Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Roll20 - Four Sessions In

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

Some comments so far:

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Tiny Dungeons - a Tiny D6 Armor Variant

I don't think I've written much about the Tiny D6 system, but it's one of the better minimalist/entry level RPGs out on the market and has a great range of books (fantasy, SF, mecha, post-apocalyptic, supers, etc.). The core system includes a very clean and simple set of combat mechanics, but armor is an optional rule which has to be attached with some variable damage rules; this eliminated the advantage of the core mechanic with flat 1 point hit damage.

Anyway, I thought of a very simple armor rule which you can deploy that does not negate the "1 point of damage" core mechanic and does not require introducing variable damage. It works like this:

Each class of armor (light, medium or heavy) ranks like it does under the optional rules, but the number is what you roll equal to or less on a D6 to negate damage as follows:
Light Armor: Rating of 1 in 6 (roll a D6; on a 1 you stop the damage)
Medium Armor: Rating of 2 in 6 (damage is stopped on a 1-2 on the D6)
Heavy Armor: Rating of 3 in 6 (damage is stopped on a 1-3 on the D6)

This system still requires optional armor traits to wear the suits of armor (Tiny Dungeons page 81) but otherwise lets you have some meaningful armor in the game.

Simple, right? It does require a roll, but now you can wear armor and still retain the simpler straight damage of the core rules.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Roll20 Experience - Exploring Virtual Tabletops (VTTs)

Tonight (well, last night Saturday) we tried out Roll20. This was a bit of an abrupt shift for a table mostly of long time gamers --only some of whom have tried online virtual tabletop gaming before, and fewer still who did it enough to feel good or comfortable about it.

Still, I'll say this much: I was able to figure out Roll20 and run a game with it with minimal hassle, which is not a bad endorsement. For those of you who are like me and my group (in need of gaming but also keen on engaging in self-isolation to avoid playing the coronavirus lottery), here are my experiences and observations:

First, we carried on with Pathfinder 2nd edition, our sole game of choice on Saturday nights since August. The group has just hit level 13 and the story had a sufficiently new break that it was a good spot to transition to the new medium. Of course starting a game with an entirely new format of play at level 13 led to some interesting complications; for one, the Roll20 rules let you load a Pathfinder 2.0 character sheet but it requires a lot of input by the players; unlike the default SRD content tied to the D&D 5E options, there's no walk through on PC creation (and for an example of how cool and easy that can be go look at the Pathbuilder 2E app). Still, everyone gave it a valiant effort, though some were still inputting spells by midnight (we started playing at 6, and the actual game at 7 after it became clear spells would talk a while.) Though much time was spent putting the PC sheets in place, it was pretty much unnecessary; you could easily play with paper character sheets and just input modifiers for rolls as you go.

Since I had about one day's lead time in the decision to use Roll20 I had enough time to figure out that I didn't really know what to do to fully take advantage of it. I went ahead and subscribed, which gave me access to some maps and free tokens. I downloaded free maps I could find, then grabbed this pack of 120 map tiles on drivethrurpg which seemed like a good deal; I got one map constructed for detailed play, and used some generic overland maps for wilderness encounters. Then, after getting a test session in Friday to figure out the functions and features I was able to grab some images which could be used for illustration.

My big conundrum with moving to Roll20 is that it's a format for gaming which naturally seems to lend to maps/minis, which left me wondering how to reconcile my "theater of the mind" approach against the VTT's key focus. The game's main features center on providing graphics and dropping virtual tokens on to them. Surprisingly this VTT does not provide some mechanism for literal virtual 3D minis (in which you could actually buy graphic suites to lay out 3D maps and use 3D images and icons); that would be rather cool, though probably a bit of work to set up.

Rather than try the Theater of the Mind approach I went ahead and just made sure to try the map/tokens approach, and after a lengthy portion of role play we got to a fight with some shuln (challenge rating 12 giant angry molerat monsters with adamantine claws in Pathfinder). Finding a mini to work turned out to be trivial, as it let me search for online sources and import the actual shuln image which I could then place on the virtual tabletop. Kinda cool. Indeed, the core elements of the VTT were clearly intended to help out - easy bubbles to plug some numbers such as hit points in to, an initiative tracker, and each of the players seemed to figure out the optimal way to roll and declare ability uses.

The actual process of combat was clean enough, but I found the advanced die roller slightly clumsy in actual use, and everything felt just a bit slower and more painful; I probably would have done better to keep my trusty old note pad for combat tracking and simply called it over audio and the experience would have gone smoothly enough.

Only one player had issues; he had tried to use the Roll20 app, which it turns out is more of a support app and did not have audio or mike use on his phone. He did not have a PC and ended up having to sit out on the game. I'm going to look at some ways to fix this, but for the night's session at least it was a wash for him.

Other oddities I noticed: the free suite of tokens and tools was enough for anyone who doesn't mind sorting through, but a bit of a pain to search on the fly. I am not 100% sure (yet) if there's a way to refine the tokens and other bits to make it easier to find the provided tools. However, while trying to use the search feature I found it much more impressive simply because I could quickly grab a graphic and apply it, which was much more useful in the long run.

It took me a while on Friday to figure out the whole map drop-down and player banner deal, but once I did it made the rest of the VTT make more sense. If you use Roll20, just remember that: you need to put the player banner on the thing you want them to see.

I created some image sets intended entirely for illustration; for most all of the role-play elements I simply provided occasional graphics I liked for their suitability to show locations and characters. But in each case, the images snapped to the grid and shrank to one square, whether it was a single image or a whole map. I haven't figured out how to stop this (yet).

In the end, I had the following take-aways:

It will fill a needed Role: Roll20 will work for what my group needs to survive a couple months* of social isolation; we are not going to be suffering too badly thanks to this tool (and for my friend without a good laptop I have an idea to refurbish an old one he can use).

I need to use it the way I do at a Real Table for combat: The compulsion to take full advantage of the VTT elements with maps and virtual minis is hard to resist, and I am not sure that really helps with my style of game that much; I have been running Pathfinder 2E religiously by what I call the "Page 494 rule," which is essentially just two paragraphs but it is all you will ever need in terms of Theater of the Mind gameplay guidelines for PF 2E.

I Think I'd Enjoy it More with Cypher System: my group has been obsessed with Pathfinder 2E since it came out, but prior to that I'd been running Cypher System for about two years with great obsession. I still want to make Cypher System a main game, but can't fault them for enjoying PF 2E, which is a great iteration of the D20 system. That said...I think the vastly simpler mechanical elements of Cypher System would make it easier to run a game on Roll20 with a focus on using illustrations and maps purely as visual aids, and taking advantage of card decks (of which quite a few are available, though not the Cypher System creature deck for some weird reason).

Good for other, simpler systems, too: I think 13th Age, Traveller, Tiny D6 (which has support in Roll20!) and others could translate well to this medium. I actually am certain I would really enjoy using this for some Swords & Wizardry or Forbidden Lands, for example. White Star, too. Really, this would work for any game system that doesn't require a bunch of math or nitty-gritty mechanical pieces. Not having to roll too many dice with the clunky die roller would also help.

Are there specific reasons not to go with Roll20? Well....first, you need a decent laptop or desktop PC with audio and a mike. If you don't have that, you can use it for chat-based play with the VTT elements, but that can be less interesting than actually seeing and talking to your cohorts.

Second, while I haven't checked out all the other systems yet, Roll20 is subscription-based so you won't own it, precisely. You can play a free version but that is pretty darn basic. If you like owning a product D20pro and Fantasy Grounds can do that.

Third, and this depends heavily on your need for resources, all the licensed content is capital-E Expensive. You're basically paying full retail for resources that let you access rules info in the game, but so far as I can tell these purchases only work with Roll20. That means if you decide to commit to this VTT, you're in it for the long haul. If you're like me and your gaming investment has been 95% for the real table, it can be a pain to even imagine spending a bunch of cash a second time to get virtual versions of the "real deal."

Luckily you really don't need it; with the books at hand and what that basic Roll20 suite (I did subscribe for a month to the deluxe set) you've got all you need and probably more than you will want to run decent games remotely. I think we'll stick with this VTT for now, though I really want to check out Astral next.

*If this goes longer than two months then we will have much bigger problems to worry about.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Virtual Table Top Gaming - the Cure for Social Distancing and RPGs

As of this week, in my corner of the US in New Mexico the Governor has shut down all recreational businesses, which means the gaming center where we meet has had to close up, and that is where we've been meeting for regular gaming since roughly 2008.

There are some possibilities, but members of my group are closer to the high-risk side of the population when it comes to COVID-19 exposure, and so we've been discussing the idea of using one of the online meetup tools or virtual tabletops. So far we've been floating ideas on things such as Roll20, Discord, Fantasy Grounds (I used a version of this once about 15 years ago), and Astralworks. Zoom, Line and other more generic services are also under consideration.

So far, it seems like Fantasy Grounds and Astralworks could require a bit of time and effort to properly set up or prep, and both might have hefty potential buy-in depending on what you are doing with it (the level of elaboration you aim for). Roll20 seems on the surface to be more intuitive, to a degree, and the map-making seems to be "not too bad" but I am sure it has a measure of buy-in as well. Ultimately cost may not be much of an issue, so long as one doesn't have to add a lot of supplemental content and get nickel-and-dimed to death, but for me it's a question of "will this support my game style?" That means something which supports lots of open-ended, hexcrawly, unscripted play....and the ability to do maps on the fly. So for the moment Roll20 seems to be in the lead, but I admit, I've got a soft spot for Zoom's ease of use and need to poke it a bit to see if there are things I can do easily like share graphics quickly (I know its very easy to share my desktop at least).

I also know we need voice chat; I don't think anyone in the group would be excited at typing a lot of text. It seems like Roll20 might need a support service for that, such as Discord.

So...what are other people doing to fill this roll? Any reccomendations or tips in this arena are welcome! I've gamed online as a GM only once 15 years ago, and as a player maybe twice in the last twelve years that I can recall, and each time as a player was underwhelming. Still, my group of long time regulars will be Jonesing for games soon if we don't find a good solution!

By the way! Check out Campaign Mastery for a great post on dispelling COVID-19 Myths.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Pathfinder Bestiary Battle Cards - An Almost Perfect Execution

The idea of putting monsters cards out with a picture on one side and a stat block on the other is as old as AD&D 1st edition, possibly even older. I recall finding packs of these in a retail store in 1981 for AD&D and being thrilled at the find (and boy do I wish I still had those cards). Since then, this is a thing that has risen and fallen with the waves of interest, and in recent years we've been cresting a huge wave of accessories such as monster cards for RPGs.

For my own purpose, the monster cards for Cypher System (as well as Numenera and The Strange) proved to be immensely useful, though it helped that A: most Cypher monsters can fit on a card and B: they were normal card sizes. Still, as a result of their innate usefulness I began to notice what other games provided this sort of accessory. Zweihander, for example, offers tarot deck-sized monster cards, and of course Gale Force Nine produces an extensive set of cards for D&D 5E. Unfortunately I have not yet found the time to run Zweihander, and the D&D monster cards suffer from a few problems: 1st and foremost they are inconsistent sizes, which means you can't haul them around in any easily accessible way; 2nd: the cards are designed (I think) to be written on with erasable markers, but the laminate to do this makes them very sticky cards; if you wanted, for example, to use them to make a wandering monster deck you shuffle from? Ain't happening. And 3rd: if the monster wasn't illustrated in its official source, it does not have an illustration on the card, which makes flashing the card as a visual reference sort of pointless.

Along comes Paizo with a new idea: The Bestiary Battle Cards for Pathfinder 2nd edition. 450 cards in one box, each card double size from a normal playing card, with a full stat block on one side and full monster illustration on the other. The Bestiary Battle Box accomplished much that the D&D sets do not, including being easier to shuffle, with every single monster having an illustration to show players. It's got a majority of the cards with the complete stablock on a single card, too. The downsides are that any monster with a statblock big enough to spill off of the card gets a second card, which means that any complex monster in the deck now has at least two cards to pull; this means you can't shuffle them in to a random encounter deck, either. The cards are also not laminated for use with erasable markers, which means if that was a selling point for you (it isn't for me) it will be a problem here.

The storage box they come in is nice and sturdy. So far I've found it easiest to prop the box open, flip the cards so they are in two alphabetical columns and then quickly index them for stat blocks as needed. A more organized GM with more prep time might even have these cards pre-pulled, but that is not the GM that is I.

One of my players suggested that finding appropriately sized card sleeves would eliminate the two-card stat block shuffle problem. If anyone knows where to find double-sized sleeves for cards let me know! The only website I found is in China and they are shut down for Obvious Reasons right now.

Anyway....if you're a Paizo fan and you like accessories such as monster cards, this is a pretty rockin' set. A+!

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Pathfinder 2E Gamemastery Guide - Essential Book

The 2nd edition Gamemastery Guide has been out for a couple weeks now and I've already been abusing it. I've spent more time reading and re-reading this book than the Core Rulebook, which may or may not be a good thing....but the Gamemastery Guide has so much useful stuff it's hard not to want to absorb its magnificence as much as possible.

The big change from 1st edition to 2nd edition is, in my opinion, the essential nature of the Gamemastery Guide. Key to this change is the fact that the rules (guidelines?) for how to make monsters and NPCs are in this tome, a change from the old form where all those rules were in the back of the Bestiary. A second change is that many of the more interesting magic item rules are now located here, rather than in the Core Rulebook, which means the core rules contain only "useful items a player might be privy to knowledge of," but the GM alone gets access to things like artifacts, relics and cursed items. Trust me: you will want these rules.

The original Gamemastery Guide identified interesting NPCs and the 2nd edition is no different, with about six stat blocks for various common encounters. It's a much needed supplement to the Bestiary. The stat blocks have shifted in tone a bit from the 1st edition, or at least include a few more familiar archetypes that are reflective of the changing times: torchbearers, plague doctors, masterminds and demonologists are reflective of the useful range of stats for NPCs.

There's a whole intro section on setting up, running and adjudicating games and handling players, a generally cleaner and more engaging section than was in the 1st edition GMG (I always thought the 1st edition advice section was a bit droll and boring to read). This isn't really going to be too useful to veteran GMs but the content on handling downtime and is priceless and helps flesh out those mechanics that are now baked in to 2E.

Also of interest is the advice on world building, which conveys information over several chapters. From designing your towns and cities (with full stat block rules) to wilderness hexcrawls this book provides some very useful content, and extremely practical; lots of useable material and not a lot of unnecessary exposition.

The most intriguing part of the book is the section on alternative and experimental rules. The ones which I found perplexing (or interesting but not suitable for my table) included valour points, stamina rules (e.g. Starfinder hit points/stamina), and alignment variants (neat but too fiddly for my needs). Other methods of stat generation allow a GM to bring the core rules back to a more familiar ability generation process. Magic Item variants let you set up rules for scaling magic items in games where you want fewer and more meaningful magic items (or alternatively no magic items).

The alternative rules which are most interesting to me, and which I will likely want to try out sooner or later included zero level characters (simultaneously a way to start a very early career campaign, a way to introduce new players with minimum fuss, and a way to run funnel style dungeons ala Dungeon Crawl Classics using Pathfinder), alternative skill point rules which bake the older skill point mechanics back in to the system, and a very interesting "Proficiency without Level" mechanic that in about one page gives you the complete rules for turning Pathfinder into a bounded accuracy system ala D&D with minimal conversion headache. Indeed, the notion of Pathfinder as a bounded accuracy system with all of its interesting implications sounds like it would be a novel experience to try out, at least once.

Overall....very happy with this book. Now that I have the finalized monster and NPC stat design rules you may finally see some more game-specific content from me soon. I am hoping I'll have some time and energy to do some conversions of existing monsters soon; I am seriously considering a Chirak adaptation, too, though I had only made it 70% of the way through my D&D 5E conversion so not sure I have the energy for that just yet, we shall see.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Pathbuilder 2E on Android - The Best Pathfinder 2E App Out There

Chances are good that if you're a gamer into Pathfinder 2nd Edition and you had even a passing interest in finding useful apps and programs then you have have discovered Pathbuilder 2E already, but I only recently started messing with it and have to talk about how amazing this app is.

Pathbuilder 2E is mainly for players, though a GM can benefit from an easy way to generate "PC level" NPCs with little effort. It's smart enough to walk even your most ardently dense players through the process and leave them noticeably less confused on the other end. It's got an export program which I have tested out that moves the character to a sheet you can review and pull from Google Docs.

Most importantly: It does all the math for you; Pathfinder 2E doesn't have a lot of math, but it does have more than D&D 5E, and more importantly Pathbuilder gives you a complete but very focused overview of just the stuff that matters to the character you are making, from feats on down to equipment. The process also quickly scales to whatever level you need to reach, and provides the necessary stat blocks to understand every feat, spell and ability choice. It's really quite genius.

The "deluxe" version doesn't do much more than unlock pets and remove a small ad banner at the bottom, but for $4.99 this thing is a steal either way. If you want to be able to make Pathfinder 2E characters easily, or need to refer your players to a tool that will give them the ability to do so in mere minutes, this is it!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Mythic Odysseys of Theros - and Magic: The Dungeoning Continues

The planned D&D sourcebook Mythic Odysseys of Theros isn't exactly new news, and I've been so lazy with my blog lately (well, also busy due to work) that I haven't written much. But I read CrossPlanes today and was surprised (a little bit) by the following:

1. That people were mad it was being released (in fairness, I can agree to being upset that this means of the four sourcebooks for new settings so far released/announced only one of them was for an established D&D world)

2. That the fact that it is a Magic: The Gathering setting is frustrating. I'll be honest; I don't even really know what this means; I've always assumed MTG's "setting" was incredibly fast and loose and multiplanar.

3. That apparently people got mad at the Explorer's Guide to Wildemont setting book. But...it's like Acquisitions Incorporated, and the free advertising lifeblood that made D&D mainstream! And it's not an MTG setting. So...huh. I mean, D&D should be allowed to advance past the 90's.

4. That we old guard seem to be suffering from all the hallmarks of Old Guy Syndrome....including me although I fight it constantly, for the record; I frickin' hate getting old and I think the only inoculation I have against Nostalgia for the Past is that I have so little love or fondness for my life prior to about age 21 that I would never repeat any  of it, ever.

So I can understand frustration that we seem to be waiting forever to see revised classics of D&D settings of yore. Like everyone else I think Greyhawk, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Ravenloft (an actual setting and not the adventure), even oddities like Birthright, Jakandor, Kara-Tur and a proper reimagining of Planescape would be worthy entries to the modern D&D canon. I also think the only reason we are frustrated that these aren't showing up is because Wizards of the Coast has a very selective release schedule, and puts out so few books annually, that seeing a second Magic setting converted to D&D is annoying to the old fans.

My suspicion, though, is that WotC has a pretty good idea of what it's doing, and also knows when it's not prepared for a task such as bringing Dark Sun to 5E. Some of this, I bet, is a lack of dedicated authors on staff or by contract to tackle the job. If your writing pool is not familiar enough with something like Dark Sun it's going to have trouble making a good book out of it. But a lot of the current new authors have had years of time with Magic: The Gathering I bet, and they also see what cross-pollination between those markets could only help D&D (not so sure if it makes a dent in Magic, though).

I also suspect WotC looks at what print and PDF editions of classic content are sold on dmsguild.com, and I bet if we could see those numbers it would be surprising. Without knowing how much was sold, I can look at the Top 100 list and cannot escape noticing that there are only three settings on display in that list: Forgotten Realms by a solid mile, followed by about a dozen Eberron related products (it has traction due to the recent book, of course) and a small number of Planar themed books; arguably not the same as Planescape...but also arguably just like it, you know?

If Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Spelljammer and Greyhawk can't even make the top 100 list at any point, for better or worse WotC is probably noticing this. Even if a book hit the top 100 list for a short while, it didn't linger, which is a shame. I don't want to think this is the metric WotC might use to help gauge interest....but it very well might be.

I'd like to see those setting come to life again, but I'm also keen to see new stuff for the game, too. To that end, WotC is doing better than it has in the first four years of D&D 5E. Stuff like Ravnica of Theros being tied to MTG means nothing to me, who has not played MTG since around 1995 (well, also once in 2003ish). To me they are just interesting settings and worlds I can exploit for my own games (when and if I get back to D&D 5E; curse you Pathfinder 2E for stealing me away!)

In the end none of this bothers me as a gamer who enjoys D&D. But I concede, I'm one of those snowflake GMs who has never run a published setting (well, very rarely) anyway, so none of this matters much to me; I'd much rather have a generic sourcebook full of toolkit options I can use as I see fit. From that angle, WotC has been disappointing, such tomes with useful character, rules, monster and spell content are fairly infrequent. Still, new races in these tomes can be adapted to my own settings, and the ideas in these books make for exploitable material, so I can't say I am that put off by it all. Heck...I wish Paizo would do this a bit, something distinctly not Golarion just once would be cool.