Thursday, May 29, 2008


A friend of mine is planning a 4th Edition D&D campaign set in a fantasy version of ancient Lebanon. You can read about his plans here. I got interested enough in what he was doing to go ahead and read Phoenicians by Sanford Holst, the book that he's gotten many of his ideas from.

This is a really good book if you have an interest in ancient history. The history of the ancient Phoenicians is long and touches every culture that touched the Mediterranean. The history of the Phoenicians really ties together a lot of the other history that I've read. Their existence as a trading empire explains a lot of things about how civilization developed around the Mediterranean.

The short version is that the Phoenicians formed a trading empire that was a cross between a secret society and an employee owned corporation. They survived for thousands of years without a standing army by using secrecy and by blending in with their neighbors. In the process they contributed to important events from the building of the pyramids, to the toppling of empires, to the development of what was probably the worlds first tax shelter. Their methods were so effective that their enemies often didn't even understand that they were an empire, to the point that more than once a single Phoenician city would be "punished" by having its lands and trading rights stripped away and given to another Phoenician city. The "punishing" power not understanding that the cities weren't competitors, but partners in the running of the Phoenician trading empire.

I only have a few gripes with the book. The first is that the book seems to be aimed towards instilling a sense of nationalism in modern Lebanon. The author doesn't spend too much time belaboring this point, but it makes you wonder about whether or not the author is completely honest in his presentation of the Phoenicians' faults, especially since he doesn't really give any.

The second is the way he spends a little too much time excusing the Phoenicians' worship practices by explaining that it was pre-Christian and pre-Muslim. He's obviously writing with a modern religious audience clearly in mind. It is perhaps a wise precaution given his target audience, but it is also somewhat annoying for those of us who fully understand that neither Jesus nor Mohammad had yet to walk the earth during the periods of history that are being discussed. Fortunately, he appears to feel that he makes his point after the first couple of chapters, and doesn't continue to belabor it throughout the rest of the book.

In the end, these gripes are minor, and the insights into ancient history are more than worth putting up with them. If you have an interest in the development of the Ancient World, from Egypt to the rise of Rome, then you should check out this book.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Keep on the Shadowfell

I want to start this review with the acknowledgment that I hold Wizards of the Coast to a higher standard than I do other companies. They have the resources to do things right, and so I'm less willing to let things slide.

The physical package is interesting. You get a card stock folder with two pockets. In one pocket is the Adventure Book and in the other is the Quick Start book and three double sided battle maps. The books have flimsy paper covers, which means they aren't very durable at all. Even after a partial reading the ink on the covers will begin to smear. This is made more of a problem by the fact that the back of each booklet includes pertinent text. At the very least they should have had a back cover so that reading it doesn't smear up important text. Preferably they would have also made the covers out of heavier stock.

On the plus side, everything is in full color, the text is readable, and the artwork is attractive. This includes the three double sided battle mats representing some of the locations in the module. I understand that some of these mats have been reused from the D&D minis game, but that isn't really an issue unless you already play that game (in fact, it could be considered a plus as they've had markings that only mean something in the minis game removed so that they're more attractive for use with the RPG). These mats don't cover every location in the game. While it would be nice if they did, that would have required many more mats. Basically, they cover all the planned outdoor encounters and the module's climax. The remaining dungeon encounters are pictured in the module and should be easy enough to recreate on a blank battle mat, or even just a piece of graph paper if necessary.

The Quick Start book is meant to be read by both players and GM. It includes five pages of rules and five two-sided character sheets. Here's where my first complaint comes in that I probably wouldn't make if this wasn't WotC. This is a pre-release module designed for five players. I have one book of quick start rules with five character sheets included. How, exactly, is this supposed to work? Am I expected to have all five players share this book?

They should have found a way to further condense the rules so that they could include five character folios of four pages each that included both the rules and a single character. At the very least the character sheets should have been printed as separate sheets so they could be handed out to the players, or else provided as a free download online. There's not even a "permission to photocopy for personal use" statement on the character sheets! Apparently, everyone is supposed to buy their own copy of the adventure, or else just share the single book. I expect better.

Overall, the quick start rules are good, although certain sections are left out of the player's version for no apparent reason. For example, the rules for area effects are included in the Adventure Book, but not the Quick Start book. Since some characters start with area effect powers, this seems a little strange.

Unfortunately, the quick start rules don't cover everything that is in the module. For example, one encounter includes a creature that has both a reach attack and a power that recharges, neither of which are explained in the quick start rules. I can make an educated guess as to how they work, but I may or may not be correct. In another case, the players find a magical short sword, but it doesn't list the basic damage of a short sword. It can be derived from some of the monster stats, but again it's simply an educated guess as to what happens if a player decides to use the short sword.

The adventure itself is pretty straightforward in terms of plot, with lots of interesting encounters that highlight many of the new systems that differentiate 4th edition from 3rd. It also has a good level of internal consistency and provides logical reasons for the characters to be doing what they are doing. It's a good effort that should be relatively easy to fit into whatever setting the GM desires.

The end result is a product that is a pretty good introduction to the system for experienced gamers, but a pretty lousy one for people completely new to Dungeons & Dragons. Fortunately, most of the problems I have discussed occur later in the module, so with any luck many groups will have their hands on the full rules by the time they get to those points.

UPDATE: Having got a peek at the new rulebooks, they do indeed clear up the few issues I mentioned, and my guesses as to how things were supposed to work were pretty close to the mark. That doesn't change my conclusion that this is a better introduction to the system for experienced players than it is for people new to D&D.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

...they pull me back in!

Ack, I'm back playing World of Warcraft!

It seems that one of my good friends from back in College, who I've only kept up with sporadically since then, has discovered this great game that he thinks we'd all be interested in! After much laughing and chuckling from those of us who picked up their copy on day one, we decided to get the old college gang together on one server for a bit of a gaming reunion. Turns out that all but a couple of us are WoW veterans, even those I haven't spoken to in years and would have never expected to be into the game.

The result is a reactivated account for me, as well as a chance to get reacquainted with people I haven't spoken to in years. Who says computer games aren't social?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

My Traveller Pet Peeve

I originally described one of my biggest pet peeves with Traveller over the years as part of my mini-review in the previous post, but after consideration I decided that it didn't really fit with the rest of the post. Instead, I expanded on what I'd written a bit and turned it into this article.

A lot of Traveller fans are science geeks and approach the game from a hard sci-fi perspective. For example, in an errata list I was following (which, by the way, had a very small amount of actual errata so far) one of the suggested errata referred to a piece of fiction that described globs of blood floating in a cargo bay exposed to space. The complaint was that the blood would have frozen after the cargo bay was exposed to space, and that they should now be frozen crystals, not globs. This just goes to show that everyone has their own level of suspension of disbelief, as I would have never noticed the problem.

Personally, as a student of the softer sciences, it's the political and social aspects of a game that will throw me out of my suspension of disbelief if they aren't handled properly. A governmental structure that just doesn't make any sense won't get past my filters. Similarly, as a student of military history, I get thrown by certain elements of military organization or equipment that don't make sense.

This leads to a problem that I have had with most of the editions of the Traveller rules. I refer to this as the "Tech Level 13 cannon fodder problem" (ok, I didn't actually have a name for this problem until right now, but it's one of the first things I've looked at with every new set of Traveller rules). Way back in the original Book 4: Mercenary, there was a list of the common military equipment issued at various tech levels. At Tech Level 13 the common soldier is issued combat armor and a gauss rifle. The problem is that in most versions of the rules a gauss rifle does zero damage to a man in combat armor, or at best might do a single point with a critical hit (the equivalent of a scratch or bruise). This leaves most Tech 13 soldiers as literal cannon fodder as their issued weapon does absolutely nothing against an enemy equipped to the same level, which makes their only purpose on the battlefield to be meat shields for the crews of the heavier weapons.

In Mongoose Traveller, an average roll for damage using a gauss rifle on burst fire will at least wound a target wearing combat armor, and a higher than average roll could take a target out with a single burst. A lower than average roll can still leave the target completely unharmed, but that's fine. The result is that both weapon and armor prove to have a reasonable level of effectiveness, making sense for them to be issued together.

This consistency between the rules and the fluff are important to me in any game, and I'm glad to see they got it right in this set of rules.


I've now had a chance to skim through the new Mongoose Traveller Core Rulebook. I haven't read every word, but I've gone through the important bits and wanted to give my initial impressions. I may post about it again later after I've read more if I find other good bits, or if I come across something broken that I haven't noticed yet.

This is the game I was hoping for back in 1987 when GDW released MegaTraveller. It takes the core mechanics from the original game, unifies them without adding a bunch of new complexity, and deals with some of the outstanding issues that the game had.

The core mechanic is roll 2d6 for 8+ to succeed at a task. Skills, attributes, difficulty level and sometimes situational modifiers are added to the roll. The result is pretty straightforward and easy to understand. Combat has more situational modifiers, but otherwise works the same as other tasks. The Combat rules take up only nine pages, but seem to cover most common situations, including vehicle combat (although space combat is covered separately).

Even problem areas like automatic fire and grappling were easy for me to grasp after a single read. This was a pleasant surprise given how many rules systems have a hard time with those areas.

One of my favorite bits from Classic Traveller was the way it handled character damage. Damage taken was applied directly to physical characteristics. This has been kept in Mongoose Traveller. The result is a very elegant way to keep track of damage and its effects. Wounds lead naturally to lower attribute modifiers as those attributes fall.

Space combat is similar in complexity to character combat. It uses abstracted movement rules and a character centric system that relies on plenty of task checks. I've already seen some complaints from old-time players that the system is too simple. Compared to the original system that taught me how to calculate vectors, I suppose that's true, but this system is better designed for a group that wants to concentrate on role playing instead of space tactics.

The only problem with all of this is that this is the game I wanted back in 1987, not necessarily 2008. The state of the art has moved on, and I value many of the concepts that have been introduced in the meantime. Some of the most important of those concepts involve the use of mechanics to encourage role playing, rather than just to determine the outcome of actions with a chance of failure.

I could see having a great deal of fun with this set of rules, especially with the right group, but in many ways I still prefer the approach being taken with Spirit of the Far Future. It's good to have choices though, and I'm happy to have not just one but two good sets of rules to play around with.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The D&D Poison Pill revisited

After a bit of a delay, WotC finally clarified some things about the GSL in a FAQ. The "poison pill" is now a lot less poisonous, with publishers allowed to publish OGL products as well as GSL products, but they won't be allowed to publish the same product under both OGL and GSL licenses at the same time. They will be allowed to update publications published under the OGL to 4.0 under the GSL, presumably if they cease publication of the older OGL product.

There is still a lot of questions and ambiguities, such as a reference at one point to "product lines" instead of products. It's unclear if this means that all products in a line must be either GSL or OGL, and what exactly determines a "product line" under the GSL.

Overall, it looks like they listened to the outcry and made some of the requested changes.

What amazes me is the reaction on ENWorld. There's lots of "see, no need to worry, the sky wasn't falling, etc., etc." I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that a site dedicated to a single game would be filled with fanbois of that game and the company that makes it, but I no longer have the blind trust in any corporation that many there seem to have for Hasbro/WotC.

They remind me of the people that shoot down environmental concerns with arguments like "they used to say acid rain would doom us all, but you don't hear about it anymore, guess it wasn't such a big problem after all." What they either don't realize, or choose to ignore, is that the reason it isn't such a big problem any more is because people raised a big stink and the government eventually took massive steps to decrease the pollutants that were causing it.

Why does this remind me of the fanbois on ENWorld? Because, most of them seem to assume that this new FAQ reflects what the company planned all along, completely ignoring the probability that the FAQ is a direct response to the uproar that the earlier announcements produced, and reflects changes made as a result of the reactions in the community rather than what was originally planned by Hasbro. Especially given that the company has a history of contradicting what they have said on this issue in the past.

In any case, while it would still be nice to have an actual open, non-revocable, license for 4th edition, at least the GSL is no longer a huge threat to the existing OGL community.