Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Suggested Read - Gibbering Mouth

 A brief post, but I really enjoyed the blog post at Gibbering Mouth by Alex Augunas (here). He reviews his recent experiences with Pathfinder 1 E and 2E, D&D 5E and Starfinder and talks about his experience with their strengths and weaknesses. He does a better job of expressing some of the issues, particularly with Starfinder (and its enormous setting strengths) than I have, and I find his discussion on PF2E a cogent analysis, one I have not quite seen as well as a GM, but which my players feel and likely would agree with from his analysis.

When I consider my time with Pathfinder 1E, for example, I am in total agreement....PF1E broke me in many ways as a GM, which is why I like PF2E so much more. I haven't yet reconciled my current new obsession with D&D 3.5 (and that game is still going strong!) beyond that D&D 3rd is a known quantity and that I am running it with careful consideration for all of its mechanical expectations at present. When that campaign hits level 12 I do sort of expect it to go off the rails....but also I recall how that was not really a thing I noticed (except for once when I experienced a CoDzilla first hand) until 3.5 was retired and Pathfinder 1E had risen to carry the torch. 

Still, PF2E is a lot of fun to play. I think my players are more in sync with it overall now, but I'd also suggest it's a hard game to play on autopilot....despite some trimming of the rules a bit, the game still is pervasive with the philosophy of system mastery and a casual player can easily find themselves spamming the quick and easy to understand stuff and miss out on interesting synergies and hidden options.

D&D 5E, meanwhile, is most definitely as Alex characterizes it: so easy it almost feels like you're missing something. I disagree on the skills, though. The complaint about definitions and their absence only makes sense if you are overly used to the rigor applied from 3rd edition onward to tightly defining what skills can do. If you are used to more holistic systems such as BRP/Call of Cthulhu and most other skill based RPGs of prior decades (GURPS excluded), a more generalized "eyeball and guesstimate the best approach" sort of attitude toward skills makes more sense.

His enthusiasm for Starfinder is infectious, though. It makes me really want to dive back in. His analysis on the problem with the game economy is intriguing, as I hadn't thought of the issue in this manner before (that the game drives players to spend their currency on constant upgrades at the expense of more tangential and fun rewards) but makes total sense. Still, just reading it makes me want to dive back in. I've had one really good Starfinder campaign two fun but failed ones, and a medley of one-offs that should have gone somewhere but didn't. I am thinking that the next time I try, everyone starts at level 5 to begin with to bypass the excruciating low level experience and I work on envisioning a stronger and more coherent space fantasy setting that I can riff from in a manner similar to the fantasy setting I find so easy.

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 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 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 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 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 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 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.