Tuesday, May 11, 2021

My Nostalgia Sweet Spot: 1989

I have discovered, at last, where I think my nostalgia sweet spot lies: 1989. Probably, more specifically, 1988 to around 1992, but definitely in that zone. Top on my list of recent nostalgia finds is a vintage, almost mint condition copy of the 1989 original (not revised) version of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Dungeon Master Guide. The AD&D 2nd edition core books from 1989 are  notorious for having been fairly flimsy,* and it is not difficult to find one with tattered corners, an eroded spine or any other number of blemishes and issues, but it is extremely hard to find one that looks like it just came off the shelf at the game store, and the DMG that just showed up in the mail looks exactly like that....not even any page yellowing! Insane. 

I'm also waiting on a Player's Handbook, also from 1989, which from the images looks to be fairly intact (some corner issues but they look minor). I have a later bound Monstrous Compendium on the way, but I'm not even trying to find one of the 1989 binders filled with three-ring-punched monster sheets. It was a well-intentioned by terrible idea then, and finding those old loose-leaf folios for the original MC is hard. I still have some from back in the day (Spelljammer), but so few have survived to the present.

All this is happening because after realizing that my recent enjoyment at once again playing (and rekindling) my D&D 3.5 collection didn't so much spark nostalgia as it demonstrated that the 3rd edition rules hold up exceedingly well even in today's era of games that are inspired to heavily simplify from their predecessor. If you want crunchier mechanics and a sense of meaty stakes in your game, 3rd edition in its various forms delivers quite nicely.

In realizing that the nostalgia bug didn't lie there, I realized that it did, for me at least, lie with AD&D 2nd edition, but also very specifically those books which came out in 1989. That particular style of tome, with the mixture of classic late 80's fantasy art, woodblock-style images, and an aesthetic that was both evolved for its time and already curiously quaint just a few years later makes these books stand out to me. It was the edition my 1989 gaming group pleaded with me to purchase and run after they had graciously put up with a year of SPI's Dragon Quest and Avalon Hill's version of Runequest.** I still remember my first AD&D 2E campaign in great detail and the general enthusiasm of both myself and the group has been hard to replicate ever since.

When in the mid-nineties they released revised versions of the books, followed by the Player's Options series (an effort to reconcile dozens of other splatbooks published for AD&D by TSR), the style of art changed to something which, while interesting, just didn't evoke "D&D' for me in a manner consistent with how I felt the original 2E tomes did. It felt off, but hard to say precisely how since the look is nice....but I had grown accustomed to the older style of presentation.

Anyway, it turns out that yeah, I totally enjoy seeing intact, decent copies of tomes from this era again and reminiscing about the great adventures I had. It's part of the missing nostalgia equation, chiefly because my earliest gaming memories with D&D B/X and AD&D 1E are a mixture of interest punctuated with various compounding issues: the fact that for most of the 80's my opportunities to game were sometimes far and few between, the fact that I moved rapidly from AD&D (which was at times monolithically obscure in its design for a kid of age 10-13 when I was running my approximation of it) and started exploring dozens of other games on the market at the time, and the fact that a great deal of my time investment in gaming in the early and mid-eighties was spent writing fanzine content, going to conventions and playing games like Tunnels & Trolls, Dragon Quest, Palladium Fantasy, Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. AD&D 1E was replaced at various times by its many other contemporaries, and when you look at my classic campaign setting (Keepers of Lingusia) carefully, you can see the grains of other games and where they made their mark: Blackwell (a city on the map in RQ2) was once in the deep north on my game map, where broo-like beastmen roam free; vyrkasha wolven populate the Northern Wilderness thanks to Palladium, the great city of the plains, Karan, was my cypher for Khazan, etc. etc.

So for me, my campaign world that started in AD&D 1E in 1981ish didn't fully bloom and return to the fold until 1989 when I finally caved in and decided maybe AD&D 2E made the game something I would like to revisit. And it sure did....with some caveats (which included me immediately writing up new stat blocks for all the missing demons). That first campaign during the fall/winter semester set the pace for all my gaming going forward through about 1995, in which I structured each AD&D campaign around the length of the semester, since I never knew if I would have the same players in time for the campaign the semester following. In this manner I got quite used to a story structure that would last around 10-15 game sessions, with pauses during mid-terms and finals. It was a good approach.

Because of the turbulent and weird years of my youth, I also have what I would describe as "more unpleasant memories than good ones" from 1980 to 1988 or thereabouts. AD&D 2E arrived in my life at a time when that trend reversed, dramatically, for a time. From the year I went to college and on I had more control over my own destiny, and while there were plenty of bumps to be had in the road of time, it is indubitable that I had both more control and more freedom to compensate for it. Amidst all of this I had a handful of games, AD&D 2E in the lead, which were my key go-to forms of entertainment. I ran AD&D 2E every week, pretty much, for all of the 90's. And in those earlier days during my college years I also leaned hard on games such as Cyberpunk 2020, MegaTravller, Dark Conspiracy, DC Heroes, GURPS and Call of Cthulhu. 

It's harder to find serious nostalgia for Call of Cthulhu, GURPS and Traveller, since I never stopped playing those games. But for AD&D 2E, I very much took a hard stop on it when D&D 3rd edition came out, which was a serious revision to the game, enough so to argue that it was an entirely new and different game system. AD&D as a result isn't just an archaic set of mechanics, it's a specific thing that I did for a specific period of time and then just....stopped.

Anyway, no idea if I will try running it again (though the notion is being tossed around and the group seems receptive), but I sure am enjoying re-collecting those original books from 1989.  

* I still have my original DMG, for example, which is held together by duct tape.

** Which means yes, I am shopping around for the old Dragon Quest and Avalon Hill Runequest books on this nostalgia kicks (and Palladium Fantasy 1E), but I'm not quite willing to pay out the premium prices copies of these books in good condition command.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Days Go By....and 2021 Marches On

The good news is my local city and county in New Mexico have gone "Turquoise" which is is the local marker for a sharp decline in COVID cases and a sharp rise in vaccinations. All good! It means among other things that for the first time in over a year movie theaters get to open. My son and I are actually going to see a movie today: Godzilla vs. Kong....a film I am sure I will loathe a little bit since I also disliked the last one, but as a good father I know he loves these movies so that's what this is actually about. With any luck we won't see a reversal of trend before some actually, genuinely good movies like Black Widow release later this year. Either way, I am stoked to finally go to a real theater again! I'll post how the experience was later.

I'm hopeful that the public venues where gaming used to take place open soon. I have never been much to host, though I have the room to do it, and for various reasons prefer not to use my place I live for entertainment whenever possible. It's a hidden introvert thing, trust me. As such, when I used to run games in the Before Times it was always at a local game shop, the two of which are around locally (and still in business, thank goodness) have room for gaming. I think it is still a while before they have the city's permission (and build up the nerve) to open these spaces again, but give my entire gaming crew is also vaccinated I think we could resume live sessions soon, at least on Wednesday/Tuesday nights. Saturdays, we shall see.

I've blogged before about the issue with online gaming. It's better than nothing, I have concluded, but it suffers for gaining traction in certain areas of the RPG space like convenient die tracking, virtual maps and minis, and sacrifices the live experience in other areas, such as face to face interaction, the difficulty of a shared channel for speaking (speaking over one another is instant chaos), the general lack of physicality and what I personally would call "headphone claustrophobia." It doesn't help that work has also dominated the virtual space when it comes to meetings, so there's essentially no escaping the medium. 

Computers do some forms of entertainment extremely well, and those also compete with the clunky online RPG experience. It's hard to want to play an online Roll20 game when you are staring at another compelling graphical experience that caters directly to you. Video games dominate the computer, RPGs are weird outliers in that space, requiring more effort. They are more naturally suited to a table, where they can create a nice, structured social space.

You might wonder about whether I really am a closet introvert, given I seem more interested in face to face gaming than online gaming. The answer would be: totally, yes. The reason I have always enjoyed face to face gaming is it is a nice, structured, timed environment. I am not the kind of guy to find much deep satisfaction in hanging out at the pub or coming over to someone's house for the hell of it. I'm not a sports guy. I reluctantly go to family events and I almost always have a book or something in hand in the vain hope I can get some reading in. But I have always disliked interacting with faceless noises on the internet. It's why even in all the years I played World of Warfcraft or Destiny I have never raided and I have hardly ever done dungeons (or strikes), because those entailed having to deal with other humans, or at lest their polygonal avatars. 

This could all be just me, but it isn't too hard to find other people online commenting, at least, on the lack of satisfaction in online game environments. I'm trying to get used to it, though, as I realize in twenty years this could very well be the only way a geriatric me might get any gaming in. That said, I might not actually care or have the energy by then, who knows.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Six Months In with the 9th Generation Consoles and....

When this sordid story of next gen console acquisition left off  I had secured a Playstation 5 a week before Christmas in an unorthodox move which involved driving 2.5 hours from Albuquerque to Farmington just because Best Buy only had one in stock there. Two weeks later a pre-order from Gamestop coughed up my Xbox Series X, miraculously surviving a journey via UPS to my doorstep. Meanwhile, I had secured not one but two Xbox Series S consoles (the budget machine) for the rest of the household, one for my wife and one for the living room (and ergo the kid). So yeah, by about January 5th I had one of each next generation console sitting in the house. So how has it been?

Short version is: satisfying to have them, but the actual games one expects to see from a new generation of systems is anemic, to say the least. For most owners, the advantage of these consoles has been about seeing how the newer machines improve existing older gen experiences. Days Gone and Horizon: Zero Dawn are better experiences on the PS5, for example. Gears of War 5 and the Halo franchise likewise show improved performance on the Xbox Series X/S. 

But....the new games? Well this week we are finally seeing some new stuff. Returnal for PS5 is out and I am quite enjoying it. Resident Evil 8: Village with the Big Scary Lady is about to release. But in terms of what a console generation's groundbreaking first few months are supposed to look like? It's pretty shallow. If Activision and Ubisoft hadn't dumped out their usual annual affairs (well, in Ubisoft's case if they hadn't delayed them a year) there would have been precious little to enjoy on the new generation. For PS5 we have...Demon's Souls (a remake, albeit a very nice one), Godfall (a game which I have thoroughly enjoyed but for which most had a mixed reception), and...um.....I'm sure there was something else....* And for xbox Series X/S we have Medium (well, if you discount the PC release) and....um....yeah I am sure there is something else, right? 

I'm discounting titles like Outriders (a frenetic co-op shooter with some identity issues), Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Watch Dogs Legion and Call of duty Black Ops: Cold War because while playing these titles (and a handful of others) on the new generation provides an enhanced experience, they are all still retroactively available. And let's not even talk about Cyberpunk 2077, which somehow managed to release without any forward compatibility for the new consoles (see endless other blogs and videos on that subject).

Let's not even mention Fortnite, which provided next gen consoles with exclusive amazing graphics such as: thick clouds and chug jug animations. Wooooo.

Amidst all of this has been a flood....a torrent, if you will, of weird cashgrab and indie titles, most of which can "technically" claim to be forward compatible but their graphical demands are sufficiently low that actually being able to tell they are taking advantage of the new systems is difficult or even impossible. Many of these are insanely cheap, disgusting cashgrabs (I have for the first time ever asked for my money back twice on Xbox purchases....and gotten it!) due to games which were essentially unplayable, in a state which at best suggested that the publishers or devs of said games have barely concealed contempt for their potential audience. Worse, these garbage titles, what was once called shovelware, are so bad it demonstrates that there's a critical failure in Microsoft's vetting process for what sort of titles they let on to their console. I haven't had a truly unpleasant purchasing experience on the PS5 yet, but that would be even worse if it happened since Sony's refund policy is cryptic and not at all consumer friendly.

Still, better I suppose than the Nintendo eShop on the Switch, which is tantamount at times to diving into the shallow end of the kiddie pool and hoping that there's more water than urine in it. Speaking of which, thanks of course to the pandemic the Switch is also suffering from a rather shallow (but wide) lineup of releases this year. Without Monster Hunter Rise (a game I am having a hard time seeing the appeal of) it would be a much less interesting year for most Switch owners. 

All the ranting aside, I'm glad I got the consoles when I did if only because without them I'd be delegated to the Other Camp, the much larger group of gamers who watch in dismay as dismal restocks trickle out only to be snapped up by scalpers again and again, where one can only wonder if those reviews about Returnal being either A: an amazing experience because it is a roguelike or B: an awful experience because it is a roguelike (let's not even worry about the $70 game debate for a moment) are all just imaginary hypotheticals to you, answered at best by watching streamers play through the game.

(By the way: I know the answer, and Returnal is awesome. I am not a fan of roguelikes, having found Dead cells fun but tedious after a while, and Hades charming but not worth the effort. Turns out if you make it a really good 3PS shooter/exploration game with a mix of Prometheus/Alien design in a roguelike package I will play it obsessively and when not playing it think about how I can't wait to play it. So there's my answer) 

Still, now that we have Returnal and RE: Village it looks like this console generation is at last going to get some stride. If only they could have had some of these titles on release! And even better, if only they could get these consoles on store shelves at non scalper prices! 

Thanks, 2021! You're not as ugly as your big brother 2020 but you try.


*Spider-Man Miles Morales, which my son played through three complete times in the first week we had the PS5, then was done with. I watched the entire game in action and could not see significant differences in the graphics from the first Spider-Man outside of some better framerates, so yeah.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Tales from the Ironvast: The City of Skellstadt

 I've developed an entirely new world for my recent D&D 3.5 games. Here's a brief excerpt of one city in this campaign from which a new level 5 campaign kicked off last night. This location of course would work in any version of D&D or Pathfinder. More to come!

Skellstadt Guide

Resting like a grim three-layer cake along the badlands of the Embittered Coast, Skellstadt is a city-state of significant provenance, though also a lingering threat for the northern kingdom of Weldenscar. 

The only city not to pay direct fealty to the king of Weldenscar, Skellstadt is dominated by orcs and ruled by Huram Katitholm, the warlord of the Unification Wars. Katitholm ended the war amongst the tribes but lay down his banner at the end and gave the seven sons of the defeated warlords control over their own lands. He in turn led his tribe, the Skell, to the once ruined city called Untergangstadt and inhabited it, providing a valuable secondary port along the Embittered Coast which was reachable through a network of grottos operated by pirates previously. The Sea Captain Gorman Hux embraced Katitholm’s arrival and occupation of the ruins, which were nestled within a complex web of basalt labyrinths along the upper coast as a stabilizaing force. Katitholm is now nearly 90, and his eldest son, Hrimnar, does most of the ruling in his stead.

About Skell Orcs

The Skell orcs are predominantly lawful and dedicated in a unique way to a sort of modest egalitarian order within the city. They have forged a hierarchy of noble rulership which resembles human feudal systems more than the chiefdoms of the mountain and wilderness clans. They have allowed their kin and other denizens to form guilds, set up a city militia which doubles as guardsmen to protect against murder and crime without cause, and they have integrated traditional forms of orcish honor systems with more civilized and mundane practices of the other species who inhabit the region. Most skell orcs are well spoken and literate; the clan respected diplomacy long before it came into fashion following the Unification Wars of the last century.

Of particular note is that the skell orcs have a nonchalant, almost laconic attitude toward other species, and this has fostered a trade relationship with certain other groups such as the Hemani-descended duskers, dark elves and dwarves of clan Drevas for the last couple centuries. Once the city was settled, it became natural for these groups to have a presence. Where most orcs can barely stand the presence of most other demikin, the skell orcs see only opportunity and possible profit.

Locations in Skellstadt

Skellstadt is like a three-layered cake, with the sunny upper city resting atop the ruins along the tops of the basalt crevasses, the middle layer being the deep canyon-crevasses nestled in the ancient basalt flow throughout which the city rests like a riddled nest, and below which lie the natural lava tubes and rough hewn tunnels that comprise the comfortably darkened passages in which most light-sensitive citizens of the city dwell. There is arguably a fourth lower district as well, The Deeps, which are the gateway to the Lower Dark for caravans willing to trade with the denizens of the endless caverns.

Castle Scoria: Also called the Burning Castle, this immense structure is forged and hewn out of the basalt stone which comprises the great cliff shelves abutting and defining the Embittered Coast and neighboring badlands. Its highest spire is called Emberspire and it is said that the elder king Katitholm observes his city from there each day for an hour. The rest of the fortress is buried in the deep lava bluffs and uses the lava tubes, many of which open up to the sea, as part of its architecture.

Training Grounds and The Temple of War: Below the Capitol can be found the narrow open grounds and tunnels called the Training Grounds, where the year-round king’s army and city militia train. The Temple of War is found here, a monument to orcish planning for all things battle, and this is where Prince Himnar dwells. The temple serves Balar as its principle deity, as well as Emoath, the Bloated Son, Fomori who is said to be the progenitor of all orcs.

The Caves/Lower District: this network of lava tubes have been turned into dozens of neigborhoods from which stone-dug homes have sprung as well as long marketplaces, which connect to and open up in the Channel marketplace. Most sunlight sensitive citizens such as the orcs dwell here. A small clade of drow known as Clan Thurizen dwell here as well. The drow mainrain a small temple to Elatha.

The Channel: this is a wide open cleft in the stone which prevents much daylight from reaching the bottom but is still technically open-air. Many of the lava tubes turned neighborhoods of The Lower District open here. The channel is the location of a long marketplace where goods of all lands and species are collected, the only marketplace of the north commonly known to serve as a direct line of trade between the Surface World and the Lower Deeps. The Order of the Watch maintains its garrison here where Captain of the Guard Halador Grames rules his orcish contingent, with additional human, goblin, dwarf and ogre contingents reflected as well to handle the diversity of species in Skellstadt.

Drevas District: dwarven clan Drevas has a barrio in the city here, mixed with surface level dwellings and dwarven-make tunnel homes. The Clan Drevas relationship to the Skell orcs is unique, and they may be the only dwarves friendly to orcs in the whole of the Ostrican Coast. All told about 300 dwarves dwell here.

The Temple District: ironically there are more taverns and inns in this district to suit wealthy pilgrims than there are actual temples. A major temple to most of the Ostrican and Fomori gods can be found here, mixed freely, for Skell belief does not distinguish between the two and considers the enmity of the ancient gods to be no more than rivalry among clans. A prominent temple to the orcish god Emoath also can be found here, run by high priestess Senea, an orcish cleric who holds prominent sway in local politics and is married to prince Himnar’s eldest son, Kasal. Kasal is a knight dedicate to Emoath, and spends much of his time away from the city questing.

The Blood Holes: the name given to the arena pits in the lowest underground quarter, here cage fighting rules supreme amongst gladiators and both men and monsters or all type and species gather to place bets and fight, sometimes to the death. The arena master Katen Gor, a goblin master, pays handsomely for live specimens which would make worthy monstrous foes in the arena.

Tower of the Necromancer: the orc necromancer Kalod dwells here, and a complex guild of sorcery has grown up around his tower. He was once student to the mad Galak Zurdath, before Zurdath was killed for his intransigence, and Kalod took the tower in his absence. The tower was occupied by the order of necromancers before the city grew up around it, occupying the abandoned ruins of old. The tower will sell spells, even to rival guilds, for a price.

The Old City: mixed in the rocky crevasses and upper stretches of the area are the ruins of a lost civilization known as the Hemani, believed to have been ancient rivals of the Zamurians who were wiped out by the same unknown cataclysm which got their rivals. The bulk of human and other normal demikin as well as some ogres and goblins dwell in the refurbished remains of the ruins, built upon in modern standard. This region, which fills the gaps of the rest, is referred to as the old city and overlooks the highest points of the area.

The Cistern: a vast cistern well which supplies most of the fresh water to the city, guarded heavily by orcish troops. There is a rumor that the bottom of the cistern contains an immersed ancient temple of Ahriman once worshipped by the Hemani. Other stories claim the ruin stands mysteriously unflooded, if you can figure out the secret passages to reach it.

The Deep Markets: there are tunnels rising from below which connect to the city, and from which denizens of the lower deep such as grimlocks, troglodytes, other orc tribes and other subterranean beings will visit to trade. These beings are fearful of the open markets and go no further than the Deep Markets for their trade. Rumors of a mind flayer named Sabel maintain a temple to Cerybdos are probably true.

The Deep Markets are also home to a peculiar race of humans who descended into the darkness long ago, possibly survivors of the lost age of Hemani. These men refer to themselves as duskers, and they were effectively isolated from the surface world, comfortably living in the Lower Dark for centuries before the orcish colonization. They continue to run the operation of the Deep Markets and only a handful now dwell on the recolonized surface ruins. Their stories speak of an ancient catastrophe, and they are especially fearful of the old god Ahriman.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Quick Take: Mortal Kombat The Movie (2021)

Here's the thing about Mortal Kombat: after 11 official games and a slew of side games, the actual plot of Mortal Kombat, such as it is, remains a pure contrivance to explain away a lot of arcade fighting. It's got time travel, time changes, other dimensions, immortal and also very mortal fighters, cyberpunk, sorcery, ninjas and superspies. It's all over the map and tonally is only consistent with the cheese and gore. So a movie in this franchise mostly needs to be about an excuse for a lot of fighting to represent this franchise well.

Sure, you have hardcore fans who might question some choices: the relationship of Sub-Zero and Scorpion; the way Jax and Kano get their cybernetics; whether Johnny Cage or Liu Kang are the "main" protagonists, etc. etc. and each game treats these subjects differently. Hell, the complex and bizarre plots of the most recent trilogy in the MK games (MK 9, 10 and 11) have set a surprisingly high bar for low brow pulp fighting game lore, to be honest. 

The new Mortal Kombat movie does have to live up to this very high and also incredibly low bar for entertainment. After watching it, I kind of think it does a pretty good job, getting an A for effort in the process, at least in so far as it manages to be a damn fine B movie.

I won't go into too many specifics, but I will address the movie by its salient benchmarks:

The Kombat - the movie does an admirable job of focusing on numerous "arena set piece" battles and manages to pull it off surprisingly well. Despite some assertions to to the contrary (namely other reviewers who I feel may have not watched the same movie I did) this film had plenty of action pieces and fewer boring plot bits than I was expecting.....four minute backstory on Scorpion and Sub-Zero at the beginning aside, the movie paces well between fights and plot exposition.

About the biggest criticism I could make here was that the grand finale, while a fine action sequence in itself, felt like the moment where most other movies were about to lead you into the Big Ending. Here, it ended like we should expect this to lead in to "Mortal Kombat, the streaming series continues."

The Plot - There's an early scene where the new guy (Cole) meets Sonja Blade and she infodumps on him with all the details necessary for us to get up to speed. Part of me was, like, "that was quick," but then the original MK movie did the exact same thing, except with Raiden, so m'eh I suppose. Overall, though, this movie had exactly enough plot to move things along, and the most "excessive" bits were mostly the new guy, Cole, who was primarily there as a way of tying the beginning fight to the end, and provide some sort of "Joe Everyman" character for "Average Male Viewer" to relate to. 

I wasn't a huge fan of the way the story artlessly tied everyone's powers (be it sorcery or cybernetics) to their special dragon tattoos, but whatever. It's Mortal Kombat, this makes as much sense as the many ways the video games either did or did not bother to explain anything. To its credit, it was very internally consistent with its own world logic. 

The Characters - We get to see a baker's dozen of the MK universe characters including at least one I haven't seen in many games (the winged Nitara whom I can't recall seeing in a long time), a dude with a giant hammer that I did not recognize at all, and plenty of classics like Jax, Sonja, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Kabal, Tsang Shung, Liu Kang, Kung Lao, Mileena, Reptile, Kano and Raiden. Most of the designs focused on their more recent costume designs in MK 10 and 11, which is to be expected. Interestingly they treated this as essentially an origin story for most of them, not merely in a "let's meet Jax and co." kind of way but in a "here's how Jax gets his arms, Kano gets his eye, etc." kind of way. 

The big annoyance for me is that I rather liked the old idea from the original games of guys like Kano, Kabal and Jax being part of a criminal and black ops underground rife with illegal cybernetic enhancements. In the movie, it turns out they all gain these powers through being chosen ones, and the powers of the chosen can manifest in weird ways: ki-shouting fireballs and cybernetic arms are essentially coming from the same inner power source for the champions, which makes exactly as much sense as any other Mortal Kombat game's backstory so whadda I know I guess. 

In the end, in terms of style, presentation and voice I'll state my favorite depiction on the big screen was Kabal. 

The Special Effects - actually the effects were pretty good. Nothing stood out, especially, but I found little to distract in this regard. In some cases such as with Reptile it was nice to see him get a quality on-screen treatment. The FX fell somewhere above the "end of any DC movie" sort of low bar, and are a bit closer to the "made for streaming Marvel series" bar, if you know what I mean. I'm sure this movie would have done fine in the theaters in a pre-pandemic universe.

Overall....solid B movie! Would watch with the family again, though I'll note it's characters would all be poor if they had to contribute to the swear jar. Also, if you let your kid(s) play the MK games then you probably won't mind the hyperviolent fatalities, but this movie is fairly rife with brutal murders so keep that in mind.


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Unexpected Memories While Revisiting D&D 3rd edition

 As I continue to run more D&D 3.5 (modern games be damned!) and revel in the notion that 3.5 is, like all other editions, a dead system supported only by spectral fans, I am reminded of some things I had forgotten entirely about. Here's the Top Five List so far....

#5. The 3.0 stuff can be wonky, especially those monster books!

--Noticed when using a Coffer Corpse against the level 2 party from the original Tome of Horrors. Luckily I could reference the Revised Tome of Horrors in PDF, but that original 3.0 one with 10 resistance against everything except +1 weapons??? Damn! My group at level 2 is still dreaming of magical weapons. I have observed this with mostly 3rd party content, which is likely due to the early development being something of a wild west back then. 

#4. Some of those Legend & Lairs books are kinda handy. 

--I'm thinking of Sorcery & Steam, Portals & Planes and Darkness & Dread specifically, but these books have some good stuff in them. Darkness & Dread specifically was one of my favorite tomes back in the day, a way of running distinctly more low-key horror-themed dark fantasy with a special batch of classes designed for that style of play. I once ran a campaign set in medieval France with the actual mytho-historical Tarrasque as the secret horror!

#3. The Skill System Was Sorely Missed.

--Back in the day it didn't bother me beyond the half rank deal for non-classed skills, and I was on the fence with how both D&D 4E and Pathfinder 1E revised the 3rd edition skill mechanics, but ultimately accepted them as some sort of progress. Now, after years of that progress to diluted, vanilla, "everyone must be able to make a skill check" mechanics from D&D 5E and PF2E I am really enjoying playing an iteration of D&D again where a wide variety skills are taken seriously, and niche protection is a thing; not everyone can roll on every skill.

#2. Encounter Design is Robust.

--Without commenting on current iterations, I will say only that it's nice to eyeball an encounter and get it right, and also notice that the range of encounter options (and size) can be suitably diverse without feeling a little artificial (e.g. 5E has this less than PF2E, admittedly). It's fun to be playing an edition where encountering a lair with 3D12 orcs in it is a legitimate thing that can happen again and not a sign of player abuse.

#1. Character Design is Fun.

--I'll first state that by 2008 when D&D 4E arrived I was fairly burned out on the character/monster design process, so this revelation comes with that caveat. But having said it, now that it's been some years since I las played PF1E, and a good 12+ years since the last time I ran D&D 3.5, getting back to it has revealed to me that not only is my recollection of the rules pretty intact, but my enjoyment of the robust character design mechanics are still in place. In fact, I've had more fun rolling PCs for 3.5 than I really feel is normal.

Bonus: Damage is Interesting Again

--I really miss the idea that damage is a thing with different types and effects, some of which may (especially at low level) require holing up to heal for a few days. Being able to design scenarios with a pace that expects people to need to rest and recover on occasion fits my gaming style as it existed from 1980 right on up to 2008 when D&D 4E shat the bed.

Maybe next: a Top Five list of the things I went "Ohhhh crap" when I remembered them about 3.5! 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Starfinder: The Claw of Trikaros (scenario)

 I ran this scenario as an opener a while back to my last try at a long term Starfinder campaign. As it looks like that is indefinitely on hold due to the same issues I keep running in to with Starfinder, thought I'd drop the opening scenario notes down for those looking for some inspiration....these are the original notes; my actual play session staged everything as starting in Absalom Station and then was modified a bit to segue into the "Fly Free or Die" AP. This scenario can provide a one night session for Starfinder and might be modified for other SF RPGs with weird elements.

The Claw of Trikaros

Act One:

1.      The group has possession of a Kevolari Venture thanks to an enigmatic patron called Logos. Logos has requested that they work for him/her in exchange for the ship and a measure of freedom; each has been cleared of recent crimes. For the first mission he notifies them to help out an old friend.

2.      An old friend, Devon Mursk (human, Operative, Level 2) has asked the adventurers for assistance. They are asked to meet him at a specific coordinate, to pick up a special cargo including himself and three guests, no questions asked. The gig will pay 10,000 CR for a no-questions-asked transfer from the location on Pillar’s Way, the ancient orbital platform built around Klassikon, a Quarantined World said to contain nether rifts to the Abyss.

3.      As it turns out, the group finds out that the coordinates take them to a vast ruined temple-fortress on the surface of Klassikon, a fairly contested region, before a lost temple of the Church of Kazon-Dezak. The group finds the four pickups en route from the maw of the ruins, pursued by a suit of Animated Lictor Hellknight Plate and a horde of skeletal undead.

4.      The actual fight: group can’t target weapons from the ship as they are too close and will kill the clients. So! Fight at the ship’s boarding ramp: 5 rounds before the animated hellknight armor arrives, attack consists of: 6 skeletal undead. Countdown to Hellknight appearance 5 rounds. Group only needs to get group on board with supporting cover fire to escape.

5.      As group lifts off, an ancient buried landing platform is revealed by parting dirt and stone and a horrifying derelict ghost ship emerges, a lost relic ship of the Crusades! It’s undead (use Blackwind Sepulcher); group can make piloting rolls through the Pillars of Fire Nebulae, which cause the ship to combust due to its leaking Rift Drive.

Act Two:

1.      The group is now asked to deliver the gang to the Moonworld Korus around the Jovian Giant Silver I in the Silver Star System (5D6 days to get there since it’s jumping to a new system). The four include friend Devon, but he looks….sick? They have a locked crate and the other three refuse to remove their combat E-suits, even with signs of injury. They seem content to park themselves in the cargo hold of the PC’s ship and wait patiently.

2.      Secret: the three are named Zalon Tass, Fegar Rohn and Saita Desainte, they are each lacedon ghouls and are in the service of the Dark Star Pact, an order which works to awaken the Aquatic god Trikaros, which the believes rest in the ancient cities beneath the waters of the moon Korus. They worked with the human Devon Mursk to secure a lost artifact called the Claw of Trikaros which is thought to be a key that will open the doorway to the prison vault of the ancient god, but they need a live human to do it; using the key turns you into a ghoul. They have noticed however that handling the artifact has affected Devon Mursk in some way….he is acting strangely.

3.      Each day of the trip for the next seven days people may notice Devon acting strangely, including him attempting to access navigational logs. On day seven he makes a move: he sabotages the drive and it forces the ship to drop out of the Drift. Devon then inexplicably seizes the Claw of Trikaros’s case and attempts to eject himself and the claw into space through the airlock, possibly with a shuttle if available. The ghouls try to talk him down, but realize he has been overcome with something strange madness….secretly, a Yithian named Vector has reached into Devon’s mind to steal the device! He has been waiting for the ship to reach the right location in space. A deadworld, adrift in space called Traxion holds the secret lair of this Yithian, who intends to retrieve Devon, his puppet, with the artifact.

4.      The Yithian has sent a ship, Multifold G7 Autohauler, equipped with two space-ready Observer Class Security Robots and one reptoid named Talon (disguised as a human woman) who serves as the Yithian mind vessel. They insist the group allow the safe transfer of Devon with the artifact. Presumably a shoot-out ensues, but the Yithian will promise to double their pay (20,000 CR) for the release of the artifact. The ghouls will get violent if the party agrees. If the group seeks to consult Logos they find the comm array cannot locate any signals in the dead of empty space.

Act Three:

1.      This plays out in two ways: group arrives at the moon of Korus and lands on Dragon Corp. Mainstation where they disembark and part friendly ways with the ghouls. The enigmatic benefactor, Logos, manifests and congratulates them on the task, but then explains new tasks are yet to come….

2.      If the group reveals to Logos their sale of the artifact to the Yithian, he says that he regrets that their contract must be terminated…no pay, and the docking bay locks up! They have been reported for working with agents of the Dark Star Pact, and authorities are on the way. Group can try to hotwire the bay doors on their Mainstation hanger and blast out of there.

XP Total:

Undead 1200 (plus 1600 if they actually fight the animated hellknight armor)

Escape of the vessel: 200

Reptoid 400

Observer Class Security Bots 800

Optional Ship Escape: 200

Total combat XP Split per PC: 400; +up to 400 for two ship escapes

Completion of Story award: 500 XP each (to get everyone to level 2) (Total per PC XP: 1,300)

+200 XP if they did not give the relic to the Yithian.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Ornamentation in Rules

After playing the latest D&D 3.5 game last night, I had a thought: games often require, maybe even demand something I would describe as ornamentation.

For some games, ornamentation is done by including specific elements which, if not really necessary, nonetheless create some of the game's unique flavor or style. An easy example of this is 13th Age, a game which functions just fine without it's Icon Mechanics, but because of the Icon Mechanics it makes 13th Age stand apart from other iterations of D20. 

If you aren't familiar with 13th Age, the Icon System provides for 12 distinct archetypal personalities who represent the major movers and shakers in the campaign world. These aren't gods, as such; they are literally iconic beings comparable in role to Sauron, Gandalf, Belgarion and the Wizard of Oz....they are prominent and important fantasy characters who define the world as much as anything, and are critical to the plot elements of the story in obscure and sometimes inscrutable ways. 

The Icon System  in 13th Age is designed to simulate these big movers and shakers behind the scene, giving a simple mechanic for GMs to introduce relationships with the Twelve iconic personalities to the player characters, and a way to determine if the influence is positive, negative or weird. It takes what is otherwise a "D&D 4.5" game system and makes it unique. But...you could remove the Icon system entirely and the game remains fully playable for the most part, suggesting to me that the Icon mechanic is essentially an ornament....you hang it on the core system to sparkle it up, and in theory could move the icon mechanic to another game.

Dungeon Crawl Classics has a bunch of ornaments hanging off of it. The patron system for wizards is key, providing a rather elaborate way to make spellcasting distinct from other D&D systems. It reminds me of some of the old magic ideas introduced in 3rd edition's Tome of Magic, but with a much more dramatic flare. You could in theory port it to other games with some work, too. That said....an item like the patron system is one of DCC's ornaments. It's distinct art style, designed to evoke memories of Erol Otus's drawings is also an ornament of DCC. Likewise with its choice of weird dice, funnel crawls for level zero gangs and other such features....DCC is full of ornamentation.

This got me to thinking about D&D 3rd edition and its ornamentation. At the time, its design feature was "unify and clean up AD&D 2E." But twenty years on, I sort of feel like taken as its own thing D&D 3/3.5 has some distinct ornamentation of its own. One which was artistically evident back then was its dungeonpunk design aesthetic....the art deliberately tried to depict what actual adventurers laden with gear might look like. 

More noteworthy, though, is what I call the "tactical minutiae," an element of design in which lots and lots of distinct little factors apply to modifying combat. An archer in D&D 3.5 has to worry about what feats he has, as they affect how effective he is in combat against opponents at range and engaged with allies. You can see a variety of modifiers stack up. Back in the day I'd have called this a legacy of D&D's origins as a wargame, and chalked it up to an elaborate combat mechanic. Today, I sort of feel like it's retroactively become an ornament of that edition. 

The relatively intense mechanics of tactical combat in 3rd edition led to simplified future editions, culminating in D&D 5E which eschews almost all of those old rules in favor of the most streamlined experience possible....it attempts the bare minimum to still feel like you have some tactics in combat without burdening the players with any more details than is minimally necessary. In 3rd edition however, going back to the system you realize suddenly just how much of this stuff is missing from the current edition, and how different the older system feels as a result in contrast. 

Last night's session evoked for me simultaneous moments of deep satisfaction and grim annoyance. We're suddenly worrying about things like -4 penalties for firing into melee and the group had to hide out for a couple days to heal and recover. These are worries that are built in to 3rd edition as a natural process, but were essentially expunged from later editions. The notion that any character might have wounds that require healing over more than a day is essentially anathema to D&D 5E and Pathfinder 2E.....but in 3rd edition this stuff matters again. 

This gets me to thinking that, barring the actual timeline of development, going backwards to choose an older edition like this (or AD&D, or B/X D&D) is a form of ornamentation. These older editions can literally hang off of their designs "mortal consequences and tactical rigor" as features now, not bugs like they were once considered. Sure, maybe D&D 5E is essentially the most popular edition ever because the current player base does not need or want "realistic" damage and tactical choices, but some portion of the player base (and plenty of old grognards) might. These older editions, once derided for their complexity and attempts at verisimilitude, now stand out for this offering, as current game design has essentially gone too far in removing such layers of detail from the experience. 

I can't say I am 100% excited about resuming D&D 3.5 as I understand that the minutiae of the process can slow things down, and must be enjoyed for its ornamental value as much as anything. Still, it is nice to play a game where players (and DMs) need to factor in the fact that players may bite off more than they can chew, and may need to plan for some hiatuses to recover at times. This changes the pace and feel of the game in a manner which current editions (even PF2E with its downtime rules) have trouble emulating. To some this might seem weird, but risk/reward factors in a game can actually make the players feel like higher stakes means greater personal investment. I'm not suggesting risk doesn't exist in current editions --it does-- but that risk is mitigated fairly rapidly, and it is rare to see 5E or PF2E characters nursing wounds for more than hour or two. I admit that from my own perspective as a DM it means I can't rely on certain story beats as I could in a system like, say, Call of Cthulhu in which surpassing adversity becomes a core component of the experience. As a player it readily explains why I have no interest in 5E as a player, preferring instead more baroque systems such as 3.5 or DCC.

Anyway....more random musings. I will get this nostalgia trip with D&D 3rd ediiton out of my system sooner or later, I promise!

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Settling in to the Gaming Nest - Older Systems and Comfort Zones

Short post, but my comment of the day is the realization that I'm reaching a point in my gaming life where it is actually more important to me that I am comfortable with (and by virtue of that, engaged with) the rules of a game system in a manner which I find comforting and consistent. This may be one of the reasons I have found myself only really looking forward to the D&D 3.5 game recently....it's a system that clearly was engrained --hell, burned-- into my brain over the course of about 14 years (especially if you include the Pathfinder 1E era). It helps, of course, that I was always in the camp of "people who played AD&D 1E/2E but who desperately wished it wasn't all such a mess" --for many, the arrival of D&D 3rd edition was the game we'd all hoped for, one which did D&D and fixed the edition issues before it. 

Now, my love of 3rd edition today is tempered by a few key and extremely important details. As mentioned before one is that since it is no longer the end-all and be-all of the D&D world I have a lot more control of the content I wish to use for a given game. Second is that it's print cycle of life is essentially over; since I am not just going to Pathfinder 1E but in fact winding back the clock to D&D 3.5, it means that there is effectively almost no content out there for the game in current production I need to worry about (well, there are a few Raging Swan Press modules I'd like to retro-fit for D&D 3.5, unless RSP would be kind enough to upgrade them to Pathfinder 2E...)

So for me, having D&D 3.5 is a great mix: a complete work, a finished product, to which I can provide the level of DM control necessary to allot the right mix desired. It is also an edition of the game which rather ironically has more overall content and direction on how to add/use content in the game than any other current edition. This is a very round about way of saying that unlike in my Pathfinder 2E game where we essentially called the campaign at level 20, in D&D 3.5 we could keep going. Unlike in both D&D 5E and Pathfinder 2E, I don't need to wait for a new racial ancestry or template, because the game itself provides the foundational rules to make any species a character if desired.

3.5 has problems....key for me is you have to pay attention to sometimes annoying stacking rules, the grappling rules have never been intuitive or well explained, and the fact that monsters both can and must be leveled up like PCs means that there is always the temptation to turn NPC design into a time sink. But two decades of D20 derived systems have shed retroactive light on what is actually nice about some of these features, and also which ones don't really need as much attention or focus as you might imagine. If we muck up stacking on occasion it ruins nothing. Grappling rules can be quietly house-ruled to work more like Pathfinder 2E, or I just keep my old grappling index card handy for reference. Monsters being complex designs with class level options means I can spend as much time as I want messing with elaborate designs....as long as I feel like it. But the plethora of content both in print on the second hand market, in my library, and free online is insane; I am not wanting for readily available resources for this legacy game at all.

Ultimately, the best thing about 3.5 is the vast majority of my expectations in gaming which were forged in the 90's with AD&D 2E and solidified in the 00's with D&D 3 and 3.5 are well supported here....and that is why I realize that my enjoyment currently is based as much on the fact that I have accepted that I can have a comfort zone in an out-of-print old edition of a system as that I can at least relate to as any current edition system which may have stripped out just a bit too much for contemporary audiences. And the best thing of all is hey, I'm 50 now, I can enjoy what I want and not have to "keep up with the times" anymore if I really don't want to! I've got a medley of players I've been gaming with for 10-20 years or more, and we all have similar tastes. If they enjoy it, and see that it is where my level of enthusiasm lies, then more power to all of us.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Video Games Musings from the Deathbat - Destiny Beyond Light

As a writing exercise I realize I could talk a bit about what video games have been consuming some of my time lately. After recovering from a bout of a totally normal and not at all COVID-related stomach bug (than goodness for ordinary old fashioned familiar viruses!) I had some time to plow through a bit of gaming. Sunday I spent time with Destiny Beyond Light, focusing on completing story arcs and trying to learn how the game expects me to advance the season pass.

Destiny 2 is a weird game, in that it's now been chugging along with its identify crisis since the original game, trying to figure out how to do what it wants to accomplish without seeming to always know what that is. The recent switch to Beyond Light "vaulted" a bunch of content, too.....shining an unfortunate light on the problem of Games as a Service models, in which it is possible now to be a Destiny player who has no clue what the Red Legion campaign was all about, the pivotal campaign that kicked off Destiny 2 as its own thing. At least with the original Destiny you still have a solid story arc from the Black Garden to The Taken King and all the way up to Tide of Iron (iirc), meaning that the first major plot arc of the Destiny universe exists in a tangible way....but then everything after that up to about Shadowkeep is just....gone. It's weird, and its also a real shame.

Some of the Destiny Beyond Light model is about offering a plethora of ways to play. For the first time ever I tried the Gambit mode and kind of liked it (but not enough to care to play it obsessively). The style of Destiny is a tough sell on repetitive content, for me at least; I am not overly motivated by seeking out rare items or some sort of achievement based game cred, I just want to enjoy the story parts. The story parts are at times integrated with some of the multiplayer content (strikes and raids) and so I will put up with those as needed, but the incessant desire to play the game on its own merits is severely tempered by a desire mainly to experience as much of the story as I can.

Unlike the original Destiny or even the initial offerings of Destiny 2, it's harder to find those story pieces. The game provides them, but often they are muddled a bit with the regular game content; I have seen enough Destiny content in general to notice that there is a lot more "recycling" of areas in the story and later gameplay than is normal, even for Destiny, which is a shame. The main Beyond Light campaign, for example, had me ping-ponging between about four areas fairly constantly, which is a real shame....especially given that they chose Europa as the backdrop for this tale, which is presented as a frigid ice world (as it should be), with the relics of a lost city that may have existed before the terraforming reversed during the collapse. This is cool if its one of many settings, but they got rid of several other worlds in their vaulting of content, leaving us with the dull grey moon, the dull icy Europa, the dull cream-and-yellow colored Nessus and Earth with its two zones. Destiny's devs did this vaulting to reduce file size, but I sort of feel like maybe their game needs the larger zones, you know? Maybe they can look at other ways to handle their content size, maybe allow people to load certain things and not others; I don't play Crucible and Gambit isn't enough of a motivation, so maybe they can limit the loading of such content to those who want it, like Call of Duty is doing now? I don't know....it's a weird issue for me to address anyway, as for PC at least I have 10 TB of storage hooked up to my rig. I can see the reason for doing this as driven by the low storage space of the consoles, however; if you had a full unvaulted Destiny 2 download plus one current Call of Duty Cold War download then there wouldn't be much, if any room for other games.....and on some consoles like Xbox Series S models, no room at all without expanding the storage. 

I mentioned the Season Pass earlier. Destiny is a really odd duck with these. I can see the means of progression in a game like Fortnite; the season pass ticks up with the consistency of a well-engineered gamification process designed to insure my son and I keep logging in (though in our defense we are taking it easy on Fortnite, the game's near burnout point--again). Other games treat the season pass as a special privilege reserved for the diehards and the best of the best, such as PUBG, which lets you advance mainly by offering challenges of such difficulty that I realize I, as a middle aged gamer, am not really the target audience for PUBG....the advancement rate is too low for one of my middling reflexes.

Destiny, however, offers up something midway between the two. It does offer a lot of specialized quests and achievements, at least by Season 13, which when completed give you a decent reward.....it's just figuring out where to go to complete these things that can be a pain, and at times some of the tasks just sound so tedious, especially if one's obsession with the game's style and plot is based entirely on exactly that--the style and plot--and not repetitious gameplay. Still, with Season 13 for the first time I feel like I have a chance of getting more than 20 ranks in the season pass before it expires, something I don't usually accomplish. In the end, all the gear options in the season pass are not even worth it; the only thing that really makes it worthwhile is the materials that let you swap stats on items, as those can be quite difficult to find if you are not a repetitiously obsessed grinder.

In the end, I wish Bungie would recognize that there's a segment of the Destiny fanbase that would really rather have all the story pieces easier to find and more clearly defined; that this group is distinctly separate from the other group, that wants a single game to log in to every day that lets them grind repetitively against the same experience day in and day out. Bring back the Red War campaign, bring back all the campaigns, and make them optional downloadable content. Let me enjoy the part of Destiny that reminds me most of the good old days of Bungie when they did Halo and made excellent single player campaigns. Then, if I feel like it, let me dabble in the multiplayer content, but only if I feel like it. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Down the Rabbit Hole - Troika!

My immersion into Dungeon Crawl Classics has served as a sort of gateway to other, stranger RPGs. DCC has some weirdness, sure (and books like Black Sun Deathcrawl dive off the deep end), but there is more and stranger, stuff which feels as much like art as game. One of the first I stumbled across was Mork Borg (sorry, umlauts missing), a sort of art piece made of death metal covers and the back wall of old LP shops disguised as a sort of RPG system. I mean....you can probably play it, but I've been perusing it for weeks now and I have no idea precisely how it is all supposed to come together. 

Less confusing but much weirder is Troika! from Melsonian Arts Council (though hard to find in print in the US anywhere other than Exalted Funeral right now. I have seen Troika! mentioned as the source system for some odd sourcebooks on Drivethrurpg on occasion, which left me wondering why some publishers were providing system content for DCC as well as Troika! RPG. Book/zines like Terrors of the Stratosfiend left me wondering: is the DCC game the better system for their vision, or is Troika? After digging around and finding a copy of Troika! I found that the reality was a stranger tunnel than I had imagined.

If Mork Borg is what happens when someone channels a coke-filled death metal concert into a chapbook, then Troika! is what happens when someone Reads Lewis Carroll, watches David Lynch, and then takes too many funny mushrooms at the same time. Not to suggest that what is happening in Troika! is exclusively a weird, hallucinogenic bender-based excursion into nonsense, but rather that the game seems to exclusively revel in concepts and grounds which not only defy genre expectations (the game seems deliverately determined to avoid the tropes of the RPG and fiction genres it borrows from) but it ends up feeling like a game designed to emulate a weird dream state. It's not billed as an RPG of "weird fever dreams" but it sure feels like that's what it is.

Unlike some other fringe indies out there, Troika! doesn't even feel especially gritty or "adult" and  in fact even feels like a game you could invoke in the presence of kids. This is a welcome change from the traditional focus of a lot of the alt-OSR crowd, which seems overtly focused on recovering the narrow slice of a late teens/early twenties mindset from the 70's with all the accompanying sex, gore and debauchery they can throw in to a product. Troika! invokes the weird, but in an accessible way that is designed to spark creative expression.

Troika! also spawns from the UK OSR crowd, which is heavily influenced to lesser and greater degrees by the old solo gamebooks comprising Fighting Fantasy, which is a rough foundation for the slim mechanical rules of the system. The only part I have found suspect so far is the way initiative is handled, which is essentially what sounds to me like "take a bucket of colorful stones and pull them out one at a time until there are no more colorful stones." 

I'm intrigued enough with what Troika! is trying to do that I've picked up a couple more supplements, and will scrutinize them when they arrive. If your goal is "simple mechanics plus a setting/approach designed to maximize creative input in an environment entirely unfamiliar to the norms of the RPG landscape," it seems that Troika! does this exceedingly well. 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Growing Obsession with all Things DCC

 While I've been running some odd menagerie of Pathfinder 2E, an occasional Starfinder game, lots of Cypher System, and recently 3.5 D&D back in the mix....on my own time I've really, really really gotten in to collecting and reading up on Dungeon Crawl Classics and its spin-offs. Like, more than normal, or is even healthy. I've been ordering most of the stuff from Goodman Games, chiefly because they are awfully inexpensive, have free shipping after $100 and include PDFs with almost everything.

Although there is much adieu about the whole Appendix N phenomenon and how it may contribute to the focus and feel of DCC and its brethren, the truth is I'd label it something more like, a "pre mid-eighties fantasy/sci-fi/horror" vibe. I say pre-mid-eighties because I dived in to the genres wholeheartedly around 1980 and never looked back, and by 1986 or so in high school had read so much vintage and (for the time) contemporary fantastic fiction that I was noticing lots of trends, from the "every fantasy epic must be Tolkien" trend on down to the rather prodigious level of insanity that was billed as horror for the time, and somehow marketed on the shelves at grocery stores (to be read by little old ladies who thought my fantasy novels were inducing Satanism, of course, even as they read stuff that made Rosemary's Baby look fairly tame).

The point of this though is that DCC really does evoke the wild west feel of fantasy and scifi (and horror) for that period in time. The seventies in particular brought with it an explosion of new authors who had grown up on classic content and pulps as a natural course, and it was entirely possible in that era to write interesting fiction that was nonconformist yet readily picked up and marketed by major publishers. Today, you have to wade through endless self-published novels on Amazon's createspace to try and discern what is a self-absorbed vanity project and what might constitute good fiction. But back then? It was all potentially unique and fun, even when it was garbage (sometimes especially if it was garbage!) 

So Dungeon Crawl Classics really does capture this vibe, and I love it. So does Mutant Crawl Classics, and other spin offs like Star Crawl as well. Under a Broken Moon (the Umerica post-apoc DCC books) are sort of amazing, like weird works of art, managing to evoke the sort of post-apocalyptic adventure we all actually thought we were having in Gamma World back in the day, even as Mutant Crawl Classics portrays the more super-science elements of GW that the game actually formulated around.

All of this, of course, is in addition to the excellent reprint and expansion of Metamorphosis Alpha, which while retaining its original game mechanics from the first edition is still utterly playable and also a great resource for MCC if you are so inclined to use it as such. 

My obsession with this has me thinking hard about how to wrap at least one current campaign up so I can move forward....but it's a tough call. My weekly Cypher System game is suitably weird and interesting with lots of interesting plot and depth so it may wrap sooner than later if only because its so enmeshed in moving the story forward. I just migrated my Pathfinder 2E game to an adapted D&D 1st edition module which I converted over (more on that soon), and the old school retro vibe is working quite well for what I need that game to do right now. The 3.5 D&D game is proving that nostalgia only requires about 15-20 years for it to kick in, and is also scratching an particular itch. So I don't know when the DCC/MCC/CuaBM/MA itch will get scratched, but hopefully soon!

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Cypher System Influence - Cypher Logic vs. D&D Logic

 I plan to jot more down on this, but recently I've been running a Cypher System campaign using one of my "D&D" settings....specifically Realms of Chirak, but powered by Cypher (with Godforsaken as a primary resource). It has proven to be interesting.

Early on, for the first couple sessions in fact, there was a heavier than usual focus on D&Dish things with lots of combat and map exploration. This was useful in that it helped the group get acquainted (or reacquainted) with the Cypher System mechanics. However it was clear to me by session 3 that Cypher is better when you use it exactly as it is intended, and not as a substitute for straight D&D. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Cypher System, the simplest way to put it is this: combat in Cypher is not really any different, ultimately, than any other objective or goal within the game. Because Cypher operates as a system designed around a risk pool mechanic, pretty much every action a player takes will be centered around deciding whether or not the consequences of an action are worth an extra cost to reduce the chance of failure on an action. Part of Cypher's advancement includes finding ways to actually negate the cost/risk to the point where lower difficulty actions become automatic successes, for example. Meanwhile, the GM can throw any level of threat at the players, so long as it is understood that the high level threats will sometimes require resource expenditures just to survive, and low theats could be trivial or ultimately time wasters. 

The way you make threats more interesting is to treat them as encounters that are not merely fights. You need to insure that any given conflict has something more interesting going on than just "beat up the bad guy" because in Cypher beating up the bad guy can start to feel a little repetitive; the system gives you enough mechanical oomph to make fights interesting on occasion, but the game system is really not built to make fights a primary focus. As the game itself says in it's GM advice, the focus of the game is exploration, interaction and discovery; fights should be useful components of interesting obstacles or conflicts, but not a goal in themselves.

So, to put it another way: when I decided to adopt my long-running campaign (which has appeared as a setting in D&D since 2nd edition, Runequest since the Avalon Hill edition and GURPS (both 3E and 4E) I needed to shift gears on how to plot the conflicts and focus of the game. The last couple sessions have resulted in most combat-free political and social interactions, emphasis on the character arcs chosen by the players, and a metric ton of intrigue and clue finding. An occasional fight happens, but the goal of any such fight needs to be more than "this monster is in your way." So the last fight of the most recent session involved protecting a woman from the vengeful ghost of her dead sister, and establishing some mechanism by which the ghost could be persuaded to not want her death. The results were entertaining and far more significant than just re-murdering the ghost. 

I hear criticism about the risk pool mechanic and combat of Cypher System at times, and realized that with my adoption of a D&D setting (in which I initially started plotting and thinking about it as if it were going to run in D&D) was actually tripping me up, in so far as that the game itself just does not really want to be played that way. When it came to players, realizing their focus was on playing with a risk pool that they needed to evaluate and as GM realizing that combat should rarely be the point of any fight helped a great deal toward restructuring my thoughts on this. 

Ironically, this chain of thought never cropped up when I was running the original settings I devised for Cypher, so the organic process of how things worked was never an issue. It was only once I tried moving a campaign world over to Cypher which had previously operated on "D&D logic" that I noticed the contrast. 

I am now thinking of some new adventure and campaign ideas to explore in Cypher System, particularly using the Stars are Fire resource, as I think a far future high-concept exploration and discovery campaign in space might be more interesting to me than a more conventional Traveller type campaign. Armed with that thought in mind, the idea is: what can Cypher System do, if untethered from any more conventional (e.g. Traveller proceduralism) approaches to SF? I'll post more as I explore this angle.

Monday, February 22, 2021

OpenQuest 3 PDF for Backers - One Step Closer to Done!

The final OpenQuest 3 PDF has been released to Kickstarter backers and it looks great! The quality of the art overall is superior to prior editions and the layout/design is impressive, Newt Newport of D101 Games has outdone himself and I am thinking that I must plan my next campaign to use OpenQuest now. 

For those of you not familiar with it, OpenQuest is an OGL reimagining of Runequest and BRP using the Legend OGL from Mongoose as its original base. The system is designed to appeal to the Runequest/BRP fans who have been left behind by Chaosium for various reasons, which includes fans who liked the older 1st/2nd/3rd editions of Runequest (I'm personally a permanent fan of the Avalon Hill Deluxe Runequest era), and it's flexibility as a game system to handle more than just Glorantha simulation. Likewise, BRP got its moment in the sun with the Big Gold Book, then was eventually abandoned when Chaosium changed ownership, turning in to a much more basic 32 page document with a limited open license. OpenQuest 3 solves the problem of having a decent fantasy-based edition of the D100/BRP system which can both emulate Glorantha games if desired and your own fantasy games. It also provides some setting details on the world of sword & sorcery evoked in prior D101 game products.   

Anyway, keep an eye out for more soon, I am sure it will be up for sale for non-backers at some point.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Back to Starfinder!

After a few week's absence I am ready (finally) to run more Starfinder. I made a few executive decisions:

1. I chopped up the Fly Free or Die adventure path to extract some interesting bits, then went back to my original campaign premise to resume what I want to do, incorporating the worlds and ideas I've been developing over the last four or five Starfinder campaigns I've run in the last few years.

2. I took a real "this is Pathfinder but in Spaceeee" focus, with the idea that I should design the campaign the same way I would a Pathfinder adventure, rather than the more open way SF games tend to command (ala Traveller). I've got "stuff" I can use as needed should players defy expectations, but the goal is to provide a sweet motivation for the players to want to pursue the interesting content I spent the most time on. Then, in true form, that content is designed for the most flexibility in terms of how they approach it. 

3. The Big One: I made a serious, conscious effort to avoid a problem I decided was what was causing issues for both my Starfinder game previously, and in fact may have been what nixed my White Star attempt last year: I'm taking it seriously (playing it straight, in other words). There's a temptation to lean in to weird elements of space-fantasy settings and notice when some things that are happening appear to be tropes, or derivative, or cliche, or just plain silly. 

White Star has this problem at times because a majority of its content is derived from popular scifi settings....it's the Qinlon/Canneck/Yabnab/Rawrr problem; the game lampshades in its own naming convention that these are really klingons, daleks, ewoks and wookies. As a result, using such content inherently feels derivative if you don't figure out a way to change it up a bit. When I ran my original couple of White Star campaigns I avoided this issue by making qinlons more like in-control versions of Firefly's reavers or the wastelands goons of Mad Max, making the cannecks more like horrifying Von Neuman machines that destroy worlds than anything resembling the silliness of daleks, and in those campaigns it was the original edition of White Star so I could ignore yabnabs and rawrrs (something the Galaxy edition makes harder to do....yes you can, but your players can't unsee what they saw, y'know?)*

Starfinder has this to a certain degree as well. It's got some strange setting assumptions that can be easy to lampshade if you aren't careful, since the rules themselves don't really prepare the GM for the hows and why's of the implied Pact Worlds setting. These include:

The Gear Economy - why a level 1-20 scale of increasingly expensive but useful gear exists as a thing in the context of the setting;

The Starship Economy - why starships are not part of the economy and are part of the leveling scheme (though some rules in Fly Free or Die help muddy that water a bit);

The Fantasy Elements - explaining a mix of fantasy and scifi tech is not the issue, it's clarifying why there are elves, dwarves, orcs, drow and other fantasy species spread out throughout the galaxy; removing these species is possible but creates gaping holes in the toolkit infrastructure of the game. The game itself treats the presence of such species in space in strange and unusual ways. For an example look no further than ghouls to see how a horrific cannibal undead monstrosity gets turned in to a semi-docile workforce that just wants to get past its ancient reputation while working dangerous jobs living beings can't. Sometimes this works well, but other times it just feels a little....cartoony? Goblins, skittermander and other elements pose problems when a GM wants to run a game that feels like a universe that could exist outside of a cosmic multimedia blender. 

My solution is to lean hard in to the same thematic elements that make Pathfinder games fun, but now with more space stuff. So rather than delve into the mundane elements of how a space trucker economy works and how space thieves guilds function (the subject of Fly Free or Die AP) I'm going to stick more closely to the idea that this is what a Robert E. Howard tale would look like if it were written in a science fiction universe filled with both fantasy and magic (okay yes we have Almuric to look too, sure**). The assumption I am taking is that there is infrastructure to this spacefaring society in the Starfinder universe, but its just barely enought o sustain some sort of trade network and industry, and the vast majority of worlds are teeming with strangeness, hidden mysteries and horrors, and that the underlying risk in this universe is precisely the same as it tends to be in a straight fantasy setting....just with lots of additional tech. 

This means that a nontrivial percentage of worlds in this version of the Starfinder universe are just techno-feudal societies where the noble elite remain in charge, but the resources are hoarded or squandered and rarely do you see something resembling a normal futuristic society that might fit in Traveller. I'm going to assume that movies like Forbidden Planet, Zardoz, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Star Crash, Krull, Starbeast are more informative of the thematics of this universe than more realistic science fiction. I can even assume that the very D&D/Pathfinderish ages-old conflict between Law and Chaos informs this universe at its core, explaining much of how the perpetual churn of social, technological and magical conflict continues unabated. 

Anyway......that is a long way of saying I don't want "docile orc mechanics, ghouls who just want to be useful, gnomes being gnomes and skittermanders and goblins being themselves" to dominate the overall feel of this campaign. I'd like the campaign to feel weird, old school, and intelligent...an homage but not derivative, and genuine instead of a parody or farce. If a goblin is going to get up to something, I'd like to think it's because there's a genuine culture of goblins in the woodwork, laboring under a reduced social status while living off the wreckage of high tech and high magic societies above, and not just because we need a quick encounter with some slapstick. Likewise, ghouls aren't just misunderstood humanoids suffering under centuries of strife, but a deformed caricature of man wrought in necrotic energy, undead beings who struggle on a good day not to consume the flesh of the living and shun the light, and a handful strive to be seen as some semblance of what they were in life, while far more find solace and freedom in the cold darkness of space.

We shall see! 

*I know that there is a lot of fun to be had by leaning in to this stuff (playing for the derivative content as a focus), but you can't really mix that sort of thing with a serious campaign (ime).

**That, however, is planetary romance which is actually a different kind of genre. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Encounter Design and Level Consideration in Pathfinder 2E Hexploration

I had been reading and responding to a post at Enworld on hexploration when I realized it would be fun info to also post here:

I run hexloration campaigns in PF2E per GMG rules pretty consistently, but what I do with the encounter tables is create slightly more elaborate ones that are based on party level. So a chart for CL 0-2, CL 3-4, CL 5-6, CL 7-8, CL 9-10 etc. Then, when I check which chart to roll on for the encounter I roll a positive D4, a negative D4, add the first and subtract the second to the currently average party level, and then use the indicated chart. If the encounter is for some reason meant to be easier or more difficult just substitute a smaller or larger die as appropriate. Example: an easier random result would be challenge level -1D6+1D4 added to APL (average result would be APL-1). Tougher encounter? -1D4+1D6 generates APL+1 on average. Then, just work out a range of encounters but modify the # of foes by the actual expected toughness.

That said....the GMG advises an occasional deadly or impossible encounter in the mix for hexploration, but my suggestion is to broadcast in some means how lethal the encounter is (whether it's the PCs seeing a higher level beast cleave a cow or deer in two in one hit, a bloodied paladin telling them to flee, or even just an easy DC intuition roll on Perception or Nature telling them this is a certain death situation.) My players have a habit of sticking around and fighting until they suddenly realize they bit off more than they can chew, so putting some tells in to your encounter which give them fair warning is a noble thing to do as the GM. Likewise, the GM in PF2E needs to be nice and include at least as many easy encounters for the group to tread on.....such design flies in the face of conventional hexploration wisdom I suppose, but you are the one designing the charts so you have control over this stuff, and I advise just baking it in, providing for a nice fair range of difficulty from trivial to deadly.

Here's a sample chart, designed for a region that a group of level 1-5 can explore with some mix of risk and adventure, skewed slighty toward the easier end:

Wilderness Encounters:

Determine Chart Level by rolling +1D4-1D6+APL (range from APL-3 to APL +5)

CL 1 or Less: 1D8

1- orc brutes (2D4)

2- kobold warriors (1D8)

3- giant centipedes (1D6)

4 - eagles (1D3-1)

5- Badgers (1D6)

6- Cave Scorpions (1D8)

7- Giant Solifugid (1D4)

8- Sylph Sneak (1D2) plus Dust Mephits (1D3)

CL 2-3: 1D6

1- orc brutes (2D4) plus orc warrior (1D2)

2- lizardfolk scout (1D2), lizardfolk defender (1D4)

3- wargs (1D4), orc brutes (1D6)

4- skeletal champion (1), skeletal guard (2D4)

5- Black Bear (1)

6- Shocker Lizards (1D3)

CL 4-5: 1D6

1- giant scorpions (1D4)

2- tiefling adept (1), orc warriors (1D4), orc brutes (1D6)

3- Green Hag (1), wererats (1D4)

4- Green Hag coven (3)

5 - Redcaps (2)

6-  Trolls (1D3)

CL 6-7: 1D4

1 - living landslide (1D2+1)

2- Ettins (1D2)

3- Hydra (1)

4- Medusa (1) plus animated statues (1D3)

CL 8: 1D3

1- Desert Drake (1D2)

2- Stone Giants (1)

3- Young Green Dragon (1)

Written as it, this gives a spread on chance of encounters like this:

Party APL 1: will have a chance to roll from CL1 or less chart (from APL-3 to APL+0) to CL 4 (APL +3). An APL+3 encounter might be deadly (two Redcaps of CL 5 against a party of level 1s is just cruel).

Party APL 2: Can encounter anything from CL 1 to CL 5 on the charts, with an average chart roll being on the CL 2.

Party APL 3: Can encounter from CL 1-6, with an average roll being CL 3. APL 4 can encounter CR 1-7, etc.

The list caps out at CL8+, but the GM can of course start adding new charts if desired. The net result of these charts is you have the potential for trivial (non threatening) encounters mixed with a risk of a really deadly, even impossible encounter. That same encounter, once escaped, can later be something the group tackles at a higher level. 

You might wonder how I arrived at the # appearing....pure GM intuition, take them with as much salt grains as needed.

Anyway...random thoughts!

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Nostalgia Creep - Or, How D&D 3rd Edition Suddenly Became Nostalgia For Me

 I'd mentioned during a new year's post that I had some designs on revisiting Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition that I'd revisit in a future post. This is not the first time I've felt this way, but most definitely it's the first time I've decided to actively engage with it. The last time I got genuinely interested in a return to D&D 3rd was during the rise of 4th edition D&D, but before Pathfinder had manifested. Needless to say, Pathfinder ended up being a suitable substitution and derailed me for a good long while. With that said....you might wonder why 3rd edition D&D and not just more Pathfinder? Or, for that matter, why not AD&D 1E or 2E? 

Well, this is a complex question. But as I have thought a bit about my returning interest, I realize the convoluted logic path goes something like this: D&D 3rd edition has a lot of good memories for me. I had some bad memories, too, but I realize in retrospect that the good times gaming came from the game groups that were synergetic and had fun without caveat, and the bad memories were from the groups where there was a bad synergy or maybe some literal bad actors (players who mostly liked griping about the game). In time it made me enjoy 3rd edition less....as I bet it did for many. But I can't deny that some of my best days gaming were from around 2000 to 2006 during which I used D&D 3/3.5 as my go-to gaming engine for D&D, and had consistently great groups of players, many long time friends, who were all into enjoying the game in the same general way. 

So, to put it another way, some of the nostalgia I know I'm feeling is for that particular era of gaming in my life. But....and this is a big, important but....I've got a couple really amazing groups these days that are all now long time old friends and we have a really good synergy, too. So the idea of introducing my current group to "classic" D&D 3.5 doesn't seem so crazy; for many of them they started with the rise of Pathfinder, D&D 4E or D&D 5E and have never actually experienced a game of original D&D 3E.

There were some problems back in the day. D&D 3.5 had an overwhelming number of splatbooks for it's time, though I find it ironic that today, when you look at the core rules, it contains as much (or more) content than all of the D&D 5E core books and accessories combined. Even better, with the advantage of hindsight the sum total of all 3rd edition D20 content has a very precise period of closure. Sure, books continued to churn for Pathfinder, but as anyone immersed in the vagaries of edition mechanics knows, Pathfinder 1E has a lot of assumptions in design that make it difficult to precisely treat as retro-compatible. A gamer could readily be forgiven for seeing the PF1E era as the start of something new and the proper close of the D&D 3.5 era, in other words.

Anyway.....long story short, I am having fun with what I realize is another genuine (and unexpected) moment of nostalgia. The advantage here is I recall my issues with the game, and realize that a nostalgic return to 3.5 will avoid the bulk of those issues, chiefly due to the fact that it's now a closed loop as games go....all of its content is out and its cycle of life as a publishing machine is done; I can pick and choose from the content out there with a great deal more discretion than I once might have, and I can studiously avoid those supplements that I disliked (example: I was not a fan of the Book of Nine Swords, Incarnum, etc....precursors to the shift to 4E design ethos). Likewise, my players are long time friends and cohorts, and bring to the table a wealth of commonality rather than the sorts of players that once pervaded the hobby with 3rd edition, in which min/maxing design was considered the overwhelming motivation in character generation (as opposed to rolling something fun and interesting for the story). 

I don't know if this will be a long term or short term venture....I do think it will be fun to revisit if only so I can both lampshade the things once part of D&D that led to the modern iterations of the game, and likewise contrast that with the design elements of modern games which are maybe less satisfying (such as D&D 5E's reduction of damage values to "it's all hit points" and general ease of risk, or Pathfinder 2E's amazingly double-edged precision in difficulty ranges).

Either way.....if my group opts in to try it out, I'll provide more updates!