Sunday, December 11, 2011

Word Cloud

Nifty word cloud for the blog, made using this app.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dungeon World

We had our first session of Dungeon World using the Red Book, and had a blast!  I'm not sure I was doing everything exactly right, but it worked.

My original plan was to convert over Keep on the Borderlands, boiling it down to its essential elements for the Dungeon World tri-fold adventure format, but I ran out of time.  Instead, I went with the The Bloodstone Idol from the book.  Probably for the best given that we're all new to the game, but I still hope to get back to my original idea at some point.

We had three players who played the following characters:  Marlow the good human Thief, Thelian the neutral elf Fighter, and Father Wesley the evil human Cleric.  Father Wesley had heard of Grundloch's plan to learn the secrets of the idol, and had convinced the other two to come along and help him put a stop to it.  Not because Wesley thought that Grundloch would do harm if he wasn't thwarted, but because he had grown up with Grundloch, and held a grudge over some long ago slight.  Father Wesley isn't a very nice person.

We made characters last week, so this week we got right into the adventure, which went as follows:

While standing at the entrance to the Bloodstone Caverns, the group is surprised by a lizardman hunting party exiting the caverns.  The party kills three of them while the remaining two flee back inside.  They follow to find goblins and lizardmen facing off against each other.  Grabbing the three lizardman corpses, they approach the goblins and ask for information, showing that they have helped their cause.  This parley attempt by Father Wesley achieves a partial success and the goblins say that the party must first kill more lizardmen.

Wesley and Thelian charge across the hall and attack the lizardmen, killing three of them with help from Marlow's shooting.  More lizardmen arrive as reinforcements, and the group retreats back to the goblins.  The three lizardman heads they recovered are enough to cause the goblins to answer their questions and let them pass.

In the next room they face off against yet more lizardmen, but the magic of the room prevents the use of weapons, and the group ends up moving across to the exit that the lizardmen aren't blocking.  This leads them to a hallway that eventually opens out at the top of the large cavern that contains the Bloodstone Idol.  The floor of the cavern being about a hundred feet below, the group looks for a way down.

They see the web of ropes created by the goblins and cut the ones they can reach to keep the goblins from getting close, and to drop a bunch of them to the ground.  They then use their own ropes to climb down.  Only making a partial success, Father Wesley faces the tough choice of letting himself fall part of the way, or grabbing Marlow to steady himself, likely causing her to lose her balance.  He chooses to grab Marlow, even though she had been helping him up to this point.  Marlow falls to the ground.  Thelian, having taken a separate rope, finds himself drawing near to some surviving goblins in the ropes.  He can try to climb past them while they attack him, but he instead chooses to jump and take one with him to the ground, which is not that far below.  

Marlow and Thelian find themselves once again in the middle of a battle between goblins and lizardmen.  As Wesley joins them a cloud of noxious gas rolls towards the party.  They manage to flee from it, but are split up with Marlow and Thelian on one side and Wesley on the other.  Marlow spots a hidden door and leads Thelian to it.

Wesley attempts to cross the battlefield in the middle of a major attack by the goblins on the lizardmen positions.  He finds himself in a trench with some goblins whom he helps fight some counter-attacking lizardmen until only he and a wounded lizardman remain.  He parlays with the lizardman, converting him to his faith, at least temporarily.  Wesley worships a god of healing and restoration, but one that also values suffering and sacrifice.  Guess which elements Wesley emphasizes?  The lizardman and Wesley part ways, and Wesley meets back up with the rest of the party.

The party ends the session by entering the hidden room and making camp.

For those unfamiliar with Dungeon World, it takes the system from Apocalypse World and changes it so that it can be used to recreate the classic dungeon crawl feel.  It's a very narrative system that builds off a set of principles and moves.  The gamemaster never rolls dice in Dungeon World.  The players roll dice when they make a move, and how well or poorly they roll helps define what kind of move the GM can make in response.

For example, in the above adventure, the lizardmen being reinforced was a monster move I made in response to a poor roll by the Thief when she attempted a Volley move to shoot the lizardmen.  I could have just done damage to the Thief as a move, but that wasn't as interesting, or really appropriate since she wasn't in melee.

The system of alternating moves between players and GMs seems very structured when reading it, but in play it cam across a lot more smoothly and naturally than I feared it would.  Most moves came without my really thinking about them, and the moves list became a crutch to fall back on rather than the straightjacket I feared it might be.

For those already familiar with the system, here's some more detail on how the mechanics worked out.  The most common move used by the players was Hack and Slash (and Volley), followed by Defy Danger.  Defend, Parley, and Discern Realities were used a few times each.  Spout Lore and Aid were used a couple times each.  I never had them Make A Saving Throw, although I probably should have a couple of times.

The Fighter used Bend Bars Lift Gates to cut the ropes the goblins were using.  The Cleric cast many spells, often drawing attention to himself with partial successes.  The Thief never used any special moves, but did use a stolen item to help another to gain XP (the rope she used to help them climb down with was stolen).  I should probably work on giving that player some opportunities to use more of her special moves next time, and/or make sure she knows to look for those opportunities.

I think I did a good job on two of the three agendas, I filled the characters' lives with adventure, and I played to find out what happened, but I probably could have made the world a little more fantastic.  I think I did OK on making things fantastic, but only by drawing on what was in the adventure already.

I was a bit more hit and miss on the principles, but the thing that needs the most work is addressing the characters and not the players.  This is something I've been trying to do in other games as well, but I keep slipping up.

Everyone seemed very interested in continuing this adventure next week, especially since they all got enough experience this week to go up to second level!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Trail of Cthulhu: First Adventure

We wrapped up our first Armitage Files adventure last night, and I think the game is going well so far, with a few hiccups.  The investigative style of game is a bit different from the largely action based games that we've been playing lately, and I think there may be a little adjustment going on with the players, but most of the feedback I've been getting has been positive.

I'm still getting used to running the point based mechanics of the system.  It feels as if I'm not giving them enough opportunities to spend points, but that may just be me.  It's not something they've brought up, so it may not be a problem.

The more I play with how the investigative skills work, the more I realize how effective a tool they can be to keep players on track.  Core clues, the ones the players have to have to solve the mystery, don't require point spends to get.  Clues that aren't key to solving the mystery do require point spends.  This means that if a player is chasing down a lead and they don't get any information without spending points, then they know that they're off on a tangent.

I'm fine with this, because I sometimes get frustrated when players are off chasing down inconsequential stuff at the expense of the main plot, but I don't want them to feel as if the point spend system is railroading them towards the inevitable outcome of the investigation.  In the long run, I think their attitude towards this mechanic is what is going to determine the viability of a campaign using this system.  As long as they don't feel railroaded by it, then it should hold up.  So far, the players haven't expressed any concerns over this, but it's something I'm keeping an eye on.

If anything, they seem to want me to provide more immediate direction when they try to decide what to do next, rather than letting them spend too much time going over what they know and trying to pick a next course of action.  I'm going to continue to work on the balance between letting them control the direction of the investigation and keeping the story moving.

If you are curious about how the adventure itself played out, you can check out the Adventure Log for the campaign on Obsidian Portal.

Now that the first adventure is over, we're going to take a short break to try out Dungeon World before continuing with the Armitage Files.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Less Magpie in Magpie Night

This past Monday marked the beginning of a turning point for our Magpie Night RPG sessions.  The night was originally designed to try out a variety of game systems using one or two shot adventures.  We did that for a while bi-weekly, then added a Pathfinder Kingmaker campaign on the off weeks.

This was working quite well for some time, but lately things have changed.  First, we lost one of our founding members when she moved away, and the Kingmaker campaign has been dragging a bit since then.  With another of our players now taking a (hopefully) temporary leave of absence, I made the decision to put Kingmaker on hiatus.

Meanwhile, I have been getting some push-back on the core Magpie concept of bouncing from system to system fairly rapidly.  A couple of the players are either frustrated at constantly having to come up with character ideas, or else have a desire to explore their character concepts more deeply than a single adventure allowed for.

Also, I want to explore some games that require more than a single adventure to get into, so while I do want to still do some more one-shot adventures in the future, I am abandoning them for now and doing short campaigns instead.

With this in mind I created a spreadsheet of all the games I am willing to run, along with ratings as to how great my desire to run them is, my preparedness in terms of understanding the rules, and some other factors.  At the top of that list is Ashen Stars, but Trail of Cthulhu is right below it, and two of my three current players are more interested in it than in Ashen Stars.

Thus, we have started a Trail of Cthulhu campaign, while possibly doing some Ashen Stars adventures whenever I need a break from running Trail of Cthulhu.  Since they are both based on the Gumshoe system, there shouldn't be much difficulty in switching between games.  More on this in my next post.

I'm a little sad to see the format change, but we got through a lot of games over the past year or so, which has been a lot of fun, and which I think really helped some of my skills when it comes to roleplaying.  I'm now looking forward to running some longer games.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Space Marine

I just finished the new Space Marine video game, and it's one of the best uses of the Warhammer 40K IP that I've yet to see.  Certainly the best single player experience in a 40K video game.

Playing Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, I feel like I'm capable of accomplishing exactly what a Space Marine Captain should be able to accomplish according to the fluff of the 40K universe.  I can face hordes of orks and renegade guardsman with ease.  With skill, persistence, and a bit of luck, I can even take down an ork warboss solo.

However, even with the abilities and gear of a Space Marine Captain, if I fail to use proper tactics, then I will die.  As Captain Titus I am a super soldier, but I am not Superman.

The way the game plays supports this.  Throughout much of the mission I am accompanied by two fellow marines, my battle brothers in the parlance of the Space Marines.  They aren't very effective at taking down the enemies they face, but that doesn't break the immersion for me, because they are also invulnerable to taking damage.  This is important, because it allows me to stay immersed in the idea that I am a Space Marine fighting alongside fellow Space Marines.  I never have to make a tactically stupid choice in order to keep one of my battle brothers alive because those battle brothers can take care of themselves.  I can focus on my own goals without having to keep track of my companions at every moment.

The way weapons work also contribute to the proper feel of the setting.  A bolter feels like a powerful weapon, but it still takes a few hits to drop an ork.  Opponents take about as much punishment as you would think that they should according to the fluff.  Maybe a little more than you'd expect in some cases, but not excessively so.

While the story is linear, the little tactical choices you make in combat seem to matter.  This is because there are very few places where the enemy spawns continuously.  If you shoot an enemy, that enemy is gone.  It's not going to be replaced by another enemy until I reach some arbitrary trigger point that turns off the respawns.  This lets me use actual tactics, like sniping the enemy instead of rushing straight into the middle of them.

Where there are respawning enemies, there are usually a limited number of respawns, and they respawn in a way that is consistent with the setting, such as coming through a hole torn in the warp.

There are a few tropes of the shooter genre present that can break immersion, but they are relatively minor.  For example, the ability to swap out up to four different weapons, including heavy weapons, at will.  I'm not sure where I was keeping that lascannon while shooting my bolter, but it's a concession to game play that I think is both necessary to maximize the fun, and is easy to get used to.

The graphics and sound are appropriate.  Space Marines are big.  Imperial Guard troopers are tiny next to them.  Proportions are true to the fluff, not to the tabletop game miniatures, which is good. The scenery is appropriately gothic and war-torn, with jury-rigged defenses created by both orks and humans scattered around.  Nothing gets repeated so much as to become annoying or humorous, neither sounds nor graphics.

 All the vehicles and characters are from 40K designs, with nothing really original to the game itself.  I liked this, as you get to see some things animated that I don't think have ever been animated before.

Vehicles in general make few appearances in the game.  Most of it takes place in confined spaces where vehicles can't operate, but when they do appear, they tend to be impressive.  If there is a sequel, one thing they could do to differentiate it from the original would be to include more vehicles.

Overall, a very fun game, despite an ending that was a bit weak (probably to leave room for a sequel), and I strongly recommend this game to anyone who is a fan of the IP of Warhammer 40K.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Mouse Guard RPG Unboxing

I've had a few people asking about the Mouse Guard RPG Boxed Set, so this post is going to be something I can point people to when they ask. It's been a while since I read or played Mouse Guard, so this is going to be mostly an evaluation of the physical components.

To start with, the box itself is nice. Solid, with nice artwork. Inside is a clear plastic insert to keep the contents from bouncing around too much. Roughly from top to bottom, I'll now go through those contents.

First are the dice. Ten solid six sided dice with engraved symbols, black on off-white. Three sides have a snake eating its tail for the cowards, two sides with crossed daggers for the regular successes, and one side with the Black Axe for the "6" side that can be exploded using fate points. While certainly not necessary, these look very nice.

There are five "mouse pawns" in different colors. These are oversized soft plastic chess pawns with mouse heads on top them. They resemble the pawns Gwendolyn uses in the comic to mark Guard patrols on the map. They don't really have any game function, but could make for a nice prop.

Next up are the cards. Three Action Decks, one deck of Conditions, and one of Weapons. Every card has an illustration and rules summary. The Action Decks have three each of the four different actions. The Conditions Deck has three each of the different conditions. The Weapons Deck has two each of ten different weapons, and one card for the mace introduced in the New Rules New Missions booklet. These cards seem to be the most useful things in the box, and I can see them coming in very handy when playing the game, especially with people new to the game.

Next is the rulebook. This is a softcover version of the rules, but otherwise identical to the hardcover book available separately.

Next is the "New Rules New Missions" booklet. The new rules introduce a variety of specialized "weapons" (really tactics and gear in most cases) for different types of activities, from giving speeches to fighting larger animals. There's also three new towns, a Combat Matrix revised for clarity, and rules for using mounts.

The bulk of the booklet is taken up with three new missions, each with new character templates. I've deliberately not looked too closely at these, but they are comparable in length to the sample missions in the rulebook.

The end of the booklet consists of a description of the other components which can be found in the boxed set. One thing I noticed here is that it mentions the presence of "other cards" beyond the decks I mentioned above, specifically cards with conflict disposition, conflict skills/action, and action mechanics on them. I can find no such cards in the box, and they aren't mentioned on the back of the box. I don't know if they're missing from my box or simply were dropped from production, but I suspect the latter given that they aren't mentioned on the box.

Next up are two pads of sheets. One pad of character sheets, and one of GM sheets. The former are what you'd expect from a character sheet. The latter has one side for summarizing the player characters, and the other is a rules summary.

Below the pads is a 3 panel cardstock GM's screen. It looks like it contains useful information, but I'd have to use it in play before I could fully evaluate whether it's well designed or not. The outer side consists of two panels of artwork, and one of information for the players, which is nice.

Finally, there's a map of the Mouse Territories in 1150. This is the same map found on the inside covers of the hardback rules, but with a little more color.

Overall, this is a nice set. Should you get it if you already own the rules? That's a tough call. If you're only interested in "crunch" then $70 is an awful lot for 44 pages of new rules and missions. It becomes a better deal if you're also interested in the play aids, like the cards and GM screen. If you were considering getting a second copy of the rules anyway, just to make things easier at the table, then definitely consider getting this set instead.

If you don't already own the rules, then I'd find this set an easier recommendation. You're still paying $35 above the cost of the hardcover for all the extras, but they are nice extras, and should make playing the game easier.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Don't Discourage Your Customers

These are some ideas that have been floating around in my head for a while, but I was finally inspired to write them down after reading the following tweet from Adam Jury: "Pricing that punishes late adopters discourages late adopters. Hey, discouraging customers kinda sucks."

In case it's not obvious: discouraged customers are less likely to buy your product.

An example of this is the pre-order discount. This is a common tactic in the hobby games industry, particularly among wargame manufacturers where it's become a nearly universal practice. It obviously works for them on some level, but it does tend to discourage new customers in a market that already struggles a great deal to attract new customers. Sometimes the pre-order discount is so large that you have to wonder whether the final MSRP is being overly inflated to further encourage pre-ordering.

Pricing isn't the only way to discourage customers. Another way is the pre-order exclusive. If the only way for a customer to get a certain substantial thing is to pre-order, and they missed the pre-order, then they're even more likely to become discouraged than they would from missing a discount. By substantial I mean something related to game-play. An adventure, or scenario, or expansion that's exclusive to pre-orders and otherwise unavailable.

In the past I've even seen companies that only offer a legitimate PDF of the product to those who pre-order. This goes beyond discouraging sales to actively preventing them!

Substantial exclusives in general are a bad idea. Whether it's a pre-order exclusive, a con-exclusive, or a direct order exclusive, when customers find out that they've missed out on something, they become discouraged. That means while they may have already bought your core game, now they're less likely to buy anything else related to it.

A combination of the two is the pre-order bundle. Everything in the bundle is available after the pre-order, but at a higher combined price. This is most commonly found in situations where the PDF is offered free with a pre-order, but has to be paid for separately if you don't pre-order.

So, what's a company to do if they want to encourage pre-orders, but don't want to discourage late adopters? Offer bonuses that aren't involved with game play: signed copies, t-shirts, posters, anything that's "cool" but isn't actually used in the play of the game.

Many Kickstarter projects are using this kind of thing effectively. In many cases people are actually paying extra to be an early adopter (in some cases a LOT extra) if it gets them something cool, even though it's not related to the game play. Something as simple as getting your name in the product as a supporter can help encourage people to put money up front.

It's possible to get creative about offering incentives while avoiding dis-incentives.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Diana Jones Award 2011

I still haven't gotten around to doing my own analysis of what would make for a good gaming award, but I almost don't have to, because I can point to the Diana Jones Award.

Instead of being a popularity contest, the Diana Jones Award is chosen by a panel of professionals. As a result, both the list of nominations and the final winner are consistently deserving of the attention given, and this year is no exception.

The nominees were:

Catacombs, a board game
Fiasco, a roleplaying game
Freemarket, a roleplaying game

These were all worthy nominations. I've played the three RPGs, and am familiar with the board games by reputation. While not all the nominees are my personal favorites, I can easily recognize the merits of them all.

The winner was Fiasco, and I think this was well deserved. It's been one of the most successful games I've played in terms of providing a consistently fun experience.

Congratulations to Jason Morningstar!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Space Battleship Yamato: The Final Battle

I am not an expert on Space Battleship Yamato. I didn't watch Star Blazers as a kid, and I've only seen a little bit since then, including the first anime movie. Still, when I saw that this live action version of the story had been filmed, I knew I had to see it, and I'm not disappointed that I did.

While it is a re-imagining of the story, much of the first two thirds of the film remains faithful to what I know of the source material, at least in spirit, with the biggest changes being to beef up the female roles a bit by making Yuki, the female lead, into more of a bad-ass and changing the gender of the ship's doctor.

It's only when the crew comes face to face with the enemy that things really start to diverge from the source material. The enemy aliens are made far more alien in this version than they were in the original, which I think ends up working rather well. I don't want to give away too many spoilers, but the ultimate fate of many of the characters also ends up being different than that of their animated selves.

The style of the movie is spot on, from the uniforms, to the sets, to the ship designs. All of it remains faithful to the source material while making the necessary adaptations for live action.

Many of those adaptations appear to borrow heavily from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, and this also seems to work. After all, the Yamato is supposed to be a renovated WWII battleship, so it makes sense that it would have similar interiors. The comparison to Galactica is probably most apparent on the flight deck, with the similar white bulkheads and jumpsuited ground crew readying fighters for launch.

These similarities of style bring to mind other similarities between the two stories. Both feature a mix of fighter and capital ship combat. Both feature themes of friendship, loss, duty, and survival. Both feature Humanity's last warship on a quest to save the species.

Overall, the movie is well done, although it does lag a bit near the end, and I'm not convinced that it was necessary to do the ending the way they did. It's still a good ending, just not the one I would have chosen.

I should point out that the lag is all the more noticeable because the rest of the movie is very well paced. Despite the fact that I was reading subtitles, it did not seem like a 131 minute long movie.

I highly recommend this one to fans of Japanese sci-fi.

The copy I got through Amazon appears to be from Malaysia, and while the overall quality is good, there are a few scenes that look like they could have been transferred better. I hope this will eventually get a US release, and that they will take a bit more care in its production. The English subtitles on this version are well done, with only a few obvious errors. There's also subtitles for Chinese and Malay.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Technoir 1.0

Technoir looks very interesting. This cyberpunk roleplaying game by Jeremy Keller is one of the projects I chose to back on Kickstarter, largely due to my like of his earlier game Chronica Feudalis. The book has yet to go to press, but Jeremy recently made the pdf available to the backers of the Kickstarter project and put it up for sale online.

While I don't normally read entire rulebooks in pdf form, I made an exception for Technoir. There were two reasons for this. The first is that, when reading a pdf, books laid out in a digest format are easier for me to read than those laid out in the more standard 8.5x11 size. As long as the font isn't too small I can read it on my Kindle, and if I'm at the computer I can read it two-up on the screen, just like I would if I had the print book in hand.

The second reason that I read the whole book in pdf form is that it's a very interesting read. The most interesting part is the combination of Transmissions and plot maps. A transmission is a setting outline that consists of a very brief description of the technology, environment and society of the setting followed by six each of contacts, events, factions, locations, objects, and threats. Astute gamers will note that six each of six different items makes for an array of items that can be randomly selected by rolling 2d6, and that's exactly what the GM does to generate a plot.

As the players create their characters, the GM randomly rolls for three items to make up the starting plot map. They then associate the three items to each other, noting the reasons for the connections. Meanwhile, the players will reach a point where they give their characters connections. They then have the ability to call on those connections for favors prior to the start of the game. If they do so, those connections are added to the plot map. By the time all of this is done, the GM should have a starting situation for the players to find themselves in just as soon as they've finished their characters, or shortly thereafter.

As play progresses, the plot map will grow as either the players bring in elements through their actions, or the GM adds additional elements to keep the story going, either rolling to bring in new ones, or choosing appropriate ones as the situation warrants. Eventually, the GM may even bring in elements from an entirely different Transmission if the story moves beyond the bounds of the beginning one.

I'm so interested in this concept that I started building my own Transmission even before I finished reading the rules. I'm not sure yet whether I'll try using it when running the game for our group, but it's certainly a possibility.

The rest of the game is interesting as well, but is going to take some getting used to. It's all about applying "adjectives" to other characters. In the case of mooks you can apply the adjectives of "unconscious" or even "dead", but that's not allowed when it comes to more important characters, which looks like it might takes some getting used to.

Normally conflict scenes in RPGs have a well-defined end-point: when one side runs out of hit points the conflict is over. This applies even in many newer games which feature social conflict, as they often feature what is essentially a pool of social hit-points. Since this doesn't happen in Technoir, it's going to be up to the GM and players to decide when conflicts end.

Players are going to have to decide for themselves when to give up since they can't just keep going until they run out of hit points. If their character gets "bloody" in pursuit of a goal they have to decide if it's still worth it. Mechanically they can continue on, but does it make sense in terms of story if the character doesn't value the goal that much?

GMs need to make the same decisions for the major NPCs. The following questions have to be asked during conflicts:
  • What are my character's goals for this conflict?
  • Have those goals been met?
  • Is it still worth pursuing those goals in light of the damage taken?

Of course, it is still possible for characters to die as a result of conflict, it just won't happen until the conflict is over. At that point characters roll a d6 for every physical injury adjective they've taken. One "6" means they are dying, and two means they are dead. This means that a determined character can continue to pursue their goal no matter what damage they take, but in the end could find they've expended everything they had to do so.

In this game though, dead doesn't necessarily mean dead dead. A "dead" character can still be saved, but if the attempt fails, then the character is permanently dead.

The basic mechanics of the game interest me as well. It uses three types of d6: action dice, push dice and hurt dice. When you perform an action you take a number of action dice equal to the value of the "verb" that you are using (verbs being stats), plus you can add a push die for every adjective you have that helps you, as long as you have enough push dice in your pool, and finally you add one hurt dice for every adjective you have that hurts you.

When you roll the dice any dice that match a hurt die are removed. You then look at the highest value of what's left. If there are more than one of the highest value then that value X becomes X.1. You compare the value to the target number, and if it's higher the action succeeds, and an adjective is applied to the target. The target number is the value of one of the target's verbs which the target can raise by using their own push dice.

Any adjectives applied this way are "fleeting" and are easy to remove. If the player or GM wants to make an adjective last longer, then they must spend push dice to do so. One die makes the adjective "sticky" and two makes it "locked". These dice are then given to the controller of the character affected.

This last bit adds in a nice pacing element to the game in that players start out with all the push dice. The GM can't do anything permanent to the players until they start doing serious stuff to the NPCs. This should allow for the game to accelerate at a pace influenced by the players.

Overall, I'm looking forward to getting this game to the table, and hope to follow up with my observations after we've done so.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Three Kingdoms

My introduction to the Three Kingdoms came from one of the original Romance of the Three Kingdoms computer games from Koei in the late eighties or early nineties. I never quite figured out the game, but was intrigued as to where the story came from.

I continued to interact with the Koei games over the years, both the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series and the Dynasty Warriors series, and my desire to know more about the story behind the games eventually led me to buy a four volume edition of Three Kingdoms.

That was several years ago, and I only recently finished reading them. Written some time in the 14th or 15th century, Three Kingdoms is a historical novel, and can be a difficult read at times. It certainly doesn't flow the way that modern novels most often do.

It's also difficult to tell just what the focus of the novel is until you are quite a ways into it. The cast of characters is enormous, and the entire first volume is largely a prologue to what eventually becomes the main story, which is marked by the appearance of the character of Kongming.

After that, the narrative picks up quite a bit, as the the story of Kongming is arguably the main plot of the novel. After Kongming’s death, there’s a definite feeling that everything else is epilog, despite being the better part of the fourth volume.

There’s also a feeling similar to that produced in some versions of the Arthurian legend, where you have mundane history leading to an era of larger than life heroes followed by a slide back into mundane history. This is reinforced by the fact that none of the heirs of the actual Three Kingdoms are capable of holding onto the achievements that their predecessors made, and are instead eclipsed and overthrown by a fourth faction that re-unites China.

To give you an indication of how dense this novel can be, the original version of the movie Red Cliff was filmed in two parts that added up to five hours of screen time. The events covered in it take up less than half of the second volume of Three Kingdoms.

Early elements of the wuxia tradition can be seen in many of the battle descriptions. While the battles include huge armies, it is often duels between generals that settle the matter, with a losing general’s side falling into disarray and being slaughtered and/or driven from the field.

These duels are not described in great detail, often consisting simply of a description of the number of passes made between duelists and the final blow that decides the outcome. Sometimes though, unique weapons are named and described, or generals are described as blocking missile weapons with their melee weapons, or they are described as defeating countless regular soldiers.

The only time I can recall a general being killed by a common soldier, that soldier was immediately promoted to become an officer and became a named character in the book. Otherwise, combat with soldiers only served to tire generals, but they would either win through, or be finished off by another general, not the common soldiers.

If you decide to read this, and choose the same version that I did, then I suggest starting with the afterword in volume IV, and reading it up to the point where the author suggests you start reading the novel itself. It will give you a better idea of what the focus of the novel is, and keep you from feeling as lost as I did throughout the first volume.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Take on the Origins Awards

If you won an award at Origins 2011, then you should probably just move along, because I'm likely going to offend you and that's not my intention. This is meant as a criticism of the awards themselves and not those that won them.

I don't think there was a bad product among the winners, I just think that many either weren't the best, or weren't properly classified.

It's been about three weeks now, and I've had some time to digest the results of the 2011 Origins Awards. Listening to episode 215 of the Dice Tower helped both confirm and solidify my initial impressions: the Origins Awards are a joke.

I don't want to minimize the accomplishments of some of the winners, particularly the folks at Evil Hat for their wins with the Dresden Files RPG, but in most cases the best of those nominated did not win, and in several cases it was the worst that did.

Let's look at the winners, starting with the single most egregious in my mind: Best Historical Board Game. The winner of that category was Catan Histories: Settlers of America Trails to Rails. This game shouldn't have even been nominated to this category. Just because a game has a lightly pasted on historical theme does not make it a historical game.

Moving on, we see Zombie Dice winning the best Family, Children's, or Party game. First, the category itself has issues. A family game is different from a children's game which is different from a party game. Mashing them all together makes little sense. I suppose they are going for best "casual" game, but they need to rethink the definitions of the board game categories if that's what they are going for.

Zombie Dice is not a terrible game, but every other nominee in the category is better. If you tell someone "you can only have X number of games for the rest of your life" no one is going to choose Zombie Dice. At least a couple of its competitors in the category could conceivably end up on such a list.

The same could be said of the winner of the Best Traditional Card Game category. Back to the Future is not a game I've played, but it's pretty obvious that the only reason it won was due to the theme. I've not actually played any of the games in the category, but I've heard really good things about some of them. I've heard no one praising Back to the Future in a similar manner.

For Best Board Game, the apparent top tier of the board game categories, at least the winner is a good game. Unfortunately it's also the weakest of the nominees. Every game in the category is better, but Castle Ravenloft apparently wins because it's Dungeons & Dragons.

Moving on now to roleplaying. While I think Dresden Files is a great game, and a serious contender for best roleplaying game, I would have chosen Fiasco. Everyone I know who has tried it has made it one of their go-to games. It's simple and innovative, and consistently produces good gaming sessions.

Best Roleplaying supplement is a close one. Having run both Dresden Files and Pathfinder games I have found the Advanced Players Guide more generally useful than Our World, but am willing to admit this is probably the most subjective call out of a lot of subjective calls in this article. As such, this is the one category where I don't really have an issue with the winner.

Moving on once more, we come to Best Hobby Game Accessory. Our nominees include such wonderful choices as Color Primer: Dragon Red... really? People couldn't find better nominees for this category than a color of paint? At least it didn't win, but the winner was almost as bad: a Cthulhu dice bag. A dice bag won the Best Hobby Game Accessory. I guess the Crown Royal bag wasn't eligible. Unless the bag actually opens into an extradimensional space, I think a better candidate could have been found. In fact, I have one, actually an entire category: everything else nominated was a better choice, except maybe the paint.

Most of the problem here is the over-broadness of the category. Everything else was specific to miniatures painters or players of a specific game, whereas the dice bag is more generic. Never mind that it doesn't even look very practical: it's cute and has broader appeal, so it wins.

I would have given Best Gaming Publication to Hamlet's Hit Points, but I haven't read Shadowrun: Spells and Chrome, so I can't say it didn't deserve to win. I can say that a category that includes both gaming fiction and non-fiction is a poorly designed category.

Best Miniature Rules: Heroclix won this. I know a lot of people like Heroclix, but were the rules included in the Blackest Night Starter Kit significantly different enough from previous editions to warrant inclusion in this category? Also, a BattleTech technical readout counts as rules? This category needs to be tightened up.

I can't really comment on the Best Play by Mail or Play by Email game, except to point out that the very existence of this category really calls into question the thinking process of those behind these awards. It's 2011, you have ten categories to cover products in a vastly diverse hobby, and you dedicate one of them to Play by Mail games.

I do have to give them credit for the Hall of Fame entries, which was the one area of the awards that I could agree with 100%. Although, paired with the Play by Mail category, I think this just goes to show that the Origins Awards has a much better grasp of the past of gaming than it has of the present.

Of course, anyone can whine about the poor quality of gaming awards, but what would make for a more useful system? I have some ideas, but I'll save them for a later post.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Podcast Update Update

A quick followup to my most recent Podcast Update.

I've been listening to the Chronicles: Pathfinder Podcast. After listening to three and a half episode so far, I expect that I'll probably go back and listen to the rest as time allows.

They feature a good mix of discussion of rules crunch and interviews with Pathfinder authors. They also make it very clear before straying into the realm of spoilers for players. This differentiation between the "companion" and "chronicles" sections of the podcast makes it possible for both players and GMs to make use of the podcast (players simply have to stop listening about half way through).

Definitely worth checking out for any Pathfinder players.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Board Games I've Been Playing

It's been a while since I went over what board games I've been playing, so I thought I'd go over some of the games I've been playing most often in 2011.

7 Wonders: By number of games played, this is solidly in first place. I can see this getting old eventually, but it's still a lot of fun right now, and I don't even have the new expansion yet. Fast play time combined with sort of a civilization building theme gets this to the table fairly often. I highly recommend it as a short, moderately light card game.

Dominion: Still a standard with people around here. It didn't see much play earlier in the year due to a personal shortage of card sleeves for the two most recent expansions, but now that Prosperity and Cornucopia are both sleeved it's hitting the table fairly regularly. I'm not really that good at it, but I enjoy building my deck and seeing it run, even when I don't win.

Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft/Wrath of Ashardalon: While our weekly Board Game Night was still meeting at the now closed FLGS, these games were the ones most likely to catch the eye of people new to the event. I enjoy them quite a bit, but one of my regular gaming buddies despises them. That combined with the smaller tables at our new location make it less likely these will hit the table again any time soon, although I may just try it solo the next time I get an itch for some dungeon crawling.

Star Trek Expeditions: A fun cooperative game that's been getting a lot of play. So much so that I got a little burned out on it for a while, but I'm already starting to want to get back to playing it again. Does a decent job of capturing the feel of Star Trek in addition to being an interesting game.

Barbarossa: Although it hasn't gotten as many plays as the others listed above, this is probably my pick for favorite game so far this year. I really like where the designers took the Dominion mechanics with this game, even though it does make for a longer game. Unfortunately, while my regular gaming group doesn't dislike the game, they aren't as enamored with it as I am. I still hope to get it back to the table soon.

Combat Commander: I finally managed to get some more games of this in this year. It has been about three years since the last time it hit the table, so its return was welcome. I'd really like to continue playing this, but am not sure when that will happen. Possibly my favorite squad level wargame.

All of the above have had at least three plays so far this year. Lots of other games got one or two plays. I may go over some of them in a future post.

Monday, July 18, 2011

My Changing Preferences in Gaming

I'm going to muse a bit about how my hobby time has changed over the past few years. I'm not sure how interesting this is going to be to anyone else, but it was interesting to me, so here it is.

A while ago I discussed why I'm not playing many miniatures games anymore, and mentioned that my current "preference hierarchy" when it comes to games has changed. It used to be that miniatures games were near the top of my hierarchy, but they're now below board games and RPGs. I thought I'd go over some of the reasons why that's the case.

One reason is prep time. Miniatures games suck up time outside of actually playing the game. Assembling and painting models take me forever. RPGs also take a certain amount of prep time, especially when running them, which is one reason they're behind board games which take minimal prep time, but it's minimal when compared to miniatures games, at least for me.

Prep time wasn't really a factor when I was single. In fact, it was a bit of a bonus as if I didn't have anything to do I could work on miniatures. At this point in my life there's rarely a time where I "don't have anything to do," even though I technically have more "free time" right now then at many points earlier in my life.

Another reason is community. There's a couple factors involved here, and I want to start off by saying I don't mean to offend anyone in the local gaming community. They're mostly a great bunch of people, and I know at least a couple of them read the blog. The thing is that they're not the community I'm used to.

I first got talked into playing Warhammer Fantasy and 40K by a couple of my best friends from college. We had played RPGs and Battletech back then, and when years later I moved out to California they roped me into playing Fantasy and later I roped them into playing 40K. Our games were infrequent, but when we had them I was always playing with at least one guy I'd known for years. The games had their share of trash talk, but overall it was an extremely casual environment.

After the Warhammer group ceased being able to get together, I got into Flames of War mainly just to try painting the models. It was only later that I got the chance to play it. The guys I played it with weren't guys I'd known for years, but they were still very casual in their play.

When I say casual, I mean that we had no interest in tournaments. We played to win, but we didn't spend hours trying to put together the ultimate list. We played with armies we thought would be fun to play with. Although they were largely strangers when we first started playing, I count some of those guys among my best friends now.

The community here is different. Even though some complain about the lack of turnout at tournaments, it's actually incredibly tournament focused. The vast majority of the players around here play in tournaments. A higher percentage than I've seen anywhere else I've played (which admittedly hasn't been that many places).

I've never been interested in tournaments, and even if I was I couldn't do them because of my schedule. That leaves me with a community that I don't really fit into all that well.

Without an active community, there's a lot less incentive to keep up the level of work it takes to stay involved with a miniatures game.

The final reason is money. This isn't a huge reason for me. I still spend a lot of money on hobbies, just not on miniatures. Still, it is a factor. When I was single, if I wanted to spend a little extra on miniatures I could choose to not go out to eat for a while. For some reason my wife doesn't seem pleased when I tell her we're not going out to eat tonight because I bought some miniatures earlier in the week...

So, that's why miniatures have fallen back behind RPGs and board games. They have less prep time, I have a small but active community that plays them, and they cost less money (for the most part).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

RPG Musings: Power Level

At the heart of most, if not all, RPGs is the power level of beginning characters. For example, early editions of D&D all assumed that level 1 characters, while better than the average peasant, were pretty weak compared to the world around them. Other games, like Traveller, assumed that characters were generally experienced and competent in their fields. They might not be movers and shakers in their world, but they could hold their own in their chosen fields of endeavor. Yet other games, like Amber, assume that characters are some of the most powerful beings in their world or universe.

My past preference as a GM has been for systems that start players off as relative neophytes and allow them to grow into competent and powerful characters. This kind of game, in theory, allows for the most character development over the course of a game. In practice, I've come to realize that systems that allow characters to at least begin the game as competent, if not downright powerful, seem to lead to the most player satisfaction.

There are a few reasons for this, some of which are probably obvious, but some of which might not be. The first is the instant gratification factor. If players start out with characters that are already heroes, they get to do heroic things from the beginning. Otherwise, they have to "level up" first doing relatively menial tasks.

Now, in an extended campaign it can be argued that the players will get more satisfaction out of becoming a hero than they will out of starting as one. The problem here is that if the players don't get something up front there's likely to never be an extended campaign, as the players lose interest and drop out.

That's not to say that a game where players start out as peons can't work, but I think it's better to have such games as the exceptions rather than the rule. An experienced group that's used to playing together, and that knows what they are getting in to, can have a good time playing a campaign that focuses on the characters becoming heroes. Most other groups are probably better off starting with the characters being heroes from the beginning.

Going back and looking at my past experiences, I think this was a reason that my Shadowrun campaign was the most successful one that I ran back in college. Unlike pretty much any other game I ran back then, Shadowrun characters started out as competent characters. There was room for growth (and it was too much of that growth that eventually helped derail the campaign, but that's another story), but from the very beginning the characters were capable of holding their own against decent opponents.

Giving the players what they want is an important part of RPG design, both at the level of the game designer, and the level of the GM. The starting power level is a big part of that.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Making Things Your Own and the Problem With Sequels

A while back I watched Star Trek: Enterprise for the first time, and was pleasantly surprised. I gave the series a complete pass when it was on the air. Partly because I didn't have UPN, but mostly because I'd heard such terrible things about it. Watching it now I think that the criticism was overly harsh, but I started to wonder why was it overly harsh?

There are some legitimate criticisms to be leveled at the show, but that's not what I think caused the reaction that this show got. I think the real reason is that people tend to make things their own. I did it with Star Wars, and it's one reason that I can't get into either the Expanded Universe or the prequel movies. I absorbed the originals and made them my own. I decided what the important parts of the Star Wars universe were to me, and when the work of others didn't match up with my own opinions of what made Star Wars great, then I dismissed those works.

The same is true of Star Trek. Fans of previous versions of Star Trek have decided what it was about the show that was important to them, and when Enterprise didn't focus on those elements, then they became disenchanted with it.

For example, a big criticism I've seen is the T&A elements in the show. The first episode has the busty Jolene Blalock stripped down to her underwear, and that theme is repeated in other episodes, even including a scene where Linda Park loses her top as part of a slapstick gag. There's also a fair share of beefcake. I can recall seeing comments that this kind of thing wasn't Trek. Apparently those people never watched the original series, because Trek has always had more than its fair share of T&A (and beefcake too).

Given the change in standards of broadcast media between the time of the original series and the years that Enterprise was broadcast, Enterprise is actually kind of tame when compared to the original series. Many of the costumes used in the original Star Trek revealed far more skin than those in Enterprise. The standard female uniform revealed almost as much skin as the underwear in Enterprise! Yet, Enterprise got a bad rap for it, whereas it was simply accepted as part of the show with the original series. Why?

I think it's because Trek fans have made Trek their own, and many of them considered the T&A aspect to be one of the more unimportant aspects of the original series. Finding it in Enterprise was jarring to them because they didn't consider T&A to be part of their Trek, even though it was obviously always a part of Trek in general. It was less of a factor in Next Generation, but even that part of the franchise had its risque moments, and Enterprise should have more in common with the original series than with the Next Generation, if only due to being closer to it in the fictional timeline.

Another criticism was leveled at the apparent continuity problems. Again, going back to the original series, there were huge chunks of continuity that were largely ignored by later shows. Many of the more powerful beings encountered were lucky to get even a passing mention in later shows. The fact that the first appearance of the Romulans established that their ships were incapable of faster-than-light travel was largely ignored in later stories. Probably the most well known continuity issue, the visible differences between Klingons in the original series and their later appearances, wasn't dealt with until Enterprise.

Singling out Enterprise for apparent continuity errors ignores the long history of such errors that run throughout Star Trek (and which are largely unavoidable in such a vast body of work sharing the same fictional setting).

The point of all this is that these kinds of things are true of all things where fans have an emotional investment, and make up one of the biggest problems with doing sequels of popular properties.

It's one of the reasons that I prefer to see more re-imaginings ala Battlestar Galactica and fewer sequels. Re-imaginings get to borrow the important themes and characters from a popular property without dragging all the baggage of continuity along with them.

It's something that's been done for years in Japan, and that I'd like to see done more often in American entertainment.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Embracing the Crazy

One of the problems with running a more traditional style RPG like Pathfinder is that I tend to fall into my old patterns of GMing when I do so. I often forget many of the lessons that I've learned over the past few years about running and playing a better game and revert to a more dictatorial style of GMing.

One of the most obvious mistakes I keep making is that I keep trying to reign in the crazy. For example, the party in our Kingmaker campaign has had some great characters, many of which seem to have an element of the crazy to them, but I keep fighting against those elements, despite the fact that when I step back and take an objective look I recognize just how awesome some of them are.

One character in particular is just full of great crazy that I keep trying to reign in. That character is a human ranger who believes he's a half elf. He was raised by elves, which is where the root of his delusion comes from, but he's quite clearly human.

He's also an ardent lay follower of the god Erastil, to the point that he's been vociferously lobbying the rest of the group to build a huge cathedral to Erastil in the capital of the kingdom they are building. Nevermind that the more ecumenically minded NPC priest of Erastil has pointed out that the god actually prefers rural shrines, and probably wouldn't appreciate a huge urban cathedral, our deluded ranger continues to forge ahead with his plans!

I haven't even mentioned the stack of corpses that he's collecting. See, he knows that one day they will have the means to raise people from the dead, so he's been collecting those he thinks worthy of a second chance so that when that day comes he can return them to life. Those he thinks worthy have included random dead people they find in the forest, and remains recovered from an ancient barrow.

My problem is that I keep fighting these ideas when I should be embracing them. There are some really great hooks for things in this character's behavior (especially when you factor in that he isn't just another adventurer, but also the head of the city guard for a growing frontier community), but I'm too focused on the Kingmaker campaign path so that instead of opportunities I see them as obstacles.

Now that I recognize that the problem is with me and not the player, I'm trying not to block things for him so much. It's still difficult though, because the crazy often leads that character to take actions that will derail the published plot of the adventure. I have to walk a delicate path between allowing the player to have free reign with his character and making sure that the adventure can progress.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


BattleTech was the first miniatures game I ever played, although I didn't realize it at the time. BattleTech is one of those rare hybrids between miniatures and board games (and at times even RPGs), and I always thought of it as more of a board game, even when I was using miniatures to play it.

The thing about BattleTech is that while it's a decent game, it was never the game itself that really attracted me to it, it was the background. The background of the Succession Wars that pitfive houses in a free for all fight to claim control over humanity had a level of realism and detail that the actual game seemed to sometimes lack, at least for a young history and politics nut.

I was hooked on the universe from the time I first bought the game (I think probably around 1986) right up until the appearance of the Clans in 1990. The appearance of the Clans (which I was not a fan of at the time), combined with my eventual graduation from college, led me to abandon BattleTech for a period of over 15 years, but then Catalyst Games took over.

I was impressed by the production value they put into the new starter box in 2006, although not enough to actually buy it at the time. I was equally impressed by the introduction of the Sword and Dragon Starterbook that went back to the roots of the game by bringing McKinnon's Raiders and Sorenson's Sabres back into the lore of BattleTech. These were units covered in two of the original three sourcebooks for the game, and personal favorites of mine.

This is all a long-winded lead-in to how I've been totally diving into the current line of products being put out by Catalyst Games. Their take on the rules has been impressive. The core system is the same as it was back in the eighties, but with more polish. The first book, Total Warfare, was originally published by Fanpro and contains the core rules for 'mechs, aerospace, vehicles, and the various forms of infantry available in the BattleTech universe. This book is designed as a reference manual, not a tutorial. It says right on the back cover to get the starter box if you're new to the game. This let them put out a solid reference manual that contains just the core, 'tournament legal', rules.

The second volume in the series of rulebooks is the TechManual. This book is slightly larger than Total Warfare, and is all about constructing the units that have rules in Total Warfare. This book is a gearheads dream. Battletech has always had solid unit construction rules, and this tradition continues with the TechManual. Together with Total Warfare this book makes up the core rules of the system. Everything else is advanced/optional rules.

There are three volumes in the advanced rules series, two of which have been released. The first is Tactical Operations, which covers advanced optional rules for ground combat. There are a lot of good ideas here presented in a modular format so that you can just add in what you want to, without having to take the whole batch.

The second is Strategic Operations, which does for aerospace combat what Tactical Operations did for ground combat. It also does a few other things. It introduces repair and salvage rules for use in multi-battle campaigns. It also provides the BattleForce rules for fighting larger conflicts where each unit is roughly four to five times the size of a unit in standard BattleTech. Finally, it provides rules for playing BattleTech without the hex grid, turning it into a more typical miniatures game.

The third volume, yet to be released, is Interstellar Operations. This is proposed to include rules for all the other scales above Strategic Operations, up to complete interstellar wars.

There's one more hardcover volume: A Time of War. This is the BattleTech RPG. As an RPG its mechanics are rather dated, but it does expand the coverage of scale in the BattleTech universe down to man-to-man combat. It also provides additional options for players who want to play a BattleTech campaign that tracks the development of their MechWarriors.

I was pleased to see that some of the advanced abilities available to MechWarrior characters allow them to duplicate feats performed in the BattleTech fiction that otherwise aren't modeled in the rules. This was always a big issue for me back when we were playing in college.

Finally, since I first rediscovered the line, Catalyst has put out a new version of the starter box that is an improvement over the old one. It includes enough cheap plastic miniatures to get you playing out of the box, as well as a couple of better quality plastic kits. It also includes the core rules you need to play along with a couple of mounted maps to play on.

While I will probably never get back into this game in the way I once was, it's nice to see that it now exists in a form that more or less like what I always wanted. Now I just need to invent a time machine and send it back to my college self.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

RPG Game Mechanics That Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time

Sometimes a game will introduce a mechanic that I really like at first, but that later I find to be flawed in practice. I'm going to discuss two of these mechanics. The first is the concept of character flaws that give the character build points at character generation, but are purely negatives for the rest of the game. The second is the concept of experience in the form of a resource that you can choose to either spend in game to give you a bonus, or spend between games to improve your character, but not both.

When I was first introduced to the concept of advantages and disadvantages they seemed like a great idea. Take a flaw for your character and get points to improve their strengths. The problem is that this method practically requires min-maxing your character, trying to get flaws that will never actually affect you in game in exchange for benefits that you can use often. I much prefer the newer systems where flaws continue to benefit the players during the game. Usually this is done by providing some sort of credit they can use to help themselves in the future whenever a flaw is used in the present.

This second method turns flaws into what they were originally meant to be: something that defines your character, not something to be avoided in play at all cost. It's such a big deal to me that when I run across a system that treats flaws in the old way, I might avoid it even if I'd be interested in it otherwise.

I wasn't as enthusiastic about the second concept as I was about character flaws, but people that I played with thought it was a great idea at the time, and I was OK with it at first. That concept is experience that serves a dual purpose, either being burned up during a game to provide immediate benefits or else saved up until between sessions to improve a character. There seemed to be a lot of games that experimented with this idea back when I was in college. Torg and Shadowrun were two big ones. I can only speculate as to what the designers were going for with this concept. I assume they were trying to add more interesting choices to the game.

I suppose it probably works as long as all the players are spending their experience (XP) in a similar manner. The problems come when they don't. In my experience, some gamers will simply refuse to spend the experience in game unless it is truly a matter of life and death for their characters. If that means the mission fails, so be it. At least they get decent XP to build their characters with.

In a party where some players are willing to spend XP in game and others aren't, there will soon be an imbalance between those characters who spend all the XP they earn on character improvement and those who don't. This can eventually lead to a negative feedback loop for those who spend XP on temporary bonuses as threats designed to challenge their more capable companions can only be dealt with by spending even more XP on temporary bonuses.

Like character flaws with no in-game benefit, this is another one of those mechanics that causes me to reconsider playing a game that includes it, even if it's an otherwise interesting game.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who prefers these mechanics and their reasons for doing so. Perhaps I've missed some advantage that they have.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Bones: Us and Our Dice

Another old post that got "lost" in my draft folder. This review is about a year overdue, but the book is still available.

If I hadn't read Things We Think About Games, I probably wouldn't have even considered getting The Bones: Us and Our Dice. The fact that I did read Things We Think About Games, and loved it, meant that when I heard about The Bones, I pre-ordered the limited hardcover. That's how much I now trust Will Hindmarch and Gameplayright Press to put out an interesting book dealing with gaming, and The Bones rewarded that trust.

The Bones is a book about dice. More specifically it's a collection of six articles and twenty essays by different authors about dice.

The book opens with the articles, which I think are the best part of the book, and I think it's worth listing what they cover. The first three are about the history of dice, and while there's a bit of overlap, all three are interesting. The fourth article is about all randomness in gaming, and is an excellent introduction to the role of probability in gaming. The fifth is an interview discussing randomness in online gaming, specifically the MMOG Lord of the Rings Online.

The last article is a bit of a departure from the rest as it's an interview that reveals the story behind the creation of an automatic dice roller that makes more than 1.3 million rolls per day for a play-by-email game company. That's not some computer random number generator, but a machine that physically rolls the dice!

The following twenty essays are also interesting, but I'm only going to mention the one that I was most interested in. Near the end is an essay by James Lowder. James was an editor at TSR back when the switch from 1st to 2nd Edition AD&D was being made, and the infamous Avatar Trilogy was being written to put a narrative spin on the game changes.

Those books marked the beginning of the end of my interest in the Forgotten Realms, AD&D and game fiction in general. That's how bad they were, or at least how bad I perceived them to be.

That's why I find it so interesting that at least someone at TSR at the time knew that there were issues with the books while they were being created, but that the demands of management insisted that they go forward anyway.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, then you should definitely read this book.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Majestic Wilderlands

The Majestic Wilderlands by Robert S. Conley is a supplement compatible with Swords & Wizardry. Swords & Wizardry is a set of rules based on the original Dungeons & Dragons (or as they say on the products for copyright reasons: "the original 1974 roleplaying game").

I'm going to mix things up a bit from my usual review format and describe the good bits first. There's a lot in this book. It's digest size and only 140 pages, but packs a lot into that format. Well over a dozen new character classes, including several types of rogues. Over a dozen races, including the ones from basic S&W, but with changes for the setting. Several other crunchy bits including a basic skill system, NPC classes, optional combat rules, and magic rituals. This all takes up a little less than two thirds of the book, and includes a lot of background detail concerning the setting, but not in a way that interferes with referencing the crunch.

The rest of the book is pure background for the setting of the Majestic Wilderlands. This setting is a take on the setting developed around the City State of the Invincible Overlord created by the Judges Guild over 30 years ago. There's a general geographical overview of the world as well as descriptions of the major cultures and religions. There's nothing terribly innovative about the world, but it's not meant to be. It's meant to provide a standard fantasy RPG setting, and does a pretty good job of doing just that with a rather interesting mix of Tolkien and Howard.

Now for the bad. The only major complaint I had with the crunch is that the skill system seems a bit harsh. For example, per the rules, the average character using Athletics is going to fail to clear a 2' obstacle 75% of the time. An unencumbered first level fighter with a strength bonus is still going to fail over half his tries to clear that same 2' obstacle. it's easy enough to adjust this by adjusting the base target number, but I felt it was worth mentioning.

A bigger issue for me is that the book is a case study for not relying on a spell-checker to do your editing. There are countless instances of poorly constructed sentences and incorrect words throughout the text. It doesn't make the book unreadable, and it's understandable from what is essentially a one man show, but it's unfortunate.

It should have only taken a single read through to fix a lot of this, and there are three people credited as editors on the book, so I have to wonder if maybe the author accidentally used the wrong draft when creating the PDF. The product is purely PDF and print on demand, so I would hope that the author will some day make a corrected edition available.

Even with these issues, I'd highly recommend it to anyone running a Swords & Wizardry game as it should provide a great deal of solid inspiration for tweaking the rules to fit your campaign.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

D&D Essentials: An Evaluation

I originally wrote this last year, but never posted it. It's interesting to note that since I wrote this, Pathfinder has passed D&D in sales, at least in some locations.

D&D Essentials have now been out for a while, and I've had the chance to look them all over, so I thought I'd give my overall impressions of how the line has done in meeting its goals.

The first step is to establish just what the line was meant to do, as it's not entirely clear. It appears that it was meant to establish a more friendly starting point for new players, but there's also evidence that it was meant to try to create a "feel" that would appeal more to players of older editions that have complained that 4th Edition D&D is too different from those editions. I think that the Essentials line has had mixed success on both counts.

I've touched briefly on the new "red box" before. As a standalone introduction to the game it's fine, but then becomes worse than useless as gamers transition into the rest of the Essentials line. Someone made the boneheaded decision to go to press with the red box before finalizing the details of the two players' books: Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. As a result, characters created with the red box are incompatible with the latter books. This is a complete waste, making a lot of the nifty player aids provided in the red box useless outside of it.

To make matters worse, the issue is barely touched upon on in the rest of the line, aside from a mention somewhere that players should rebuild their characters if they are using ones created with the red box. Epic Fail.

Seriously, when creating a line meant to introduce new people to the hobby things should be as seamless as possible. If you had wanted to set out to design something as unfriendly to new gamers as possible, it would be hard to come up with something "better" than this.

It's a real shame, because despite some other criticisms of the line, it's pretty solid once you get beyond the "red box".

Enough on that though, lets move on and evaluate the rest of the line.

One interesting decision when laying out the line was to have a great deal of repetition between products. It appears that WotC has sought to cut down on the number of books required by each player to have at the table, or even to own. To that end, a lot of the rules to be found in the actual Rules Compendium (the core rules for the Essentials line) can be found repeated in the other books in the line.

Both "Heroes" books have around a hundred pages of rules covering the basics of play, character generation, powers, and skills that are covered both in the Compendium, and repeated word for word between the two Heroes books. Note the hundred pages of repeated content, because we'll come back to that later when we discuss some things that are missing from the line.

The Dungeon Master's Book from the Dungeon Master's Kit also repeats about a hundred pages of rules from the Compendium, although largely a different set of rules than those repeated in the Heroes books. Altogether that's over 300 pages of repeated material in the line, and the books average 300 pages each!

It's sort of nice that players only need to have a Heroes book with them in order to have both character information and basic combat and skill rules at their fingertips, but given the small size of the Essentials books overall, I don't think it would be a great imposition for them to have had to have both a Heroes book and a Compendium, or even both Heroes books and the Compendium.

This crossover between the books also makes it a bit unclear as to just what is needed to play the game. It appears possible that the Dungeon Master's Kit and one of the Heroes books together contain everything needed to run some basic adventures, especially pre-published ones, however, there are some additional rules in the Compendium not reprinted in either the Dungeon Master's Book or the Heroes books, so eventually someone is probably going to want to get that. It's not clear when that point might be though. Surely none of the books point it out.

We'll leave that for now and take a look at the other purpose of the set: the nostalgia factor. This is the attempt to get fans of older editions of the game to take a look at the new version. I think this is pretty much a lost cause as long as Pathfinder is out there, but let's take a look at it anyway.

The red box creates a huge feeling of nostalgia, but this is probably becomes more of a negative once people get past the red box and realize the issues of compatibility I mentioned before. It just makes it more likely they will get fed up with WotC for screwing things up yet again and go back to Pathfinder or Swords & Wizardry.

Skipping the red box and moving on to the Heroes books, there's a bit more success. The classes in Heroes of the Fallen Lands are iconic. The Knight feels like a classic fighter, the Warpriest feels like a classic cleric, the Thief feels like a classic thief, and the Mage feels like a classic wizard. The four together capture the iconic core of a classic D&D adventuring group. The fifth class: the Slayer, captures the feel of the more reckless classic fighter, but doubles up on the Striker role with the Thief. This brings up one of the issues with the Heroes books as a whole: four Striker classes compared to two each of the other three. Plus the "bonus" class available from D&D Insider is also a Striker.

The Compendium says that it's a good idea to cover all roles, but we have over twice as many choices for the Striker role as any other! Is the Striker an OK role to double up on? Maybe, but it doesn't say that anywhere in Essentials.

The races in Heroes of the Fallen Lands are also the classics, with Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, and Eladrin. OK, Eladrin are not classic in the sense that they did not exist in prior editions, but they were basically one of two ways that Elves were interpreted in the game, so in that sense they still fit.

Moving on, the classes in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms are less attractive to me personally, but seem to do a good job of capturing a more classic feel. The Hunter captures the ranger that combined both martial and magical abilities that appeared in previous editions of D&D. I actually prefer the more purely martial take that the 4th Edition PHB takes, but that's admittedly a change from previous editions. The Scout is Drizzt, and while traditionally Drizzt broke the rules of D&D, I suppose that for many he represents what D&D should feel like, so I suppose it's appropriate to include the ability to play him here.

I've never been a big fan of druids, but the Sentinel seems to represent them fairly well. Same goes for the Cavalier. The Hexblade seems to be an oddball. Again, I'm not a huge fan of warlocks, but this seems to be a particularly specialized kind of warlock, whereas most of the other classes seem to be meant to be more generalist in their nature. I suppose the problem may be that the PHB already does a good job of capturing the classic feel of Warlocks.

The races presented are OK. In the name of repeating stuff we get Humans again, we also get the half-elf, half-orc, dragonborn, tiefling and drow. These choices are more to round out what D&D is today as opposed to the classic feel of previous editions, especially with the presence of dragonborn and tiefling. Also, drow PCs to me are what dragonborn PCs are to the generation that grew up largely with 3rd Edition: an abomination meant to be a sop to teenagers with power/emo issues. So, I'm a bit prejudiced against this volume of Heroes. Overall I think it does a decent job at what it sets out to do.

A problem with both Heroes books is what they leave out. The Warpriest has domains, the Mage has schools, the Cavalier has virtues and the Warlock has pacts. The problem is that while there's obviously potential for more, the Heroes books only present two of each. I suppose this may be in the name of keeping things simple, but it really just feels incomplete. We now come back to those 100 pages wasted in each book repeating rules from the Compendium. Those pages could have instead been used to give us a complete set of options for these classes.

That leads us to the one book we haven't touched on yet: the Monster Vault. Overall this is a nice volume, but it's not nearly as flexible as the Monster Manuals because no where in the Essentials line are rules for altering the level of monsters, or for monster templates. Now, it was a pretty easy cut to make things simpler, but it results in far less utility. We return to the waste of pages in the Dungeon Master's Book where we repeat about a 100 pages from the Compendium again. That space could have been used to put the rules for tweaking monsters and would have gone a long way to making the Essentials line more useful.

So in the end, are the Essentials essential? The answer is no. They just muddy up the whole picture as to what you need in order to play with no clear line drawn as to where to go when you want more. For example, DMs can go to the DMG if they want to be able to tweak or create new monsters, but there's nothing in the Essentials line that tells them that.

I think this was a noble experiment, but that it missed the mark. I'm glad they did it because the Dungeon Master's Kit, Monster Vault, and Dungeon Tiles Master Sets are a great source of counters and maps for use in my Pathfinder game, but it could have been so much more. I can only speculate as to what went wrong and why, but it's enough to know that an opportunity has been missed.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Podcast Update

Here's a rundown of what I'm listening to in terms of podcasts.

The Dice Tower: This podcast rapidly moved to the top of my list after I finally started listening to it. My favorite board gaming podcast with a nice mix of news, reviews, and interesting discussion. I will usually listen to the latest episode as soon as I know it's out.

Ludology: Part of the "Dice Tower Network" of podcasts, this is a relatively new podcast on the subject of board gaming theory. It's been quite interesting so far, even though I've not always agreed with the hosts' opinions.

Game On! with Cody & John: I tend to be more informed about what's going on in the world of board gaming than these guys, but they're still fun to listen to, as long as it's not the month of Gen Con.

The D6 Generation: This one has gone from the top of my list to barely hanging on at the bottom. I stopped listening for a few months, but recently caught back up to the point where I'm only a couple of episodes behind. While entertaining at times, I've found that my tastes in gaming do not align with any of the three hosts of the show, which makes it less useful to me than it might otherwise be. The hilarious parody of the McLaughlin Group that opens every show, combined with the occasional great interview, is what keeps me listening.

Narrative Control: It's a tough call, but I think this is probably at the top of my list for roleplaying podcasts. Lots of good ideas in a short format. It is put out in seasons, and is currently between seasons, but that just means it's a good time to catch up if you haven't listened to it before now.

Actual People, Actual Play: This is my favorite "actual play" podcast, largely because it doesn't actually record actual play. Instead, each episode opens with a summary of the session that was just played, and then has the participants discuss what worked and what didn't, both in the system they used and in their personal performances.

Fear The Boot: This is a roundtable discussion of different roleplaying topics. It has a good mix of gamers, although all of them come from a more traditional RPG background than most of the other roleplaying podcasts on this list, which tend more towards indie games. There is a good deal of discussion of whatever game they are playing at the moment, but the focus is usually on the topic of the episode, with their anecdotal experiences being used as examples.

2d6 Feet in a Random Direction: A great podcast when it comes out, but it's been a few months now since the last episode. The most balanced between indie and traditional RPG coverage of the podcasts I've listened to.

The Walking Eye: Another actual play podcast. I've listened to a handful of actual play podcasts that feature recorded sessions of play, and this is the only one I've found interesting enough to continue listening to. The actual play sessions are interspersed with interesting discussion episodes. There's also a comics cast mixed in the feed, but I don't listen to those.

The Voice of the Revolution: The PR podcast for Indie Press Revolution. I find it a decent news source, and their reviews and interviews are interesting.

World's End Radio: While it started as a podcast mostly about Games Workshop games, it's increasingly becoming more of a general miniatures gaming podcast. It also fills my "podcasts with an Australian accent" quota. These guys almost make me wish I was still into miniatures games, and are interesting enough that I listen to them even though I'm not.

Meeples & Miniatures: My most recent addition, I haven't come to a final judgment on this one yet, but am liking it so far. On the miniatures side he covers just about everything except Games Workshop.

Ninja vs. Pirates: I'm several episodes behind on this podcast, but it's a very interesting collection of interviews with game designers. Mostly RPG designers, but some board game designers as well.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The "It's a Fantasy, you Expected Realism?" Fallacy

I recently saw Transformers 3, and I enjoyed it, but the movie can require an extreme amount of suspension of disbelief in order to do so.

The response often received to a comment like the one I just made goes something along the lines of "so when you went to see a movie about [insert fantastic premise here], were you expecting a realistic film?"

See, the answer to that is "yes". Leaving aside the fantastic premise, and all the many issues that likely feed into that premise, I expect the film to be realistic in the sense that I expect it to be internally logical and consistent. Also, I expect that any details of reality that don't feed into the fantastic premise will be left as they are in the real world, or else there will be an explanation as to why they've changed.

In the Transformers the fantastic premise is that giant alien intelligent robots that can change shape have arrived on earth. That premise is going to imply a whole bunch of implausible or impossible things, but we give all that a pass as long as it makes the premise work.

Where things become less forgivable is when the movie takes liberties with facts and history that don't feed into the fantastic premise or the genre. In the case of Transformers 3, the big issue is the setup for the plot.

Warning: possible spoilers ahead.

In reality, the US moon missions all landed on different locations on the bright side of the moon. None of them landed anywhere near the dark side of the moon, let alone all of them. Yet, in the movie every single mission was supposed to be to a crash site on the dark side of the moon. Now, we could have had some explanations of this. It could have been revealed that the moon landing conspiracists have been partly right all along: we did indeed go to the moon, but not to the locations that NASA said we did. That would have been enough extra detail to allow all but the most detail oriented space history buffs to suspend disbelief, but they didn't do that.

So why is this important for what is, admittedly, a summer action movie? Because, the core audience of this particular movie wants to believe that there's some small possibility that it could all happen. We want to believe that some morning we could be getting ready to make the morning drive to work only to have our car transform into a giant robot and tell us it needs our help to save the world. Anything in the movie that screams "this isn't your world," like blatantly incorrect things about history, limits our ability to deceive ourselves that way, thus limiting our enjoyment of the movie.

Now, while I use Transformers 3 as an example, I don't really have a big problem with the movie. I didn't even think of any of these things while actually watching it. Only later did I stop to go "wait a minute..."

I also don't think it will have much effect on my desire to re-watch the movie once it is out on DVD. I use it as an example because I know there are people for whom these issues did affect their enjoyment of watching the movie the first time, and who will be unlikely to watch it again as a result, and that some of those people would otherwise take great enjoyment from watching a movie about giant transforming robots.

I think those people have valid concerns, and dismissing them by pointing out that the very premise is fantastic does them a disservice. We should expect better of our fantasy.