Thursday, February 28, 2019

D&D Burn Out Part II

So my thought on why I feel burned out and dissatisfied with D&D 5E has to do with these elements:

1. I have run D&D for four decades now, pretty consistently. The golden era of my enjoying the game has passed, but I still relish the idea of playing a game that gives me that feeling and excitement and discovery I got out of so many games in the past. For reasons I am mulling over D&D 5E really has a hard time doing this for me.

2. D&D 5E is a complex game by any standard but a simpler game than many others such as Pathfinder. I don't really think the issue is complexity, though....or otherwise why would I find Cypher System so appealing? I think that in pursuit of that novel experience I am finding other games (like Cypher) are filling that role better than D&D now.

3. More complex games can accomplish this because they add a layer of fiddly bits that can be almost ritualistic in application. Half of playing Pathfinder or Starfinder is trying to figure our and master the mechanics, for example...and you can spend years playing without achieving full mastery. For that reason they can have an appeal in this case because they add elements through mechanical bits that make the experience more complex and interesting to the old jaded gamer soul. This is a severe case of YMMV though because complexity is not appreciated by everyone (not even me at times). When 5E came out I was really burned out on running high level Pathfinder, for example, and welcomed a change of pace.

4. D&D has a lot of -isms. We know what these all are, but often times when I run games these -isms (also known as tropes) become force of habit. Unfortunately it can be difficult for me to chop my way through the forest for the trees, so these -isms/tropes can be difficult to scrub from a D&D game (and still have it deliver an experience that justifies playing D&D over another different game). Examples of these tropes include:

--dungeons, in all their grid mapped glory as a center point of any game. I have known I am burned out on this trope for a long time, but often it is still a core conceit of many scenarios and what the game supports better than almost anything else.

--Heroic scales. I really crave more realism, with heroes who need to struggle, or who need to manage resources carefully and maybe find escape or flight from a menace to be a sound decision. This is very hard to accomplish in D&D 5th edition without making the game feel unfair. Games that do this very well I feel include BRP, Runequest and Mythras (all related systems). I had a similar complaint to 4th edition D&D too, which was much worse in terms of its "realism" level. D&D has never been about realism, of course....I am not asking it to change for me, just stating I've changed and can't dig it as well as I once did. The heroic scale of D&D has been with it since the beginning (if you level high enough, of course).

--There's a lot of little stuff that is just so very, very D&D: let's make camp; wandering monsters; treasure tables; traps; putting weight on the need to slaughter monsters of CR appropriate levels over a long time to earn XP to level up (admittedly 5E has alternative rules if you want); magic works THIS way; here's seven thousand monster tomes with all the same monsters, over and over again; here are the same classes; here are the same modules and settings, but now in 5E edition; here's the same core conceits of world design, with the same broad range of options; here are the same magic items; these are all "D&D" and frankly all fun and exciting....unless you've run possibly as many as 2,000 or more games (probably more) over five or six editions.

5. Tired of the results of Big Hit Points, Big Damage and bounded accuracy. I liked these design points but over several years they make the game feel less interesting and more generally predictable. It is rare that a D&D game surprises me anymore from a numbers viewpoint.

6. Skill based system. This is an odd one because I like Cypher and it's not skill heavy, but D&D up through 3.X and Pathfinder had a very robust skill mechanic which I miss. It allowed for a lot fo nuance within the scope of a level and class based system. A skill system isn't a deal breaker, but for D&D style play I would like to see something more robust.

7. Story Mechanics. A year ago I would have not thought this was important, but it's become increasingly relevant to my gaming habits, especially after falling for Cypher System. I can mod these in to D&D, and indeed I've adapted the Gamestery Plot cards in to D&D for years now, but I'd love to add in other elements similar to GM and player Intrusion mechanics. XP mechanics for special effects or temporary gains similar to Cypher and other pieces could make a more robust experience....although how to make it still feel like D&D is a question to be answered.

With that said, I think D&D 5E is a fine system, but it may be the first time I wore out on an edition of D&D before a new edition was on the horizon. Worse yet I think I've been on a slow burn with my discontent for over a year now, and it took experimenting with other offbeat games like Cypher, Numenera and Genesys to realize that maybe I just need to give D&D a break for a while, possibly like a really long while.

One very important side note is that part of my issue is changing times: I have less time (a lot less time) to spend prepping and even thinking and reading about gaming now than ever before in my life, due to family and work. As a result, my free time to properly enjoy RPGs is at an all time low, and with what time I have I need systems that I can handle in that limited time, and which feel like I'm making good use of that free time I do have. Ironically the main reason I am enjoying Starfinder is because it redesigned the 3.X mechanics to be more streamlined for the GM, and an amazing person made, without which I'd never have a chance to design statblocks every other week.

This also explains my ongoing fascination for Cypher System, a game designed to make the most out of a lazy or time-deficient GM's life to run games. With Cypher System I can world build and plot design without worrying much about mechanics....Cypher is built with my style of GMing in mind. It is also a game which can comfortably run without ever leaning in toward violence as a storytelling medium, and this may sound wackadoodles to some, but I really enjoy games these days where violence is the threat of last resort rather than the core conceit. Don't know why, I just do.

Critical D&D Burn Out

Oh boy...I may finally have to confess to myself that I have played so much D&D that I am now burned out on it.

Since the new year began (two frickin' months ago) I've run exactly two games of D&D: one was to wrap the tail end of a campaign from last year to give it some closure, the other was last night, to try out a new campaign starting at level 5. I ran a fairly straight forward dungeon module I'd devised but had some plot-focused quest options floating around for flavor.

What I realized (posthumously to the session) was that I think I have finally, at long last, burned out  --badly-- on the "D&D experience."

I don't know if it's just D&D as a system, though....or 5E specifically. Here's the conundrum:

1. I continue to enjoy Starfinder (which is just space Pathfinder)
2. Last year the few games of Pathfinder I ran were a lot of fun and I did feel engaged
3. D&D 5E, every game I have attempted in the last year or so has ultimately been a chore for me.

So...could it be the game system? Could I really just not have much interest or investment in 5E as a game? My only satisfaction really had to do with games I ran for my son, and I have enjoyed the plot-intensive campaign wraps, although with the caveat that not all of that particular campaign was as fun as it used to me (it was honestly a long drag to get to the conclusion, much longer than it needed to be).

I know that Pathfinder is a hard sell to my players, moreso even with PF2.0 on the horizon, but I almost feel like I owe it to myself to explore that system some more, as maybe it's just "different enough" to add back in elements that I really like in D&D that have been missing from 5th edition. Like a more robust/meaningful skill system, for example. Or maybe the flashy, wacky numbers of Pathfinder just feel more substantive to me than the bounded accuracy of D&D, even though I felt that the bounded accuracy was a good solution to controlling runaway numbers.

Or, well, maybe (and I do know this to be true) inflated hit points and damage totals in 5E aren't all that fun for me as the GM.

I do know that if I had picked some other system last night for the game, such as BRP (Magic World), Cypher System or even (I suspect) Pathfinder that I might have enjoyed it more. I think....I think as much as I hate to admit it, I am craving some combination or either novelty, complexity or realism in my games such that D&D 5E is just a poor fit for the kind of gaming I want to do now.

Things to ponder!

(EDIT: I was wondering if this issue ties in to my discontent with Fantasy AGE, but I don't think so. Fantasy AGE suffers, if anything, from being too underwhelming and too simple, much like 5E.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Cypher System: The Doman Universe Concept

I recently ran a one-shot which for various reasons did not continue (reasons worth a future blog post I suppose), but the actual game was a lot of weird fun. Here's the write-up used as the premise for the's not a precise recreation of what went down, but was the foundation for it:

Setting Concept: The Domain Universe Campaign

Earth has become a “game reserve” managed by aliens called the Recorders, who have maintained a special archaeo-construct created in the ruins of old earth, where they have been methodically attempting to reconstruct portions of the old world for their archaeological record. The Recorders are machine intelligences, who have taken to attempting to recover the memory of lost species, particularly biological species, which they have found evidence of throughout the galaxy. Their reasons for this are seemingly benign if unexplained, but it is suspected that they are attempting to decipher their own origins, seeking their creators. The Recorders call this experiment on earth the Incunabulum, after the old Latin meaning of “the cradle.”

The recorders appear to be “alive” in that they have biological functions of a sort, but they are in fact immortal synthetics made of complicated but ultimately simulated tissues. They use complex nanomachines to reconstruct lost sites, along with a process of “Temporal Reconstruction” using extradimensional physics to recapture portions of the past in elaborate, nearly complete simulations. The simulations will eventually deteriorate and fail, but until they do, they can learn a great deal by looking at an accurate snapshot of the past.

The Incunabulum on Earth is such an attempt, a reconstruction of Los Angeles in 2231, right when the Warp Drive was first created and tested. There is a theory among their kind that the manifestation of their species started with the manufacture of artificially intelligence space probes long ago, from a developing life form. They know Earth was successful, for a time, in advancing in to interstellar space as they have encountered hundreds of colonies which became isolated during a time now called the Cataclysm, when an unknown species or entities appear to have attacked and badly disrupted the sprawling commonwealth of humanity, rendering most of Earth’s colonies either extinct or regressed to the stone age. Worse yet, this appears to have been done to dozens of sprawling ancient interstellar civilizations, across nearly seventy million years of time. There is a suspicion that something eludes their detection in the galaxy and beyond, which deliberately seeks out and destroys Type II civilizations. The recorders feel it is only a matter of time before they are targeted, and seek to learn more of their own origins as well as clues to how to prevent this extinction from happening.
The Recorders are not the only current active species in the galaxy. There are dozens of other species, most pre-interstellar, which have been encountered. When a healthy species is discovered the Recorders intervene to assist the new species in understanding the risk of their interstellar development, and provide resources to work with the Recorders to advance into space at a slow and guarded pace. Some such species include:

Kellik – insectoid coleopteroids who are driven by intellectual curiosity and engineering skills
San – a race of polymorphic semi-liquid entities with low-gee adaptation
Dessur – a species of tall semi-humanoid warriors with seven eyes and heavy chitinous natural armor, who renounced war after nearly wiping themselves out in a system-level nuclear conflict
Pelladri – pale skinned humanoids who look similar to humans but are seven feet tall on average with mottled white and black skin, believed to have been a case of parallel convergent evolution, but their DNA is not even remotely similar to humans.

Orions – the strongest recovered human colonials, the Orions were approached by the Recorders and invite into the Interstellar Union. The Orion Confederation is aware that the Recorders seem to be unusually obsessed with the ruins of their civilizations of old, and the Orions independently are seeking their own answers as to how the Old Empire of Humanity fell.

1. Character Generation is Tier 1 beginner, and any background listed for Modern, Historical or Hard SF setting options is permitted (Expanded Worlds and Core genre sections).

2. You can take equipment picks from any of those genres, too.

3. The setting default: Los Angeles, 2231, an era of expansion in to the solar system, hub of the Tether, a massive Space Elevator used for easy transportation of material resources to and from space, and colonial expansion has traveled throughout the solar system. You may or may not have left earth before, but all of you are currently in L.A. in the Tether District, a high tech area dedicated to the space program run by the United Coalition of Earth, the ruling "superbody" representing Earth interests among the larger space conglomerates. 

4. Though not well known, it is believed that the Coalition in conjunction with three Orbital interests have developed a working warp drive that would allow FTL travel. You might all be privvy to or involved in this research in some way, through the Bering Institute, an independent Research Group which is funded by multiple nations and corporate interests for a common good.

5. Aside from all of this, each of you knows and works with a cool sentient bioform AI, an artificial intelligence occupying a synthetic body grown in a vat who calls himself Recorder. Recorder is ostensibly here to observe your work on the monumental new Warp Drive project or associated jobs.

Initial Scenario
The PCs are working in the simulation known as the Incunabula when an odd person with a thick and unplaceable accent named Alana Cord approaches one or more of them with questions about who they are and what they do. It seems like an espionage issue, but when Recorder seems to take an unusual interest in her she departs quickly. Before she goes, she slips an information drive to one of the players and tells them “The key is in the data. And the key will set you free.”
Unknown to the players, Alana Cord is an agent of the Orion Survey Group, the OSG being the organization which is attempting to reconstruct the pieces of the old Human Empire, and to map it out as they do. Many questions are unanswered and the OSG seeks to find those answers, including:
--How much time has passed since the Collapse? On Orion it is believed that the collapse happened twenty seven thousand years ago, and it took this long for humanity to recover fully.
--What or who caused the collapse? Did the Recorders have anything to do with it?
--Why does the collapse target interstellar civilizations?
--How many other human colonies have recovered, or remain waiting to be found? Why have the Recorders been so reticent to discuss what they have found?

The Thumb Drive
Alana Cord, if no intervention is forthcoming, will seem to disappear, but if they PCs investigate the thumb drive they find a wealth of strange information:
--She explains to them that they are living in a complex simulation operated by a combination of temporal mechanisms and nanotechnology
--She explains that the Recorders are not utility and assistance droids but are the actual machine controllers masterminding this recreation
--She explains that the PCs are genuine recreations, ghosts pulled from the “shadows of time” captured by the temporal mechanisms, bodies sustained by nanotechnology, but that they cannot exist for long outside of the simulation, and the Recorders could decide to turn the simulation off at any time.
--To survive outside the simulation, she tells them her vessel is located beyond the westernmost approach along the security wall in sector C118, and provides the access code. She says there are medical pods which will offer permanency to the forms of the “simulants” that the PCs are, but they have to get through the wall, first. She says her ally, Syphon, can help….”seek the water.” Syphon is a San, one of many who have also questioned what the Recorders tell them.

The simulation that runs is a combination of extracted temporal data and nanotech rendering physical the ghosts of the past. The process “recreates” a precise simulation of an ancient time period, but the Recorders cannot actively manipulate the data without risking a deterioration and failing of the simulation. However, with the intervention of the OSG agents, a certain amount of deterioration is beginning, which in turn tips off the Recorders that their experiment may need a reboot.
Temporal arcs are a form of dimensional warping caused by manipulation of the fundamental vacuum energy known as Dark Energy in some circles. This allows for the utilization of otherwise quantum or collapsed dimensions to impact and even warp time as well as space in strange ways. The stabilization mechanisms in the Incunabulum keep Ancient Los Angeles stable, but leaving the field causes a deterioration, as does any major deviance from what came before; the past is only  as stable as its behavior in the present, and so no simulation can run for more than a few decades before experiencing total collapse due to the build-up of quantum variance over time.
In this case, the destabilization causes horrific moments when the temporal field falters, causing terrifying field distortions that rip apart the previously stable environment and people in gruesome ways before the “ghosting” that created the simulations evaporates, leaving behind simulated “meat” from the nanomaterial underlying the physicality of the recreation.
Worse yet, once the Recorders realize the recreation is destabilizing, they will (humanely, from their perspective) shut the simulation down, leading to an escalating “brown out” of the environment followed by monstrous recycling machines entering the now dead site to begin collecting and reconstituting the nanomaterial for re-use.

1.       Group is doing its work for the Bering Institute when Alana Colt approaches them, asks to meet in private
2.       Group either meets or grows suspicious…encounter plays out
3.       Alan flees but gets drive to PCs before doing so.
4.       PCs decrypt drive and find bizarre information on it. May investigate C118 and meet Essuary.
5.       Further investigation means they are “off script” from temporal ghosting and strange things start to happen.
6.       Destabilization event….people and things are coming apart; future history flashes forward; the grim end of the human race places out in accelerated time
7.       Each PC finds themselves touched, warped, in ways unexpected, as their nanomaterial and temporal fix begins to waver
8.       The recyclers arrive and begin trying to recycle all!
9.       Group arrives at the C118 wall and the fountain where the San named Essuary aids them in a quick escape to the scout ship
10.   The group arrives, and the medical bays stabilize their forms, then “write” their temporal shadows on to their physical bodies, making them permanent. They are now all living beings made of biosynthetic material.
11.   Outside, they see the real world for the first time: a blasted land of the dead, with primitive scavengers, mutant monsters and a sprawl of ancient relics from an age undreamed of that collapsed thousands of years after the era they come from.
12.   Essuary asks them to help free Alana Colt, who has been taken to a Recorder prison in the Yellow Fields, where they maintain their observation base, the infamous Glass Tower.
13.   Afterwards, he promises, questions as they learn about the Orion Survey Group and the mission of mankind’s first restored colony, as well as the mysteries of the fallen empire.

Alien Species in the Domain Universe
The Recorders (level 3 average; Level 5 Enforcer; Level 7 Abstractor)
Health 9 (recorder); 25 (enforcer); 70 (abstractor)
Damage by level; melee generated weapons, ranged lasers or projectiles grown from body
Special: can repair damage done to their forms over time, at the rate of 1 health/hour. Must be destroyed or take damage equal to negative health or will be restored.

Synthetic lifeforms, the Recorders appear to be an evolving form of synthetic life created from an unknown source, operating a vast network they call The Domain. Their bioforms are clearly engineered, and it is not impossible they originate from a transgenic society which migrated from bioflesh to augmented “sleeves” long ago. Their mental capacity is immense but they seem to be “locked” AI, which is to say they have been engineered to serve as general purpose AI and not develop in to ASI attributes, though many feel that the undisclosed “homeworld” of the Recorders may be dominated by such an advanced artificial intelligence.

The humanoid body pattern appears to be a default and has led many to suspect they are patterned after humans, including possibly the Recorders, who seek out evidence of their origins on human colonized lost worlds.

Kellik (Level 2; warriors are level 4)
Special: 1 point of natural armor, primary claws deal level in damage
The insectoid coleopteroids who are driven by intellectual curiosity and engineering skills are an early ally of the Recorders, and regarded as untrustworthy by many. Their tendency toward hive minded groupthink makes them hard to predict, oddly. They have been allied with the Recorders for a thousand years, and maintain a very low “warp” footprint to lower detection risk. The kellk are convinced a species of “civilization killers” exist out there.

San (Level 1-7 depending on size)
Special: This is a race of polymorphic semi-liquid entities with low-gee adaptation that makes them easily menaeuver in space. A San gets 1 asset in their favor when engaged in zero gee stunts and movement.

The San are closely allied with the Orions and have long suspected the Recorders as being inimical to their own existence. They are blob-like polymorphs, capable of taking their boneless- single-muscled body that is not unlike a free-flowing mass of fluid and shaping into almost anything they want. Their adaptation is due to their incredibly low gee moon homeworld around the gas giant in Eti Orionis.

Dessur (level 4 normal, level 6 warriors)
Special: 2 points of armor, exceptional eyesight (asset)
The Dessur are a species of tall semi-humanoid, reptile-like warriors with seven eyes and heavy chitinous natural armor, who renounced war after nearly wiping themselves out in a system-level nuclear conflict. The Recorders are regarded by many dessur as saviors to their kind, bringing wisdom and illumination in the wake of their own near destruction. Unlike other races, they regard the Recorders as kindly and helpful rather than suspicious and controlling, and feel that the evidence of a catastrophe across the galaxy is proof that war leads to self-destruction. Their species as a whole has forcibly adapted to a pacifistic way of life, which has been enhanced by genetic modification to reduce their biological predilection for conflict.

Pelladri (level 2-4)
The Pelladri are pale skinned humanoids who look similar to humans but are seven feet tall on average with mottled white and black skin, believed to have been a case of parallel convergent evolution, but their DNA is not even remotely similar to humans. Unlike humans Pelladri seem to have developed two brains with distinct separate cognition, and appear to maintain as a natural state separate personalities and “minds” within their collective heads. The notion is difficult for unaugemtned humans to follow, but seems exceedingly natural to the Pelladri, who find the notion of “one voice” anathema.

Like humans the Pelladri are often suspicious of the Recorders, but many of their kind have willingly gone into service to the synethics, with the notion that their machine intelligence is ultimately superior to biological intelligence. This obsession with machine perfection is unusually typical of pelladri belief.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Ancestors The Humankind Experience

My entire family is excited about the announcement of this game:

Here's the E3 promo:

This game is from Panache Digital, and if I now correctly understand it, this is a studio with some of the creators of Assassin's Creed   (my mistake for thinking it was an Ubisoft studio). My comments remain....Ubisoft has been great at leveraging low-key SF and fantasy elements in their Assassin's Creed series for years, so it is nice to see Panache Digital experiment with more in this style, by once again demonstrating that you can make history (and science) interesting enough for video games.

Anyway, a game which takes the evolution of hominids into humankind and makes it a 3PS adventure game sounds amazing, I hope they do it well.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Apex Legends

Apex Legends dropped this week pretty much out of nowhere, with an explanation from the developer at Respawn Entertainment that they had a serious hurdle to overcome: EA, the publisher/owner of Respawn, has a reputation in the toilet; the Apex Legends game is not Titanfall 3 (but it is set in the same universe); and it's yet another battle royale game....of a sorts.

The good news its a free to play game, so you can download it and draw your own assumptions. Their revenue model is basically loot crates, with cosmetic options. I'd question this sort of model in an FPS where the player never sees their own character but apparently people are willing to spend money on this stuff; Call of Duty and Overwatch prove that not seeing your own avatar doesn't dissuade you from dolling up. 

The best review I can offer on the game right now boils down to these points:

1. It's a very solid shooter. If you've played prior Titanfall games this delivers that sort of experience, but without the Titanfall signature items (pilots with wall walking and giant mechs). 

2. It offers only a single mode: 3 man teams, ten of them against each other. This is great if you happen to be one of those rare internet sasquatches who can assemble a three man team out of the ether and not rely on random people. More on that in a minute.

3. The game leverages layers on death. You can get knocked down, but its harder to die. When you die, an ally can grab a respawn token and take it to a vendor to bring you back. 

4. The whole game is built around large maps encouraging careful, thoughtful movement. Until the storm converges, then you better book it and get shot! So, like most all battle royale experiences in that regard.

5. The game is closest etymologically to the Call of Duty feel but with Overwatch team up elements. 

So. All that aside, here's the first week experience:

--My son has played it for hours. He loves it. He wanted me to give him the headphones so he could communicate with the occasional other players with headphones. I was like, "are they kids?" The answer was no, so no headphones. Sorry, adult gamers, I know you too well to trust you for two seconds. The kids in Fortnite are on average much more well behaved.

--Despite the fact that we meet the golden criteria: my wife, son and myself could all log in and form a team, I think it may not happen that often. We already do that in Fortnite, and while we might find some time to do it in Apex Legends, I'm not sure I am willing to deal with yet another game with RMT to get skins and nonsense. Sorry Respawn, Epic already took our money!

--Personally I loved the play style but I am just a terrible team player. I like solo mode, and I like team modes that don't discourage me from doing my own thing. Apex Legends, I immediately noticed, works best when you work closely as a team, and the experience was interesting but exhausting. Obviously YMMV on this but for a "strategically solo" player like myself, the lack of other modes means I have to be in exactly the right mood to play this game....and I am almost never in that mood, to be honest.

Either way, if it sounds like something you might like download it and try it out. The gameplay is rock solid, so you won't be disappointed there. The real question is whether Apex Legends will appeal to a broader audience over time, and I feel it's a game tightly designed for a niche within a niche, the subset of battle royale fans (or Overwatch fans) looking for a specific kind of experience and burned out on other games. I don't think I'm that person. Indeed, I am getting the same sort of "wow, I wish this game was designed for me" feel that I get with Overwatch. Does it mean it's bad? No, but it does mean I am definitely not this game's target audience.