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.