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.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

An Open Letter to Podcasters II: Convention Coverage

I initially wrote this last year just after the convention season wrapped up, around the same time that I wrote my first Open Letter to Podcasters. I never posted it because I felt it was possibly too much of a rant, but with convention season ramping up again, I find myself once again becoming annoyed by the level of convention coverage, so I feel this is worth posting.

Just say "no" to convention coverage on your podcast.

Seriously, the amount of convention coverage on gaming podcasts is getting out of hand. It's gotten to the point where some podcasts will have extensive pre-coverage, coverage and post-coverage of the same convention. Since I listen to more than one gaming podcast, it often starts to all sound the same. Some gamers have poor hygiene habits at conventions, I get it. I don't need to hear about it every time a convention is coming up. If you really care about an issue like this, then write up an article on your show's website, mention the article when convention season comes around, and leave it at that.

Pre-convention coverage: this should consist of a blurb that lasts no more than a minute or two. This is especially true if you are starting this coverage early enough for it actually to matter to people who have to plan ahead (which is usually at least three months prior to an event).

Don't interview the convention organizer! It's very tempting to do so, but if you've heard one interview with a convention organizer you've heard them all. I don't care if they're running Gen Con or the mini-con at the FLGS, 90% of the interview will be identical, and the 10% that is different isn't worth slogging through the other 90%.

Instead, do an ad with the convention organizer that outlines the major draws of the con and mention a website where more info can be found. Keep it under a minute or two.

If your podcast is actually running events at a convention, then go ahead and discuss it some, but don't forget that you can always say "go to our website for more information."

Convention coverage: Do not go through a list of the games you played or the events you attended. I don't want to come off as too harsh, but even the people who actually care don't really care that much. Write it up on your blog, but keep it off the air. Do put interviews with convention guests and other persons of interest. Also, cover any news that was released, but do it briefly. If it was a major con, then that news was released to the internet at the same time you heard about it at the con so many of your listeners already know about it.

This is especially true about news from Gen Con. People that really care about news from there are going to be listening to the This Just In From Gen Con podcast. If you must present your own news, listen to that podcast first, and makes sure you aren't just repeating what they already said. If you don't want to spend time listening to that podcast, then ask yourself why your listeners would possibly want to listen to you do the same thing?

Post-Convention coverage: This should be non-existent. The only reason I should be hearing about a convention after you've done your convention coverage is because you got a lot of interviews and so there was more material than you could cram into your one convention coverage episode.

This advice applies to all conventions, but doubly so to Gen Con. At this point pretty much everyone that podcasts goes to Gen Con. I get it, it's a big deal, but it's gotten to the point where I may just stop listening to podcasts when Gen Con rolls around, because it's the same crap I've listened to over and over again since I've been listening to podcasts!

In this case I really do mean crap. Entire episodes dedicated to "how to attend Gen Con" that cover the exact same advice repeated every year. If you have to do it, do it once, then tell your listeners to go back and listen to that episode if they're planning on going to Gen Con and have never been before.

I'm not exaggerating here, the only podcasts I listen to that don't discuss Gen Con are ones from overseas, and even they usually feel compelled to mention it. It really gets annoying. Unless you live in Indianapolis, your Gen Con coverage should be limited to the advice I gave above for general convention coverage. Even then, the coverage could stand to be toned down a bit.

Of course, this doesn't apply if the only thing your podcast does is cover Gen Con, but This Just In From Gen Con has that covered.

So, think twice about giving a lot of time to convention coverage on your podcast, particularly if you've given coverage of the same convention in the past. At the least, consider making it a smaller segment of your cast.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Player Housing in MMOGs

I originally wrote this post back in February, and am not really sure why I didn't publish it back then. The recent announcement of the cancellation of Star Wars Galaxies reminded me of it, so I decided to go ahead and publish it.

This post is in direct response to Greg Dean's "The Player Housing Manifesto" that he made in his comments to his webcomic. If you don't want to go read the whole thing, then here's his three main points:

1. A house must not be instanced
2. A house must be customizable
3. A house must be a privilege

He then discusses the various arguments against implementing these points, most of which have to do with the first point, and largely have to do with server load and virtual real estate within the game world. He points out that the former has never really been an issue and that the latter has been successfully dealt with in MMOGs that have met his three points by using decay, where if a player doesn't maintain the house it disappears.

He then wonders why no one has implemented this since Star Wars Galaxies and Istaria back in 2003.

Here's why I think that hasn't happened: since 2003 companies that run successful MMOGs have figured out that one of the most important revenue generators isn't attracting new players, but re-attracting former players. There is no bigger dis-incentive to returning to a game than knowing that the work you put into your characters the first time around has been undone.

Star Wars Galaxies was probably my favorite MMOG ever, but after I quit I never went back. The biggest reason for that is the disappearance of my house and everything in it. Some of my fondest memories of the game were working to get and outfit my in-game house, so knowing it's gone greatly lessens any incentive I'd ever have to return to the game.

It's true that maintenance requirements can often keep people playing longer than they otherwise would have, staying in just to make sure that their houses and other items don't decay, but that doesn't make up for the probability that once they do leave they're probably gone for good.

This is why I think that it's unlikely we'll ever again see a game implement completely non-instanced player housing. It could be done if you had some ability for returning players to replace their house, but even then they'd have to find a new location, and location was often a big part of the equation when establishing a house in one of these games. Having a prime piece of virtual real estate was often a big deal.

Instead of non-instanced housing, I think that games that have housing at all will continue to use the instanced neighborhoods model of Lord of the Rings Online and others, which allows them to use a less strict model of decay (or none at all), thus encouraging more players to return to the game after taking a break.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011


Take one part Lankhmar, one part Sanctuary, and one part Port Royal, mix in some Dungeons & Dragons and season with some Cthulhu Mythos and you end up with Freeport. I'm a relative newcomer to Freeport, a setting originally created for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. In fact, Death In Freeport was one of only two d20 books released on the same day as the 3rd Edition Player's Handbook back in 2000 (that's according to Green Ronin, the company that publishes Freeport).

The setting developed over the years with a number of adventures and sourcebooks until the approaching 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, with the accompanying changes in licensing, caused the folks at Green Ronin to divorce the system from D&D and make it a systemless setting designed to either be used on its own or dropped into another world at the choice of the people using it.

As a result they produced The Pirate's Guide to Freeport, a system neutral setting book describing the city, and to a lesser extent its immediate surroundings as well as the overall world it exists in. Since then they have released a number of Companion books that provide rules to adapt the setting to different systems, including True 20, D&D 3.5, Savage Worlds, Castles & Crusades, Pathfinder, and D&D 4th Edition (although this last is from another publisher, apparently for legal reasons).

I have the Pathfinder Freeport Companion, but haven't really looked at it much yet, and I'm not sure I'll ever use it. I'm not really sure it's that necessary, although it does offer rules for gunpowder weapons and other things that aren't in the Pathfinder Core Rules, so it would probably be nice to have if running Freeport in Pathfinder.

The reason I don't think the Companion is all that necessary is that the setting stands on its own even without detailed stats, and should be useable in any D&D inspired game system with little work, and any Fantasy RPG with just a bit more creativity. The city is predominantly human, but has representatives of all the other standard fantasy RPG races: dwarves, elves, gnomes, and halflings as well as goblins, orcs and hobgoblins. It also has one or two unique races that could be easily statted up, or simply left out.

The fantasy elements are really well done in that they offer flavor without being so specific as to make it difficult to insert them into a different world. For example, there's Bloodsalt. Bloodsalt is the goblinoid ghetto where all the orcs, goblins and hobgoblins have been forced to relocate. There's a plot hook involving the animosity between hobgoblins and orcs, but if you don't have hobgoblins in your world it could be two rival orc tribes instead. If you don't have goblinoids at all it could be some other sort of ghetto. The point is that in most places where the setting involves racial distinctions, it should't be too difficult to tweak things if those races aren't in your world, or they behave differently. Part of what makes this easy is the very lack of system specific details.

In fact, the ease with which one element can be dropped out of the mix without messing up the rest of the picture is probably the setting's biggest strength. Everything works together, but most elements can be taken out or ignored without causing gaping holes in the logic of the rest of the setting.

The biggest problem I have is the pantheon of gods in Freeport, and it's because they took this idea of interchangeability a bit too far. At some point they decided to leave the gods unnamed. They just say "god of war" or "god of the sea" and let you fill it in with the most appropriate god from the setting you're dropping Freeport into. There are two problems with this. The first is that if you're not dropping it into a setting at all, but using the default Freeport setting, then you have to come up with names and other details on your own. The second is when the details of the pantheon for the setting you're dropping it into doesn't match up with what is needed for Freeport.

There are only four major gods worshiped in Freeport: knowledge, war, the sea, and pirates. The first problem is that out of several established fantasy pantheons I've gone through only one has a god of pirates. The second problem is related to the fact that there are at least another eleven gods mentioned in parts of the text (not counting silly gods, like the god of hinges). That's fifteen gods total. Most fantasy pantheons I'm familiar with simply don't have that many gods.

It would have been more useful if they had gone ahead and named the gods. Those gods could still be replaced with ones more appropriate to the setting you're dropping it into, while providing details for any gods that don't appear in that setting.

Still, it's a minor point in an otherwise excellent setting. I'm unlikely to ever use it as it stands in my own games, but I've already been inspired by it to create a short Burning Wheel adventure featuring pirate characters based out of a similar setting. If you like reading about original fantasy settings then you should check out The Pirate's Guide to Freeport.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Canon Tricks

Now that I've discussed my feelings on canon in RPGs, I thought I'd discuss a specific case in a bit more detail: Star Wars canon. As I mentioned before, my personal Star Wars canon is the original trilogy. One thing I'd consider doing when running a Star Wars campaign is establishing beforehand that one or all three of those movies were canon, but that nothing else was.

There are an amazing amount of things you can do when you only accept what appears on the screen as canon. For example, what if I say that only Star Wars is canon? Suddenly Vader may really have killed Anakin, and Luke and Leia might not be brother and sister

One of my earliest Star Wars RPG scenarios that I created had my players as the ones that delivered the Death Star plans to Princess Leia. This was back when West End Games had the license, and the only thing we knew officially about the Bothans was that a lot of them died. That's all that the movies tell us, and even that could have been misinformation, or misdirection. After all, in a Galactic Rebellion chances are the lines of communication aren't perfect. Mon Mothma could have been wrong about all the Bothans dying, or maybe all those Bothans died as part of a distraction to allow someone else to actually deliver the information. That someone being the PCs.

Let's go back to that first idea though, that only the first movie is canon. Now, let's rewind the timeline back to the prequels. Now we can tell stories of Anakin and Ben that are wide open. Either as a PC or NPC, the players can never be sure if Anakin is going to become Vader, or if Vader is going to kill him. We can play with Ben Kenobi as well. There's an old fan theory that predates the prequels that says that Obi-Wan Kenobi was actually OB-1 Kenobi, a clone of Ben Kenobi. This suddenly puts the fate of Ben Kenobi up for grabs. Was Obi-Wan Ben, or a clone? Play the game and find out!

These are the kinds of things that you can't do if you slavishly follow canon, and I think they're incredibly interesting stories to explore.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Canon Should Be Shot From A Cannon

I love canon. Whether it's for a game, movie, book or TV show, exploring the official canon involved in the product is usually great fun. When it comes to RPGs though, I hate it.

Rather, I hate the straitjacket it often seems to create for GMs, players and even game designers. For an example, let's take something from the Dresden Files RPG. In the entry for Harry Dresden in Our World, there's a section called "A World Without Harry?" that warns that removing Harry from the Dresdenverse would surely have led to many bad thing happening. OK, if that's the only change made, then yeah, things would suck. Why would I have that be the only thing I changed?

This seems to be a problem encountered in a lot of situations where people start talking about messing with canon. In a Star Wars game, if you talk about dropping Luke you inevitably get an argument about how then the Death Star would have blown up Yavin, wiping out the Rebellion. As if you can only make that one change, and not decide to make a number of other changes as well.

When I run an RPG in a licensed setting I prefer to play fast and loose with canon. If the canon provides an easy answer to a problem, then fine, I go with it, but if it gets in the way, then it gets tossed out. This is doubly true if canon provides insider information that the characters in the game should never have access to. If I run a Battlestar Galactica game, then the person least likely to be a Cylon is Boomer, and everything else if up for grabs as well. Maybe Kobol is still inhabited when the Galactica gets there. Maybe human looking Cylons are a myth that merely serves to generate paranoia. There are so many ways that the story could have gone that it would be a shame to just repeat the one presented in the show when playing in an RPG.

This is true for other settings as well, even when there isn't as much mystery as there is in BSG. Star Wars is a good example. For me the original trilogy is the only thing that is in my personal canon, but if I'm running a Star Wars RPG, why even stick to that? Maybe Kenobi told the truth and Vader really did kill Anakin Skywalker. Maybe the person he tells it to isn't Luke Skywalker, but Luke Starkiller, a PC who then goes off on a grand adventure that ends with the destruction of the Death Star... at the hand of the PCs!

There are two impediments to disregarding canon like this: game designers and players. The lesser of the two are the game designers. Most licensed games seem to assume that you are going to stick to the canon. Rarely do they offer any sort of discussion as to how to deviate from canon, and if they do it's minimal. My discussion of the Dresden Files above is an example of this. It can be argued that if you buy a game with a license then people will want to play in that world, but this ignores the fact that most properties worth licensing offer rich settings where a single different choice could have produced a completely different, yet just as compelling, story than what was presented in the original property.

I think one of the better licensed games in this regard that I've seen lately is DC Adventures. They made one very important decision that I think makes a huge difference: they decided to present the characters as iconic representations rather than current canon. So, the Aquaman you find in the book is a clean shaven man with two normal hands in a yellow and green costume, because that's the iconic image of Aquaman. There's a sidebar discussing a couple of the more modern alternate versions if that's what you want to use, but the iconic version is the default. This makes the DC Universe as presented in the RPG into less of a straitjacket and more of a toolkit for creating the GM's own version of the DC Universe.

The bigger impediment is the players. If you have players that are knowledgeable about the canon, then they often expect it to be canon in the game. I'm willing to work with my players on this. If there are elements of canon that the players are particularly fond of and want to be in a game they play in, then I'll work with them to keep those bits in. If the players in a game of BSG really want to serve aboard the Galactica under Adama, then I'll try to structure my game to include those bits of canon, but those might be the only bits that I keep.

Even if the players want to play with a majority of the established canon that they know and love, I will still refuse to stick to it completely. It's too limiting to have to stick to the canon, and both in terms of options within the game, and in terms of how much work it can take to keep everything straight when there's a large body of canon to deal with.

Of course, there's one thing that will always be canon in any Star Wars game I run: if there's a Han Solo in the universe, then he shot first.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Distribute Your Product, Please!

One of the drawbacks of being a fan of a niche industry is that it can sometimes be hard to locate product. There are a lot of really good game designs out there that at some point in their history have been really hard to track down. When I first got Diaspora it was only available as a print-on-demand (PoD) book from When podcasts were first gushing about the Alien Frontiers board game, it turned out that it was completely unavailable, having only been released as part of a project.

If a product is good enough, these things tend to eventually resolve themselves. Diaspora now gets distribution through Evil Hat, and even when it was only PoD you could still get it if you were aware of it. Alien Frontiers' second printing is now sold out, but a third printing is in the works and it should be available through normal distribution channels when it comes out (it may even be out already, I haven't been following it closely since I got a copy of the second printing).

Then there are the exceptions.

The first type of exception is the "limited edition." This is where the product is advertised as having a limited run and if you don't get in on it before it's gone then you will never get it. I generally assume one of two things when this is the case: either they are lying, or the product is crap. In the first case they are going to publish it again if it sells out. Maybe they'll change the cover, but it will essentially be the same product. In the second the product is such crap that they need the extra hype to try to sell what they have before people catch on.

I don't think that all "limited edition" products fall into one of those categories, but the fact that I immediately assume that one probably does brings this particular marketing technique into question, at least as far as I'm concerned.

Then comes the second category: a traditionally published game that simply isn't distributed. The only way to get this game is through the publisher. This is a model that I am rapidly losing patience with. At least with one-source options like, the one source is a specialist in delivering product to customers. Whoever wrote a book on Lulu, and whatever its quality of writing, I know that if I order it I will get what I order in a timely manner, and that the physical quality of the book will be acceptable, because that's what Lulu does.

When I order from an independent publisher it's always a crapshoot. Sometimes I get what I ordered in a timely manner. Just as often I get the wrong thing, or a partial order, or I have to follow up because it's been a month and I've received no information aside from a paypal receipt informing me that my card has been charged.

It's a real hit or miss proposition, and is increasingly becoming a barrier to my desire to seek out and purchase such products. Most of these operations don't even have a single full time employee. Thus, even if the people doing order fulfillment want to do a good job, they often don't have the time to do so.

This is why more of these smaller companies should look into some form of distribution. While it takes a cut of their profits, it also eliminates some of their overhead, and makes for a more pleasant experience for their paying customers. I have not done any real research into the options, but I know that Indie Press Revolution has been expanding the number and types of products that they distribute, and I think they probably represent a viable alternative.

In addition to making things easier for a customer, it also makes things easier for those retail stores that are still willing to take a chance on the occasional obscure product. They're probably more likely to do so if they can add it to an order they are already going to make, than if they have to place a special order.

So, if you are a game company that only sells direct to consumers, please consider finding at least one more method of distribution. I ask this as one of those consumers who might just want to buy your product, but can't find it.