Thursday, December 31, 2020

Postmortem on my 2020 Gaming Plans

 Back at the beginning of the year I outlined my expected gaming plans for 2020. How did this turn out? Given that Around March-April all gaming for my household suddenly became an online affair, that was definitely an unexpected turn of events.

Well....I predicted with no real effort that Pathfinder 2E and Cypher System would remain go-to games. I did indeed complete a level 1-20 campaign around August of this year in PF2E, and also ran approximately three smaller campaigns, one of which is still ongoing but on hold for the moment. For Cypher System I had a couple small campaigns, one of which paused when frustration over the RNG in Roll20 to cause near constant failure for the players (a thing to ponder as to why) led to my deciding to switch to systems where the probabilities were more "baked in" to the game system (e.g. did not require measuring odds and spending points to influence those odds).

I mentioned Forbidden Lands RPG, which I was quite keen on having picked it up and read through it, but in the end it's proven to be a nonstarter (so far) for several reasons, though the actual module content published for it has proven to be a bounty of useful ideas in other games. 

I also mentioned Alien RPG, which I had just snagged. My only real accomplishment with this system in 2020 was to read through it thoroughly and admire it as a fan of the franchise, but I haven't found the energy to taunt my players with it, yet.....on the plus side, it now has Roll20 support, so it is distinctly possible I will get that chance in 2021.

On Starfinder, I am pleased to say that toward the end of the year I finally got back to this, and have been running the latest Adventure Path from Paizo as the basis for the new campaign. It's proving to be fun and actually kind of instructional...I haven't run any published modules from Paizo in at least ten years, and while the new module series (Fly Free or Die) has some quirks, it's got the right sort of framework on which to drape my style and my players' interests.

Of the last two games I talked about, Cyberpunk Red released quite late in the year so I am still absorbing it in all its glory; it might merit a "game of the year" award but I won't know until I can find the time to--you know--play it. And for Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, I might have got this going but for the pandemic, though late in the year some card support released on Roll20, but still no rulebook support in the compendium, unfortunately.

Of the pick-up-and-play games, the only ones that I gave attention to were White Star and Cepheus Light. Both got some one shots (White Star was intended to go for longer), but ultimately I realized something strange and dark about 2020: I just wasn't in the mood for ultra-lite systems. I don't know if this is just a side effect of being nearly 50 and having a certain sort of "style" to my play that expects a bit more crunch, or if it's a reflection of the fact that I picked two systems to run which just didn't end up cutting it for various reasons. Cepheus Light did not feel like it offered something the full Traveller experience didn't already do better, and White Star felt too much like a derivative pastiche this time, a monument to other better things, that I just felt utterly deflated when I realized I wasn't enjoying it.

 About the most fun I did have was creating an elaborate 1st edition Gamma World game for Roll20, in which I ported everything over, making my own bestiary and rules compendium in the process. I haven't as yet had a chance to run it, probably because I want to preserve the nostalgia of the experience and not expose it to the raw reality of my contemporary preferences, but it was a lot of fun to tinker with the experiment. Truth is, when I do get around to running some more post-apocalyptic stuff, it will be most likely with either GURPS or Mutant Crawl Classics. 

The other "surprise" of 2020 was that after the Pathfinder 2E mega campaign ended I decided at first to run Cypher System, but with a 4-8 session "break" using D&D 5E first. That turned into a longer run than expected as we decided to wait for Godforsaken to come out, and as of now the D&D 5E campaign has taken legs and appears to be one for the long haul right now.  

Oh! Almost forgot: I managed to run another Call of Cthulhu short campaign this year, and have been an actual player (yes! a player!) in an ongoing CoC game set in the 1920's run online by an old friend of mine from Seattle. In short: awesome. I would say my Cthulhu stuff this year is #2 in fond gaming experiences right behind the Pathfinder 2E mega campaign, which was easily one of the best campaigns I've run in the last two decades.

As for 2021's plans.....I'll save that for a future column next year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Reviewing my 2020 Predictions

 Tragically one of my predictions was not "We will spend the rest of the year wrestling with a pandemic equivalent to a low grade fever at a socio-cultural level that occasionally spikes into a fever dream," but boy that would have been a great prediction....but, it was a gaming list anyway, so here's the analysis!

#10. a D&D PHB2 - well, more or less this is what Tasha's Cauldron of Everything is, a Player's Handbook update, so I will say I was spot on.

#9. Starfinder 2.0 announcement - totally off on this. It appears Paizo is sticking to Starfinder as it stands for now. Maybe 2021....or maybe they are afraid to do anything until they sort out whether or not Pathfinder 2E will actually take off or not. 

#8. Playstation 5 is console winner - I think Xbox Series X is holding its own, but the early out-the-gate impressions are that PS5 is outselling the competition and has an edge in terms of exclusives right now.'s probably going to look a lot clearer in 2021 as to how much of a lead PS5 has.

#7. No BRP or Mythic Iceland in 2020 - nailed it! I don't actually think anyone working at or for Chaosium is seriously interested in these projects.

#6. OpenQuest 3rd Edition - I was half right here; there's an OpenQuest 3rd on the way, via Kickstarter, but we all need to wait until February 2021 to see it, and I suspect it may be delayed slightly. 

#5. New Stuff from Flying Buffalo - Well, some stuff has come out, sort of, but not like I expected, so the verdict is still out. The website is slowly improving but they're still a long ways from a functional storefront with easy sales, unfortunately.

#4. A Real SF RPG based on 5E - actually I finally snagged Esper Genesis's first two books and then pre-ordered the GM book this year, and they are pretty cool stuff, so I will have to say this one was already fulfilled and I just didn't know it. But, to some degree, this was a "no" as there is no widely available 5E-powered SF book out there (you have to know to look for Esper Genesis or ask your FLGS to order it; this one is otherwise not well advertised, and I am not sure of their plans after the third book is finished), so I'm going to still count this as a failure. 

#3. A New Form of GURPS - well, we got a pack of combat cards and a Kickstarter for some mini PDFs this year, so I guess I was way off base here. I think I knew this was a pipe dream. I did satisfy my desire for GURPS to some degree by getting some of the reprints through Amazon, and upgraded my old worn 2004 copies of the original rules to some fresh updated reprints.

#2. Aliens Video Game Announcement - Um, if they announced this it flew under my radar, and Google damn well knows I am notified of all things Alien (because Google has me pegged). So I guess no? Still, it's guaranteed to be a next gen release when it does show up (there's quiet talk of an FPS in development).

#1. Switch Pro Announcement - like every Youtube streamer on the planet I predicted a Switch Pro announcement, but in the end all we have is rumors and leaks that may or may not be real. So for 2020, no....but it seems like consensus is Nintendo has to announce it sometime in 2021 to stay trendy.

Okay, so for 2020 my predictions were:

Right: 3

Wrong: 5

Mixed: 2

So....not bad? Kinda horrible? Eh, who cares! 2020 will go down in history as the year we wanted to forget but it just wouldn't let us. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Death Bat's Top Five Video Games of 2020

 This was a weird year for me. Most of the video games I completed are not games released in 2020: I finally completed, for example: Doom (2016), Darksiders Warmastered Edition on Switch (could never get in to this one on the old Xbox 360), most or all of the Destiny 2 content for Shadowkeep and prior expansions not a moment before Beyond Light's release, replaying the Halo series for the umpteenth time, and even Rage 2 (somehow, yes) was wrapped early this year. Still more time was spent puttering around in various games without actually finishing anything (Fortnite, Destiny 2, Horizon Zero Dawn and others are the guilty suspects here).

So evaluating a Best Of list for video games is, as usual, a tough prospect. If I had to devise one, it would look like this:

Best Game of 2020 That I also Played in 2020 So Far: Cyberpunk 2077

Despite the stories of game-breaking bugs my experience so far has been fairly pure. Alas, I am not done playing CP2077 and as a result feel like this has to be a huge "Best Game So Far" appelation as it's possible 40-50 hours in I may have watched my experience transform nightmarishly.

The next category makes sense: games which seem to be designed to persist as "services" which is the industry's way of saying "keep you playing and buying more content." Sometimes these games are good enough to play and even invest in, but as often as not I think the smart players flee when evidence of such a title rears up. That said, my picks are easy since there are only a handful of such titles I have invested in...

Best Game as a Service in 2020 That I am Still Tired of: Fortnite (sigh)

I'm actually back to being tired of Fortnite even as I still enjoy playing it, but to Epic Games' credit they have kept it fairly interesting each season and the pricing on content remains cheaper than usual, especially after their price drops following their legal war on Apple. A recent monthly subscription service actually provides some fair pricing for content, and so even as I debate finally (this sounds really familiar, like I wrote this all last year) at last cutting my ties with the game, it still remains the best "family game" to play.

Speaking of Destiny 2....

Game With The Biggest Identity Crisis: Destiny 2

I love Destiny 2 and unlike Fortnite I am not burned out on it (though I play it lesst often specifically for when I feel like playing it, not because I feel like I am missing anything). I am not invested in their seasons and find much of their in game purchases inexplicable and difficult to discern what their purposes are outside of existing. As a result, I am able to remain focused primarily on the story parts and general experience of playing for fun and exploration. I haven't even tried PvP in Destiny 2 in over a year and half at least, for example.....I can simply ignore that part of the game. I know it's not like this for everyone, but for me it works great, and I avoid burnout.

However! There is a gripe I have: the game recently vaulted several planets, used a rather inexplicable "they done disappeared, wut!" explanation involving the pyramids which brought the darkness to the solar system, and then unvaulted some content from Destiny 1 effectively with minimal serious effort at changes. I wouldn't be bothered if Destiny was now "Destiny 3" and I could load up all the old Destiny 2 campaign content and play it again like I can original Destiny or, say....oh, I don't know...EVERY HALO CAMPAIGN EVER. But I can't, because Bungie wants to compete with Fortnite in the Games as Service market, and they want to keep the player base focused on current content and not split over multiple products, I guess. Still, it's a weird notion that the Red War campaign and its season follow ups are effectively gone, forever. Bungie....Epic can do this because in the end, Fortnite barely has a story, more of an "impression"of a story for kids to follow. But Destiny depends on that story content I feel, a lot more than it depends on the insane crazy player base that grinds those strikes and special events incessantly. Bring back those campaigns in some manner for me to play, please.

Best Old Game I Actually Finished in 2020: Darksiders Warmastered Edition (Switch)

I really got in to the Darksiders games on the Switch, despite trying this one back in the old Xbox 360 days and being more or less nonplussed about it. I guess I had bigger fish to fry back then, but on the Switch this random buy proved to be a compelling experience. The old design of the first Darksiders is noticeable, especially after playing Darksiders II (still working on it), also on Switch, and being much more impressed at how fluid that one is, but overall I really enjoyed this game.  

Runner Up: Crysis Remastered, which I admit to being a sucker for, and have replayed on both Switch and PC now. Get it on sale if you can.

Best Discovery of 2020: Warhammer 40K: Inquisitor

Warhammer 40K: Inquisitor is not a title I would have expected to put on this list, but it's the only title I've been obsessing about recently. I think it's earthy approach to the storylines, which somehow "humanized" the 40K universe for me, mixed with decent Diabloesque environments and combat have made this a monster of a game. I think it came out in 2019, but for purposes of "games I played this year" it's right up there. I snagged it on sale on PS4 originally then again on sale on Steam. If you like isometric ARPGs and want to experience a compelling take on the Warhammer 40K universe, I really can't recommend this enough.

Runner up: Warhammer Chaosbane is almost as good, and while it's a simpler Diabloesque, it's also a lot of fun and supports local co-op, which is something too many games overlook these days. 

So there you have it! My list for 2020 is basically games that came out years ago, and one which has been plagued by a decade of development and a massive bomb of a release. 

THANKS 2020!!!!!!

Monday, December 28, 2020

Death Bat's Top Five RPG Products of 2020

 In this painfully irritating year we all had at least one form of entertainment that sustained our minds despite the convergence of the maelstrom that was 2020: gaming. And amongst gaming even tabletop gaming managed to survive, thanks to online virtual tabletop experiences! As such, since it is once again closing on the end of the year I thought I'd take a moment to highlight the best stuff I managed to snag and enjoy this year. The list this year almost suffers from too much good stuff to pick from, as a lot of really fine books for tabletop gaming came out this year:

#5: Pathfinder 2E Advanced Player's Guide

This tome contained much-needed additions to ancestry and class as well as three new classes and a ton of support material that provided a signficant bridge between the end-state of PF1E and the current state of PF2E. It's not that the core book was missing anything; rather, it's that 2E has that long haul to get to the same "useful content" state that 1E had already achieved. That said, the new material in the new APG was a great addition to the game. 

#4: Cypher System's The Stars Are Fire

The second expansion for Cypher System from the "Your Best Game Ever" Kickstarter was an amazing book, a comprehensive resource for running a range of SF genre games in the Cypher System. The approach taken breaks down genre necessities, tropes and expectations and handily outlines how to handle all of this in Cypher terms. 

#3: Traveller: Behind the Claw

The only thing better than a general purpose scifi toolkit is a dedicated campaign book focusing on prominent border sectors of Imperium Space: Deneb and the Spinward Marches, in the Traveller universe. This book is really referee-friendly, and provides an excellent resource for sandbox gaming in a region rife with potential conflict. Also, maybe it's just me, but this book was surprisingly fun to read and not as dry as some other Imperium setting books have been in the past.

#2: Arcana of the Ancients (5E)

This tome, along with it's two sister volumes Beneath the Monolith and Beasts of Flesh an Steel, comprise three volumes on introducing the high-science fantasy of Numenera to D&D 5E. The three books can collectively serve as direct campaign resources or the toolkits for a GM to do their own thing with the concept. The material meshes well while bringing distinctly Numenera/Cypher concepts to 5E, and if you've been intrigued at the world of Numenera but couldn't convince your players to try out the Cypher System then this resource is a sneaky way to get them in to it. Alternatively, it's a lush resource of additional building blocks for making decidedly non-Tolkienesque fantasy in 5E, too.

#1: Call of Cthulhu 7E: Malleus Monstrorum Volumes I and II

I've been using the PDFs to supplement Cthulhu for months now, but the print editions finally arrived in time for my Xmas present, so lucky me! This two volume set provides a fantastic full-color reinvention of the original 6th edition version of the same, but now with just more, more and even more Mythos goodness. An invaluable resource for Call of Cthulhu 7E keepers and a worthy set for any Mythos collector.

Honorable Mention #1: Alien RPG

Technically Alien RPG came out last year, but I acquired it at the beginning of this year (iirc) and it also released a Starter Set and a boxed campaign (Destroyer of Worlds) that only enhanced how good this game was at representing its source material. As a long time fan of the series (both through better and worse; the Alien franchise has had its fair share of stinkers) it is impressive to see how the Free League team tackled a reconciliation on the many and varied alternate and contradictory takes on alien Canon (and non canon), and managed to produce a game that feels like it might manage to surprise and entertain. 

Honorable Mention #2: Cypher System's Godforsaken

The only reason I felt like I couldn't include this is I haven't finished reading it yet, but it is already clear that Godforsaken does a fine job of escalating Cypher System into the realm of a full fantasy game, no doubt just in time for the upcoming revamp of Ptolus next year. I'll be using it soon for an actual Realms of Chirak campaign, too, as well as revamping my Ensaria campaign, which is a Cypher world I have run some campaigns in themed around the idea of a fantasy realm that is in fact a lost colony world.

Overall though, this was a pretty amazing year for new RPG books, despite the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn. Hopefully next year will be better for game developers and publishers alike, as well as gamers everywhere. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Playstation 5 - The Cool New Thing That Replaces the Cool Old Thing

My story about how I managed to acquire a Playstation 5 before Christmas is amusingly convoluted. I'd like to say I didn't jump through some hoops but I most definitely did. The good news is: no scalper! I will never buy a console from a scalper. But I did have an excess cost.....the story:

Best Buy announced a week and a half ago it would have a limited number of Playstation 5's in stock. As has become traditional, I lined up on the page like no doubt a million other purchasers did, and an untold number of bots, and waited to see the retailer online storefront fail again in dramatic fashion. Except this time it didn't! Best Buy, apparently trying to change things up a bit to handle the problem with scalper's bots, put a sort of "wait and re-authenticate your purchase" process in place that was a bit confusing but I held in on the hope the site's spinning wheels led to promise this time instead of disappointment. Lo' and behold, after about 20 minutes I had a PS5 in the basket and want to checkout. The system immediately told me I had to do pickup, but all local stores in Albuquerque declared they were out of stock as I clicked on them. "Want to try Santa Fe?" the prompt suggested but nope, Santa Fe was out of stock. Suddenly only two places were left for grabs: El Paso and Farmington. 

Now, long before El Paso became a COVID hot zone I was disinclined to visit that city anyway, and it's a non trivial drive south, whereas Farmington is a nice location along the north border of New Mexico and there's plenty of things to do in nature along the way, as well as archaeological sites that I suspected weren't open but maybe could still be as I realized it was still sitting in the basket and unclaimed I decided, to hell with it, road trip!

The PS5 was ready for pickup by Saturday. My son and I took the 2.5 hour drive up and and back, making it more of a day trip, and that is where the excess cost arrives (about $25 in gas plus some snacks). During this time I learned that my son knows an almost epic level of detail on the thousands of SCPs out there, largely due to the seemingly endless churn of Youtube videos on the subject. Along the way we passed through the reservation and an area containing an almost spookily sturdy fenced area along the road with specific crossing spots for wildlife, which my son readily speculated was to keep skinwalkers from getting to the road to try and surprise unaware travelers. Fun times!

Anyway, the PS5 was set up in my office on my big screen monitor with the intent of being able to let him play with some regulation while I could turn it on and play after he went to bed. Little did I know that as of Saturday night this turned my office into The Arcade instead.....I also learned that while I have never particularly liked the controls of the Spider-Man games and thus not gotten more than 20 minutes into it, my son is a master and completed the Miles Morales game by Monday, then promptly started a new game+ mode. I enjoyed getting to experience the game without having to put effort in to it!

Unfortunately he then got in to Bugsnax and I had to insist he put headphones on. Is Bugsnax good? That will depend heavily on who you are, your generation as a gamer, and your tolerance for obnoxiously cute. I thought it ironic that he enjoyed the game despite his disgust for muppets, because to me the game was full of digital muppets.

You might be wondering about my impressions of the PS5 after the last few days. I have the following comments, with the caveat that if you don't have one now, you're not missing much yet, since most of the really interesting titles won't release until next year. But if you have an interest in why this is probably the best console to get going forward, here's a summary of my experience so far:

Pro: Graphics

The ray tracing effects are impressive but so far in the games that take advantage of this you need to kind of think for a bit on why they look better. When you start noticing the lighting, reflections and water then it starts to stand out more. Miles Morales looks better than its predecessor, hands down. The game which I thought demonstrated this most aptly so far was, ironically, Fortnite, which even just with adding realistic clouds suddenly stood out. Even without ray tracing the 4K default resolution plus 60 FPS (with the potential for 120 FPS I am told) is going to impress console users from the prior generation; to PC gamers with decent gaming PCs the differences will be more along the lines of, "Look who caught up....for now." 

Pro: Processing Power

This thing loads games damned quickly, and so far it's only died once on my son's Miles Morales playthrough (about six hours in). It moves in "real tme" which is to say that the stutters and delays common to PS4 and Xbox One UI's is nonexistent here.

Pro: Backwards Compatibility

A majority (as in almost all) games playable on PS4 are also available on PS5. Your existing library from the PS4 will port over. I played a few PS4 games, and only one so far gave me a "this may not play as intended" warning (Batman: Arkham City). Days Gone ran at 60 FPS. There are lists on various PS websites showing what PS4 games are getting enhancements on the PS5, and Days Gone and God of War are amongst those. Some get direct PS5 upgrades such as Mortal Kombat 11 and Dead by Daylight. I haven't tried either of those out yet, but I have them in PS5 versions now for free since I owned them on PS4 which is nice. I played some Black Mirror which did not appear enhanced (but that game's merits lie not in the graphics anyway, but rather the mood). Left For Dead II The Last of Us 2* looked great as usual but it looked great to begin with so I can't tell if it's enhanced or not yet.

A feature I didn't realize until investigating is that while no extended storage options exist for PS5 games yet, you can take any existing extended storage on the PS4 and move it over without any issues to the PS5, just plug it in and all the games you had on that storage will work on the new system. The catch is you cannot run PS5 games from the extended storage, I am suspecting because you need some minimum specs to do so efficiently. The extended storage I had on my old PS4 Pro was a 1 TB SSD drive so this has worked out well for me; I moved all games I wanted to play on PS5 over to it, and my PS4 Pro is now basically a dumpster for older games I will keep on it until I decide if I need the thing anymore.

Pro: Controllers

The new Playstation controllers use haptic feedback and sensitive triggers that are difficult to explain but they are absolutely game changers. The level of haptic feedback is demonstrated in a demo game that comes preloaded with the PS5 and shows off what can be done; the controller is bar none the best experience about the new console, and I sincerely hope more PS5 games in the future take full advantage of the level of feedback and sensitivity that the controller offers. It also includes the usual speakers and a microphone, built in. This controller is hard to talk up enough; you need to experience it to appreciate it.

Pro: Redesigned UI

I like the new UI overall, and it feels like an iterative leap into a new console generation. There are some features that are just plain better in how you access things, and information is grouped smartly (for the most part). A few things bug me, but these are minor quibbles (why does your full library pop up first, and the second tab is your installed games, for example), bit overall it dramatically improves on the Playstation UI design and feels like a move forward.

Con: Storage

Despite being able to attach PS4 storage and immediately use it, the PS5 only really has about 600 GB of accessible storage for PS5 titles, and no expandable storage available yet. This is good now, with so few PS5-only titles out as of yet, but will become a problem Sony needs to fix if they want to encourage people to buy more games. 

Con: A Dusty Wasteland of Releases

The PS5 has maybe a dozen titles that are exclusively PS5 or enhanced for PS5, and all of them can be played in PS4 iterations. It looks a lot better than the Xbox Series X (which best as I can tell has no exclusives, but my Xbox Series X arrives on January 5th so I'll talk more about that then). On the plus side it is showing off a good two dozen future titles which all look amazing....and will be, when they arrive next year. This means you can comfortably afford to wait a few more months before diving in to the new console generation expecting lots of exclusives and enhanced titles.

Two titles I want to gripe about: Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War's split-screen play is just as broken on PS5 as it was on PS4. I am so irritated at Activision (in the general consumer sense of, "Hey, I paid money for this and it didn't work" sense) that I may sit out future CoD titles at last. Is this the straw that broke the camel's back? Maybe....I mean, Epic clearly invested in prepping for the new consoles, as Fortnite runs beautifully and also handles split-screen like a professional game developer was doing it. Take note, Activision and CD Project Red!

The other gripe is about Warhammer: Chaosbane. I have this on PS4 but the PS5 edition is exclusive and must be purchased. Shame on you, Nacon! 

My Take

Getting this felt more like a triumphant win against a broken online retail process, so I guess for that alone it's worth it for me to have this so early in its release just so I can see the PS5 library grow. Also, I had the money at that moment and am glad to get this thing before Xmas, my kid is having a great Winter Break as a result (and I am too, when I pry him off of the machine). If you are not an early adopter and you don't mind waiting, however, it's certainly okay to sit this out for a while. If you already have a nice gaming rig with a ray tracing-ready GPU (RTX) you'll be less impressed with the PS5, anyway. That said....the console makes many games more accessible and fun at a family level, and for that alone I am glad to have it. Also, the forthcoming (and existing) Playstaion exclusives make this a must-have, especially for gamers who enjoy good single player campaigns, of which the Playstation 4 and 5 both have many existing and forthcoming titles. 

Anyay, once I have my Xbox Series X I will be interested to see how the two stack up to one another. I am pretty sure my Series X experience is going to be (for a while at least) just a "play my existing library of games and debate whether to get Halo Infinite on Xbox or PC" type situation, but I think it will also continue to serve its purpose as the family console and UHD/Blu-Ray player nicely. With the Playstation 5 though I feel like I have little to no use for my old Ps4 Pro, as this new iteration expands on it in every manner I could hope for. Indeed, I feel like the only reason to own an Xbox at this point is to be an arbitrary completionist....but we'll see soon if there is any truth to this. 

*Watch out kids, this is the sort of mistake you make when your brain gets old.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Cyberpunk 2077 and Cyberpunk Red - Nostalgia for a Dystopian Future

 As I was playing Cyberpunk 2077 this weekend while reading the hefty new tabletop RPG edition in spare moments, I realized that this is definitively a product that caters to the specific corners of my own youth that fill a nostalgia niche. Nope, it turns out that my specific disdain for much of the past is not because I don't "get" the nostalgia's because that craze needs to be specifically curated for each individual. 

For me, some of what might constitute nostalgia has never quite "gone away" and as a result it continued to harbor my interest over the decades....I never moved on from the Alien film, for example, and instead continued to enjoy all subsequent movies (both for better and worse) as well as the novels (also for better or worse). D&D has been constant and pervasive, a lifelong hobby I never took a twenty year break from like some of my high school and college friends did. As a result, for me D&D is an arc of progress over many years, and was never frozen in amber.

With Cyberpunk 2020, I had a game I played intensely for about four years in college, and I was deeply obsessed with it (and secondarily with its source inspirations in Gibson, Stephenson, Williams, Rucker, Dick and others). But then something happened around 1995-1996, in which I moved several states away and ultimately dissolved my Cyberpunk collection. As the years closed in on 2020 the game itself remained firmly a dwindling speck in my rearview mirror. As a result, when Cyberpunk 2077 and Cyberpunk Red materialized late this year, a year in which the dystopian part of the Cyberpunk element manifested in full (but without any of the cool Cyber or Punk parts of the equation), it suddenly dawned on me that I had, here, an example of something that neatly fits into a nostalgia angle for me. 

Cyberpunk 2077 is particularly compelling. I had picked up a very nice laptop with a GTX 2070 Max Q GPU specifically with the idea in mind that I wanted to run this game. As I was playing Cyberpunk 2077 over the weekend (on ultra settings with the ray tracing turned up to the max) I realized that this game at times felt like a fever dream memory of the adventures we played back in college, a canvas of something trapped in the books and dice and character sheets, and of course our imaginations, now enmeshed in graphics and storytelling that brought them sharply in to light. 

Cyberpunk 2077, if anything, feels a bit anachronistic. It's simultaneously almost too close to modern urban nightmare living and also the elements of contemporary culture are painted in broad predictive strokes as to what this will look like in our future. An ominous city in which sunlight lurks high above, while a seething mass of humanity that is barely recognizable as such chases personal enhancement and gratification in a dystopian nightmare bordering somewhere between Corporate Rule and the personal libertarian ideal to shoot back if shot at, mixed with a firm belief in nihilism shot through with the odd moments where you can be in the Kabuki district looking at racks of dirty cyberporn magazine and suddenly a lone child runs by and I am thinking, "Yeah, someone somewhere still needs to be making kids in this horrifying universe....I wonder where those people are?"

I imagine that a generation which has grown up in today's actual internet environment might find some oddities with Cyberpunk's vision of the future, even as it seems to have so many eerie truths to it. Like my son's sometimes amusing and at other times bizarre interpretations of what Star Wars is really about, it is divorced entirely from what started it. If you weren't even alive when the fiction and game that built a subgenre rose to prominence and eventually fell back in to obscurity, what does it feel like to look at this insanely dark vision of the future now, when it seems genuinely closer and more poignant than ever before. 

Musings aside, I do have some pragmatic comments on the video game. Most notable is that I think if you're going to play this, try to do it on a machine that can run it at "ultra' graphics with all the Ray Tracing effect maxed out. I ran it both with and without Ray Tracing. Without Ray Tracing it looked good, but maybe not as good as, say, "Horizon: Zero Dawn" or many other titles specifically built to take advantage of the now "last" generation of consoles and PC GPUs. With Ray Tracing on I suddenly got a glimpse of why this feature is seen as a big deal; it leads to some moments in the game where there's an eerie sense of surreal reality to the environment as it almost "just about" lines up with what your brain would interpret as real.....almost, I say, because then an NPC walks through you or some odd thing happens that remind you its a video game.

So my suggestion is: get this game, but get it on the best rig you can afford, and stay away from last gen tech for playing it (especially PS4 and original Xbox One). Also, and I can't stress this enough, get it especially if you have a nostalgic fondness for classic Cyberpunk, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

As for the book Cyberpunk Red....more on that soon. I will say this: while Cyberpunk Red is definitely a sequel to the predecessor editions of the game, and it's a really nice looking book in true CP tradition, the video game seems to be at once an homage and reinvention of the setting as much as anything; Cyberpunk 2077, functioning as it does, but in a "realistic" timeline of 57 years from now. The actual 2077. Cyberpunk Red, meanwhile, builds in the history that has come before and so far looks like it could work well either to continue that existing tradition, model the future in CP 2077, or of course let you build your own dystopian future history to suit to taste.  

Monday, December 7, 2020

Fun at Every Level - A Pipe Dream or Design Reality?

A recent comment on an older Starfinder post got me to thinking: the comment was that essentially the problem with higher level D&D 5E is the inverse of lower level Starfinder, that a high level D&D game  and a low level Starfinder game are painful in comparable ways. There is more than a little truth to it. With D&D 5E there's a good chance you've experienced some measure of fatigue with what happens when the game system, built around exploding hit points, gets to a certain point in play at higher level.* The problem with 5E is not particularly new to that edition; it actually plays much better at high level than 3rd edition versions before it, in fact. The problem is "new' to 5E in the sense that it fixed some underlying issues with prior editions (math complexity, juggling stackables, and too many iterative attacks and modifiers) with a new problem (simpler rules, but the hit point bloat just sucks). 

Starfinder has an entirely different issue: at low level it lets you play what essentially amount to pathetic miscreants. You can barely do anything, and you can afford gear that is one step up from a Laser Tag game. You don't get truly interesting class abilities until about level 4, and you don't start affording scifi weaponry that feels like something not handed to the short bus until around level 6-7. By the time you're level 10 you start to feel like a real adventurer. Starfinder is a victim of its own balancing act, carried too far. I'm running it right now, and my goal is to award heaps of XP tro make the first 4 levels just fly by.

I think Paizo realized this was a problem, too. Pathfinder 2E manages to succinctly balance out the merit of low level gaming against higher levels in ways neither of the other two systems are all that good at. Low level PF2E characters feel squishy, but they have bite. High level PF2E characters are interesting and complex, but fights somehow only last a little bit longer than low level battles do. It's a good design balance, and I love how smooth it is. 

Now, to contrast there are other games out there which handle this very differently, suggesting that the high level/low level problems of some games are more characteristic of D20 systems than they are of, say, Cypher System or Savage Worlds. Those games have their own issues, of course....but sometimes they also have their own built in fixes, too. For example, Cypher System deliberately makes a lot of tasks at lower level trivial and automatic as characters advance in power, but high level play in Cypher is functionally identical to low level play, just with a greater need for sacrifice from the resource mechanic which drives all actions. Meanwhile, Savage Worlds runs on very flat baseline stats, and all the edges and perks a character gains over time are designed mainly to make it easier to hit the target numbers than anything else; the number stay the same. 

Although I think, for purposes of D20, that Pathfinder 2E hits the mark very closely for me, I bet there are still better ways to design a D20-based system which manage to retain the rules simplicity of 5E with the tactical granularity of Starfinder or Pathfinder. These designs might even retain consistent feelings of fun and engagement at all levels of play. If you know of any systems out there that seem to do a better job of accomplishing this than the current era of D20 systems I'd be interested in hearing about them.


*This issue with high level 5E is more evident to first time gamers than those who survived 3rd edition D&D, as we all remember the gruesome high level gaming days that 5E "fixed" for our purposes at least!

Hah had a typo in the title. Pire. Shoulda been Pyre! Would be even more odd than Pipe.

Monday, November 16, 2020

No Natural Defense

 Today's Penny Arcade is poignantly true, I can attest:

About the only thing I am certain of is that Epic knows how to make my son spend his allowance money on them.

The only real consolation is that Dad in this case is me, and I happen to love the terribad realm that most Nick Cage movies fall into (I'm still thinking about the sheer awesome-crazy of Mandy). So I am okay with my kid watching Ghost Rider (as long as I don't have to do it a second time!)

I do draw the line at Con Air, though. Hated that one!

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Saturday! Random Musings

 I took an extended break less by choice and more by necessity as work and other demands were just too much. Missed a couple weeks of the Wednesday night game as well....ugh!

I am looking forward to 2021 though. It can't get much worse than this.....right?

On the flip side, I have nothing for the moment but random off-comments to post. Of the randomness....

Speedy Well Wishes to Ken St. Andre

First off, best wishes to a speedy and smooth recovery to Ken St. Andre. A recent Kickstarter note from Steve Crompton mentioned Ken St. Andre had been in a car accident and was injured. I hope Ken is recovering and on the mend.

Retro Handheld Evercade

I recently secured  handheld console called the Evercade, a cartridge-based retro arcade player which collects bundles of classic licensed games from the 70's, 80's and early 90's into sets. For those who remember those days with fond nostalgia it's a real kick to have, I'll write more about it soon.

Amazing Adventures 5E Overload

I snagged all of the Amazing Adventures 5E books available at Troll Lord Games, and also snagged Codex Egyptius for good measure. I have a keen interest in running AA5E, a shame it doesn't have setup support out the gate on Roll20!

Soup Nazi says "No Next Gen Console for You!"

I tried within what I consider reasonable effort to get an Xbox Series X or PS5, but no such luck. I feel like the way online stores are set up to sell this product only helps the holiday scalpers and is almost actively anti-consumer. I'll wait for next year, it looks like I wouldn't have much choice anyway, so I will instead enjoy my Evercade experience instead; a simpler time!

The Cold War is Bugged

I did snag Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War for my PS4 Pro, but the game is so buggy as of day two post-release my son and I have given up trying to play it. I am frankly insulted that Activision would release a game with such sheer inoperability, even in offline mode. It's insane....and I've weathered plenty of "day one bugs" in prior CoD games, so I have point of comparison. I thought Black Ops IV was bad....but this is absolutely the worst. For the few minutes of a single game before it froze up and almost bricked my Ps4 Pro we saw a glimmer of fun, and then nada. WTF Activision!

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

How to Run Historical Games

Last week I talked about criteria for the best type of RPG for historical gaming. For the "best of the best" I identified GURPS, followed to lesser degrees by Mythras, BRP and Call of Cthulhu. The latter of these four works best when you are going to "historical, but with mythos" of course, but the key takeaway was that for good historical gaming you want a system which sticks to a "realistic" baseline, emphasizes interesting ordinary traits in characters, does not require redacting significant content that impacts the game experience (e.g. removing a magic system core to the game's themes) and has support material. GURPS is hands-down the winner here, but Mythras comes in a close second along with BRP and CoC.

Remember it's a Group Venture

This time around I thought I'd talk about some of my experiences running actual historical games. A key problem with historical gaming is that it can mean different things to different people, so the first and foremost bit of advice I can offer up is: talk to your players about your ideas, and make sure that they are both on board with the concept and excited about it. There is nothing that kills a game faster than a GM who's grand vision for an esoteric deep-dive into historical tales around Roman General Riothamus are thwarted by a group of players who were expecting T.H. White's King Arthur. Likewise, a group of players who feel like they are being forced to experience a historical re-enactment of either actual events or the GM's personal fan fiction on a historical moment will lead to inevitable disappointment and campaign collapse. 

Put another way: the motto of any GM, regardless of intent, should always be to remember that it's a group venture and the group should as a whole be having fun. This doesn't mean that if your regular group is not in to what you plan to do that you should ditch it, but it does mean if you are married to an idea for a campaign you should seek out the time, place and players who will find it worth their time to explore the idea in question.

Establishing Familiarity and the Economy of Information

Taking to the players about their expectations for an historical campaign is a good idea. Looking in to your own heart about what speaks to you about the particular historical setting is also a good idea. I once played in a campaign set in an era of feudal Japan, but the GM, despite having a great internal vision of the campaign, wasn't that good at conveying details or explaining the "why" of things to the players. As a result, we had a really shallow experience with the game, unclear as to why some things were happening or what we were expected to do. We persevered because we enjoyed gaming together, but it was a short lived game as the vision was neither conveyed nor understood.

If you decide to go for a historical period in which you are very familiar, figure out how familiar your players are with that time and work out some plans around their familiarity or lack thereof. Take one of these strategies based on your players, which is already assuming that regardless of their understanding of the historical period they have already expressed interest in your pitch:

Players Not Familiar: this means you will need to think about your setting's relevant details and focus on the things which will be interesting or important (preferably both). If you know your players are keen on learning about the historical period as part of the experience great, but otherwise try to avoid narrating it like you're a National Geographic Special or in an academic reading; the same rules with actual fictional worlds apply: details that don't matter really do not matter, and details which the characters would never know the players also would not need to know. If you have some great bit you want to talk about on the historical backdrop that isn't relevant, save it for the after-game talk, but keep it out of the actual play experience.

Players Familiar: everything above counts, twice as much, but with two caveats: the reason you don't wax philosophical on the historical details that don't matter to the plot is because they could derail the game if you get into a discussion of irrelevant minutiae with another scholar of the period. The second caveat is: that player at the table who is familiar is now a valuable resource, so use him or her. If they have some information that might help clarify the moment, take advantage of that so long as it doesn't violate the need for an economy of information (use only that which is relevant). 

On rare occasion you might run something set in a time period for which a player is far more familiar with and vocal than you might want them to be. In these cases try to establish proactively that extraneous details are best kept for the after-game chat. That said, still take advantage of their familiarity with details that lend to the moment, but (to take a totally random example that happened to me in college) ask them to refrain from elaborate lessons on how Vikings saddled their horses (unless your group is like really in to that).

Narrating Detail as a Story Aspect for Entertainment First, Enlightenment Optional

Part of good historical gaming is setting the theme and mood for something exotic and also established in the real world, or it's recollection of such. Much of what I previously mentioned is aimed at the idea of extraneous, irrelevant or unnecessary information; it is not helpful to the story of the moment, or it is packaged in a manner which brings the narrative or gameplay to a standstill. That said, lots of such content when relevant or important to the moment should be presented. Just make sure you do it in a manner consistent with the goals of "presenting useful information" and "establishing the flavor of the scene."

For example: if I set a game that takes place in an early dynastic Egyptian court,  I will want to include information and descriptions which establish for the players useful images and data on the situation. If they are playing Egyptian characters then they will need some basic groundwork on what the court etiquette is, if it's relevant. Establishing customs and practices in this context might be useful, but it works best if you incorporate it into the description of events as part of the story rather than a break out lecture. You might be tempted to send this information to the players beforehand, but I don't advise it unless they request such; too much info sent from a GM without request is not fun, it's homework. I strongly believe in the axiom of "show, don't tell" though since RPGs require a narration you are in fact narrating the "show" part. 

You can use skills to gatekeep info, of course. Players who have no etiquette training or courtly graces experience can be told information from the perspective of those who find what they see as unfamiliar and intimidating; nobility engaging in practices which they find awe inspiring or terrifying to simple commoners. But if the group consists of nobility then the information should be imparted in a manner which helps them set the scene and also understand that what is happening is familiar to their characters, if not them.

In my experience, asking players to tell you what they do in situations like this is often counter-productive. The players who did their homework or have the interest will likely volunteer such data. Others may welcome a GM who doesn't force them to explain in precise detail how to saddle a horse. I experienced that as a player was an ironic moment, as I grew up on a ranch in real life and could saddle and ride a horse, but could not satisfactorily explain it to the GM, so my character (who should have such knowledge regardless of the player) failed at the task. Giant Lose on that scenario.

Using Actual Historical Events as Underpinnings vs. Springboards

There are two thoughts on how to handle documented history: it's written in stone, or it's not. Your players can either find a way to kill Hitler, or Hitler and Eva are destined to be found dead in a bunker. How you choose to do this is important to your initial story pitch. I, for example, lose a metric ton of interest in a historical game that is about to dump the actual historical underpinnings; if I wanted to play an alternative history game then I'd look to something like GURPS Infinite Worlds; if I want historical, I want it with all the gorgeous depth and details of actual history. For this purpose, we will assume that for actual historical gaming we stick to actual historical events.

This poses a problem though: what if your players try to kill Hitler? Well, there are a few ways to handle this: first and simplest is, if they can figure out how to do it, let them. The game stops being historical after that point, but it's still a fun experience. The one thing I feel you don't want to do is impede them. If you've created a scenario where they have the will and the way to accomplish something, it is ultimately better to recognize that you made a scenario which allowed it and proceed accordingly; literally anything else you do that stops the action will feel like GM intervention or rail-roading.

The better solution is to think carefully about scenarios that would prove interesting that don't deal directly with historical lynchpins and allow the players as much agency as possible within that context. For example, rather than design a scenario where the players feel they have the will, means and need to find and murder Hitler in 1938 instead look at other scenarios that deviate from such trains of thought. There are no shortage of lesser historical characters and plenty of "closely similar" personalities you can populate a setting with that will allow for an interesting story while letting the established historical backdrop play out in the background.

Another approach is to look for hotspots in history it is not as clear exactly who did what and how it all specifically went down. I actually think World War II is a terrible genre for actual gaming because you have to slice it very thin to find moments in which PCs can do things not already well established. You can still find moments, though: a campaign centered around D-Day and Operation Overlord can lead to some great fun, all while using the historical record as a backdrop. 

Other historical periods can explode with wide open opportunities for an historical experience that explores the gaps in our understanding. The case of the real King Arthur is a fine example: you could set an entire campaign around the sparse but insightful details of Riomanthus and run a campaign which strive for historical authenticity while also diving into a "what if" of that time period with little effort; the GM who finds creative ways to reference later legends of Arthur by weaving the campaign around the origins of such references gets bonus points. If Riomanthus was the inspiration for Arthur, then who was the inspiration for Merlin, Nimue, Lancelot, Morgan le Fay and the rest? Historical analogs for all of these characters could exist in such a telling, and would manage to walk a fine line between historical setting and creative extrapolation without going over any particular line. 

The key thing to remember is that the further back you go the more your historical context will rely on interpretations of the material available, extrapolations from the pieces of the picture, and the less it will be structured around well established facts. The campaign I am working on now, for example, will be focused on a narrow time period during the reign of King Akhenaten, chiefly because it is both a really interesting period in Egyptian history, but also because thanks to the discovery of the Amarna Letters, which were missives to and from neighboring polities over a few decades, we have a remarkable (but rough) picture of the political goings-ons during a hotbed of activity during the rise and fall of an extremely contentious Pharaoh who attempted to replace an entire belief system with a new, highly abstract form of monotheism. 

This gets to the last key point:

History as Backdrop

Alluded to above, this distinction is important: when you design an historical adventure or campaign, think carefully about whether the subject of the campaign will interweave with historical elements, or whether the historical context will be a backdrop for adventures driven entirely by the players and "local, possibly unrelated" events. 

A friend of mine ran a fantastic historical campaign set roughly around 1,000 AD during the Crusades. It's driver was a macguffin: a piece of wood allegedly believed to be a piece of Christ's cross, a holy relic of incredible worth if it is truly what it is claimed to be. The characters we played were mostly survivors in one form or another, the sorts of characters that would find cause to take interest in the relic, either out of belief or profit. It was a great game, and it provided an elaborate setting backdrop grounded in historical verisimilitude without either overwhelming us with detail or derailing with any actual historical details from the time. It felt like a thing that could have happened but no one wrote it down so it was lost to time, in essence.

When you design games like this, you do so with an eye often toward the more common people of a given period. Not all ideas for historical scenarios will work like this, but if you want your players to have the greatest agency this is the best way to do it.

Guidance to Players: Pregens and Player Guides

One thing you can do, particularly if this is a short campaign or single session event, is provide pregenerated characters. This has a few benefits: it saves time for the players, gives them a range of choices that the GM has pre-vetted as relevant to the intended campaign, and ideally you as GM should have twice as many pregens rolled up as there are players so they still have some agency in picking and choosing from the various backgrounds and personality types to suit to taste. 

If your campaign is geared to be longer (more than 5 sessions) and your players are of sufficient creative mindsets then you will probably want to provide a campaign precis instead. This is not quite the same as sending them a bunch of character homework; more like a quick summary of advised guidelines on character generation, including some basic guidance on character types you allow/recommend and where to look up more information if they want it. GURPS is great in this regard, because you can usually point them to the relevant sourcebook and tell them to follow the guidelines there. Failing that, something which provides some design focus is helpful, and be ready to elaborate on request. For example, in my planned "Fall of Aten" campaign sett around 1338-1333 BC, I might offer up that they can collectively choose to be with one of these factions, but that the players as a whole must belong to the same faction once decided on: 

Syrians (belonging to the powerful northern cluster of Syrian states which stand in opposition to Egypt)

Habiru (rebels and raiders in the southern client states, sponsored by the Syrians to undermine Egyptian rule)

Men of Amurru (servants of king Aziru, who find themselves embroiled in betrayal as AZiru journeys to meet with Pharaoh Akhenaten in the new capitol of Akhetaten, only to be held as a political prisoner; later released and betrayed by his own kin)

Egyptians (either aligned with or against the divisive Pharaoh Akhenaten, either working with him to secure long unattained power in a new administration and form of governance, or quietly aligned against him and seeking ways to bring back the old forms of power)

...and if I'm feeling like something different, they could be optionally part of the Shardana, one of the sea people groups who were early coastal raiders in the region, plaguing Syrian and Egyptian ports alike. That's not a good fit for the direction I want to go so I'd exclude it, but any of the first four options above make an excellent basis for campaigns.

They key here is to find out what the players find most interesting....and go with that. But if you as GM only find certain ways to be interesting or work for your vision, make sure you restrict it to what you know and can do; if I for example felt I did not have enough context to run a campaign that might not make it out of Syria then I shouldn't put that option on the table; or alternatively, if my vision really involved exploring the delicate balance of Egyptian court in a social and religious upheaval, then my player guide should narrow down to more specific details, focusing on social station and factions within that kingdom alone.

Secondarily, some guidance on what systems are in place for the game you are using is also relevant. If I use GURPS but allow a low level of magic and will let players choose from Ritual and Path magic only, they need to know that. The more divergent your ruleset is from the baseline discussed in the prior article, the more work you have cut out for you. For example, if you were to use D&D for historical gaming you'd need to provide a long list of exclusions and maybe design some new thematic archetypes and backgrounds appropriate to the setting. Doable, sure....but in this day and age, there's a game for every flavor and that's easier for me to work with.

Ultimately, running an historical campaign or scenario is going to take more work than using fictional settings, as you can't just start inventing stuff without context. A good historical setting requires some effort and research, but it's payoff when executed well is amazingly fun. The last thing can advise is: do not get too caught up in the details if it is not relevant to the fun of the moment! The ultimate objective is still to have a good time, and you can do so without necessarily getting every little fact straight. If something does end up being anachronistic or historically out of context, but your players don't notice it, that's a perfect "after the game" topic for conversation. Keeping track of every tiny historical detail can be hell at times, and it's inevitable you might screw up....but roll with it, and figure out a way to retcon later if needed.

If you're going to do some historical gaming, I also recommend that you secure a copy of GURPS Low-Tech, and use it (regardless of what system you use), it's a great game-focused resource.

Okay, that's all for now! Maybe a Part II if I think of more things to write about.

(edit: fixed a date issue, apparently had a 2 where I needed a 1 and did not notice!) 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Looking at Amazing Adventures 5E

Not too long ago Troll Lord Games produced Amazing Adventures, a SIEGE Engine powered take on pulp adventure. It was basically Castles & Crusades, but the castles were haunted nazi-filled places in the 30's and the crusades involved Indiana Jones and Sam Spade wannabes. It was a neat concept, and well executed, hampered only by the fact that it relied too much on the OGL, meaning many spells and foes in the game felt a bit "been there, done that" and not so much genere appropriate as system appropriate. Despite this, it was a good take on the genre, albeit short on support material until a later Kickstarter expanded the game's scope of material greatly.

After that, apparently there was a push to do a 5E powered edition of Amazing Adventures. One thing that this new edition did, aside from reboot the game into 5E mechanics, was to present it more as a multigenre "modern day" ruleset with goals of providing a baseline set in the 30's and 40's, but with plenty of content for pulpy scifi, historical or other possible takes. The first SF sourcebook for the new AA5E in fact is Solar Burn, which for those who remember how great it was is actually the StarSiege universe repackaged for the new era. So if you grab AA5E plus Solar Burn you have all the rules you need to run some SF games in 5E.

Anyway, this is less of a review and more of a discussion on what I've snagged so far and what I think of it, noting that I have not yet played the system though the temptation is strong; a key limiting factor is that since all my groups are now online with Roll20 or Astral Tabletop, I am pretty much limited to systems that have some level of support in those VTT environments, and Roll20 as of yet does not have AA 5E support in the form of a character sheet. I alas do not have time to figure out how to make one, so if I do run the game it may be using Astral, which is a tiny bit more forgiving in its process for games with limited online resources.

The mechanical elements of Amazing Adventures 5E is pretty straight forward: it's 5E mechanics, but with the thematic elements of pulp-styled adventures. This means you have base classes like gadgeteer (The Rocketeer), gumshoe (Sam Spade), raider (Indiana Jones), mentalist (Svengali or The Shadow), hallowed (covering types from Lankester Marin to Shadow Man), pugilist (Rocky Balboa) on get the idea. A lot of cinematic and pulp themes abound in the class options available. It's a good range.

You might wonder how Solar Burn handles these classically themed classes. The short version is: each class is designed thematically to work for a range of environments, and you simply identify the class by a more appropriate name (gadgeteer becomes technician, gumshoe becomes investigator, raider becomes scholar/explorer, etc.) Solar Burn also omits magical classes entirely, aiming for a pure SF setting.

The rest of the AA5E rulebook is about as you'd expect: it gives you the 5E rules customized for its specific take on modern pulp adventure, with plenty of extra detail mixed in. For example you can find enough content in the core book to run games in the present day or future without getting Solar Burn; the core rules even cover things like computers and hacking, decidedly not typical of the 30's and 40's era pulp adventuring. The Solar Burn expansion provides lots of rules and topical content specifically for SF as a genre and its default setting, but is not entirely necessary to use AA5E for your own's just really handy to have.

The AA5E book does include a medley of monsters, which seem to be the whole, more or less, of the older monster book for original AA. These include obvious pulp entries, reskinned OGL transplants and a range of genre-appropriate types including some Lovecraftian takes. It perhaps would benefit from more strangeness specifically from it's genre hits some obvious ones like mummies, deep ones and zombies but could really benefit from some strangeness like a generic version of Pennywise, the Thing from Another World, The Fly, or the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Heck, any of these would be better included than Planetar and Solar Devas which feel extremely D&D and not at all modern/future pulp adventure.

The book includes a ton of genre specific and optional rules, from sanity to detailed firearms information. Adding in fantasy elements from standard D&D is included, and a fairly detailed section on how to run adventures is included. The book tops off with a sample adventure.

Solar Burn is an add-on book, and covers additional SF genre details in about 50 additional pages, which talk about starships and methods of FTL travel as well as providing alien species for players to choose from and more genre specific rules and equipment. It's a nice complimentary tome to the core rulebook, though I feel like I would have liked anther 50-100 pages of extra material for good measure. This is more just because I like what Solar Burn has to offer, and while it plus the core book really do give you everything you need to play, I'd love a more elaborate look at the universe and its denizens. 

I also picked up Wild Stars, a setting sourcebook designed to work with AA5E and Solar Burn, introducing the "multimedia" universe by Michael Tierney (that I admit I had never heard of until grabbing this). Off-hand it's a problematic supplement: it contains a detailed system neutral setting over48 pages, but offers no rules or stat blocks for anything within. This is described as a deliberate design choice, but it was a mistake; the book is essentially useless to anyone who was hoping for a fully fleshed out setting and lacks time to figure it out themselves. If you want a generic setting sans toolkit you might find this useful, but for me it's a missed opportunity on a really interesting setting that lacks a game to play it with.

Anyway, if you like 5E (and it's hard not to enjoy 5E), like pulpy action, and want a flexible ruleset that handles a range of time periods within the pulp genre then you will get a lot out of this latest editiion of Amazing Adventures 5E. I'm really quite interested in doing something with it, although my keen reinvigoration of interest in GURPS is dividing my time in that direction.....but maybe not too far down the road if I can find a way to set it up in a VTT environment I might well throw this down as an option for my group, which I think would quite enjoy it. Besides which, if I were to run AA5E in a classic pulp environment I think GURPS Cliffhangers would make an excellent supplemental resource for it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Historical Gaming - Best Traits in a Game System

In this 46th year of role-playing games as a formal hobby we've got all sorts of fine tuned, precision level gaming engines out there for all sorts of things. Recently though I've been really getting back in to a deep dive on historical readings and the thought of running historical games has become all consuming. I've got campaign ideas ranging from revisiting my Mesopotamian campaign set around 2330 BC to a deep dive into England around 650 AD on up to my particularly strong obsession: the rise and fall of the rule of Akhenaten in Egypt from 1351 to 1334 BC. This is an especially interesting time period since a vast trove of diplomatic missives called the Amarna Letters exist, and these include a great deal of interesting insight into what was going on in this particular period of time. Never mind the revolutionary...some might say heretical....upheaval in religious tradition that Akhenaten implemented; there are all kinds of interesting stuff going on in this period in history.

Anyway, when I want to play something that involves exploring dark holes in the ground while fighting monsters both D&D 5E and Pathfinder 2nd Edition work really well for that. When I want even more cinematic excitement in that same vein 13th Age is a good choice. When I want science fiction Traveller is a basic default. So what is the best default for historical gaming?

A key element of a good ruleset for a specific genre must be that it supports what you want out of it. If the rulesystem provides only nominal coverage toward the genre then you may find yourself missing elements you crave. For my purposes, I define the historical genre like this:

Verisimilitude is Critical

Historical settings and themes work best out of necessity when the game system's underlying mechanics support the ideas of the real world. There are many systems which support cinematic or literary storytelling, but a suitable historical experience must at least feel like it is grounded in reality. Some systems let you take historical themes but are not really providing an historical experience in this manner (Cypher System and Savage Worlds are both examples of this). The obvious game systems for this sort of experience are: Mythras, BRP, Call of Cthulhu and GURPS. Each provide a mechanical framework for an experience steeped in "realistic" interpretations of things such as injuries, pragmatic human limits and physics.

Emphasis on the Mundane over the Fantastical

The "realism" must be supported well and in larger proportion to fantastical elements. If the system or setting of necessity feels like you're missing out if you exclude magic from the setting then it may not be an ideal system for historical gaming. The ability to define characters in terms of the mundane and make them feel relevant is critical; it does mean, for example, that the ability of a character to be interesting because the system provides rules for more in-depth skills is preferable to one where skills are less relevant. Combat abilities may focus in greater depth on what actually happens in real combat, and eschews fantastical or cinematic maneuvers; being good at blocking and parrying (and those being part of the process) will help with the historical realism; whirlwind attacks and fantasy parkour not so much.

Magic is of necessity either optional or irrelevant in these systems. The ability to provide for a form of magic that feels more like the way magic was perceived to work in the real world is helpful; the ability of the system to feel robust with no magic at all is even better. Whether you include magic or not, though, it's got to be with a system that does not overshadow the historical underpinnings such that it negates the intended value of the experience as you want it. 

Of systems previously mentioned it  is safe to say the Mythras, BRP/CoC and GURPS all cater to this. However, of these GURPS provides the most robust means by which you can provide for elaborate characters and avoid magic entirely if desired. Alternatively when armed with GURPS Thaumaturgy you can pick and choose from a range of magical traditions designed to feel like the sorts of magic which our ancestors believed in (as well as others of more literary tradition). Mythras provides four types of magic, which often dovetail well with our modern interpretation of how magic might have been perceived to work, but also tends toward a more mythic and literary reimagining of such. Likewise, BRP is simply the original system from which Mythras evolved, and Call of Cthulhu is very much steeped in providing a historical experience tinged with the mythos, a literary construct. 


Researching a game on your own dime and time can and is fun for those who want to do it, and historical gamers tend to fit that bill just fine. That said, the more ready-made content a system can offer you to help the process the better. It is almost redundant to point out that GURPS is the be-all and end-all for this sort of thing, thanks to a spate of almost two hundred historically themed books in the 80's and 90's. They moved away from such resources in print with GURPS 4th Edition, but still occasionally offer some useful content (Crusades, Silk Road) while keeping all the classic 3rd edition books in print....and the conversion work required is essentially non-existent, thankfully. Heck, many people use GURPS resources for other game systems as well.

Mythras also provides some historical resources, and you can find other systems out there that make varying efforts to do so, including some that engage in elaborate, fantastical depictions of historical periods such as Aquellare, a tome which must be truly experienced to be appreciated (or reviled, you pick).

Historical Gaming =/= Wargaming

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that a good RPG for this is not the same as a wargame by any stretch, nor should it be construed as such. For many, the most interesting elements of historical gaming are in the details of ordinary everyday living, experiencing a slice of time in an interesting historical period, and figuring out the many strange mysteries left for us in our own historical and archaeological records. Combat and military actions are just one piece of the pie, and a system which handles all desired elements may well suit those with such tastes the most.

For me, GURPS stands out as the system I can count on to provide the kind of historical gaming experience I want, especially if I want to keep it as far away from too much of the fantastical or literary/cinematic as possible. BRP is a close second along with Mythras, and Call of Cthulhu of course is excellent so long as you want to look at history through a sickly green Cthulhu lens (nothing at all wrong with that of course). Meanwhile certain very specific games out there provide some compelling historical experiences on their own...Aquellare is my most recent discovery, but there are others. What games might I have missed that fit this bill?

Monday, September 28, 2020

Some more thoughts on Pathfinder 2nd Edition after running it for a year: low level fights, hit points and healing

My Pathfinder 2E campaign on Saturday has wrapped and we're actually diving into D&D 5E again for a bit now, but my Wednesday group just finished a short Call of Cthulhu campaign and is now back to Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Here are some more comments on it after running Pathfinder 2E for over a year, and a few comments on comparison and contrast to D&D 5E, especially as I get back in to it and notice the rather interesting differences (especially in the feel of it).

Most immediately....something which I can say for sure is true at low level in both games, is that low level combat can be as deadly as a GM is willing to push it. If you ignore the XP budget rules in D&D 5E you can get an unintentionally lethal encounter, sure. But if you ignore it even a little bit in Pathfinder 2E you get an interesting result, in which the characters might have a stressful fight for their life. The fact that PCs in Pathfinder start with more hit points at level 1 (and the fact that the game is balanced around it) is stark and noticeable, but it also means that while players can be "in the game" a bit longer in tough fights, everything also tends to hit with more force and damage, too. 

Put another way: D&D 5E fights feel a tad anemic, and I am having to adjust to the fact that monsters have a lot of hit points even at low level....but the more balanced starting hit points of PCs in Pathfinder mean you can take a hit or two without worrying too much. At low levels, at least, it's safe to say both games are fun to play but the tactical nuance of PF2E stands're having fun in D&D but things get interesting as well as fun in PF2E.

PF2E characters also have a wide range of options to resort to healing. Even without a conventional healer you can probably survive with careful decision making and judicious use of treat wounds. D&D 5E characters have an advantage with the hit dice recovery mechanic, but if you don't have a healer in the group (or a bunch of fighters or something with second wind) it's possible to find yourself in trouble faster. D&D 5E leads to an interesting cadence, in which you find immediate threats to be potentially dire but as long as you find a place to rest a full day you can fully recover. PF2E definitely gives you options for healing, and it seems to encourage the group to camp out, often for an hour or three depending on who needs some first aid and who has magic healing, so getting back to full after a good period of rest is also possible. However, in battle most PF2E classes have some range of recovery options...eventually....but like 5E you may need specific classes to benefit from immediate in-combat healing. Without that option, your best bet his to spend your hero points to recover after you drop.

In encounter design for low level groups I'm also noticing something interesting, about which I will speak more in the next post: in brief, as I mentioned above, designing a lethal encounter in PF2E can be a really interesting experience and the PCs might pull their butts out of the fire. It might not feel fair, but survival is possible, even if it means escape. This is in contrast with D&D 5E, where I have found that a lethal encounter generally is just sad and unfair; the group which wades in against an unbalanced encounter simply may not have enough hit points to survive the brutal thrashing they experience on round one. 

When I say lethal encounter, I mean something over the "extreme difficulty" XP budget but not, say, more than double the expectation. In PF2E for a level 1 group that's typically about 160 XP or more in threats, and in D&D 5E it's around 450-500 XP after adjusting for # of creatures. Oh yeah....that's something too, getting used to adding XP then dividing by total # of PCs in D&D 5E is a bit of a "whuhhh oh my god I forgot it was done this way" moment for me. I don't like milestones, but I have to say....I love the "flat XP: what you calculated is what everyone gets" math of PF2E.

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Secret to Success with Roll20's RNG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, September 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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