Saturday, December 31, 2022

Goodbye 2022! Also, some Thoughts about Pathfinder 2E after Reading the WotC OGL 1.1 Annoucment

 2022 wasn't as rough as 2020 or 2021, and frankly might have been an ordinary crappy year if it hadn't been preceded by two years that were the poster children of misery and misfortune. So: here's to a long but generally better year than people give it credit, goodbye 2022, and welcome to a hopefully even better and more productive 2023!!!!

Wizards of the Coast announced their plans and design for an OGL 1.1, the content license they want all future D&D-compatible products to function under. Based on what has been released and analyzed it sounds like they have two goals here: to mitigate or remove digital space competition from their planned Digital One D&D product, and to get some sweet, sweet royalties from the companies that they believe make $750K or more a year from D&D-compatible products. Off-hand I know Morrus of ENWorld admits to being in that category, and I would say Kobold Press, Paizo (which dabbled in 5E releases this year), Green Ronin (maybe), and allegedly around 20 publishers in total might fit that bill. I wonder what the criteria for this is, though.....would Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds count? I thought their platforms catered to licensed deals, but maybe WotC considers, say, something like Shard Tabletop to count for its support of third party publishers.

Do smaller groups like AAW games, Legendary Games, and others count? Is the figure based on the sort of money being pulled in from Kicksarters? Kickstarter earnings generally encompass the cost of creation, design, production and whatever is left at the end may be revenue, but the new OGL 1.1 may be looking at a total skim of 30% off the top of raw dollars earned, not after overhead, prodcution and manpower costs.

This is suddenly starting to feel like 2008 all over again with the D&D 4E SRD, but much, much worse. The 4th Edition SRD was a limiter on what could be done with content. The new OGL 1.1 is actively seeking to either profit freely from the competition or to squelch it. Either way it is incredibly bad news for the hobby at large, hobbyists in particular, and ultimately will hit WotC down the road when the generated interest in their product takes a hit from the diminishing creative output from third party sources.

This is where the Paizo and Pathfinder 2E deal comes in. Paizo capitalized on the shift to the SRD in 2008 by sticking with the OGL 1.0a (which remains in perpetuity, thankfully), and produced Pathfinder 1E, effectively a restatement of the 3.5 edition of D&D that people grew to miss following the arrival of 4th edition. There's a new opportunity brewing for someone to do something similar with D&D 5E, and Paizo technically knows (or knew) how to do this.

The problem is that the current Pathfinder 2E ruleset is not an especially great fit as a replacement. It has many virtuous qualities, but it retains a rigidity which D&D 5E does not have, one which is artificially baked in due to the level-scaling design of the game, and which even Paizo admits is not needed, as demonstrated by the optional rules in the Gamemastery Guide to simply redact level-scaling entirely, leaving a more robust and flexible game that caters to the strength of something more akin to 5E's bounded accuracy. That style of game is buried within Pathfinder 2E, but due to a design choice they went with the level scaling mechanic instead, and likely Paizo will never see a way to go differently now that that choice has been made. Worse yet, I am sure Paizo is committed to their current product, which while fine (and fun to play if you can work within its limits), will never be able to capture the average D&D gamer who is maybe disgruntled with the upcoming One D&D project and where it is taking the game. 

Still, this is a chance for Paizo to recapture some of the old market, I suspect. And it is a chance for a new publisher to maybe move in to that space, and offer something up to gamers who prefer not to be held captive to locked down content and platforms. Its a chance for profitable third parties like Kobold Press to consider leveraging their goodwill now with a product line that supports D&D 5E, rather than comporting to WotC's new standards and going to One D&D. 

In my year end posts I mentioned being done GMing Pathfinder 2E. That might certainly have been true, but I sort of feel like I should maybe just consider this a break period for now, and revisit it later on....there's a very good chance, now, that it looks like Paizo may be the best alternative source for a well-supported D&D-like fantasy system that is not carefully regulated into a revenue generating locked content model like WotC is trying to do with D&D. For that alone I feel I need to do more to support Paizo and their product. 

Death Bat's Year in Review: Best Reading of 2022

 This year I spent more time building up my specific collections on Kindle and Nook, but continue to maintain a physical book collection for certain niches, especially Valancourt Books editions in particular. I also tend to collect and read a lot of translated Japanese literature and prefer physical copies for my collection. My favorite reads this year shaped up as follows:

#6 The Bog by Michael Talbot

An author who died too young and only published a few novels in the 80's and early 90's, Michael Talbot's strange story of an archaeologist exploring an English bog in which numerous bodies are found, including one which appears to have Roman connections, rapidly turned into an even stranger tale of dark magic and ancient evil in ways I did not anticipate. I really enjoyed this book, re-released by Valancourt (my favorite publisher of old classics) and wish Talbot had lived long enough to write a lot more.

#5 The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson was a real eccentric, known for his mystical philosophy and occult writings, he spent a period of time writing Lovecraftian pastiche to demonstrate he could do it better than the HPL himself. Space Vampires is one of the results, and this book inspired the film Lifeforce (I say inspired because the entire film is basically the first two chapters of the book plus some serious liberties after that point). Both this book and the movie it spawned have had a nontrivial impact on my view of the mythos, and I actually finished a recent campaign in Call of Cthulhu in which the eponymous space vampires played a significant role. This book is notable for having an unusually "happy" ending, atypical of your average mythos tale, and suggestive of the fact that Colin Wilson can indeed write great pastiche Lovecraft but maybe not in the proper traditional form of a dour and gloomy ending as one might expect.

#4 Cult X by Fuminori Nakamura

If you read enough Japanese fiction you will notice a trend, especially in the 90's, of deep and introspective stories about the nature of religion, philosophy, obsession and cults in Japan, all driven (I suspect) by the 1995 sarin gas bombings that were initiated by a cult called Aum Shinrikyo. Cult X is an excellent example of this need to explore the nature of cults and how they form and grow, doing so through the eyes of a man pursuing the history of a woman who briefly entered and left his life, and the rabbit hole of belief and obsession with cults that she disappeared down in to. It's a long read but quite engaging, and Nakamura is a great writer who gets some very good translations into English. 

#3 The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders

This was a great read, which I snagged by accident at a book store in Florida and also grabbed on Nook (because convenience is the mother of completion). A deep dive, well researched, into the fascinating rise of murder as a media subject and cultural phenomenon of morbid curiosity during the 19th century in England, it also touches on so many other subjects in relation, providing a solid framework for better understanding how recent a phenomenon the concept of police, detectives and forensics are in our modern era, and the nascent fields which sprang out of the Victorian obsession with highly publicized murders over a century. If you're at all into Cthulhu by Gaslight or Vaesen I suggest this book to you, as it will provide a level of insight into that century that I did not previously have before reading it.

#2 Reassuring Tales by T.E.D. Klein

I read most of T.E.D. Klein back in the 80's and early 90's, and he remained one of my favorite Lovecraft-inspired horror authors as a result. Ceremonies is one of the best novels I have ever written. Until recently finding any of his works in print or on the back shelf of an old bookstore was all but impossible, and then abruptly his work made it to ebook format. As a result I have at last had a chance to read him again, and discover his short fiction in the form of this collection. His narrative approach is fantastic, intuitive, and engaging. His subject matter is always interesting, and it is well worth the time and investment of any horror author to read all of what T.E.D. Klein wrote. Look him up on wikipedia, he's a fascinating person who has not gotten nearly enough attention and I am so glad his books are available again.

#1 Best Read of the Year: In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

This horror/crime/mystery mashup is pure pulp, a dive into the seedy 90's underbelly of Tokyo from the view of a tour guide named Kenji who ends up saddled with an American tourist named Frank who wants to explore the seedy sex industry of Tokyo. Kenji does this for a living, but as he takes Frank around the town he begins to suspect something is really wrong with the guy...and then bodies start appearing. 

Ryu Murakami (who has no relation to the incredible Haruki Murakami so far as I know) is a great crime and horror author, and is also behind the book (and film) Audition, which I have not been brave enough to try reading yet, but this was an incredibly thrilling read and I heartily recommend it to anyone into either crime fiction, horror fiction, or Japanese literature.

Okay, that's it for 2022! For 2023 I plan to do a lot more reading, even more so than I managed to get in for 2022, as I have stacks of books and dozens of ebooks I have yet to get to. 

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Death Bat's Year in Review 2022: Video Games of 2022

 As usual, this year was a mix of me playing some genuinely good older games and occasionally even picking up (and playing) an new game, so this list represents what I played and now what was fresh and new. So that said....

Best Walking Simulators of 2022: Scorn, Moons of Madness and Soma

That it took me so long to play Soma and Moons of Madness is a shame, but at least I got to discover them for the first time this year, a year in which I really decided that I love the shorter form of an exploratory walking simulator with a deep story/realm to uncover. Unfortunately there are plenty of less thrilling examples of this genre out there, but these three games in particular were each amazing in their own ways:

Soma was a deep dive in to the nature of human consciousness, viewed through the lens of a posthuman apocalypse;

Moons of Madness was an SF excursion into Lovecraftian tradition but on Mars, and presented a really fascinating mix of hard SF tropes mixed with cosmic horror;

Scorn was a wordless nightmare written in Giegeresque imagery of a universe which wasn't merely posthuman but had long ago abandoned the concepted of the ideation of self. It was a nightmare from beginning to end, and not for everyone, but I loved it.

Best Open World Game I Finished in 2022: Assassin's Creed Origin

Ubisoft makes games that are simply too large for me to get to with any proper sense of time, and I sometimes wonder if Ubisoft sees this in their numbers, that for every Mountain Dew-powered gamerbro who grabs their latest game and plows through it in a couple weekends, there's a torrent of gamers like me to take months or even years to finish one of their giant worlds. Origin isn't even close to the size of Odyssey or Valhalla which has me worried....I am working on Odyssey now, and wondering how many years before I finish it. I question whether I have the energy to ever tackle Valhalla, given that so many new AC games are scheduled for release (and thankfully Ubisoft has made noises to the effect that their future games will be a bit shorter). In any case, exploring a fictional Ptolemaic Egypt was a lot of fun, and I really appreciate that the developers of these games put so much effort into making them the way they do; it got my son into Egypt and he is learning so much more as a result now. 

Best CRPG of 2022: Tactics Ogre

I'm still playing it, but I am gonna call it for this one. Tactics Ogre is an incredibly satisfying experience. I played other RPGs this year: I tackled, at last, Xenoblade Chronicles I on Switch and while it was fun, that game got long in the tooth well before getting to the end. Tactics Ogre is by contrast a perfect game for a portable experience like Steam Deck or the Switch, and its turn-based rules are a lot of fun to parse out. The story isn't bad, either! I recall playing the original back in the PS1 days, and enjoying it just as much.

Best Shooter of 2022: Halo Infinite

First, I actually finished this in 2022, so there is that. Second, the campaign is really fun, a nice return to form for the Halo franchise which felt like Halo as its fans tend to think of it. The only real issues with Halo Infinite are the fact that the open-world sections felt a bit forced to me; once I finished the main campaign there simply wasn't that much left to keep me involved in the game afterward, and of course the fact that the multiplayer component does not live up to modern standard of what a multiplayer persistent games-as-a-service experience is supposed to be. Some might consider this a feature, not a bug, but I know those who were really hoping for Halo Infinite to rank next to Fortnite and Warzone were certainly disappointed. But for me? I've only ever played Halo for the campaigns, and this one delivered.

Hall of Shame: Destiny 2

What the hell has happened to this game? It's focus on story is now so disjointed and at times nonsensical that keeping up with what is happening and why is impossible. By abandoning a model closer to Halo, we no longer can access and play older campaigns, are stuck on a seasonal treadmill of content that forces gamers who only play for story to grind through unpleasant content to get the most out of it (which I refuse to do; my time is too valuable), and the overall experience feels disjointed and shallow as a result. I have played less of Destiny 2 this year than ever before, and I have decided I will refrain from picking up the next $100 "expansion" as that's the kind of cash I reserve for games I can properly revisit and enjoy on my own time, not Bungie's. To Bungie: start releasing stand along "Best of Destiny" releases with the older campaigns that can be bought for a static price, played forever, and don't turn in to gated content in the future, and I will return. Until then, I will accept that despite the fact that this was once one of my favorite franchises, I must accept that I am not your target demographic anymore.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Death Bat's Year in Review: The Top RPGs of 2022

 As usual, I like to put forth the caveat that these are games I discovered/interacted with in 2022, and not necessarily games that actually came out in 2022. In no particular order....

Game I GMed and Got the Most Out of: Mothership

By far and away Mothership dominated the first half of the year with an ongoing game that lasted to the summer, providing some amazing bang from the buck considering zero edition is a rather slim zine size book, and the first module I ran was about 4 sessions' worth of gaming out of a two page tri-fold. Mothership is a unique zeitgeist of everything I personally need out of a game for it to work, and thankfully in 2023 we'll see the official boxed kickstarted First Edition Mothership for more fun. 

Game I have Hit the Wall On: Pathfinder 2E

I ran some Pathfinder 2E earlier in the year but came to a screeching halt as the numbers became too transparent to me, the rigorously balanced values of the game becoming too obvious, and later as a player I found that I, like many of my players had also expressed, just didn't find character generation very fun. There is fun to be had here, but it it so specific in design and intent that, having run one campaign from level 1 to 20 already, I just don't feel I could continue it any further. I'll continue playing in my friend's campaign when he runs it, but as a GM I am done with it. (EDIT: Maybe not. After writing this post it got me thinking a lot more about Pathfinder, and realizing that the issue was more about the fact that I couldn't keep up with the weekly schedule of content I had inflicted on myself for better than two decades. This year, getting a chance to take a break from GMing periodically while someone else takes on the mantle has helped me greatly in feeling more creatively refreshed. So....we'll see. I'm already plotting a Dark Archive inspired campaign now, so my proclamations are, as always, fickle and tempestuous!)

Most Exciting New Discovery of 2022: Everything by Free League Publishing

Whether we're talking about Forbidden Lands and its retro aesthetic approach to hexcrawl style play, Vaesen's exploration of gothic victorian era nordic horror, Mutant Year Zero's modernized take on Gamma World, sci fi like Alien RPG and Coriolis, or the brand new procedural future crime engine in Blade Runner, I am really into the vibe and style of Free League Publishing's take on gaming. It's been pretty much all I can think about for the last few months, and this includes games like vaesen and Mutant: Year Zero which I've had for a while but only recently really started exploring in depth (part of my effort to focus more on reading what I own rather than continuing to mindlessly collect more, more more). 

I plan to run at least a couple of these games in 2023. I think Forbidden Lands and Vaesen will be first on the proposal, with Blade Runner and Mutant: Year Zero following quickly behind.

Trend I Most Bought in to in 2022: Zine-Style Publishing

I bought a lot of stuff from Exalted Funeral in 2022, as well as Tuesday Knight Games. I spent a lot of time playing Mothership, I ran two campaigns using OSE and the assorted modules that are out on the market for this traditional take on retro OSR D&D gaming. Although I think I am at a hard brake point on D&D gaming as I go in to 2023, I definitely got a lot of mileage out of the exotic, artsy, and weird fun that has come from the small press chapzine style publishing market that has swept one corner of gaming this year. 

Game of the Year for 2022: Mothership

The fact that a 48 page (give or take) 0 Edition player's guide and a handful of supplements can make for one of the best non-Cthulhu horror games and perfectly encapsulate a wide range of the axis of horror and science fiction in the genre that it does is amazing. The way it creates simple but elegant mechanics for fast but deep character generation, rules which drive forward the fear, horror and panic of the genre, and provide a robust yet incredibly simple framework for GMs to run games on the fly with a bewildering array of modules that range from long and deep to a mess of incredibly fun two-page adventures is also amazing. Mothership exploded out of the chapzine craze and captured a new style of gaming that works so incredibly well. Even its imitators wish they were Mothership.

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Weird Element of Horror RPGs - Recurring Character-Driven Storytelling in the Face of Death

 We recently wrapped a seven-part Call of Cthulhu campaign, one which I honestly started with the premise of "like a Grindhouse Movie, where everyone dies," but in the end it turned out to be more like "A Grindhouse film, but only half of the party dies." Fair enough! But it raised an interesting specter to me about the horror game market, one which I have been somewhat aware of for many an age: as fun as it is to play horror RPGs, there is a weird measure of investment on the part of the player to make and play a character who is just interesting enough that you like playing them, but not so interesting that when they die you find yourself disappointed or disconnected from the game as a result. 

High PC mortality is something I have often handled in Call of Cthulhu (or GURPS Horror) by either laying down the likelihood of death at the start of the campaign and advising the group to prepare one or more PCs in advance and let their darlings sit it out; and often I try to design around the idea that the really lethal moments tend to come on plot beats that coincide with a grim middle act or the finale. However, given that I also encourage as much free agency on the part of my players as possible this can be a harrowing process to see if the players, by coincidence, comport to the plot and pacing as I have outlined it.

Either way, as a GM I have come to accept that Cthulhu campaigns work best when you plan them out with the expectation of clear and periodic breaks; each works best as a discreet tale, and there is opportune time for reflection and recovery in between. As a result, some of my regulars have characters who have survived for three or more campaigns this way now, and often the "win" as always in Cthulhu is if the players decide to keep them pleasantly retired in their game folders.

At the end of the latest campaign we were left with a unique series of conclusions, some of which clearly hinted at future potential adventures for each character. I myself was left thinking about how interesting this would be, but also realizing that as with all things Cthulhu, any investigator who continues his life in this world is living on borrowed time before madness, death, or oblivion await. That got me to thinking: what horror ruleset or universe might be better suited to an episodic style of tale, one in which the risk of mortality was present, but not necessarily inevitable or even the goal? Or, to put it another way: are there horror games where the focus is on the survivor and their travails, rather than the monsters and the madness against which any number of faceless gumshoes must prevail?

I think it's perfectly possible to accomplish this in Call of Cthulhu, if you commit to a generally more low-key campaign where maybe the mythos creep in in the slightest of ways on occasion. GURPS Horror could accomplish this as well. I hesitate to suggest Savage Worlds, which can handle a certain kind of horror but one which (in my experience) is more suited to "heroic horror" and is maybe less about the discreet moments of character building and world exploration in between....and again, not that you couldn't do this in any system, its just that certain systems may be better at this than others.

The Trails of Cthulhu setting might, but I've got my issues with the Gumshoe mechanics which are aimed at solving an investigative problem that only exists for certain interpretations of the process, one for which I have no need of a solution. Cypher System has its horror genre book, but Cypher, like Savage Worlds, is not about characters of a mundane nature and is more clearly suited to heroes of a most unusual quality; I love Cypher for what it can do, but feel it maybe handles "low key nitty gritty character building" less well than some other systems do.

Anyway.....the idea of a game system aimed at thematically being all about the investigators, the survivors, the people discovering the creepy, weird and the unknown; something modeling the X-Files, essentially, in which we are tuning in for Mulder and Scully first and the Smoking Man and the black goo second....I am not sure that's fully out there, at least in print; I bet Conspiracy X or Bureau 13 might do this. 

I guess several (or even all) of the horror games out there can do this, but it requires a concerted effort on the part of the GM and players to decide that this is how they are going to roll. The tricky part is, if you allow players to grow too invested and attached in their characters, what happens then? Or is the secret that players are doomed, as their character survives one horrifying scenario after another, to inevitably grow attached to their lucky survivor? 

I know I the campaign where I have been a player I have two rotating characters in a Gaslight era Cthulhu campaign, and both have taken on some measure of significance to me, enough so that I contemplate ways to get them to pleasantly retire from the "game" of constantly flirting with death. Arguably this is either a sign that the GM in that campaign is too merciful (too much time and leniency has allowed me to grow fond of my creations), or I have myself simply allowed my own guard to slip, and no longer think of my characters as hapless sacrifices waiting for their number to be drawn, but actual sympathetic fictions trapped in a harsh realm. I'd suggest they buy beachfront property but in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos that is, clearly, the worst idea. 

Indeed, in a horror tale or movie, the death of the protagonist is often tied to the end of the film. In role playing games, the true horror is that when you die the game inevitably continues, proving that you were wrong: you were never the protagonist, you were just another b-list actor who's number was up. 

Friday, December 9, 2022

Collecting the Evercade

Around two years ago the Evercade became a thing among vintage and physical edition game collectors. I think I've written a bit about it before, but if you're not sure what the Evercade is you can check out their website here and take a look; it's a nice website. Most recently the third iteration of this console is about to release: the Evercade EXP, a more robust handheld console which has internet connectivity and some preloaded games. It's a step in the right direction, even for a system which is selling itself on the idea that you can buy and play vintage games in cartridge collections.

Anyway, as a person who got swept up in the collector's fever of this console, I thought I'd share a few observations about it, and offer some advice for those of you who are new to the Evercade but might be interested in picking it up. First and most importantly is that the original is a nice, sturdy handheld design, and its only failing is it can be mildly awkward to connect to your PC for any necessary updates (there's usually one you need to download when you get it), and it does not support all the cartridges in current release....I believe the original Evercade only works with the red box releases. That said, there are at least 26 of these collections out there so the original still has a lot of content, and if you find one on sale its probably worth it (but see below).

The Evercade VS is the "console" version of the system, slightly more robust, and designed to handle arcade ports of up to 23 bits (iirc). It's able to play all the games, but its collection of purple box cartridges contain arcade ports and other titles that the handheld can't handle. It's main feature is you can easily hook this up to a TV and play with friends using the retro controllers it comes with. It's main downside has been, from my experience, it can sometimes be hard to "wake up." It's fun, son and I have had a good time plowing through old games I never had the quarters on hand to complete back in the day. I now know for example that it would have probably taken me 120 or more quarters to finish Dark Seal I or Dark Seal II. I bet some of these old arcade classics never had their full range of content fully explored by most people, simply because it cost too much to get there! 

Now there is a new Evercade EXP coming out next week, a slimmer handheld which is compatible with all cartridges, some wireless connectivity, and a range of games preloaded (including some actual notable titles like Mega Man). This one looks like a measured improvement over the origina handheld, and I will report on it when I get my copy in. 

So far, my main realization in collecting Evercade so far has been the following: any of the iterations are worth having if you like retro gaming or physical cartridges, but unless you love owning all games for their own sake, you may wish to look closely at each cartridge release and assess whether the games on it are worth the typical $20 price tag you can get the cartridges for. For example, I know I have gotten my money's worth out of cartridges like the Namco and Atari collections, and there's a great collection of mostly RPGs that I never played back in the day but find well worth the time now to have (Piko Interactive Collection), but some other collections have provided precious little....owning them is more so you can smugly say you have it all, or to admire the equivalent of an electronic museum of forgotten relics of the past than anything else. 

A few collections contain games new to the console or at least newer, such as the Xenocrisis/Tanglewood collection, well worth owning if you don't have these games elsewhere yet) and the Indie Heroes collection, which gathers a range of more contemporary titles for the Evercade and puts them in an ideal medium of play. But for many collections, I have been lucky to find one game that made me happy to have the cartridge, and often the main appeal of the other games was simply to discover that they even existed....and that anyone cared to bring them back! The Atari Lynx collections, as an example, were all new to me, and while a couple were fun, I suspect I would be a lot more enamored of the collections if I had ever owned a Lynx back in the day.

So basically: take the time to look at what's on the cartridges, and make sure at least a couple of the titles appeal to you or scratch the nostalgia itch. Unless you're planning to dive deep into the collector's zone, chances are you can probably pick up 5-6 cartridges with most of the actual games you might want to spend time with and be scrutinizing of the rest.

Okay, maybe next week I'll talk more about the Evercade EXP, unless my wife forces me to put them under the Xmas tree, we shall see.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Random Things - Mothership, Vaesen, X-Box E-Waste, Switch vs. Steam Deck, Xenoblade Chronicles and So On

 For the last two years or so this has been just the sparsest, most random sort of blog. I used to be able to keep up! Three times a week, or even has a way of making such commitments tough though.

Still, every now and then the urge to just write some fun nonsense overcomes me. Here are some random thoughts of note....

Time to get rid of e-waste! I think I can get rid of the Xbox Series X (and S). More accurately I may give my son the Series X and trade in the Series S. I'm just not doing anything with them. They have no meaningful exclusives that I can't get on PC as well, and I can't benefit from the Game Pass as I already own the games I'd want the pass for in the first place. My desktop and laptop PCs both out-perform the Xbox Series X consistently, which is not a good look. M'eh. At least this is one way I can cut down on electronic clutter in my home study!

Mothership Boxed is going to come out sooner or later, and a combination of new downloads has me pretty excited for the finished looks like the new edition won't deviate as much from the 0E version as I thought it would, and the Warden's Guide is awesome. Speaking of which, for today only Tuesday Knight Games has 50% off 0E Mothership products if you don't already own all of them.

I've been diving more deeply into Vaesen. I think I will, contrary to early assessments, be able to run this game and quite enjoy it. The potential for some truly eerie gothic horror in a non-Lovecraftian domain is proving quite appealing. The Free League game system is just complex enough but also kind of stupid simple, and works well.

Steam Deck vs. Switch! I've had the Steam Deck for a couple months now. It has not buried the Switch, though I thought it might; I have still spent more time on the Switch when traveling than the Steam Deck. The reason, I realize, is because the Switch's game selection by and large caters to on-the-go, short stint play, and even the long games (Xenoblade Chronicles, for example) provide for a fairly quick in-and-out experience if needed. By contrast, I unwittingly loaded a bunch of hardcore games on the Deck, games which require time and focus to properly enjoy, so therefore make less than stellar game choices when on the go. My bad!

Speaking of Xenoblade Chronicles, I decided to at last tackle this series from start to finish (yeah you can check in at any entry, but I wanted to do it this way). I am about 35 hours in to the first Xenoblade Chronicles. It deserves a proper review when I finish, but I can state the following: casual mode is nothing to be ashamed about; I played it on regular settings until around 16 hours in when I was starting to find the combat really boring and repetitive. I read up on what Causal Mode did, and after trying it realize all it does is make the trite, boring combat go much faster. I could set it on hard mode, but the problem is I really just want to play this game to be a completionist; Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is the target goal, here. Anyway, the point is: Casual Mode is your friend if the idea of leveling up Colony 6 sounds like hell to you. If you are ready to drop kick the next Nopon that wants you to murder everything in the name of cuteness, then yeah, try Casual Mode, you won't regret it!

Skyrim and Fallout 4 on Steam Deck, though! Don't count it out, despite what I said earlier. I am getting further in Skyrim on the steam deck than I every have before, and random bouts of Fallout 4 on the Steam Deck are just great. Also, well worth checking out is Soul Hackers 2, which runs extremely well (so far) on the Deck. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Free League Publishing - Swedish Gaming on the Brain (Vaesen, Mutant: Year Zero, Alien and Forbidden Lands)

A few games on my "backlog" list I published what feels like ages ago -- since my last blog post I have both contracted and recovered from the latest variant of COVID (my first time! Thankfully I was on my fifth vaccine shot), and among the list is Vaesen, which after I dug it out of the backlog I have been reading quite a bit of. It's not nearly as grim and existential as, say, Call of Cthulhu, but it is an ambient and moody universe with lots of gothic potential. I am thinking hard of what I can do with it.

When I was in Florida earlier this year I stopped by a great game store and snagged most (but not all) of the Mutant: Year Zero lineup, with only some modules and Mechatron missing (a book which Ebay asserts only one copy was ever printed so be ready to pay hundreds of dollars for it--yeesh). Luckily every book in the Mutant series is a stand-alone take on a segment of the post-apocalyptic world, and the core book is pretty much "Gamma World, using the Free League rules." Genlab Alpha is for animal mutants, and Elysium is a rather interesting take on the idea of pure strain humans and the M:YZ idea of vaults....pre-cataclysm colonies beneath the earth who weathered out the bad times, but are in turn slowly depleting their resources and creating gruesome level of social strain on their internal social controls. Interesting stuff.

That's all to say that in addition to reading up on Vaesen I am prepping to run Mutant; Year Zero soon. Probably after the current Saturday Call of Cthulhu arc concludes and my co-GM runs the next arc of his Pathfinder 2E campaign, but it seems like a no-brainer to me. We had a lot of fun with my guest Gamma World games, but as seems to happen so often these days, I really do like a bit more meat to my game systems, and the old school stuff is fun for a palette cleanser, but no longer sustains for long term campaigns. Mutant: Year Zero appears to be just the fix I need.

Alien RPG is also still looming, and I also dragged Forbidden Lands out of storage, having all but forgotten I had been collecting it, too. Forbidden Lands looks genuinely interesting, but the problem with any fantasy game system is that I am so invested in my own worlds and pursuing their stories that I just haven't quite pieced together how I would cobble together my own style of campaign from what Forbidden Lands has to offer. The game straight up tells you in the opening chapter that it knows some GMs will use it for their own thing, but the rest of the game proceeds to provide you with such a setting integrated take that it is hard for me to imagine how to extract it in a useful way; made tougher by the fact that its own setting is sufficiently intriguing. What I am trying to do is reconcile my "desire to run my own fantasy world my way" with the book's cool built in setting and style, and see if I can somehow mesh the two. I worry if I simply try to run it straight that I will become disaffected with it and lose interest, but on the other hand I am trying to think of it more like how I run Call of Cthulhu, which is itself fully immersed in the mythos, but is my own specific take on modern day horror with a specific blend of features distinct to my take on what the mythos would look like in the 21st century, borrowing as I see fit from Delta Green, ufology, modern notions of the paranormal, and a reimagining of those things which made more sense in the 1920's and 30's but maybe less so now (example: K'n-Yan is not a giant cavernous realm below Oklahoma, but is an other dimensional space through which certain ancient portals found in Oklahoma can take you; Pluto may not be the actual Yuggoth, but it definitely is a staging ground for the mi-go; tcho-tcho are not a deviant asiatic humanoid species but are genetically modified subjects who's experimental history is ancient and cross-continental; stuff like that). 

If I can do that: take the cool stuff in Forbidden Lands and then transplant it to something I can make my own, I think I can figure out how to use it. Because I do like the system, and I like how it structures a distinct exploration style of gameplay, and I would really like to try that out. 

Free League also distributes (though did not write) Death in Space which I am still thinking about. I feel like I am too much into the "science" part of science fiction to fully appreciate Death in Space, which is a sort of eschatological space-fantasy treatment with the feel of grim SF wrapped around it. It has some core conceits I just don't like, in other words. You don't need all that stuff to make a good SF horror game, as Mothership proves again and again. 

Meanwhile, back in the reality of "what I can actually run and find players for," D&D high level begins, hypothetically, tomorrow! Live! I hope I am not jinxing it (again) by saying this on the blog, as every other time I have triumphantly announced the return to live it ends up getting interrupted by work or illness, so fingers crossed.....

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Death Bat's Must Read Shelf of Neglected RPGs (October 2022 Edition)

 As I slowly work on bringing my study under control (it's reached a level of clutter and disorganization that makes doing anything prohibitively difficult) I keep finding buried gems which once again demand my attention. Without further are the top ten RPGs I have unearthed (or been slowly reading) which I really need to get crackin' on so I can run some of these within the next year, as well as the reasons I haven't actually gotten around to running them or learning the systems:

10. Vaesen

This curiosity is a treatise on Swedish period horror from Free League publishing, specifically using a famous illustrator to reflect the weird world of Scandinavian fears. The concept is sound, Cthulhu in a specific cultural environment with specific legends and lore, if you will. The system seems quite robust, and it has some nice support. 

So why am I not playing it? I just can't decide if its specific style of horror is something I, personally, could invest myself in running.....but I might totally play this if the opportunity arose.

9. Fallout RPG

This looks like a pretty sweet take on the post-apocalypse, and manages to take the very conic setting of the Fallout games and turn it into a competent tabletop game. I kind of love everythng about this.

So why do I neglect it? Because every time I read through it, I end up playing the computer game instead.

8. Cold & Dark RPG

Another one distributed by Modiphius, a one-book system that I don't think got the attention or support it deserved. This take on science fiction horror is great, and predates the whole movement kicked off by Mothership and its competition. 

So why am I not playing this? Because its so obscure that talking my group in to it is prohibitively difficult, plus I don't think any VTT supports it right now (that I know of). 

7. Alien RPG

It goes without saying, as a fan of the Alien movies and novels that I greatly enjoy this RPG iteration of Alien. It manages to pull together a lot of content for the IP and get it to work, even dabbling in the comic contributions to the Alien universe, all while skirting around the curious question of whether Predators are also in that universe, or just one very similar to it. My biggest failing with the Alien RPG is that I keep reading the world and lore background and pushing off learning the game system!

The reason I haven't gotten as far with Alien RPG as I should have? Mothership took its lunch.

6. Star Trek Adventures

Similar to Alien, I find myself spending far more time reading the lore and setting material for the many Star Trek books published by Modiphius, and not nearly enough time learning the actual game system. For me, Star Trek is an ancient guilty pleasure, an old love I left behind for a long time and only recently have come back to, and its a lot of fun to do so and realize I still enjoy the universe.

The reason I haven't gotten as far with learning the rules? Modiphius's 2D20 system is kind of boring to learn, and also I've sort of been running my "Star Trek" campaign, just with the serial numbers filed off and using the Cypher System.

5. 2300AD

Traveller's new expensive boxed set packages the 2300AD setting, mildly updated for the 21st century edition of Traveller, and puts it all together into a pretty efficient (if expensive) package. I know little of the 2300AD setting from back in the 90's, it was a thing I simply had no time or money to get in to. Now, here it is in 2022 and I have the boxed set, but still no time to invest in it. Some day!

4.  Anime 5E

This book takes the Tri-Stat Big Eyes, Small Mouth 4th edition and converts it's core conceit (point buy character build mechanics) to D&D 5th edition. In the course of doing so it creates a tome fully compatible with 5E, but also don't need any other books to play, though any 5E stuff will work just fine with it. It's loaded with anime flavor, and it is hard to escape the fact that you can easily imagine running a Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy flavored 5E game using this book.

Why have I neglected it? Because I also grabbed Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM) 4th edition and as a result am torn by the fact that the actual game off of which Anime 5E is derived is, itself, and even more robust anime/manga simulator.

3. BESM 4E

Speaking of which, Big Eyes, Small Mouth 4th Edition is back, and indeed its even back in the hands of the original creator. Loaded with flavor this is easily the best edition of BESM yet, and for the first time in many years I am contemplating what I could do with the game system, what sort of anime-derived worlds I could explore. With my anime/gamer interests lying heavily with Shin Megami Tensei, mecha shows, Berserk, Junji Ito, and games like Code: Vein I can only imagine what I might do with this.

What's holding me up? Old age, and a lack of time to properly divest the energy into building all the cool things for whatever game I might seek to come up with. 

2. Cyberpunk Red

From around 1990-1994 the single most played non-D&D game system on my shelf was Cyberpunk 2020 (GURPS was #3 and Traveller was #4). After all these years, a high quality, decent, focused and true to spirit new Cyberpunk edition is out and I have shockingly neglected it far too much.

Why does this remain neglected? I think its because the old gang I had in college is a scattered diaspora and I only still know of a couple of them. My current gaming group just doesn't seem very....ah....Cyberpunk-centric. I could be wrong. I guess there's always one way to find out!

1. Esper Genesis RPG

The first two books for this game are graphic powerhouses, capturing a modern rendition of science fiction replete with powered armor suits, exotic aliens, weird tech and psionics. The system is powered by 5th edition rules which makes adopting it a piece of cake. There is little not to love about this, and with the core rules plus bestiary out, only the Master Technician's Guide, which will provide key rules for gear, ships, vehicles and GM stuff is not in print yet (it is in PDF). 

Why have I neglected this? I ordered the third book around 2 years ago and am still waiting to see if they ever release it. I have a real pet peeve with running games that have an incomplete book set, especially if there's some worry it will end up dying on the vine as a neglected system. I don't think that has happened here...yet...but we shall see. Luckily I didn't order it on Kickstarter, I think I'd be even more remorseful if I had. But...their site suggests its physical arrival is imminent, and they seem to be getting slightly better at updating those with preorders (their site is providing slightly more information these days), but when you check the Kickstarter it looks like backers are lucky to get any updates at all. 

Monday, October 17, 2022

SOMA, Scorn and the Appeal of Walking Simulators in Weird Post-Apocalyptic Landscapes

 A few weeks back, roughly five years late, I finished SOMA, an adventure game on Steam (and other platforms) which focuses on the experience of a man who starts his day getting an ordinary brainscan, and rapidly finds himself in a scifi apocalyptic landscape through which he must navigate and uncover the story of humanity's last days. After playing SOMA I realized that, on average, most of the games I play (and actually finish) tend to be this sort of game: you have a main character, a storyline to uncover, you may or may not have to worry about combat as a part of the experience, and you likely have some puzzles, but nothing that harkens back to the pixel-bitch era of the adventure game age. On occasion the format may vary (Oxenfree was a fascinating "side scroller" style adventure, for example) but usually its in first or third person mode. Other games of similar type which I have finished in recent years include obvious ones like The Evil Within and all of the Resident Evil and Silent Hill games, but recent treasures such as Moons of Madness, Conarium, the Amnesia series, Layers of Fear, Dear Esther, Paradise Lost and many more are all games I have completed. 

The genre isn't perfect. There are a nontrivial number of horror titles in this genre that break the mold a bit with an emphasis on undefeatable horrors which you must either outwit or evade; Outlast as a series is a notable example, and one which I have never gotten past a certain point in due to the fact that the game requires a measure of punishing repetition in some grim scenarios to proceed. Some day maybe I'll pick it up again...I'd love to get out of the water-filled dark basement alive one day. Horror titles like this are seeking a slightly different experience than other titles I have played, where horror as a genre is a component, but for which the horror of escape/survival is not so relevant. SOMA and Moons of Madness are both really good examples of horror which does not lean hard into survival, preferring instead to keep the player's focus on story and advancement.

Scorn just came out a week or so back, and I picked it up, played and finished it this weekend. The exact nature of this game eluded me before getting it; it clearly was leaning hard into a gory, weird world inspired by H.R. Giger, but beyond that I couldn't tell if it was going to be a moody shooter, an elaborate puzzle game or what. As it turns out, it's a walking simulator with a lot of puzzles, a little bit of gunplay, and a wordless approach to storytelling that exposes the player to a thick, mysterious narrative told entirely through the ambient experience of trying to figure out who your avatar is, why he is in this dystopian apocalypse, and what his inevitable fate means. Along the way you get treated to some at times clever puzzles and a bewildering array of disturbing imagery and events that have kept me thinking about this game long after I completed it. 

(SPOILERS ahead)

Scorn is not for everyone. SOMA, by contrast, has some creepy stuff, but it will be hard to say that anyone who has played other games in the horror genre (such as Resident Evil or even Silent Hill) will be surprised by; it's got a great visual aesthetic but it also deals with a future in which a machine-flesh fusion brought about by a technological advance in ferrofluids allows for a merging of the notion of biological consciousness and machine sentience. Scorn, by contrast, is about a future, likely so far in the future that whole epochs of existence have come and gone, that mankind is no longer recognizable as such. Or, maybe Scorn is an entirely different world. It's hard to say, but I like my interpretation that it is a future in which biotechnology became all-consuming, and changed the foundations on which humanity predicates its existence. The problem, of course, is that the depiction of this future existence is incredibly raw and disturbing; the concept of humanity as we understand it today simply no longer exists in the world of Scorn. To be human in Scorn is to be a product, weak, and desperate. Your avatar starts off apparently human, or human enough, but early on strange things happen and you awaken, apparently having died or been suspended in some state, for an indeterminate amount of time, determined to move forward into the belly of the great machine, for an inscrutable purpose. Along the way the evidence of life as a commodity that has been prioritized from the most base line form and existence on up to the most elaborate ascended forms by the late game can be seen everywhere, and a freakish ecology has grown up around the detritus of this approach to existence. 

Scorn doesn't really provide you any answers, it just offers questions followed by a range of experiences, and leaves you to interpret them. When I write what I see it as representing, know that this is how I interpreted it. By the end of the game I feel it is fairly obvious that your wretched character seeks an end goal of transcending existence, and instead his vicious symbiote counterpart makes him a permanent resident. It's not a happy ending, but it is incredibly fitting for this game and it's world.

Both SOMA and Scorn really got me thinking about how what I like most out of a very good, thoughtful video game is the ability to experience and visit these strange universes for a time, but they don't outstay their welcome. I think SOMA took about 14 hours to complete, and Scorn took around 8 hours, of which about an hour was spent mulling over a few key puzzles (I managed all of them without FAQs, which was nice, given that no one's written any detailed guides yet for Scorn). Both of these games had a bit of lite combat. In SOMA's case it was mainly a few very specific story-driven events, and most of the time evasion was your only recourse to survival. In Scorn you do get actual weapons (ironically I missed the pistol and finished the game with the bolt gun and later shotgun and grenade launchers), and there are things that try to kill you later on in Scorn for which shooting them is a solution. However, Scorn is really not a shooter; these sequences are essentially still puzzles, and waiting for the monsters to wander off to their lairs is a viable solution to most of these encounters. When you finally get something approximating a boss encounter it follows a specific set of behaviors that, exploited, really amount to a puzzle more than anything.

If you want some really good and interesting story-driven walking simulator experiences about the terrifying end of humanity, SOMA and Scorn are both well worth investigating. Just be aware, Scorn is grotesque, and you must enmesh yourself within the notion that humanity as a concept no longer is now warped beyond all possible recognition. If you can, I suggest playing these two titles back-to-back, they both hold freakishly interesting messages about humanity's future, and the elaborate dialogue and discovery in SOMA will make the harsh, wordless exposure to nightmare in Scorn even more interesting as a result. But be warned! If you thought some of the stuff in the Silent Hill franchise was disturbing in its implications, you might want to avoid Scorn, which doesn't waste time with silly implications; it's universe stopped coddling human sensibilities eons prior. 

SOMA and Scorn: both solid A games!

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Hulu and how Streaming Co-Opted Mid-Budget Franchise Films (TL;DR Hellraiser and Prey were pretty fun movies)

 I recently resubbed for a month to Hulu just to catch the new Predator movie (Prey) and the new Hellraiser movie, which thankfully fell within the one-month slot of time I had paid for. For the price one one month (with ads) which is just going up to about $9/month it's a pretty good deal, cheaper than movie tickets, for three films that would be perfectly fine theater fare in a different time, but which are just too low in the budget, thrills and star power set by blockbuster films these days. Don't get me wrong....I would rather watch a more well thought out mid-range film like Hellraiser than sit through any more Disney Marvel films right now, but it's pretty clear that there's a subtle and permanent change to where entertainment can be found going on now due to streaming services. 

Either way, the real problem in the end is one of value: as soon as I saw these two movies I unsubbed from Hulu as their general mix of films and shows is simply not enough for me to keep up with it, not when there is so much competition. I'll wait and resub for a month when they have yet another interesting movie worth watching. Maybe someday someone will make some new original property that's just as interesting as watching these tired old properties get revified like some Herbert West experiment, too....who knows!

That said, it is worth mentioning that both Prey and the new Hellraiser were quite fun, and they both appeared to make an earnest effort to capture the essence of their franchises. Indeed, Hellraiser felt like a better sequel to Hellraiser 2 than the subsequent 8 films that actually (and shamefully) do bear the series' name. Prey, meanwhile, had some curious gaffes and a shiny coat of "made for TV" on it, but still managed to be a far more entertaining and successful Predator film than the last theatrical release, by a hard mile. 

Although people may gripe about streaming and how many services there are now, I guess we can at least be happy that they haven't (yet) returned to the Cable model of exorbitant, costly packages stuffed with channels no one actually wants, in a medium over which you have no control as to when you want to view a program. So there is that, I suppose. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Amazing What a Little Normalcy Can Do!

 Work has abruptly evened out for me. The last of a lengthy series of webinar events I serve as a sort of host/moderator/technical assistant to all ended, meaning that the majority of my work day is no longer being forced into webinar events. This sure does change my outlook on Roll20 for entertainment...I can once again feel like gaming on Roll20 is not subsuming my entire day into one long webinar, in other words!

So gaming resumes tonight....since we are all old and worn out, various injuries and other issues mean Roll20 again tonight, but the prospect of a live game looms imminently. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 3, 2022

Meandering Interests and the Reality of GM Burnout

 Super short post just for the heck of it, more a thought really than a full fledged discussion or monologue. Lately I have been....ah.....feeling less than motivated to run RPGs, or even really play RPGs. I have been super swamped for time due to work issues so that hasn't helped, of course,  but a side effect is that I have not felt very motivated to run games when the opportunity does arise, as it is looming this week.

I don't know why, exactly, other than life being so busy that any moment to relax and have a quiet moment is much valued right now, and RPGs, while fun, are neither quiet nor relaxing in the strictest sense of the word; indeed, they are "intellectual roller-coaster" style fun, I would say. 

Maybe it's just my age showing.

So I am preparing to return to a more regular series of games soon, but I am finding myself intensely unmotivated to actually do so. I have an elaborate plot for one night, all worked out and the players are enjoying it (a Cypher game), but it's perhaps too well plotted out, and I find myself disinterested in seeing it follow through because ultimately I know how it will all play out, what choices will be made, and where everyone will likely make their decisions and which way. It's almost....performative, in a sense. Is it possible to have played RPGs too much?

This does tell me that I, once again, need to think of ways to break myself out of the old shell. I believe this has happened before, and the best way to figure it out is to do the unexpected. Maybe if I am plotting things too well I need to stop plotting entirely, go back to broad, general strokes and see if the players can surprise me. On the Wednesday night game we are planning to meet live again, I am dying to see how that feels once more, it has been so long.*

Anyway.....just some thoughts. I believe a lot of GMs go through this at different times, but I admit, this time feels different. I feel like I could just walk away from it all, indefinitely, and I'd be okay with that. That's definitely different from times I have felt like this in the past.

*And while a lot of it is Roll20, I am still finding it hard to motivate to actually run a live game. I plan to do so this week, though, and sincerely hope the experience breaks me out of this phase.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

More Steam Deck Game Suggestions

Steam Deck continues to be a fun way to get some game time in from my Steam back catalog, and I have a few more tested and reliable suggestions for those interested:


What it is: inventor of the boomer shooter along with Doom and Wolfenstein; only played in single player mode on the deck.

Why Play on Steam Deck: Super smooth framerate and the Steam Deck controls were made for FPS gaming, very responsive in the right way.

Possible Issues: I bet the multiplayer doesn't work properly. Will have to try it out.

The original Quake (well, its remastered version) seems to run fine on Steam Deck. My suspicion is its not currently rated for it due to online functionality issues, but if you play the offline campaign mode it feels great, extremely responsive. Indeed, the Steam Deck has become my favorite way to play boomer shooters, and Quake is the commander in chief of this genre (Doom being the....five star general?). I plan to test Quake II as soon as I finish with Quake. Last time I talked about the Steam Deck I also advised Prodeus as a good choice...that still holds, Prodeus feels very optimized for the Steam Deck, runs great and is fun to play on it.

The Moons of Madness

What it is: single player story-driven experience with light puzzle elements

Why Play on the Steam Deck: Immersive blend of SF and horror storytelling conveys well in a very personal way on the Steam Deck, this game got me through a weekend cold.

Possible Issues: I experienced one or two moments of framerate drop at odd moments, but I also ran this game for 11 hours straight from start to finish, so it may have taxed the program a bit. 

I had this game in my library for ages, and finally decided to plough through it. Turns out, Moons of Madness was a great experience on the Steam deck and a very interesting story-based walking sim with light puzzle elements, focused on a (SPOILERS) scifi take on the Lovecraftian mythos. I had no idea it was rooted in the mythos when I started playing, so discovering this organically was very satisfying. It took about 11 hours to complete.

The Ascent

What it is: isometric action RPG with cyberpunk/far future SF theme; multiplayer available but I only played single player.

Why Play on the Steam Deck: Extremely compelling gameplay makes this incredibly fun, and its graphics really shine on the Steam Deck without any framerate loss I detected.

Possible Issues: some real small text, but Steam Deck's magnify feature works with this.

This top-down isometric shooter with RPG elements is the most atmospheric Cyberpunk/SF experience you can get outside of playing the actual Cyberpunk 2077 game, but with the addition of a very satisfying gameplay experience meshed with a rather elaborate story about a distant arcology/station on an alien world suffering from a collapse in power, authority and resources and the scummy cyberpunks who try to profit from it. I had overlooked this game, and glad I discovered it at last, well worth playing through. You can play multiplayer and its green lighted for the Steam Deck, too. About the only issue is there can be some small text on screen, so keep that in mind. 

Tales of Arise

What it is: action RPG anime style; single player only (so far as I can tell)

Why Play on Steam Deck: If you want a good looking JRPG to play on the Deck with a compelling story, the Steam Deck provides the right level of interpersonal immersion on-the-go. But seriously, get this game even if you don't have a Steam Deck.

Possible Issues: none so far. 

I'm in the middle of this one and unexpectedly enjoying it. After caving on this one with a recent sale, I was a bit concerned it would be yet another bog-standard JRPG with arcane mechanical contrivances to attract veterans to the combat system, but simultaneously becoming out of reach for more traditional or newer gamers. In fact I played the demo and came away worried it wouldn't be that fun....but I was completely wrong, and the game's much better and more organic actual introduction/tutorial region (cleverly disguised such that you won't even notice it is a tutorial) does a great job introducing you to the mechanics and how combat works, and its a lot more traditional than I expected while still being a compelling quasi-action RPG style meshed with a really fascinating story, world and characters. A+++ and plays great on the Steam Deck. 

Important to note! If you are like me and tired of most JRPGs starting with a gang of teenage or subteen protagonists, you'll love this one, as the average character is at least in their twenties or older (so practically geriatric by anime standards!) and the storyline is presented in a keenly intelligent manner with excellent voice acting.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Square-Enix Announces shutdown of Babylon's Fall - The Folly of Games-as-a-Service

 You can read about it on Steam's website, and enjoy the discussion groups (the ones not suspended) here. This one impacts me, surprisingly...I bought Babylon's Fall when it came out back in February of this year, along with a handful of other new games on Playstation 5, just happy to see some actual new content. Other games I nabbed included Final Fantasy Origins (another Square-Enix game) and Tokyo: Ghostwire (from Bethesda). 

Of the three, Babylon's Fall is the one I've played the most of so far, but not without reservations. First, it's important to understand that the game is reminiscent of a lot of older Playstation titles from long ago, especially the many weird JRPG dungeon crawlers which appeared on the PSP and PS2. It has an archaic quality to it that will appeal to the niche of a niche of gamers who liked those sorts of action RPGs with lots of fiddly management. Unfortunately it's welded--ham-fistdedly--to a games-as-a-service model of design which takes what should be a party-based single player game and turns it into an always-online experience with battle passes and a marketplace....all of which is now gone. You can't play this game without being online.

The game's appeal was also limited due to being released on the next gen consoles despite clearly being a last-gen title in design. It's use of a faux antique watercolor/oil painting effect for cutscenes and much of the in-game art design just doesn't look "right" to most people, and the further I got in to the game the more I found this approach annoying (initially I was forgiving; now after two-thirds of the way through I grew mostly just irritated). 

If this were a budget title single-player offline experience that could just be available in perpetuity no one would care, and it would languish with so many other forgettable games as something fun to play if you're into the very specific style of game it is (and make no mistake, the game's combat is fun....though like the art style, it starts to feel repetitive about 2/3rd of the way through). But nope, it's a GaaS and as a result it's getting shut down....the cost of maintaining a skeleton crew and servers to support the game is too costly for Square-Enix to even bother.

On the one hand, I am annoyed; I'd be interested in a refund if it were possible, though I made the mistake of buying it through Playstation's digital store, which famously have provided refunds for nothing save the mess that was Cyberpunk 2077 in similar situations where a publisher fail has imposed upon the consumer. Most likely I think Square-Enix figured they could do this because the game probably sold copies in the thousands, maybe a few tens of thousands at the to them it looks like weathering a bit of negative publicity, but at least they're not screwing millions of purchasers over, right? Right???

On the plus side, this proves that their games-as-a-service experiment failed. Maybe, just maybe, Square-Enix will avoid doing this anytime in the near future, or if they do maybe they will divest more time, energy and effort to the studio tasked with making such an abomination.

I thought about just giving up on them as a personal statement....but so many good games that are also offline single player experiences do come from Square-Enix and its studios, and I own a nontrivial percentage of them already anyway. So maybe the better lesson to learn here is: if I see that the game is a GaaS model that still expects a retail purchase to play, maybe just turn the other way and run.

In the meantime, assuming I can't convince Sony's CSR goons to give me a refund, I guess I better finish that last 1/3 of the game I have left to complete so I can add this to the list of other games that failed and evaporated from existence in similar fashion.....

RIP Tabula Rasa, Evolve, City of Heroes, Wildstar, and now Babylon's Fall. 

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Pathfinder 2E - On Risk and Mortality in Games (vs. D&D 5th and Cypher System)

 Brief thoughts here....I've looked at the playtest material released for One D&D so far. It doesn't look too bad, although the whole "monsters don't crit" is a deal breaker for me. It feels like a way to offset level 1-2 player deaths but in the process create a bigger problem for challenges later on. I could be wrong, but the D&D math after level 4-5 favors the players pretty consistently, so losing crits removes a fun element for the DM and reduces the threatening value of monsters overall. On the other hand, like many games, D&D is less about "survival of your PC" these days and more about just telling stories and having some occasional conflict for fun, but I think the notion of player character mortality is something that runs counter to the general direction of the game and its audience these days.

I was doing a session zero with the game group on Saturday for Cypher System, another game which essentially is not about character mortality as a serious risk. You can die in Cypher but it takes a mutual level of determination by the GM and utter ineptitude by the player; you have to really, really want the PC dead and the player has to really burn through their resources astoundingly fast to get to the point where death is inevitable. I think its happened or almost happened only twice in the time I've run Cypher System.

That got me back to thinking about Pathfinder 2E. This system, although I have had my ups and downs with it (and have many issues with its approach to skills and overly structured probabilities), is undeniably not like the other two I mentioned: character mortality is possible at any point in a PC's career, and the idea that level-appropriate encounters are laden with mortal risk is part of the game by design. Pathfinder 2E also leans in to letting players make bad choices if they want with their actions during combat, pushing success past the point of likelihood and risking greater failure as a result. As a consequence of this, the one campaign I ran from level 1 to 20 in PF2E demonstrated that the system had managed to find a decent balance at high level which felt consistent with lower levels; the odds of failure remained even late in the game, an intriguing notion. 

By contrast, with D&D 5E there comes a point where the game can prove challenging, sometimes in unexpected ways, such as how gangs of lower CR monsters are usually more effective that a single CR-equivalent or higher monster which can go down quickly if its not a boss with legendary actions. D&D 5E has been pretty consistent in this regard; you can get a sense of challenge out of a session but the potential for real risk is generally not on the cards unless the DM goes out of their way to try for it. 

Likewise, with Cypher System, you don't really build scenarios in Cypher with the idea of player mortality in combat being a likely thing;* you aim for complications, events, encounters and discovery for sure, but it is best (in my experience) to treat Cypher Characters like the protagonists in a book; they have a certain amount of plot immunity for the most part, and it takes a real monumental cluster of unfortunate events to take them out.

But Pathfinder 2E does not have this problem....and while it does have a slightly different issue (that in which especially low level and especially high level encounters relative to the group are too trivial or too lethal to even consider), it does manage to handle that sweet spot of keeping the group on its toes quite nicely....which is something I like, on occasion.

 Which is all a long winded way of saying I need to look at it more closely again. PF2E, much like PF1E, might end up being the bastion for those who find themselves once more dissatisfied with the current or impending edition of the Big Dog. 

One other item of note....the revision to character races in the proposed One D&D playtest shines a light on how the Pathfinder 2E ancestries, while more elaborate in their design requirements, already accomplish a range of flexibility that D&D 5E appears to be trying to mirror. They are obviously toying a bit with some sacred cows such as proscribed ability modifiers, but if you go back far enough D&D in its roots didn't have ability modifiers to begin with, so whatever. But picking an ancestry in PF2E gives you feats and interesting stuff, as well as choices, that don't stop with level 1....its just a better approach to the concept overall.

Post-Script - all said though, a conversation with one of my players does hammer home the big problem with even considering Pathfinder 2E over, say, D&D 5E: the fact that I am not the only one who does not find the player side of the experience fun or rewarding. That, alone, kind of negates any positives I as GM might see with the system; what's the point of a smooth GM-side experience if the player-side of the system doesn't offer an enjoyable of fulfilling experience? 

*Cypher players may take a long time to figure this out, though; it's easy to invoke a sense of risk and mortality, particularly in tiers 1-3, surprisingly, probably because the way a player has to think about running their character in terms of their "risk pools" invokes that sense more easily; but numerically they definitely have the advantage...most of the time. The GM at least has a ton of flexibility in design, so its always possible in Cypher to just design something which cruelly knocks them down to near death if you really want to and the rules fully support it; much harder to do that in D&D 5E, and PF2E can do it but requires a bit of structure and effort to do so. 

Friday, September 9, 2022

Dungeons & Dragons Premium 3.5 Edition Books are now POD

 Amazingly, Drivethrurpg now lists the 3.5 premium Player's Handbook and the 3.5 premium Dungeon Master's Guide as being available in both softcover and hardcover in print on demand....fingers crossed the Monster Manual will follow soon! This is pretty time has gone by my appreciation for this edition has been enhanced over the years as the one that ended up being closest to the "sweet spot" of what I enjoyed most about D&D (even with its many foibles, warts and grappling rules). 

Though I enjoy D&D 5th edition, it is supremely nice to also be able to go back to an edition --and era-- when the game was considerably less politicized on social media, and still intrinsically meant to be played as-is with physical rulebooks. 

I have the original premium edition reprints, but this will give me an excuse to pick up new copies I can use and abuse as table copies. 

Saturday, August 20, 2022

The Dreadfire Nebula Exanse and the World of Enzada

 The following is a brief introduction to the region of space around the World of Enzada, and the subject of discovery and exploration for (of all systems) the OSE game I am running. Right now they're still on Enzada, for the most part, but they are on the cusp of moving on to a much more rigorous space adventure. 

An Introduction to the Dreadfire Nebula Expanse

The mysteries of the galactic civilizations around the world of Enzada start with a region called the Dreadfire Nebula Expanse, which includes the Commonwealth, a coalition of independent worlds that united under a sort of "United Planets" charter to provide common protection and civil services across dozens of colonies. The main hub of activity is in the Seven Pillars region, a part of the Nebula known for spectacular gaseous formations called the Seven Pillars, where a dozen or so planets are the center of trade and commerce. Spinward from the Commonwealth is the Border Sector, where mostly independent colonies and free worlds can be found. Beyond that is the Hexen Expanse, a vast sector of unclaimed territory that used to be comprised of the Aon Empire, which collapsed about a century ago due to internal civil war, and left a vast swathe of unclaimed and uninhabited worlds in its wake, many devastated by the necrophage virus which was believed to be a superweapon that got loose.

A noteworthy mysterious region of the Dreadfire Nebula is known commonly as the Hub System, and is one of many worlds stretching deep into the heart of the sector that show evidence of the ancient race called the Shapers, going back at least one million years. The "greys" can be found here, or evidence of their remains, often on abandoned orbital stations. They are believed by some to be genetic descendants of the original shapers. The people on the mainworld (Enzada) call the Shapers the Sky Builders in their local beliefs. Enzada is one of a handful of worlds classified as "Anomalous" in the Shaper worlds of the region, as each one exhibits unique properties due to ancient Shaper technology that warps local physics in strange ways, allowing for what is known as magic to prevail. Magic is different from psionics in subtle ways, and considered more powerful, as it messes with higher-dimensional quantum states but is influenced by psionics and the lost technology of the Shapers. Beyond that, not much is understood about Shaper worlds, as most are considered off-limits by the Commonwealth except for academic study, and Commonwealth rules do not allow advanced technology to be placed in the hands of pre-stellar civilizations that are not ready to join the galactic community. Uplifting a pre-stellar world is considered a high crime in the Commonwealth. 

The one colony in Hub System is known as Academy-992 on the dwarf planet Ceremos, a way station and academic center run by the Commonwealth Scientific Academy of Research and Discovery (CoSARD). It's been there for three centuries now, since before it was a research station and was just a freeworlds port, and was previously dominated by salvagers and relic hunters until the authorities took it over about eighty years ago. The Commonwealth didn't grow into its current state until the Aon Empire collapsed, but on inheritng swathes of unclaimed territory once held by the Aon Empire, the Shaper Worlds posed a conundrum. The mystery of why the Aon Empire regarded the Shaper Worlds as off-limits has not been revealed, and the Commonwealth authorities decided to hold the same restriction, but with limited academic study, to see if they could figure out what the Aon Empire knew that they don't. Academy-992 on Ceremos caters to this careful research, and also still allows for local belter mining and relic hunting, but only on the ruins of salvageable relics, stations and artifacts on the other uninhabited worlds of the system, or the derelict orbital platforms around Enzada (of which there are 136 considered “fair game.”)

Five orbital stations are classified Anomalous-High Risk, and each contains what appears to be a manifestation, possibly pan-dimensional, of the anomalies locals call the Star Gods. These interstellar beings are difficult to approach and study, and appear to have exerted some influence on the religious beliefs of the world below. Only a few other planets in the galaxy have such creatures present, and researchers are convinced they are either higher-dimensional entities partially manifesting in our lower dimensional spaces, or are much older than anyone can imagine, possibly being precursor species that predate the age of the current Universe; the end product of post-Kardashev Type III civilizations that survived the collapse and rebirth of a prior universe. Either way, they are considered off limits to approach and all attempts at contact have been fatal.

Last Item of note is that the center of the Dreadfire Nebula is an immense star-cluster known as the Maelstrom, where a gigantic black hole is in the process of ripping apart a trinary star system. The dense cluster of stars is where the old empire's secret shipyards are believed to have been stationed, along with their top-secret weapons program. Multiple powers in this region of the galaxy are interested in finding this vestige of the empire if they can; and it is ostensibly part of the "Shaper Anomalies" so doing so requires Commonwealth approval or going rogue. 

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Steam Deck List - Top Games I'm Enjoying on the Steam Deck

Thirteen months ago I threw myself onto a waiting list for the deluxe 512 GB version of the Steam Deck and put a deposit down with Valve in the hopes I'd one day see the device, something which seemed remote in the face of semiconductor and chip shortages world-wide. Now here we are in August and its arrived!

I'll start off first with saying that the Steam Deck, which I at first characterized as "a dad-dude's gadget toy" is probably not just that, given both my son and my wife are now on waiting lists having seen mine. My wife is keenly aware you can side-load Blizzard's games somehow, and my son just wants to show me how much better he is at all steam games, all the time, than his old dad is.

So in other words....its a cool gadget toy for all gamers, not just dad dude gamers.

Steam Deck is, at its core, more complex than the Switch, though. Unlike Nintendo's handheld wonder, Steam Deck is a real PC functioning in a Linux-based environment, and can come with all the associated perks and headaches of a PC, though not Windows, amazingly--the Linux based OS works exactly as well and non-invasively as it needs to. The Steam store does a good job of navigating which games are optimized or ideal for Steam Deck play, which ones are known to work (but have issues of various sorts), which are untested and which definitely do not work. Of my collection (which is about 1135 games strong) about 158 fall in the optimized category, around 450 are optimized or work with some caveats, and a total of an additional 460 or so are in the "under review, player beware" category. So not too bad. 

I loaded a variety of games, including many I had not touched in some years, to see how it handled games over multiple generations. I also loaded a few of the yellow "works with issues" games and a few "not yet supported" games. Of all the latter I quickly learned that they are absolutely true to that category, and have since deleted them. Of the "works with issues" it depends on the game....Forza Horizon 5 for example loads and plays just fine, the warning is simply because you need to bring up a virtual keyboard to log in to your microsoft account before you can play.

Anyway, so far I have been suitably impressed at how well the Steam Deck handles most of the games I have played. My top six gaming choices on the Steam Deck currently are:

Aliens: Fire Team Elite - the team-based mission style gameplay of this game translates really well into the handheld, and the Steam Deck controls feel extremely natural for both FPS and third-person shooters. It is rated "green" for optimal on the Steam Deck.

Prodeus - This doomlike is one of the few games in early access I play and love, and its frenetic gunplay and tribute to old school "boomer shooters" does not wear thin; the elaborate pixel-based enemies mixed with legitimately faux-elaborate backgrounds manage to make the game look vaguely retro while feeling very modern. I like this game more than the new Doom titles. Honestly, I was shocked it played so well on the Steam Deck, and it is rated "yellow" for some reason I have not yet figured out.

Control - This semi-sequel to Alan Wake takes place in the same universe, focusing on a female protagonist descending into the maddening depths of the HQ of the organization called Control. My son, who is an SCP junkie, just recently caught on that this game's subject matter is in close alignment. Aside from the fact that the game initially had the wrong resolution (quickly fixed), and has some occasional audio stumbling following cutscenes, it is very smooth and fun to play on the Steam Deck. This one is also rated green.

Dungeons & Dragons Dark Alliance - this action RPG featuring Drizz't Do'Urden got blasted for some reason when it came out in 2020, but the game is really quite fun and I enjoy its pick up and play elements, ploughing through missions in the Icewind Dale region of the Forgotten Realms. It's a perfect experience on the Steam Deck, rated green.

Blasphemous - this side-scrolling Metroidvania style game focuses on a nice hand-drawn look and focuses on a strange, grim tale of penitence in some sort of medieval nightmare world. It's more noticeably playable (imo) than it is on Switch, as it seems to run very smoothly on the Steam Deck. This is a tough game, mind you, a side-scrolling soulslike experience in some ways, so keep that in mind....bosses are maddening to deal with. Also rated green!

Call of Duty Infinite Warfare - I played the original campaign when this came out on PS4 years ago, then got it on sale on Steam for my son to have fun, but the mere fact that this was green rated for the Steam Deck compelled me to load it. I am enjoying replaying the campaign, and setting up private multiplayer matches with bots (though there does seem to be fully live functionality and maybe even people still playing it!) The only issue I experienced was in the initial load...I think it took almost 30 minutes for the vulkan shaders to cache. After that, it load and plays quickly.

I've had trouble with a few games so far. Batman: Arkham City eventually worked fine, but only after I went to the Steam forums to discover it wasn't starting in the correct screen mode, and that needed to be changed before starting it. A rhythm-racing game with dark style called Distance is allegedly green rated but I couldn't get the control scheme to work. Sirenhead the Awakening was utterly disinterested in playing nice with the Steam Deck control scheme. I did get Singularity, one of my favorite old FPS titles from the Xbox 360 era, to work "fine" but the entire control scheme felt off. For Singularity its a case of YMMV, maybe someone will find it feels comfortable to play, but for me I am used to how Singularity works on a desktop screen and Xbox controller, and the mix of controls and gyroscopic aiming feels very off to me.

One last item of note: the Switch often feels too small to many people, and honestly that makes sense, it's general audience aims younger even if the range of support crosses all ages. I rely on Satisfye grips to make the Switch easier to play in handheld mode, or dock it and use a pro controller. With the Steam Deck, its built-in controls feel exactly right, super comfortable. 

Overall...a purchase well worth it. In one day my poor Switch went from "default portable gaming device" to "that thing I get to play Bayonetta games and Astral Chain on." Well...luckily for Switch it has plenty of other exclusives to the console, but literally anything that you can play on either the Switch or the Steam Deck will, by default, leave you wanting that experience on the Steam Deck, I suspect. 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Gaming This Last Week: More DCC (it's getting good), D&D 5E Keeps on Going, OSE returns and Lots of New Books (Path of the Planebreaker, Ruins of Symbaroum, Anime 5E)

 Well, the last week has proven exciting, as I resume GMing duties on Saturdays for a while. The recent gaming events have boiled down to the following:

1. Weekly Dungeon Crawl Classics on Monday nights. As we play further and deeper into this particular game I feel that, as mentioned last post, DCC is a game best enjoyed around a live table with fleshy humans; VTT just doesn't do this system as much justice (though in fairness I think approaching the VTT carefully with some clear rules on conduct in the funnel crawl would help). Either way, DCC is fun....maybe I will think about running it, or one of its cousins (Mutant Crawl Classics) sometime. I just can't get over "race as class" in 2022, but MCC handles it well enough with its post-apocalyptic theme (for me), so....yeah, probably that eventually.

2. D&D 5E Wednesdays continue, and it's been a blast. I've developed a very pleasant relationship with 5E, and my strategy of reducing non-critical foes and encounters to minimum permitted HP has helped a great deal with keeping the combat, when it happens, from overwhelming the evening. My setting for the campaign continues to be fun for me, with a large focus on an archaic world straight out of the fifth century AD steeped in traditional folklore, magic and superstition, and eschewing much of the more fantastical/farcical elements of the genre to keep it simple and mysterious.

3. We had a final night with Call of Cthulhu on Astral Tabletop Friday. The Keeper is taking vacation for two weeks, and when he returns Astral will be gone. RIP Astral, you were a decent VTT environment. 

4. Saturday I returned to the GM seat, and while we had bandied about returning to Starfinder I convinced everyone I could no longer pretend I even cared about that system anymore, and we should just resume Old-School Essentials again, which we did, with a follow-up campaign to the first one. Since some high-tech sci fi elements were inevitable in this sequel, I am cribbing content from a combination of Gamma World, Mutant Future, Star Crawl and Mutant Crawl Classics for now to "fill in the gaps" as it were. So far, working great! As the group reaches 3rd level (give or take) they are starting to see how the system, despite feeling anemic compared to modern iterations of D&D, is actually quite robust as a story engine type game. We're using the Advanced Edition rules in OSE, which is where my comfort zone lies; although I did start with the Otus red cover Basic D&D set back in the day, my second purchase was the AD&D three book set and my second game was in AD&D. For this reason the "class as race" thing never made sense to me and feels too limiting. I ordered a second set of the rulebooks for my wife as well from Exalted Funeral, I think for the games she runs for kids at school it might be a great choice.

Several new tomes arrived within the last week: The Ruins of Symbaroum is a really interesting adaptation of that system to D&D 5E, though maybe most useful for use as-is; I am not sure its all that easy to extract content from for other games. 

I also got my copy of the Path of the Planebreaker from Monte Cook Games today. Just started reading it, but already looks like an amazingly interesting approach to cross-planar travel with tons of useful content. It feels like a spiritual successor to one of my favorite 3rd edition books, Beyond Countless Doorways. 

Finally, ordered (and snagged the PDF) of Anime 5E, from the company which apparently now controls the Big Eyes, Small Mouth property once held by Tri-Stat. This book is really dang interesting, and I must write more on it soon, as it provides an apparently very nice approach to turning D&D 5E into a point-buy system of design, and all the rules to allow for it. More on this one very soon.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

A Few Random Thoughts on Dungeon Crawl Classics (actual play experience)

 I've been in a few games of Dungeon Crawl Classics now as a player. I'll state outright that the GM for the game has a fair amount of work to do when running is evident that the GM neeeds to get "in sync" with the expectations of the system or that can lead to A few problems. Both GMs I have played under have done well, for the most part, though one GM (ahem, my wife) I think learned following her first session that DCC expects you, as the GM, to be extremely ruthless and cruel, especially in the funnel adventure. The GM for the other game is a friend of mine and he excels at being a ruthless, cruel, take-no-prisoners type of GM so he tackles it quite well.

One of the games is at an actual live tabletop....DCC is designed for this medium of play. The other was on Roll20, and I think demonstrated that VTT has some limits. The game in question had more young kids (and parents who were maybe policing their kids a bit too hard), and managing a posse of zero level PCs on Roll20 got a little cumbersome at time (though Roll20 does have a really nice character sheet with multiple zero level slots that works great). It was that lack of physicality that contributed to much of the confusion, I feel.

All told, the biggest problem with the Zero Level funnel crawl I am experiencing so far is simply that I have one survivor in one game which I am frankly not that enamored with (this hapless zero level character survived because she is so horrific in most of her stats that hiding behind all the risk takers was the only way to go). When she inevitably dies after graduating to level 1 I am unsure how to proceed, as I don't recall in DCC if it provides advice to the GM on situations where the player loses a solitary level 1 character, and all other funnel survivors died. As is typical of DCC's approach I imagine it is left to the GM to decide what works for their table, I guess.

In the other game I have an opposite issue, with four survivors so far, and a possibility all four may make it to the end of the funnel. If that happens (and I suspect it might not because I am trying really hard to get some of them killed) then I guess I'll have plenty of prospective PCs for the future.'s interesting to play DCC, but I realize now its not really my cup of tea as a player. I already figured out its not really something I would want to GM; the specific implied play style of the system grates against the fact that I wish to approach it as I see fit, and I don't really care for the game's arbitrary implied universe choices simply because they are too limiting, and too focused on accomplishing a very specific style/feel of play.* I can accomplish this just fine with other systems and with fewer limitations. I guess it is now good to know that I feel the same way as a player, but at least I can safely say I am still enjoying the ride, even if its one I eventually want to get the heck off of.

*With this thought I suddenly realize that might be my real hang up with Starfinder, too. And pathfinder 2E to a lesser extent. The baked-in expectations of the game design just don't fit with my palette, if you will.