Thursday, July 22, 2021

Return to Live Gaming Part II - D&D 5E Returns (some re-impressions)

 Our second week of gaming has resumed in the live venue, which has by coincidence been an awfully nice and quiet place to game on Tuesday nights, shared mostly by a smattering of wargamers. I am told Wednesday nights are busier, so I am glad we moved to the new night a while back.

For Tuesday, the Roll20 game I had been running on the "off week" was essentially at a close. I had plans to continue the campaign, but rather than do so with D&D 3.5 I advised we should move back to D&D 5E. The other rotating game night will stick with 3.5 for now, though, until that campaign is done, if only because I love juggling editions of the same game (not! I just want to finish out that campaign).

The basic reason for moving to D&D 5E again is pretty simple: it's the edition which shows the most efficiency in providing a ruleset that runs according to the way most people want to play and experience the game in a live environment.* D&D 3.5 is a lot of fun to run right now, but I know it will inevitably get increasingly convoluted as it advances toward higher level play, and the very tactical rigor that makes it distinct also means I need to haul maps and minis along for effect. With D&D 5E the maps and minis are almost entirely optional, and we ran Tuesday night's game with no need for visual references.....theater of the mind combat management worked absolutely fine.

D&D 5E has some other advantages, too. At least one of these I came to realize was something which I had ordinarily been unhappy with in prior 5E experiences, but in an odd twist after playing some Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition again** I realized I probably shouldn't look to negatively upon. In a nutshell: I've never been a huge fan, as a DM, of the hit die and resting mechanic in 5E. It's a hold over from the 4th edition of the game which used quick recoveries to effectively let groups play through scenarios without worrying about having to take several days off back in town to recover from various damage types. The concept, back in 2008 when 4E came out seemed well intended, but the long term consequence (from my actual play experience) was that the game deflated the sense of risk dramatically. Risk became something that mattered during combat only, for the most part; even diseases were rarely a threat as they were written in 4th edition, and long term debilitation simply ceased, for all intent, to be a thing.

Back in 2008 this was an issue for me because I have a very descriptive style as a DM. In 3rd edition and earlier if someone took a massive injury or dropped to dying status it was easy to suggest through description that that person really had taken a serious wound and the game design supported the notion. Healing from such a wound took magic or time (or both). Suddenly, in 4th edition that was essentially gone from the equation. The closest one could get to "near death" in 4E was when all recovery options were completely exhausted, and that took serious effort and intentional DM overkill to achieve such a state.

5th Edition seemed to try to course correct a bit, providing hit dice as the recovery mechanic, with rules which seem to encourage at least a long rest to get back to full health. However, the DMG has optional rules (of which I am using one in the new game) to regulate the pace of healing. It's a good compromise, though one I had been reluctant to use when I ran 5E before, but I think it will work just fine now. The rule in question is the slow natural healing rule, which simply states that players don't recover HP after a long rest, and instead must spend hit dice to do so. The hit dice continue to return at a rate of 1/2 the level of the character, so the ability to spontaneously recover quickly in this process is a bit diminished. It's not the grittiest mechanic on offer (the DMG has the one where it shifts a short rest to 8 hours and a long rest to 1 week!) but I feel it provides an excellent middle ground, slowing down recovery rates a bit (making healers more useful) while still giving players some flexibility with hit dice.

 Other things I like in 3.5 but also happen to like not having in 5E include some of the fiddly combat bits. Stuff like a -4 penalty to firing into melee, positional flanking and other combat rules of specific note work really well with a map and minis (and ergo very well in Roll20 where maps/minis are trivial to manage). At the game table, however, it is really useful to not have to worry about that stuff when you are seeking a more narrative/freeform TotM approach to the game. People can describe their actions with more creativity (or will, when they get used to that process again....I honestly know some of my players likely prefer a set of "things you can/can't do" in combat situations but they will readjust!)

Although I love 3.5's skills, I also can't say I don't like the way 5E does skills. In fact, 5E's skill approach is more organic and essentially unrelated to the leveling experience, which is really cool. It also has more "natural" skill choices for its limited list.....it reflects very accurately the skills I want to call out checks for when running a game. In contrast, I am still after two years of Pathfinder 2E trying to adjust to the fact that it rolled so many skills up into nonintuitive clusters (society I am looking at you!) ....put another way, some of the consolidated skills in Pathfinder organized for efficiency in design at the dramatic expense of useful granularity and specialization. Some of the specialization was retained through the skill feats, but the skill feats are universally regarded as awkward throwbacks to the time when feats ruled all, and it's a weakness in PF2E. 5E sidesteps this entirely.

The thing I found oddest in last night's game was readjusting to the very small modifiers we were dealing with, but that's no big deal (but it also means low level 5E is forever swingy). I will, later, get somewhat annoyed with the way it makes monsters tougher through HP inflation, but that is also solved best by relying more on other third party monster books when possible, as Kobold Press, Onyx Path, Frog God Games and others are very good at making monsters with better "dangerous abilities over  HP bloat" balances.

Either way....still insanely happy to be live gaming again! 



*Yes there are people who might prefer to play it a different way, but they are in their own cluster niches in the hobby and not the people propelling the game to immense levels of popularity via current sales, play, and Youtube stuff. 

**This deserves some elaboration: the short version is I haven't managed to get anywhere close to replaying Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition with its new content and DLC (or move on to BGII which I have never played at all) because I kept trying to play it on the "normal" mode, which for a real-time game at my age means serious annoyance and frustration as my group dies repeatedly and the laws of diminishing returns leave me disinterested in continuing. It's like playing with a DM who ends every third game in a TPK and then demands you restart and reroll from the beginning. This weekend I put it on "story mode" (alias easy mode) and was shocked to get through and blow right past the wandering encounter sections that kept wiping me out with ease. The game is using some basic tricks to make my characters hit tougher and take more damage, but the result felt like I could focus on my main and let the rest of the group efficiently do their thing. As this happened, I realized it was essentially jury rigging the experience to play more like an at-the-table event in which you weren't actually having to engage in the wargame micromanagement minigame that the old isometric engines focused on. That was fun in 1998 because Reasons but for me, in 2021, I just don't have that kind of time and need games that help me to relax, not stress me out. Either way, I suddenly had an epiphany and realized that the same principle concept helped explain why the economy of 5E design worked so well for such a large crowd of gamers.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Mechanics that did not Age Well

A month or two back I decided to mix things up a bit (while still stuck entirely on Roll20) and I started running some D&D 3.5 again. Dragging out the old books was fun. There are aspects of D&D 3.5 that I still like a great deal, and realize that their utility has not diminished with time; I still prefer more granular skill systems, for example, and like the idea that spot, listen and search are all separate skills, and that being good at one of them isn't automatically a certainty to be good at another. I really like the fact that the reduced healing mechanics mean PCs need to think and be more careful as there are consequences for pushing on without regard for health and safety. A lack of at-will magic means wizards do have a reason to carry a staff or dagger for other than purely aesthetic reasons. Even some combat rules in 3.5 are appreciated: higher risk from firing in to combat, penalties for lack of proficiency and other little details all make sense to me. Sure, they are fiddly bits which don't need to be in the game as 5E demonstrates, but they add some versatility to the design and make combat feel more tactical and dangerous.

However, what I have found most interesting is in the moments where I notice that a rule from 3.5 not only didn't age well, but it aged so badly that I basically change the rule and substitute a 5E method instead. So far I've run in to this situation a few times. Damage reduction as a rule is just a pain in the ass, and something that is in many ways potentially invisible to the players. If I as GM tell them, "Your blow seems to have little or no effect," the players need to guess if that means they can't penetrate the DR or there's something more troubling going on (like immunity to the attack). If your whole group is striking and rolling low on the damage against a DR protected creature they could be in for a brutal slog. This is where the much more effective resistance/weakness mechanic of 5E is so much more sensible, and luckily incredibly easy to substitute. It even gives the DM easy descriptive language to use: "You strike your foe and it seems especially weak/resistant against your attack," tells the player all they need to know, and if its an actual immunity that is easy to communicate, too.

We've been sticking to low level play in 3.5 so far (that will change over time), but I already know how insane the stackable vs. non-stackable modifiers get as the game progresses along. Needless to say, the elegance of 5E's design eliminates this issue entirely and seamlessly as well.

As fun as advantage/disadvantage is in 5E I haven't seen any reason to introduce it in 3.5 yet. I am quite comfortable with basic modifiers and DCs working as intended, but the ability to award inspiration is missed. 

The way 5E handles magic items is so remarkably different from 3.5 that it bears mentioning. The extremely processual design of 3.5 magic items is in many ways one of the Achilles' heels of the system, as it created the rules and expectation of magic economies, and provided hard rules that sort of demystified the entire process of magic item creation. Nothing short of epic artifacts could not be found at the right level of market, or made by the players, with the rules as presented. In 5E it deliberately eschews this entire affair and only in later 5E do we se some rules creep back in (chiefly because as a result of 3.5 more than anything the notion that every city and town must have a magic item economy had become thoroughly engrained in the genre*).

5E's basic rule on training new skills and languages (pay coin, spend time, get skill) is far superior to the class/level restrictions of 3.5. So while I like granular skills and the skill point method, I much prefer 5E's more organic division on skills, allowing for more realism in how people learn things. It also lets the DM incorporate learning skills over time as a reward without breaking any game balance.

The most noticeable detriment to 3.5 over 5E is that rolling a nonhuman character is a pain in the ass, thanks to the scaling issues being dealt with throgh level adjustments. The 5E method is simply less hassle for the same result.

By coincidence (or not) we are resuming 5E on the next live off-week session, so make of that what you will!



*Sure the notion of a magic item shop existed long before 3E, but the idea that it was part of a mercantile economy with clear rules of commerce and manufacturing, and an almost total absence of mystery was very much a 3rd edition introduction. In 2nd edition and earlier the magic item shop was the weird wizard and strange shop in a large city, surrounded by mystery, usually with a specific and well regarded name attached. But the key idea was that prior to 3E, the magic item shop was a contrivance of the GM and fully in their control, and laden with mystery. The magic item shop of 3E was by contrast well defined and something the players themselves could establish if they were so inclined. It stopped being a DM tool and macguffin and became a player utility. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Game Store Play Advantage

 Brief post, but last night's return to live gaming was a  blast! It was nice to play a game with actual live humans again. People are still live humans on VTT, sure, but they are distracted people with narrow electronic pinholes peering in to the remote dominions of their cohorts. Not the same, in other words, as just being present around a table and gaming together.

The big advantage of gaming at the local game store, of course, happened immediately last night as we picked up a new player (first time since before the pandemic shutdown) and possibly a second down the road. You can meet people more easily (in person) by being in a common location where people congregate with like interests, and for us locally that means one of the two game stores we have (I bet the student annex at UNM or our community college might also work, too).

Either way, it was nice to be back to gaming in the manner for which it is most suited!

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Return to Live Gaming!

 We're meeting for the first time in more than a year at our local game shop.....everyone in the group is vaccinated, none of us have overtly stressful health issues (outside of the usual stuff), and frankly it will just be nice to meet people live again. 

Virtual gaming has some advantages.....one of them is not hauling a 50 lb. bag of books around, followed by another immense tote filled with maps and pawns or minis, but I gotta admit, this may have been yet another form of exercise that I haven't been getting for the last 15 months of isolation.

It will probably involve somewhat slower interactions....our brains will need to remember calculations now rather than let Roll20 do it for us, for example; but on the plus side that is trivial compared to learning how to set up the macros to do those calculations in the first place!

Instead of me scalping maps off the internet or trying t draw them with crude online tools I can now just draw them with dry erase markers and call it a day. 

Pulling maps out of the ether online is pretty trivial. For a physical table you can print them out as needed, or just draw your own, but of course the virtual environment is easy enough to port them in to as well. The difference that favors the table, however, is no one complains when you can't figure out how to use the dynamic lighting software, or can't find the time to elaborately set it up. Is dynamic lighting cool? Hell yeah. Is it worth it? Not in my opinion.

Perhaps the biggest advantage VTTs do have over the table is minis management. It is prohibitively difficult under any conditions to easily pull out the right minis or pawns and use them. At minimum you need to narrow down what is necessary (that can be hard if you run more hexcrawl or sandbox style campaigns where by its nature there is some unpredictability) and also very expensive to secure enough miniatures to field any possible encounter. Pawns such as what Paizo makes simplify building up your army of tokens a bit, but can be a nightmare to organize for easy deployment. VTTs let you you drag and drop tokens in a flash and with very little delay.....so points to VTT for this.

A huge thing I am looking forward to live gaming for again though is the fact that conversations can once again be fluid, can include visual queues, and do not funnel through the "one voice, one channel" process of online communication. You can have side conversations. You can have conversations where people aren't talking over each other (okay, that will happen, but it makes more contextual sense in live situations), you can not worry about audio dropping unless someone gets laryngitis, etc. etc.

But mostly, I'm looking forward to seeing some old friends again in the flesh for the first time in ages!

Monday, July 12, 2021

Decision Paralysis and the Fantasy Heartbreaker Genre's Evolution

 Back in the 90's a game which appeared to be overtly influenced by D&D was generally called a fantasy heartbreaker. It was typically considered a game in which the author, having house-ruled AD&D over the years, had finally reached the point where his interpretation of the game attained special significance: it was so far removed to one degree or another from AD&D that it looked like a different game, and the author was so enmeshed in his interpretation of said game that he could not imagine any other game (including AD&D) being more worthy of consideration for play than his own.

Some of these early fantasy heartbreakers languished unpublished. In the 80's and early 90's in particular the everyday nonexistence of an internet meant that sharing your fantasy heartbreaker required publishing it through the channels available at the time, which also did not include print on demand. There was no Lulu or Onebookshelf to realize your dream. If you were savvy and talented then you could turn your heartbreaker into a real game with a real following (I consider Palladium Fantasy to be in this category, for example). If you were less talented then the results could prove interesting (If you've ever heard of World of Synnibarr it is regarded by some as on the more extreme end of the fantasy heartbreakers). Most are completely forgotten, though.

Today, fantasy heartbreakers still exist, but thanks to the transformative era of the D20 OGL 1.0a we have more "mechanically consistent" heartbreakers than ever.....we just don't call them that. The entirety of the OSR is essentially a subgenre of fantasy heartbreakers, as is every single D20 era system which thought to demonstrate that it was better and more efficient at doing D20 than D20 was (be that Fantasy Craft or Grim Tales, to name a couple). The OGL at least made it possible to comfortably do this legally, and also allowed for a unifying structural arc over the entire mess. 

A side effect of this is that today we have an abundance of published and often well supported game systems which are all essentially variants on the same D&D theme, sometimes to the extent that they are collectively each fighting for a corner of the same specific experience, rather than collectively offering anything particularly new. When you have this mixed with a GM like myself who likes to collect way too many books this can lead to scenarios where it becomes, at times, troubling to think about which flavor of D&D you want to play at any given moment. Like, really annoying!

I mean, on my shelves alone I have the following (this is what I have after my great purge a couple years ago, mind you):

13th Age - for people who liked the direction of D&D 4E but didn''t want the map/minis harness.

D&D 5E - the current D&D, carefully designed to emulate how people play over what the rules said.

D&D 3.5 - the beast that started the last 20 years of gaming evolution.

D&D 0E - the original, characterized as the root of all things OSR by some.

AD&D 1E - the version associated with Gygaxian prose and endless unique subsystems.

AD&D 2E - the version I actually enjoyed playing the most for all of a decade.

Pathfinder 2E - Paizo's attempt to distinguish itself from the competition, but also my current fave.

Pathfinder 1E - the one that happened when WotC abandoned its base .

OSRIC - the first successful attempt to show how the OGL could revive old school design.

Labyrinth Lord - the OSR version for people who loved B/X D&D (and also AD&D).

Dungeon Crawl Classics - the carefully designed aesthetic and focus on procedural randomness plus unusual dice to evoke the sense of the 70's like a scratch-n-sniff that smells like your uncle's waterbed.

Mork Borg - I think this is for people who love ideas but also don't like words that explain things unless those words are grim, dark, metal, etc.

Troika! - also for people who like ideas but aren't big on coherence, and also who loved Fighting Fantasy as kids.

Palladium Fantasy - I've got the most recent edition, but would argue that Palladium is the definitive original heartbreaker. 

Mythras Classic Fantasy - it might seem odd to include this, but it fits; Mythras is a Runequest based system and CF is all about changing Mythras so that you can play it like AD&D...but with more percentiles.

Swords & Wizardry Complete - the definitive OSR clone of D&D 0E, allegedly (except for all of the others), but arguably the most playable and fiddly of the different 0E variants.

....there are likely others I have forgotten about sitting in storage or whatever.

The point being: there are a lot of different systems out there currently that let you achieve your exact and highly specific brand and flavor of D&D that you want. For some reason I have a lot of them on my shelves. I have gotten rid of others in the past.....as much as I enjoy the style of play Castles & Crusades evokes, for example, it was simply too close in feel o D&D 5E for me to keep it around. There are other contemporary old school clones that are simply not quite worth the effort when the original editions are now all back in POD; why bother with For Gold & Glory, for example, when I already have all the AD&D 2E stuff I could bear?

But the real question I run in to is: why have all of these systems on my shelves to begin with? As a collector the answer is obvious: so that my relatives and family must do a lot of back-breaking cleanup in my study when I die. But aside from that.....I find that until that fateful day all these fantasy heartbreakers lead only to momentary confusion as I find each one has its merits and is worthy of attention, yet I only have so much of that to go around, and only a couple times a week to game. As such, I inevitably need to choose the games that best fit my actual playstyle, and those are only a handful, to be honest. 

So....this was a long post to come around to saying that I may need to look at another Ebay selloff soon, or maybe I'll just start boxing some stuff up to clear out space and take them to the local bookstores. If I do this, I figure I'd need to let my collection settle down to the following:

1. The edition I am most likely to run consistently (Pathfinder 2E) 

2. The edition I am most fond of because it does everything I want it to (D&D 3.5)

3. The edition I know is most popular so should keep for that reason alone (D&D 5E)

4. The edition with the most nostalgia and for which I actually would be willing to play again becasue of that (AD&D 2E)

There's also Dungeon Crawl Classics, which I would be inclined to keep because I feel it tries hardest to do its own thing. 

The rest.....should probably go. Hmmmm. We shall see!

Monday, July 5, 2021

GM Block

 Does this happen to anyone else? As I prepare to return to gaming after a work-induced break, I find myself feeling less enthusiastic, or so I think, for straight D&D/Pathfinder gaming. I think the real reason is Roll20 burnout more than lack of actual interest. Put simply: the stuff I as GM like to focus on doesn't translate so easily in the VTT environment, and the VTT stuff that works best tends to be more of the maps and minis kind of stuff, so there's an imbalance I am feeling.

So I am about to embark, either this week or maybe next, on resuming live gaming. But in doing so I decided to jump the shark a bit and propose some stuff I normally consider outside my wheelhouse of interest....specifically Luther Arkwright, powered by Mythras. I'm not a salient fan of the series, but I did grab the Arkwright Integral graphic novel and have enjoyed reading it. The campaign book for Mythras is comprehensive and provides a wealth of interesting material, though like so many other books for licensed IPs that don't have "Cthulhu" in the title it's maybe a bit too brief on interesting conflict/foes that the GM can immediately run with. It's got them sure, but I get the impression throwing a Disruptor tactical assault squad at the group first time is probably a bit excessive. There's a sourcebook of eight adventures for the setting which I am trawling through right now...it is providing some good context. It probably doesn't help much that most of the media content suggested for the setting is also outside my wheelhouse of expertise....I am not terribly immersed in the 60's and 70's era espionage fiction that the game seems to spark from, or for that matter Moorcock's Eternal Champion series. But there are other influences mentioned I am more acquainted with (Lovecraft and Planetary are mentioned), so maybe I can find a way to make this game "my own." 

I sort of need to, because I'd like to find something which really "grabs" me but I am loathe to admit I did not do any preparatory work for the game this Tuesday (well, I did write a scenario but I don't like what I wrote, and think it's in desperate need of a redo). Group still needs to make PCs,so maybe we can focus on that, or otherwise put it off to next session....I haven't run Mythras in a few years and it is not the kind of game you can run off the cuff, being just different in key ways from straight BRP/CoC that one can readily get tripped up.

So....yeah. No idea where I am going with all this. I have been feeling less enthusiastic about GMing than I ever have before. I literally have to think back to 1995 as the last time I lost all enthusiasm for gaming, post-graduation and in the midst of turbulence with a troubling relationship that led me moving across a couple states to Washington! I took most of the year off from gaming, and it did me some good I think, as by the time I restarted I had a chance to recharge the creative batteries. It's tough, though, as there aren't many other GMs in the area, and in my group I think traditionally I am the only one who has been happy to default to that role. 

No solutions here --yet-- but time will tell. Either I'll find "it" again or I won't, and at that time I may beg the group for a longer break. We shall see.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Emergent Gameplay, Risk vs. Reward, Leveling Too Fast and Other Musings

Rambling thought warning ahead!

The title is weird, but it comes from a problem I am facing: a campaign I ran for the better part of this year (six months) in Cypher System came to a close on its main plot but all of the side plots were not yet clearly resolved (some were, but others weren't). This is at minimum a side effect of a reasonable sized group and the Cypher mechanics in which players can pursue personal plots/quests that net additional XP for achieving goals. 

Ordinarily I wouldn't stress it too much, but the problem arises from higher level play in Cypher System. Character advancement, even when you try to slow it a bit, tends to be much quicker than in D&D or Pathfinder. The group hit Tier 4 when we left off, and this means that for many of them, especially the characters optimized for their level of experience, will find most mid-range and lower threats in the game trivial to the point where, mechanically speaking, they don't even have to roll to succeed at task in combat. The best way to handle combat in the game with average opponents at this point is to avoid it or expediently dispatch it through a narrative. 

Now, in most cases with Cypher System the best solution is to scale the threats and risks (which aren't generally meant to be opponents in straight combat; Cypher works best when you get creative). But the problem is a lot of the lined up plots resolve on the more basic level.  So how to handle this? The system itself basically dictates that at this point we're just narrating the process. I could spice it up with something suitably exotic....but....and there's no nice way to put this....it's not really exciting me as much as it should to do this.

Part of the problem was I made a poor choice for setting with Cypher this time. I adapted a D&D world (Realms of Chirak) which is built from decades of D&D style gameplay, a style which drives much of the conflict through battle, and as a result there's an expectation in the default pacing of scenarios to rely on the tropes and styles of D&D. When I break from that, it works....but it stops feeling D&D and starts feeling Cypher. But I am restrained by the setting, still. I can break the rules of the setting and lean hard on what Cypher does best, but then I'm messing up what the setting is about. This is a very personal issue, mind you; my players would be happy no matter what, but I as GM have done this before in the past and learned that there are things you don't really want to do with a game world you create for specific purposes (unless you want to axe the future of that setting for your own use). So it's really an internal GM issue.

One more session could probably resolve enough plots for everyone to move on and we can then go play a game where I get to experience what I realize is the more engaging element of D&D (and Pathfinder) that I like very much: emergent gameplay. You've likely heard of the term or are familiar with it already. Emergent gameplay is the idea that you start with the rules and a setting, maybe a scenario, but nothing is on-rails, nothing is preordained and no one has plot armor. The story emerges directly as a result of how the players choose to engage with the environment and how the GM gets the environment to react. Unexpected things can and will happen in emergent gameplay, and often when you hear people talk about those amazing plot twists in games it's from adventures driven by the emergent gameplay process.

A game like Cypher System allows for emergent gameplay as well, but it does follow a different beat, and as you move through the Cypher System you realize the universe is informed (sometimes rapidly) by the power level of the players. There's emergent storytelling to be had, and mechanically there are layers of support for it in Cypher, but it also lacks a certain kind of non-determinism. If you can, as a player, get a guaranteed success that requires no roll in a system where the key GM tool is the GM Intrusion mechanic, then you cut off one of those random things the GM can do to make things more interesting. And as the game scales so quickly, it means you might (as in my case) run out of time for the loads of plot points designed for lower level characters because they are all now high tiered superheroes and no longer concern themselves with petty guild fights and other such nonsense.* I mean....sure, they can,  but what right-minded NPC in a world of level 1-5 foes would be willing to take on a gang of superheroes who can automatically attack and dodge without any chance of failure? It removes a lot of tension from those scenarios.

I suppose the issue here may not be emergent gameplay but instead lies within a mechanical framework that moved beyond the scope of what I wanted (gritty heroes with a sense of mortality vs. powerful superheroes at high tier) and combat with risk that doesn't evaporate.

My personal choice would be to retroactively go back and pick Pathfinder 2E as the base system. Pathfinder 2E has a different sort of problem: players will struggle to ever truly feel like superheroes, as the game system is brutal when the difficulty level spikes even a bit, but it is trivially easy for the GM to include an occasional feel good encounter in PF2E as well. That said, I think the emergent gameplay is more prevalent (and possible) in Pathfinder, at least in the way that I am thinking of it. But....there are better systems out there yet for that sort of gaming, too. My recent stint on revisiting Mythras has me thinking about the possibilities. 

Anyway....more thoughts as I gear up to return to gaming in a week or so....



*To some degree I've figured out with Cypher that the best approach is to either go in with zero expectations (really let the start state move along through emergent gameplay and just see where it goes with zero expectations) or you plot meticulously, which includes figuring out well in advance how much XP to award and be stingy if necessary. I think the latter fails with Cypher for various reasons, but I have to concede I haven't really pinned down the formula here with Cypher as this is now the third Cypher campaign that will end unexpectedly because the players reached a power level where it became difficult for me to figure out where to go with it next. This is a thing I need to think about, that as much as I like Cypher it might have....pacing issues, at least relative to my style as a GM.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Choosing a Flavor of Mythras....

 I've noticed a trend during my gaming hiatus....I'm back to browsing endlessly through Mythras and associated tomes, reading and scheming about what I might  do with them. BRP remains a core go-to when it comes to Call of Cthulhu gaming, but Mythras covers all the bases so well these days, that its justifiably entered the realm of "universal systems" which the likes of GURPS and a few others normally hold the ring on. I mean....look at this breakdown:

Want to do Science Fiction? Mythras Imperative gives you essential tools, M-Space and its expansions carry it through. 

Want to do time traveling or alternate realities? Check out Luther Arkwright, which aside from being a useful sourcebook on an interesting but obscure British graphic novel series is also a useful dimension-hopping sourcebook.

Want to do D&D but with a D100 mechanic? Classic Fantasy has you covered, providing more than enough emulation to incorporate classes and a ton of D&D tropes without otherwise altering the core Mythras experience.

Just interested in straight fantasy? Classic Mythras has all you need in its core book, but you can also dive deep into mytho-historical adventures in Britain, Rome, Constantinople and now Babylon. It is also trivially easy to pull any GURPS sourcebook as a reference tool for use with Mythras.

Pulp adventure? Monster Island is an excellent resource, and Mythras Imperative covers the bases nicely, although I think there is room for more here.

Post-Apocalypse? Rubble & Ruin and Seasons of the Dead collectively cover most any angle on the genre you could want. R&R covers a low key near future apocalypse with plenty of science-fiction weirdness (not Gamma World level, but you could definitely use this for a quasi realistic post-apoc future). Seasons of the Dead has everything from zombie plagues to terminator robot invasions fully covered, something I did not expect prior to getting the book.

Weird alt-reality dystopian retro-futurist Sci Fi? Odd Soot is one unique and dark flavor, and there's Worlds United for an entire other "Flash Gordon" style flavor. I have the former but not yet the latter.....I'm not much of a fan for retro-futurism unless it incorporates the benefit of hindsight, but concede I haven't picked up Worlds United yet so maybe there's stuff I don't know about.

If you want mythos stuff, and don't mind "Mythras adjacent" from the OGL we have Delta Green, and there are other similar mythos-based OGL products online as well (that I don't have so can't comment on). Delta Green is nonetheless the best modern interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos out there, so well worth it.

Supers is covered too. 3rd edition Mythras Imperative contains enough rules to start, and a forthcoming tome from TDM will provide the rest.

I see some spots that need more bits to fill in, of course: a proper Pulp Adventures setting book would be nice, I imagine, for those who want to run some hardcore Indiana Jones type stuff. More SF content would be welcome; a Gear Sourcebook for Mythras and/or M-Space would be extremely welcome. We could also use some more focused genre books on Cyberpunk and maybe something aimed at modern day adventuring, or modern horror that is not typically mythos based.

The issue I face now is: how to narrow down the focus to what I should run next? I'm leaning hard toward something Rubble & Ruin on the one side, and of course Mythic Babylon on the fantasy side. I also have the Bronze Age Egypt campaign I've been working on, which would be easy to fit within the Mythras rules. After that....M-Space, Mythic Britain, and more all demand attention. Maybe I can plot out several 4-6 session long mini campaigns in different settings, and let the group decide which flavor they are most keen on pursuing.


Friday, June 18, 2021

Metacomment on Video Game News Articles - Catch it Before It's Yanked

 Go here and read through. If you follow any video game news sites you will know what the author is doing:

Video Game Article (Kotaku)

(Hint: it's metacommentary, and not really satire.....)

Read the comments then! The crowd there also knows and contributes handily. In the meantime, I will take a look at John Walker's site because I think he's done with Kotaku....

Too Much Mythras Coolness: Mythic Babylon, Odd Soot, Rubble & Ruin, and M-Space Companion

Mythras is doing really well, almost a renaissance of really cool and useful new content to fill the void left by BRP's quiet return to being an engine for Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. Mythras has only grown increasingly versatile and accessible thanks to the condensed Mythras Imperative rules, various genres popping up powered by Mythras, and a wealth of third party publishers taking Mythras in interesting directions. Anyway....here are four books you as a Mythras fan should not be missing right now:

Mythic Babylon

This released today, and I am perusing the impressive PDF this afternoon but can already tell its going to be a book I must run. The Design Mechanism has been knocking historical sourcebooks with mythical elements out of the park, filling a void not properly covered anywhere else save by GURPS. I'll post more on this as I read in more depth, but wanted to get word out that the book is now live while I wait for my print copy. I also ordered a copy of Fioracitta from TDM, a book which a friend of mine grabbed and looks like a fascinating take on a fantasy alt-Italy.

Odd Soot

While investigating my plans for M-Space campaigning in the near future I noticed this oddity on Frostbyte's storefront and decided to take a leap even though it sounded like it might be part of one of my least favorite genres (retro SF in which the SF is rooted in the golden age of science fiction and ignores the benefits of hindsight). Instead, it turns out this is an amazingly weird and unique take on doing an alternate history science fiction setting in a 1920's universe, but it defies the stereotypes of this sort of genre completely in favor of something weird and new and extremely compelling. You need to read it to see that it is unique and worthy of being a cult classic.

Rubble & Ruin

I was a fan of the original BRP monograph for post-apocalyptic roleplaying even though it needed more depth of design, and was surprised to discover quite by accident that it's been revamped (with two modules as well) for Mythras as a stand alone system. Rubble & Ruin provides all the rules and more for rough post-apocalypse gaming in a package that looks like it's not wanting for any content. I'll also be writing on this one more soon.

M-Space Companion

M-Space, despite my gripes with the very basic equipment and weapons list in the core rulebook, is still by far the best SF adaptation of BRP I've found on the market. It's only gotten better thanks to the M-Space Companion, which adds in some much needed SF content, most notably rules for cybernetic augmentations (good rules!), rules on playing robots as characters (also good rules!) and an expanded culture/background system that adds some randomized elements to character backgrounds. Well worth the asking price to provide useful additional content to M-Space. 

Speaking of M-Space, if you did not know, a quality color edition of the rulebook is available on DrivethruRPG now here. Previously you had to order it from Europe at prohibitive cost, or get a cheap copy in black and white off Lulu. Get it now before the cost of color printing skyrockets for POD in July!


 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Devil in the Details - When that one design choice overturns an otherwise fine system

Today is a post about griping about things, completely new to the internet, I assure you. You have been warned!

So I wonder how many have had this experience like me. Take a game, a game you might have a keen interest in. You read through it, design some characters, work out some scenario ideas.....you're learning the system. So far you see all the cool stuff and you become increasingly impressed. The creator of the game has a vision, and its one which aligns well with yours, meshes nicely. Indeed, it either supports your own ideas well, or provides ideas you had never considered but can definitely get behind.

Then....that thing happens. It's the thing that for some people they say, "Yeah I like this, but I wish the game did this thing differently," and then they start tweaking and house ruling. In some cases, anyway. I don't generally mean that, though.....first off being I don't like assuming I know enough about the rules to want to change them until I've actually run the game. Second issue being a rule might pose issues, but the idea in my head is that subtler, more disheartening moment when you discover that there's a design element in the game, something maybe a bit vague or undefined that you feel should be fleshed out, or an omission (or inclusion) that just feels out of place to you. 

Maybe the game suggests you should have a wild and wooly bestiary included and the game only has stats for four monsters or something. Maybe you expected the game, which deals with a serious look at ethics or morality in a genre setting to include some rules that support that and they're just...absent. Or maybe you expected the game about high tech capers to have more than a page or so on high tech things. That sort of "oh no" moment.....things you could only fix by, essentially, writing an entire new chapter or sourcebook for the game, or rewriting the game to remove a weird tonal inconsistency. Or drafting up new art to reflect the dark and serious nature of the grim setting, reflected through the eyes of an artist focused on cute anime styles. Stuff like that.

I've had that happen to me on occasion. I'll concede, a lot of what crops up here are SF related, which might say a great deal about my expectations for SF games. A few notable examples I can think of at the moment include....

M-Space Falls Flat on Weapons and Gear

I really dig M-Space and it's design intent, but I believe the author is on record as not being very "gadget focused," and it shows, unfortunately. When you get to the equipment section the barebones weapons and gear lists are the barest essentials for a good SF setting from my experience, and are oddly reliant on some Star Wars terminology with the serial numbers rubbed off a bit (seek out evidence of where else in SF the actual term "restraining bolt" is used, for example, outside of Star Wars). When you see the similarities in the gear it can't be unseen, and the minimalist list means the GM has some work cut out for him if he wants to have a range of gear across differing tech levels. M-Space also lacks tech levels, and oddly, while it does provide ship costs in design, its prefab ships do not tell you how much they cost. My players will want to know!

White Star Can Be Taken Seriously But Doesn't Want To 

I griped about this before at one point, and it was really when the Galaxy Edition came out that I realized that the White Star universe was defaulting to a setting with transformers, cosmic space squirrels, not-wookies, not-ewoks, off-brand jedi and off-brand sith and so on and so forth that the simplicity of the original core rules (which had nominal Star Wars-esque content that I could hand waive) suddenly overwhelmed my ability to use the expanded product with any sense of seriousness. Were I to write a game like White Star, I'd try really hard to corral the homage-style content to supplements and leave the core rules something with a broader scope in application.

Starfinder Uses Handwavium for Gear and Starship Economies

Also griped about, but ultimately a bugaboo that makes it hard to properly run campaigns for this otherwise fine D20 system, is its use of level scores for gear and a starship design system that completely divorces ship design and advancement from wealth. The core conceit of Starfinder is that mechanically both gear and ships are tied to PC level and over time you can get better gear (and boost your ship) as part of the leveling process rather than as part of the "in game story process" in which the players negotiate for the cash to buy things. In theory this shouldn't pose too much of a problem except that it does....and it does so because the way gear is done lampshades the entire process. Gear at level 20, as an example, isn't theoretically that different from gear at level 1. It's just....better. Much, much better. Trying to explain how build points for starships tie in to the galactic economy or why the corporations sell gear at increasingly staggered levels of complexity raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions about how the Starfinder universe is supposed to work, and as a result it does some very weird things to one's sense of verisimilitude. The problem of course is we as gamers know the real answer: mechanical balance demanded by the game system. But when the game mechanics cause weird and illogical interpretations of the implied game universe, it makes acceptance of that universe very difficult. More difficult, ironically, than believing in fantasy space elves with magic and laser guns.

Pulp Cthulhu Is Pulp at the Expense of Cthulhu

Yes, you can adopt the Pulp Cthulhu rules and have a rousing adventure in which you through derring do and sheer grit manage to blow away an elder thing while dynamiting his pet shoggoth.....but are you actually playing Call of Cthulhu then, or are you just using assets for a physics defying action game that is paying a slight nod to the source material it perverts? Maybe it depends on the interpretation, but I personally think that talents and all the associated drivel of the pulp rules can go hang out in someone else's games. On the plus side, it's all quietly constrained to the Pulp Cthulhu books and therefore easy to ignore.

Those Dark Places Likes to Talk About The Idea of What's In Those Dark Places But not..you know...What's Actually In Those Dark Places

Those Dark Places is essentially a game about the first twenty minutes of the movie Alien, and it stops right when they are about to find the eggs in the ship. It's an indie game (and as such a lot of the times you have to either be on board with the creator's vision or get off the bus), in which the smallest section of the book is the one which advises GMs on how to populate their games with vile xenomorphs and evil androids. Indeed, it really doesn't seem to want to do this at all, and stops short of....anything. So, yeah. It's really just an indie RPG for rolling up space workers and then thinking about how it would be cool if something interesting happened while they were working. To contrast: the excellent Mothership gives you one rulebook to roll up spacers, then showers you with several incredibly dense space adventure tomes that are increasingly insane and deadly space crawls. 

Okay then! Felt like a rant for fun. I think some of this is cropping up as I am taking time during my work-related exodus from gaming to realign my gaming focus and look for other oft neglected games on my shelves to see which ones might demand more attention and interest. Maybe next post I'll mention some of the games which surprised me with their efficacy in design and focus. 


Monday, June 14, 2021

Games with Multiple PCs per Player

 I've been mulling over a recent experience in a Pulp Cthulhu 7E game where the players each got to run 2 characters. I think some of the rationale was it was a scenario designed for a lot of players but we were a small group. It was also potentially a very deadly scenario, so maybe multiple PCs left some wiggle room for death without taking a player out of the mix. The key thing, though, is that it meant that I was trying to juggle more than one PC, and it was an experience that made me think about another game I've been interested in recently: Dungeon Crawl Classics (as well as Mutant Crawl Classics) and their funnel mechanic.

Here's the thing: I really disliked juggling 2 PCs. I realize this has to do with my play style as a player, because as a GM I of course must juggle lots of NPCs. As a GM the process is simple, because the NPCs are not PCs, they have their moment/turn of events and are tied to the plotline....as much as I choose to ham it up, NPCs are still there to act as foils for the PCs to play off of, letting the story move forward. That is a distinctly different experience from what I want as a player.

As a player I imagine there are a few types of people out there who engage with their character in different ways. Ways I have seen include:

Speaking of your PC in the third-person tense ("James tries to open the door.") like you are an author narrating a protagonist's actions. A lot of new players who haven't role played before start here then work out their comfort zone over time.

Speaking in first-person, but playing, in essence, yourself (you are invested in actions, but not necessarily immersion; dialogue will sound like this: "I talk to the demon to see what it says it's name is."). Players who settle here tend to be playing a role, yes, but are not really role-playing in the conventional sense. 

Speaking in first-person, but playing a character (you may change your vocal tone, accent, or even go a bit out there: "If you, sir, are possessed by a demon, then how might I address you?"). A majority of long term gamers tend to nestle here after a while, and most tend to have a range of around 2-4 "types" that they favor, sometimes with varying personalities and other times with varying playstyles to match.

Speaking in first-person in charicature; these are the players who either are amazingly good at it and bring some genuine thespianism to the table, or they are an earsore and we all suffer, but they are key in always being exaggerated in their personality and voice, and indeed their main satisfaction may be less in following the story of their PC than in the representation of it. This kind of player is actually not that common in my experience.

Anyway.....I have a theory that the multiple PC methodology does not mesh well with all but the first type mentioned above. It creates a disruption when you are a focused player who likes to figure out a character, but must then "jump tracks" every turn to figure out a different chaarcter. In the recent games I found myself resorting to third-person narrative for my secondary PC just because it was the only way to keep things sane in my head.

When I have run my own games, if a secondary character becomes necessary I have always identified them as NPCs who act as henchmen under mechanical control of the player, to which I would then lend the personality or decision making if needed (it is not too common the player is good at this, unless the NPC/secondary character is something easy to manage like an animal companion). This has worked well; I've run games where there were 3 PCs but each had 2-20 henchmen, whom they could direct and control, without worrying about the personalities.

As a result, this got me to thinking about the funnel crawl and its design intent in Dungeon Crawl Classics. The theory is that putting a massive group of zero level PCs who are definitely fodder for the module will let players bond with the survivors. It's an interesting idea, and may work, but does require that the initial game be, in essence, about "no one" at first, and that the disconnect of the player to a mass of PCs will in theory subside once one or two of them are all that is left. I want to see how this works in play, but worry that it would be less exciting than it sounds.

I do know one thing out of all this, though: aside from not liking controlling two or more PCs equally as a player (in Call of Cthulhu, at least!) I also don't much care for the Pulp Cthulhu rules. Too unCthulhuish! But that is another blog post for another day.


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

OpenQuest 3 Kickstarter POD in the wild

 Been super busy with work lately but just had to post that I got my at-cost coupon for OpenQuest 3 today from the Kickstarter and I have ordered two copies. Very excited to see this one....as much as I am impressed with the art and design of the new Runequest, I am just not a fan of the specifics of Glorantha and prefer RPGs that let me do my own thing, so OpenQuest 3 will very much allow for that. The PDF shows off a nice design strength, a good classic art aesthetic and a clean layout to the rules. 

Once I have the physical copies I will discuss in more depth!

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Too Many Campaign Worlds - Analyzing 20 Years of Campaigning in Various Editions of D&D and Pathfinder

 





I did a little number crunching last night, and while I have no doubt skewed this a bit I found it interesting to determine that my most used campaign world is Realms of Chirak, by a wide margin, over the last 20 or so years (a number picked because prior to 2001 there were only 2 campaign worlds and one game system: AD&D). Realms of Chirak has been the center of at least 21 significant campaigns since 2001, most of which were medium or long in length (meaning lasting 5-10 or up to 15+ levels in development, respectively, which is typically 6 months to a year of play or more). One campaign, now retired, made it all the way to level 27 in D&D 3.5 back in the day, and ran across multiple editions over a period of 14 years.

#2 is Lingusia, which as my original and most venerable campaigns has seen the most transformation and revivals, in that I have three timelines/epochs of play, and it rests squarely at about 11 campaigns in the last 20 years. At least one of those campaigns (Warlords of Lingusia) retroactively became non-canon after a change in the timeline instigated by the players.

#3 is Enzada, with 7 campaigns since roughly 2010. Unlike Chirak, which started in 1992 as a Runequest campaign that then migrated to AD&D 2E where it took off on a wild roller coaster ride, and unlike Lingusia which started in 1981 as my default AD&D world, Enzada was custom built to be the core setting for my Pathfinder 1E campaigns when that edition first came out. I rapidly expanded Pathfinder to the other worlds, too, but Enzada was exclusive to PF until D&D 5E arrived. I migrated it over to that system for a couple campaigns, but it just didn't feel right; Enzada's core theme is "nonwestern fantasy in all forms" and Pathfinder supported that much better than D&D 5E did.

The two new campaigns, of course, are The Ironvast/Selentar campaign (using 3.5 edition) and Oman'Hakat (for Pathfinder 2E). I am quite in to exploring these two worlds, though I have not done much to post anything on the blog (yet). The Ironvast/Selentar setting is a fantasy version of a world with a lot of mirror analogies to Earth in the fifth century AD. Oman'Hakat is an archaic fantasy world with a weird history and mythology that ties closely to Lingusia, and it's built squarely on a fantasy reinterpretation of the archaic area from the Late Bronze Age on down to the rise of Rome. Both worlds are fantasy analogs for these time periods so they are better considered derivative; I much prefer to run "fantasy, but themed with historical derivations" that you can spot if you squint closely, rather than "history, but tinged with fantasy." If I want to run an actual campaign in the archaic Late Bronze Age, I will run an actual campaign set in that timeline with as much historical authenticity as possible, using something like GURPS. But for both of these campaigns the idea is to create disguised fictional analogs of these timelines, then let the fantasy elements take hold and go wild. 

To some degree it may be hard for my players to keep track of all the campaigns I run. I even have some which were short runs and may never return (Pergerron, Irkalla, and Isomular are a few), or ones which I have not yet found a good way to represent by system (Sarvaelen, which never quite gets a proper trial run outside of a one shot here and there). This all probably matters more to me as GM than my players, because I will most benefit from the world which lets me springboard the best scenario and campaign ideas off of it, but my long time players do get quite invested in these worlds, especially The Big Three.

These days, with the proliferation of options, I have thought a bit about which campaigns are best suited to which game systems. With my experiment this year running a Chirak campaign using Cypher System with the Godforsaken sourcebook, I've found that it does allow for some interesting focus on flavor and details that could (in theory) get muddied with more conventional D&Disms. Likewise, I designed the current Selentar/Ironvast campaign specifically with D&D 3.5 in mind.....the idea is that literally anything that is part of conventional D&D lore should have a place somewhere within that game's cosmos; not all such D&Disms, by contrast, have made it in to Realms of Chirak. And my Keepers of Lingusia campaign will eternally suffer an identify crisis, being a world built on AD&D 1E blocks, a universe where dwarves rarely cast much magic, paladins are supposed to be human, and weird racial options are exceedingly uncommon. Yet....I only ran a couple campaigns in this world using 13th Age but you know what? It was kind of a really good fit. I only wish the Icon System of 13th Age was less exhausting (and gimmicky) to me as a GM. 

There's another thing I noticed while crunching the numbers on the last twenty years of campaigning. I found plenty of abandoned campaigns, which all fell into the following categories:

--Campaigns I wrote up but never actually ran

--Campaigns I started, but then immediately lost steam on (too soon from last campaign, the concept didn't seem to click after the first few sessions, I was experiencing GM fatigue, player attendance sucked, etc.)

--The campaign started and persisted, but player/GM issues led to its demise (I've had at least one campaign I'd like to restart one day which led to a group meltdown, mainly due to two players who did not really get along tanking it for the rest of us; I think enough time has passed now that I could rekindle that campaign once more)

--The campaign started but was aborted when something newer and shinier came along, or I realized I needed a break from that particular genre, but not until after firing up the campaign. Usually these quickly turned into short scenarios and wrapped quickly instead of withering on the vine.

By my count there are around 18 of these over the last 20 years, though likely there are more I simply don't remember due to their being so...well....unmemorable. Not all ideas are worth pursuing! 

Still, when I trawl through the thousands of pages and hundreds of files of notes I have on hand, I see some interesting gems pop out and I wonder to myself why I don't just go back and re-explore some of these aborted concepts. 

There was a great campaign I started that would explore the lands of the Xoxtocharit in Chirak, a land loosely inspired by a pulp version of Mayans, long serving as sideline villains in prior campaigns. The campaign itself was designed to focus on the actual region of the Xoxtocharit, and to explore what life was like in an extremely hard environment, dominated by priest-kings of demonic gods that treated life as cheap and expendable for their purposes. It would have been an interesting campaign, I think, but an unexpected (and rare) TPK left us interested in a new pursuit. All the material is there, though, just waiting for a better start to explore from a future group.

Another campaign, wrecked by inter-player issues (it ended up tanking an entire group and left me more than a little irritated with the two players in question) involved a complex plotline in Enzada exploring the mysteries of the so-called Star Gods and a stellar convergence of heavily Lovecraftian horror. It was sufficiently good that I still think about where it could have and should have gone, had not the players in question created so many issues that I shut it down and tried (briefly) to run something far more vanilla and plebian, before realizing the problem was irreconcilable and I simply stopped gaming with those two players. It's been a few years, I think I'd really like to take a shot at a reboot on that one now, maybe this time powered by Pathfinder 2E.

Anyway....just some thoughts for the week. Of the many systems used over the years, I do find it interesting that right now I find D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder 2E the most captivating (for different reasons), and I am surprised to notice that I have sufficiently fond memories of 13th Age that I may be tempted to revisit that system again someday.

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.