Thursday, August 13, 2020

Evaluating Pathfinder 2nd Edition after One Year - Balance and Threat Ranges In Play

 It is a sound argument that a game reviewer should have played the game he is reviewing first, and it is rare for a reviewer to have played extensively, but after one year with Pathfinder 2nd Edition I can safely say that any review I offer will be based on approximately 350 to 400 hours of actual play time, in a campaign which ran from levels 1-19 (with 20 imminent) over a 50+ story arc. In the course of play I think the following are fair observations on how balance and the unique crit/fumble range in PF2E works. 

I feel like there's a subtle, hidden learning curve with Pathfinder 2nd that will make for a refined experience with the next major campaign arc. As you can probably guess, if I am planning a second campaign arc then I must like it. So here observations of Pathfinder 2nd Edition after a year of weekly play between a campaign that ran from 1-20 (with 20 about to hit), and three shorter side campaigns on Wednesday running from levels 1-5, 5-9 and a fresh level 1 campaign that is still underway (just as soon as our Wednesday group exausts our Call of Cthulhu side trek).

Extremely Balanced

PF2E is an extremely balanced game. More so than any modern iteration of D20 over the last 20 years of design, PF2E has achieved something no other system has really pulled off. High level play in D&D 5E felt better than in its predecessors but could still be a slog (chiefly due to hit point bloat). PF2E manages to make high level play feel very similar (and at a similar pace) to lower level play. I simply have not worried about our level 19 game getting stuck in a multi-hour long combat like I used to in the pre PF2E days; that can only happen when you throw a signficant and deadly high level threat at the group, and even then if you design within the encounter parameters you still shouldn't see long combats that often.

The upside is this means the GM has a high level of control and understanding of how an encounter will play out. This is a strength for sure, but also a weakness; savvy players will get comfortable with encounter range expectations, and if you break those expectations it can be jarring to them. Likewise, the ranges are so tightly defined that as GM if you are throwing anything in to an encounter that is more than CR -4 out of range then you might as well just roleplay the encounter: "Okay group, seventy challenge 1 orcs attack you level 10 group, tell me how you wipe the floor with them," is a perfectly valid way to resolve that encounter in PF2E*. Conversely, if you as GM throw something more then CR +4 at them then you should do so with full warning that they might as well flee for the hills.

Some of the reason for this tight range of balance is due to the next design element....

The Crit Range Mechanic Changes Everything

In PF2E, you have a +10/-10 range of success that profoundly impacts play. If you run a couple random sessions of Pathfinder 2E without really understanding the mechanic it can feel extremely swingy at first, but in fact the opposite is actually happening: the math is extremely precise and predictable in PF2E, and it creates a unique set of what I are assumed intended consequences in the encounter design and combat experience.

When you get 10 better than your target to hit then you land a critical hit. When you roll 10 under you fumble. Saving throws often default to what is called a "Basic Save" which in most cases means spell and hazard/trap effects also define what happens when you fail or succeed by 10 or more with greater effect. In many ways its simply a codification of a mechanic which had style elements back to classic 3rd edition D20 mechanics, but now extrapolated to a near universal rule in PF2E. 

One you get used to the notion, the result means that you can figure with a high degree of accuracy the odds of success and failure leading to dramatic success or dramatic failure against threats in the game. When a group that is fighting a gang of foes that are challenge rating -4, for example, they are not just four levels better in terms of skill, but four levels higher in their degree of achieving a critical success. Likewise, if you are placed against a foe which is challenge +4 (four levels better than you), then you are actually equally more likely to achieve critical failure by four degrees. This is why I feel that the balanced encounter range of -4 to +4 degrees is a bit deceptive; it's accurate, but much of the risk (or ease) of the combat is attributed to the margin by which you achieve a critical success or failure. 

For example: as a player, you may realize that if you have a +10 to hit (a reasonable chance for a level 3 fighter with 16 Strength and expert training in his weapon), and your foe is AC 23, then you will on average need to roll a 13 or better to hit the enemy. You can only crit against that foe on a natural 20 since you can't roll 10 higher than the target number (AC). But if your foe is AC 15, that means you will only need to roll a 5 or better to hit, and that means you will also crit anytime you roll 15 or higher. So against an AC 23 foe you crit on a 20 only (5% chance), but on an AC 15 foe you crit on a 15-20 (30% range).

In PF2E an example of an AC 15 monster is a giant rat (challenge -1, meaning it's a weak foe against level 1 PCs, or worth level-2 for XP). By contrast a challenge 4 monster (werebear) could have AC 23. So....if you do the math, our hypothetical level 3 fighter would find the werebear to be CR+1 vs. a group of 4 level 3 characters, and the giant rat would be CR-4 against the same four adventurers. That werebear would be a dire threat one-on-one, and it would take a small army of giant rats to make an impact against the group (though they could still nickel-and-dime a solitary PC to death).

To further emphasize how critical this threat range is, the werebear has a +13 to attack while the giant rat  has a +7 to it's attack. The well-armored 3rd level fighter might have full plate, giving him an AC of 21 (base 10, with +6 for the armor, and +5 for training). So our rat will hit this guy on a 13 or better, and only crit on a natural 20. Our werebear will hit him on a 7 or better, and will crit on an 18-20 (15% chance). 

Those +/-10 ranges make a huge difference as the challenge level gets further from the level baseline. Furthermore, in PF2E if you roll a natural 1 you fumble anyway, and crit on a natural 20, unless you happen to have been unable to otherwise hit without rolling a which case the crit converts to a normal attack! This is logical, but it means that, to use another example, a group of typical level 3 characters like in the above example, when facing a challenge 7 opponent (so level+4, the max difficulty advised in the game) may be in dire straights. A typical challenge 7 foe is the Ogre Boss, who has an AC 25 and +19 to hit. Against our puny level 3 fighter he will hit on a 2 or better, and will dish out a critical on a 12 or better on the die (45% chance)! He normally hits for 1D10+11 piercing but against a level 3 foe almost half the time will deal 2D10+22. 

At level 7 that same fighter will find the ogre boss a tough but fair fight.....but at level 3 that ogre boss will clean his clock. 

Anyway, the crit/fumble range has a profound impact on how you must consider challenges in PF2E. It really does mean that you must take the rules seriously. In consideration, though, the rules scale experience with difficulty. That Ogre Boss is worth 40 XP to a group of level 7 foes, but is worth 160 XP to the group of level 3 adventurers. Under the encounter design guidelines, that means that 4 ogre bosses are an extreme encounter for a group of level 7 PCs, and 2 werebears are a severe encounter for a group of level 3 PCs. One werebear should be a sufficient "low" threat for 4 level 3 PCs however, as would one ogre boss for the level 7 group. In theory up to 4 giant rats would be a trivial threat, and by XP budget alone 16 rats could pose a extreme threat but in reality they really don't. Likewise, the giant rats would be worth exatly zero XP to the level seven group and are best described as a descriptive one off, such as "You killed a bunch of giant rats," rather than waste time killing them. The rats pose zero threat....they can't even crit against the level 7 group, and will barely have a chance for a normal hit.

One consequence of all this is that leveling up impacts the game's pace more. If you want, for example, kobolds, goblins and giant rats to be a meaningful threat for a while then don't let your PCs level quickly....they will outstrip those foes by level 4-5 and consequently a 20-session arc in the giant rat warrens will quickly become a merciless slaughter as the PCs earn the exterminator achievement!

*Using swarm rules to simulate an orc horde as a threat for high level PCs would be a way to do this, as well....

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Regulation Space for White Star

 Here's an excerpt on my precis for the setting I will use for White Star. It's got all the things I love in a SF setting: dangerous superluminal travel, a galaxy poised on the edge of war, cosmic old ones and lots of opportunities for free lancers to make their fortune.

Regulation Space Campaign Setting for White Star

Premise: it’s 2550, and humankind has spent the last four centuries expanding outward into the solar system and now into neighboring star systems thanks to the power of the hyperdrive. With the hyperdrive comes the discovery of other burgeoning civilizations and humanity’s introduction to a thriving alien cluster of civilizations. As the Hyperspace lanes expand, so does humanity’s connection to the diverse worlds of other species. Humankind arrived on the scene conveniently right around the time a warlike culture called the Volmath were attempting to conquer the diaspora of civilizations, and thanks to humankind’s timely intervention the Volmath were driven back into the void.

The Star Knights and Void Knights: this is an ancient order dedicated to a force known as the Blood Star. The Blood Star is a semi-mythical location shrouded in secrecy from which the Star Knights gain their unique powers to bend physics to their will. The Volmath use their shock troops called the Void Knights to similar effect, and it is suspected they have access to a system with a sun similar to the Blood Star, called the Void Star by their ranks. The exact nature of these stars and what they do to change humans and aliens alike into powerful psi-wielding agents of peace of war is a mystery to most.

Thematically the star knights and void knights might be closely comparable to the guardians of Destiny (the video game), poised between the light and darkness. Their powers clearly stem directly from the enigmatic stars they serve, and much of the mystery of their orders lies within exactly what the Blood Star and the Void Star are. 

Hyperspace: this dimension may tie to the mystery of the Void and Blood Stars. It’s a transitional fifth dimension through which ships can travel at extreme superluminal speeds without experiencing relativistic effects. The technology is ridiculously simple once understood, but does require antimatter as a fuel source to bend space enough that it “breaks” and allows the ship to enter. For the duration it is in hyperspace a ship must maintain a magnetic shield envelope around itself; if the shield falls before the ship leaves hyperspace it can be destroyed, spread out over multiple light years. Hyperspace is also dangerous; there are fifth dimensional beings which exist and for which no one wants to draw the attention of, as all encounters with these fifth dimensional entities have proven disastrous or fatal.

One known fifth dimensional threat from Hyperspace is called the Deluge. It is a cosmic mind-altering “essence” which some speculate is a living neural network of energy; its name derives from how it appears to “pour” like a flood from hyperspace rifts into the physical world in waves of varicolored superfluids. Its first appearance on the colony of Riven led to the entire world being quarantined as it mutated and drove the colonists mad.

Known Space: this is a vast swathe of unclaimed territory, ostensibly of neutral civilizations, star empires and other groups which exist independent of the Volmath Consortium and Regulation Space. While Regulation Space is estimated to be around 110 worlds in size and the Volmath Consortium consists of at least six united groups and over 900 worlds, the region of Known Space is pretty much “everything else” and charted territories so far have mapped out 32,000 worlds! No single power dominates in Known Space, though there are threats (such as the assimilants and Cannicks) lurking in its darker corners.

Regulation Space: this is the name for the Terran colonial expanse, the vast network of roughly fifty colonies plus Earth as well as another 60 alien civilizations which have petitioned and joined Regulation Space to benefit from the protection of the Terrans. Regulation Space is policed by the Regulation Authority while the military defense is handled by the Terran Frontier Defense Navy.

Alien species living under the auspices and protection of Regulation Space include the Alureans, falcon men (Sholdarak), Kath (rawrarrs), Procyons, crocs, space ducks (Un’hadani), thronks (calling themselves Vaadeer, but humans jokingly call them Martians), uttins, wolflings (Bengada),  

Volmath Consortium: Despite its perception as an evil empire, the Volmath is actually a Consortium of several species with like interests. These include the volmath themselves, who are close human analogs and appear to have either a common ancestry to terrans or close parallel evolution. They have within their ranks the client states of the Qinlon Hegemony, the Cabal of the Ickes, the Vaskagar empire of Felinoids, the Mecistops DIaspora and the Sketh (wellsians).

Galactic Threats: There are other species out there which are inimical to or seek to undermine, conquer or destroy both Regulation Space and the Volmath Consortium. These include the greys, the assimilants, the cannicks, frostines and mindoids. Some, such as the frostines and mindoids seek to protect their own territory while preying quietly on their neighbors. The assimilants however are an invasion force in the making, a vast swathe of galactic space being under assault near the galactic core by their kind, and the cannicks are an ancient machine race which wiped out their creators eons ago and are beginning to appear in the region once more, as their kind is found on the swathe of dead worlds left in the wake of an ancient galactic war. Finally there are the Sindrat, a race of humanoid spider-like insectoids that also appear to have access to the powers of the Void Knight and are focused on infiltration and sabotage. They seem to operate from flotillas of ships residing in the void between stars, where they are almost impossible to find.

Classes in Regulation Space:

The following are considered Core Classes: aristocrat, mercenary, pilot, robot, star knight, alien brute, bounty hunter, combat medic, cypher, deep space explorer, gunslinger, two-fisted technician, uttin, rockstar, alien mystic, star pilot, alien star knight, and mecha jock. Other classes may be acceptable but less common.

Affiliations: Each PC should pick from one of the following affiliations at the start of play:

Regulation Authority: you are a former or inactive member of the Terran police-keeping force which maintains rule of law in Regulation Space.

Syndicate: you are a member of the intergalactic criminal consortium of guilds called the Syndicate, an organization which was present in Known Space long before the Terrans arrived on the scene.

Merchants Guild: the Merchants Guild seeks to insure fair laws and trade across Known Space.

Free Lancers Guild: the free lancers are a collection of independent mercs, traders and couriers who seek to maintain their independence from authority and megacorporations, having loosely united into a guild in Known Space to protect such interests and provide resources and aid to one another.

Terran Defense League: comprising the combined power of the navy, marines and ground forces, the TDL is where many spacers served time learning useful skills before mustering out to make their own path. The TDL maintains stations in most Regulation Space ports and provides an excellent network for assistance to veterans.

The Star Knights: you are a member of or worked for the Order of the Star Knights, an independent peace-keeping force which was founded by the Old Coalition in Known Space before Terrans arrived on-scene. Many Terrans have since joined the order, which maintains its headquarters in the Orion III System.

Volmath Infiltrators: the Espionage branch of the Volmath Consortium is effective and runs deep into Known Space, gathering intel and reporting back to their masters.

Void Knights: The Order of the Void Knights is secretive and militaristic, but those who joined or served in its ranks are determined to rise to power. More than a few Void Knights are former Star Knights who were seduced by the even more potent teachings of the Void Star. A few were even Star Knights who sought to infiltrate and discover the secret location of the Void Star, and yet they too succumbed to the power of the Void.

Opportunity Sector

A major hub of activity is located in Opportunity Sector, a large area of space where Regulation Space and Known Space collide. It is also one of the regions with the shortest distance to the Volmath Consortium, which is a paltry 80 light years away on the other side of a stretch of Known Space. A century ago the Terran-Volmath War was fought to a near standstill in this region, and when the Accords were carried out it was on the local garden world of Sperlian, following the destruction of the Volmath super weapon dubbed the Sun Crusher. The ruins of the Sun Crusher are still in orbit around the now diminutive brown dwarf star of Cholos M44 (570 LY from Earth). The Coleopterans of M44 were almost entirely wiped out, though colonies exist in the region (including on Sperlian).

As a result, Opportunity Sector is a cold war zone between the two powers, and local independents profit from it as much as possible. Coleopteran dissidents still plot revenge against the Volmath, and war profiteers continue to ply their trade, seeking salavage for resale from the great war era. Amidst this tension the Regulation Authority seeks to make some headway even as rumors that the Assimilant Empire are approaching is bandied about in shady bars by distressed Deep Space Salvagers claiming to have seen assmilant scout ships patrolling. Lastly, rumors that the origins of the Sun Crusher can be found on one of the forgotten Old Worlds where the Cannicks destroyed their creators abound, and that the lucky salvager who finds the source of the machine’s design plans will be the richest (and most wanted) man in the galaxy is a laudable goal for those with no honor.

Opportunity Sector is also the location of the failed human colony of Riven, where the enigmatic being called the Deluge destroyed and mutated the colony. The Regulation Authority along with the Star Knights have cordoned off the world while trying to determine the Deluge’s intent, fully aware that if it escapes the planet it can spread its transformative disease to the rest of Known Space.   

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Picking an SFG RPG Part 2: Generic Systems vs. Implied Setting Systems (plus how Tone and Flavor Matter!)

 My talking about the SF RPG of choice for my short campaign refresh and the subsequent reader comments got me to thinking about a design element that affects system choice: generic systems vs. systems which contain an implied setting. Secondary to this is the notion that a given system will also contain some tone and flavor; flavor might reflect the implied setting, but it doesn't need to. 

For example: White Star has a setting that it has provided some support for, but the book itself is fairly setting neutral; it's got lots of content that might at times even seem contradictory (you have mecha jocks, space squirrels, star knights and embittered old preachers on the space frontier all in the same game system, for example). White Star's implied setting is schizophrenic; it's really a kitchen-sink universe if run exactly as presented, but the intent is to instead give you tools to make your preferred brand of cinematic-inspired scifi.  

Contrast this with Stars Without Number, which on the surface seems to be a toolkit game. However, the foundation of SWN is written around a specific universe which has a defining moment called The Scream within it. All of the implied setting content (and SWN Is loaded to the gills with it) has this core conceit baked into the premise. If you run SWN with a different concept in mind it either limits the content of the book to your own vision or requires you to modify or ignore large chunks of the story content. By contrast, with SWN if you don't want Star Knights in your universe you just tell players they are off the table; the rest of the system won't break if you exclude them, and indeed some story bits might even feel more consistent as a result....that's because White Star isn't building you a toolkit for an implied universe like SWN is; it's providing you a toolkit for a flavor of gaming (cinematic scifi). 

Contrast this with actual generic systems such as Cypher System, Savage Worlds, GURPS and even FATE. These systems might come with some inherent tone/flavor due to the underlying game systems, but each tries to support a wide range of settings without any implied content. GURPS can run both cinematic scifi and (if you were so inclined) the SWN universe in which The Scream happened. Savage Worlds is aimed at it's motto of Fast! Furious! Fun! but it more than amply tries to cover every SF genre it can within its own toolkit within the 3F parameters. Cypher System's underlying flavor is one of deceptively simple mechanics that are player facing with resource management baked in, but the Stars are Fire sourcebook spends half the tome giving you a vast array of ideas for any conceivable SF idea you can think of; it's selling system with a certain tone and flavor and the only implied setting are those which most benefit from the contrivances of Cypher's mechanical design.

The downside, as any gamer with full time work and family knows, is that generic systems often take a lot of time to prep. The seductive point of a game system with an implied setting like SWN or Traveller is that it does some of the work for you; if for example I simply didn't have a campaign vision in mind (and this is where I always trip myself up as I like designing my own settings rather than using existing content), then SWN would actually work really well for me, as I love its world/adventure chart design process. Likewise, Traveller is insanely processual in charting out its own implied setting through the rules, and you can run any universe you want with it so long as it involves dudes who muster out and start life as middle aged adventurers travelling using something like Jump Drive in a bizarrely flat hexagonal galaxy.

All of these systems are great, of course, and I've run all of them except for FATE (which I almost ran, but ultimately decided it's core mechanical conceits are just not my cup of tea). So when I am looking for what I need at the moment I am thinking of what my goal is....and it sort of follows this thought:

1. I want a system which can give me a 5-10 session arc that feels fulfilling but doesn't feel like we have to be obligated to keep playing (so, progression within 5-10 sessions is meaningful); any of the systems we're talking about could theoretically do this well, but I'll rule out GURPS because the setup will take too long for 5-10 sessions and Traveller because its progression is flighty at best.

2. It needs to fit my vision of a "realistic" space opera idea I have in mind with specific conceits for how stuff like hyperdrives and human expansion into the galaxy happened (and lots of aliens); this means it needs to be a good toolkit game with lots of premade stuff that fits the setting; that eliminates GURPS and Traveller (would have to build it all), SWN (implied setting would have to be redacted), and leaves Savage Worlds, Cypher System and White Star (all three have enough content, bt of course SW requires some conversion work).

3. It needs to be easy to run without a lot of rules adjudication, because part of the "palette cleanser" is I want a break from a system with a rigorous three-action mechanic and a 600 page rulebook. Yes, PF2 is remarkably easier to run than PF1 but it's still not "Swords & WIzardry" easy, you know what I mean? This conceit is the most important part! 

With those three criteria in mind I could readily narrow the list down to White Star, Savage Worlds and Cypher System. As I identified in yesterday's post Cypher System would be ideal but the Roll20 randomizer for dice seems to actively hate my players so in the interest of sanity I decided not to go with it. Savage Worlds requires some (admittedly minor) conversion to work properly right now so I want least amount of White Star it is.

There is one element undiscussed: The explicit setting systems. Eclipse Phase, Star Wars RPGs, Star Trek Adventures....these are all games you play specifically for the detailed setting. They are in their own ballpark, as you will never likely want to use them for something that isn't a total riff on the actual universe the system supports. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Thoughts on the Best All-Purpose Science Fiction RPG for the Moment

 Lately I've been thinking about how I'd like to run another SF campaign soon. As my year+ long Pathfinder 2E campaign winds down, I can sense that I need a palette cleanser in the mix before tackling the next mega campaign in PF2E, and science fiction generally does the trick. The problem, of course, is that what I most need right now is a game system which will support the particular vision I have in mind.

There are five choices in my repertoire: Traveller, Cypher System, GURPS, Savage Worlds and White Star. For various reasons I have narrowed the list down a bit: Traveller is too formal and comes with a heap of stylistic baggage; GURPS would be cool but GURPS Space is too complex for what I need; Savage Worlds would be fine but I am waiting for the Sci Fi Companion to get revised to the SWADE edition; Cypher System with The Stars Are Fire expansion is looking like the best choice overall, but there's a problem: Roll20 seems to hate my players, and when you have three sessions of Cypher System in a row in which failure rates even on level 1-2 tasks are approaching 90% it becomes enormous dispiriting for the players (and as GM I got tired of the constant grouching about the failure rates and simply ended the game). I love Cypher System, but there seem to be two issues at hand: it requires a bit of system mastery to play the odds and reduce the levels of difficulty, and it also requires accepting the dice where they fall when the time comes. 

In fact....the brutal honesty of the Roll20 dice randomize might be so offensive to some players for reasons that I can only speculate on in my head, but I do think ultimately that when the game requires resource management to improve your odds of success, that puts more demand on the player to actually understand the mechanics and work to play them in their favor. Spend those points when you need them, and often!

So what about White Star? With White Star I might just have a good balance. The biggest problem I can identify is that the Galaxy Edition is almost Too Much Kitchen Sink....if you don't want uttin*, yabnabs, novomachina and brimlings in your campaign, for example, then you as GM better go into the book with a big hatchet. But other than that, it's a great system with a tight and easy old school aesthetic. I have run two prior campaigns with it now (using the original rules with some supplements) and I feel like this might indeed be the perfect palette cleanser. A Short 5-10 session White Star campaign would be a lot of fun.

There's a new setting sourcebook out for White Star on now called Heart of Varrul, which I just might check out. White Star, like all OSR games, continues to have its groundswell of support and remains in many regards timeless. I think I'll need to see how much support it has on Roll20 now....

*I'm actually cool with uttin, the grittier and dirtier version of ysoki; but to hell with yabnabs! And Brimlings are a halfling too far for me. 

Monday, August 3, 2020

Sticking with Campaigns - the Sorts of Players and GMs who Can and Can't Run Long Term Campaigns

After forty years of gaming I've come to realize that there are really two kinds of players:

Players that stick to the bitter end; and
Players that do not

This is in regards to the idea of long term campaigns. Those elusive white whales that many players would love to see, but which few actually do: you know, the kind where you start at level 1, and then by means of normal rules progress over 1-2 or more years to level 20 (or in the case of classic D&D go for as many years as you can stomach). Then rinse and repeat!

The players that stick to the bitter end, in my experience, tend to fall into these categories:

Old friends within the group; if you know each other and have known each other for a long time, you are more likely to keep gaming together (so long as you also have a GM who offers a consistent time and space for it);

They can put up with each other; I don't say "tolerate" because when you're friends that terminology doesn't quite fit...tolerate is what you do to people who you must associate with but not necessarily by choice. The friends in the long group may have quirks and eccentricities, but you put up with those because you all actually enjoy meeting and gaming together far more than any annoying traits you may have.

It might be possible to achieve a long term group without these traits, but you likely will run into some problems, including high turnover (a group that runs a long term campaign may have players come and go, but if you reach the end of the campaign and none of the original players are the same you are faced with a Ship of Theseus scenario). You could theoretically have a group go for years without being friends but that's...well....that's pretty sad, actually. If you spend 4-6 hours at least once a week gaming with people, you ought to get to know them as humans and not just players, right?

Players that do not stick with it are both more numerous and easy to quantify. They include the following base groups:

They don't find the group style/personalities a good fit; this is easy, and applies to anyone who for whatever reason decides that spending the next X number of years gaming the same game with the same people is not gonna fit their needs.

The reasons this happens can be varied. It can include these traits:

Short attention span (I call them "buffet samplers"; I admit that as a player I am one of these)
Personality quirks (can't stand --or be stood by-- the rest of the group)
Confused about the idea that gaming is more than just a sport or activity (people who don't realise that making friends with your fellow players is important)
Earnest but time limited (the saddest group, who are restricted from enjoying the hobby due to mitigating life factors but really wish they could be present; a subset of this in today's age is the "I want to log in by my internet is crap" crowd)

Needless to say, to get that campaign you always wanted from level 1 to level 20 with at least enough core players throughout the experience to reach level 20 then you need plenty of the former type of player and fewer of the latter types. You also need a GM who's going to pull it off. GMs have their own range of issues as well, which I tend to quantify as follows:

GMs who can pull off long term campaigns tend to be:
Focused (can stick to the same game and campaign for the long haul; this is harder than it sounds);
Dedicated (realize that they must eschew distractions);
Rewarding (must both feel rewarded for the dedication and recognize that a long term campaign must also reward the players with relevant plot details and interactions that make their characters relevant over time);
Consistent (simply put: you show up at the same time, same place, and run the same game, preferably weekly; just getting this down alone will at least insure you game weekly, even if you can't quite manage long term campaigns).

GMs who can't pull this off tend toward the following:
Unfocused (likes to play the New Game of the Week and tends to understand short-run scenarios and mini campaigns better; or has a vision which is best realized in 10 sessions rather than 60);
Easily Distracted (the GM has too much going on and can easily get distracted by other systems, ideas, or unrelated stuff);
 Unrewarding (the GM falls into storygame traps such as railroad style adventuring or enters the campaign with a plot conceptualization that did not leave room for players to enter into and change things by their deeds and action; tricky, because the GM may feel rewarded then wonder why her players abandoned her);
Inconsistent (no regular time and place for a game, no dedication to insuring it happens like clockwork; this of all things is the failing of most GMs; you need the discipline to show up at the same time and place for months or even years).

Without a GM who holds the good traits and none of the bad, a campaign will never last six months let alone six years. 

Monday, July 20, 2020

Short vs. Long Form Adventures

One of the great things about the market today is that there is no shortage of material for your favorite D&Dish game. Whether you're playing D&D 5E, Pathfinder 2nd Edition, Labyrinth Lord, Swords &Wizardry, Old School Essentials or literally dozens of other variants, retroclones and heartbreakers there's both a system to suit your needs and a mess of scenarios to make prep easier.

While perusing a variety of recent finds I have been enjoying, for their own purposes, a range of modules....but these modules are not all created equal. For example, Trilemma Adventures is arguably a huge bang for its buck, with dozens of scenarios wrapped in a setting and bestiary suitable for adaptation to your preferred system. Age of Extinction, by contrast, is a pricey six book series for Pathfinder 2nd which will get you close to level 20 albeit through a process of reading an elaborate campaign in Golarian which is exceedingly difficult to adapt to your own setting (and likely not worth adapting to other rules systems).

Still...taken as a whole the typical Pathfinder adventure path may look huge, but they are designed to be digested in six discreet pieces. Not so with most WotC modules, which are monstrous incarnations of mega campaigns. When you buy one of these you are getting everything including the kitchen sink in one gigantic purchase.

In many ways it seems like the conventional wisdom for D&D and Pathfinder in their contemporary editions, the pinnacle of achievement over the last two decades, has been the extensive long form adventure campaign. Most of 5th edition's published modules amount to lengthy campaigns, designed to provide structured frameworks for leveling up to 10th level or greater. Only a few adaptations of older works such as Tales from the Yawning Portal focus on smaller scenarios (and even then providing a framework to interconnect it all together). The only one of these I've run was the early release of Siege at Dragonspear, a level 1-10 romp in four parts.

I don't really understand this style of long-form adventure design. I am much better with (and can appreciate) a good setting book such as the Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica (well, as long as the book is engaging and fun to read, which most sourcebooks are not). I get more out of the content in Volo's Guide to Monsters than I do out of the latest 300 page super module. I suspect I am not alone in this; for many who GM, the creative process is more rewarding and may be the key reason to play; but there are many who enjoy reading and puzzling out these giant modules to provide much needed direction to their group and games.

Products like Trilemma Adventures, of which there are lots and lots of examples (from Dungeon Full of Monsters which flirts with being both mini and mega to AAW's Mini-Dungeons series on down to Dyson Logos' amazing collections) are designed to provide tools to a different kind of GM, the kind who likes improv and needs only a seed to grow a mountain. Plus, if you like campaigns that are deliberately less structured or more focused on hexcrawling then mini dungeons and short-form scenarios provide plenty of content for populating your wilderness without also committing to memorizing hundreds of pages of content.

The fact that the market is so well served on all fronts right now is a good sign. Most short-form and mini adventures are coming from the indie, OSR and small press side of the equation, but an argument can be made that even Paizo and WotC know there's a market (just not one worth chasing beyond a limited set), and their respective Pathfinder Society and Adventurer's League modules may actually cater to some degree to this market (and not just organized play).

That said....once again I'll toot the horn for Goodman Games, which has built an entire business structure on short-form modules (with an occasional long-form gem like The Chained Coffin) and of course putting an emphasis on making them eminently readable and fun. Like with my prior article, the notion of readability and the even more important factor of being Fun to Read is extremely important to modules, and if someone were able to collect more than anecdotal evidence I sincerely believe we would find that the modules most played are, on average, going to correspond the modules that were the most fun to read (and well-designed too, no doubt).

Ironically, Goodman Games is also responsible for one of the most interesting cases of short to long form design you can find: the Original Adventures Reincarnated Series literally take the classic modules of yore and, under license, adapt these short form gems into modern long form designs. Yes, they can take a 32 page module like The Isle of Dread and turned it into a 200+ page adaptation (while somehow still being the original module, a feat in and of itself). If ever there was a better example of how the short form module contrasts with the long form, this is it.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Making RPGs Fun to Read

I've been perusing a lot of Dungeon Crawl Classics content lately, and one commonality in the DCC community is a reverence...nay, borderline obsession with Appendix N. This is obviously relevant to DCC, which is a game which has staked its success on depicting fantasy gaming as one might imagine it would look in the 70's based on the fiction at hand for the time. When you read Mutant Crawl Classics and notice it's own Appendix "M" references a movie like Zardoz and a seminal work like Hothouse, you know they're not kidding! MCC drips Zardoz and Hothouse from its pores.

In the course of this, however, it becomes incredibly clear that Goodman Games' two amazing OSR works have something in common: they are really damn readable, filled with interesting content, discussions on their respective genres and play styles, loaded with rules that somehow aren't a slog to process, and have a ton of general and specific flavor.

You would think this sort of approach to game books...making them fun to read....would make sense, right? But not every game can accomplish this, for a variety of reasons. Even my own personal favorite system these days, Pathfinder 2nd edition, is at best described as a true utility/resource. I read it to execute the game I want, but I don't sit down and read for--you know--fun. Ugh! I've yet to find a single Pathfinder tome from Paizo (sorry Paizo!) that was actually a pleasure to read. They all feel a bit like work, even when I am digging in the details of their mechanical systems. Pathfinder 2nd Edition's only really fun to read tomes so far are the Bestiaries* and the Gamemastery Guide, which do have some engaging content; but try reading them against the evocative and gripping narrative in Dungeon Crawl Classics, and you will see a difference. PF2 is interesting to read, yes, but the other (DCC) is fascinating to read. Every game book should hope to be the latter.

I recall distinctly that the very first time I encountered this sort of evocative, fascinating writing was actually Gary Gygax's own musings and ramblings in the 1E Dungeon Master's Guide. Despite how much content and how exotic and interesting it was the DMG was never a particularly easy read, nor was it so much fascinating as exotic and esoteric, a thing apart for being the first of it's kind, but it definitely set a bar for future game designers to achieve.

It would be pretty much a decade+ later when I snagged Cyberpunk 2020 that I found a book which outdid the DMG in terms of sheer nerve in its writing, presentation, attitude and sheer efficiency at describing its own mechanics seamlessly with its setting. Mike Pondsmith made a book which I feel has not to date been toppled by any other work, and I eagerly wait to see if the upcoming Cyberpunk Red can actually pull this off a second time.

There are other games out there that thrive thanks to their evocative writing, but far more lean toward the utility as their key value. Even literary works such as Call of Cthulhu work better as a resource for gaming than as a tome to read for pure enjoyment (baring any fiction segments). Some exceptions to this norm include most everything ever published first by White Wolf and then Onyx Publishing. Say what you will about White Wolf, but their books are (mostly) indisputably readable if you're into the stuff they write about. But...even then....most of what makes White Wolf and Onyx distinct has been the fiction elements, and the actual rules are often quite dry.

Anyway.....just some musings I thought I'd put to blog since I have neglected this poor thing for the better part of a month now. Family just moved recently and things are finally settling down, we have a nice house with plenty of room to enjoy social isolation!

*For an example of a well-written, evocative and arguably fascinating Bestiary, look no further than 13th Age. Pathfinder's Bestiaries are resources; 13th Age's Bestiaries are art.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Invisible Sun on Bundle of Holding

The contentious Black Cube and all books are on Bundle of Holding now: $25 for the cube, and currently about $42 total to get the whole set plus expansions. Considering that the retail for the Black Cube is $99, this is a very nice price point to get digital editions of four rulebooks plus something like a thousand cards and bits and bobs for the main game.....I'll just state that while the Black Cube in physical form is an expensive beast at roughly $252 it's well worth the purchase if you are in to surrealism and modern magic themed universes or a fan of the Cypher System (of which Invisible Sun is not exactly like but definitely adjacent to in design).

Anyway, check it out!

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Last of Us Part 2 - The Grand Finale of the PS4

Despite thinking I wouldn't get it a few days ago, I did indeed decide that nope, I could not go long without picking up The Last of Us Part 2.

If you somehow own a PS4 and don't know what's the deal, here's the trailer:

The original game was the penultimate title worth picking up on the Playstation 3...indeed, I caved toward the end of the PS3's life cycle just so I could at last catch up on Naughty Dog games, which include The Last of Us and the entire Uncharted series. I replayed TLOU when it was remastered on PS4, and so naturally it was inevitable I would grab Part 2.

There's apparently been some controvery around this title. I've only seen a couple reviews that were at all disparaging, and those were from Youtubers who sometime seem to have an agenda behind their veiled dislike for certain games. As an example, the criticism I watched involved critiquing TLOU2's sotryline as having some plot issues, while suggesting it's play mechanics were not sufficiently new and innovative. Weird critiques, I thought, given Naught Dog's mechanics in their games are very well established and a key selling is their amazing attention to story and plot. So....could it be this was the seven year design cycle that finally fell flat somehow?

Not really. Without offering spoilers (and if you played to the end of the first game, you ought to have some ideas of just where the sequel could go without much wild guessing at all), then you know this is a terrible world filled with all sorts of loss. A sequel diving deep into that makes sense. If you played the DLC for the first game, you know it was established that Ellie, the lead character in Part 2, is not your normal videogame hero stereotype. Joel is closer, sure.....and if you felt that the original game was principally about Joel himself, then you might be expecting more of the same in TLOU2.

Instead, you get an even bolder, darker and more poignant story. It's not really a political story, or driven by any agenda; trust me, it really isn't. But if a reviewer were to see some politics buried in it, that says a lot more about the reviewer at this point than the game itself. The game tells a very, very good story. It is not pulling punches and it is sticking to the dark world it portrays. But if some of their story and character choices bother you....well, maybe you weren't paying close attention in the last game, and maybe this is a chance to learn not to let it bother you and accept that you can leave that baggage behind.

I'll end the article here without spoilers by saying: The Last of Us Part 2 is an amazing game, I an glad I decided not to wait. Now....for those who care not about spoilers....

Here's the spoiler version (SPOILER WARNING!) for those interested in what I am talking around:

Did the spoiler free crowd leave?




So Joel, the protagonist of the first game, dies. No one should have not suspected this would happen; at minimum all promos for Ellie strongly implied he would be out of the picture. Whether it was quietly due to heart attack or because a clicker ate him was the real question here. As it turns out, it was even more grisly: remember the end of the first game? The bloodbath Joel engaged to free Ellie from those who were going to sacrifice her life to make a vaccine against the cordyceps infection? Well, what goes around comes around, and Joel made many enemies. Worse yet, Ellie does not know what happened; she was unconscious for most of that. This was very nicely foreshadowed at the end of the first game, and I recall when playing it, "nothing good will come of this in Part 2," and I was totally right.

The secondary issue is that Ellie is not only our lead protagonist, but her being a gay character central to the plot is leaned in to, albeit in a natural and not "preachy" way. This world has too many other wrongs, too much other misery, for the game to obsess about the fact that the survivors of this future apocalyptic setting don't have much time to worry about who's sleeping with who. The story engages naturally; literally the only issue that Joe Gamer could take with the characters as this story unfolds is that Ellie isn't male (and straight). The guys who've done reviews bitching about game elements seem to step around this very carefully (because they don't want to admit it bothers them); it's a common issue with certain gamers out there, especially those who liked the first because they need to play a "relatable (male) character" like Joel in order to feel engaged with the story, and the loss of Joel mixed with Ellie's rise to prominence is probably a serious shock to this certain subset of gamers.

It shouldn't be, but it is.

Anyway....if you like single player experiences that are full of compelling plots, characters, graphics and gameplay then you owe it to yourself to grab The Last of Us Part 2 (and the first one as well if you haven't played that, either). Just be warned! It's an amazing game, but also a very depressing story and easily portrays one of the most miserable post-apocalyptic settings in gaming history.

Friday, June 26, 2020

A Nice, Clean, Traditional Pathfinder 2E Character Sheet

While looking for a character sheet that didn't contain a vomitous level of burgundies and blues, I stumbled across this redditor post from viemexis which offers up a very clean, traditional looking four page Pathfinder 2E sheet that is not an eyesore and is easy to use. Sure, it's still four pages long.....but at least it's easy to look at!

Character sheet here.