Monday, September 21, 2020

The Secret to Success with Roll20's RNG

 It's become something of a joke that Roll20's random number generator for dice doesn't seem to like the players much. The reality is that it's...well....probably averaging out where it realistically should, and the GM occasionally does see a bad streak of rolls too, but of course GMs get to roll a lot more dice over time so those bad luck streaks often die out soon enough.

In games that are player facing like Cypher System, you might think this would lead to better averages over time (or as many hills as valleys at least), but this doesn't always seem to work out. Some of my players are about fed up with Roll20, which can seem to give them alarmingly consistent failure streaks. 

I have a theory about this, born of my own player experience in a related VTT, Astral. It goes like this:

Some players are cautious, and tend to build "average characters" who can do a lot of stuff reasonably well, but not much stuff very, very well. I'm often one of those....if you've ever built a Call of Cthulhu character, for example, who rarely had more than 50% in a skill, but also ended up with a lot of below 50% skills as a result, you might be one of these.

Other players suffer from a different problem: they don't really learn the game they are playing, or they miss the key elements of the system that help them out. These players might often try to do things and fail but miss opportunities to improve their odds of success or overlook strategies that could help them out. Some simply try to do things they probably shouldn't, or misunderstand their characters' abilities.

In VTT environments there's an entire other possible category: setting up your die scripts and forgetting modifiers of relevance. It's less common, as other players with better familiarity may catch your error, but it could happen.

A final category are: players who don't get the quirks of their GM. This one's pretty basic, but if you as a player know your GM frequently calls for history, society or perception tests then maybe you shoudl focus on those skills. This is a bit metagamist, but it's a valid strategy if your personal goal is "succeed at die roll tests more often."

Anyway, the result of these examples is players who fail more often than not at die rolls and are often quite flustered about it. I have at least one player who I feel is a combination of two or more of these situations, as he tends to learn the rules through play but overlooks the strategic elements of, as an example, how the die pool risk/reward mechanic of Cypher System plays out. If you play Cypher System like any other old RPG you are essentially doomed to failure. Conversely, when we play Pathfinder 2nd Edition I feel that most players (even the ones who are a bit shaky on the mechanics) tend to succeed about as often as you expect due to the fact that Pathfinder's probabilities and math are shockingly on target. If everyone is failing miserably in a Pathfinder 2E game on Roll20 it may say more about the GM than it does about the system or Roll20's RNG!

So what's a strategy for success? Well, here's some advice, and it may apply beyond VTT with virtual dice, too:

If you want to succeed, and your system allows it, try to find those 3-4 things you really want to be able to succeed in and max them out as best you can. If you're playing Call of Cthulhu and you want to spot hidden as often as possible then jam points in to it. You will sacrifice broad versatility but gain greater average success in those things you are good at. And it should go without saying: when you play the game, try to do things that are relevant to those skills!

Understand the game you are playing. Make sure you appreciate the probabilities so that when you are in combat or a tense encounter with die rolls that you think about your odds of success before you take on a task. Understand that if you make a Level 4 Speed Defense roll in Cypher without buying it down that the odds of failure are 55% but if you just spent some Speed you could reduce that failure rate to 40% or less. And when the dice still go against's okay. You tried. The game is, ultimately, a game and not a wish fulfillment engine; we have video games for that.

As GM, make sure you are mindful of realistic encounters for your players' level of expertise and understanding. If your players seem to be struggling with understanding the mechanics (and the odds) then try to tailor the experience a bit as a teaching lesson. Coaching players with some learning encounters can be a wise move. Remember! You don't have a GM screen and you can't fudge dice in a VTT environment (well, not easily, as far as I know). As such, you need to respect the mechanics more, and the arbitrariness of the dice more.


Friday, September 18, 2020

The Conan Rabbit Hole - The Howard/Carter/de Camp Deep Dive Problem (and proof vitriolic fandom is ancient)

Every now and then something accidentally reminds me that one of my favorite fictional properties, Conan the Barbarian, along with one of my favorite genres (sword & sorcery fiction) has had the grainy, crusted history of a Maximum Fan Blowout for well over 60+ years now.

It starts, often, like this: I get something in an email or I am browsing my book or ebook collection and I notice one of my many tomes featuring tales of Conan. I have an extensive collection that includes the recent very thorough and illustrated tales of Conan reconstructed from Robert E. Howard's original publications, as well as the complete series published by Lancer/Ace in different editions. At one time I had virtually all of the Tor pastiche series books, though over time gave them up as to be honest, probably about 20% of them actually had merit and the rest bordered on painful, embarrassing reading.

The problem with Conan/Howard fandom starts with the Lancer/Ace editions. In the sixties the Conan property was revived by L. Sprague de Camp who presided as editor and writer in conjunction with Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyberg. Other authors of the time, including favorites such as Karl Edward Wagner also contributed tales to the Conan universe in this time (Road of Kings remains one of my favorites) and the revival got Conan effectively into print and mainstream for a time. 

The Lancer/Ace series of 12 books were not only my introduction to Conan but also to Howard as an author (as well as Carter, de Camp and the rest) and my formal indoctrination into reading around age 9-10 as a major pastime. So for me, any criticism of this series is tempered by the fact that it server an incredibly important milestone in my life. Keep that in mind as we dive down the rabbit hole here.

So, when I look at these books, I am occasionally reminded that I would love to see the series released in a modern edition, something which is in better shape than the medley of aging, yellowed tomes with cracking spines I have on my shelf. Even an ebook edition would be great, right? Well....

The problem here is complicated, but it starts first with the really rabid fans of Robert E. Howard who for many and varied reasons took great umbrage with L. Sprague de Camp's control over the property and his rewrites of the Conan tales in these editions. A search online readily brings up countless archived and ancient posts and restorations of older writings pre-internet from various fans of Conan and Howard spend a great deal of time nit-picking de Camp's edits and rewrites of Howard stories in this series. The discussion on these ancient preservations are often shockingly impressive at just how grim and vicious they are. 

Reading and getting worked up about these ancient diatribes is hardly worth it; many of the original authors lamenting the purity of Howard are dead or beyond any point where debate would have any merit at all. It is best to read them as a moment of fan frenzy captured in weird amber, a snapshot of what this looked like before the internet, from a time when chapbooks and fanzines were the medium of communication.

Still, it frustrates me. Regardless of how people felt about de Camp as editor and contributor to Howard's Conan stories, he did something of significant import, and I owe most of my interest and hobby focus for pretty much the entirety of my life to his adaptations of Howard's Conan into a coherent twelve tome narrative. I enjoyed de Camp's writing,* and though I also relish the intrinsic style and feel of Howard's original works I can see why de Camp made so many of the editing choices he did. I also quite enjoyed his own stories, even the ones which he rather heavily re-adapted into Conan stories from other non Conan writings of Howard. It's all good, essentially, and it is much of the reason I feel that today Conan is a thing many people know and love. Reading Howards original tales is a great experience, but de Camp made Conan work for a generation that was growing warm to the idea of trilogies and worlds built out over coherent narratives in a series, and Conan as Howard wrote him might very well have remained obscure and forgotten, much as almost every other character Howard created remains today. 

Besides, I imagine that the wheel turns ever round. There is probably a nest of fandom right now stewing with seething rage that Conan is a Marvel character who you can (literally) find next to Venom and Wolverine, fighting side by side. I wonder what the old grognards of yore might imagine of such blasphemy.....for me, though, it is enough to know that a comic book with Venom and Conan has absolutely gotten my son to ask me, "Who's Conan" and that, in turn, has given me an opportunity to show him a much wider range of fiction, especially as he is reaching the same age when I, too, first discovered it.

*Lest Darkness Fall and The Fallible Fiend remain two of my favorite books to this day.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Further Thoughts - Dungeon Crawls and VTT go well together?

White Star as a short diversion proved to be a mistake I think, not maybe because I wouldn't enjoy it under some better circumstances, but the intrinsically more whimsical and camp elements it lends itself to as a weird pastiche of cinematic scifi I think maybe works better when I am A: in the right mood (which it turns out I am not right now for many reasons) and B: such humor and interaction conveys much better at a live table where it is easier to interact with people and convey intended humor or camp elements. 

The beauty of D&D and PF2E is they have enormous levels of support online and one can easily throw down battle maps and virtual minis which means even on a horrible day I can easily run (and enjoy) a basic dungeon crawl. With the sort of horrifying work months I've been having lately, being able to just run a good basic dungeon crawl actually sounds like a good way to destress. Must discuss with group!

Thursday, September 10, 2020

White Star Session One, VTT Burnout, and the Fun of Watching Someone New to Gaming

 So this week three things of note in my ongoing blog, now with exactly 0% video!

White Star Session One

This finally got off the ground last Saturday with a nice introductory session. The good news is: White Star is easy to run, and can make for some good old cowboys and aliens kind of fun.

The bad news is: I am old, jaded, and felt a bit like maybe I'd made a mistake after all. I (at the curmudgeonly age of 49) find myself no longer that excited about simple cinematic shoot-em-up action games anymore; I might like them if the rules support a more dynamic experience, though, and I kept thinking to myself, "I shoulda used Savage Worlds." Sigh....

But! That brings up this item:

New Gamer Excitement

My son, who is almost nine, insisted we let him in on things so my wife and I had him roll up his first White Star character, an alien bounty hunter. He had a blast, and his presence in the game helped "ground" me in the reality that while I was very, very tired of the same old same old, it was completely new and exciting to him and he had a blast. I am going to try and channel some of the excess energy he radiated to motivate myself to make a game that focuses hard on an experience he will enjoy.

However, to some extend I realize that all of this is underlying a deeper issue....

VTT Burnout

Not merely Roll20 burnout, but VTT burnout in general (Astral is the other one I am dabbling in). I am one of many gamers who enjoyed tabletop gaming precisely because it involved a tabletop and people sitting around it. If you've ever been a GM who was mildly annoyed at all the laptops on the game table, then VTT must be excruciating. It changes the overall experience in subtle but ultimately unsatisfying ways. 

Strengths I have identified with VTT: battle maps and minis are much easier to handle in a virtual table top. So running a methodical dungeon crawl with maps and virtual minis is very, very easy. It is also easy to share handouts and visual props. 

Weakness include: literally everything else. You lack visual queues from people sitting next to you. Audio is a perpetual pain and sometimes (as with Astral) requires using other services such as Discord. Rolling virtual dice is deeply unsatisfying and the die rollers are often a pain in the ass to work with. If your game is not specifically supported and falls outside the design scope of your preferred service that can be a severe limitation. Not physically being able to be at the table with you cohorts in gaming is frustrating, even if it is understandable in this day and age. 

Worst of all, it feels tedious and creates an unfortunate comparison and contrast against two other things: if you are also spending hours in online meetings at work going home to do so with a game can be unpleasant; a case of Too Much Screen Time. And worse yet, if you are into computer gaming, it exacerbates the already present issue of "do I waste time with this VTT experience or chase the delectable dragon's tail that is instantaneous gratification in a video game?" 

I have no solutions, except to remind myself that sooner or later we might see vaccinations or reliable treatments for COVID-19 manifest and maybe then things can get a bit more normal again. I'd offer to return to in-person gaming but almost everyone at my gaming table is either in a higher risk group or exposed to environments where you could contract COVID, or both. So...yeah, not a good idea to tempt fate like that.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Undying in Cypher System - Alternate Take

 There's another way to do the Undying Vampire, which is more basic to the rules of Cypher System. My table came up with this idea:

1. Take the vampire racial descriptor for Alternate Origins (a supplement for The Strange which works equally well with Cypher System)

2. Use that descriptor, then apply two additional modifiers:

Corrupting Touch - any time the Undying makes flesh to flesh contact with another creature for any reason (including a bite) this initiates an Intellect attack against the target. The target if injured receives -1 Shift against charisma and influence based checks for 24 hours; these can be cumulative, and are addition to any other effects applied as a result of the skin to skin contact.

Inability – Memory Fugue: Most undying appear to have no realization of their nature, even as they commit their acts of destruction and murder. Very ancient Undying may become acutely aware of their condition and embrace it, while young and new undying seem to “black out” when they commit vampiric acts, and go into violent rages if confronted with hard evidence of their actions. This selective memory loss seems to be due to the inability of the fey ancestry to reconcile their necromantic transformation due to the loss of their immaterial afterlife in the feywild. All Undying suffer from this inability to reconcile their natures when it is demonstrated, and suffer -2 shift penalties to intellect defense tests when trying to remain in control or reconcile such evidence when confronted with it. Very ancient Undying may spend 3 XP to reduce this to a -1 penalty, and ancient undying  may spend 10 XP to remove the penalty (but must be at least tier 5).

Additional Equipment: one relic weapon of up to expensive rarity and one relic item from your living years as an elf.

Initial Links to Starting Adventure:

1. you are an ancient undying recently awakened by your fellow PCs from some grave, and now wandering the land with a memory fugue, trying to remember who you are.

2. You were awoken by tomb robbers whom you killed, and you wandered off, met the PCs, and have been traveling with them while recovering your wits.

3. You were slain by orcs or other creatures in battle recently, but have no memory and are oblivious to your condition. Your PC companions assumed you simply had good luck to escape death.

4. You were killed by another undying elf and left as a husk who came back to life. You have one or more PC allies taking care of you who may or may not realize your condition.

By using the Vampire descriptor it covers the blood drinking and vampiric limits. The corrupting touch encapsulates the ability of the Undying to drain charisma, and the inability covers the distinct madness that corrupts the undying. 

This looks like the way we will go. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Undying Elven Vampire Descriptor for Cypher System

   The Realms of Chirak has a class of elven vampire called the Undying. The key traits of undying are that they are elves who died horribly or suddenly, and for whom their spirits, unable to ascend to an elven afterlife in the feywild, find themselves trapped in the mortal realm and unable to leave. The only reasonable way to put an undying down is decapitation; elves of Chirak practice decapitation of their dead as a matter of course.

   The etymology of the undying goes all the way back to 2nd edition's Ravenloft, which introduced a version of vampires (originally tied to Dragonlance, I think) which drained beauty instead of life. I loved that concept and made it a core conceit of the undying; they not only drain blood, but the literal physical appearance and sense of well being of their victims!

Undying (Descriptor)

    There will come a time when a player character suffers a demise as an elf, and by virtue of bad luck, GM fiat or storyline requirements he will return as an undying. This descriptor can be used to simulate those who return from the dead.

    GMs interested in some old school randomness may require a freshly deceased fey player character to make an “Undying check” at the terminus of their character’s life. For Cypher: a check against the level of the creature or effect that killed the PC; alternatively, this could be due to GM Intrusion. 

    This descriptor works just fine for NPCs as a template; particularly insidious GMs could apply it to satyrs, nymphs and other unusual fey as desired, to really surprise his players!

Requirements: Any fey type; must have been killed in some fashion that did not also lead to dismemberment or immolation.

Attributes: +2 Speed (as elf)

Vision: dark vision (can see in the dark as if it were daylight)

Racial Skills: gain training in thievery and stealth

Undead: Undying are undead. Like most undead, undying do not age and are effectively immortal, until someone slays them. Damage done to a vampire's weakness (damage dealt while exposed to sunlight, fire, immersion in running water or decapitation) cannot be healed normally and requires blood. Decapitation is permanent for Undying. Immersion in running water does 1 point of damage a round regardless of armor until stopped.

Bite: Undying are still vampires and can drain blood with a bite. Their bite must do damage to work. A vampire deals 4 points of damage with a bite, and if damage gets through may gain one recovery or improve the damage track by one.

Wilting Grasp: The Undying can cause a Wilting Grasp with an unarmed melee attack. This damage is dealt directly to Intellect and bypasses normal non-magical armor. If the Undying crits, it can choose to also induce a -1 shift penalty to all charisma related actions on a 19, or -2 shift penalty on a natural 20. These penalties do not lift until the intellect damage is fully healed.

Corrupting Touch: When you touch your bare skin to another willing target in an attempt to heal or aid someone or be healed in turn, inducing healing by any power, any other effect which induces a healing in another, or using the Heal skill, the corrupting touch happens. Must be adjacent to the target in question. You must make an Intellect Defense Check against the target's level (or if a PC they make an Intellect Defense check against your Rank) or the target suffers a -1 shift Intellect penalty to all charisma related checks for one day and takes 2 Intellect of damage; must get a full recovery to restore to normal. This can happen more than once, with cumulative effects. Dealing any damage lets the undying restore on recovery.

Inability - Discomfited by Sunlight: The undying finds sunlight painfully unpleasant, and must shield himself from it if possible. If unable to provide some reasonable cover (such as a thick cloak and hood) while in sunlight, then the undying suffers -1 shift penalties to all Might and Speed actions.

Inability – Memory Fugue: Most undying appear to have no realization of their nature, even as they commit their acts of destruction and murder. Very ancient Undying may become acutely aware of their condition and embrace it, while young and new undying seem to “black out” when they commit vampiric acts, and go into violent rages if confronted with hard evidence of their actions. This selective memory loss seems to be due to the inability of the fey ancestry to reconcile their necromantic transformation due to the loss of their immaterial afterlife in the feywild. All Undying suffer from this inability to reconcile their natures when it is demonstrated, and suffer -2 shift penalties to intellect defense tests when trying to remain in control or reconcile such evidence when confronted with it. Very ancient Undying may spend 3 XP to reduce this to a -1 penalty, and ancient undying  may spend 10 XP to remove the penalty (but must be at least tier 5).

Hunger for the Beauty of the Living: Undying do not heal normally. They must drain the life and beauty from the living in order to sustain themselves. At the beginning of each day in which the undying has not fed on beauty he loses one recovery roll (starting from shortest to longest). If the Undying reaches zero recovery rolls then he may go in to a frenzy at the sight of beauty; each time a creature of sufficient beauty (assessed by the GM) comes within sight of the undying, he must make an Intellect check (at the level of the target plus 1 per week he has not fed) or immediately try and feed! He will not stop trying (by attack or deception) until he has gained at least one surge.

Special Death Requirements: Undying don’t die like regular characters. If an undying reaches 0 recoveries and is then reduced to damage track 3 and is decapitated, he is destroyed. Otherwise, he will return from the grave once again at an unspecified later date. This is usually a minimum of a few months, but can be years or even centuries. Roll 1D20 for the number of months the undying is in torpor. On a 19-20, re-roll and treat it as the number of years; if you roll 19-20 a second time, re-roll for the number of decades, etc. Finally, an undying can always be prevented from returning by means of decapitation.

Additional Equipment: one relic weapon of up to expensive rarity and one relic item from your living years as an elf.

Initial Links to Starting Adventure:

1. you are an ancient undying recently awakened by your fellow PCs from some grave, and now wandering the land with a memory fugue, trying to remember who you are.

2. You were awoken by tomb robbers whom you killed, and you wandered off, met the PCs, and have been traveling with them while recovering your wits.

3. You were slain by orcs or other creatures in battle recently, but have no memory and are oblivious to your condition. Your PC companions assumed you simply had good luck to escape death.

4. You were killed by another undying elf and left as a husk who came back to life. You have one or more PC allies taking care of you who may or may not realize your condition. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

"But does it have VTT Support?"

 This is becoming an important factor in deciding to pick up or invest time in a new RPG. Once it was only a matter of generating player interest (and the GM being enthusiastic) but these days, there's a compelling need to make sure that the system shows evidence of support in Roll20 or your preferred VTT environment. I've been playing a game in Astral as well, which runs rather nicely from a player perspective so far.

For a game to catch the attention of the VTT market it needs to show at least some of the following (for Roll20 for sure, and to some degree also Astral):

1. Can I play this game in the VTT environment with minimum fuss? 

2. Does the VTT have character sheet and rolling mechanics support for my system to make it easier to mess with?

3. Does the VTT store/environment provide support that will benefit or directly aid my game? And secondarily, is this support vital to the play experience or optional (but desired)?

4. Will the cost to accomplish this be too excessive?

Important questions!

Take three recent examples of games I have looked at or considered running: Scum & Villainy, Mutant Crawl Classics, and Mongoose's Traveller. In Roll20 I have figured out that there are character sheets available for only one of the three (MCC is not on ROll20 yet in any form), and of the three only Scum & Villainy has any material support in the Roll20 store with an introductory module package (Evil Hat has thrown all in on supporting VTT through Roll20, FYI). 

This means if I rely on Roll20 for any of these, then with Mutant Crawl Classics and Traveller I have to figure out how to work the Charactermancer to create a character sheet; for my limited time this is a no-go. For Traveller there is a Classic original edition character sheet, very basic. Although Goodman Games has a basic introduction to Dungeon Crawl Classics in the Roll20 store, it hasn't done anything on the platform for MCC yet, which is a shame. As for Traveller....I suspect there are worlds of complexity in the licensing behind getting official support to any VTT due to Traveller's ownership. I am honestly not sure where Traveller players go if they want good VTT support....Fantasy Grounds?

This pretty much means Scum & Villainy is the only viable option for a time strapped virtual GM. They offer a nice introductory campaign module with support materials for the Procyon Sector and tons of useable content. The fact that the other two games don't even have this basic support is kind of shocking...if I were a publisher of some means and wanted to insure sales of my game stay robust in the market of 2020, getting some VTT representation seems like a no-brainer.

Item 4 in my list isn't a factor with Scum & Villainy....the cost of the campaign pack is $14.99 which is worth it to me to get a game running. But for the big stars (Pathfinder, D&D) it can be a major factor. I will admit, I haven't seriously considered running D&D on VTT because I know if I do I will want to buy those enormously expensive rulebook packages on Roll20, and I already spent that cash on Pathfinder damn straight, PF2E it will be!

Astral is interesting in how different it is from Roll20, while still being similar in execution. Their shop is mostly tailored to markers and maps, and doesn't near as I can tell focus on providing you with elaborate module packing or rulebook encyclopedias you can access on the site. I imagine there may be entirely different approaches with other VTTs.....I know for sure I ruled out Fantasy Grounds alone, for example, on sheer cost. 

Another factor to consider, one which I imagine is quite important, is how much cost is required for players vs. GM buy in. With Roll20 for example I can subscribe as GM but players do not need to. I am enjoying Astral as a player without a subscription as well, but if either required player expenditures they would stop being viable. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Wild World of Handheld CRPGs

Technically I'm actually juggling between a combination of Nintendo Switch RPGs and an aging but vintage level of quality PS Vita RPGs. While playing a conventional JRPg (or even an isometric American RPG like Pillars of Eternity) on the PC or other console might feel a bit out of place, a really large number of these games feel right at home on the handheld consoles. Even though the PS Vita is dead, it's corpse lives on with occasional obscure digital releases and a host of classic titles stretching all the way back to the PS1 era. Thanks to my penchant over the years of picking up random stuff I find on sale, I realized I had a lot of PS Vita content yet to be properly explored....and likewise for the much more contemporary (and alive) Switch.

The advantage of many of these titles on a handheld console is that they tend to necessarily constrain their design to more bite sized experiences. It's not universal, but many more games on the handheld generation of titles tend to auto-save or allow for instant saving at any time with a much greater frequency than you might see in prior years. If you've ever been trapped in an hour-long cutscene in a Final Fantasy game, this can be a painful experience to simultaneously be faced with a great infodump in a game and also realize you don't really have time for it....again, not (always) a problem on many of the handheld editions of various RPGs.

This, however, is all about saying that earlier this year I was reviewing random Switch titles I was enjoying during the COVID-19 social isolation experiment--an experiment which is still ongoing, of course--and I thought it might be fun to get back to that. This time, with the eye on various RPGs on the console, and their merits as handheld experiences. Some of the titles I am playing on PS Vita are also available on Nintendo Switch or other consoles, so if I review one from that handheld's roster I'll mention where else you can find it since the PS Vita is sadly out of production as of March of last year (a 7 year lifespan).  

Some of the titles I'm working on include Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PS Vita), Persona 4 Golden (both PS Vita and PC), Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch), Xenoblade Chronicles (Switch) and Octopath traveller (Switch). Older classics remastered such as Star Ocean: First Departure R have also been in the bevvy of RPGs I've been checking out.

Some of these games have a lot of merit. Octopath Traveller, for example, is a weirdly beautiful game which takes the sensibilities of 90's era JRPGs and merges them with eerie, 3D style graphics that make amazing use of lighting and perspective to make the pixel universe it depicts feel like you are looking into some sort of weird snowglobe, or maybe a miniature city in the window of some Christmas store. By contrast, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is one of the most impressive games I've seen on the Switch, mixed with addictive gameplay and compelling stories with shockingly good voice acting. 

As I see it, for any good RPG on a console (handheld or otherwise) needs to meet the following criteria for success (with me, at least):

Remain Fascinating Beyond The Intro: Most CRPGs and especially JRPGs tend to have the first 1-3 hours down really, really well as solid and engaging experiences. They want to hook you on their game. However, the game needs to not only do well in conveying its world, style and overall entertainment value in the first two hours of the game, it needs to keep doing so. If you've played (or tried to play) a lot of CRPGs in the past you might also have noticed a lot of them give you an amazing start to reel you in, then dump you out into their considerably less exciting open world, or even worse, narrow closed world but with no obvious direction or focus to aim for. A CRPG which has a great start and then fails to deliver after that is a bad choice to go with. Examples of games which avoid this pitfall include just about any Final Fantasy (and more than a few I am currently playing). 

Advertises Expectations: Sometimes, knowing where to go in an RPG after the initial setup is dependent on experimentation and possibly some genre familiarity. Other times, it's possible there are some unanticipated pitfalls which the game sets you up for without adequate explanation. In my recent playthrough of Star Ocean: First Departure R for example, after the game's initial setup (which is a great story about an isolated, backward planet which unexpectedly comes under a gruesome interstellar plague which turns its victims to stone), the story abruptly gets more relaxed and lets you start wandering around, and it is quite possible to actively go to a cave which the game tells you about via a member of your group only to die a gruesome and immediate death. It may take two or three tries (ahem) before you decide to look up online to see what you're doing wrong, only to be reminded that the cave might require me to be much, much higher level....this is an artifact of the 90's design strategy, which was far less forgiving back then, and something I am fine with  --if I know about it! So once I adjusted my expectations to "not all areas of the map should be ventured to just because I can," I was good with it.

By contrast, Fairy Fencer F (a game I might never have tried under the assumption it was yet another super-goofy teen-focused JRPG but turned out to be quite fun) also has some "don't go here too soon" zones but oddly they are positioned right outside the main city. I am thinking the game is telling me I need to do something else first, but still unclear on what that is. Luckily the comedic, almost satirical fantasy world keeps me going on figuring that one out.

Coherent Mechanics and Optional Agility Tests: This is super important. If you can't figure out why things work the way they do in the CRPG's underlying system it could spell doom. As it happens, most handheld RPGs tend, on average, to skew to slightly more traditional mechanical designs. You are less likely to encounter really bizarre or nonsensical mechanics, which can become annoying or inexplicably frustrating. Most JRPG designers have this down: they often lead in with really simple mechanical processes for combat that are easily understood, then begin layering on the complexity over time.

The second part of the equation is the Agility Test, sometimes also known as a Quick Time Event, though not often described as such in RPGs. This is where the game gives you an extra perk or effect (or punishes you) if you do a button press (or presses) in time with a specific action in combat or the story. Sometimes its fine; other times it can make the game unplayable, especially if you're not the most dextrous person, or the mechanics are somewhat opaque, leaving you unclear on why or when you should be pushing the right buttons. Or worse yet, it's a genuine QTE meaning you have to take some visual queue and hope you do the sequence right and on time. An example of an egregious offender here (with a good solution) is Legrand Legacy, a western homage to traditional JRPGs like classic Final Fantasy titles. It includes a QTE mechanic to get the best effect in combat....and most people who leave reviews online love to complain about it, myself included, because it is so difficult to get the timing and randomized button presses down right. Thankfully Legrand Legacy includes an amazingly simple solution: the ability to turn the QTE event off and have it default to "you always succeed at the QTE" mode. If they hadn't included it, I would never have gotten as far as I did in Legrand Legacy, which is a really cool title with great graphics and story design, I might add. 

Okay, enough general time I'll discuss a few of these titles in more depth. The good old days of sitting down and playing a CRPG through from beginning to end over a week or two* are long gone for me, but the ability to play on the go for 30 minutes here or an hour there is critical these days to my continued enjoyment of the genre, so I'll focus my reviews with that "short term" playability in mind.

*Looking at you, Final Fantasy VII!

Monday, August 17, 2020

Monsters! Monsters! is Here!

The recently kickstarted Monsters! Monsters! RPG in a brand new edition is out, and my copy just arrived. Loaded with cool stuff....figure flats, The Toughest Dungeon in the World and a GM Screen, this is a really sweet package. Best of all is Ken St. Andre's signature, who remains one of the best things to happen to gaming, period. Without Ken much of my gaming life would have been a very different and likely less interesting story.

Cool things about the new edition of M!M! RPG: it's not a huge book; the multi-hundred page Deluxe T&T was awesome, but for many fans of T&T we tend to think of the smaller editions such as 5th as the "definitive ideal size." M!M! RPG sticks to that approach, and covers the length and breadth of the rules in about 30 pages of the 64 page book, with the rest encompassing a solid module for the monsters to explore (rampage) in. 

The book looks like it would serve admirably as a complimentary expansion to Deluxe T&T as well, with plenty of details on rolling up monster PCs that you can use with regular T&T. Likewise, while the core M!M! is based on the abbreviated T&T rules, Deluxe could give you lots of extra optional content to expand on.

I'd also like to mention the amazing art and layout...Steve Crompton is the best there is at what he does, and that is making high quality, amazing old school gaming products. I wish other OSR publishers out there would take note of Steve's approach, he's got this down perfectly.

The Toughest Dungeon in the World looks cool, will have to sit down and play it (unless my kid takes it from me first, which he might). The figure flats look awesome, and should I ever get an opportunity to play at an actual game table again I shall definitely use them. 

Anyway....if you backed it, keep an eye out! If you didn't, but you love all things T&T and Flying Buffalo (and  Trollhalla Press!), you should try to get your hands on a copy for sure.

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....