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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Virtual Subtraction

I don't know how many of you are craving a real table with real dice, real paper and real books right now. Oh yeah...and real players! Gotta have that.

I'm four months in to Roll20 and as I've mentioned before, online gaming has perks. But it has a huge level of detachment, too. I game with friends I've been meeting for RPGs now for many, many some cases we've been gaming together for 15+ years now. It's good we all have a way to keep meeting, even if the COVID-19 risk tends to be higher for us as we're all in older and sometimes higher health risk demographics.

Stuff I miss....such as hand drawn maps.....I've worked around by doing the maps as I wish then scanning them in (heck, even a good photo works these days).

I guess you could roll dice remotely if you really wanted. Or keep a character sheet on paper (I keep most of my gaming notes and stats on paper even with Roll20 anyway).

But just....sitting around a table with other humans? Yes, I miss that. Roll20 is absolutely better than nothing, but I find myself more and more wondering what people who are "heavily virtual" are getting out of it (and more to the point what is it they they have which differs from my experience. Despite being at heart a closet introvert, I've always considered direct human interaction more relevant and "real" to me; online gaming works, but just isn't the same. It's really a personal deal, and not a statement about others' experiences.....YMMV with this an all, obviously. But for me? Yeah, I can do Roll20, but it's just not quite the same as having a gang sitting around the table and playing games.

Monday, June 22, 2020

This Right Here (The Last of Us Part 2)

Just a comment that today's Penny Arcade precisely encapsulates why I haven't picked up The Last of Us Part 2 yet:

I feel bad for Naughty Dog. I bet it's an amazing game, but The Last of Us Part 2 was delayed several times, and I am sure they need to get it released before the next console generation comes crashing in, but this is precisely the kind of game I don't really want to play right now. It's not even a "horror"'s the fact that this is a sequel to one of the most emotionally intense, depressing and miserable games of the last console generation, and the state of the nation (and world) right now just doesn't lend much room to voluntary misery.

Also, it probably doesn't help that we should all suspect a "TLOU2" remaster next year on the PS5. Just saying!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Pathfinder 2nd edition at Level 17; Advanced Labyrinth Lord; and other musings

Used as a pivotal scene in the current PF2 campaign
At last another post! After a prolonged absence I have returned. Our big event for the last four weeks has been moving. Not far...we're still in Albuquerque, but in  a nice house in a better neighborhood with a decent commute.

Anyway, my weekly Pathfinder campaign that has been running since PF2 came out is now hitting level 17. I thought I'd make a few comments about life with Pathfinder at very high levels of play. This all with the caveat that we've been doing our gaming on Roll20 for the last three months, so keep that in mind.

First and foremost: combat in most cases feels as quick and smooth as as lower levels, although with some minor hitches. There are monsters, for example, that I think are a pain in the ass to run. This is less about the mechanical side of things and more about design; when you have a species of rats with adamantine bone and teeth, for example, that soak most physical damage then yeah, they're going to be a tougher (read: longer) fight. With the way things work Pathfinder you as GM will see a bit of the cogs behind the curtain and realize that giving something 15 resistance against physical attacks is a bit like giving something 15 extra hit points for every hit it takes of that type. There are probably easier ways to do this that make the book-keeping or math simpler, while still retaining the flavor of "made of adamantine metal" and all that connotates without the extra layer of tracking....but it's hardly a significant complaint considering how much easier everything else is to run at high level.

The second item is the one that is tripping me up a tad: as many of you know, when you get to high level things get wonky. GMs who plan for serious overland journeys, for example, may be disappointed at the wasted effort when the players simply teleport or planewalk to their destination. In PF2, there are still some "fast track" options at high level, but they are considerably more restrained and prohibitive in their use, such that my players are less likely to attempt them unless they really need to....or are backtracking. As a result, some of my campaign assumptions that they would be fantasy-jet-setting around have been stymied, and I've made up for it with NPCs providing a teleportational lift here and there to keep things moving at the expected pace. That said, it also means I need to spend more time familiarizing myself with the possible realities of travel and  high level play in PF2, and specifically how it is more tempered than in other editions.

Third, and this is an odd one: I swear that as you creep up to 20,  the power balance of +/-4 levels as the ideal safe range for encounter design has narrowed. Encounters 3 or more levels lower may take some time, but they are ultimately mostly trivial threats. Meanwhile levels of equivalent challenge to the party level are even or greater matches, and +2 levels feels about the highest level of difficulty I can throw without too much risk of death. As a note: I am keeping to the rules on pacing magic items to roughly PC level (and in some cases higher). This is an interesting contrast from prior editions, where often by level 15 or greater risk of high level PC death was mostly a conceptual space, but not a thing that anyone took seriously. Could it happen? Sure, but the hapless PC will likely get resurrected, sure. In PF2 this is different.....the risk of a TPK still feels like it exists if the PCs bite off more than they can chew, and these really high challenge level encounters in PF2 leave me wondering just how a level 20 group will take on, say, the Jabberwok which looks to me like it has a nontrivial chance of mopping the floor with half of them. 

Still....all things considered, the next time you talk to someone who complains that PF2 is swingy, just note that you are talking to someone who didn't take the time to understand the game on its own design terms. PF2 is possibly the least swingy of all iterations of D&D I've played to date, and the easiest to predict how combats will go by relative challenge level. I can very consistently identify that a fight will go a certain way by simply dropping it 2-3 CLs or increasing it 2-3 CLs, and a big part of the reason for this has entirely to do with the +/-10 degree of critical success and failure baked into the resolution system. When you are fighting inferior opponents, for example, you know their likelihood of failure with each additional attack goes up more than if they were equivalent level. Likewise, a foe of greater strength against the PCs means the PCs proportionately have greater risk of failure on iterative attacks and are wiser not to use them....meaning the tougher opponent takes even longer.

All things considered I like the fact that I can design encounters with a strong sense of how it will work out, but there are variables. My next campaign will, rather than strive to rush to level 20, focus on level 1-10 play for as long as possible. There are a metric ton of monsters and interesting things at this level of play I haven't has as much time with for the last seven levels on Saturday.

Last week my son expressed more interest in playing D&D, but told me he wants to play "your game," which I realized was Pathfinder. I've been's a bit more complex, but my son appears to be on the path of becoming a budding hipster,* so he wants to play that cool game, not the one the other more plebian D&D gamers are all playing (my summary of the conversation! His statement was more along the lines of "I want to play the cool game, not D&D, that's what the boring guys play." Sigh.....barely nine and he's already edition warring. 

I have tried deflecting, though, by proposing Advanced Labyrinth Lord. I feel like it's at the right level of complexity for him, probably because ALL is at the precise level of complexity that I discovered around his same age with B/X D&D and AD&D, minus the Gygaxian writing. He seems keen on it....after all, it's not "just D&D" (whatever that means to him and his generation). Either way I win as the gamer dad!

In all honesty part of me would like to run a campaign in Advanced Labyrinth Lord just as a contrasting experience, or maybe a palette cleanser to the last twenty years of D&D mechanical design. AD&D never quite frustrated with its power escalation in the ways that contemporary editions of the game (from 3rd edition on) have been capable of, and I'd love to re-explore why that might be. Could you have grossly overpowered PCs back in the day? Yes, but the etymology of how they came to be that way was often easy to decipher, and the GM's power to rectify the matter was ever present. Pathfinder 2nd edition (and D&D 5E) both feel like strong answers to a legacy of questions that started with 3rd edition in 1999-2000, but both answer this issue in ways that draw upon, at least spiritually, the 1st and 2nd editions (and B/X) of D&D. 

Anyway....we'll see. Too much to do and not enough time to game!

*Not just D&D. He lectured me at length on why he won't buy ordinary Hasbro Beyblades, only wants to save his chore money for Japanese imported Beyblades, and the risk of Chinese knockoffs. If your first question is, "What's a Beyblade?" then welcome to my club.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Gamma World: Anomalies (also Cypher System)

I've been prepping a lot of Gamma World, and in the process have found plenty of new ideas in art and other sources for new Gamma Worlds beasts. Here then is the first of them, for GW 1E:

AC 4
Move 12
Hit Dice 15 (75 hit points)
Power Source: broadcast; solar powered; internal fusion core (112 year life) (pick any two)
Sensors: standard, infrared, ultraviolet, radio, maser
Control: cracked (removed controls); still responds to voice commands from PSH (35% chance)
Construction: the first sighted Anomalies were distinguished as "raw" android forms, missing humanoid imitative flesh and reflecting only the raw chassis. Later models show a great deal of modification due likely to necessary repairs with junk on hand.
   Anomalies are rogue artificial intelligences using robot or modified android bodies. They are inimical to humanoid life though they may irrationally protect pure strain humans. The stories speak of the earliest anomalies appearing near installations of the ancients known for lethal zones and other violent robot forms. Scholars of the ancients think these may be "drones" with the intelligence of the AI hive mind, sent out to serve as scouts and scavengers, but over time they became increasingly dangerous, attacking mutants on sight.

   Anomalies do not seem to be built with weapons and instead rely on scavenged goods. As such, they typically have access to what is available, though that is often (initially) a battle axe (1D8, +2 due to strength) and a laser pistol (5D6). After a while, the anomaly often loses or recycles these weapons and ends up relying on cruder weaponry it salvages. 

Cypher System:

Anomalies are Level 4 (Health 16; Armor 3), armed usually with laser pistols (4 points) or crude melee weaponry forged from scrap (6 points). Anomalies are highly resistant to intellect-based attacks (level 6 intellect defense) and immune to effects such as poison and gas unless it would directly affect the metallic body.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Weird OSR Quirks

I've been revisiting various OSR titles from the last fifteen or so years. OSR as a corner of the gaming industry is an interesting duck; it has a certain defined size and it's own specialized corners of what is arguably a cottage industry of gaming in general, and those quirks are often quite strange or unique. Here are a few of the oddities I have noticed or questions raised when I review the OSR titles I am familiar with or own in some form....noting of course that I used to be much, much more involved in the OSR games on this blog and have run campaigns in S&W Complete, C&C, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, SWN and White Star, so those tend to be the ones I am most familiar with. For my purposes enjoyment of the OSR movement stems more from appreciation for these rules on their own merits; starting as a gamer in 1981 left me with nostalgia more for the campaigns, people and general fun, but even from day one I was heavily modifying the rules to include skill systems, class freedom for demihumans, and other things some OSR circles consider sacred to the concept.

Anyway....the list! More musings than anything else:

1. What's the deal with Devils in OSR?

Devils appear in the AD&D Monster Manual, and are tied to the nine-point alignment system. As a result, a preponderance of contemporary OSR titles do not touch on devils because they often seek to emulate OD&D or B/X D&D, neither of which traditionally had complex alignments, therefore did not have need for lawful evil devils. In B/X they simply avoided demons and devils entirely. As a result of this you can only really find devils on OSRIC, and they tend not to show in games using only law/neutrality/chaos as the axis of alignment.

This has led to some oddities. For example: Frog God Games has adapted large tomes of monsters across multiple systems, leading to stats for devils which make sense in Pathfinder or D&D adaptations, but also leading to their appearance in Swords & Wizardry which otherwise is missing the parade of devils traditional to AD&D.

2. Weapon Proficiencies - Hassle or Mission Critical???

OSRIC is very faithful in catching the key salient rules of AD&D 1st edition while also making it a clear, comprehensive modern explanation of the rules. It is, so far as I can tell, the only version of the game to also faithfully adapt weapon proficiencies. Other games emulating later editions (such as For Gold & Glory) also do this, but aimed at AD&D 2nd edition sensibilities. Otherwise? You really don't see weapon proficiencies come in to play at all. B/X and OD&D variants need not worry, but for example even "inspired" ruleset like Castles & Crusades avoid these mechanics or bake them in to the fighter only.

3. Taboo Skill Systems

There's a compelling case made in Matt Finch's treatment on what Old School Gaming is that OSR treats the play experience not merely as a simulation letting you live vicariously through wizards, rogues and fighters but as a challenge to the player. There's an equally compelling argument going back to before 1981 when I first started gaming that says that having characters with a way to guage skill sets that may not be possible in the player allows for a better simulation. I once gamed with an avid GM in the early nineties, as an example, who argued that if you did not tell him in details HOW you saddled and rode your horse then you were doomed to failure. He allowed no room for players who were less proficient or knowledgeable in such matters than their characters might be; it was a sort of Villains & Vigilantes style thought process on gaming, the notion that your character was very much YOU in every sense of the word, just with a sword or superpowers or magic added on....but somehow not skills reflecting knowledge that a fantasy character might have but a modern gamer might not.

Back in the 70's and 80's when you decided you wanted agame system with a robust skill mechanic you wrote your own game. In AD&D land you waited until the Wilderness Survival Guide came out, a book which I distinctly recall I hated with a passion by then because I had already been exposed to smarter skill mechanics in Runequest, Palladium Fantasy and even GURPS (also the then late-great TFT). Today, in the OSR movement, you avoid skills like the plague, or maybe provide a simple mechanic such as a "skill" save or something....unless you're trying to replicate AD&D 2nd edition or BECMI, in which case go for it. SF retogames have skills....but see next!

4. It's always "Like Traveller, but OD&D"

Barring the Cepheus Engine which has lite versions of Traveller by Mongoose, few SF retroclones actually do retrocloning for the SF games of the 70's and early 80's, but they all have a habit instead of doing, "OD&D, if it were scifi" instead. Why is this? Stars Without Number is OD&D inspired with a loose Travelleresque skill system attached. Other SF games tend to be "retro inspired" rather than actual retroclones; I have seen nothing that even tries to actually emulate Classic Traveller, Space Opera, Universe or Star Frontiers, to name the Big Four I recall back in the day.

Some of this could be limits of the OGL, but the truth is the OGL has been applied very creatively to emulate mechanics of all types, so it should be possible. This unfortunate tendency to make the OSR all about OD&D and later iterations leaves a large hole, I feel, in the power of modern rewrites to bring back older systems as close to the spirit of intent while being legal as possible. For now, though, we instead have a field filled with games that evoke some of that, but maybe fill a niche of "this would have been an awesome game to have back then, but at least we have it now" type systems. Just imagine, for example, if White Star had been released in 1980....that would have clobbered Star Frontiers (IMO)!

5. OSR Is Weird and Sometimes Lurid but Also It Really Wasn't Like That

Okay, for some groups out there it may have felt this way, and maybe for some golden period in the early seventies there very likely were some groups that felt like Dungeon Crawl Classics as the genre is re-re-envisioned today. But the truth is: all the deliberately kitschy retro games out there from DCC, Venger Satanis, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and so forth, the original market was not predominantly about this. It's a better notion that there were definitely tables where such gaming went on, but the level of R-Rated content, X-Rated content, or just plain trippy hippy "too much LSD before the game session" content was not so common. The stuff we see today in the OSR movement which contains wild recreations of over-the-top madness is good now because it reflects a modern environment which lets people do really crazy stuff with their old buddies, but when I was a teenager the craziest thing we got up to was timid by comparison, totally PG stuff for its day and age.

Ultimately, the really crazy content out there today is great fun (if you're in to it; I admit I only like the DCC stuff of what I listed above) but its highly specific to tastes and tolerances of a subset of this cottage industry, a bit like how Heavy Metal is out there, but most comics are a lot more timid. Still, the prevalance of this content in the OSR probably gives the young'uns an interesting (and false) impression about the Wild West of the old days of gaming!

Anyway.....just random musings....

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Modifying Monsters in Pathfinder 2E - Round One

Pathfinder 2nd Edition introduces a range of rules in the Gamemastery Guide that let you design monsters according to the new monster design mechanics, which are aimed at challenge-appropriate builds in a process similar to (but more structured) D&D 5E. The end result is that you get "numerically on-target" stat blocks through a kind of reverse engineering; rather than building from the ground up you sort of design from the top down, asking "What do I need?" rather than "What can I make?"

The trick is...this can be a bit enigmatic if you're not sure how to interpret all the data the GMG provides on this. As it turns out, I found that by using some scaling assumptions with standard Bestiary creatures you can get a much better grasp on intent, and also which monsters fill which niches.

For example: the Orc Brute. A CR 0 creature, is designed to be a very low level foe for level 1-3 characters. After about level 3 they are serious fodder. Recently however I ran a game (level 15) in which a major conflict and battle between three warring factions took place, which included an army of orcs. The orcs as presented were mostly grunts and low level, so the players got a moment to shine as true heroic badasses on the battlefield. However, having a percentage of the orc population be heroic foes in their own right would make for a more engaging and risky conflict. As such, I thought about ways to bulk up the monsters....imagine, for example, a "heroic" version of the orc brute.....I started by assuming it was a CR 14 monsters, and boosted it accordingly using the guidelines. It seems like the simplest default is to add level to all relevant stats, then add additional modifiers based on reasonable proficiency levels. When done this way and compared to the charts in the GMG you can quickly assess intended level and scope of threat of the foe as it advances in experience.

When an orc brute grows in power he thus becomes an Orc Greater Thane. As I developed the character it became clear that adding an extra ability for a multi-action attack would make sense; this gives them some extra striking power while sticking to the core conceit: brutal thugs that beat things to death with their orc-brand cestii:

Chaotic Evil Medium Humanoid Orc
Perception +21; darkvision
Languages Orc
Skills Athletics +24, Intimidation +20
Str +5, Dex +3, Con +5, Int +0, Wis +1, Cha +0
Items  +2 breastplate, +1 striking javelin (3), +2 striking orc knuckle dagger (2)
AC 33; Fort +24, Ref +20, Will +20
HP 210
Ferocity [reaction]
Speed 25 feet
Melee [one-action] orc knuckle dagger +24 (agile, disarm), Damage 2d6+9 piercing
Melee [one-action] fist +24 (agile, nonlethal), Damage 2d4+9 bludgeoning
Melee [two-action] flurry of knuckle dagger strikes +24 (agile, disarm), Damage 6d6+27
Ranged [one-action] javelin +21 (thrown 30 feet), Damage 2d6+8 piercing

And just like that you have a mook designed to fight level 15 characters and be a sufficient challenge that they aren't a total waste of time, while also not being enormously overpowered.

I'm going to explore some more evolutions like this as things roll along. In PF1E there were a number of books Paizo did (such as Monster Codex) that did something like this; perhaps we'll get lucky and Paizo will do more such tomes in the future.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Gamma World in Roll20

While poking around Roll20 to see what it can do, I noticed that among the many games with some form of character sheet support that there was one in particular of note: classic 1st edition Gamma World has a Roll20 character sheet someone devised. Even better, it's a nice character sheet, with hot buttons for figuring out artifacts, rolling for mutations, fun stuff like that. I think it could use some hot buttons for die rolls, but all got me thinking.

Over the last two months, one of the first things I did with Roll20 was create a test environment "home game" to experiment with features. Early on I had my wife and son log on to help me figure out audio, character sheets, stuff like that. I used D&D 5E for this and was fairly impressed with the charactermancer (Roll20's official name for the D&D PC sheet) and the free OGL-tied content on offer. Although we have not as yet advanced with that for a real game, it laid the groundwork for the ongoing weekly Pathfinder and Cypher System games I am running.

Lately my son has expressed an interest in playing so I decided to revisit the idea. Here's how the train of thought on my end went:

1. I can run D&D 5E. But, I don't have the D&D books unlocked and they are kind of expensive purchases for what could be a one-off or possibly very short run on Roll20 if we can all game in person. Also, why doesn't Roll20 have the Dungeon Master's Guide as a compendium option? What madness is that???

2. Also....I am really enmeshed in Pathfinder 2nd edition, maybe I could try that? Even better, I could try running Pathfinder 2E with the Gamemastery Guide's optional Proficiencies without Levels rules, which would dramatically flatten the math for my son on most rolls.

3. Okay, so Pathfinder 2E character sheets are INSANE and I am impressed my players have figured them out. I get's very thorough and works well....but it takes a lot of effort for the initial setup and I don't have that kind of time. If I don't have that kind of time then my son will not benefit from this at all. Plus, it looks like the proficiency+level is baked in to the sheet in such a manner I'd have to edit the code to remove it and I haven't got time to figure out how to do that.

4. So if D&D 5E will work but maybe not optimally, and Pathfinder 2E is too painful to set up for a young new gamer (note: doing this in paper and person would be much easier as I see it, but my son is enamored with the "video game" element of Roll20 so I'm leaning in to that) then what other options are there? Cypher System is an obvious choice, but I feel like exploring other options.

....and that's how I discovered that Gamma World and many other OSR titles have various levels of representation on the Roll20 Charactermancer. Gamma World in particular stuck out because it's the game that got me into RPGs in the first place. Although my father purchased the D&D Basic set for me a few weeks prior, I picked up Gamma World myself at around age 10 and proceeded to run it for my sister and some friends (we were all kids traveling around with our artist parents). For various reasons it resonated well; I think it helped a lot that I had just finished reading Starship and Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, as well as Piers Anthony's Battle Circle series, so I had a firm literary foundation for what Gamma World was about. Within hours of getting the boxed set I had found a map of the Hilton Hotel we were staying at on one of my parents' many art show events in Albuquerque and I was running a post-apocalyptic exploration of the region. That first group ended in a TPK when they wandered afar and found a nuclear missile silo which they promptly detonated. It was the time of the Cold War and I was regularly obsessed with the persistent risk of the end of the world; Gamma World fit well with these worries I had as a kid.

So here I am now, with Gamma World's reprint in my hands from Drivethrurpg, contemplating a game for the family. My son is the same age my sister was back then, and his interest in the thematics seems to be obsessively strong; he's not nearly as interested in fantasy as a genre so much as post-apocalyptic sci-fi and superheroes (not just any superheroes, either; he's primarily about the Flash, Venom and Spider-Man). So a game set in the apocalyptic wasteland featuring mutants might be right up his alley. Bonus since we're in the thick of an ongoing pandemic that is just deadly enough to disrupt the planet while not being deadly enough for us to feel like it's a genuine existential threat (yet; TBD).

Anyway....another perk is that there are a fair number of map packs out there for modern and apocalyptic settings, and scouring the internet brought be a veritable trove of wasteland and Gamma World specific images to be used as props in a Roll20 game. This aspect of Roll20 is great, really....when I do go back to tabletop gaming, I will miss the ability to quickly share images and maps with the players; I may be temped to continue using it even if we are all in person just for that purpose, to be honest. Heck, if the pandemic continues long enough I could, gee, maybe even get used to Roll20 as the norm or something. Maybe., I miss sitting at a table with live humans and rolling dice!

Anyway....the environment for the first game is fully prepped and ready. I'm setting it in New Mexico (easy fit, and a tradition) and will integrate the Albuquerque Starport module from the GM Screen. I may approach my regulars and see if any want to play, too. At least one of my friends may have to be reassured that I will houserule some less onerous poison damage tables into play....he was famous back in the day for immediately dying due to intense lethal poison/toxin exposure....!

Monday, May 11, 2020

Previewing the Pathfinder 2E Advanced Player's Guide - Much Needed Goodness

I just noticed that the Paizo website listing for the upcoming Advanced Players Guide now lists the general contents of the book....check it out:

--Four new classes: the investigator, oracle, swashbuckler, and witch!
--Five new ancestries and five heritages for any ancestry: celestial aasimars, curious catfolk, hagspawned changelings, vampiric dhampirs, fate-touched duskwalkers, scaled kobolds, fierce orcs, fiendish tieflings, industrious ratfolk, and feathered tengu!
--40 new archetypes including multiclass archetypes for the four new classes, Pathfinder favorites like the cavalier, dragon disciple, shadowdancer, and vigilante, and brand-new archetypes like the familiar master and the shield-bearing iron wall!
--New class options for all twelve classes from the Pathfinder Core Rulebook including champions of evil, genie and shadow sorcerers, zen archer monks, rogue masterminds, spellcasting rangers, and more!
--Even more exciting new rules, from rare and unique backgrounds to investigative skill feats, from spells and rituals like reincarnate and create demiplane to new items including special wands with unusual effects and exciting potions worthy of a witch's cauldron.

That is a very exciting list. Perhaps most exciting is they seem to be covering all the ancestries and heritages my group has been missing; it's really hard to run some of my games without ancestry stats for aasimar, tieflings and catfolk, for example. This is a much needed tome, really looking forward to its release! It will by coincidence arrive in July sometime (exact date post-COVID-19 disruptions not determined it looks like), which will be right around the time our current Pathfinder campaign which started first week of August and has been meeting non-stop will be hitting the Real High Levels (somewhere around 17-18 depending on how things go; they are all about 65 XP away from level 16 as of this weekend).

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Many Sourcebooks for D&D 5E That Are Luring Me Back: Arcana of the Ancients, Alien Bestiary, Alien Codex, Cthulhu Mythos

In 2013 when Dungeons & Dragons was moving from "next" to 5E, a common complaint among fans was the general dearth of content. Wizards of the Coast had moved to a more austere and careful release schedule, with a limited range of products year over year. So far they've stuck pretty close to this strategy, releasing at most about 5 notable products per year, and until quite recently had avoided any significant new campaign settings aside from Forgotten Realms. Instead, all of the "fluff" content that old school gamers are used to seeing and choosing from migrated to the DMs Guild store, or through other third party content. Over time, the third party content became so enormously prolific that here in 2020 we have an almost overwhelming array of products to choose from for our own curated D&D experience.

Recently I've picked up an array of books which have been filling some really interesting niches in D&D  and providing an array of tools for really interesting gaming concepts, especially if you want to try a genre mashup. For example:

If you want to really make your game Legendary, there's no easier way to do it than to look at Legendary games' Alien Codex. The Alien Codex comes in several flavors, for Starfinder, Pathfinder 1E, and 5th edition (so far; I'm hoping one day we see a PF 2E version but I'm not holding my breath). The book is sufficiently good that I grabbed the 5E edition for sure, and will likely grab the Starfinder editions soon as well.

For those interested, as with many Legendary Games products, Alien Codex is a potpourri of stats, rules,  ideas, equipment and generally useful content to let you populate a setting filled with a future-themes science fantasy campaign. Using this with D&D 5E is almost (not quite, but almost) as robust as grabbing Starfinder. If you're a dedicated fan of the 5E mechanics and like the idea of science-fantasy space adventures this is an extremely useful book.

Alien Bestiary, also from Legendary Games, is a natural compliment to Alien Codex. You get hundreds of pages of 5E adapted monsters with a science fiction space-fantasy theme, from old OGL favorites to mythos monsters to completely new things. It's got content designed to tie in to the default settings Legendary Game offers, but the book is primarily a toolkit for your own games. Like Alien Codex the Bestiary is full of goodness, with hundreds of monsters as well as some SF spot rules and equipment in the back. I have both the 5E and Starfinder version, as it fills a much needed roll for both game systems.

Arcana of the Ancients is a Kickstarted experiment from Monte Cook Games aimed at bringing Numenera concepts and content into line with 5th edition mechanics. It, like the other books on this list, has some content with an implied setting but is primarily aimed at being a toolkit to inspire the DM and allow for the population of your own setting with unique monsters, items and ideas. Because it is deriving this content from Numenera, the mechanics include ideas unique the the Cypher System, such as actual cyphers, rule concepts such as the GM intrusion mechanic, lots of monsters and some new special rules introducing distinct traits and mutations for characters. Future books in this series will focus on Numenera proper, but this one is an excellent stand-alone product for adding far-future "technology indistinguishable from magic" concepts to your campaign.

Last but not least is Sandy Petersen's Cthulhu Mythos, an enormous adaptation of the Cthulhu Mythos to D&D 5E. Originally released for Pathfinder 1E, this tome adapts to 5E quite well, providing a strange array of options for adding Lovecraftian themes and elements to a D&D game, including lots of Dreamlands concepts that mesh better with fantasy and weird fiction than the horror elements. That said, the many monsters of Lovecraftian lore and pastiche are well represented here, and the book, like the rest on this list, provides an implied setting while primarily offering you an array of toolkit options to customize to taste. The net result is a book that lets you skew as faithfully or deviate as much as you want to the core conceits of the Cthulhu Mythos. I have enmeshed the Cthulhu Mythos a lot in my own Pergerron campaign, which should I revisit one day will be greatly served by this book, as an example.

All of these tomes as presented allow you to expand your D&D 5E campaigns in strange and interesting directions. For bonus points you can take all four and imagine what sort of strange universe you can devise with them. I've been toying with ideas on this, using Alien Codex to establish a post-Spelljammer future universe in which technology and magic have intersected, and with the future civilizations of this setting exploring a universe populated by the denizens of the Cthulhu Mythos and Alien Bestiary. Meanwhile, traces of lost civilizations across the sci-fi fantasy galaxy suggest that "the ancients" colonized and then abandoned countless worlds for mysterious (and probably Mythos related reasons), leaving these colonies to degenerate back to fantasy worlds populated by the material of the Arcana of the Ancients.

Such a setting, a kitchen sink of space fantasy and weird horror, would provide more than enough gaming content to last decades, I imagine. The four books above would each individually provide enough such content on their own as it is! Anyway.....A+ from the Death Bat for each of these tomes, check them out if the idea of 5E with sci-fi fantasy and weird horror thematics intrigues you.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Griping About GOG Galaxy 2.0 is a great digital store, arguably among the best such online venues in business today. They started as their literal moniker, "Good old Games" and stuck for many years to that premise: a storefront for older games that had fallen to the wayside, presentable for use on more recent machines. Over time started branching out, offering more contemporary or even occasional new releases, but to this date it remains the single best place to go for gamers who aren't too fussy about the most recent digital releases. Even better, GOG is infamous for its DRM-free downloads; you don't have to find yourself locked in to the Steam or Epic environment to enjoy your games.

Last year introduced (or started pushing) a beta load for their store app. I opted in because I like GOG and could not imagine it being a poor experience. The GOG Galaxy v1 was a great experience, uncluttered, easy to find your games in, easy to shop through. They wouldn't make it worse, would they?

As it turns out yes, they totally would. The design intent seems pure on the surface: make the GOG platform a one-stop aggregate of all the games you have across multiple stores. Just link your Steam account, for example, and now you can see your Steam games. It does this for all the platforms, including Xbox and PS4 (but not Switch, interestingly). I tried it out initially but the experience was actually a downgrade on the platform's utility for plenty of reasons:

1. If you want to play in Steam or another platform its easier to just go to that platform anyway;
2. If tracks metrics, lots of metrics, which while interesting didn't feel to me like data I wanted to distribute to anyone, even GOG, freely;
3. With the full 2.0 release I have some games I own in more than one location for various reasons ranging from "free extras copies" to "I wanted to play this without Steam tracking me" to "I forgot I owned it" to "It came in a Humble Bundle" type situations. But when I tried downloading one of these, it kept defaulting to the other platform rather than GOG....I had to open the GOG store to get it to stop trying to download from Steam.
4. This may not be a problem for some, but I have close to 1,500 games between all the platforms. As it turns out, sticking them all in one giant index the way GOG Galaxy 2.0 does it turns your game collection into an endless search function nightmare, and the way this new platform is designed makes it even hard to correctly download the version you actually want. Finally it is utterly pointless to use this with odd platforms such as the consoles. Why GOG, why???

I can see reasons people would like this. It can help you avoid buying a game twice if that's a thing you do and want to stop doing. It can, theoretically, help you navigate your friends lists but I don't even bother messing with that; for one thing, few of the friends I have linked on, say, PS4 are even tangentially relevant to a game I'm playing on GOG or Steam.

All the new GOG Galaxy platform does is make me annoyed with my collection and even more irritated with how much crap I have in the digital and online realm to deal with. I liked the old GOG site, it was just for GOG and made sense for what it's purpose was. This new thing is for....I don't know....young, hip Twitch streaming gamers who need to organize all their platforms obsessively or something. But it feels to me like what it is trying to accomplish has a long way to go before it starts looking me, at least.

I solved this problem, for now, by relinking and then unlinking my accounts. When Galaxy 2.0 rolled over automatically it dragged all of my data from when I tried the beta. As a result I was once again swamped with unwanted information, despite it saying none of my accounts were linked. After relinking and then unlinking the flood of games dissipated. What a pain in the butt. may well be for people out there who want to handle their multiple platforms in one location. That would not be me! I would make all my purchases through GOG if it weren't for the fact that most top dog new releases are Steam or Epic store only. But when I do go to GOG, it is precisely, and very specifically, because I do not want to deal with Steam and Epic. So.....we'll see how GOG's experiment goes, and I wonder how many GOG users will choose not to link up their other platform accounts like me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Roll20 and the Compendium Resources (aka are those expensive VTT books worth the buy?)

Roll20 has a number of resources available in its online shop, though surprisingly not as many as a competitor like Fantasy Grounds can offer. What Roll20 lacks in content of this nature is made up for by inherent flexibility; you can run just about any game with it so long as someone takes the time to craft a character sheet for you.

As it happens, since it looks like my regular group will be gaming in Roll20 for at least the rest of May and (with any bad luck) June, I decided to investigate the rulebook compendiums on offer for Pathfinder 2nd edition. Worth noting right off, there is a way to link up your Paizo account. When you do this, it immediately gives you some decent discounts on the Roll20 rulebooks. The $49.99 rulebooks, for example, are $38 when you do this. I have only ever bought these books in PDF format from Paizo before, so I don't know if proof you bought a physical copy generates an even better discount.

I started with the book that had the most obvious potential at the virtual game table: The Bestiary for 2E. It was available immediately on unlock, and proved to be a wealth of immediately accessible resources. As a GM, here's what the purchase netted me of immediate and great use: all of the Bestiary monsters in the Compendium, each with the ability to pull standard stat blocks/text of their descriptions, as well as an NPC sheet format that lets me "one click" any action or ability to generate relevant rolls and ability block details. You can also drag and drop to create the icon for the monster, and basically gain roughly all the perks a player has on their end, but for your monsters.

The Bestiary for 2E on Roll20 is the full content of the print book, too. If you do not own it in any form, but planned on gaming only through Roll20, then you will find this book does everything you could want (except detach itself from Roll20). For some gamers, this may be more than enough. I know that just having this content loaded and ready makes it much likelier (and easier) for me to stick with Pathfinder 2E as my virtual system of choice.

I next loaded the Core Rulebook and the Gamemastery Guide. The intrinsic value of these tomes is slightly more ephemeral. You get the ability to directly reference and share content with your players, and you gain entries with full "use at the table" properties for the many magic items, relics, artifacts, NPCs and other details....but with the caveat that prior to loading them the base Roll20 game still gave me the 2E OGL content to reference anyway.

Additional content includes official NPC and player tokens and lots of compendium details on the many special optional rules in the Gamemastery Guide. Both books in total feel very complete, but I think as a GM on a budget you could ignore them and stick to the print or PDFs and not feel like you're missing out. Since I happened to have the cash it was worth it, but if you could only buy one tome, the Bestiary will provide the most traction.

One downside to Roll20 is that while it does offer the rules tomes, it seems to be way behind setting up the Adventure Paths. I am guessing that no one in the VTT business anticipated that in March of this year they would suddenly be the #1 resource for gaming across the country. My understanding from digging around online is that Roll20 does the VTT adaptations and they are way behind; this is a shame, as whether you ran the modules straight up or not, those would be great additional purchases for the compendium, since there's lots of useful content in the modules you can use as-is or pilfer for your own purposes. 

Anyway....the price of entry for VTT compendiums is a bit on the pricey side, and you can use Roll20  just fine with print or PDF books. But, if you want the full luxury experience and every official iota of Pathfinder 2E at your fingertips, then the compendium books are a nice addition to your virtual collection. I may cave and get the Starfinder books next.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Isolation Reviews: Decay of Logos for Nintendo Switch

Here's the problem with Decay of Logos: it looks good, it seems to have a strange blend of Breath of the Wild style mixed with Soulslike gameplay, and it tells you about none of that in the previews. As a result, you either buy it as a fan of soulslikes and are pleasantly surprised, or you get it as a Breath of the Wild fan and are driven to madness in the first hour of the game.

Breath of the Wild is noted for having lots of interesting gameplay mechanics, a good rhythm to its style, the ability to cater to both an intense game experience and a relaxing experience, and it's also a huge game with lots of depth and story. Decay of Logos feels like it might have a lot for you to experience, but it's walled in behind a borderline unpleasant learning curve aimed at a Dark Souls-derived experience.

If you're not familiar with the Dark Souls concept, it basically involves the following key elements: you have camp spawn points you reappear at when you die, but you leave your stuff behind at your point of death and all the enemies you killed respawn. You get little true guidance as to how to play, and part of playing the game is figuring that out (to Decay of Logos's credit it does provide more guidance than some Soulslike games). Finally, difficulty is deliberately punishing, and success depends on testing approaches and strategies in hopes you find the right method to win. In Dark Souls that sometimes was as simple as getting the best class combination for your own play style, but in Decay of Logos you only have one character type to chose from.

Another common element of Dark Souls games is purely riffing off the namesake of the subgenre: obscure storytelling elements mixed with persistent feelings of isolation. Decay of Logos is not much different than others in the genre, though you do get an elk-thing companion you can ride on occasion, and you do occasionally get some story drops that are more informative than one might get in the genre, but it still dives deep into that sense of obscurity and isolation.

The game has also had some developmental difficulties, and was even suspended from the Nintendo eShop for a while before being re-released to fix bugs; the early version crashed, especially when playing on the big screen. Those bugs seem to be gone now, but I just can't motivate myself to pick up where I left off anymore, it feels too much like work and not like a challenge or a worthwhile experience. If it had more story it might help.....but as with so many Soulslikes, the story is implacable and hidden, with no effort at cohesive narrative.*

I played for several hours and managed to get to the second major area or "hub" before I gave up. I might return, but this game felt (for worse rather than better) like the difficulty was a deliberate and unrewarding time sink. It probably did not help that I bought the game thinking "Breath of the Wild-like" and not realizing it was a Soulslike.

If I had identify some good traits, they are easy enough: the game has a great visual aesthetic, it's got a mount mechanic I haven't seen in Soulslikes before, and when I wasn't ticked off at another random death and restart I was enjoying the exploration elements. I'd say overall that if the game had a difficulty scale, or if it had campfires (spawn/save points) closer together then I might not have grown so irritated with Decay of Logos. But as it stands.....there are so many other games on the Switch worth playing I just can't suggest anyone bother with this one unless you are a hardcore Soulslike fan who also likes the Breath of the Wild aesthetic. C-, could be better if it "played more like the game it seems to look like."

*Lack of a cohesive narrative can be a feature instead of a bug, and as a fan of storytelling styles such as is evoked by David Lynch I can appreciate this. I do not think that the obscurity of Dark Souls' method of storytelling works well to construct a tight or meaningful narrative, however; it's narrative is a slave to the mechanical contrivances of the genre, which require careful scripting to avoid going outside of the mechanical limits of design. As an example of this, ask yourself why every Soulslike title needs to take place in a strange world where death seems to be dominant, and the hero walks the fine line between "dead" and "undead." Note how in Soulslike titles NPCs are detached and limited in their ability to speak, often mad, and rarely helpful. 

Friday, April 17, 2020

Isolation Reviews: Ape Out for Nintendo Switch

I grabbed this game on a lark back when it first came out. The premise sounds ridiculously simple: you're  great ape of some sort, and you're trapped in a facility which has been experimenting on you. Suddenly, an opportunity to escape arises, and you proceed to bash your way through wave after wave of scientists, technicians, handlers and eventually spec ops dudes gunning for you.

So...under most conditions this sort of game might at best be yet another forgettable isometric action fest, good for a few minutes until it rapidly gets boring. Ape Out defies this convention however by changing things up a bit.

First, it takes a stark contrasting style of simple tones and colors; you're not seeing a top-down world of apes and experimental labs; you're seeing a tonal universe that looks like it was ripped from a seventies record album cover, or maybe the intro to a funkadelic movie.

Second, it ramps up the beat with reactive music which flows according to the pace of action on the screen. The music from each level comes from intense jungle beat jazz music, and it's a major factor in setting the mood and tone of the experience. If you might notice, this is a common feature of good indie titles: attention to sounds and music. When your graphic design is limited, you can put some of the heavily lifting for the game's feel and tone on the sound design. Ape Out excels at this.

Third (and finally) it's style keeps things simple and to the point. New mechanics are introduced gracefully as challenges, and the levels are strange, complex, rhythmic experiences that beg to be re-experienced. Although the game offers four large stages, each of those stages has lots of replayability.

As a handheld experience Ape Out works great, but I played it almost entirely on the big screen. The sheer audacity and pacing makes it worth playing through more than's a simple yet incredibly visceral, satisfying game to play. Solid A! If you want an action-driven isometric experience which is all about building a cadence of action, music, forward momentum and the victory of escape, then you will likely love this one as I did. A perfect Switch game experience.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Isolation Reviews: Abzu for Playstation 4

Rather than find a screen-capture, I decided that a game like Abzu is better represented by a video showing off actual footage. I think I originally snagged Abzu as part of the Playstation Network free monthly game titles; if you manage to find it for the price of free this game is an utter steal. Although I played it on the Playstation 4 (Pro), it is also available on every other platform.

Abzu is not exactly a game in the conventional sense.I spent about 4 hours in total before completing the experience, but you could easily take your time with it to explore every nook and cranny of this alien underwater world. Abzu does provide a sort of plot: you are an aquatic diver who apparently doesn't need oxygen, exploring an increasingly labyrinthine undersea realm that consists of a diverse and sometimes extinct ecology, ancient ruins, some seemingly mystical segueys of some sort, and later on more obvious science fiction elements manifest as well. The overall experience is about 10% game and 90% event; you play Abzu because you want to marvel at the gorgeous graphics, mood setting music and speculate on the snippets of plot that you float by as you do so.

Occasional minor puzzles pop up, though nothing that anyone would consider challenging; more along the lines of "I must open this door by pulling these chains" type stuff, or "I must swim around these floating mines or be momentarily inconvenienced" events. There is no risk of death or setback, just things to experience as you move your way through the environment.

Ultimately, Abzu is best played when you are in the mood for a relaxing experience. It's Venn diagram falls somewhere in the overlapping plane of "I want to listen to mood music," "I want to ride a roller coaster through Disney's undersea adventure land," and "I want to watch a National Geographic Wonders of Nature Special, but also make the photographer move around according to my whims." If you recognize that this is one of those games that pushed the envelope and broke the mold, then you will be pleasantly rewarded with a fun experience.

Overall, I give it a solid A! But with the caveat that it is better described as an "experience" than a "game."

Monday, April 13, 2020

Isolation Reviews: The Long Reach for Nintendo Switch

When I first played this game I was initially put off by the faux-retro 16 bit graphics mixed with what appeared to be an odious and unpleasant main character, but the game's atmosphere is thick as a knife and I persevered. As it turns out, although odious and unpleasant personalities do pervade The Long Reach, it is in fact a really interesting survival horror/story-puzzle game mashup, and worth the ride.

Warning: a couple minor spoilers ahead!

Your play-through starts with a slacker dude griping to a shopkeeper about his girlfriend, who appears to work at some local lab or facility, when things go horribly south. You might be tempted (as I was) to get intensely annoyed at this character, but fear not, he dies quickly and that's okay.

The game teases you with a transition to a new character, a lab technician who appears to be a guinea pig for some sort of experiment that appears to be totally first. Suddenly, things go horribly wrong and your poor lab tech (who is a mildly less obnoxious personality) is suddenly forced to deal with a situation not of his own making.

The game likes to subvert expectations. Sometimes people you thought were alive are dead. People you thought were allies are not. Scenarios that seem to be playing out in an expected manner are in fact entirely different. The veil between what is real and what is  an induced nightmare is often unclear, even up to the very end. It's a good ride, actually! I got a surprising Silent Hill vibe at times, though the game itself, being closer in etymology to a point-and-click sidescroller does not really play out like one.

The pixel art is used to good effect, with plenty of surprisingly morbid and disturbing moments that somehow manage to feel sufficiently creepy despite (or maybe because of) the simple graphics. Although I sometimes acknowledge my predilection to gorgeous graphics, I have warmed a lot to the simpler approach of so many indie games, especially with their ease of access on the Switch. The Long Reach, looked at as a unique art style, does what it does very well, and its pixel art ultimately makes the experience more memorable, not less.

Some issues did arise during play. On at least three occasions there were classic "Chess Piece Key"* hunts which felt like padding to add about thirty minutes of gameplay to what was (for me) about a 3 hour experience. Basically, these are moments where the game stops you cold and you need to run around, usually with a fair amount of backtracking, to find the things you need to get through the door you need to open to do the thing you need to do. The first time felt reasonably organic though it still resonated with "busywork" but by the third time it just felt like obvious padding. When you're looking for the four keys to open the safe you'll know what I mean.

Another issue was one of "logic gaps," which point-and-click fans know better as the "puzzles that no one in their right mind would ever guess without digging in to the developer's skull for clues." There are about three occasions (for me) where this happened, though thanklfully the preponderance of good FAQs online made these easy enough to ignore. But, I'll be honest, if I hadn't checked an FAQ on the very first such puzzle I would have probably been stumped. Especially since it almost made sense....but I didn't do something exactly right, so therefore found myself unable to proceed without a hint. (Spoiler hint: you need to cut the rubber bone in half using glass. Then you can use it on the elevator. Yeah.)

A final issue is minor but worth noting: the game is a straight port to Switch, and it does not modify the text size presented on screen when you are playing in portable mode. On the Switch Lite, even with reading glasses I found the text too small and had to complete the game on the other Switch in  big screen mode instead.

Despite these failings, the experience overall was worth it. The story is creepy, atmospheric, and manages to subvert expectations in a healthy way while providing all the survival point-and-click horror you could want for an evening of pixel-graphic gameplay. Any longer and the game might have overstayed its welcome; any shorter and it would have felt incomplete.

Overall: B+! Good adventure for those who want an evening's play of puzzle-based survival horror with emphasis on the puzzles and story.

*Resident Evil reference!

Friday, April 10, 2020

Computer Gaming in the Age of Social Distancing

Yeah, this is a thing that exists apparently
The new joke these days is that with social distancing a thing, we find people fall in to two camps:
   1. The group that is learning to cope with social distancing; 
   2. and Gamers.

As such, I've actually been getting more gaming done overall than I am used to. Traditionally when it comes to the computer games side of the equation I've been more of a "collector" and less of an actual player in the last few years, especially with work absorbing more of my time both on business hours and off business hours. But....with the rise of social distancing prodding me to be home more consistently, and also with a convenient library of literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of games at my disposal, getting some gaming in has become much easier. 

You'd think that with my son, at age 8, I'd find more time to game with him as well....but you'd be wrong. My son loves certain games which he obsesses over (when he's not being home schooled, which is a Real Deal for him since his mom is a teacher by trade and his father was also home schooled so for him There Is No Escape). His preferred titles are Subnautica, Fortnite, Minecraft, Pokemon (pick your flavor), and every FNAF (Five Nights at Freddy's) title and their pastiche spawn on the planet. While he and his mom can enjoy Pokemon together, the only common family game is Fortnite right now....and to be honest, we're all already Level 100+ and more or less tired of Fortnite right now.*

For me, it's been a chance to explore the many weird indie tites I keep finding on the Nintendo Switch. The great thing about these indie game that make it on the Switch is that they often tend to be very concise, short experiences which you can get through in one or two nights. On occasion they might take longer, or aspire to compete with the big boy AAA gaming industry in terms of depth of content or longevity of play, but ultimately a good indie game succeeds on its own merits as an experience to be enjoyed and sometimes remembered.

Since I'm actually getting to play these games I think I'll start posting some blog reviews....especially of the fun titles that you can enjoy and maybe even find a little escape into; games that are not "generic military shooter" types, if you know what I mean....I mean, I hate to say it but as much as I've enjoyed a game series like The Division, I have felt zero interest in playing it since the pandemic began. 

Anyway....look for some of these reviews next week! I've already got some stuff to say on Abzu, The Long Reach, Dead Cells, Grimvalor and Risk of Rain 2....and some not so nice things to say about a few titles as well (I'll put all the negative reviews in one post as I rarely make it past 2 hours in a game I quickly learn to hate). 

*Yes, that means my January predictions Fortnite would stop being a thing in the house were immediately proven wrong.  

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Matching Systems to Settings - Worlds Posted on Realms of Chirak and the Systems they Work Best With

I've been scrutinizing other fantasy systems on the shelf with all this extra time spent in social isolation (well, not as much for me...I work in critical services for better or worse) but  it's turned into an interesting case of "find the game system that best fits the world." Or vice versa.

So far, here's where I am finding my campaign settings are landing:

World of Lingusia: With Pathfhinder 2nd Edition it's easy enough to convert any world designed with a D&D theme in mind. In revisiting some worlds, I've found that my Keepers of Lingusia campaign holds up as ever to the rigor of the D&D-esque mechanics and indeed, the more dangerous and low-key component of Pathfinder 2nd Edition gives the experience a somewhat old-school, high-risk tinge to the experience. So for the world of Lingusia, Pathfinder 2nd edition is a natural fit.

Enzada: When Pathfinder 1st Edition released I actually developed a whole new world for it: Enzada. The thematic behind Enzada boils down to these traits: non-western civilizations dominate; it's a world where there are too many gods for anyone, including the GM, to keep track of, and deep down nothing is really as it seems (but in a way that only lends to mystery rather than expose it). I did run some games in Enzada early on last year but alas while the fit is right, many of the non-western monsters and species of Pathfinder 1st Edition are not yet available in 2nd edition so it felt like a project to revisit at a later date. Sometimes a setting really needs its samsarans, catfolk, nagaji, vishkanya and other decidedly exotic races to make things work right, y'know?

Pergerron: this setting has convoluted origins. It started on the blog as a project to design a setting specifically using D&D B/X themes and monsters. In actual play I modified it for a Magic World campaign, and the thematics fit really well for what I wanted out of the setting. Later, when 5th Edition D&D arrived I ran a campaign for about ten levels which went fairly well, but by that point it felt a little off, because even though the starting intent was "a world for classic D&D" the result was something which benefits from the high risk, deadly nature of a BRP system like Magic World or Mythras. My last campaign in Pergerron was a short campaign using Mythras before it was retired, more or less. Could Pathfinder 2E handle it? Probably....but the idea of this setting's themes seem to mesh better with "risky, dangerous, sanity challenging fantasy," so I think BRP/MW should remain the system of choice.

Sarvaelen: Here's another one which was designed as a writing exercise for the blog, and as a result has a convoluted design history. At some point I decided to write up a setting idea for Tunnels & Trolls, but as it developed I started thinking of how this setting could work well with Magic World...Legend....Mythras.....then Fantasy AGE, which in fact became the first system I actually tried running Sarvaelen (that I can recall!). Thematically Sarvaelen is meant to be a dark, post-apocalyptic world facing a recent magical apocalypse, leaving a realm of haunted dominions behind, dominated by the concept of the Sullen Watch, rangers who protect against the badlands. Although my initial efforts with Fantasy AGE felt "off" I really feel like it's a system that could handle Sarvaelen well....if I take some time to really work on it. Time will tell....I recently picked up the Fantasy AGE Campaign Builder's Guide and it's got some good ideas in there.

Realms of Chirak: okay so at last we come to this one, the Big Daddy and the namesake of the blog. Realms of Chirak has always been about some key inversions of D&D elements, including a post-apocalyptic fantasy realm in which the gods are dead, elves are extremely rare and no longer superheroes (remember, Chirak was devised in the early nineties when elves were seriously overdone in AD&D 2nd edition!), and the idea was that mysteries abounded. For whatever reason, I still feel like D&D 5E is a good system for Chirak, probably because it allows for thematic largesse well enough.....but I ran Chirak in Pathfinder 1st Edition for a good number of years....I just don't feel like taking the effort to do tons of conversion work to PF2E, maybe; especially when I am still trying to update it to 5E first! That said.....these days, thanks to time limits and general life complexity, I could probably do plenty of conversion on the fly if I felt like it; but much like Enzada, Chirak has a lot of moving parts, pieces and bits, all of which are better supported by robust systems right now. D&D 5E has all the content needed for this; Pathfinder 2E probably will soon this time next year, when we have a Bestiary 2 and 3 out, and some in depth guidelines (pleaaaaase Paizo) on an Advanced Race Guide to cover the many ancestries currently absent from PF2E. Maybe then I'll consider it.

Oddly, I did work on one area of Chirak for conversion: I worked out extensive campaign details on the Sabiri Lands in, believe it or not, Cypher System. I have to say....the concept of Chirak as a Cypher Setting really has me intrigued; I may run it some day soon just to see how it all flows.

Worlds I haven't mentioned largely because I haven't posted about them on the blog include Ensaria, a setting that works best with Cypher System; Altavir (which has been posted here), a setting I think I'd like to use with 5E, T&T or Savage Worlds at some point; Eridu, my ancient Mesopotamia setting which is very specifically designed for use with Mythras; and my as yet-unrecorded on the blog exclusive new setting Oman'Hakat, the First World setting I've been running all adventures in with Pathfinder 2nd Edition for the last six months. As campaigns in that world start to hit their climactic points and spoilers become less of an issue I'll start posting some of that content soon.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Cypher System Session One Roll20 After-Action Report

Well, our first night with Roll20 for Cypher System worked exceedingly well. The system had the following advantages:

Map functionality optional

Cypher System is designed from the ground up with theater of the mind gameplay as a core conceit, so the need for maps was considerably less important; this let me emphasize illustrative imagery (locations, npcs, monsters) rather than fiddling over maps, minis and distances.

Support via Card Decks Worked Well

At first I was surprised that Cypher System didn't seem to have a lot of support outside of the decks of cards in the virtual storefront for Roll20, but this was a clever illusion; the depth of the character sheet was quickly evident, and I picked up some card decks anyway and found that they were emminently useful. I found the artifact deck, cypher deck, XP deck, NPC deck, asset deck and The Strange creature deck (because they didn't have the generic Cypher System creature cards available) were more than enough to contribute to a good game.

Die Rolling Mechanic Well Integrated

The die roll mechanic merged seamlessly with the character sheets for easy rolls of all....the players who were a bit new or shaky on the rules picked it up easily this time! Best of all for pixel bitching with the die rolls all but evaporated as I really didn't need to roll the dice at all as the GM (yes, a bug to some and a feature to others).

My group has been playing for a very long time. A lot of the negative experience I have had with prior virtual tabletop experiences boiled down to a lack of familiarity between the players; gaming in real life is kind of important; you get to know all the nonverbal communication queues from your players and this familiarity allows for a much more robust transition to the virtual world....and with it the appreciation for the extra tools at your disposal for game playing and story telling.

All told we had a fun game involving a mix of weird science fantasy, detective work and urban exploration. There was a conflict with catfolk gypsies, a skirmish with some sewer kobolds, an investigation at a break-in to a vault containing artifacts from dig sites, and a hoary near-miss battle with an ancient mummy that would have made the gal from Life Force nervous. Plus: my favorite overall GM mechanic, the GM Intrusions. Good stuff!

This game will rotate with the other off-night game which is in Pathfinder, but I have to say: I am really, really happy to be running Cypher System again.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Cypher System Character Builder

My group is going to try Cypher System with Roll20 tonight. An amazingly helpful resource for Pathfinder 2nd edition games was the android app called Pathbuilder 2E; in my efforts to find a similar resource for Cypher System (which is a much easier game, yes, but uses a pool mechanic that can be counter-intuitive to old school gamers) I stumbled across Troy Stories, a blog with an amazingly easy to use character creator.

Check it out! It's an amazing little character creation tool, very easy to use and gives you everything laid out easily enough, by genre choice, and identifies what remaining choices you need to make. I am really impressed.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Roll20 - Four Sessions In

Just an update, but we're four sessions in to Roll20 and it continues to get easier and easier to use. Saturday night's game was a piece of cake....I figured out how to get the fog of war working as intended, stumbled only on trying to use one of their prepackaged token assets (I placed it on the map and it then wouldn't let me use it like a marker for a PC), and am pretty sure the issues I experienced that were so confusing before had to do with layering. If I can sit down a bit and mess with it just a bit more I'll probably figure that out, too.

Some comments so far:

Images online make good tokens for figures: practically no reason to buy token packs, just find appropriate images off the internet and use them instead. Turns out almost any Pathfinder monster has had its image placed online, so this becomes a trivial process. Also, given that it appears there is no VTT resource for importing such images (as from pawns or figure flats officially from Paizo, for example) then there really is no better resource available.

You can snapshot and import PDF maps: Whether you have the official PDFs of Paizo maps or any other resource, a snapshot moved to Paint and saved as a JPEG scales just fine for Roll20. Roll20 seems to think it has a way of exporting from a PDF but it doesn't seem to work when I try it, not sure why.

Dice Rolling Still Cumbersome: for me it is, anyway. Especially in a game like Pathfinder where it's possible to have damage rolls look like "3D6+2D10+14, X2 for crit" which can get a little wackadoodles. Any solutions are welcome, but for now I'm just practicing with "getting good" at pixel-bitching the advanced die roller.

Beyond that, the real downside to Roll20 right now is that with time it could become so convenient and smooth to use that it might be cumbersome and awkward for us all to return to the regular gaming table...if we ever do.....

Anyway! For the Wednesday game (which could remain at someone's house but we're also doing Roll20 anyway)I'm suggesting we try Starfinder or Cypher System with Roll20 next. Stay tuned!