Monday, June 29, 2020

Invisible Sun on Bundle of Holding

The contentious Black Cube and all books are on Bundle of Holding now: $25 for the cube, and currently about $42 total to get the whole set plus expansions. Considering that the retail for the Black Cube is $99, this is a very nice price point to get digital editions of four rulebooks plus something like a thousand cards and bits and bobs for the main game.....I'll just state that while the Black Cube in physical form is an expensive beast at roughly $252 it's well worth the purchase if you are in to surrealism and modern magic themed universes or a fan of the Cypher System (of which Invisible Sun is not exactly like but definitely adjacent to in design).

Anyway, check it out!

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Last of Us Part 2 - The Grand Finale of the PS4

Despite thinking I wouldn't get it a few days ago, I did indeed decide that nope, I could not go long without picking up The Last of Us Part 2.

If you somehow own a PS4 and don't know what's the deal, here's the trailer:

The original game was the penultimate title worth picking up on the Playstation 3...indeed, I caved toward the end of the PS3's life cycle just so I could at last catch up on Naughty Dog games, which include The Last of Us and the entire Uncharted series. I replayed TLOU when it was remastered on PS4, and so naturally it was inevitable I would grab Part 2.

There's apparently been some controvery around this title. I've only seen a couple reviews that were at all disparaging, and those were from Youtubers who sometime seem to have an agenda behind their veiled dislike for certain games. As an example, the criticism I watched involved critiquing TLOU2's sotryline as having some plot issues, while suggesting it's play mechanics were not sufficiently new and innovative. Weird critiques, I thought, given Naught Dog's mechanics in their games are very well established and a key selling is their amazing attention to story and plot. So....could it be this was the seven year design cycle that finally fell flat somehow?

Not really. Without offering spoilers (and if you played to the end of the first game, you ought to have some ideas of just where the sequel could go without much wild guessing at all), then you know this is a terrible world filled with all sorts of loss. A sequel diving deep into that makes sense. If you played the DLC for the first game, you know it was established that Ellie, the lead character in Part 2, is not your normal videogame hero stereotype. Joel is closer, sure.....and if you felt that the original game was principally about Joel himself, then you might be expecting more of the same in TLOU2.

Instead, you get an even bolder, darker and more poignant story. It's not really a political story, or driven by any agenda; trust me, it really isn't. But if a reviewer were to see some politics buried in it, that says a lot more about the reviewer at this point than the game itself. The game tells a very, very good story. It is not pulling punches and it is sticking to the dark world it portrays. But if some of their story and character choices bother you....well, maybe you weren't paying close attention in the last game, and maybe this is a chance to learn not to let it bother you and accept that you can leave that baggage behind.

I'll end the article here without spoilers by saying: The Last of Us Part 2 is an amazing game, I an glad I decided not to wait. Now....for those who care not about spoilers....

Here's the spoiler version (SPOILER WARNING!) for those interested in what I am talking around:

Did the spoiler free crowd leave?




So Joel, the protagonist of the first game, dies. No one should have not suspected this would happen; at minimum all promos for Ellie strongly implied he would be out of the picture. Whether it was quietly due to heart attack or because a clicker ate him was the real question here. As it turns out, it was even more grisly: remember the end of the first game? The bloodbath Joel engaged to free Ellie from those who were going to sacrifice her life to make a vaccine against the cordyceps infection? Well, what goes around comes around, and Joel made many enemies. Worse yet, Ellie does not know what happened; she was unconscious for most of that. This was very nicely foreshadowed at the end of the first game, and I recall when playing it, "nothing good will come of this in Part 2," and I was totally right.

The secondary issue is that Ellie is not only our lead protagonist, but her being a gay character central to the plot is leaned in to, albeit in a natural and not "preachy" way. This world has too many other wrongs, too much other misery, for the game to obsess about the fact that the survivors of this future apocalyptic setting don't have much time to worry about who's sleeping with who. The story engages naturally; literally the only issue that Joe Gamer could take with the characters as this story unfolds is that Ellie isn't male (and straight). The guys who've done reviews bitching about game elements seem to step around this very carefully (because they don't want to admit it bothers them); it's a common issue with certain gamers out there, especially those who liked the first because they need to play a "relatable (male) character" like Joel in order to feel engaged with the story, and the loss of Joel mixed with Ellie's rise to prominence is probably a serious shock to this certain subset of gamers.

It shouldn't be, but it is.

Anyway....if you like single player experiences that are full of compelling plots, characters, graphics and gameplay then you owe it to yourself to grab The Last of Us Part 2 (and the first one as well if you haven't played that, either). Just be warned! It's an amazing game, but also a very depressing story and easily portrays one of the most miserable post-apocalyptic settings in gaming history.

Friday, June 26, 2020

A Nice, Clean, Traditional Pathfinder 2E Character Sheet

While looking for a character sheet that didn't contain a vomitous level of burgundies and blues, I stumbled across this redditor post from viemexis which offers up a very clean, traditional looking four page Pathfinder 2E sheet that is not an eyesore and is easy to use. Sure, it's still four pages long.....but at least it's easy to look at!

Character sheet here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Virtual Subtraction

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2020

This Right Here (The Last of Us Part 2)

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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