics. I hate to mix things up in a regular Civilization game because by the time I find out if my strategy works or not I've already invested several hours in the game. The most you lose in Civilization Revolutions is an hour or two if your strategy doesn't work out. The game is also supposed to have a decent multiplayer mode, although I haven't tried it.

The simpler interface does lose a few nice things, like automated exploring, but the shorter nature of the game makes this less noticeable than it would be otherwise. One of the biggest changes veteran civ players will notice is the lack of workers. Development of the tiles surrounding cities is done through technology research rather than through workers. This eliminates a lot of micromanagement. You don't have to develop each city separately, you don't have to manage a lot of workers, and you don't have to worry about protecting your workers when war breaks out.

Speaking of war, I like the way it's handled. The engine is very similar to other civ games. Playing up through King level in difficulty the odds seem to be fairly reliable indicators of victory. The underdog can win, but it doesn't seem to happen nearly as often as it does in other civ games. This means that the infamous civ battle anachronisms are very rare. I'm talking here about tank armies being defeated by archers and other such silliness.

The diplomacy leading to war is also nice. Reactions tend to be a lot more predictable when you refuse a demand. Up to King level no one just declares war on you out of the blue. They only do it if you have refused a demand, in which case they do it immediately, or if you are about to win the game, in which case the entire world often turns against you to try to prevent your victory. Both situations are predictable, and therefore can be worked into your strategy.

Having more predictable results may not necessarily be more realistic, but they feel more realistic to me.

Overall, I think this is one of the best Civ games ever, which was a very pleasant surprise for me after the disappointment that was Civilization IV: Colonization.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

If At First You Don't Succeed...

Try another Star Wars MMOG. Lucas Arts and BioWare (unfortunately a branch of EA now... boooo), have announced a new MMOG titled Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Despite being deeply flawed, I was a big fan of Star Wars Galaxies when it first came out. It's now a completely different game, and one I have little interest in, but I could still get excited about playing in a Star Wars MMOG if done well.

There's not a lot of information out yet, but the Knights of the Old Republic games have been some of the best Star Wars video games ever done, so it's natural that they would choose to revisit that era for the new MMOG. It also has the advantage of being full of jedi, which is something that plagued Galaxies, being set in a post Order 66 galaxy where jedi were supposed to be all but extinct, yet everyone wanted to play one.

I've mostly given up on following games pre-release, but I'll probably keep an eye on this one.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Forgotten Realms in 4th Edition

Every change to a new edition of an RPG generates a lot of controversy in the fan community. Perhaps the most controversial changes to come with 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons have been the changes to the Forgotten Realms.

While I sympathize with fans who feel the changes were too much, I not only disagree with them, but I think that the changes didn't go far enough.

The Forgotten Realms were created for 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and have always had a 1st Edition mindset. They were created using the 1st Edition rules as a foundation and asking the question "if these rules were the laws of reality, what would the world look like." When they made the change to 2nd Edition AD&D they put the realms through a series of cataclysmic changes in order to explain the changes made in the rules, because they recognized that the rules defined the setting for the Forgotten Realms.

Now, with 4th Edition, they decided to do something similar. If it took a cataclysm to make the relatively minor change from 1st to 2nd, it was going to take something even greater to make the change from 3rd to 4th seeing as how the changes to the rules were so much greater. That's why we get a world where entire continents have been replaced, civilizations have fallen and risen, and the timeline has been advanced 100 years.

The problem is that they didn't go far enough. The 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide lists nine assumptions about the world. One of those assumptions is that "Adventurers Are Exceptional." That has never been true in the Forgotten Realms. Adventurers in the Realms are so common place that countries like Cormyr have laws and regulations specifically to deal with them, and sometimes construct national policy based on the presence of adventurers and what they are likely to do. This was true before, and it's still true even after the 4th Edition updates.

The Forgotten Realms does meet the other eight assumptions, and the DMG talks about altering core assumptions, but to allow the first fully supported setting in the new edition to break what is arguably the most important of the core world assumptions was a mistake.

The "Adventurers Are Exceptional" assumption is what most sets 4th Edition apart from its earlier incarnations. Playing in the Forgotten Realms of previous editions, players didn't usually feel that their actions made much of an impression on the big picture. There was always someone more powerful just around the corner. This meant that either the players never dealt with significant threats, or else there had to be a reason why Elminster, or one of hundreds of other powerful adventurers, wasn't already dealing with it.

While 4th edition has done away with a large number of the more powerful NPCs, and reduced the power of some of those that remain, it still retains the idea that adventurers are everywhere, and therefore not really that exceptional.

I think they had their reasons for doing this. The first is that they probably agree that the "Adventurers Are Exceptional" assumption is the biggest change from previous editions, and by putting out the Forgotten Realms without that assumption they hoped to provide a setting that was a little more familiar to those coming from previous editions. The second reason is that the Forgotten Realms are the setting for the first "living" campaign for 4th Edition put on by the RPGA. The living campaigns, by necessity, assume that adventurers are relatively common. They have to in order to accept that hundreds, or even thousands, of players across the US and the world are all playing characters in the same shared campaign.

Still, I would rather have seen a setting that more fully encompassed the core setting assumptions at the heart of 4th Edition, and I fear that by not doing so the design teams could lose sight of some of those assumptions. That would be a real shame.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Traveller Metal

Doing some searches for images of Vargr for my play-by-post Traveller game I stumbled across a band called Slough Feg (formerly The Lord Weird Slough Feg) that did an album titled Traveller back in 2003. I'm not a huge metal fan, but I read some reviews online and listened to some clips on iTunes and decided to go ahead and buy the album. I'm still not a huge metal fan, but it's an enjoyable listen, especially given the subject matter. With track titles like Spinward Marches, Vargr Moon, and High Passage/Low Passage it's hard to go wrong!

Based on the reviews I've read, if you are a metal fan you should like this album a lot. The reviews I've seen are uniformly positive, with lots of 10/10, 100% and 5/5 ratings.

According to an interview with the apparent founder of the band, Mike Scalzi, the album concept is based on a story he wrote set in the Traveller universe. I'm still puzzling out the overall plot from the lyrics myself, but it seems to be about a Vargr Corsair who is experimented upon by a human scientist, possibly attempting to create a human/vargr hybrid. I keep getting distracted by stuff whenever I sit down to listen to the actual lyrics, so I could be off a bit, but it's something like that.

Scalzi is not a gamer currently, but has a love of the Traveller universe from his gaming days back in school, and it shows in this album. If you like either metal or Traveller, give this one a listen.

Things We Think About Games

This is a book about games by people who design and play them. The bulk of the book consists of 101 short observations on games by the authors, along with 26 more observations contributed by others. These observations are either about playing games or designing them. As the foreward by Robin Laws points out, some of them will seem obvious and some of them will seem wrong. I'd add that some of them would make for good entries in a "Miss Manners Guide to Gaming."

This book is worth reading, and it won't take you very long to do so. Unfortunately, that's because in many cases a page consists of only a single sentence, and averages about a paragraph per page for a book that's only around 150 pages long. That's unfortunate because the book costs $20. The fact that it costs $20 is unfortunate because it really is worth reading.

I'd suggest buying it as a gaming group and passing it around. Perhaps adding your own comments into the large amount of white space available on most pages.

I'll leave you with two of my favorite entries, and also two of the shortest:

44: If you want to play again, you should probably not act like a fuckwit.
45: If you don't want to play again, still do not act like a fuckwit.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Nature of Hit Points

The majority of RPGs that I'm familiar with use a hit point based system to keep track of a character's overall health. The common assumption is that hit points represent the amount of punishment a character can absorb before being rendered incapable of further action. It assumes that every loss of hit points represents actual physical harm to the character. The problem with this is that it's very poor at representing both reality and most dramatic situations. Generally, in both life and movies most people are taken out of a fight from a single shot, stab or blow with a heavy object, yet in most RPGs the average character can take multiple blows from a deadly weapon and remain fully functional right up until the point where they fall unconscious or die.

The trick to making a hit point system better fit dramatic tropes, if not actual reality, is to change what they represent. They don't really represent physical damage taken. Instead, they represent a combination of luck, determination and endurance. A shot that "hits" and does damage doesn't really hit, it merely uses up some of the target's luck, or makes the character nervous in such a way as to make him more vulnerable to future attacks (represented by the fact that a loss of hit point makes it so that the next "hit" is more likely to actually drop the character to 0 hit points).

Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition uses a version of this approach as described in the player handbook. They even incorporate it into the mechanics with the bloodied status. At half hit points a character or creature is considered "bloodied." I interpret this as meaning that the character has finally taken some actual physical damage at this point. In dramatic terms, after a flurry of traded blows and blocks, one finally slips through and cuts the opponent. The opponent is still completely capable of fighting back, but it's obvious to all that he's in trouble.

For a more concrete example lets look at some of the action from Star Wars: A New Hope from the point of view of the Star Wars Saga Edition rules. When Luke, Han, and Leia are trying to escape from the Death Star they engage in multiple gun battles, but never take a single hit from a blaster. That's incredibly unlikely using the Saga Edition rules, even if we assume that they were relatively high level characters at the time. So, what really happened in game terms?

Saga Edition uses a hit point system along with a condition track. If you take above a certain level of damage in one blow it knocks you down a level on the condition track. I see the condition track the same way I see bloodied status in D&D. Losing hit points is merely your luck or willpower being eroded by close calls, but losing a step on the condition track represents an actual injury. So, what happens in our example from Star Wars is that our heroes all take multiple "hits" in game terms, but never take enough damage in one blow to force a condition change. The blaster bolts that come close represent those hits, but the heroes' "luck" is never reduced enough to lead to an actual wound. Neither do they ever take enough cumulative damage to their hit points to be taken out by that final hit that comes in after all their luck is gone (in other words, they never drop to zero hit points).

One more example of this in action is the lightsaber duel in Star Wars: A Phantom Menace. Lightsabers only actually hit someone twice during the entire duel. The first time one hits it kills Qui-Gon Jin, and the second time one hits it kills Darth Maul. Of course, in game terms they surely hit each other multiple times over the course of the battle. Most of those "hits" are represented by the flurry of blows, blocks and counterblows exchanged over the course of the fight. Not all the blocks we see in the movie are blocks in game terms. A normal exchange of blows is just that, a normal exchange of blows where both characters lose hit points.

Also, notice that several times during the fight one participant manages to kick or trip another. In game terms they just "hit" their opponent with a lightsaber attack, but in narrative terms that's described as a kick or other blow. Some of those blows probably included some sort of power or tactic that led to the target character being disadvantaged by being knocked down or pushed off a ledge, while others were just normal strikes. In all cases it wasn't that the attacker suddenly decided to make an unarmed attack in the middle of a lightsaber fight. In game terms all those attacks used a lightsaber, but in narrative terms they are described otherwise to explain why the target didn't just die when struck by a deadly weapon.

Now, some people don't care about any of this. They're just fine with describing opponents slowly getting hacked to bits, regardless of whether or not this accurately represents what the game is supposed to be modelling. If that works for everyone in your group, then that's fine and you don't need to reinterpret anything, just describe each hit as a slash, strike, or shot hitting home. For some people such things prevent the suspension of disbelief, and take them out of the game. For groups with such people I think that it's better to reinterpret just what hit points represent so that the game better represents the kind of action it's trying to model.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Star Wars Saga Edition

Star Wars Saga Edition holds a significant place in recent RPG history if only because it served as a test bed for many ideas that eventually made it into 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Despite this, it is its own distinct system and not merely a variation on D&D, and I am going to try to treat it as such.

I'm a big fan of the old West End Games d6 Star Wars RPG. It had its issues, but most of them came up in longer campaigns as dice pools got out of hand. Most of my games using it were relatively short and a lot of fun. I'm neither a big fan of the d20 system nor the Star Wars Expanded Universe, so I was never that interested in Star Wars RPGs since WotC took over the license. I have owned a copy of each version of the core rules, but they were one of the first things I got rid of when I decided to slim down my collection.

Two things got me to pick up the Saga Edition core rules anyways. The first was the fact that it was a test bed for 4th Edition D&D. My interest in RPG design theory meant that I had to at least take a look at it. The second was the graphic design. The odd size of the book combined with the golden Vader on the cover made it look more like something you'd have on your coffee table than your gaming shelf, and that appealed to me.

Despite picking it up shortly after it was released, I never got that interested in it until recently. It's still d20, it still features a level based system and it emphasized tactical miniatures combat more than I like. This latter was the most important for two reasons. One is that I don't want to spend a lot of money on collectible miniatures and the other is that I've simply always been a fan of narrative combat in RPGs. The latter reason is less important to me now than it used to be after playing in a really good Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game, but it's still a factor.

Two things finally got me to take a closer look at it. The first was 4th Edition D&D. I've really been impressed with 4th Edition D&D, and while Saga Edition doesn't include all the things I like about 4th, it does include a lot of them. The second was the Order 66 podcast. The guys that do Order 66 obviously like the game a lot, and that enthusiasm is infectious. It's also very helpful from a learning perspective to hear these guys talk about rules and character builds. It really helped some of the rules click into place for me.

The result is that I'm really into the game right now, even though I don't have the opportunity to actually play it.

One of the core concepts of the game is that like 4th Edition D&D, the players are heroes from the outset, although they may not yet be at the same level as the ones we see in the movies. They will be able to do truly impressive things right from 1st level if they use their feats and talents wisely, but at the same time a Stormtrooper is still going to be a challenging foe. As the characters advance in levels they will become even more impressive to the point where that Stormtrooper is no longer a challenge, but a squad of them led by an officer just might be. Eventually they will be mowing through them just like Luke and Han in A New Hope, but they won't be doing that right out of the gate (and to be fair, Luke and Han actually spent a lot of time running from those Stormtroopers).

In this, like in other areas, the game is a compromise between cinematic drama and game balance. A compromise which I think leads to a good balance between the two. One of the key elements of this is the use of the per encounter abilities. Nearly all force powers are of this type, as well as an increasing number of other abilities. At first this seemed like a bad thing to me. I felt that if someone can do something then they should be able to do it at will. Seeing the mechanic applied to just about everything in 4th Edition D&D led me to realize just what it was they were accomplishing (beyond creating an interesting tactical dynamic).

In the movies we rarely see the heroes pull out their best move every time they attack some mook. Instead, they wait until the most dramatic moment to unleash their signature move. The once per encounter powers are a game mechanic that encourages players to emulate this style. By rationing their abilities, the players must choose the most effective time to unleash them, which tends to also be the most dramatic time. In D&D this is further enhanced by the introduction of daily powers, but that mechanic isn't used as much in Saga Edition.

Instead, we have Force Points, Destiny Points, and the newly introduced Unleashed abilities. Characters get a certain number of Force points every level depending on their class and abilities. These points are use it or lose it. They are refreshed whenever a character levels, but any remaining from the previous level don't carry over. These points can be used for a number of mechanical game effects, but like per encounter powers, the players need to try to use them at the most opportune moments. These effects range from simply adding extra dice to a damage roll, to being a requirement for using particularly powerful abilities.

Destiny Points are Force Points on steroids. Only characters that choose to take a Destiny get them. Like Force Points, you get them every level, but unlike Force Points you only get one of them, and they don't go away when you level, only when you spend them. They also have a number of mechanical game effects that they can be used for. Some of the basics include giving yourself an automatic natural 20 on a roll, to triggering special more powerful versions of other powers.

For an example of a specific use of Force and Destiny points let's look at the Force power Move Object. The normal Move Object power tops off at Colossal Size, which is an object the size of the Millennium Falcon. Someone spending a Force Point can bump that up an additional size category to Colossal (Frigate). Now they're moving a Corellian Corvette around. Someone spending a Destiny Point moves that up three sizes to Colossal (Station). Now they're tossing around Star Destroyers, or even pushing the Death Star out of orbit! The catch is that they had to spend a Destiny Point to do it, so they're doing it once per level at most.

This has been expanded upon even more with the introduction of Unleashed abilities in the Force Unleashed sourcebook, which greatly expanded the number of abilities that can benefit from spending a Destiny Point for those characters willing to take the Unleashed feat. These represent extreme abilities that a character can pull off maybe once or twice in his life in cases of extreme need. Similar in concept to the stories of adrenaline charged mothers lifting cars off of their trapped child.

This lets players pull off truly heroic feats without letting them just wade through all the lesser threats, which I think offers some truly interesting cinematic possibilities.

The catch with all of this is that it's implemented as part of a tactical combat resolution system. For more narrative roleplayers this is a severe drawback as keeping track of actions and calculating move points can take them out of the narrative. For others this can be a bonus as it presents an interesting tactical game for those who may not be as interested in the narrative roleplaying, while often encouraging those same players to become a bit more involved in the narrative, at least during combat.

The Destiny that gets you Destiny points is another way the game encourages dramatic play. Players have the option to give their characters a Destiny. These are abstract concepts such as corruption, redemption, or destruction. For example, in A New Hope, Luke might have had the Destruction Destiny. The player of Luke's character didn't know at the beginning of the game what it was that he was destined to destroy, instead the GM determined that during the course of the game. Luke ends up fulfilling his Destiny by destroying the Death Star. A player doesn't even have to choose a type of Destiny, they can leave it completely in the GM's hands as to what type of Destiny they have, only learning about it over the course of the game.

The drawback to a Destiny is that if you take a course of action that takes you further away from fulfilling it, then you and those around you take a penalty to your actions for a period of time. The type of penalty varying depending on the nature of your Destiny. An additional bonus beyond the Destiny Points is that if you take a course of action that moves you towards fulfilling your Destiny, then you and those around you get a bonus to your actions.

An example would be if Han Solo had the Destruction Destiny in A New Hope. Most of the movie neither moves him closer to nor further from fulfilling his Destiny, so he earns no bonuses or penalties. After reaching Yavin IV he decides to leave with his payment rather than join the attack on the Death Star, this action moves him directly away from an opportunity to fulfill his Destiny, and gains him a penalty to his actions. If he didn't realize it before, the applied penalty notifies the player that he just moved away from a potential destiny fulfilling opportunity, so he has Han turn the ship around and fly back to the Death Star, gaining the Destiny bonus for taking an action that takes him closer to fulfilling his Destiny.

The Destiny mechanic ends up adding an extra level of drama and opportunity for character development with very real mechanical benefits and drawbacks to encourage and reward the player for playing it out in game.

One problem I see with Star Wars Saga Edition is that it could easily go the way of D&D 3.5, becoming a huge monstrosity of character powers and abilities spread over dozens of books. Even with just the five books that are out for the system now there are well over 400 character talents! There are also cases of abilities in one book having prerequisites in other books other than the core rulebook. In the case of the Knights of the Old Republic sourcebook, there was at least one talent that had a prereq that was only found in The Force Unleashed sourcebook. Due to changes in the publishing schedule, the latter book didn't even come out until months after the former. These issues along with a lack of a common index could easily cause problems as the system grows.

Still, it looks like a good system overall, and it's a good time to get into it if you're interested. New releases were very slow following the release of the core rulebook as WotC's resources were funneled into the launch of 4th Edition D&D, so it's still relatively easy to digest everything out there, but there are more new releases in the pipeline.

Flames of Fail

Battlefront, the makers of Flames of War, have some real issues.

Fail #1: They published the Festung Europa late war compilation book in 2006. Immediately upon release there were some obvious errors found in the book, but the company refused to issue official errata. Now, two years later, on the eve of releasing a new late war compilation book, they are finally issuing an errata for Festung Europa.

The errata begins with this line: "With Fortress Europe on the way, it's time to gather all of the corrections that have come up for the old Festung Europa." Wrong! It was time to do that as soon as the errors were found, not two years later! These guys act as if the creation of a pdf file is a major undertaking and not the process of a few minutes.

Fail #2: With the upcoming release of Fortress Europe, gamers have little reason to purchase any of the army books that have been released over the past two years. All the game statistics from those books will be part of Fortress Europe (presumably in correct form, since no errata were ever issued for those books either).

As a result, Battlefront and any retail outlet with remaining stock will be stuck with it. To alleviate this problem they've undertaken a promotion that they claim is to reward those who bought Festung Europa. Those who did are supposed to get a free army book when they buy Fortress Europe.

Fail #2, Problem #1: The people who are Battlefront's best customers and have bought all the books already get nothing from this deal. If this was really a promotion to reward those who bought Festung Europa, then it would be a discount for Fortress Europe.

Fail #2, Problem #2: It's not really a bonus for those who bought Festung Europa, it's a bonus for those who pre-order Fortress Europe. See, Battlefront isn't crediting stores for stock they already have, instead they are sending a free army book of the store's choice along with every copy of Fortress Europe they order. So, unless you get with your store when they make their pre-order, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to get the army book that you want. In the meantime, the program doesn't help the stores at all, since they don't get any credit for the books they already have.

I still hold out hope that one of these days Battlefront will return to the open, honest, and customer friendly policies they held when I was first attracted to the game, but in the meantime they continue to fail.

Correction: Now that Fortress Europe is out and I've been able to read a copy, I want to correct a mistaken assumption I made. It does not compile the lists from the other late-war army books, so those books aren't instantly obsolete as I had expected them to become. It also doesn't have all the same lists that were in Festung Europa, being only a subset of those lists due to the increased space that the new format takes up. My other points are still valid.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

New iPhone

I had to send my iPhone in for repair. The ringer switch (one of only four moving parts that I'm aware of on the entire device) broke off. I'm not a huge Apple fanboy, and I have a few issues with the iPhone, but I've been pleased so far with their repair process, once I actually got to it.

I started the process online on Friday afternoon, but the online reporting process has a very limited set of problems, and "broken ringer switch" was not one of them. I found the 800 number for support and called to report the problem. I was on hold for about 10 minutes when my iPhone lost the connection and couldn't get it back. I called on another phone and was on hold for over 30 minutes before finally getting someone. They did at least have the courtesy to announce that it would be a long wait right from the outset, and that I might want to call back later, but I was on a speaker phone and working on the computer while I waited so I persevered.

After I finally got through to someone I spent most of the next 20 minutes on hold while he confirmed my serial number and figured out what to do about my problem. Eventually he suggested that I take it to the closest Apple store. I pointed out that the closest Apple store to me wasn't even in the same state and he quickly confirmed that I was right and said he'd send out a box so that I could send it back in for repair. The problem was that by this point we'd just missed the cutoff for sending out an overnight package that night, so it was going to be Monday before I got it.

This would have been incredibly frustrating had my phone actually been in a non-operable condition, and he was very apologetic, but since my phone was fully functional, aside from being able to put it into silent mode, I wasn't concerned.

Once I did get the box on Monday morning things went very smoothly. The instructions on how to send it in were very clear and easy to follow, and everything needed to do so was included, right down to a paperclip in a ziplock baggy to remove the sim card with. I didn't get a chance to send it out until Tuesday afternoon. They acknowledged receipt of it Wednesday afternoon by email, and early Wednesday evening I got notice that it had been shipped back along with a tracking number. I checked the tracking number and saw that it would arrive Thursday morning. Thursday morning I received a new iPhone with a note that it was determined a replacement was necessary.

Restoring from my backup took a while, but was relatively painless. The direct cost to me was zero as my iPhone is still under full warranty. I did lose a little time and gas, but it was minimal. My biggest financial loss is the cost of a new Zagg Invisible Shield protector. A product I've been very happy with, but which is effectively a one-use product, so having to remove it to send in my iPhone means I'll have to buy a new one. Even here they did a good job though, as I had left the front part of the protector in place, and they removed it and sent it back with the new phone. On the bonus side I got a very nice box for safely storing and transporting my iPhone. I doubt I'll get much use out of it, but it's a nice box.

The shipping box

My biggest complaint had nothing to do with the repair process. After the restore I realized that I was missing a lot of photos. Despite all my settings appearing to be correct, it looks like iTunes failed to save any of the photos I took over the past month or two. Photos from before then were saved, but not the more recent ones. Fortunately I'd already emailed some of the best of them to my wife, but it pisses me off that the rest are gone forever. I'm going to have to keep an eye on that in the future.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Podcast Follow-Up

I mentioned in my blog on podcasts that I was thinking of subscribing to two more podcasts, but that I had only listened to one episode of each of them. I've now listened to a bit more of each and wanted to comment on them.

The first is the Order 66 podcast. This one is a winner. At first I could do without their humor segments, but they've grown on me, and there is the occasional real gem among them. Plus, they are usually short enough that it's no big deal if they fall flat. Not only have I decided to subscribe to the podcast, but it's the first one for which I've decided to go back and listen to all the old episodes from the beginning. So far I've listened to over a dozen episodes, and I have to say that if you have any interest in the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG then I would highly recommend you try out this podcast.

Two episodes in particular have been my favorites so far. The first featured an interview with a GM and one of his players that was inspired by the player complaining about bad GMing on the part of the GM in the podcast forum. It was entertaining listening to both sides of the story as well as just listening to them outline the progress of their campaign, which sounds like a fun one overall, even if I do think the GM made a few mistakes. The second was a two hour long special featuring the only full time dev on the Star Wars RPG at WotC, Rodney Thompson. Lots of good rules clarifications and insight into the development process.

The other podcast is Podhammer, the Warhammer Fantasy podcast. I'm still on the fence with this one. The first one I listened to was a very good analysis of the Lizardman army. The second one I listened to was the one year anniversary episode that featured a bunch of drunk guys talking crap for an hour. It was bad. They finally put on something decent when they played back a pre-recorded interview, but I'm lucky I even got that far. The third one wasn't as good as the first, but was far better than the second, and from comments made by the podcasters themselves is apparently a more typical episode. If that's the case, it's probably worth listening to except for one more thing.

The one other problem I have with Podhammer, is that they've decided to make some of their content premium content available only to members of a Podhammer club that costs $15 a year to join. Now, I don't have a problem with these guys trying to cover the costs of producing the show and maintaining the website, or even making a few bucks on top of that. But this show is already borderline, and it sounds like some of the segments I'd be most interested in are being moved to the premium side of the content. Aside from the cost, this means I'd have to actually go to their site and download the content, which is an annoyance as I generally just get my podcasts updated automatically through iTunes.

I may end up doing it anyways, because they are doing a package deal this month with 40K radio that has a similar program that I've been thinking of joining just to support the guys putting out a good podcast, but I just haven't decided yet.

They're both worth checking out if you play the related games, and I'd argue that Order 66 is probably worth checking out if you've just thought about playing the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG.


Yay, I have a follower! Thanks Dave!

I'm not sure how long it's been around, but there's a nifty little gadget that showed up on a blog I follow that shows people who follow your blog and lets other people easily add themselves as a follower if they want to.

So, what does this do for you? Well, other than giving me an ego boost, it adds the blogs you follow to your Blogger Dashboard so you can see when there's a new post up. There's an article here that goes into a bit more detail.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

More Traveller

I finally got my hands on the 760 Patrons and the Mercenary books for Traveller. I haven't gotten to read much of either yet, but I've browsed through them enough to give my initial impressions.

Mercenary is very much what you would expect if you ever read the original Mercenary book for Traveller. It's all about expanded rules for running mercenaries, from character generation, to equipment, to combat rules everything has been given new options. Toss in a system for generating mercenary tickets (otherwise known as jobs), and we have the classic Mercenary book updated for MGT. It looks promising.

760 Patrons on the other hand, is not at all what you would expect if you ever read the original 76 Patrons supplement. A patron encounter has a specific meaning in Traveller terms. A meaning that is clearly defined in the MGT core rules as follows:
Each patron encounter lists:

• The patron’s name and role.
• The skills and resources required to complete the mission
• The suggested reward for the mission
• The mission as described to the characters
• What’s really going on. Several possible variants will be presented – either pick or roll for which is the real situation.
760 Patrons lists the patron's role and that's pretty much it. There are no missions here, merely charts of NPC motivations that could be used to inspire a mission or flesh out an NPC. If they were insistent on stealing a name from an older supplement, it would have been more accurate to call this one 760 Characters after the old 1001 Characters that simply gave you line after line of randomly generated character stats, even though there's no stats here.

To be fair, I can see this being a very useful supplement. It's a great way to bring to life an otherwise random NPC. It's just not what I was wanting or expecting based on the title and marketing. I would still love to see another book of true patron encounters at some point. In the meantime, I still have the FFE reprint of 76 Patrons.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Podcast Goodness

I'm using my new iPhone a lot. Not as a phone though. Instead, I'm using it far more often as an iPod and a pocket computer. My most common activities are checking email and listening to podcasts.

I've found myself with about eight hours each week behind the wheel taking my wife to work, so listening to podcasts has helped me to keep my sanity when she's not in the car.

I started with some World of Warcraft podcasts, with my favorite being The Instance. These guys seem to know what they're doing while still acknowledging the existence of casual players, and it's an entertaining listen, although it's fallen off the top of my list since I entered the post 70 blues.

After listening to some WoW podcasts, I decided to branch out into some podcasts for my other hobbies. Specifically, I started checking out some D&D/D20 podcasts and some Warhammer podcasts. My favorites right now are Radio Free Hommlet for D&D and 40k Radio for Warhammer 40K. I'm also interested in RFH's sister Star Wars Saga Edition podcast Order 66, and the Warhammer Fantasy Podcast Podhammer, but I've only listened to one episode of each of those so far.

I'm also going to add 40k Warcasting to my list. They do complete army book breakdowns, and their recent Eldar breakdown was impressive, even if it did miss a few points I've gotten from other sources. Also, one of the guys appears to be a retailer, which adds some extra insight into an area I have some interest in. Unfortunately, their posting is a bit more sporadic than the other podcasts I've mentioned.

An honorable mention goes to the Penny Arcade/PvP/WotC D&D play sessions featuring Tycho and Gabe from Penny Arcade and Scott Kurtz from PvP running through portions of Keep on the Shadowfell. A couple of guys from WotC serve as DMs (the first session has Chris Perkins, and James Wyatt takes over for the second session). Tycho and Kurtz are veteran RPGers, and Gabe is a longtime video game geek, but new to RPGs. All three of them are new to 4th edition, so the dynamics are interesting. Listening to them play really made me want to play myself. You can tell they were having a blast despite having some of the crappiest luck with the dice ever in the second session. You can currently find them here, but the WotC site still pretty much sucks, so who knows how long that link will work. There are eight episodes and the guys added a couple of pieces of artwork to each episode featuring memorable quotes or scenes from the episode.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

More Eldar

I got in the rest of what I need to make the first 1000 points of my eldar army... or so I thought. It turns out that storm guardians come 8 to a box instead of 10 to a box like I thought they did. Oops.

As I expected, the storm guardians only come with one each of the two special weapons. Fortunately the weapons are identical except for the positioning of the ammo "globule" that the eldar weapons use. Given this similarity it's rather difficult to tell the two apart from any distance, and if anyone gives me a hard time about not being 100% WYSIWYG I think I will be quite justified in smacking them upside the head with a metal dreadnaught (which I have, and may take with me to games solely for this purpose). Mind you, if GW still sold bitz I'd go ahead and buy the extra 3 flamers that I'll need to make things completely WYSIWYG, but since they don't I'm not going to spend the $90 it would cost me in order to buy three extra boxes of storm guardians just to get the flamers.

Despite my miscalculation with the Storm Guardians, I still have plenty to keep me busy. Three vehicles, and over 20 infantry models, plus conversion work on my autarchs.

Those autarchs are my two HQ choices in my full 2500 point list, although I probably won't be using both of them until I get up to 1850 or 2000 points. They are identically equipped (in my fluff for the army they are brothers), and the plan right now is to model one using a slightly modified dire avenger exarch, and the other using a conversion of the Yriel model, swapping his weapons out for a dire avenger's shuriken cannon. The only tricky bit on the Yriel conversion should be the right arm, and it shouldn't be too hard, although it will probably end up needing a little green stuff work to fill in the gaps.

The only problem I've seen with my original plan for using Yriel is that his banners have an Iyanden symbol sculpted into them. I didn't notice this when I was looking at the blister in the store because the sculpted portions face towards the back when they're in the package. I'm not looking forward to filing them off, and am thinking about using green stuff to cover them up instead. This shouldn't be a big deal in the end, but it will probably result in my doing my exarch based autarch first, instead of my Yriel based one as I'd originally planned.

As for the fire dragon squad I was working on, it's finished except for the application of some static grass to the bases and the protective clear coats. I'll try to post some pics once they're completely done. I'm pretty pleased with the results and am looking forward to painting some guardians in a similar scheme.

Pyramid of Shadows

While the title of Keep on the Shadowfell was meant to recall memories of the old Keep on the Borderlands module, Pyramid of Shadows actually has more in common with that old module in terms of content. Both KotB and PoS (what an unfortunate acronym) feature sets of vastly different monsters somehow living in close proximity to each other. This formula is a bit of a trope in many older D&D modules. The only real difference between PoS and those older modules is that the writer at least comes up with a more plausible explanation as to why these creatures are living near each other, and how they manage to survive without killing each other off.

One problem with the explanation that the writer comes up with is that it essentially locks the players in the dungeon for the entire adventure. From Level 7 to 10 they will find themselves stuck in the same small area with no opportunities for interaction with the outside world. This is both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that this adventure has to be one of the most portable adventures I've ever seen in regards to the ability to drop it into just about any D&D world with little or no adaptation necessary. The weakness is that if you're dropping it into an existing campaign you're basically putting that campaign on hold for the duration of the adventure since the characters will have no way to interact with the world outside. Not to mention that the the group is entirely on their own.

Death could become a serious issue as the party has no reason to own a Raise Dead ritual prior to starting the adventure. They can find one during the adventure, but it's not guaranteed, and there are only enough components available to perform it once.

Aside from the premise, which I feel was stronger in Thunderspire Labyrinth, this module shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses with its predecessor, if in slightly different proportions. The included battle mat again feels like an afterthought with 90% of the battles occurring in areas not on the mat. The difference is that the locations included are a bit more generic, so you're more likely to be able to reuse the mat in other adventures.

Like with the last module, there's a problem with the paintings meant to represent some of the locations. The difference here is that the problem is much worse. One is described in the text as "brightly lit" but the painting is so dark that it's unclear at first what's being depicted, especially since once you figure out what it's supposed to be showing you realize that it leaves out key tactical terrain features. Another is fairly accurate in showing the three main opponents in the room, the problem being that two of those three are supposed to begin the encounter hidden! Most of the others are also inaccurate in some way, or just plain useless for giving the players a decent image of the setting.

Really, unless you're going to make sure the illustration is useful and accurate, don't even bother. There's certainly room for inaccurate flavor artwork in fantasy roleplaying products, but use them as filler art, not as play aids!

More new monsters are introduced, and this is a strength of the module, but not as big a one as in Thunderspire. Mainly because I found the monsters there more interesting overall than the ones introduced here. Out of all my comments on the module this one is the most subjective, and others may find these entries fascinating and highly useful.

One thing that all three modules in this series are excellent at is serving as a source for sample encounters. While I might have issues with the overall premise, each individual encounter seems well constructed with unique challenges to be overcome.

Overall I feel this is the weakest of the "Heroic Trilogy" of modules. It comes down to the fact that the strength of this module is that it's a classic dungeon crawl, and the weakness of this module is that it's a classic dungeon crawl.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Politics and Gaming

I don't intend to discuss my political views on this blog; however, every once in a while something happens in politics that directly relates to the hobbies I do discuss in this blog. I never expected anything to come up during this Presidential campaign, but it did.

Michael Goldfarb, Deputy Communications Director of the McCain campaign, apparently doesn't really know that much about communications. In a blog post made back on the 18th (which was apparently a repeat of comments he made to the New York Times earlier) he talks about some alleged smears coming from far left bloggers, in doing so he makes the comment "It may be typical of the pro-Obama Dungeons & Dragons crowd to disparage a fellow countryman's memory of war from the comfort of mom's basement, but most Americans have the humility and gratitude to respect and learn from the memories of men who suffered on behalf of others."

His naivete concerning the extent and composition of the RPG community was merely compounded by his "apology": "If my comments caused any harm or hurt to the hard working Americans who play Dungeons & Dragons, I apologize. This campaign is committed to increasing the strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma scores of every American." This either indicates that Goldfarb has knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons, and chose to use it disparagingly anyways, or asked around the campaign headquarters for someone who knew enough about it to frame a cutesy reply. Either case shows absolutely no remorse for the initial insult, and no respect for gamers.

With increasing awareness of the slight in the gamer community, Hasbro decided a couple of days ago to weigh in on the situation by writing Mr. Goldfarb a letter which they released publicly:

Michael Goldfarb
1235 S. Clark St, Suite M
Arlington, VA 22202

Dear Mr. Goldfarb,

I was disappointed to read the disparaging intent of your comments regarding Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) fans, both in your response to New York Times editors, and on the John McCain campaign website.

Dungeons & Dragons is a global game with millions of consumers in the U.S. and abroad. The brand is owned by Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc.

For fans, the game is essentially about heroism and therefore it is not surprising to us that thousands of military personnel play and enjoy the game. Hasbro, in turn, supports the U.S. Armed Forces by sending multiple crates of game products, including Dungeons & Dragons, to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recently a soldier who saw your comments online said, “Wizards of the Coast (the makers of D&D) has sent care packages to the troops on many occasions, providing free gaming supplies in support of our men and women serving the country overseas to help them decompress after hours. McCain's people should really check their facts before they spout off. Does John McCain have no idea how many GIs play D&D?”

We would very much appreciate you not making any more condescending comments about D&D -- as it is a great game enjoyed by millions of people around the world. Thank you.

Wayne Charness
Senior Vice President
Hasbro, Inc.

I thought that this was a particularly good response to the issue on the part of Hasbro. As far as I know there has been no response from Mr. Goldfarb or the McCain campaign.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I don't intend to discuss my political views on this blog, but in the interest of saving the effort of anyone trolling blog sites for anti-McCain posts, I'd just like to point out that I don't support either of the two main candidates for President. If I become aware of similar anti-gaming comments from the Obama camp I will discuss them here as well.

I would also like to point out that despite the overall tone of this post, I recognize that in the grand scheme of things this is a pretty minor issue for most people; however, I think that the McCain campaign's refusal to either retract or offer a sincere apology for the statement really is a slap in the face to gamers.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Fire Dragons

I got impatient waiting for the rest of my first 1000 points of Eldar to arrive after finishing my first Wave Serpent, so I went out and bought a box of Fire Dragons to work on. While my final 2500 point list calls for three minimum size squads of Fire Dragons, my intermediate lists will probably feature larger squads to use up any extra points, so having a few extra at the beginning won't be a waste.

I've been struggling over how I was going to paint my Fire Dragons. I went with a list that used mostly Guardians for infantry because, as I've mentioned before, I don't like painting aspect warriors in their official colors. I prefer a more unified scheme featuring craftworld colors. For some reason I have had a mental block that has prevented me from seriously considering painting aspect warriors in non-traditional colors. Possibly because seeing aspect warriors painted differently is so incredibly rare.

Fortunately, while browsing the web for more ideas I stumbled across an Eldar project where the painter had decided to do his entire army in a unified color scheme, including his aspect warriors. Actually seeing someone else doing it managed to free me from the silly mental block that I had and I'm now in the process of painting a squad of Fire Dragons in the standard orange and gray colors of Yme-Loc. The only nod to the fact that they are aspect warriors is a few red details, including the facemask of the helmet, which will instead be a light gray on my guardians.

The result seems fairly easy to paint, and should let me paint up my Fire Dragons quickly.

Paint list for Fire Dragons:
Base coat/primer: Krylon Gray Primer
Touch up color for base coat / layer over wash: Model Color 869 Basalt Grey
Helmet, chest and sash base color: Citadel Foundation Mecharius Solar Orange
Facemask and ribbon base color: Citadel Foundation Mechrite Red
Gun /equipment: Model Color 995 German Grey
Gun barrel tip: Game Color 51 Chaos Black
Gun barrel tip drybrush: Game Color 60 Tinny Tin
Wash: Citadel Wash Bedab Black
Eye basecoat: Citadel Foundation Orkhide Shade
Eye highlight: Game Color 29 Sick Green
Gray highlight drybrush: Game Color 49 Stonewall Grey
Orange highlight drybrush: Game Color 6 Sunblast Yellow
Red overcoat: Game Color 10 Bloody Red

The procedure is basically to block out the orange, red and dark gray colors then cover everything in black wash. Then go back and paint the orange, red and light gray areas again, leaving the wash in the crevices and around details. After that comes the drybrushing of the gray and orange areas and application of a brighter red coat over the red areas. Then the final details, the eyes and the tip of the gun barrels.

I haven't yet decided how I'm going to do the bases.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Post 70 Blues

As I more or less expected, my play time in World of Warcraft has gone down significantly since I hit level 70 (it's no coincidence that my posts here have gone up since then). There's basically three things you can do after 70: you can PvP, you can run high level instances, or you can grind faction and gold. I can't PvP on my current computer for technical reasons that I haven't been able to track down (getting a new NIC improved the situation, but not enough to make it playable), instance groups frustrate me, and grinding bores me.

I thought I'd spend a little time explaining why I have a problem with instances. I was recently reminded why they frustrate me when I helped out a friend in a level 60 instance. It was just three of us, me at 70, a 69 and a 61. We had a bit of trouble at first and my friend started offering me "advice" about playing my character more effectively. Now, my friend has a lot more experience than I do playing a priest. His main on another server is a priest and he's been playing it for a lot longer than I have, doing instances and raids. He knows how to play one optimally, and that's just the problem. If you want to play in a high level instance you have to have an optimum build, and you have to play in an optimum manner. I hate that.

I totally understand that when the party has a wipe because the priest drew too much agro, or makes some other mistake, that the other players have a reason to be upset, but when my role in an instance is to spam the same set of spells in the same order all the time, then I have to wonder why I'm even needed. A macro could do my job, and probably do it better. Because that's what it feels like at that point: a job. If I enjoy playing my character a certain way, but that way isn't the optimum way to run an instance, well, I'm just SoL.

Mind you, if I became good at playing my role in instances, then I might come to like it better, but that brings up another set of problems. When I'm learning how to solo more effectively, no one else gets pissed if I die a few times getting used to things, or trying out something new. If trying to do the same thing in a group causes a few party wipes as I learn from my mistakes, then the rest of the group is likely to get a bit pissy. Even if I'm in a group of people put together specifically to help me learn how to run my character, I will still feel bad about getting things wrong, and will get frustrated as a result.

Of course one of the goals we had in starting characters on the server I'm on is to eventually get enough of us to level 70 that we can run instances with just a bunch of friends and have a more friendly atmosphere doing it. Now I just have to wait for the rest of the guys to catch up and see if that actually works.

In the meantime I'll probably be spending less time playing WoW, and more of the time that I do play leveling up another character. I've already started playing around with my level 60 druid, spending all the points he had freed up back when they reset the abilities (I think when the expansion came out), and learning how to play him again.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Wave Serpent

Wave Serpent
I'm satisfied with the way my Wave Serpent has turned out, so I'm going ahead with my plans to do 1000 points worth of Eldar. If I manage to finish that then I'll keep adding 500 point chunks until I'm at the 2500 point army I have planned.

As I mentioned before, I'm doing a Yme-Loc army (I've decided it's either pronounced eye-meh-lock or im-eh-lock, leaning towards the former). If you look at the photo that inspired me, you'll see that my scheme is quite a bit simpler, but it's still the same basic gray and orange overall. The exact paints I've chosen are as follows:

Interior base coat/primer: Krylon White Primer (for the inside of the transport compartment)
Exeterior base coat/primer: Krylon Gray Primer
Touch up color for base coat: Model Color 869 Basalt Grey (not an exact match, but close enough to do the job)
Light gray panel color: Game Color 50 Cold Grey
Orange panel color: Citadel Foundation Mecharius Solar Orange
Gun barrels/control panel: Model Color 995 German Grey
Engines/intakes: Game Color 51 Chaos Black
Engines/intakes drybrush: Game Color 60 Tinny Tin
Eldar skin: Game Color 4 Elf Skintone
Driver wash: Citadel Wash Bedab Black
Sensors basecoat: Citadel Foundation Orkhide Shade
Sensors highlight: Game Color 29 Sick Green
Sensors midcoat: Game Color 28 Dark Green (only used first time, probably not necessary)
Highlight drybrush: Game Color 49 Stonewall Grey
Blacklining of panels: micron pens
Sealer: Testors Gloss Cote

Using the primer as my base coat cuts down the time on this model a great deal. The only drawback to such a method is finding a good touch up paint, fortunately I had a Model Color that is almost, but not quite, an exact match. It's close enough that I can use it to fix mistakes if I'm careful. This made the whole project possible.

I experimented a bit with the blacklining, trying to use a wash first before breaking down and buying some micron pens which did the job wonderfully. It's one of those things that once I used them I couldn't believe I hadn't been using them all along.

Building the model, about the only way I deviated from the GW instructions was that I glued the bottom half to the top half before painting, leaving the canopy off. This means that my canopy doesn't open up, instead I glued it on after applying the gloss cote, using Testors clear parts cement. This solves two problems for me. First, it allows me to prime the interior, assemble the model, and then prime the exterior without worrying about bleed through to the interior. Second, it allows me to not have to worry about damaging my paint job while assembling the model; a process that involves strapping it together with rubber bands until the glue dries. The drawbacks are that the engines and intakes are a bit trickier to paint, and the canopy won't open and close. I haven't decided yet if I'm going to try the official method with the next one, but probably not.

The plan is to keep the paint scheme the same for all five wave serpents transporting my storm guardians, varying only the placement of orange on the force shield vanes to differentiate them from each other. The three vehicles carrying my fire dragons will be the same as well, but slightly changing the arrangement of light gray and orange panels to differentiate them from the guardian wave serpents. Probably changing the pattern only on the panels around the rear intake, changing the orange panels to light grey and making the top panel orange instead of the base color.

I don't plan on applying any decals or Yme-Loc symbols. The latter would require freehanding, and while I think I could do an ok job, it would add too much time to the project. The same goes for adding any generic eldar decals to the vehicles. The only models I plan to put that kind of effort into will be my autarchs.

One of the biggest experiments for me is leaving the models with a gloss finish. I feel it suits the nature of the eldar vehicles. It also saves a step, but one that's pretty insignificant in terms of time and effort. If I do decide to add a matte finish later I'll have to put some putty on the canopy first.

Eventually I'll try to take some better photos. The one above I took with my phone.