Monday, March 31, 2008

D&D 3.5+ Impressions

I mentioned in The Great D&D Schism that there are some revisions to D&D 3.5, including Pathfinder, True20 and the Book of Experimental Might. I've had a chance to browse through the Book of Experimental Might and some of the Pathfinder Alpha document. Someone asked me my opinion of them, so I thought I'd share my impressions here.

A common theme with both is evolution over revolution. They start with the assumption that the core system is pretty good, but could use some tweaks. Pathfinder finds a lot more places to tweak, but the changes in Experimental Might seem to be a bit more revolutionary where they do occur. As a result of that, and the fact that I have it in hardcopy, I've spent more time with the Book of Experimental Might than with Pathfinder.

The Book of Experimental Might makes me want to play a magic user. In fact, for the first time ever in a D&D game I think I'd really like to play a wizard. The combination of hit point changes, disciplines, increased feats and changes in the spell levels really makes the class look interesting, even at lower levels.

Although the changes to magic are big, and are both the core of the product and what I find the most inspiring, it's the changes to healing and hit points that I think will really make the biggest difference in game play. I don't want to go into too much detail, but the number of ways you can be healed are increased, and the limits are mostly on the character being healed, not the one doing the healing. Characters can only be magically healed a fixed number of times each day based on their level and Constitution bonus, in return many of a Cleric's abilities to heal are effectively unlimited within the party (they have a limit on the number of people they can heal per day, but not the number of times they can heal each person). This splits up the bookkeeping involved with healing to each player, instead of forcing the Cleric's player to do it all.

In addition to the changes in magical healing, there are also changes to Hit Points themselves, with characters getting more of them, but divided into two pools. One pool is made of easily healing Grace Points, and the other more traditionally slow healing Health Points. Characters can even "take a breather" once per encounter to gain back some Grace points and get a bonus for their next action. I really like the possibilities of this mechanic from a dramatic standpoint.

The one part of the book that I think misses the mark is the section on skills. It's not that I don't think the suggestions there are bad, it's just that they don't go far enough. I think this is the one area where Pathfinder does it better by borrowing the system from Star Wars Saga Edition. That system doesn't force you to spend skill points on different skills each level, instead you just buy a skill and your bonus in that skill is equal to your level (plus some other factors). The result is both simpler, and better tied to the level based system that D&D is.

So, right now, if I was to run or play in a D&D 3.5 game my choice would be for 3.5 core plus the changes in the Book of Experimental Might and the core skill system from Pathfinder/Star Wars. Not the new skill descriptions from Pathfinder, just the core advancement scheme to replace the skill points per level system that exists now.

All that said, I'm still looking forward to seeing just what 4.0 has going for it. Aside from there being a little too much focus on tactical combat, it sounds very interesting.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why Field of Glory is not the next Flames of War

I've been participating in a discussion on BoardGameGeek concerning Field of Glory. It started as a comment on the quality of the rule book itself, which is superb, but someone asked whether it was going to do for Ancient & Medieval miniatures gaming what Flames of War did for WWII gaming, and I've been arguing that no, it won't.

In order to understand why this is, you first have to understand just what Flames of War did for WWII miniatures gaming. It took a genre of gaming that had been restricted mainly to the same group of gamers for two to three decades, and opened it up to an influx of new gamers. Many coming from science fiction and fantasy miniatures games like Warhammer. It also led to a standardized set of rules with which it's possible to find pick-up games in many parts of the US, and even around the world, but that's a secondary achievement compared to bringing in new players.

There are several reasons why Field of Glory won't accomplish the same thing for Ancients & Medieval miniatures gaming, none of which have anything to do with the quality of the rules themselves. The first, and most important, is that the publishers aren't looking for the same sort of success that Flames of War achieved. Battlefront created Flames of War in order to sell their miniatures. Osprey/Slitherine created Field of Glory in order to sell Field of Glory books, and perhaps promote sales of other Osprey titles as well.

The fact that Osprey/Slitherine doesn't sell miniatures leads directly to the factors that will keep Field of Glory from achieving the success of Flames of War. The first was the decision to allow for variable scales of miniatures. This makes perfect sense when trying to appeal to the broadest section of existing gamers, but it makes it harder for new players to get into the game because they have to choose a scale to collect, and if they choose wrong they may have trouble finding opponents. This also makes it harder to find pick-up games because what might be the most common scale in one area won't necessarily be the most common in another.

The second factor is in regards to availability. While they've made a few stumbles, Battlefront's success with Flames of War has come in part because they provide a one-stop shop for their game. You don't have to search all over for the miniatures you need to play the game. You simply check Battlefront's catalog.

Since Osprey/Slitherine doesn't make miniatures you need to deal with at least two companies to play their game, and quite possibly more than two. In addition, many of the manufacturers of miniatures are located in the UK, which makes it an even bigger hassle for US customers (something I already touched on here).

For retailers this is a bigger deal. It's simply not worth it for most of them to try to stock a miniatures game when that game requires miniatures from multiple manufacturers and that are available in multiple scales.

The success of Flames of War came from a combination of good rules, easily available miniatures, and retailer support. Field of Glory has only one of those things, and that's why it won't achieve the same level of success.

Don't get me wrong, I think that Field of Glory will be a success. It will sell lots of books to existing Ancients & Medieval gamers, and bring some older players back that had gotten tired of the older rules sets. It will boost sales of other Osprey titles. It will even bring in a few new gamers to the genre. What it won't do is bring in anywhere near the number of new gamers that Flames of War did.

I do have a few ideas as to what could be done to change all of this, and turn Field of Glory into the next Flames of War, but they'll have to wait for a later post.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On the Nightstand

Ok, I don't actually have a nightstand, and I don't read in bed either, but these are the books that would currently be there if I did:

Lost Battles by Philip Sabin. Part game, part history, and part game design theory. This book is a professor's attempt to use conflict simulation (ie. wargames) to help better understand some ancient battles. I'm almost finished with this one, and I plan on doing a full post once I am.

Guadalcanal by Richard B. Frank. An almost 800 page book on the WWII battle for Guadalcanal. I read this once before, but that was around a decade ago. I've done a lot of reading on WWII since then, so I'm hoping to get a bit more out of it the second time around. So far it's been a very interesting read, but it's on hold at least until I finish Lost Battles.

The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman. Another book I've read before, but it was even longer ago than Guadalcanal. Making some attempts to solo play Paths of Glory got me to pick this one up for a re-read. Moving on to some other games led me to put it right back down again, but I plan on getting back to both it and Paths of Glory before too long. What I'd really like is to find a good general military history of all of WWI. The Guns of August only covers the opening moves.

In addition to those three, I've also recently finished Grudgelore by Nick Kyme, one of Games Workshop's Black Library books. This was a fun read, but didn't quite inspire me to continue painting my dwarf army. Still, it's better than most of the other BL books I've looked at.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Field of Glory Update

No, I still haven't played the game (my wife is still camped out on the one table big enough to play it on that isn't already in the garage being used to sort stuff). This is more of a news post tied to a brief discussion of the problem with getting into historical miniatures.

The biggest problem with getting into historical miniatures games is finding the miniatures. At least, that's the case in the US. The UK seems to have hordes of manufacturers producing historicals, but between shipping costs and the falling dollar, it's becoming increasingly difficult for US customers to do business with them unless they are very strongly motivated.

This was one of the reasons for the success of Flames of War in the US. The miniatures were readily available through Battlefront who initially had agreements with US distributors, and later even opened up their own distribution center in the US. You didn't have to hunt around for what you wanted unless you were into something really obscure, or that they hadn't yet published the rules for.

Fortunately, the initial sales success of the Field of Glory rules has led at least one company to offer pre-built army packs with everything you need to field the starter armies out of the core book, or a selection of armies from the two army books that have so far been released.

That company is Scale Creep Miniatures. The miniatures are 15mm and come in starter sets ranging from $96 to $130. They are actually made in the UK by Black Hat, but the fact that someone else is doing the work of importing them makes all the difference as far as I'm concerned.

In addition, registered members of The Miniatures Page get free shipping until the end of March, and a couple of free paint bottles of their choice (see the link for details).

One caveat to be aware of if you are interested in this, is that the starter armies in the core book come out to be worth a few more points than those in the army books. The army book lists all come out to around 600 points, but the starter lists in the core book come out to around 630 points. Either number gives you a good start, with room to add more if you want, but the core book lists will be slightly unbalanced against the army book lists if you are looking to get a pair of starter armies to play against each other.

Being the type to go for the obscure, I'm now thinking about picking up a Milanese army and a French Ordonance army from the Storm of Arrows army book.

The Great D&D Schism

Every upgrade to a new version of a roleplaying game tends to create a schism, leaving some diehards who refuse to change from the old to the new. The bigger the changes between versions, the bigger the schism. This has been especially true among D&D fans.

For the most part these diehards get fewer and fewer as time goes on and no new material for their chosen system gets published. The introduction of the original OGL with D&D 3.0 changed this dynamic some by allowing AD&D to legally continue as both HackMaster and Castles & Crusades (and possibly other versions that I am unaware of). It also will allow D&D 3.0/3.5 to continue indefinitely for fans of the system. The only real question before now was how heavily it would continue to be supported.

The answer, according to Paizo at least, is that it will be supported just fine.

Paizo is now in the process of updating the 3.5 rules to produce a new core rulebook that they are calling the Pathfinder RPG, named after the 3.5 setting that they've been developing ever since they stopped publishing Dragon and Dungeon magazines for Wizards of the Coast. They've already uploaded an alpha version for free download and playtesting, with an announced beta version to be released at GenCon, and a 'release' version to be released at GenCon 2009.

Also coming up (albeit only planned for a .pdf release at this point, or through is yet another book from Monte Cook , one of the designers of 3.0 who has been providing both support and tweaks to the system pretty much from day one.

In addition, there's already Green Ronin's True20 which will continue to be supported, and while it is meant to have a broader appeal than just fantasy, it appears to be a big hit among many gamers looking for an updated version of D20 gaming.

In fact, the thing that is most likely to keep 3rd edition D&D from being a serious competitor to 4th edition D&D, and thereby causing a more serious schism within the D&D community, is not that its support is ending, but the fact that it seems to be headed in so many different directions with the support that it will continue to get.

At least one other company not directly involved in this potential mess is also making an effort to take advantage of it. White Wolf's Graduate your Game promotion offers a copy of the Exalted core rulebook in exchange for a 3.5 Players Handbook. I've seen Exalted described as "D&D on steroids" before, so this might just be a good way for them to grab some new players as they consider transitioning out of 3rd edition.

It's really going to come down to just how good 4th edition is. The majority of people I've seen commenting on it say they are going to give it a try, but they are also saying that if it doesn't seem to get the job done after a few months of play, then they are ready to drop it and go back to some version of 3rd edition. Paizo is even getting praise from some for not releasing its version in direct competition with 4th edition for this very reason. If 4th edition proves to be a dud, then Paizo's schedule could put them into a position to pick up people as they give up on it.

At this point the biggest obstacle to the success of 4th edition would seem to be those who have said that it just doesn't "feel like" D&D. If that holds true for a majority, or even a large minority, of players, then the game could be in real trouble for the first time since WotC took it over. Fortunately for them, most people seem to be committed to giving it a serious try, so if it simply takes players a while to get used to the changes, then they should be ok. If not, then it's going to get interesting.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dresden Files DVDs

I haven't read any of the Dresden novels, but I wanted to learn a bit about them due to the upcoming Dresden Files RPG. Normally I wouldn't care anything about a licensed game based on a property that I was unfamiliar with, but this game is going to use the Fate system. As I've mentioned before, that's a system that I'm quite interested in.

A quick look at some online reviews indicated that the Dresden Files TV series was favorably viewed by at least some of the fans of the books. Taking this as a good sign, I ordered the first (and only) season on DVD.

My wife and I watched all twelve episodes over the space of two days, and they were quite enjoyable. The acting is generally good, the stories are entertaining, and the presence of a few meta-plots makes for some extra interest. For the record, most of the meta-plots appear to be resolved, or at least partly resolved, over the course of the single season. The main one that I felt was unresolved was more of a "where are they going to go with this?" situation than it was a "what the hell is going on here?" situation. So, the ending of the series doesn't leave you on a cliffhanger.

The special effects are mostly good as long as they are kept to minor effects, but the few fully animated creatures aren't really rendered all that well. Fortunately, they are kept mostly to the shadows.

With vampires, werewolves, ghosts and wizards, this should be a good series for anyone who's a fan of fantasy set in the modern day. I'm generally not, and yet I still enjoyed them.

Finally, I feel reasonably well enough educated on the universe of the Dresden Files to better appreciate the game when it comes out. I may still try to read one or more of the novels if I have time, but if I don't then I'll at least have some idea of what's going on when I read or play the game.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Battlestar Galactica RPG

Back a few months ago when I was getting ready to move, I read through the Battlestar Galactica Role-Playing Game whenever I felt like taking a break from packing. I haven't played the game, but I've decided to write about my impressions of the game after a read through. I'll start by discussing what I don't like about it.

First things first, it's too expensive. Forty-five dollars is simply too much for a 232 page book, even a hardback in full color. You have to blame Universal Studios Licensing for the expense, because the high price is reportedly the direct result of high licensing costs. I probably wouldn't have bought the book except that I was able to get it at a significantly reduced price, which is a shame because it's a pretty good book of a license I love.

I have one big issue with the style of the book. The show does such a great job of not introducing "parallel development" between the colonies and Earth. From the die-cut paper to the different sports to the odd clothes, very little is exactly the same. The commentary on one of the earlier episodes even mentions how they accidentally allowed a mention of "chickens" in the mini-series, when they were deliberately trying to leave such "earthisms" out. Unfortunately, the RPG doesn't take the same sort of care, particularly in the Gear section. There are lots of references to Kevlar (they even capitalize it, so they know it's a proper noun and not a generic substance), and various caliber weapons from .45 to .30-.06. Why would the colonies have such things? They should have kept things more generic, referencing bullet-proof cloth and large or small caliber. Instead, they left in dozens of "earthisms" that really tend to pull you out of any immersion you would otherwise have.

So, those are probably the biggest issues I have with the game, neither of which deals with the game itself. That game is based on Margaret Weis Productions' house system, the Cortex system. The Cortex system previously appeared in the Serenity RPG, and has its origins in the Sovereign Stone RPG. At its core every attribute and skill is rated based on its die value from d2 to d12 (with values higher than d12 rolling multiple dice, for example d12+d2). Most actions use one attribute and one skill with the total being matched against a difficulty number.

The one thing distinguishing this system from other mainstream systems is the use of Plot Points, which I touched on briefly in my post on The Evolution of the RPG Disadvantage. Players get these points for a variety of actions, including allowing their negative traits to be used against them. They can then spend them on a variety of actions including getting extra dice to roll, or even changing small things about the story itself. For example, for a few points a character might say that his character finds some extra ammo even though the GM didn't say there was anything there. The GM then chooses whether or not to allow the expenditure. While not offering as much player input into the environment as in some "indy" games, it does allow more than in most other mainstream games.

Character generation is point based. Players get three pools of points to spend, one for attributes, one for skills, and one for traits. Points cannot be traded between pools. Attributes and skills are pretty straight forward. Traits are a bit different in that basic characters start with a pool that equals zero. If the GM wants characters that are more experienced then they may allow for a few points, otherwise characters can only get positive traits (assets) by first taking negative traits (complications). It's a decent system, but I find the selection a bit anemic after such indy games as Burning Wheel, or even such mainstream games as Hero or GURPS . There's just over 30 assets and just under 50 complications. Still there's enough there to make a variety of characters, and it shouldn't be hard to introduce new traits.

Other reviews have said that combat is deadly, and I'll have to take their word for that since I haven't been able to playtest it. I can tell that it's definitely more deadly than some other mainstream games, like d20. Overall I think this is a good thing, especially since players can try to save themselves with Plot Points if they have to.

When it comes to the background, the scope of the book covers all but the last episode of the first season, including the mini-series. I've seen it mentioned elsewhere that there will be four add-on products which will expand this coverage. In particular, the book covering the colonial military is expected to deal with season two as that is where the Battlestar Pegasus first appears.

Overall, the game looks pretty solid, and not too complex. I'd give it a try either running or playing if I had the opportunity, although it wouldn't be at the top of my list of RPGs to play.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Conquest of Paradise

I've always liked 4X games on the computer (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate). There have been similar games available as board games since before there were computer games, but they tended to be long games like Avalon Hill's Civilization that often take six hours or more to play. They also tend to play better with more players. This combination makes it difficult for me to even consider getting them on the table.

Conquest of Paradise has changed that. This game shares a lot of similarities with traditional 4X games, but it plays just fine with only two players, and comes in at around two hours for a game between two inexperienced players (the box claims as little as half that time for more experienced players).

Unlike its predecessors, CoP features a South Pacific theme instead of the more typical Mediterranean one. It covers the period from 500AD during which the area known today as Polynesia was colonized.

The game is obviously a labor of love by the designer who includes a set of designers notes at least twice as long as the rules themselves, and contain mostly historical background. Unlike many other games that start with a historical theme rather than a set of rules, CoP achieves a great balance between that theme and playability.

The components are attractive, but not up to the quality level that people have come to expect from most board games today. The board itself is made of thin cardboard. It's Better than paper, but not as good as a mounted board. Counters are typical wargame quality cardboard chits. The cards aren't up to playing card quality, but are ok, especially since you only need to shuffle them once at the beginning of each game.

Each turn of game play consists of five steps. Each step consists of both players taking their actions before moving on to the next step. The steps are Turn Order, Exploration, Movement & Battle, Building, and Victory.

The Turn Order and Victory steps are essentially bookkeeping phases during which initiative and victory points are determined respectively. The meat of the game lies in the middle three steps.

During Exploration each player takes their explorer and proceeds to explore the map by entering unexplored hexes and drawing random chits to determine what is there. If an island is discovered, then a random island tile is drawn and placed on the map.

Players move their other units during the Movement & Battle step. These units consist of transport canoes, war canoes, colonies, and warrior bands. After movement is completed, units that have moved into a hex containing enemy units or villages conduct a battle during this phase.

After all movement and battle is completed the game moves to the Building step, where players calculate how many building points they have and use them to build new units and villages, as well as to buy cultural cards that can give victory points or bonuses to different activities, including exploration and combat.

Getting back to the four 'X's, the first obviously corresponds to the Exploration phase. The Movement & Battle phase corresponds to the eXterminate phase, although there probably won't be much extermination going on, as combat is usually pretty bloodless in CoP. The last two, eXpansion and eXploitation, are covered in the Build phase.

Compared to 4X computer games, there's not a lot of depth here. No tech trees or anything like that to go through, but that kind of thing is often better left to computers. CoP distills the most exciting bits out of 4X games so that the play doesn't get bogged down, at least not with the two player game. I can't speak for how well it works with three and four players as I've only played with two so far, but I suspect those games will be at least as fun as the two player game.

I can fully recommend this game to anyone who wants an entertaining and relatively quick playing 4X or civilization-lite style of game.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Field of Glory Review

The following is a rather longish review of the new miniatures rules by Osprey Publishing: Field of Glory. I'm posting it here before submitting it to BoardGameGeek, so any feedback is welcome.

First things first, this is not a play-test review. This is a review of the main rulebook based on reading it. Also, most of my miniatures gaming has been using rules by Games Workshop, or rules heavily influenced by Games Workshop. I don't have any experience with the popular DBA/DBM system for ancients miniatures games. Hopefully this gives you some idea of where my biases might lie.

First up is the physical quality, layout and writing of the book. Rulebooks for miniatures games see a lot of use and abuse, and it's important that they be able to stand up to that. It looks like this one can. It's a nicely bound hardcover the size of a standard Osprey book (about 9 1/2" x 7 1/2"), 176 pages in full color. After one reading, it lays flat when open, even when viewing pages near either end of the book.

Chapters are color coded on the edges of the page, and each phase of the game has its own chapter. In addition to a table of contents and an index for the book, each chapter includes a summary of the chapter contents in a column along the left side of every two page spread. This should be a great help in actually using this book during a game.

I do have to say that the index failed me once while I was reading through the book. The concept of a "severe disorder" is mentioned after the concept of "disorder" is explained, but before the concept of "severe disorder" is explained. When I attempted to find "disorder" in the index I was unable to do so. Later, after I had learned what a "severe disorder" was, I was able to find "disorder" listed under "movement" as "move distances and disorder". It would have been nice if "disorder" had its own listing in the index given that it's a fairly important concept. Of course, now that I've read the rules, I doubt I'd have the same problem if I had to look it up during a game.

The rules are filled with illustrated examples of the concepts being explained, and there is an appendix with further illustrated examples of some unusual situations. I found these illustrations very helpful in grasping concepts, especially where I found the text somewhat unclear. Fortunately, the text is usually clear, but there were several cases where I had to re-read a section multiple times before fully understanding the meaning. This was due partly to concepts needing to rely on other concepts that hadn't been fully introduced yet (inevitable when concepts rely on each other yet one has to be introduced before the other), but mostly due to it being written in English and not American English. The latter became less of a problem as I became more accustomed to the writing style. That style is actually quite concise, more so than I'm used to seeing in other rulebooks.

That covers the book, now for the rules.

The game scale is rather loose. Each base represents approximately 250 men, but this can vary greatly depending on the army being represented. Turns do not represent any fixed time period, but instead represents a "phase of battle." Ground scale is discussed as "defined by effective bow range," but is never actually given a fixed definition. I have seen it referred to as 1" = 50 yards in some forums, but not in the actual book. Movement rates are given in Movement Units (MU) which equal either 1" or 25mm depending on player preference. Base sizes are recommended to be 40mm wide for 15mm figures and smaller and 60mm wide for 25/28mm figures. Depths vary depending on the type of unit, but aren't as important as widths. The main thing is that all bases in a game be of equal width.

The game consists of alternating player turns, each consisting of five phases: Impact, Manoeuvre, Shooting, Melee, and Joint Action.

The Impact Phase consists of the active player declaring charges, the inactive player declaring responses to those charges, the active player making the charges, and both players resolving the effects of those charges.

The Manoeuvre Phase consists of the active player moving any units that didn't charge and that aren't already involved in a close combat. It also involves the active player adjusting units that are already involved in a close combat so as to conform to the enemy or bring more bases into contact.

The Shooting Phase consists of the active player doing any shooting that doesn't involve units involved in close combat.

During the Melee Phase, both players resolve any ongoing close combats.

Finally, during the Joint Action Phase, both players resolve ongoing routs and pursuits and then move their commanders.

There are three basic dice mechanics used in the game. The first is the Complex Move Test (CMT), the second is the Combat Mechanism, and the third is the Cohesion Test.

The CMT is used whenever a unit attempts to do something involving movement that isn't automatic and involves rolling two dice and adding them together with any modifiers to beat a target number based on the troop type.

The Combat Mechanism involves rolling a number of single six sided dice based on the number and types of troops involved in combat. No modifiers are added to the rolls, but the target numbers are determined by applying Points of Advantage (POA). POAs are determined by comparing the qualities of the attacking unit to the qualities of the defending unit and assigning '+' and '-' POAs. POAs are a zero-sum amount, meaning that if one side has a + than the other must have a -, and have a maximum of ++ and a minimum of --. The result is applied to the base target number of 4, resulting in a final target number from 2 to 6. So there is always a chance of failure or success no matter how mismatched the opponents are.

The Cohesion Test is similar to the CMT using 2d6 and adding them together with modifiers. It's used whenever something happens that might affect the morale of a unit.

Units in the game are rated on four categories, plus they may have one or more special Capabilities. The four categories comprise the overall Troop Type and consist of Type, Armour, Quality, and Training. Type is divided into two basic categories: Foot and Mounted, which are then further subdivided into more specific types such as "heavy foot" or "knights". Armour has four possible ratings from "heavily armoured" to "unprotected". Quality also has four possible ratings from "elite" to "poor". Training only has two ratings "drilled" and "undrilled".

Capabilities refer to special factors that influence combat, and mainly stem from the type of weapons that the units use. Some examples are "longbow," "offensive spearmen," and "lancers".

The game uses these factors to determine modifiers to CMT and Cohesion Tests, movement rates, POAs, shooting ranges, number of dice used in combat, and whether a CMT is required in the first place.

Commanders are rated on a single category that determines their command range. Having a commander in range can add a positive modifier to some tests. Commanders can also form multiple battle groups into a single battle line, can rally troops that have failed cohesion tests, and can fight in the front line when necessary to gain an edge in a key fight, although this last ability can lead to the loss of your commander.

There are a few more details I haven't gone into, but this should give a general idea of how the game works.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Fate of roleplaying

I'm a sucker for deck plans.

For a while now I've been eyeing the Future Armada set of deck plans. I got one for free as part of a promo a few months ago, and it was beautiful. When the GM's day sale happened on RPGnow I couldn't pass up getting the rest of the series.

I enjoy just looking at them, but I really want to use some of them in a game. The question is which game? The answer, for me, is Fate.

Fate is the system that Spirit of the Century runs on. I want to run a space opera game using some of the Future Armada deck plans. SotC is a pulp adventure game. Space opera is more or less pulp adventure with a sci-fi theme, so SotC should be a good fit.

I can just swap out the Mysteries skill for Computer Use and then pretty much wing the rest. Some stunts need tweaking, but that can be done as they come up in play if necessary.

It didn't take me long to stat up a character described in one of the Future Armada products. A solo scout with an idealistic streak. While I was doing this I happened across a link to Spirit of the Far Future, an adaptation of the Fate system to Traveller. Now, Traveller is too gritty for the kind of game I wanted to run, and so is SotFF, but the latter is full of really good ideas on how to tweak Fate. One of the best is the way they simplify stunts.

Stunts are the one thing about SotC that I have problems with. I like the concept well enough. You take stunts to allow you to bend the rules in a specific way. The problem is in the execution. They're like feats in d20 in that each has its own set of special rules. The result is that a quarter of the SotC book is basically a catalog of stunts. What SotFF does is to look at what most of those stunts actually do, and then group them into a small number of generic stunts rather than a large number of specific stunts tied to individual skills. The result compresses the ninety pages of stunts in SotC into two pages of generic stunts with a further two pages of specific examples. Of course, some stunts are lost along the way, but those are mostly the more fantastic pulpy stunts. Stunts that I'm not sure will fit in my campaign anyways.

Another idea I really liked was the addition of a Wealth track to the standard Health and Composure tracks. When a character does badly on a resource check, they might or might not get what they were looking for, but in either case their Wealth takes a hit. If the players need to buy off a hit with a complication then the GM can tag that complication. So if a player takes "owes a loan shark money" as a temporary complication due to a hit to their Wealth, then the GM can tag that at some point in the adventure to have some thugs show up to collect.

There are a lot of other little tweaks to make the system either more deadly or to give it more of a Traveller feel. A lot of these don't really fit my game concept, but really help to show how the Fate system works.

As an extra bonus, SotFF has some interesting ideas on adapting deck plans to the range system used in Fate, which ties it all back into what got me started on this road in the first place!

So now I've got three options: go with a barely modified SotC, go with SotFF, or use ideas from both SotC and SotFF to create a more space opera oriented system. If I proceed further with this project, then I'll talk about which option I choose, and how I go about using it.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The New Header

The image in the header is part of an image from the Vassal module for Tunisia. I wanted a gaming image in the header, and nothing quite says old school wargaming like a map with a hex grid. The original image was uploaded to BoardGameGeek by Paolo D'Ulisse, and is presumably copyright the Gamers and/or Multiman Publishing, the original and current publishers of the game. I ran it through GIMP to make it work as my header.

The game itself is one of my favorite wargames from the nineties, back when I had the ability to leave games set up for weeks on end while I played them solo. It's part of the OCS series by the Gamers. An excellent series for gaming operational level combat in the mid-twentieth century... if you have the time and space to set them up and play them.

The Evolution of the RPG Disadvantage

This article is likely to be of no interest whatsoever to anyone who has kept up with the state of the art of RPG design, particularly when it comes to so-called "indy" games. For anyone else who spent time in the eighties or nineties playing RPGs, this might be interesting to you.

One of the big developments in RPGs during the eighties was the introduction of point-based character generation. Prior to that characters were generated mostly at random with die rolls determining attributes and skills (if skills were even present). There may have been some playing around with points in some systems in the late seventies, but at best they were simple pools for assigning skill points or attribute numbers.

In the eighties we got two big point-based systems: HERO and GURPS. I'm not sure that either introduced the idea of disadvantages to generate more points to spend, but they are the systems that first introduced me to the idea. For those who don't already know, the idea is that everyone gets X amount of points to make a character. If X=100 and the character you want to make costs more than 100 points, then you can buy disadvantages for your character. These disadvantages usually come in different values based on just how bad the disadvantage is. Having a mild fear of marsupials might only be worth a point or two while a missing limb might be worth 25 or 50 points. You can then spend those points on other things.

This was a good idea, but the problem was that in most cases disadvantages were used purely to make a more powerful character in generation, and not to make a more interesting character to role-play. Most players would instead try to minimize their disadvantages as much as possible in actual play. The result is that from the players' point of view a disadvantage was simply something to work around after character generation. A part of their character they wish wasn't there.

Then came the current decade and some new thinking about how disadvantages should be handled. I'm not sure where these ideas originated, but I first came across them in Burning Wheel and Spirit of the Century. Both these systems use a form of point-based character generation, and both feature disadvantages, but neither gives you any extra points for taking those disadvantages, in fact, Burning Wheel charges you points to take them. Why would you take a disadvantage then? Because, unlike in the older games, in these newer games you get stuff in game for having your disadvantages come into play. Both systems give you special kinds of points when a disadvantage is used against you by the GM. Players can even invoke disadvantages themselves in an attempt to get those points! It's usually worth it because those points can be spent to help out the characters in big ways later in the adventure.

This concept is making its way into more mainstream games as well. The Cortex system, which is used in the licensed RPGs Serenity and Battlestar Galactica, is a fairly traditional point based system where taking disadvantages lets you take advantages. Unlike the more traditional games, you can then also use those disadvantages in the game to get you points similar to those given in more "indy" games.

I think this is an awesome way to encourage role-playing through a mechanical system. It encourages players to focus on both their strengths and weaknesses, rather than just focusing on the strengths and always trying to minimize their weaknesses. I have yet to actually play any of these new systems, but just the idea has me itching to.

Back to Basics

I've been spending a lot of time lately posting on blogs and forums, but not on my own. So, I figure that it's time to get back to basics and relaunch postGeek. This will mean a lot of changes, the most important of which is that I hope to actually post some stuff!

I'll also be messing around with the look and feel of the site. A year or so ago blogger/blogspot added some new site editing tools, but I never switched postGeek over to them. I've done that now, but lost a lot of the old formatting in the process. Some of that is probably better off lost, but other bits and pieces I'll eventually want to put back in. Plus I may want to mess around with colors and other elements.

I'm also re-examining the purposes behind this blog. To recap, this blog was an offshoot of an earlier attempt by a friend of mine to put together a gaming site aimed towards older gamers, or as we put it "gamers with a life". By "gaming" we were referring to video games. The underlying purpose of that site was mainly to get us passes to E3 and perhaps earn a little cash. A secondary purpose was to give us both a forum for practicing our writing.

As that project eventually became stillborn, I spun off this blog to continue to give me a forum for practicing my writing, with the continuing hope that I might still earn a bit of cash (getting a pass to E3 wasn't as big a deal for me). With the second goal tending to outweigh the first in my mind, I tried to distill some of the things that made blogs or blog-like sites interesting to me. One of the things that I latched onto was the existence of visuals.

Pictures capture the attention, and I felt that I needed pictures to keep people's attention, and to hopefully gain new readers. I still feel that the effective use of pictures is essential if you hope to commercialize a blog. The problem for me was that I didn't post anything unless I had pictures. Rather than resulting in good posts with supporting visuals, this resulted in no posts at all. Or, occasionally, bad posts for which I had a picture.

So, I'm tossing that restriction out. If I happen to have a good visual for a post, then I'll use it, but otherwise I'm just posting when I have something to post about.

That's not the only thing I'm tossing out. As already mentioned, postGeek started as a site about video games aimed towards older gamers. I've already strayed from much of that over the past couple of years, but I'm now officially ditching it all.

From now on this site is simply about the games I play, the books I read, and other personal interests I feel about talking about. As gaming is a big part of my life, gaming will still be the main topic of this blog. I'm not going to turn it into a family photo album, or use it as a social networking site, or anything like that. It just means that there aren't going to be any more forced comments on suitability for children or other specialized review information, and that I'm not going to let some announced purpose for this blog limit me in my choices of topics.

I more closely resemble the original target audience of postGeek now than I did when it first started, so the end result may actually be more suited to "gamers with a life" than before. The difference is that if it happens it won't be because of a deliberate effort, but instead it will be a natural outcome of my own preferences and interests.