Thursday, December 30, 2021

2021: Death Bat's Top 5 in Movies

 This was also a weird year for movies. For some regions such as the state in which I live (New Mexico), we didn't even have an opportunity to start going to theaters again until around June, as I recall. For much of this year theater-going actually felt safe enough, as hardly anyone was actually going to the movies. If you wanted to watch new films at home, many streaming platforms did simultaneous releases; HBO Max has been a very good deal, for example.

So what movies earned a top five place on my list? This was a tough year, because you not only had to watch films that had often been delayed a lot, this year saw a slew of late arrivals in the theaters that were heavily immersed in pig-slop-wallowing levels of nostalgia that were at times almost embarrassing.  Not a good year (for the most part) for creative effort in blockbusters! Still, I can think of five movies I quite enjoyed:

#5 Free Guy

Ryan Reynolds has an affable comedic charm about him that translates really well into certain films. Free Guy was the surprise movie of this year, a film I figured would be a relatively benign, no-punches-pulled comedy with lots of sappy moments. I wasn't entirely wrong....but wrapped up in a story of a non-player-character trapped in a persistent online video game world who attains sentience is a pretty good movie about what it means to be an AI, what a prospective realistic future online world might look like (with some caveats for the story), and a film that is surprisingly relevant and entertaining. Taika Waititi as the tech mogul bad guy was hysterical, and Free Guy quickly made my list of one of the most enjoyable and generally feel-good movies I had seen this year....and this is from a guy who normally shuns "feel-good" films like the plague!

#4 Spider-Man No Way Home

Okay so this one is pretty egregious on not only the nostalgia factor but also the "let's mix up our universe of franchise IP content into a big pot and see what comes out" approaches to film. Unlike many other movies that fell into the category of appealing to nostalgia and IP-smelting pots of content this third Tom Holland entry did a decent job of leaning hard into the tropes so common in comic book lore, and ended up making not only a decent third movie for the Holland Spider-Man, but gave some closure to the two prior Sony Spider-Man film series as well. It would have been very easy for this to have gone bad, quickly, but an exceptional cast and approach made it fresh and interesting, which is impressive. Ultimately, this movie, along with The Suicide Squad earlier in the year, both boldly drew their plots and focus from the weirder spectrum of comic book stories and pulled it off big time. 

#3 Censor

I'll admit, I am a total sucker for indie horror, and Censor is an amazing movie. Starring Niamh Algar as Enid Banes, who works for the British film industry censorship dept. during the mid eighties, a time when this was actually a thing and the British government was concerned about the enormous number of exploitation flicks and horror movies with the substantial gore that rose in the late sixties and seventies. Enid's job is to clinically analyze the films and indicate what must be cut to allow a British release, when she sees a video which reminds her suspiciously of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of her sister in her youth. Beyond that, I will say no more, but this was a great movie. 

#2 The Suicide Squad

I don't know how James Gunn's take on DC's Suicide Squad ever got greenlit the way it did, or how it avoided studio meddling, but it's like watching an actual Suicide Squad comic book brought to disturbing life. It manages to hold to the story beats of a blockbuster summer film while also completely violating the core conceits of blockbusters with a disturbingly entertaining yet unlikeable cast of vile misfits, deliberately sets up audience expectations for sympathetic characters only to kill them off the second they get a payoff to their story arcs, and then grabs one of the zaniest villains of DC's long history (Starro the Conqueror) and makes it a genuinely interesting existential threat. Amazing film, but I feel like it was made specifically for me and other fans of the comic, and somehow people thought it would also be well received by general audiences....which it sort of was? And of course Margo Robbie was amazing in this movie, which is essentially part 3 in a trilogy of Harley Quinn tales. 

#1 Dune Part I

This movie broke the spell on Hollywood that you cannot take Frank Herbert's novel and make a good movie out of it. Although the film takes a few liberties, it does a dramatically better job of setting the mood, ambiance, and smart story telling of "show, don't tell" to recreate the first halfish of the novel and is well worth experiencing, especially on the big screen if possible. It is sufficiently amazing that it retroactively generated interest in the Lynch version of the movie from the 80's and the later SciFi Channel editions, just so people could analyze what about prior attempts fell short where this one excelled. Thankfully Part II has been greenlit, although I am shocked that they didn't have the chutzpah to just film both parts at once. 

Honorable Mention: The second Venom movie was a short (1 1/2 hour) and entertaining film that could have overstayed its welcome but did not, and in many ways improved on the formula of the first movie, with Woody Harrelson and Naomie Harris getting an opportunity to really ham up their villain roles while Tom Hardy did his thing. Fun! I can't say I'd recommend it to anyone other than comic fans or Venom fans (or fans of these actors) but I didn't leave the theater feeling regret (unlike some other recent movies).

I might also mention Eternals, but while this was a good movie, I think if asked to watch it or Venom II again I'd have to stick to Venom II, just because it was shorter and more amusing.

The Movie Walk of Shame: Lots of films disappointed this year. I talked about a few of them, including Ghostbusters: Afterlife (shameless pillaging of a comedy franchise corpse to appeal to Stranger Things contemporary nostalgia feels); Resident Evil Welcome to Raccoon City (by-the-numbers pandering attempt to make a video game franchise by people who forgot that you need to also care about what you are making); Matrix Resurrections (I, and everyone I have talked to, agree the movie was "just fine" but really didn't need to exist; I think the first thirty minutes were great and wish the film had gone hard into a subversive deconstruction of the original trilogy rather than tease us with the concept then veer away to a confusing medley of traditional beats); and both Black Widow and Shang Chi were perfectly serviceable Marvel movies that show that the standard formula is getting stale. 

I can't say that any particular movie I saw this year was terrible, though, which doesn't mean there weren't any...I just got lucky at dodging them. Even Ghostbusters: Afterlife was a perfectly watchable movie with some good moments, it was just tonally off from its franchise origins and too busy emulating a brand of nostalgia I was entirely out of tune with. 

A lot of the good stuff that did come out this year was actually on TV....perhaps a future column on that later!

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

2021: Death Bat's Top 5 Role Playing Games (Tabletop)

 The top 5 for role playing games...those things you play in person or in VTT, you know....this is a harder list to assemble as a lot of good stuff came out this year. Still, I think I can narrow it down a bit to the following distinct books which have had the greatest impression on me in 2021, and which will continue in to 2022:

#5 Open Quest 3

This third edition of Open Quest is very much the best edition of the game to date, with great interior design, layout, artwork and smart improvements to the rules all around. Newt Newport and D100 Games has easily crafted the best non-Runequest BRP iteration on the market, next to Mythras (which at this point feels like the "advanced" edition to OQ3's basic edition style). The game is so well written and designed that it just begs to be played.

#2 Old School Essentials Advanced Edition

The OSE Advanced Player's and Referee's Manuals from Necrotic Gnome let you play classic B/X D&D or AD&D as you see fit, with an enormously inclusive ruleset that give you all the tools to make what you will of your own game, no fuss and no muss. Its support with a series of modules that provide copious content in an economy of style are equally impressive. 

#3 Mythic Babylon (Mythras)

This is the best sourcebook out there on gaming in ancient Mesopotamia during the rise of Babylon, and not only is worth looking at for Mythras fans but for fans of serious, well-researched historical gaming. The only way it could be better is if it were also statted for GURPS at this point.....but Mythras is itself ideally suited for this sort of historical gaming and the Design Mechanism has once again outdone themselves.

#2 Traveller Core Rules 2022 Update

I actually got my copy of the new Traveller Core Rules a couple of weeks ago, so I am including it in this list even though it is, technically, the "2022 update." This revamp of the current edition of Traveller is primarily focused on clearly restating the rules, fixing some errata, and reworking the layout, design and art to match the current reign of products, which are bar none top of the line. The old days of Mongoose being known for subpar design is long gone, and the newest iteration of Traveller amply demonstrates this. I am already planning a new Traveller campaign for 2022, and this new update of the core rules is one of my favorite "surprise releases" of this year.

#1 Mothership RPG v.0

Mothership just finished a massively successful Kickstarter for a version 1 boxed set of the game which I backed at the top level, as this game, which takes the genre of horror SF and blends all of its influences into one giant pot, is easily the most fun I've had with an RPG in years. From a design which compels the players to act out as if they were trapped on the Nostromo or the Event Horizon to a wealth of chapbook scenarios and trifolds which use the new-style "economy of information" to layout comprehensive scenarios that don't require a huge slog for the GM (warden) to prep, this is easily the best new game with a pickup-and-play aesthetic on the market. Even better, its smartly written and its design is easily understood by most, something not a lot of other chapbook/zine era RPGs are as good at. Game of the Year from Camazotz, hands down.

No honorable mentions, though there are many books that came out which were certainly worthy of consideration. My main problem this year was that a nontrivial portion of my gaming time was focused on older stuff....D&D 3rd edition (3.5) mainly, and lots of Call of Cthulhu, which always stands out as worthy books to buy, read and play. So....yeah! Overall just a good year all around for cool new RPG stuff. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

2021: The Top Five in Video Games

 I said I'd have a hard time doing a top 5 list last week, but now I am thinking....naw, that's not entirely true. Here, then, is my short and sweet Top 5 video games as preferred by Camazotz the Death Bat for 2021 (as usual you can see my gaming biases implicit in my choices):

#5 Returnal

Damned if I will probably never finish it, but this is the most atmospheric and enjoyable experience I have on the PS5 right now, and if you can tolerate the roguelite element which causes your character to "reset" at the beginning of the game with a new procedural map after every death, then its quite an experience. In defense of that notion you do have story elements which progress over time, the death-reset is core to the narrative experience, and there are some ways you learn over time to carry over some improvements/assistance but the real reason, ultimately, to play Returnal is because its got a damned fine creepy storyline intermixed with some frenetic run-and-gun gameplay and exploration. It's formula could only be improved by removing as many of the roguelite elements as possible to make this game more accessible to people who lack the vigor of youth. I do imagine if I wanted to polish off any of the game's bosses the smartest strategy I can take is to hand the controller to my son, who will probably do it in a manner I never even considered.

#4 Crysis Trilogy Remastered

Okay this is cheating a bit, but only a bit. The Remastered editions of Crysis get the entire trilogy back onto consoles with 4K resolution supported, and Switch fans can take it on the go, too (not at 4K, of course, though the versions on the OLED look sharp and snappy). This series has stood the test of time and remains a solid experience in FPS shooters with story.

#3 Aliens Fireteam Elite

My son and I finished the Aliens Fireteam Elite campaign together, and while its post-game modes are a tad anemic (a horde mode and point defense mode), this is a solid and fun experience for fans of the Alien franchise, especially those who liked Aliens and Prometheus, as the game draws heavily on both for its core story and game mechanics. If your idea of fun is dealing with tense and overwhelming waves of aliens (or, later on, pathogen-infected mutants) then this game is worh it. Bonus kudos to the developers for a solid and substantively smart level of story integration, in a manner that feels tonally consistent with the movies and novels, and carefully avoids any mis-steps as some other less distinguished games in the franchise have taken in the past. This is a solid #2 behind Alien: Isolation in terms of capturing the feel and universe of Alien.

#2 Back 4 Blood

Anyone who plays this will immediately recognize its intent as a sequel to Left4Dead. The game has so many similarities that the differences stand out all the more. I admit, I don't fully grokk the card system it deploys and try to ignore it as much as feasible, but the overall play experience is solid, and the campaign mode is as fun as the old days of Left4Dead was. Very much enjoying this game.

#1 Halo Infinite

On the one hand this came out in mid December, so I hesitate to include it as I am far from done playing the campaign, but on the other hand it is clearly the best iteration of Halo to date, and the campaign mode is amazing. This game, and this alone, are probably the highlight of the year and well deserved in its top slot for gaming in 2021 (and onward to 2022 and beyond). The fun and engaging (and free) multiplayer is just icing on the Halo cake. 

Honorable Mention: Shin Megami Tensei V - more on this one later, as I am getting into it quite late, but can say its probably deserving of the Top 5 list if I had only started playing sooner! Its only on Switch right now, but my understanding is that SMTV will be appearing on other consoles and maybe PC soon. 

Bonus Special Mention: I can't believe I keep forgeting it, but Outriders came out this year. Outriders is a trip, a third-person perspective shoot'em up from Square Enix that is at time a bit janky but is actually a pretty compelling co-op game with perfectly serviceable solo elements and a broad campaign story that is fun to play through. It's downside is: overtly crapsack world issues (Hey, I love Fallout and wouldn't want to live in that game world but it makes me like visiting; Outriders' universe just suuuuucks); and its apparently easily forgotten, but that's not fair to the game because I have enjoyed playing it quite a bit this year, and feel its another example of a game that would have been better served as a campaign-story focused title that wasn't also trying to compete in the "endgame content" loop so many titles get stuck in these days. You's okay for a game to have a definitive ending sometimes, yeah?

There are other games out there well worth playing, but for many they just aren't my style of game (I found it very hard to enjoy Vornheim, for example). So...take this as the top list from someone who is deeply in to shooters with an emphasis on science fiction, space marines and alien stuff!

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Year in Review 2021: Computer Gaming - A Wealth of Embarrassment and Retrogaming Joy

 Normally I do a top five list for each end-of-year subject, but this time around I'm going to do a "year in review" instead because I think it might be hard to generate a proper top 5 list, when so much of 2021 was janky and weird at best. 2020 had excuses.....but 2021 felt like 2020 threw everything off and this was the year the toll came due.

For gaming this year, the world of computer and video gaming is essentially dominated by bad ideas, scandals and a mess of games that somehow failed to hit the mark (even when they still landed on the target). Examples:

Ubisoft and Activision - how not to allow abusive corporate culture to ruin your businesses.

Ubisoft and NFTs - as Penny Arcade states, even shitty ideas must have their start. I am disappointed that this appears to be the trend now, and NFTs are a prime example of how federal regulation and oversight is failing us. 

Halo Infinite - amazing single-player game, excellent multiplayer, but a complete mess when it comes to the execution of a season pass with XP gain. The story has been how hard it is to earn the XP to gain the gear, but the real story of course should be why the industry now assumes every game must of necessity have a Skinner Box season pass to begin with. 

Battlefield 2042 - I bought a used physical copy on the PS5 since I suspected I'd probably end up wanting to trade it in. My experience thus far has been that this game clearly suffered from a sense of direction (it was initially supposed to be a battle royale, I have read) and ended up being retooled into a half-assed experience which seems to displease everyone. I've played about 10 hours and am already done with it. The problem isn't even's just not very fun. 128 player events are simply too much, and organizing even within a 4 man squad means nothing if you're watching the raw chaos unfold. Things get twice as bad if you're on the side with nothing but inexperienced players and the other team is loaded with old Battlefield pros. At that point? You're not there to be entertained, you're just there for someone else's entertainment. I've only seen one other game as messy as BF2042, and that was CoD: Black Ops IIII, which also suffered from late game design changes leading to an identity crisis.

Call of Duty Vanguard - I won't say anything bad about this, it's actually pretty fun and the renovations on their zombie mode are cool. Vanguard works because it dials the formula back to the familiar, then innovates in small but meaningful ways (such as cover not being invulnerable and some being destructible, maps being built to encourage use of cover, and the controls feeling more natural....something Cold War somehow got wrong). But for many, Call of Duty Vanguard is too mundane this time around, and it is admittedly still not as impressive perhaps as the latest Modern Warfare was.

Rogue Company - I got in to this one when it released last year, hoping it would break the Fortnite spell. It's gameplay options, while fun, were too anemic to substitute, but the game has slowly built up and is still enjoyable to jump in to. Like the others it has a season pass, which is especially grindy, but playing it on double XP weekends helps. If you're wondering what it is: it's a short-match team-based PVP experience where you essentially hold territory, defuse/set bombs, and most recently some straight team deathmatching is also an option. Diverse characters with lots of distinct abilities and styles mixed with very smooth third person-view gameplay makes for a very nice game, its just a pity it doesn't offer more modes or even larger maps with some sort of battle royale. Like Apex Legends, its characters are designed to work in teams, however, so I don't think they wan to compete in the BR space even though it would be a good fit (with some adjustment to character abulities).

Fortnite - They got through their Chapter 2 seasons and started a third season. My son still plays, I still play, but I also desperately want to not play this game anymore. I know this is exactly where I sat with it last year, too. The only difference is....this time, with their new chapter, I feel less and less of the pull to experience the content, and no more desire to spend money on stupid virtual skins. Maybe I'll try quitting it again as a new year's resolution; this game has nothing new to offer at this point.'s a fun game to play with my son, so maybe that is unrealistic. 

Returnal and other Roguelites - This year was a year for roguelites. Hades was popular; I had trouble getting in to it, but my wife loved it. Dead Cells which came out....last year?...remains fun in short bursts but hard to get in to since it starts you over as is common for the genre. The one roguelite I most enjoyed (but still couldn't get far in was Returnal on PS5. Amazing game! I just wish it was not a roguelite, it would be so much better if it were a more conventional game that offered some hope of advancement for those who have actual lives and can't keep playing through entire levels to die 27 times to the first boss.  

Playstation 5 - speaking of losers, Playstation 5, despite being my favorite overall console so far in terms of what it can do feels like the loser of 2021. It only generated a smidgeon of console exclusives, such as Returnal, and all of its prospects lie in the future, yet to be realized. I did grab Deathloop on it, only to discover that was not really an exclusive after all. PS5 continues to be the hardest console to actually find, and the sheer frustration of securing a new console this year has been a very bad look. People aren't just being thwarted by scalpers, they are being thwarted by the online retailers who continue to maintain shoddy, exploitable storefronts or set up expensive membership exclusive programs. Its fucking embarrassing.

Xbox Series S - who knew the diminutive lesser cousin to Xbox Series X would be the winner of this year's console sales? A year ago everyone felt that the Series S might be a mistake, but it turns out Microsoft knew what they were doing, The distinctively cheaper console still runs the newer games, looks good, and provides the most important feature a console could ever want: accessibility, as in its something you can probably find somewhere on store shelves right now. I bought another one just for my back room, and find myself playing on it more than my Xbox Series X, if only because I think my Series X has some issues (wifi drops and controller connectivity which randomly cuts out, none of which the Series S has issues with). The Series X is awesome, sure, but I now realize I would have not noticed much if any difference had I only been able to find a Series S.

Bottom line, though: Xbox has a clear advantage over PS5 right now with its Game Pass, PC integration, streaming options, and the simple fact that the Series S is a $300 box you can actually find and buy on shelves. What a concept!

Switch OLED - this is another one I can't really say anything bad about. Should you trade up for one? Absolutely yes if you want the best handheld experience out there. The OLED screen is noticeably better as an experience in handheld mode. The minor improvements are all worth it. But if you're fine with your current Switch? You are okay, you don't need to upgrade right now. For me, I bought three, one for myself, my wife and my kid...we all benefitted from an upgrade and it was well worth it. Had I been less affluent (and impulsive) though I would have been just fine sticking with the old Switch. 

The only embarrassing part of the OLED was how obsessed the entire vlog and game news industry was with obsessing over a mythical Switch Pro, and their inevitable outrage and disappointment that imagining something based on flimsy rumors from unreliable sources and then deciding it must be gospel is, as usual, bad journalism. 

So! What games have I actually spent time with this year, though?

Ghost Recon: Breakpoint - I played this over the last 18 months and finally finished it earlier this year. I was briefly interested in the new campaign they announced, but that interest was shattered when I realized the timing was likely deliberate to lure suckers back in for their new NFT offerings. 

I liked Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and wish that Ubisoft's desire to shy away from all controversy didn't push them to create Breakpoint as a fictitious island populated by tech mogul bad guys. It was the easy way out. They released the game 18 months earlier than they should have, and populated the DLC with what amounted to quality of life patches. But it was still fun to play, to a point. The idea that they expect someone to play the game for 600 hours (60 is quite enough) to earn an NFT is insane.

Crysis and other older FPS Shooters - I actually finished the "remastered" version on Switch, and it was somehow both as fun and less buggy than my experience playing and finishing it on PC many years ago. I've also divested more time in older shooters that I had finished ages ago, but enjoyed returning to: Singularity, Rage and Bulletstorm specifically, though all three on Steam. Rage is especially interesting, as this game apparently used a unique approach to its environments which actually looks better in meaningful ways on contemporary GPUs. 

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne - still playing this old classic, re-released on Switch, and anjoying it despite the at times bizarre and insane approaches it takes to story. With SMT games you either see the bizarre elements as selling points or you bail. I feel that is one of their charms. 

Playstation 2 - Way back in 2019 I got this idea of jumping in to the retrogame collector's field (watching too much Metal Jesus I think!) and secured a used PS2 slim, a console I hadn't owned since around 2005. The PS2 is unique in many ways, one of the largest console bases out there, and many of the games that came out for it are still exclusive to the system. Back when PS2 was current I actually spent more time playing on the Xbox, but there were a lot of specific titles I enjoyed, and a few I missed. As I have slowly rebuilt the "core" collection of games I wished to replay or play for the first time on PS2 I've managed to secure gems like Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill Origin, Resident Evil Outbreak File 1 (working on getting #2), Armored Core 2, Armored Core 3 (other AC games are a bit pricey), Splinter Cell and so forth. Two real gems, being the SMT fan I am: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2 I somehow found on Ebay in new condition, still in packaging. These are great games, weird and atmospheric with interesting difficulty curves according to some. Getting to play them on the originally intended system is well worth it. 

Retro Arcade Gaming - Beyond the's been collecting arcade games, either on Xbox or Switch, as many classics can be found out there to let me recreate my own version of the arcade from Shady Grove Truckstop in 1986 that I used to spend way too many quarters on. Pac-Man 99 is literally Pac-Man with a battle royale element. Remakes of Asteroids and Centipede can be found. Evercade handheld (and the soon to come VS) let you replay many obscure console and arcade versions of these games. Oddly I can only find Defender and Joust in a Midway collection on the Xbox 360, luckily retro-compatible on the Series X/S. I am finding a quick bout of Pac-man or Asteroids is much more satisfying than a game that requires a minimum 2-4 hours time commitment to feel like you got somewhere, these days. 

I assume the retro gaming interest I have is a byproduct of age. The arcade titles stem back to the eighties when much of my gaming experience centered on a truck stop (Shady Grove) which had an amazing arcade room with about forty arcade machines. The PS2 stems back to the "golden age" of really interesting games that looked impressive for the time, but still relied heavily on story, atmosphere, and making the best of the processing power at hand to create an engaging experience, in an era before DLC, games as service that never end, and constant monetization was implicit in design.

So what has fallen to the wayside? Destiny 2, for one. I will probably get the upcoming Witch Queen expansion, but I haven't played it for a while now, finding that the game's unfocused approach to storytelling in which it mixed solid single player story moments that lead to hideous and mindless grinds to migrate to the next story bit are simply not worth it. Now that Halo Infinite is out, I feel even less compelled to subject myself to Destiny except on a whim. Their pricing scheme on the upcoming expansion doesn't help. My inability to get any value out of their insanely grindy season passes does not help, either. 

I also have a laundry list of games I keep wanting to play but can never find the proper time to do so. All of the Dark Pictures Anthology of games, for example. The Outer Worlds looks like an obvious choice for me, but I keep pushing it off, waiting for "the right time" which I am forgetting was 10-12 years ago, before I had so many more time responsibilities as a business owner and father. If I am to pay the Outer Worlds it must be in smaller chunks, now, or never.....and so it also is for games like Greedfall, Dying Light (which I am playing on Switch, and can't believe it looks and plays so well in the OLED at least), and even finishing Cyberpunk 2077, which I stalled out on midway through due to the fact that I figured it might be best to just give it time and see what lots of patches might end up doing for it. 

2021 was a bad year for new games, in many ways, but a great year for games in general, and exploring the "Steam back catalogue" phenomenon. I think a lot of people have this issue. When the digital market exploded, it was with the notion that publishers could at last deal a blow to the used game aftermarket. What they did not predict was that they had created a much greater nemesis: the back-catalogue, in which every contemporary game must now compete with its predecessors. The efforts spent on games-as-service is of course a new way to combat this, by making games which keep people playing and paying, and also making games which, when the time is right, can be shut down and ended and just go away, to no longer remain competitive. Even as they do this, the interest in retrogaming explodes, as people realize the value of tangible hardcopies that cannot be shut down. 

Well, 2022 will hopefully bear fruit for the new console generation. Here's to high hopes for the future, and a stocking full of 15-20 year old games! Ho ho ho!!!!

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

D'uh Moments in GMing

 D'uh or D'oh? Depends on how much you like Homer Simpson, I guess....anyway I had one of these when, while researching forums and re-reading manuals in depth on Pathfinder 2E to try and settle my questions on "why does this feel like I am not doing it right?" at times, I suddenly stumbled across the little section of the Bestiary that talks about elite and weakened monsters.

Sometimes the hang-up I have is with situations like Saturday, where the group stumbled into a den of nosferatu, but the group is only level 7. That is not an ideal situation, as the nosferatu thralls are level 8 and the weakest nosferatu stat out at level 10. One nosferatu could tank the group with a few good rolls, easily.

But: while my story/game setting call for Nosferatu there, I could have (had I remembered it) applied the weakened template to that particular nosferatu which would have made a nontrivial difference in the combat experience. Reducing the AC by 2 and hP by 20 for example would have meant a larger number of actual hits on the target with damage toward 0 HP happening faster, given the actual fight was already tough due to vampiric fast healing. The group's archer was the only guy with a useful wooden weapon since they did not at all come prepared for a vampire!

An entire reddit forum I ran in to basically boiled down to two camps: people who (like me) tend to think of the stat blocks on monsters as the "defining stats" and tend not to change them, and people who were, like, "just scale them up or down as needed." And all I could think was, "huh, yeah, why wasn't I thinking like this." I suspect its because in the process of simplifying the stat blocks it moved PF2E design further from the old 3rd edition approach which provided copious mechanical approaches to scaling (all of which were tedious). Also, because I am getting old.....yeesh.....

Anyway, just wanted to share that thought! Now to work out some good rule of thumb on judiciously applying the weakened template to desired high CL encounters, and also using the elite upscaling template on lower level foes I'd like to give more life to.

The VTT vs. Real TT Conundrum - How VTT changes the game experience

 After posting about Pathfinder 2E and the various issues I have with the system, further thought led me down some paths with regard to how the virtual gaming environment impacts the experience, vs. how a game may feel different in an online environment. 

One example of how the virtual environment removes some elements possible at the game table. This is based on my experiences with Roll20 and Astral, but in essence if you play a VTT environment in which you are defaulting to the rules of the medium, then it means your die rolls are all up front. I imagine it might be possible, for example, for a GM to hide their die rolls from players but I actually am not certain how to do that. 

The reason I mention this is that, quite simply, if the GM at a game table with a screen in front of him notices that the die rolls are leading the players toward a glorious TPK over what was supposed to be a minor encounter, he can start fudging the dice if necessary. You might say, "but that's part of the fun of by-the-book/by-the-dice gaming" and you might not be wrong, but just having the freedom to make that determination is useful at the game table. If the GM starts fudging in the VTT it is much more apparent to to the players, which damages the experience. 

At a VTT you can run a game without a map or minis and maybe at best sketch some details out on graph paper. In a VTT the compulsion, possibly even the necessity of detailed maps and tokens is strong, chiefly because the medium of transmission on the VTT favors such graphics, and because the slight disconnect of being a disembodied voice talking to other disembodied voices requires that you put something graphically up to ground people, keep them on track. This leads to a cumbersome level of additional duties for the GM, especially if you're not good at designing your own maps. I can draw all sorts of good mediocre to average maps, but they will never look as good as a map designed from an app or program. But if I only have an hour to prep for a 5+ hour session, I haven't got any time at all to make a custom map in a program, and my best bet is scouring google searches. This leads to limiting design scenarios to accommodate what graphics you can find rather than what you need or imagine in your design. 

This problem does sort of exist at tabletop level, too: running Pathfinder with lots of official Paizo products means you may pick and choose from dozens of maps. But! You can also throw out and draw a generic map with markers and the players are universally forgiving that it's not amazing. Attempting to draw the same map in a clear space in Roll20 is, I can certify, a real pain in the ass.

If you do love making maps and using minis then I can see the appeal of VTT, though. It's generally faster for setup and actual play; the backend of prep for a game is where the time crunch is off-loaded. Most of Roll20, while providing lots of tools for stuff such as dynamic lighting and so forth, are not easy to use (okay for me, YMMV) and it feels like the focus is really on encouraging gamers to buy preset modules with all the features already built in to the scenario. The first scenario I ran in Roll20 that was prebuilt was for Mothership (The Haunting of Ypsilon-14) and it was actually incredibly convenient. So convenient that when it comes to my Saturday game in Pathfinder I have been debating moving the homebrew plot to a point where I can just start using premade content for them instead.

I've posted before about the main problem with VTT vs. Real TT: physicality. You can get around this a bit by using actual video, but I have to say, as someone for whom work has turned into a living hell of endless Zoom, Goto and Webex meetings that cameras SUCK. Adding them in to my entertainment experience is not a great option, though it does probably help normalize the feeling I experience of "disembodied voices" from which I can't escape. I wonder at times if the unnerving quality of this experience is unique to me or others feel the same weird sense of disassociation when listening to too many people talking to them on headphones?

Being at a real gaming table of course solves the problem immediately. You can see people, which means all the non-auditory communications elements of live interaction return (even if you are wearing masks!) and therefore alleviates a huge amount of what I call the "communications gap" of VTT. You can tell when someone is joking, someone is mad, and someone is confused. Maybe Facebooks' Metaverse will solve some of this, but I doubt it. Maybe I'm just old now, and despite my love of tech I am too old fashioned when it comes to how human interaction should feel.

Part of this rambling post started with me thinking, "Maybe I should run Pathfinder 2E at the game table again, as it may feel like a better experience when run live and in person." This started because my FLGS let me know that some new Paizo items I ordered had arrived, including maps and the hero point cards, none of which have any utility at all in VTT (though VTT shops will no doubt sell virtual editions of each). A month or so back I completed my monster card collection for PF2E with the Bestiary 3 card box. I'd love to be using this stuff at the game table again. 

Playing Pathfinder 2E at the live table might not fix the rules issues I've talked about....but it may make the experience more organic and fun. As for PF2E, I am actually thinking about some house rules to fix those issues. More on that soon!

Monday, December 6, 2021

Hitting the Wall with Pathfinder 2E - what I think needs to be done to fix this game

After my latest Saturday night game of Pathfinder 2E I have decided I am probably done with the system for a while. It's not done with me, unfortunately....the players are enjoying the game and I need to get it to some sort of satisfactory close, but I have finally after two+ years run enough PF2E to realize what elements of its design are causing problems for me. It boils down like this:

1. The roll over/under 10 mechanic is one of those "sounds great on paper" concepts that just doesn't work so well in reality for PF2E It is a key reason people accuse the game of being swingy, but they would be wrong; it's actually quite predictable and the problem boils down to risk/reward factors. Players with three action points may push it against tougher opponents and fail miserably. Indeed, the math is balanced out so that fights get noticeably harder against tougher opponents much more quickly, which increases the odds that players may err in making too many iterative attacks and put themselves in a bad spot. Worse yet, they might err in making too few against easier opponents, too. If your players seem too savvy on calculating their attacks its probably because they have a Bestiary open somewhere. 

Back in the day I used to impose a variety of penalties on fumbles and a myriad bonuses on crits. The official Pathfinder 2E fumble and crit decks were a help. Today, its such a common occurance that we default to double damage on the crit and flat-footedness on the fumble because they are just so damn common....they are not special anymore. Since the +10/-10 mechanic is so deeply entrenched in PF2E design, this is unavoidable and not easy to back out. For me, the desire to return to a system where crits and fumbles are less common and more special when they happen is an aesthetic choice as well as a design preference.

2. The "add level" mechanic is a terrible idea. If I had any say, I'd advise Paizo to re-release the entire game around that section in the new Gamemastery Guide that talks about the option of stripping the level mechanic entirely (edit: by this I mean adding +1 to everything each time you level up, not the actual process of leveling up). The reasons are simple: first is that it is an illusion of improvement, and in reality all that's happening is as the players level up the GM quietly behind the emerald curtains is bumping the DCs to level appropriateness. The math in PF2E is so tight that this is ultimately necessary, with the rules as presented. Static DCs get wonky really fast in PF2E. But if you strip out the level mechanic all sorts of problems go away, including:

--monster CRs are suddenly less restrictive and both higher level and lower level foes can be more useful and pragmatic in encounters (PF2E in this "no level" model literally starts to feel like D&D 3.5 again);

--math remains simpler; not a big deal, the math in PF2E is for the most part not complex but I've lost a couple players over the math as it stands, so take that in to consideration;

--proficiency bonuses will suddenly be far more relevant and stand out.

The Gamemastery Guide actually has an optional rule section on backing levels out. It reads to some extent like this was actually something they thought about doing during the playtest design, but then for some reason decided not to. Maybe they thought it would make them harder to distinguish from D&D 5E, or the illusion of advancement offered by level-adds would be superior to just trusting players to be okay with more intermittent proficiency increases.

Now, I could take the optional rules from the Gamemastery Guide and apply them, and I may yet do this, but it is with the burden of having to then either pre-convert all the material to the level-less mechanic, or convert on the fly. It would be a lot of work to make this happen in something like Roll20, but the net result would be, I think, a dramatically better game experience.

3. The Skill System and Skill Feats Need to be Refined/Broadened and Cut Respectively. PF2E did not take this lesson from anywhere else, unfortunately, and the skill system still feels like a design directed by a specific style of play. I am very, very tired of Society being a catch-all for so many skills, and the high level of specificity in the skill mechanics and feats of PF2E create unintended mine traps for niche protection, and a lot of juggling of information on what does and does not work for what purpose that is often counter-intuitive to just making a call. When running PF2E in contrast with either D&D 5E or D&D 3.5 (or hell, PF1E too) it is painfully clear that the rigorous attempt to control skills in PF2E was both a failed effort and one directed by a design team which perceived a problem that was not really a problem at all for so many players to begin with. Bottom line: skill systems for any D&D iteration in today's game environment need to encourage creativity, allow for intuitive rule calls, and be flexible enough to meet story needs. PF2E on the surface acts like a game that wants this, too, but its actual system discourages intuitive utilization.

My fix would be to rewrite the skills to re-include some missing options that will allow for more customization (example: cultural knowledge and linguistics not all rolled up in Society, perception and insight/sense motive become their own skills again, and lore is better and more broadly defined; the rigorous limitations imposed by the current system on what one can do are done away with, as are all skill feats entirely). This would be a start. An optional simpler non-skill based mechanic should exist for those who want fewer skills, too.

4. Fix or clean up the process on identifying magic items and detecting magic. It's a mess, and could benefit from a high level of consolidation. A single section that walks a player and GM through the process coherently from start to finish is much needed. Better yet, provide a basic and advanced version of the process, one for groups that do not want to worry about this and one for those who do.

5. Clean up and organize the crafting rules, and make them more specialized. Clean up the various spots where magic item creation and rune rules are by consolidating it all into one location. No more hunting and pecking to get the whole picture. As with #4 above, include an optional simplified version of the process and an "official" more detailed version to suit different group styles.

6. Let players have more fun. As the game has expanded I think Paizo has gotten this message, and my players pick a lot of stuff from other books which provide more useful abilities than in the core, so I think they are well aware that this was a problem with the initial design. My group regularly describes PF2E as a "game designed by GMs to put uppity players in their place" and they are not wrong. Many class designs seem severely hampered, or have specific synergies hidden behind lots of trap choices which wouldn't be trap choices if the GM side of the equation (monsters, and level limited loot) weren't so highly balanced as to make any poor player playing sub-optimally easy fodder. My current campaign is the very definition of suboptimal....a witch, an alchemist, a swashbuckler and a rogue who collectively somehow manage to survive as long as I give them copious useful damage and protection based allies. Because of the level-based system and the high level of difficulty scaling in monster design it means that my only real safe bet is to throw CR-0 to CR-3 stuff at them as often as possible, and even the rare CR+2 or +3 encounter is probably just a terrible idea (this Saturday had one, which I regretted putting in the game immediately; The group is level 7 and fought a single CR+3 monster, and it was a nightmarish slog in which I added an equivalent CR monster on their side just to help them out). 

Anyway, when players have abilities that make them feel useful or impressive, they like it. But all too often it seems like PF2E fails to offer this olive branch to them. 

Anyway....debating how to approach my group on a change. I know they are having fun with the campaign, but its pretty clear to me this is despite the rules we chose and not because of it. I am likely to switch to D&D 5E again, with lots of gritty rules turned on, or suggest we try something simpler and more relaxing like OSE or OpenQuest3. We shall see.