Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Success! - D&D 5E Session Upgraded to Weird and Interesting

 In a very brief follow up I managed to have a great game of D&D 5E last night. We had a combat that was interesting, plot strangeness and good character development. The little things I did to make it work:

1. Thought about the "game I wanted to run," rather than the story I was running, evaluated how to make that happen with the current group, and executed it as intended;

2. Stayed the heck away from wandering monsters or any filler content;

3. Several characters got some new bonus secret backstories to help those players engage with the setting (and the planned changes I made) better; this helped them out a lot.

So three basic steps helped right the ship a bit, so to speak. On item 1 the level of complexity I engaged in to come up with a plot to wed the ongoing campaign in the "boring fantasy world" to the much more interesting and well-developed original campaign world (Keepers of Lingusia) was thoroughly fun for me and helped create more entertaining mystery for the players, especially the ones who've been gaming with me for years and can notice the hints and clues that something weird and multiplanar is going on. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

GM Advice: Make it Happen-go where Your Inspiration leads You

 Another short post, but in tune with me trying to get back into the habit of writing frequently!

I've griped on and off about inspirational issues I have been facing lately. As I have mulled over the issue, I have gradually managed to narrow down some of where the problem lies. One key item, I realized, is that I haven't really been following my muse in the manner that comports to my "true self." This might sound a bit weird, but for me D&D is only partially a hobby for gaming, a big chunk of it really ties in closely to the very heart of the creative process, and that creative process likes to move, like a cyclical event, through specific creative phases. It goes something like this, I have deduced over the years:

1. Craft a grand campaign in the most venerable fictional realms I have created (Keepers of Lingusia and Realms of Chirak);

2. Do this until I need a break (go play Traveller or Call of Cthulhu or what-not);

3. Eventually, reach a point where I am hitting a creative rut in fantasy; I can discern this point in the process when I start devising alternate fantasy worlds to explore, or I feel like I'm hitting the same creative ruts in existing worlds, or I feel like I'm experiencing some sort of generalized burnout.

4. The burnout cycles through until I suddenly realize the problem is that I moved too far away from the fun stuff....and the fun stuff (being my original worlds) suddenly beckon my return. The wealth of ideas return, and I move back to #1 above. 

There are things which can derail this process and I have to work on better strategies for how to avoid that from happening. Lack of player engagement is a huge issue; if players just don't seem interested in what I am doing it can be difficult for me to feel motivated. I think sometimes the way RPGs are played these days can lead to that sense of disengagement, especially for players who are used to "on rails" approaches to gaming where they (unconsciously or consciously) are conditioned to expect the GM to handhold them, lead them along, as opposed to them actively seeking out the action and plot, making their own stories. 

I can tell when this happens because I start over-plotting, in anticipation of the players' level of inaction. The best solution to this is to cut it out, and find a quick way to untether the plot thread from the decision making process....offer direction, but let them make the decisions as to where they want to go, what they want to do. This can be hard for some GMs to do, but it works exceedingly well for me in my classic campaigns because I have so much content eternally prepared, and so much that I can further exploit. I desperately want and need the players to make these decisions, which are unexpected, to challenge me, as GM. That makes it fun for me. All I need to do is....figure out what combination of scenario setup in turn engages the players into taking control of their own destinies. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

More Random: Retro Collecting and the Playstation 3

 I've decided I need to try and keep up with the blog more, like in the good old days of 2011-2017 when I was able to somehow knock out at least three posts a week, sometimes even daily. Good habit and all! I've always treated the blog as a writing exercise....the idea is not so much that I am writing for an audience, but rather than I will write with the notion of an audience being present. Whether or not what fascinates me also interests you is just a happy coincidence.

So the thing on my mind today:

Retro Video Game Collecting and the Playstation 3

Back in 2019 I got the notion to grab a Playstation 3 from a local retro gaming store. I also grabbed a PS2, which chugged along nicely for a while but now won't read disks no matter how much weight I pile on it, so I think the PS2's laser arm is failing. The PS3 I bought was a slim later model, similar to the one I had in 2012-2013 before I traded it in for the PS4. I was a late buyer on the PS3 when it came out, because of course it was initially $600 (too pricey), then Sony got hacked (controversy!), then eventually it just seemed pointless because by that time I was so deeply invested in the Xbox 360 it was unnecessary. When I bought the PS3 it was late in the game, with the intent of catching up on the many Playstation exclusives I had missed over the years (Resistance, Killzone, Uncharted, etc.). By the time the PS4 came out I was more or less caught up....and the clear and decisive quality of the PS4 kept me once again with Sony for the last console generation. 

Cut to 2020, and while I was among the lucky few to snag a Playstation 5 out of the gate, it became clear to me that my PS3 I'd purchased still had value (as did the PS2). Tragically the soldering on the PS3's HDMI connection failed at some point and I could only get it to work through the old SD connection with an adapter. So last month I got very lucky and snagged an older original model PS3 on ebay with a ton of games for only $80. Not only was this model in great shape it became clear to me that the original design of the PS3 was superior to the PS3 slim model (the one with the sliding door to open the disk area). This is a solid machine, and the guy who sold it to me appears to have kept his clean and intact....and based on the many games that came with it he was really, really into modern combat shooters like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Medal of Honor.

Anyway, I've been hunting and pecking on Ebay to fill out my game collection, which already had about 40 titles in the mix. A surprising number of PS3 titles can still be found in new, wrapped condition, and a lot of titles for the PS3 were exclusive to the system. Some are much harder to find....for example, Folklore is widely regarded as a must-have for the PS3 era, but it was an exlusive title that is not available in digital format or on Playsyation Now, best as I can tell. In fact Playstation Now, which is the rough analog to Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, never seems to have any title I want when I search to see if it's available, which is a shame, because if they had half of these I'd subscribe to it. Sony definitely has a retro-compatibility problem, with a strategy that has failed in comparison to Microsoft's superior efforts and retaining as much backwards compatibility as possible. Good enough, in fact, that I really only need a current Xbox to play my digital and disk collection, I have nothing currently that isn't compatible on the Series S/X or the Xbox One X. 

On the plus side, I guess, that means that the fun of retrogame collecting is strong on the Sony side, since so many titles remain available only on their original systems. The top five recent titles on PS3 which I have recently found and been playing, for example:

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard - a great game! The self-aware video game character voiced by Will Arnett tries to survive as his video game franchise comes under literal attack. The game's controls and design are pretty good but just a bit janky (and the box cover art was highly "meh") but the game is still fun to play and has some funny moments. Found new in wrap on Ebay for $18.

Folklore - mentioned earlier, this dang game is expensive on Ebay, but I got lucky and found a disc only copy (no box) for $40 and took the plunge. It's actually even better than I expected, a sort of mystery/RPG/survival adventure hybrid that is compelling to play. I can see why it's sought after so much, and am shocked Sony hasn't tried to secure the rights to port it to current gen consoles in a remastered HD edition.

Medal of Honor - the franchise reboot on the PS3/Xbox 360 era of consoles slipped by, regarded perhaps at the time as not as good as Call of Duty, but I am actually having a lot of fun running through the campaign, which lacks the pomp and circumstances (read: crazy) of contemporary shooters. Cost: trivial, it was one of the many games that came in the box with the console. 

Sacred 2: This Diabloesque competition is actually a lot of fun with some very non-serious story and tale telling; if you recall a game back in the day with extremely amusing (or stupid, take your pick) gravestone commentary, then you may be recalling this series. It died with a poor Gauntlet-reskin style reboot after the second game, but this is well worth it and also provides for easy multiplayer. Indeed, the fact the PS3 multiplayer is so easy to do on the PS3 and earlier consoles remains a huge selling point for these games. So nice not to have to go log in to an account for my son so some online entity can track our data just so we can play a game on the big screen. I snagged Sacred 2 for about $15 on Ebay but you can get it on PC easily enough, probably for very cheap, too.

Star Trek: so I actually played this game on PC when it came out, but I found a cheap copy of the PS3 edition for $8 at a local shop. It's set after the 2009 Star Trek Kelvin Universe reboot film, but is a surprisingly fun game, designed for two players on a splitscreen to play (you can also play solo). My son and I have almost finished it (it's a bit short, about 6 hours), but its key worthy traits include a fun combat system, lots of Trekky puzzle bits, and a really neat take on the Gorn that makes them look like real aliens and not giant paper-mache Halloween costumes. 

I've had a lot of fun collecting on the PS2 as well, and I've owned a PS Vita for years....but more on those later! Especially the poor PS2, which I have one or two more things I can try to fix it before I give up and seek out a replacement. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Random Musings of the Day - On OSE, Pathfinder, Basic Fantasy and D&D 3.5

 Short post, but still part of the last few months' ongoing theme of "mulling over what games I want to play."

First off....sticking to VTT and Roll20 in particular means that anything I do will need to comport to the medium of transmission, which in this case of course is Roll20. I have Foundry but it looks a bit too much for the level of time/energy I have to invest; a friend of mine who also grabbed it wants to collaborate on figuring it out, so who knows, though....we may crack that nut sooner or later.

I like OSE because its restrained, mechanically, to the style of old school progression I am comfortable with, but also doesn't limit itself to the boundaries of old school options. Unlike B/X D&D or AD&D ca. 1978 you can play other things in OSE like drow, knights, duergar, svirfneblin and much, much more with additional supplements. The rules for OSE are comfortable with this and know that there is a large group of OSR fans like myself for which the conceptual space of OSR does not mean that players must lack choice; I burned out on the sacred quartet of dwarf, human, elf, halfling as the only allowable species for players a long time ago, and I was never on board with "class as race" so the hybrid "do both B/X and AD&D" approach of OSE is really cool, and lets everyone have their preferences.

That was a long paragraph to basically say that I looked in to the latest edition of Basic Fantasy and while the system looks nice and tight, it lacks the variety that OSE supports right out of its core books....Basic Fantasy is, peer its name, exactly what it intends to be. I am not looking for that, unfortunately; I want a system with more robust variety. I know my players well....they would be bored and dissatisfied with BF in short order (as would I). So OSE still reigns as king for me right now, an old-school system which supports a more modern range of options for characters. 

Despite toying with the idea of OSE I haven't really engaged with it, though. Instead I ended up once more thinking about how the level of complexity (both in character options and tactical combat) that I find most satisfying is still best supported by either sticking with Pathfinder 2E (which is the game my group is most invested in on Saturday), or D&D 3.5 (which is the game I find myself most deeply interested in, having realized it is evoking the most nostalgia for me right now). 

So....still pondering, but I do know that my next planned fantasy game (outside of the ongoing D&D 5E game) will be further down the road. I want to let it lie "fallow" for a while so that my interest and desire to run new campaigns can come to fruition better.....and give me some time for a little while to properly explore other games and genres (Traveller, Cypher, Call of Cthulhu, etc.).

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Putting Thought into a Serious Effort at Old-School Essentials as Default Fantasy System

I've bounced around a lot on the idea of what fantasy system to roll with, and I am starting to think that I need to step back from D&D 5E and Pathfinder 2E, breathe a bit, and give Old-School Essentials an earnest try. Here's my reasoning, starting with the flaws in 5E and PF2E that I want to fix:

1. D&D 5E, which persists on Tuesdays, feels off in a way that I can't stop noticing. Sometimes I think its the bounded accuracy, other times its the "bag of hit points" monster design, which is less about whether they are bags of hit points and more about whether the group is optimized to hit hard and fast. The problem with easy healing remains, even with gritty rest rules in place. 

I'm not likely going to stop running 5E on Tuesdays, as my group has expressed a strong desire to continue with it, but I may bag it all down the road once the campaign is over. There is nothing 5E is doing which I don't see being more fun and interesting at least n 3.5. Tell that to my self in 2007, so they can have a heart attack at this declaration, but it's true....and I never thought I'd see the day, but I realize I prefer more mechanical nuance such as 3.5 offers than less.

2. Pathfinder 2E does offer more mechanical nuance, but it seems to me my players like it less. As GM for PF2E I have to be more mindful of the tight balance, which I realize is both significantly tighter than the bounded accuracy of 5E and actually tighter than the 3.5 design it is derived from. But combat in PF2E is a lot of fun, so I can't knock just happens to have a lot of design implications that need to be considered when playing. I am getting fairly used to PF2E, though, and it is turning into my preferred contemporary choice for fantasy gaming despite my misgivings about its highly focused design on skills and other rules issues I have encountered or discussed in the past (such as organizational rules issues, lack of coherence in detecting and identifying magic rules, the weird way healing works, somehow both making it more and less accessible all at the same time, etc.). But the fact that combat is fun and monsters are interesting to fight really makes up for a lot of PF2E's other failings. 

3. Old-School Essentials is a distilled and concise restating of the classic B/X and AD&D rules of yore, with some modern bits thrown in for the sake of ease of access (such as providing for both descending and ascending AC). But it accomplishes a few things very specifically that are missing from the last 20 years of regular D&D (and Pathfinder to a lesser extent) that I would like to experience again. This includes:

1. It balances the simplicity of old school monster design with a speedier combat system; you won't see hit point bloat in OSE, and combat can be a bit scarier because it still supports creatures with a lot of "bite" and lethal effects. Healing is slower and rarer. This means there needs to be more strategy on the players' shoulders, and the GM can design encounters and modules with an air of verisimilitude rather than "what the encounter budget demands."

2. Magic items are rare rewards and part of the PC flavor....a good magic item can help define a character, rather than go into a bucket for auction after out-leveling it. 

3. The overall pace of play will be quicker and more efficient. There's a more rigid mechanical process in play which will help keep players who struggle with understanding the rules in check, but with enough complexity that the older and more savvy players won't feel bored. The fact that "rulings, not rules" is really important to OSR design will factor in more strongly.....the group I want to propose OSE to recently played Gamma World 1st edition and I think being able to adjudicate the mechanical questions with common sense on the fly was a big part of the fun in those game sessions, leading to interesting results that the simpler mechanical structure of the game did not seek to forbid. You could watch unexpected synergies at play, which was a lot of fun, rather than argue over specific stat block interpretations.

4. Although OSE does not have a detailed skill system it does have some AD&D-inspired skill table support for backgrounds. I am not at odds with this; as I have weathered over the years I think my desire for a common sense experience without skills will be fine, and I can house rule them in f I start to get irritated at their absence. The 5E skill system is swingy, the PF2E skill system counter-intuitive and too balanced, so using OSE with just a "what would you know based on your stats, class and level?" approach sounds okay to me at this point.

5. Finally, OSE is, like many simpler and OSR focused games, focused on interesting and experimental fantasy. You can do this with any game, yes, but some games actively support/encourage weird and interesting stuff more naturally (Cypher, for example). If you are even passingly familiar with the prodigious recent output of the OSR and OSE community specifically, its hard not to notice that the most creative and interesting stuff for use at the table is coming from this corner of the hobby, not the big giants.

Anyway....I am going to propose trying OSE for a while to my Saturday group after the latest Call of Cthulhu games closes out. We'll see! I'm hoping we can make this a grand experiment. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Cool Things About VTT - and Roll20 Specifically

 Last night we resumed D&D 5th edition, albeit in Roll20. I've posted plenty of blogs in recent months decrying the slow death of live gaming in my circle, and lamenting some of what was lost in moving to virtual table tops, but today I am going to take a different track. I have some nice things to say about Roll20, which I can summarize as follows:

It's an Organizational Godsend

You can do a lot with Roll20 and other VTTs from handouts and quick illustrations to having loads of battle maps and terrain stacked and ready to go. This is handy, and easier to deploy than in real life. It is only a chore if you are also seriously in to customizing everything in great depth....but you may enjoy doing that, so win-win?

It Makes Maps and Minis Quicker and Easier

Being able to quickly deploy a map and minis (quick in contrast with the game table) is an incredibly convenient feature of VTT systems, or at least Roll20 for sure. I can do an encounter on the fly with a pregenerated map and tokens with less fuss than at the game table. 

It Still Lets You Do Abstract Combat Just Fine

I have a splash page with graphics illustrating where the PCs are which is the "action page" and that works just fine for holding theatre of the mind combat (TotM), I just establish that when we're doing combat that way I default to what I like to call "13th Age Rules" or sometimes Cypher System rules, two system which have excellent abstract combat mechanics that boil down to "far away, near by, engaged" as the three areas/bands you can fall in to during battle. 

If you Like Using Graphics and Illustrations Roll20 is Key

I do actually like finding cool illustrations of NPCs, monsters and locations, and thanks to the state of the internet in 2022 it is possible to find hundreds of amazing and useful illustrations on the internet without ever using up precious printer ink or killing trees. This is a big plus of the medium for me, as while I'm not that good at messing with making my own illustrations or battle maps, I appreciate the works of those who do. 

Distracted Players Will be Distracted (But At Least You Have Tools)

One thing I have figured out is a distracted player on VTT is also a distracted player at the game table. The difference is you as GM can see them reading a book and not paying attention IRL and if they are on Roll20 or some other VTT you can skip over them and assume they died or something. A player who is known for making horrendous levels of noise can be muted on VTT, but IRL you have to hope they get up and go to another room (well, they usually do). Bottom line is: if a distracted player is sitting at a live table, as GM you feel more inclined to involve them, despite their lack of will. On Roll20 it is easier to skip over them and focus on the players who are actually engaged and paying attention.

It Bridges Gaps in Distance

I have at least one game where I get to game with old friends who moved to the east coast and west coast, respectively. That alone makes VTT worthwhile! 

Roll20 and other VTTs are not perfect, but these are some important perks to consider. As I get older (just turned 51) I begin to realize and accept that more and more of my tabletop gaming will be in the VTT environment, it just makes more sense. 

Friday, February 4, 2022

Solutions and Fixes! - The Ongoing Saga of Too Many Games and Not Enough Time

 I haven't quite fixed anything yet, actually, but I do seem to have gotten past my creative doldrums and last night ran Mothership again, which was "fixed" in that we got to move the VTT game to Thursday night, a night when all players could once again be present. It was a great game, easily one of my favorite games out there now.

When I run Mothership I get this feeling I ought to dive in to Traveller again, that nothing I am doing in Mothership is not doable in Traveller, but that's not entirely correct. Mothership's lightning rod focus on the style of game it supports (we've all decided it's best defined as "retro schlock sci fi") is just so perfectly captured in the meager rules of Mothership 0E. Some of the playtest details on Mothership 1E actually sound like they may accidentally remove some flavor in the name of clarification and expansion....I better check it out, that would be bad. Mothership must retain its core identity, its core ease of play. I have confidence in the Tuesday Knight games people, though. This game is amazing.

If I ran Traveller I'd watch other stylistic genre interventions shift the storyline from one of perpetual dread in a universe defined by 70's and 80's films and turn into one defined by 70's and 80's novels. That's a fine genre in and of itself, but not what we need at the moment.

As for the live game night, it's shut down for the moment but I am investigating moving it back to VTT online. I think that will solve some issues, but it doesn't free up the time I am missing. This could pose a problem, too, as I need to prep for some work-related licensing that will require a fair bit of studying on my part, and I am sure that will interrupt some of the gaming time, no way around it.

My poor Saturday game will resume tomorrow, with me reinvigorated and looking forward to more Call of Cthulhu, though I am certain my "GM creative block" is gone because I am actually excited to resume the Pathfinder game again, a clear sign I've gotten over the hump. I also suspect I'll run it again, and like happened on Tuesday will just be, "gaah, why am I doing this" again....I am realizing that my tastes in systems have shifted, a lot. More specifically, genres. I may just be really burned out on "D&D like" experiences right now. Call of Cthulhu....Mothership.....Cypher System....maybe even the likes of Traveller and Mythras are what I need to focus on for this year. I seem to have an enormous well of creative inspiration for science fiction, horror and unconventional fantasy tales. We shall see....