Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Shopping

Just a quick link to my article for local online news source Ozarks Unbound:
(apologies to my Facebook friends who are being spammed with this link twice)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

WoW Cataclysm: Initial Impressions

I'm Impressed. The leveling experience, at least what I've seen of it so far, offers a much more interactive storyline in the sense that what you do actually impacts the world around you. For example, when you defeat the "big bad" the "big bad" isn't still hanging around in the same spot the next time you pass by, the "big bad" is gone! The storyline is still on rails, even more so than before, but the actions you take have a visible impact on the world around you.

I'm not sure yet how exactly Blizzard does this. It would appear in some cases that I'm seeing things in the zone differently from what other people are seeing, while in other cases I may be in a completely different version of the zone. Whatever technique they are using it creates the illusion that my actions are actually impacting on the world, and the transitions are seamless. There are no loading screens after a major change.

So far I've been running with the new goblin race, but my brief experiment with a dwarf shows that the same changes have been applied, at least in part, to the older races as well. This kind of storytelling in a MMOG has been tried before, something similar was done in the Conan MMOG, but it seems to be better integrated here. Once again, Blizzard has taken ideas from other companies, polished them, refined them, and then integrated them into WoW to better the overall experience.

I should point out that only your actions make a difference, not your choices. You have no choice whether or not to kill the "big bad", as if you don't you'll be stuck. It's for that reason that i say that the storyline is even more on rails than before, and I can see where this could be a problem should you choose to level up another character of the same race as there will be even less variation in the paths you can choose. A common tactic in the past would be to switch to a different starting area entirely, and I'm not sure that is an option any more.

Another potential problem is that a bugged quest is more critical. If you can't get past a storyline quest you're stuck. I nearly ran into this once with my goblin where I had to defeat a "big bad" that was acting as if it were stuck whenever I attacked from range and that my pet wouldn't attack in melee. Since I'm playing a hunter, my inherent melee attack wasn't enough to defeat the "big bad" and I was stuck until the "big bad" partially reset and my pet at least decided to join in (although I still couldn't attack from range).

We'll just have to wait and see what, if any, effects these problems present down the road. In the meantime I'm having a blast with the game.

Will this cause me to return to WoW with the same level of commitment I showed to the original launch where I played for months and was one of the first to hit the original level cap of 60? Probably not. At this point MMOGs are really just another game for me. I run through all or a portion of the leveling content and then end my subscription since I've never had any interest in the endgame content of any MMOG with the possible exception of the old Star Wars Galaxy MMOG. I no longer buy anything but month to month subscriptions because I know that I'm unlikely to still be playing three months after release, and so far I haven't seen anything about Cataclysm that would change that pattern.

Monday, November 22, 2010

An Open Letter to Podcasters Who Accept Sponsorships

Repetition is not your friend. A certain amount of repetition, particularly of a sponsor's motto or tag line, helps establish product identity in the minds of listeners, but there's a point at which this repetition becomes counter productive. You don't want your listeners to cringe when they hear the beginning of a commercial because they've already heard it a dozen times or more.

Some of you may have read an article about how advertisements that are annoying are actually more effective. This can be true for establishing name recognition for a new product or business, or for reinforcing it in an older product like laundry detergent where a customer has to make a purchase decision while looking at a wall full of similar products in a super market. Chances are if you're running a gaming podcast that your advertisers aren't selling products that you buy in the super market.

There's a point at which repetitive advertising actually starts to have a negative effect. Either it actively causes customers to associate "don't like" with your sponsor, or else they simply stop listening to the podcast due to the repetition (perhaps as a contributing rather than a primary factor), at which point they hear neither you nor your sponsors.

So what's too much repetition? For starters, if you simply read or ad-lib a short script you're probably OK. The natural variation in tone between readings can help to mitigate the negative aspects of repetition, even if the words are exactly the same. This assumes that it is truly a short script. Under fifteen seconds is ideal, over thirty is generally unacceptable. If you want to run an infomercial for your sponsor do it once, not every episode.

If you pre-record your ads then for the sake of both your listeners and your sponsors change them every once in a while! How often you do so can vary, but one hard and fast rule is that if a date is mentioned in the ad, and it's past that date, then you should change the ad! That's the most obvious subset of a larger rule: if the ad is inaccurate, then change the ad!

Two examples from podcasts that will remain nameless:

1) An advertisement for a piece of software that was to undergo an update in a few months began running on a podcast. That same ad was still running a year after the updates had been made, but the ad still referred to those updates in the future tense.

2) An advertisement for a podcast that aired for quite some time on another podcast. It mentioned the hosts of the show. The ad was still running well over a year after one of the hosts had left the show and been replaced.

In the latter case the ad was created by the sponsor, so it may have been the case that they asked for a new spot and never received it, but they may have simply never bothered to ask.

Here's another rule of thumb: if you're mocking your own ads, then it's probably time to change them. Doubly so if you're mocking them on the show!

A tip for those who like pre-recording their ads: If you really want to pre-record your ads, and don't want to have to come back and change them very often, then record more than one at a time. Record two or three for one sponsor and then alternate them between shows. Having to listen to the same ad every second or third episode is far more tolerable than every episode. If you podcast frequently, once a week or more, then consider not just rotating ads, but rotating sponsors. Of course, you need multiple sponsors for this to work, and it has to be a part of whatever contract you have with your sponsors, but it can be extremely effective at reducing the negative effects of repetition.

So where do I get off offering this advice? Mostly just as an interested consumer, but I do actually have some limited experience writing ad copy for radio professionally, and received some equally limited education on the subject back in my college days. Take that for what it's worth.

I also want to say that I realize that podcasters do this for the love of their hobby and of podcasting, and that for the most part it costs them money out of their own pocket to do it, even with sponsors. I appreciate their efforts. I offer this advice both with the hope of making their shows better and to help their sponsors get better value for their sponsorship.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Adventure in the age of Napoleon

I am a big fan of both the Aubrey-Maturin novels and the Hornblower novels. These tales of naval adventure set in the Napoleonic era are great stories on their own, and have provided at least partial inspiration for such things as Star Trek and the Honor Harrington science fiction novels. While I never finished the series, I also enjoyed the adventures of Richard Sharpe, a fictional soldier in the British Army during the Napoleonic wars.

The Napoleonic period has provided the inspiration for numerous adventure stories over the years, and I've often thought about trying to run a roleplaying game set in the period, but despite running across a few systems that were either designed for doing so or could easily be adapted to it, I never really found one that I felt could do it justice, until now.

The problem with previous attempts is that they tended to be traditional simulationist RPGs. The games modeled combat well, but the genre of Napoleonic fiction isn't really about the combat, but about the characters. It can be fun to read about weathering the cape or engaging in a tense duel of sailing skills followed by the crash of broadsides, but actually rolling dice to simulate such things tends to be a rather dry experience in most cases.

Neil Gow seems to recognize this, because for the most part he has abandoned simulation in favor of storytelling. In his twin games Duty & Honour and Beat to Quarters he has adopted a system that is more similar to Fiasco than it is to Runequest. Most actions are resolved by either a single test or a short series of tests using standard playing cards. Win or lose, the players then get to narrate what actually happened based on the results of the test. The flip of the cards simply provide a framework around which to build the fiction.

That fiction starts with the building of characters. Players create a concept for their character, deciding what role they want to play in their regiment or aboard their ship, then they pick a nationality, religion and social station appropriate to their chosen role and concept. Finally they generate a number of life experiences that have defined their characters.

This step is similar to that found in games using the Fate system, but with an element of randomness. Card draws determine what kind of mechanical advancements the character gains from the experience, but it's up to the player to define the specifics and narrate the fiction surrounding the experience.

Midway through this step (after the players have generated their pre-recruitment life experiences) the group as a whole creates their regiment or ship. As part of this they define some of the NPC members of the regiment or ship, including their attitudes towards the players.

Then the players generate their post-recruitment life experiences. Once this is done the players have characters with a history that ties them into the setting and it's time to start the first mission.

Missions are what drive the game, and there are two types. The first is the military or naval mission. This mission is designed by the GM and usually takes the form of the official orders that the regiment or ship receives. The GM sets the reward for success and the consequence for failure, as well as the difficulty involved in completing the mission. The group as a whole seeks to accomplish this mission.

The other type of mission is the player mission. Each player designs their own mission that they will attempt to accomplish at the same time that the group works to complete the military or naval mission. Players set their own rewards and have a say in the difficulty level based on the reward they pick, but the GM still has a say on difficulty and determines the penalty for failure.

In our first game the naval mission was to carry orders from England to the Admiral in charge of the Mediterranean Fleet. The reward would be increased reputation with the Admiral, and failure would be a loss of a single naval reputation each player had, representing the shame incurred in being unable to complete such a mission. I decided that the party would need to successfully overcome four obstacles, called tests, on their way to accomplish the mission (the first part of determining difficulty), and that if they failed to overcome more than two tests along the way, that their entire mission would fail as the orders would have arrived too late to make a difference (this is the deadline, and is the other half of determining difficulty).

Each player then designed their own personal mission. As an example, one of the players decided that they wanted to increase their wealth through gambling. The reward of a wealth increase determined the number of obstacles that had to be overcome, in this case four. As GM, I then decided that any more than two failures would mean that the character had lost his stake money, and would result in a decrease in wealth.

None of the tests were determined ahead of time, although some of them could have been. Instead I simply made them up on the fly. They began by having problems with the weather, and while successfully overcoming them, they were forced to put into Gibraltar to restock on some necessary supplies. Unable to convince the supply clerks at Gibraltar to part with all that the ship needed, the ship was forced to head to the coast of Africa to seek the last of their supplies. They found their supplies, but then had to avoid a Barbary corsair on their way to deliver the orders to the Admiral.

The resulting story was satisfying all around and really seemed to capture the feel of the Napoleonic fiction I'm used to, even though I was playing with a group of players that largely hadn't experienced the genre aside from maybe watching the Master & Commander movie from a few years ago. I don't think that a more simulationist style game would have been able to do that.

I should also point out that fans of the game have already started doing hacks of the system for other genres, including other historical periods and science fiction. Like Fiasco, it appears to be a very hackable system.

If you're interested in the game there's basically three ways of getting it right now (that I'm aware of), the first is getting a pdf from If you want a hardcopy you have two choices. You can order direct from Omnihedron Games, but they are based in England. The other option is to get it through the Lulu print on demand service. For now those appear to be the only options, although I would love to see the game get wider distribution.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


We played Fiasco as a quick pick-up game at Magpie Night after the planned session of My Life With Master sort of melted down due to GM burn out. I totally understand how that happens as it's what happened to me with the last session of our Dresden Files mini-arc.

I have to say that Fiasco pretty much works as advertised, which is a GM-less storytelling game that takes around two hours to play. We had four players with myself as the only one that had read the book and the session took just a little over the advertised two hours.

We used the Lucky Strike playset and created a story involving a hulking goldbricking bully, a fresh faced recruit with a gambling addiction, a conniving supply sergeant and a French prostitute. We basically ended up with two parallel scams going on, one involving the supply sergeant and the recruit trying to steal from the locals and the other involving the bully and the prostitute attempting to recover a cache of stolen goods hidden behind enemy lines. Connecting the two threads were a case of cognac and a truck that was needed to pull off both scams.

Of course, both plans ended in near disaster, but somewhat surprisingly everyone made it out alive. The bully ended up getting a medal after nearly getting shot to death while going after the cache. The prostitute ended up marrying the bully and moving to the states after having managed to secret away part of the cache, something she never bothered to tell her new husband. The fresh raced recruit also got shot up, but survived and went on with his life neither better off nor worse off than he began the story. Only the supply sergeant ended up with a bad ending. A final twist at the end revealed him as a German agent, but it turned out that his superiors weren't happy with his performance and threw him in prison where he stayed until "liberated" by Americans, one of which recognized him as the "supply sergeant" allowing him to go free, albeit without job or prospects.

This is definitely a storytelling game more than an RPG, but everyone enjoyed it so I'm sure we'll play it again before too long. One player has expressed interest in using "The Ice" playset included in the book, while another player is already working on their own playset!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Kingmaker Session 1

We had our first session of the Pathfinder Kingmaker campaign last week, and it went well. I was pleased with how smoothly everything ran, especially considering that three of the four players have more experience with D&D 3.5/Pathfinder than I do.

Of course, I probably put more prep time into this game than all the others I've run for Magpie Night combined, so that most likely had a bit to do with it. Most of that prep time was spent reading books. The Core Rules, the first Kingmaker module, and bits and pieces of a lot of other Pathfinder books.

I also spent some time putting together information for the campaign wiki on Obsidian Portal. So far that seems to be a worthwhile tool, if only for providing a convenient means to message the players about game issues. I don't think I even have email addresses for everyone playing, but they all have accounts on Obsidian Portal, so I can just PM them about anything that needs to be handled.

Another tool that's working out well so far is Hero Lab. Entering characters into it uncovered a couple of errors that probably wouldn't have been caught otherwise. I'm not making full use of it yet, but may try using it during sessions in the future. So far every "error" we've caught in the program has turned out to be either an error we made in understanding the rules, or an error I made in data entry.

One thing I won't be doing is using this blog to document the progress of the campaign. I'll be using the Adventure Log on Obsidian Portal for that. Any discussion of the campaign here will be like this post, discussing the tools and process involved rather than the campaign itself.

I will say that I'm looking forward to the next session!

Monday, October 04, 2010

Too Much of a Good Thing

I've taken a glance at the new 8th Edition Warhammer Fantasy Battles rules and they look good. I'm especially pleased that guess ranges are gone. Guess ranges are the dumbest idea ever introduced to miniatures gaming and I'm glad to see them finally gone from Warhammer Fantasy Battles. All hail pre-measuring!

I could do a whole essay on why pre-measuring is a good thing, but there's no real need now since guess measurements are finally on the way out. That's not what this post is about. This post is about why despite really liking the directions being taken by Games Workshop in 8th Edition, I'll probably never play it.

I had high hopes. I totally planned on putting together 500 points and taking it to the release event at the FLGS. Then, the night before the event, I had the realization: it was scheduled for the afternoon. See, I can't do afternoons anymore, not even on weekends. This is the primary thing keeping me from having played more than a couple miniatures games since moving back to Arkansas. The people playing around here more often than not get together in the afternoons for pickup games, whether on weekends or on weekdays, and the events are always held in the afternoons.

This is understandable. Most people are available on weekend afternoons. It's just my bad luck that I'm not usually one of them. It's my worse luck that I keep forgetting that I'm not usually one of them.

I've semi-committed myself to at least two or three miniatures events only to back out at the last minute when I realize that I can't actually be there at the required time because I'd have to leave half way through it.

If this is starting to sound like a whinge about my inability to play miniatures games, it's not meant to be. Well, not really. I know that if I really wanted to play miniatures games that I could find a way to do so, but I've also come to realize that while I'm an omnivorous gamer, I do have a definite preference hierarchy amongst my hobby games. At the top of that hierarchy are board games. Next on the list are RPGs, and only after that are miniatures games.

My preference hierarchy hasn't always been ordered like this. Playing miniatures was at the top of my list for the larger part of the past decade, but that simply isn't the case anymore.

If I have to give up the miniatures in order to keep playing the board games and RPGs then so be it. I still hope to eventually get some miniatures games back into my schedule, but I'm not going to worry about it too much if it doesn't happen. I'll still follow the trends online, and read the rules, because that's what I do, but for now I more or less accept that is probably all that I'll be doing.

If I do get to play more miniatures games it will most likely be with skirmish games like Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game or Malifaux, not with the big army games like Warhammer Fantasy Battles. Like all day roleplaying sessions, or a solid weekend playing a MMOG, those big games are just too much of a good thing.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Magpie Kingmaker

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Magpie RPG group is starting a Kingmaker campaign for Pathfinder. A Magpie campaign is a bit of a contradiction in terms, but it sticks with our theme of trying a little bit of everything, even if that includes a full campaign.

We're actually just committed to the first scenario or two. After that we'll judge how everyone liked it, and continue if the consensus is that it's worth going forward. I'm really excited about it so far. The Pathfinder rules seem to be a solid evolution of the Advanced D&D lineage, and Kingmaker's combination of sandbox play and empire building is pretty close to my ideal campaign.

I'm also pleased with the group of characters that the players have decided on. Some of the details are still being fleshed out, but so far we have the following: Neutral Good Gnome Oracle of Heavens, Lawful Good Elven Alchemist, Chaotic Neutral Elven Air Wizard (although I believe this is being changed to a Half-Elven Sorcerer with an Elemental bloodline), and Chaotic Good Human Ranger (I believe he's planning to multi-class with Fighter). Most are still tweaking their characters, so the exact composition is still up in the air.

We've got three of the four classic roles filled, and the fourth role of rogue doesn't appear to be that important in the Kingmaker campaign. The only question mark for me is the Alchemist, as I'm just not sure how he is going to fit into combat, but it should be interesting to find out!

I've already put more preparation into this game than any of my previous Magpie undertakings, even if you just count reading the massive Core Rulebook. In addition to that I've read the first Kingmaker module and assembled a collection of tools, including the following (note that this is a list of assembled stuff, not necessarily stuff that I went out and bought just for this game, although there's a lot of that in the list as well):

The Pathfinder hardcover books: Core Rules, Gamemastery Guide, Bestiary, and Advanced Players Guide
Pathfinder Gamemaster's Screen
Gamemastery Flip-Mats: River Crossing, Forest, and Bandit Outpost
Gamemastery Map Packs: Ruins and Ancient Forest
Gamemastery Item Cards: Kingmaker
Gamemastery Combat Pad
Pathfinder Adventure Paths: 31, 32, and 33
Pathfinder Chronicles: Guide to the River Kingdoms and Kingmaker Poster Map Folio
Chessex Battlemat
Staedtler Lumocolor non-permanent markers
Dungeon Tiles Master Set: The Dungeon
Dungeon Tiles: Harrowing Halls, Streets of Shadows, and Caves of Carnage
Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set (for the tokens)
Hero Lab software
Index Cards
A small netbook

In retrospect, that's a lot of stuff for something I'm not even sure is going to go beyond a few sessions, but some of it I already had (for example, the battlemat is something I've had for over a decade, yet has seen very little use), and most of the rest is stuff that I'll eventually find other uses for if this doesn't work out.

I plan to enter all the characters, and possibly NPCs, into Hero Lab so I can at least print out pretty character sheets for everyone, and possibly use the software on the netbook to keep track of NPCs during the game.

The netbook may end up becoming my control center for the campaign, as I'm thinking of playing some with theme music run from it as well. We'll see about that though, as my previous experiments with using music in RPGs just tended to annoy and distract the players. I'm thinking for now of just using an opening theme to let everyone know that we're starting and leaving it at that.

I've also created a campaign wiki on Obsidian Portal. I've been wanting to try out this tool for a while, and this gives me an excuse to do so. I don't know how much we'll end up using it, but I've had fun putting together the background material on it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World

Vincent Baker has a real knack for taking subjects I have little or no interest in and turning them into games I really want to play. First, he did it with pseudo-Mormon moral enforcers in a West that might have been in his game Dogs In The Vineyard and now he does it with post-Apocalypse survivors in his new game Apocalypse World.

He's done other games as well, but these are the two RPGs he's done that I'm familiar with.

Another thing Vincent Baker has a knack for is coining one line rules for RPG play that can be applicable to just about any game. In Dogs In The Vineyard it was "say yes or roll the dice" which is more or less self explanatory: either say yes to players or have them roll dice. Don't say no, and don't have them roll the dice if you want it to just happen.

There's several candidates in Apocalypse World for one-liners that can summarize a style of play, but my favorite is this: "look through crosshairs." This one might not be as immediately obvious in its meaning as "say yes or roll the dice," but it really emphasizes something that I can be bad at. What it's saying is to look at your NPCs and other GM creations through crosshairs, and don't be afraid to pull the trigger. In fact, when in doubt, pull the trigger.

As a GM I often become too attached to my creations, to the point that I will actively protect them from harm in the game. Baker tells the GM in Apocalypse World (he calls the GM the MC for Master of Ceremonies, but I will continue to use GM) to always consider killing or destroying the stuff he owns in the game whenever that stuff appears.

While this attitude is especially appropriate in a setting like Apocalypse World, it's also something worth keeping in mind in any other game. Nothing works as well to signify that the characters' actions have consequences than watching the world change around them in response to those actions. Nothing signifies dramatic change better than death and destruction.

Besides this possible new universal guideline for running games, there was one other thing that really stood out for me. The GM in Apocalypse World never rolls dice, ever. There is one optional rule where the GM can roll dice for the player in the one instance where rolling high is bad, but this is suggested only if the players are having a hard time accepting that in that one case it's bad to roll high.

Instead, the GM plays off what the players roll. At its most basic, if the players attempt to attack someone and they fail, then they are the ones that end up getting hurt instead of their target (it's actually more complex than that in terms of possible outcomes, but I don't want to just regurgitate the rules here). The GM never rolls for the NPCs, instead determining their actions and reactions based on what the players roll, and a set of guidelines (the latter of which is where the "look through crosshairs" line comes from).

Overall, the system is fairly simple at its core, but innovative enough that it wasn't until I got near the end of the book that a lot of it started to click. I'm not sure when we'll get a chance to play it given that it's campaign oriented, but I hope to do so some day!

One final note: A third thing Vincent Baker has a knack for is creating games with mature themes, and Apocalypse World is very much for "mature audiences" on more than one level. There's the ultra-violence of the post-apocalypse setting. The complex look at human relationships where everyone is at least a potential threat, even other PCs. And of course, there's also the naked woman on the cover (the picture above is an interior illustration, the cover is a photograph), and the fact that characters have an ability that keys off having sex with another character. You have been warned.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dresden Postmortem

There's a reason I haven't been doing any actual play posts of our Dresden Files games, and that's because I haven't been all that pleased with how they've gone. I do want to go into what I think were the reasons behind this, as well as the handful of interesting events, both good and bad.

The first problem was the power level. We decided to go with the highest starting power level because we wanted to play with all the toys, particularly with the spellcasters. This was a mistake on a couple of levels. First, playing with all the toys meant playing with all the rules, which I'll talk about more later. Second, the sheer power of a group of five Dresden level characters is enormous, and the books do little to help you deal with this.

The rules mention the possibility that the books are an account of a solo adventure, and I think our play confirms that. The entries in Our World are all woefully underpowered when it comes to challenging a group like the one we had. It more or less takes a plot level NPC to make the characters break a sweat. With more experience I'm sure I could have dealt with this, but I didn't yet have that experience, so that's why this was a big mistake.

The second problem was the players, in which I include myself. I'm not blaming the players, they were all a great bunch, both the regulars and the ones new to the table. Unfortunately, the couple of guests we had to the first two sessions had playstyles that didn't quite mesh with the existing group. Our group tends to be more narrativist and they were more rules oriented. Specifically, they knew the rules better than I did in most cases, which is something I'm not used to, and was unprepared to deal with.

Combined with my need to confirm things, this led to a great deal of page turning and rules reading when we should have been playing. It had the plus of leaving me much better acquainted with the system by the time the first two sessions were over, but the minus of making those sessions less enjoyable.

A third problem was that I'm just not that big a Dresden fan. I like the books well enough, but they don't generate a great deal of enthusiasm for me. I actually read the books because I'm a fan of the Fate system and knew that the game was coming out rather than having read them first and then gotten the game because I was a fan. This led to a certain level of apathy on my part when it came to preparing for sessions, and that was reflected in how the sessions themselves went.

A factor that wasn't necessarily a problem, but which became apparent in play is that the Laws of Magic are a "Big Deal". Now, the novels say they're a big deal, but in practice they're simply a plot device that either restricts Dresden's actions or triggers important plot twists. They don't work that way in the game. In the game they present a big massive potential for unintended consequences. This can be a cool thing as long as the players are prepared for it, but I don't think that the game books do an adequate job of portraying the potential pitfalls.

The way this came up in our game was in the climax of the first adventure. The players had to stop a ritual that was threatening to waken a great evil. The ritual was taking pace in a field and one of the casters used a fire spell to roll through those casting the ritual in the hopes of disrupting it. What wasn't apparent, because of the high grass in the field, was that there were a number of victims lying bound in the grass awaiting sacrifice. These victims were incinerated in the blaze and the end result was a rather massive breaking of one of the laws.

This could have been a very cool thing to explore, but the important thing is that none of us in any way had intended for it to be a possibility. It didn't dawn on me what was going on until after the action was taken, and I was the only one with a grasp of the overall situation. In fact, it wasn't until after the session was over that I fully grasped the implications. This is largely my fault for not fully grasping the significance of the laws in the game, but it's a mistake that I think could be made by a lot of GMs.

The biggest disappointment with the game was that fate points proved meaningless. The players could simply deal with the stuff I threw at them without needing to use them. The players took them from me because they liked being compelled, but they didn't need to.

Things I'd do differently if I had to do it over again? I'd start by going with the lowest recommended power level. This means fewer rules to deal with, and you can use the stats straight out of Our World to challenge the party with. I'd only go with the highest power level if I was playing with one or two players, or if I had a lot more experience with the system.

The group became disenchanted enough with the game that we ended up deciding to forgo our final planned session and instead made characters for our upcoming Pathfinder Kingmaker scenario/campaign. That probably says more about how enthusiastic we are about Kingmaker, but I'll talk about that in an upcoming post.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Here We Go Again...

Despite not having any chance to play miniatures games in the past several months, and despite saying on multiple occasions that the miniatures didn't appeal to me, I've given in to the siren call of Malifaux.

There were a couple of factors involved in my downfall. The local miniatures crowd has been developing some interest in the game, which I've been observing on the local miniatures forum: Hogs of War. One post in particular proved a tipping point in that it mentioned a crew of Asian ghosts. I didn't recall any Asian ghosts from my previous looks at the game, so I went and checked the site and found that they'd released a lot of new models with the second book, and that there was indeed a crew of Asian ghosts.

I was still able to resist until the FLGS, Castle House Games, got in a rule book and some starter boxes. My friend Gary at Black Diamond Games, my old FLGS, had tried to get me to order the book from him a couple of times, but without it being physically in front of me I'd been able to resist. Once I could actually pick up the book and flip through it that resistance crumbled. I bought the book and a deck of cards and went home to read it.

I'm not really sure why I bought the deck of cards, I was 90% committed at this point, but still wanted to read the book to see for myself whether it was a game I thought I might enjoy, and whether there were any factions I thought I would find interesting to play.

It only took me a couple of hours to read the rules, skipping the fluff and miniature stats. I was impressed, and I knew by the time I finished that I wanted to give the game a try. I then read the fluff and was impressed even more. I still want to try the Asian ghosts, but they're in the second book, and I wanted to start with a crew from the first one. I decided I wanted to get the Rasputina boxed set.

Rasputina is basically an ice mage with a bunch of ice constructs as allies. None of the miniatures in the set are grotesque, and she's part of the Arcanist faction, which is probably the least evil faction in the game, in my view (none of the four main factions can really be considered "good guys").

The problem was that the FLGS didn't have one of those sets in stock, and I didn't want to wait on a special order, so I ended up getting a couple of other sets instead: The Victorias and the Redchapel Gang.

My focus with this new game is to actually play if I get the chance. As such, I have no intention of painting the models. I may do so eventually, but for now I'm satisfied just having them assembled. If I can actually get some games in, then I might bet more serious about getting some painted.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Another Quick Word on D&D Essentials

I see one big missed opportunity with the new Red Box: 1 on 1 play.

In order to describe what I'm talking about, let me give you a little personal history. My first RPG was the predecessor to the original "red box", the version I call the "purple box" with the Erol Otus cover. My first GM was my mom, and my first adventuring party was, well, me. I was an only child and we were on vacation at my grandmother's house when my parents got me the game, so there was no one else to play.

My mom used the very basic dungeon creation rules to create a random adventure, the details of which completely escape me, but thirty years later I'm still playing RPGs so it must have been interesting at the time.

The new "red box" starts with a solo adventure, which could be run by a GM for one player easily enough, but it then jumps to an adventure written for a GM and four players... WTF? Isn't this supposed to be aimed towards people completely new to the hobby? How often do five people, completely new to the hobby, just happen to get together to play a game? I think that something similar to my personal experience is much more likely to happen.

Now, it can be argued that a DM can scale the adventure, or that a player can play more than one character, but that misses the point that this is supposed to be for completely inexperienced gamers. Scaling up an adventure is generally easier than scaling down. Write an adventure for one player, and if there's two it's just a matter of tossing in more monsters. Write an adventure for four, and if there's only one you've got to completely redesign any "big bads" in the adventure. That's not something a DM completely new to the hobby is going to feel comfortable doing, especially not with the minimal guidance given in the material included in the new Red Box.

Maybe my personal experience is a thing of the past, maybe with roleplaying more widespread it's easier to find a group and so this isn't a big deal. I disagree.

Back to my personal experience, this time some of my first impressions going through the new "red box". As I'm looking at the stuff in the box it dawns on me that this might be something I could get my non-gamer wife to try. The whole thing with the cards and map and tokens might just be something she'd be willing to play with. Then I look at the main adventure that's designed for four players and I set that thought aside with a sigh. Another missed opportunity.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Quick Word on D&D Essentials

I picked up the new "red box" the other day and have been looking at pictures of some of the upcoming releases in the "Essentials" line, and I think they've finally figured out how to deal with one of the biggest barriers to entry since the introduction of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons: miniatures.

Prior to 3rd, miniatures were an option, and I don't think I ever used them in a game. With 3rd they were a requirement due to the changes in the combat rules, and remained so in 4th. The game always mentioned the idea of using tokens or something else if you didn't have miniatures, but marketing considerations always made them emphasize the miniatures you could get from the D&D collectible miniatures game, and prevented them from providing a more affordable alternative. Now that that game is dead, they're finally free to offer a serious alternative for new players.

The "red box" includes a sheet of full color circular tokens representing both monsters and heroes. It also includes a two-sided full color map. From pictures, I can see that the upcoming DM's kit includes at least three more counter sheets, and a couple more maps. Then the Monster Vault includes ten sheets of counters, presumably with multiples for every monster in the "vault", as well as at least one more map. Add in the new Dungeon Tiles Master Sets that they plan on actually keeping in print, and people new to the game will be able to acquire a sizable collection of full color counters and maps for a reasonable price.

That's a big deal.

Monday, August 16, 2010

All Good Things...

A couple of posts ago I discussed Liz' Dogs in the Vineyard campaign, and how much I was enjoying it. What I didn't mention was that for a variety of reasons, Liz was considering ending it early. Unfortunately, she has decided to do so.

We had one final session to wrap up the events of the town of Angel's Rest, but it looks like that will be it for the campaign.

For any who might be interested, the dogs confronted the midwife who was suspected of performing abortions (again, a reminder that the morality of DitV is very different from that of my own, see my previous posts on the game for more details on the setting if you are unfamiliar with it). She admitted to her crimes, was unrepentant, and was thus sentenced to the usual punishment for murderers by the dogs.

The end result was that the midwife was gunned down in the middle of town by the dogs as she attempted to flee her execution. My character ended up providing the coup de grace to put her out of her misery after giving her a chance to speak a few final words.

While the dogs felt completely justified in the actions they took, my character did take some fallout which allowed me to give him a new d4 attribute: "so much blood". If the campaign were to continue I could use this as a seed of doubt to possibly cause him to question his actions.

I suspect that if I get the opportunity to play in another Dogs campaign that I will play a variation of this same character, as I find the potential for such a character quite interesting over an extended period of play.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Dresden Files: Northwest Arkansas

We had our setting and character generation session for our Magpie Night Dresden Files game about a week ago. We have a lot of interest in this game, so we're doing things a bit different. Instead of our usual one shot, we're doing two adventures for Dresden Files. Our regular Magpie Night attendees (Josh, Liz and Jonathan in this case) will be playing in both sessions, while the four other people who expressed interest are going to play in one session each, two in each session.

I wasn't sure if this was going to be completely necessary, but after our first session with all seven players and me, I'm glad we decided to do it this way. We got most of the stuff done that we needed to do, but it took longer than I expected, and we had to take a couple of minor short cuts. I was also so busy managing things that I really didn't get a good grasp on anyone's character, which is a big deal for a GM in a Fate game, since pretty much everything revolves around the characters.

I think there should be fewer problems with only five players instead of seven, and I'm looking forward to putting together the adventure once everyone posts their finalized characters to the thread on the NWARPG Forums.

As to the game itself, the overall process of setting creation seems a lot more involved than in Diaspora. There's no random element to give you a starting point. Fortunately, we'd already decided we were going to set it here in Northwest Arkansas, so I did a little research into legends of the area. Having spent about two thirds of my life in the area didn't hurt either.

Some of the players came to the table with ideas as well, so we had a decent starting point. If this hadn't been the case, then I don't think we'd have gotten very far. As it was, getting this all down into three overall themes and threats, plus nine locations and twelve aspects and faces to represent all of the above still took some time. We're still short an aspect or two, but most of the work got done.

At this point we'd already used more than half the time I'd expected the entire process to take, and we still needed to make characters.

Most of the players had a better idea of what they wanted to see from their characters than they did from the setting, and that helped things somewhat. A couple had no concept or only a partial concept, and that slowed things down a bit, but not too much. I couldn't complain about it either, because I'd made a point about not being too committed to character concepts in case the communal setting ended up not supporting a concept, or suggesting a better one.

We did end up having at least one concept changed by the setting and the contributions of the other players, and the one player that didn't come to the table with a concept was able to develop one largely from some elements of the setting. In fact, his ended up being the only PC that is also a "face" in the setting.

Another item of interest that came out of our session included our decision to go for the "submerged" power level, which is the highest starting level, and equivalent to Harry Dresden in the first book in the series. I had wondered whether this area would justify such a high powered group, but the threats and themes we ended up creating developed a supernatural presence for the area that is quite strong.

For example, in the Dresden books there's a bar that is considered neutral ground among the supernatural. We established an entire town that is neutral ground, complete with a ruling council made up of representatives from all the supernatural factions, including those currently at war with each other outside the town.

Now I just need to get everyone to turn in their finished characters so I can create the first adventure.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dogs in Liz' Vineyard 2

A little over a month ago I blogged about character generation for Liz' Dogs in the Vineyard campaign. Thanks to a summer cold, I wasn't able to attend the first actual session of the campaign, but it sounds like they had a good time. Fortunately, I was able to make it to the second session. Unfortunately, Seth and Ty weren't able to. That left Jonathan, Emily and me to play through the town of Angel's Rest.

I should interrupt here to state that I'm describing these events in the terms my character views them, not the way I view them. For those who are unfamiliar with Dogs, it places the characters in a fictionalized 19th Century Utah as upholders of the morality of that time and place. This results in a game with very mature themes concerning the very nature of morality and faith.

What we encountered was the usual mix of sin and tragedy that I've come to expect from a game of Dogs. Little by little we uncovered a chain of events that began with the twin prides of a father who thought his daughter could do better than a teenage troublemaker, and a teenage boy who thought he knew better than the town Steward as to whether or not he should be able to court the Steward's daughter. This led to the injustice of a thwarted love, which led to the sin of an illicit affair, which ended with the murder of an unborn child and the death of the mother from complications. We had just determined what we believe to be the identity of the abortionist when we had to call it a night.

Dogs are young men and women who have been given the authority and responsibility to maintain the moral character of entire communities, and my character in particular is completely sure of his faith. He's positive that he knows what's right from what's wrong, and doesn't hesitate to let others know what's what. When it comes to matters of the Faith and the Book he feels that he's an expert (hmm, some pride developing there...). With matters outside of his expertise, he's not quite so sure of himself.

It was fun to play him as we discovered that there was an illicit affair and an unplanned pregnancy. He's as close to a city boy as you can get in the setting, aside from a bit of experience with hunting, and has had a very sheltered upbringing. He's probably never kissed a girl, and his parents surely never had the "talk" with him. This all leaves him just a bit unsure about how all of that "biological" stuff is supposed to work.

So, when things started to get specific about whether or not the deceased was pregnant, and how anyone knew that she was, he quickly and gratefully turned things over to Rebecca (Emily's character).

The contrast was especially amusing to me given that he had just finished lecturing the kid that was responsible for causing the pregnancy about morality. Suddenly it was the kid who had all the answers and my character that was at a loss.

What's going to be really interesting though is when he starts losing some conflicts, and taking fallout. So far he's managed to succeed in all his attempts to convince others of the rightness of his beliefs. It will be interesting to see what happens when he fails. The circumstances surrounding any fallout he takes will probably determine whether his faith proves brittle and begins to crumble or whether it simply becomes stronger in adversity.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Project: Dominion

Project: Dominion
Ever since the Seaside expansion for Dominion came out I've been looking for a better storage solution for the cards. Rio Grande Games did a good job on designing the boxes to be useful, and if I were playing games at home then I'd probably just leave them in the boxes they came in. The problem is that I don't play at home, I take them to the store to play, and three or four big boxes are just too many to carry. Together, all four of the current boxes don't even fit into the bag I normally use to transport my boardgames!

I think I've finally found my solution: the Ultra Pro Portable Gaming Case. I had been thinking that someone must make a case for CCG players to carry around their cards with beyond just the single deck boxes I've seen. Back in the day we used cardboard card boxes, but they're not ideal for transport, and I knew someone had to have come up with a better solution since then.

Then the other day I saw this case on the shelf at the FLGS. It just happened to be on Magic night, and a couple of the players there already had one so they let me take a look at theirs. I realized that it would probably do the job, so I went ahead and bought one.

The next step was to figure out how to organize the cards in the case. The Rio Grande boxes have individual slots for each type of card, so I hadn't needed dividers. Fortunately, BGG came to the rescue, specifically with Neo42's vertical dividers. Unfortunately, he used Power Point to make them, and opening a Power Point file in Open Office never goes off without a hitch. It didn't take me that much effort to tweak things so they'd work for me, although they still aren't as pretty as the original files. What took more effort was cutting them all out, but eventually that tedious task was done and I finally started putting all the pieces together.

It ended up working out perfectly. I have just enough room to store everything, minus the extra sets of core cards from the Intrigue set. Now I have a far more portable way to take Dominion to Board Game Night! least I do until the next expansion, at which point I'll either have to get a second case, or use a combination of this case and a box. I'll probably do the latter until there's been at least two more expansions.

Some notes on putting this all together: I've put the mini-boards from Seaside in the lid pocket along with all the rules. The tokens from that set are in the lower middle space, as you can see in the photos.

If I wanted to do this fancier, I could have printed out the dividers on cardstock, but I don't really care if they get ratty. I just need something to make finding the cards easier, so regular paper should do for now.

Project: Dominion

Friday, July 02, 2010

History Geek Enraged

This post is a bit of a departure from my usual rants and reviews. See, in addition to being a gaming geek, I'm a bit of a history geek. That means I get a bit bent out of shape when I see people getting history wrong.

Tonight I was downright offended. Ever since moving back to Arkansas my wife and I have tried to attend at least a night or two of the Rodeo of the Ozarks. Traditionally held on the first four days of July, there's always been an air of patriotism surrounding the event, and so I was not surprised as the announcer began to go into the history of our national anthem while the singer prepared herself to deliver it. What did surprise me was what he then proceeded to say.

The story he spun was complete and utter bullshit. About the only things he got right were the name of the writer, and the name of the fort involved in the event that inspired the writing. Just about everything else was wrong. He even got the wrong war!

Here's the tale he told:

During the Revolutionary War, Francis Scott Key boarded a British prison ship anchored off the coast of the US that held countless US prisoners in an attempt to secure their release on humanitarian grounds. The British officer refused and gave his reason by pointing out the entire English fleet gathered to attack Fort McHenry. Key protested that McHenry wasn't a military installation and was full of civilians, but his protests were ignored and the fleet opened fire. The British became enraged by the failure of the flag to fall. The next day Key visited the fort and found that fathers and sons had been killed ensuring that the flag stayed aloft, countless bodies strewn below the flag.


What really happened is that during the War of 1812 (Key was three years old at the end of the Revolutionary War), Key boarded a British warship to secure the release of a Maryland doctor, and was successful, but wasn't allowed to leave the ship until after the attack on Fort McHenry.

Fort McHenry was very much a military installation with the purpose of defending Baltimore from seaborne attack. The assaulting fleet consisted of 19 British warships, not the entire British fleet. The British fleet at the time consisted of close to 1000 vessels, most of which were focused on the threat posed by Napoleon's France in Europe.

The attack lasted all day and all night, and Key had no way of knowing whether or not the British had won the battle until sunrise showed the American flag still flying above the fort.

Total dead in the fort amounted to four: three soldiers and a woman who died carrying supplies to the troops. No one died keeping the flag aloft as they were too busy manning the fort's guns, and the flag didn't need tending anyway. The flag itself was an impressive sight, being the largest battle flag in the US Army at the time.

I have to wonder where the bullshit story the announcer gave came from. I suppose he must have scraped it off his boot after work one night.

The original story is inspiring enough, it doesn't need the Hollywood treatment. I was very close to heckling the guy given that he was only about thirty feet away from where I was sitting, and if it hadn't been the lead in to the national anthem, I just might have done it.

Later, when the guy gave a rambling story vaguely associating the Butterfield Overland Stage with Wells Fargo and claiming that the Butterfield stage lasted until 1918 in the process, my outrage was already mostly used up. This time the reasons for the bullshit were at least more apparent as Wells Fargo was a special sponsor for the evening.

The fact that the Butterfield line lasted only three years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and that the only connection with Wells Fargo is that Wells Fargo bought up Butterfield's remaining assets after it ceased operations seemed rather insignificant lapses compared to his earlier tall tales.

I live on a part of the old Butterfield route and the announcer isn't even from around here, so I'll let that one slide, but I'm pretty sure we're both Americans, so I won't forgive the mauling of the history of our national anthem.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Deathwatch: Free RPG Day Impressions

Free RPG Day was this past Saturday, and I was able to participate in a Deathwatch game using the Final Sanction adventure produced by FFG for the event. It looks like an interesting game. It uses the same core system as Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader, which in turn was based on the 2nd Edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay rules originally developed for Games Workshop by Green Ronin. I point this out in the interest of full disclosure, because I'm a bit of a Green Ronin fanboi, and to point out that the game is based on a pretty solid system.

There are some interesting additions made to the system to better capture the sort of situations that nine foot tall super-soldiers in power armor are likely to find themselves in. Namely, the Horde rules. These rules group units of lesser beings (like rebel mobs or Imperial Guard troops) into single stat blocs that have special rules associated with them. The biggest of these special rules is that instead of hit points they have Magnitude. Magnitude is used both to record hits and to multiply the damage done by Hordes. As the Magnitude of a Horde drops so does its potential to do damage. There's also a morale rule using Magnitude whereby a Horde has to take a break test if it takes too much damage in one turn. If it fails, then the Horde is eliminated as any survivors flee.

While damage to a Horde is taken off the Horde's Magnitude, it does not act exactly like hit points do for individual creatures or characters. Instead of doing regular damage, a hit simply removes one point of Magnitude. This means that a hit from a bolt pistol does as much damage to a horde as a hit from a las cannon. In each case only removing one individual from thee mob. What really hurts Hordes are autofire weapons and blast weapons, which is to be expected as such weapons being fired into a group of people are going to do a lot more damage. Melee weapons also have a decent chance of doing more damage to Hordes, presumably because the users are wading into the Horde and downing foes left and right.

I don't want to get too specific with the rules, but for those unfamiliar with the 40K RPG system, it's percentile based where you attempt to roll under your skill or attribute to succeed at a task. By every 10 points that you succeed by, you are considered to have one "degree" of success. Every degree of success against a Horde with an autofire weapon does an extra hit and every two degrees of success against a Horde with a melee weapon does an extra hit. Since Hordes are at a +20 to hit due to their size, this makes those weapons likely to do multiple hits every time a Marine successfully uses them.

We played the system completely wrong at Free RPG Day (we treated the Magnitude as if they were hit points rather than as I just described above), but based on what we did do compared to what we should have done, I think these new rules should capture the powerful nature of Space Marines quite well. A Horde can still take down a Marine, but if the Marine uses the proper weapons for the job, then he can wade through those Hordes just like the Marines from the novels do.

One other system that I wasn't quite as impressed by, and that we really didn't use at Free RPG Day, was the Demeanours. Each Marine gets two Demeanours. One is based on his Chapter, and one is a personal Demeanour. These basically act as extra Fate points that can be used when taking an action that fits the Demeanour. The Marine is supposed to get an extra bonus if he really plays out his Demeanour well. This bonus is in the form of doubling the effect of the Fate point.

The idea is to bring a bit of character and roleplaying to what is otherwise a game about a squad of super soldiers killing things. I appreciate the effort, but I don't know how well it's going to work. There are two problems I see. The first is that the Demeanours are only useable once per session. This means that as a player I'm only going to be looking for ways to bring my Demeanour into play when I really need an extra Fate point, and ignoring them the rest of the time. If I didn't have this limitation, then I'd be looking for ways to bring in my Demeanours all the time, and thereby better emphasizing my character's personality.

The second problem is that some Demeanours are far more useful than others. In Final Sanction I played an Assault Marine with the Hot-Blooded Personal Demeanour. This is ridiculously easy to use in play. On the other hand, his Chapter Demeanour is Son of the Lion which basically means he's secretive, introverted, and untrusting. I could see this coming into play, but rarely in a way that it would apply directly to a roll. Other Personal Demeanours in the group included Gregarious and Studious, neither likely to come into play much in combat, where extra Fate points are most likely to be needed in a Deathwatch game.

Perhaps I'm being overly critical, and maybe it will work better in practice than it would seem to, but while I admire the goal here, I'm not sure that the execution really works.

Still, the game overall is looking promising, and while I don't know if I'll ever get the chance to play it again, I'm looking forward to seeing the full rules.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Warlords of Europe

It's not often that I get the chance to have a game demoed to me by the designer, so after Warlords of Europe designer Ken Griffin took the time to demo his game at Castle House this past Wednesday, I think it's only fair that I take the time to review the game he designed.

I generally like to start my reviews with the bad first, and then move on to the good points, and this review is no different. I emphasize this because while I am critical of some aspects of this game, I have a lot of good things to say too, so be sure and read it all.

I'll start by stating up front that the style of game that Warlords represents really isn't my thing anymore. It has its roots firmly in the "ameritrash" style of games typified by Risk and Axis & Allies, and I've come to prefer "eurogame" style games.

Two key elements of Warlords' design really stand out as negatives to me: player elimination and the lack of a timer mechanism to keep the game from going on for an extended period of time. These are pretty big red flags to me in the games I now choose to play, and will probably keep me from adding this game to my personal collection.

That said, if those aren't factors that are important to you, then there's a lot to like about this game. To start with, the game is pretty to look at. The map is beautiful, and the plastic pieces are well done. Like most games of its type, things can get crowded on the map as play progresses, but using the provided token chips helps keep things under control such that the overall visual experience is pleasant.

The mechanics of the game are fairly simple, but well implemented. Combat is a matter of both sides rolling a die for each unit against a target number determined by how good the unit is. A success makes the opponent remove a unit. The target number is always the same, but the defender may get to use larger dice if in defensive terrain, making it more likely that the attacker will take casualties. There are a few other factors that are involved, but that's basically it. A combat continues until either one side is wiped out, or the attacker retreats.

There's a basic economic engine in the game, where players collect money based on how much territory they control. Different types of territory are worth varying amounts of income. Players can also earn bonus income in certain situations, such as controlling all the territories of a kingdom. Money is used mainly to buy more troops, but can also be used for a few other things.

Players all take their individual turns moving and attacking before taking common turns collecting and spending their income. This keeps things from getting too Risk-like with huge armies being deployed and used before anyone else can respond. New forces are deployed by all players before any player gets to use their new forces.

One of the most interesting parts of the game is the three card decks: conquest, papal, and merchant. These cards all provide unique abilities when played, usually either being instantaneous or lasting over one turn. Players usually have the opportunity to earn one of each type of card per turn, depending on what they do. A conquest card is earned if a player conquers at least one territory that turn, a papal card is earned automatically unless the player has earned papal disfavor, and a merchant card is bought with money.

A lot of the strategy of the game is deciding when to use the cards you have. Used properly they can often turn the tide of a battle. They also provide a lot of flavor to the game through the descriptions of what is causing the mechanical effects the card describes, such as the outbreak of plague, the return of crusaders, or the uprising of peasants.

There are different scenarios based on how many players there are (the game allows for 2 to 4 players), and how long a game they want to play. We played a "shorter" scenario and three hours later we called it quits as it was getting late, and it was apparent who was most likely to win. It probably would have taken another hour to play through to its conclusion had we continued, so even the short scenarios can still be lengthy.

It reminded me of Axis & Allies in many ways, both good and bad, and if you like Axis & Allies, then I think you could really get into this game too.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The State of Games Workshop

I don't generally make a blog post just to link to something else, but I found this analysis of Games Workshop's financials by Purple Pawn interesting enough to justify it (thanks to Michael for linking to it on Buzz).

Friday, June 11, 2010

Qin: The Warring States

I recently finished reading the Qin rulebook (well, most of it, I skipped the included adventure, and skimmed some of the ability lists, but I read the rules and background sections), and as I've been doing for most books I've been reading lately, I wrote up a review for Goodreads. While doing so, I realized that it would also make a good blog post, so I've expanded it a bit, and reposted it here.

Whether or not you choose to use the mechanics of the game, the book is a good sourcebook for gaming in the Warring States period of China's history. There's around a hundred pages just on the history, politics and life of the period. I've read a number of games set in the history of either China or Japan, and this is the first to really give me a sense of how to run a game in the setting (admittedly somewhat enhanced by having watched Hero and other movies set in the period).

The mechanics of the game look interesting, but reviews by those who have actually used them indicate there may be some weaknesses. Namely, criticals seem to give too much power to the "mooks" in the setting, taking away from the ability of powerful martial artists to deal with hordes of mooks like they do in the movies and legends of the period. Also, characters not overly specialized in combat turn out to be relative weaklings due to the way the number of actions allowed to each character during each combat round is calculated. Rather than canceling each other out, these two factors together seem to make some character concepts less viable than others while at the same time undermining a core theme of the setting.

For now I'm taking those reviewers' word for this. I can see by reading the rules that this might be a problem, but I haven't actually played the game to see for myself.

My main concern with the book is the mythical back story that the authors have created for the metaplot that they intend to run throughout the game as it is developed in further products. I'm not against metaplot, but the one they have constructed seems to miss one of the main points of the Warring States period.

As far as I can tell, this backstory is largely a creation of the game's authors, and not based on an existing legend. I could be wrong, as I'm no expert on the period, but some time spent googling the issue didn't turn anything up.

Their secret back story turns Qin into the "good guys". The Qin were not "good guys". They won, and the fact that they won probably led to a better existence for most Chinese of the time, but they won through ruthless tactics and were led by a man that some consider to have been insane. This contradiction is one of the unique factors to playing a game in the period, and by making Qin the "good guys" you miss out on this and eliminate some very interesting roleplaying opportunities and choices.

Fortunately, you can ignore the back story whether you use the system or not, and the book is still well worth checking out if you have an interest in the period.

Worth noting is that this is a translation of the original French game. So far only the core rules, the Game Master's Screen with a small supplement, and a bestiary of fantastic creatures have been translated into English, but there are over a half dozen other products already produced in French.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Changing Links (Again)

Just another maintenance post. After talking about changing the links around the other day I decided to go ahead and break out the blogs from the other links, and now have a blog list in addition to the link list. This shows other blogspot blogs I follow in order of the most recent update, along with a little snippet from that last post.

I also took the opportunity to add a couple more blogs that I follow to the list.

Most everyone else I know who is blogging uses this app already, and I like it, so I figured it was time I added it. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Dogs in Liz' Vineyard

We had our character generation session for Liz' Dogs in the Vineyard campaign on Monday, and despite two of the five players having to bail at the last minute, we still had a good time. We only had one complete newb to the system, but it had been long enough since I ran my one-shot that the rest of us had to get re-acquainted with some of the rules.

Liz came prepared with a questionnaire about our characters that she wanted us to fill out. While I didn't find every question on the questionnaire useful, overall it was a great idea, and helped focus some of the ideas I had for my character.

I also got to scratch my GMing itch when Emily came up with an initiation concept that Liz didn't feel like running. I had an idea on how to do it, so she let me run it instead, which I really appreciated.

While it was fun to do a little GMing, it also made me realize that I'm going to have to work some to keep from "back-seat GMing" the game. Hopefully once we're actually playing I'll be too busy playing my own character to interfere much.

I like my character. I deliberately made him a little bland to start with, because I want to play a sheltered character going out and running smack into the real world. Because of this I had some trouble thinking up traits at first, but in the end I came up with a set that I'm pretty happy with.

I'm also liking what I've seen of Emily's and Jonathan's characters. It should be interesting how they all develop over the course of the game.

I'm now looking forward to the first full session. Unfortunately, that's probably not for another three weeks as we have a NWARPG meeting and a Magpie Gaming Night first.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Changing Paradigms (Or At Least Links)

I'm not sure how many have noticed them hidden amongst all the other apps I have on the sidebar here, but there's a handful of links to other sites I find of interest. Specifically, there are links to my other blog, blogs by a couple of my friends, a couple of forums I frequent, and links to two of my favorite game stores.

It's these last two links that are undergoing the change. When first adding the links I linked to the websites that the stores maintain, but those links seem to be less and less relevant. One has never had much more than a placeholder page linked to a forum that gets little traffic, and the other has been deliberately moving more content over to their Facebook page, going so far as to take down their private forums in favor of moving discussion over to Facebook.

With this in mind, I'm changing my links to point to the Facebook pages for both stores, rather than their websites. Those pages either include all the relevant information pertinent to their store, such as address, phone number and store hours, or at least link back to their website that has that information. In fact, one of the stores has far more information on their Facebook page than they do on their website.

I decided to make a post about changing the links simply because I find it interesting that such a change seems to be appropriate, and to alert anyone who reads my blog to the Facebook presence of these stores. Just in case they didn't already know.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Store Tour - Northwest Arkansas

A while back I read a thread on EN World (not a forum I frequent, but the thread was linked off another blog that I do), I decided that it would be a good idea to do a run down of the local retail gaming establishments. Then I promptly procrastinated. It turned out that I wasn't the only one thinking along these lines, as Liz created a Google Map showing local stores for the NWARPG forums, which eventually caused me to stop procrastinating and actually finish this "store tour" idea.

The problem with doing what the guys on EN World were doing is that I'm cheap and lazy and don't really feel like driving around to the various stores in the area just to write up a blog post, so instead I'm going to go by memory with a dash of rumor thrown in. Not ideal, but better than nothing, and I suspect that after I post this, I may end up getting more information. Also, since there's only really one "true" game store in the area, I'm going to include all the stores that I'm aware of that carry at least some hobby games.

Barnes & Noble: First on the list because it begins with "B". There are two locations in Northwest Arkansas, one in Fayetteville, and one in Rogers. They generally carry a number of RPG books, mostly D&D with a handful of other titles. The one in Fayetteville had some Shadowrun books, and some Dark Heresy books the last time I checked. It's been well over a year now since I've been to the one in Rogers, but they had a similar selection back then. The Fayetteville store now has a permanent board game section (as opposed to the seasonal section it had in the past), and I imagine that the one in Rogers may as well. It's mostly full of dreck like Monopoly variants, but has a handful of good games as well.

Castle House Hobbies & Games: Next up in alphabetical order is the only "true" game store currently in Northwest Arkansas. Located in Fayetteville, this store carries board games, miniatures games, card games and roleplaying games. It has the best selection in Northwest Arkansas, but that's not to say there isn't room for improvement. I wish there was a bit more selection in some areas, but it's still one of the best to ever grace the region. They do have the largest gaming area in Northwest Arkansas and are fairly free with its use as long as it doesn't interfere with a scheduled event. They have several such events that run there, including regular ones for CCGs and the Boardgame Night I run, as well as several RPG groups that meet there regularly, and periodic Warhammer 40K tournaments.

Dickson Street Used Books: This is an awesome used book store located in Fayetteville, but its connection to gaming is pretty thin. There's often a small selection of used RPGs available here, but it's very hit or miss as to whether or not there's anything worth buying.

Gamer's Utopia: This is a new store that apparently just opened up in the Frisco Station Mall in Rogers. I know nothing about it beyond the fact that they hold Magic tournaments. This may be a second "true" game store, but I don't know yet if that's the case.

Hastings: Another big chain, it's been a couple of years since I visited, but when I did it had a selection comparable to Barnes & Noble, with a bit more variety, as well as a handful of used game books. As something of a historical footnote, this store once carried the full GW line of miniatures and a huge selection of CCGs, but that was well over a decade ago. There are stores in Fayetteville and Springdale.

Rock Bottom Books: This store in Fayetteville is one of the comic shops in Northwest Arkansas. The only reason I included it is that they sell a few CCGs and have a couple of bookcases of used games, mostly RPGs with a few wargames. Prices tend to be a bit high for the used games, but partly as a result of that they usually have a better selection than Dickson Street Used Books.

Tshirt Explosion: I have yet to go to the new location in Springdale, but I have it on reliable authority that it is like the old location in that from the outside there is no indication that this business has anything to do with gaming. On the inside is a large selection of GW product as well as several gaming tables. I'm unsure as to the hours those tables are available. Based on posts I've seen it seems rather hit and miss. The owner runs two annual miniatures tournaments, one for Warhammer Fantasy and one for Warhammer 40K. Both are fairly well attended, drawing quite a few players who make a trip here to play in them (incidentally, Patriot Games, the 40K tournament, is going on as I post this).

Vintage Stock: The other comic store in the area that I'm aware of, Vintage Stock has three locations: Fayetteville, Springdale, and Rogers. Although in the past they had a rather extensive selection of GW merchandise and RPGs, today they only carry CCGs, which is just enough to justify putting them on this list, but not enough to make me a customer.

That's pretty much it. As far as I know, you have to travel at least 120 miles in any given direction to get to another game store, (Springfield, MO; Tulsa, OK; and Russellville, AR being the closest three that I'm aware of).

There's some small possibility that the Hobbytown that recently closed in Bentonville might reopen under new ownership, but that's just rumor at this point, and not very reliable rumor.

2013 Edit:  Hastings and Castle House are no more, but in their place we have two new stores:
Gear Gaming in Fayetteville and Galaxy Games in Springdale.

Both stores have good play areas, but limited selections of merchandise. They are both responsive to their customers' suggestions as to what to stock, so will generally try to have the "new hotness" if it's available and they have been made aware of it.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Rolling it Old School

We finally got in another session of Magpie Gaming Night this past Monday, and I ran a one shot adventure for Swords & Wizardry White Box. It wasn't anything too fancy, but I had fun, and I think the players did too. After a lot of indy games it was nice to get back to some classic hack and slash for a little bit.

The players each rolled up a 4th level character. We ended up with a Cleric, a Magic-User and an Elf. The adventure found them killing time at a tavern (imagine that!), when the small town they were in found themselves inundated by a horde of undead, mostly skeletons and zombies. The cleric went to turn them, but found them strangely resistant to his efforts. He could still turn them, but it was not as easy as it should have been.

The group held back the major push of the undead long enough for most of the villagers to make it to the keep before being forced to retreat into the keep themselves. As the drawbridge was being raised the cleric fell, and the others pulled him back into the keep where they were met by a Lieutenant Nunoz who led them to the makeshift infirmary to drop off their fallen comrade before heading to a meeting with the commandant.

The commandant outlined the situation, which they were already mostly aware of, and then conscripted them into the militia for the duration of the siege. He explained that they could spend the time on the walls if they wished, but that he had a special mission that he believed they would be perfect for, if they were willing to volunteer.

He had reason to believe that there was a necromancer behind the attack, and he wanted the group to find and deal with the necromancer in the hopes that once the necromancer was gone the siege would be lifted. The party agreed, and the cleric was raised from the dead by the local priestess so that he could help them (don't ask why a priestess of high enough level to raise dead couldn't deal with a horde of skeletons and zombies on her own, this is not the plot hole you're looking for...).

If this had been a campaign I would have come up with some sort of system other than the default one of zero hit points leading automatically to death, but as a one shot I tried to just let the dice fall where they may for most of the adventure.

Lieutenant Nunoz led them out of a secret tunnel that opened beyond most of the siege lines. A short skirmish got them the rest of the way through, and they eventually decided to follow the tracks of the shambling horde back to where they came from in the hopes of locating the necromancer.

They managed to track him down to a broken down tower on the edge of an old battlefield. On the way they destroyed one of his wight lieutenants. In the tower they found another wight along with the necromancer working on animating more undead. They destroyed the wight, but only after it drained one of the cleric's levels, while the necromancer decided to exercise discretion and used a combination of hold portal and dimensional portal to delay the group long enough for him to get away and join up with the main part of his undead horde.

This was the one point in the adventure where I decided to pull a punch for the good of the game. The necromancer had a fireball ready to go, but as I looked over the spell again, I realized it would almost certainly lead to a total party kill if he used it on the group, so I decided that instead of using it on them, he was going to use it to attempt to breach the walls of the keep.

So, instead of using his one fireball on the group, he escaped from them and returned to the keep, where he used it to burn through the gate of the keep.

It took a while for the group to figure out where the necromancer had gone, so they arrived just in time to see the gate on fire and getting ready to collapse, with the horde of undead getting ready to storm in.

They attacked, and while the cleric kept the undead away with successful turning, the others managed to take down the necromancer. As he realized he was about to be defeated, he polymorphed into a small dragon to gain the protection of its scales and to fly away, but just as he was about to escape, the magic-user thumped him on the head with her staff and brought him down!

All-in-all I thought it was a fun little adventure, and I think the ending worked out pretty well considering that I really didn't have anything planned beyond "confront the necromancer".

It was definitely a big change from the kinds of games we've been playing up to this point. We've been playing mostly games with systems built in for handling social conflict, and Swords & Wizardry doesn't even have skills!

Thursday, June 03, 2010


We had our first Board Game Night where we had too many players for the featured game! I've been saying that this has been coming for a while now. I think it was Liz who even suggested that I was jinxing it by predicting it, but thanks to Seth bringing his wife and a couple of friends we finally did it!

This meant that we got to break out a second game to be played simultaneously with the featured game. While I explained the rules to Ideology to the main group, Jonathan set up and figured out the rules to Horus Heresy.

Liz ended up winning the Ideology game, while I proceeded to lose a game of Horus Heresy.

While I don't think this will be an every week occurrence yet, I certainly hope this isn't the last time that we have this many people! For those keeping score, eight people showed up, although once chose not to play.

Incidentally, I don't know if I'll do a full review, but I wasn't impressed by Horus Heresy. It wasn't because I lost, but how I lost. I think the odds were that Jonathan was going to win anyway, but instead of a hard fought game coming down to the wire, I saw all my hard work undone by a single random event card draw. Just about the worst way to lose a game in my opinion, and something I consider to be a serious flaw in the game. I may give it another try eventually, but where I'd been looking forward to giving it a try, now I'll probably have to be talked into it before giving it another go.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Two Hundred Best Games

I thought I'd reviewed Hobby Games: The 100 Best here back when I read it, but either I did not, or I simply can't find it now in my archives. In either case, now that I've just finished Family Games: The 100 Best, I'm going to go ahead and review both.

The premise behind both books is to get 100 people involved in the gaming industry to each review one of their favorite games. The first book focuses on the broad category of "hobby games" covering everything from RPGs, to CCGs, to miniatures games, to board games. The second book narrows the focus a bit to cover games that can be enjoyed by the "family" and covers everything from, well, RPGs, to CCGs, to miniatures games, to board games.

The nature of "family" is only vaguely defined, but can be loosely interpreted to mean games that can be enjoyed by casual gamers, while "hobby" games are more geared towards people who consider themselves more serious gamers. Where Hobby Games includes Dungeons & Dragons, Family Games includes Faery's Tale Deluxe. Where Hobby Games includes Magic the Gathering, Family Games includes Pokemon. Where Hobby Games includes Flames of War, Family Games includes HeroScape. Where Hobby Games includes Squad Leader, Family Games includes The Game of Life.

Of course, there's some overlap, and Family Games even has an appendix listing games from Hobby Games that would also fit the criteria for Family Games if they weren't already in the first book.

One interesting thing about the core concept of both books is how the context of who is doing the review can sometimes be as interesting as the review itself. If a designer of a game I really like has chosen to include a game I've previously dismissed, then I will probably take a second look at that game. Also, if someone who I haven't heard of before has included a game I really like, I'll probably at least take a look at what they've designed, as we obviously have at least some sensibilities in common when it comes to games.

Of course, this can work the other way too. The fact that Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games chose to include Monopoly as his entry for Family Games just furthers my impression of him as a designer of games I'm unlikely to enjoy.

Both books are good, but if you can only afford one of them, then I'd recommend getting the first one. Hobby Games simply had more entries that I found interesting than Family Games did, and I think this will be the case for most gamers.

Family Games is still a good read, so if you really enjoy Hobby Games and want more, then get a copy of Family Games as well.

I'm pleased to have both books on my shelf.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Podcasts 2010

My podcast lineup has changed quite a bit since I last blogged about it. Only three of the podcasts I was listening to back then are still on my list: The D6 Generation, World's End Radio, and This Week In Wargaming.

The D6 Generation is still one of the top podcasts on my list. Although for a podcast that proclaims "no hate" they sure seem to have a lot of hate for some things. Their constant put-downs of Agricola are wearing a bit thin, as was the irrational hatred of Avatar, and even the rational hatred towards Twilight. I know they're trying to be funny, but it's one of the few cases where their patented "not too horrible" humor really is pretty horrible.

Mini-rant aside, it's still a great podcast with tons of good information and humor in every episode that covers a wide variety of games.

World's End Radio is my token GW podcast, but still pretty high on my list. The combination of Australian accents and some coverage of non-GW games keeps this one on my list. They really do put on a good show.

This Week In Wargaming isn't quite so high on my list, but is one I still listen to. The original host, Troy McCauley, had to leave the podcast, and I'm still getting used to the new host, Ken Whitehurst. I loved Ken's segment on music for gaming that was part of the D6 Generation, but his style of delivery isn't quite to my taste for a full podcast.

I really hate to criticize something like this in an amateur podcaster, but he has a rather monotone style of delivery that I sometimes find difficult to pick out of the background noise when I'm listening to the podcast, to the point where my mind will wander and I'll suddenly be thinking "wait, what did he just say?" I'm hoping that either he'll grow into a slightly more dynamic style of presentation as he gains experience, or else that I'll get more used to his delivery, because the content of the show is still excellent. I'm not suggesting that he try to be more dynamic, I just hope that he grows more comfortable with the medium that he'll become more relaxed and his delivery will develop naturally. Once again, I hate to even bring it up, but it is a major factor why the podcast is not higher on my list.

Now for the ones I've added since last year: First up is The Dice Tower. This is one of the bigger board gaming podcasts and has been around for quite some time. It probably should have been one of the first podcasts I listened to, and I'm not sure why it wasn't, but now it's up there at the top of my list, vying with the D6 Generation to be the first I listen to when new episodes are up.

The hosts have a good presentation (the co-host, Eric Summerer is actually a professional voice actor), and while Tom Vasel once had a reputation for loving every game he ever played, as time has gone by he's become more critical, which I think makes his reviews even more useful than they used to be.

Fear the Boot is a general RPG podcast that has been entertaining to listen to as I get back into roleplaying. It's not at the top of my list, but the group has a nice dynamic.

Actual People, Actual Play is another RPG podcast, but where Fear the Boot is more about theory, Actual People, Actual Play is about recaps of gaming sessions. This is more entertaining than I originally thought it would be, and actually more useful for me given that the games they've been playing are mostly ones I want to run or play. I started listening because their first game was Burning Empires, but I'm still interested even though that campaign ended. I'm currently several episodes behind because I thought I was subscribed when I wasn't, but I'll be catching up with it as soon as I'm able.

One more primarily board gaming podcast I'm listening to is Game On! with Cody & John. This one is borderline for me. The hosts are entertaining, but I know more about the games they talk about than they do. Admittedly, they don't pretend to be experts, their pitch is that they're just normal gamers. The problem is that I don't really get that much out of listening to them. This one is likely to be one of the first ones I let get behind if I get less time to listen to podcasts.

Ninja vs. Pirates is a somewhat unique podcast in that it's all about game design, and each episode is an interview with a game designer. While some episodes are more interesting than others, there are a lot of interesting interviews that have been done.

Voice of the Revolution is the "house" podcast for Indie Press Revolution. I'm giving it a try right now, but haven't decided yet if it will stick around on my list. For what is essentially an infomercial, it's interesting and leans far more heavily on the information than it does on the commercial.

Finally, there's 2d6 Feet in a Random Direction. This one is the most sporadic of the podcasts I listen to, but is always interesting and entertaining when it comes out. One of the hosts of the podcast is associated with Endgame, a game store in Oakland that I used to go to occasionally. I probably met him at some point, but I never got to know those guys that well. Both hosts seem to have a lot of friends in the industry, or at least the West Coast gaming scene, and a lot of them seem to make their way onto the podcasts.

That's pretty much it for now. I fully expect this list of podcasts to continue to evolve over time. As it does I plan on continuing to post about it in the hopes that maybe someone else will discover a podcast that they like from the ones I mention.