Thursday, March 31, 2022

Abomination Vaults moves from Pathfinder 2E to D&D 5E

 Paizo is releasing their three part Pathfinder 2E adventure Abomination Vaults this September, in a hard cover compilation statted for 5th edition D&D. Interesting questions are raised....such as:

1. Is this purely an experiment to see how the interest in their adventure paths fares when presented to the much broader audience of D&D 5th edition?

2. Or, is this at least partially motivated by slower Pathfinder 2E sales, and a need to broaden the market in which Paizo publishes? 

I'm inclined to think #2. Pathfinder 2E still seems to have a narrower share of the market than Pathfinder 1E, going by VTT reports such as Orr Group provides on Roll20, and both editions of Pathfinder combined pale in comparison to the marketshare D&D currently owns.

Pathfinder 2E suffers from specific design issues, which (like D&D 4E also had problems with) are not so much flaws as they are limits of scope. I've gone over this problem in prior posts....with the caveat that I really enjoy playing the game....but PF2E was a tight and careful design for a specific type of player. D&D 4E suffered from the same limits (though some was likely a misguided push to market more saleable products like minis, cards, maps and such), but ultimately D&D 4E felt like it was designed for groups who exclusively used maps and minis and focused heavily on combat. Pathfinder 2E, similarly, has a deep focus on player limitations, extreme math balance, and a skill system hampered severely by a design philosophy which often consolidated and tightened skills that were useful for parsing out non-mechanical differentiators amongst characters rather than just balancing it all against a defined range. This has led to, among other things, the skill feats being a general nightmare for more casual groups who want a more flexible and open playstyle, and skills like Society becoming the dump skill for literally every action imaginable since so many otherwise unrelated skills were all dumped in to it. 

Ironically both 4E and PF2E also focused on making the DM's life easier and both did a good job on that. But...guess what....D&D 5E also made the DM's job easier, too, without hamstringing the players in the process. 

D&D 5E is like a theme park where you buy one ticket and can then go on any ride, in whatever order you want. Pathfinder 2E is like a theme park where you must get in line and follow the path. You are only allowed to deviate in certain ways, and if the ride senses you are having too much fun it stops. But it is easier to operate! 

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how the 5E edition of Abomination Vaults sells. I suspect it will surprise Paizo, a lot, and we should expect more 5E adaptations next year as a result.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Egyptian Campaign Plans Part II

 First off, I need to check out Akhamet because it sounds interesting and is for 5E; I had no idea it existed. I will be honest, I only tend to focus on books with POD options at and filter PDF-only products entirely. I suspect that Onebookshelf's clientele fall into two categories, one being the group I am in (likes a print copy) and the other being very adjusted to using PDFs. I use PDFs, but I find them better for utility and look-up, but terrible for reading enjoyment.

Anyway, I have narrowed down the plan a bit: first, I investigated the Cypher System Historical Genre section, all four pages of it, and realized that it might not be bad for a one-off or something that could be fun for a short period, but as my instincts suggested, a long term campaign would be better suited with a system that had more granularity to make ordinary heroes interesting. 

After ruling out Open Quest 3 only because of a lack of Roll20 support, I did notice that BRP itself has options in Roll20. But....knowing my group, the best option here would be to turn on the historical options for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition and go with that. This may still be the best option, but my initial idea of doing GURPS but with an intro campaign using pregens has likely won out. 

The motivation for GURPS Egypt with pregens is pretty basic: it lets me as GM work out a range of likely and interesting characters for the players to choose from, and I could still let them customize within that framework/template if desired. It may help the players if they are unsure of what to make, or how to make it. 

I used to play GURPS near constantly in the 90's. It was, by 3rd edition, the go-to system for all of my non D&D and non Cyberpunk gaming. I ran Call of Cthulhu mostly through 3rd edition, but only ran a few short games of CoC 4th edition....but I ran a ton of Cthulhu Mythos campaigns using GURPS. My time with GURPS was unshaken, even when GURPS 4th Edition came out, which had a more procedural and organized feel to it despite being perhaps less organic and measured in its opening doses. For example, in 3rd edition core it was still feasible to use a random roller option to get a quick character going, but not so with GURPS 4E. Luckily, when the baseline is "realistic historical" I can still hand a new player GURPS Lite and advise them to stick to that until they are ready to graduate to the Characters book. Whether or not GURPS Characters will entice or intimidate depends entirely upon how efficiently the player assimilates the book's organizational structure and how afraid they are of some point buy math. Most players, once they realize how insanely flexible GURPS is by design, and how much it supports design options which have weight that are not all about combat (and also how much it can support combat stuff if you so desire) really dig in to's just that first shocking moment of realizing you need to really think about char gen for a bit first that is tough, followed by the risk of decision paralysis. GURPS Lite is a really efficient tool for overcoming those initial issues.

Once we have had an initial exploratory campaign with pregens (tentatively I have some ideas for a generational campaign that picks up a plot that stretches over multiple dynasties and eras), then we can proceed with more freedom in character design and see how it goes. Or, worst case, the opening test scenario and pregens are as far as we get and then we move on. Who knows!

My plan right now is to start with the 1st Dynasty of an upper and lower Nile united under Narmer, an ancient Khemit in which Khanaan is a client state, and there are the groundwork of tales that will in later centuries be mythologized as the adventures of a man named Menes, who might historically be either Narmer or his son, but who in the fictionalized Egypt could very well be a cipher for the deeds of the PCs themselves. More details to come! 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Back to Thinking About an Ancient Egypt Campaign

 I've been stewing on this for close to two years now, but I have a surprising ally in my slow-burning quest to eventually start some archaic old-world gaming set in as close to a historical setting as I can possibly manage, with the first planned campaign arc to take place in ancient Egypt. That ally would be my son! He became quite interested in Egypt after playing Assassin's Creed: Origins which, despite being a single player game, he and I played borderline competitively just to see who could level up the fastest and do the most quests. Say what you will about video games, but the level of authenticity that Ubisoft put into trying to make a fun but also reasonably informative historical setting out of late Ptolemaic Egypt really caught my son's attention, and he has proceeded to move beyond just the game, reading books and pursuing questions. We even let him play in our ongoing Call of Cthulhu Delta Green campaign not long ago, in which he played an expat marine named Bayek who had retired from the rough life in Cairo, and who secretly heard voices in his head from Anubis. 

This is a short way of saying that I see two opportunities here: one is to spring an Egypt campaign on my group that is legitimately aimed at close historical authenticity (but likely at times with supernatural elements because those are always fun), with at least one player (Marcus) as an advocate. The secondary opportunity is it lets me run historical games which can (hah! surprise!) impart more history lessons disguised as actual good old fun. Sneaky!

The trick is determining what game system to use. I have a number of systems which could get the job done, but with the caveat that the system needs to skew close to realism as a baseline (so supernatural elements may exist, but the characters are going to have the veneer of historical verisimilitude as the goal). Want to play an Egyptian warrior loyal to his Pharaoh who thwarts assassination attempts while secretly believing he communes with Anubis or Sobek in his dreams? Sure! Want to play Anubis, or a Set-beast or something weird like that? Nope, not the goal here. 

The best book I have found so far, outside of simply doing my own research, is GURPS Egypt. It's got that "surprising amount of information packed into a short book" GURPS quality that was so amazing with GURPS 3rd edition era resources from the 90's. It's only downside is its statted for 3rd ediiton, which is no big deal for a GURPS Fan to translate to 4th edition, but a bit of a headache explaining to GURPS noobs. Indeed, the single biggest hurtle I can see if that I think a lot of players feel GURPS is a tough system to master not because of its complexity (it's really not that complex) but because of its freedom of choice in design....the decision paralysis can be thick.

So some alternatives include the BRP family of games, including but not limited to Call of Cthulhu 7E with the archaic era guidelines turned on; the BRP Gold Book; the Mythras rules (arguably quite suited to this, but requiring me to think hard about the combat system which I have issues with) and Open Quest 3, which I am leaning towards right now. I am evaluating how easy it would be to modify OQ3 to work. 

Of the BRP games above, I'd probably eliminate Mythras (the combat is too simulationist for the group  I am aiming at). It does have a great module (Temple of Set) which could be adapted to an Egyptian setting, maybe. 

BRP could work fine, but Open Quest 3 is a more streamlined and easier to use edition of the system, and I've been itching for an excuse to use it anyway. But if I went with a period-set Call of Cthulhu (maybe sans Cthulhu stuff, maybe not) I know that everyone would handle that variation of the system just fine.

Other systems include True20, which recently returned to print as a POD product. I like it, but the key issue is (similar to GURPS) getting buy-in and then getting everyone up to speed. It's not really that complex a system, either, and may be an easier sell. Does it have enough support material to make adapting it to a quasi-historical Egyptian setting work? I think so.

Cypher System is a fine generic system but its also inherently suited to gonzo/creative endeavors. Yes, historical setting are discussed in Cypher, but I think it would be doing the system a disservice to run something aiming for a baseline of realistic and low-key with an emphasis on historical accuracy. If I were going to run something in which everyone, for a random example, played actual Egyptian demigods or something then I think Cypher would be extremely well suited to such a game. Maybe in the near future!

I thought about D&D/Pathfinder for a bit. Unfortunately the current iterations of both Pathfinder and D&D are really hardwired to the D&Disms of their default/implied settings, so the result would be "D&D or Pathfinder, but with a shiny veneer of Egypt." I've technically been running that for two years now with Pathfinder at least in my Egyptian/Roman Republic inspired Oman'Hakat campaign. D&D style changes the feel, and as a good example of the extremes one might go through just to make it work I would showcase the old Historical Reference books TSR published for AD&D back in the day, or the many third party products that came out for D&D 3.5. 

Indeed, there are several Egyptian sourcebooks for D&D (and both Pathfinder and Castles & Crusades) out there, but all of them are distinctly "D&D fantasy, with Egyptian style" rather than more authentic historical treatments. That said, these tomes might have some useful content. Codex Egyptium for C&C has an interesting take on Egypt, and is mostly aimed at a historical representation laden with a heavy treatise on many, many gods. That alone is useful, though I wish the book provided a bibliography of the resources used by the author, which makes it difficult for me to do more research and reconcile variances in this book with other research I have done.

Likewise, the two main Egyptian themed books I have access to that bear mentioning is Necromancer Games' Necropolis (the 3.5 edition; the 5E Kickstarted edition appears to be in shipping hell right now); and the Hamunaptra boxed set from Green Ronin. Both are decidedly "D&D fantasy, now with more Egyptian stuff"...think "Like going to Egypt, but you visit the Luxor Casino instead" type stuff, but the actual adventures and content can be mined for some ideas.

The best overall resource remains GURPS Egypt, though, along with GURPS Places of Mystery and GURPS Low-Tech. Those are likely the only three game-related books I need at the table along with my library of actual books of Egyptian Archaeology, magic and warfare.

So....for the moment, I think I have to decide on using Open Quest 3, True20, or GURPS as the best overall choices. I think if I take some time to prep the 3rd edition GURPS content for 4th edition templates it will help, a lot. But...Open Quest 3 looks to provide a sound experience, and is easily quite familiar to the group. True20 less so, but I think once people see how it works and how character generation flows it will prove quite easy. 

The big decider will probably be, "which of these games have the best character sheet setup in Roll20" though. I guess I should look there first!

UPDATE: Roll20 has  GURPS character sheet, which looks overly complete and scary, especially for largely new players. If I go that route, I may need to make an opening game that is a shorter introduction and do some pregens. True20 has representation, which is good. Open Quest 3, much to my disappointment, does not have a character sheet on Roll20, though. 

Despite what I said above, I may peruse the "historical" stuff in Cypher a bit more, and think about it. I should not dismiss Cypher out of hand just because the goal is "historical realism." Stay tuned....

Sunday, March 27, 2022

OSE Session Three - Getting Better (also: on cutting the boring stuff from dungeons and ditching the gold standard of XP)

 The Old-School Essentials game continues, now hitting session three. The group is in the thick of a pathcrawl style scenario (I won't mention which --yet--) and its a fun one I modded for my Enzada campaign setting. The first two sessions had been a dungeon crawl I used to get the group some extra XP, and I realize now it was ultimately not necessary or as fun for me. I can write 'em, but I don't really enjoy them anymore (well, I say that, but see below). The pathcrawl style is fun, though, with situational/exploratory events at each location making for some fun stuff.

The game almost feels like a family game (it sort of is!), as both my son and wife are playing, along with two long time friends who also have gamed for ages with me. One of our regulars is out due to work for a while, the other two regulars disappeared for a bit (on Saturday night, anyway), possibly due to work but also possible because they are not overly interested in OSE for various reasons. Still, a four person group is a nice size, especially on Roll20.

I wrangled with the XP process but have grown increasingly annoyed with it. In the Old Days of Yore, those dark times of the 80's in which I was forced to experience ages 9-19, I never actually used the GP metric for awarding XP. Part of the issue was that I subscribed to Ken St. Andre's sound logic, as expressed quite well in Tunnels & Trolls: gold is its own reward! XP is for things you do, not things you loot. Either way, I made sure that by session three they got enough XP for the things they did to merit hitting level 2 (though had the group's rogue not been killed last sessions he'd have leveled up at the end of session #2). 

The dungeon thing is something else. I've run plenty of dungeons, but at a certain point I realized that most dungeons end up being filler. Sometimes they can be fun, sure. In fact, oddly enough I'd argue that dungeon crawling is exceedingly interesting in the versions of D&D that have the largest number of fiddly and specific rules about such. D&D 3rd edition is shockingly good at focusing on the dungeon crawl experience with lightning rod precision, so well perhaps that I find it less pleasant to do the dungeon crawl setting in any other system now as a result.

D&D 4th edition did something more subversive, though: it focused less on the dungeon crawl as a big process, and more on the dungeon crawl as a series of set pieces. The idea was to cut filler out, tighten the experience, and let the game dwell longer on the really good parts of the story, or where the action was. 4E had lots of issues, but this was not one of them; focusing on the good stuff was what I had done for decades already, and for a while at least I bought in to the ideas of how 4E did that in its map and minis-obsessed mechanics.

With D&D 5E, a return to form and also a return to large dungeon set pieces with lots of filler became more normal. But, D&D 5E combat can be more boring if you are not careful, as it makes hard-hitting monsters less impactful, and fights prolonged with too many hit points. I got sucked in to this trap a bit, too. But....I am working to get out of that mindset, and with the Tuesday night game I am running a campaign that is designed to focus only on the big set pieces, the interesting stuff, if you will, and cut out the doldrums.

With OSE, the module I am running does have the travel, the camping, the setting up watches....all of that. But its pathcrawl design makes it simultaneously methodical and interesting as you will find at least one really weird thing to figure out, explore, solve or ignore at your peril at each location. It's a fun approach, and melds the procedural elements of dungeon crawling/wilderness crawling with a format that tries to aim for the most bang for the buck at each location.

Anyway......I'm just happy to be finding some fun in it. I was worried for a while now that I was really burning out on D&D and fantasy in general, and I don't feel so much like it with these recent games. I am still tempted to suggest to the group that if they like the OSE game that the next one I run adopt the advanced rules, as those are just more comfortable to me since my early experience was primarily with AD&D, but honestly it's got me back to thinking about what other classic experiences I could revive soon....Tunnels & Trolls, for example!

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Multiplanar Potions

 A planewalker needs tools in their inventory to adequately handle the complexities of jumping from one plane of existence to another, and here a few handy potions for the job. First concocted by the Ancient Order of the God of Languages, Linguisos,* these potions have proven to be exceedingly useful for those passing through parallel prime material planes....

Potion of Linguistic Acclimation

Duration: length of stay on a foreign material plane of existence

This potion, when drunk, induces a fugue state for 1D6 rounds within the imbiber, after which their internal languages align accurately with the local prime material plane in which they have found themselves. The local common now is understood as well as the native common from their home plane. This may lead to curious side effects, should there be no common language in the plane the potion is drunk in, where the imbiber may instead pick up the most common local dialect or trade language instead. 

This potion has no effect on universal languages, which tend to be planar languages, or those languages which were propagated across multiple dimensions by planar travelers. Once drunk there is a 50% chance the imbiber speaks with a discernable accent. When they return to their home plane of existence they typically immediately revert back to their native languages, but there is a 5% chance that this effect is prolonged and takes 1D12 days before they fully revert.

This potion does not interact with other potions that may be drunk while under the effect of linguistic acclimation. It only acts on common and racial languages which hold a parallel between material planes; if the language has no comparable local analog, no acclimation is possible. Typically dead, esoteric and rarely used languages do not have analogs.  

An adventurer who chooses to study a language that they gained access to while using this potion may reduce the amount of time it takes to learn the language (per DMG, 6 months and 250 GP in tutoring costs) by the number of days spent speaking the language in the visited plane of existence. If they remain in the plane for 6 months, then the DM may rule they can add the language to their normal roster permanently. If this happens, there is a 5% chance it will instead replace the old common language they used to know as well. 

Potion of Social Conformity

Duration: 1D6 hours

Drinking this potion provides magically induced behavior changes in which the imbiber will pick up on desired social queues and etiquette of the local planar realm more efficiently. The potion lasts for 1D6 hours and grants advantage on any rolls (typically charisma or wisdom based) that relate to good relations, etiquette or formal behavior. 

Potion of  Paradimensional Aptitude

Duration: 1D6 hours

This potion provides the imbiber with access to one skill for which they gain proficiency as if they were always familiar with the subject/skill. The skill however must be one which is unique to the material plane or otherworldly dimension which the imbiber would not otherwise ever be able to access in his native home plane. An adventurer from a traditional realm of fantasy ruled by magic who travels to a material plane operating under rules of high technomancy and science may, for example, drink this potion to gain temporary proficiency in a Computer Use skill. 

Potion of Anchoring

Duration: one day

The potion of Anchoring allows the imbiber to ground his or her self to the local planar realm or material plane in which he or she is located at that moment, preventing a banishment spell from sending them back to their home plane of existence. The potion temporarily aligns the planar chakra of the drinker with the visited plane. This will not function if the imbiber then shifts to a different plane and a new potion must be drunk.

*Yes, the high priest of Linguisos is Gnome Chompsky.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Secret Trick for HP Bloat in D&D 5E

Here's a quick trick for making hit point bloat evaporate while still sticking "within the scope of the rules" for D&D 5E: just give the non-essential monsters the minimum allowable hit points for their hit dice. A monster with 12D8+36 HD might default to 90 HP, but in that range it could easily just have 48 hit points. 

This idea occurred to me recently when I was mulling over the hit point issue, and I have since tested it out a couple times....the results were quite satisfactory, and led to a more expedient combat where the "meat" of the encounter was not really about a prolonged mechanically drawn out fight. I will be using this lovely little hack more often, I think. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

OSE vs. AD&D vs. D&D 3E

Playing Old-School Essentials has been fun, but its very basic. Too many years of playing iterations of D&D with more granularity and choice have left me in a state where the older editions just don't work for me like I think they should, no matter how hard I try. It's not even that we're not having's just that, when all is said and done, OSE is a retread of territory I exhausted a long time ago, and when the current mini campaign ends I will wrap it and probably give the books to my son, who may or may not do something with them. I hope he does! He is new to the hobby, and OSE is an excellent introductory ruleset for him to explore with his friends.

Now, the weird disconnect I am having with OSE is that, for all practical purposes, this is just an amalgamation of AD&D, B/X D&D and maybe some original 0E mechanical elements mixed in with a more modern take on the OSR experience (letting stuff in like Drow that didn't appear until later books or editions, for example). So when I look through AD&D 1E and 2E I find myself more drawn to playing the game with those editions, and maybe less so with OSE. What gives? Is this really just a hardcore nostalgia dive for me?

AD&D 1E, despite how fascinating those books are, would have to be out. Too much of the terminology in the game, too many of the weird subsystems, were never actually deployed in the day, or we had to houserule to work around the Gygaxian-speak which our 10-14 year old brains couldn't wrap themselves around; we also leaned heavily on the B/X books when stumped for an interpretation of the rules, too. If I played it today, I would be tempted to start houseruling, a lot. I left AD&D 1E behind early on for other systems (Tunnels & Trolls, Runequest, Palladium Fantasy, Dragonquest), so no issue here for me to jump forward a bit.

AD&D 2E was the game I picked up in my first year of college in 1989, after my players, who had been good sports about playing Runequest III and Dragonquest convinced me to give it a shot. It was instantly a hit, and I loved how the game cleaned up and restructured everything so it made more sense, was more generally accessible. I went on to run AD&D almost exclusively for fantasy from '89 all the way to the arrival of 3rd edition in 2000. 

For this reason I realize a lot of my nostalgia is tied to AD&D 2E, and that was by far a more complicated game with more depth and granularity than an OSR game like OSE has on offer. There were class kits, dozens, of sub-classes, elaborate proficiency mechanics, wizard schools, priest domains, optional priest subtype rules which I used constantly to emphasize the wide variation of priests of different gods, and enough humanoid and demi-human racial options that they ended up filling entire books later. And when the Player's Option content came out we embraced it all; the Player's Option books added more depth and options, while also making the game at times weirdly complicated. Enough so that, when D&D 3rd edition came out, it felt like the much-needed fresh restatement necessary to bring D&D under control. D&D 3rd of course later built up its own splatbook problem, but at least its core conceits in the mechanics were more consistent over time. 

This is all a long-winded way of saying that my nostalgic affection for the old days is really complicated. I might do better to dig around and see if I can find the old Dragonquest or Avalon Hill edition of Runequest III for the proper nostalgia experience. I have the core three books to AD&D 2nd edition, but to really get that college-era nostalgia I need the Complete Handbook series for Fighters, Wizards, Clerics and Thieves at least, as all four books were so heavily used their covers fell off. Oh, and Tome of Magic, too....a lot of those spells and the Wild Mage were core to the gaming experience I had in 1989-1995. 

But the truth is, one of the reasons I found running more D&D 3rd edition last year (along with re-collecting it) to be so viscerally satisfying is that it was the edition which codified all the things I liked about 2nd edition into a unified whole, and made it more comprehensive. It was ultimately a victim of playstyles (the rise of the min/maxer and the idea of build mastery) but taken as a ruleset aimed at a verisimilitude-laden experience, it worked exceedingly well (to a point).

After the OSE game ends I'll have to chat with the group about what they want to do next, but I am strongly inclined to propose running more D&D 3.5. It's got the precise mix of what I need, gaming-wise, for now. I can also enjoy D&D 5E, for which the problems are luckily not as big as its strengths. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

The Gaseous Form Rabbit Hole

 Saturday I ran the second session of Old-School Essentials, in which the group braves the mysterious Mountain (after surviving an old temple). 

A tiny bit of a rabbit hole was formed when, after a party member who had been gassified by a Potion of Gaseous Form, was subsequently the target of a trap which dealt fire damage. The question was....would the gaseous form be subject/vulnerable to the effect?

I ended up making a quick ruling on it, but not before growing increasingly confused as I kept looking for the gaseous form spell and not finding it. The rules were luckily with the Potion of gaseous Form listing, but that didn't mention it's a derivative of Wraithform, which I eventually found out was how the gaseous form was listed in the old days. Who knew! I had no memory of it. 

Anyway, the trip down the rabbit hole went like this:

OSE - can't find the spell, use the potion to adjudicate.

Check Labyrinth Lord Advanced, don't find the spell.

Check 1E Player's Handbook, don't find the spell! What the heck, I remember using this spell in the early days, right?!?!?!

Check 2E Player's Handbook, still can't find the spell! Now I am suspecting I am having a Mandela Effect moment.

Check Player's Handbook 3rd Edition, find the Gaseous Form spell. Okay, so maybe somehow we really never used it except as a potion in 1E/2E? That makes no sense...

Go google it a bit, find the Forgotten Realms Wiki which suggests the spell used to be called Wraithform, referencing the 2E to 3E conversion document. I have no such recollection, but sure....

And sure enough, Wraithform is in OSE and the AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook, but not in the 1E PHB, so I bet it showed up in a later book, or not until AD&D 2E. Admittedly, I ran the most 2nd edition AD&D (far, far more than I ever got to run AD&D 1E) so my memory of the spell being connected to that edition makes sense. But I am stumped at the fact that I do not recall the spell being called Wraithform. 

Anyway, a fun short rabbit hole on old trivia on a D&D spell....

Thursday, March 17, 2022

First Impressions: The Wave of Next Gen Titles on PS5 (Elden Ring, Horizon: Foridden West, Babylon's Fall and Final Fantasy Origins Stranger of Paradise)

 This is purely for fun. I haven't played any of these titles for more than 4-5 hours as of yet, but within the last month or so a wave of new next-gen games (technically?) have arrived. The only one not on the list that I have is Destiny 2: The Witch Queen, which is a different bag of cats I am saving for a rainy day. The rest, in no particular order, are all quite similar to one another to certain degrees: each deals with exotic fantasy or science-fantasy settings, you control a protagonist, there's an emphasis on melee combat, and to various degrees you do exploration, either in a directed dungeon delve style or open-world (or both). that we're finally getting some new next gen games on PS5, how do they hold up on the first few hours' playthrough?

Horizon: Forbidden West

I'll get the easiest one out of the way first. If you played and finished (and enjoyed) the original Horizon: Zero Dawn this is a no-brainer, as its a direct sequel to the first game, picking up with Aloy's story a few months after the battle at Meridian. It's proving to be more of the same so far, with a few new refinements and quirks, and I am quite liking it. Horizon has usurped the Fallout and Metro franchises as my favorite post-apocalyptic setting. The game has difficulty scaling, and while I play it on the default normal settings, it's nice that it lets people seek a harder (or easier, story focused) challenge, since a nontrivial portion of H:FW is centered on story and discovery anyway.

About the only negative I can suggest is that the new game has big shoes to fill, and since the first game focused on a story that tied into revealing how the post-apocalyptic world came to be, this one is now more focused on how Aloy can try to fix things, with a fairly clever take on why things need fixing. 

Either way, this is the title I will be playing the most in coming weeks/months.

Elden Ring

Despite discovering this From Software title is part of the Dark Souls line, enough reviewers convinced me that this was a bit more transcendent with its focus on open world exploration that I decided to give it a try. So far I am not disappointed; the key reason being the major irritations I had with the Dark Souls style have lots of little, sometimes very subtle but very important quality of life fixes, and the game managed to do the Souls thing while also being more accessible as a result. Still....don't take my word for it, try a copy from a friend or see if there's a demo somewhere before assuming anything, especially if you hated the Dark Souls games (which I most definitely do, for so many reasons). Elden Ring is not making me want to smash the TV at all, and despite there being plenty of horrid boss monsters wandering around, all thanks to some clever changes in core design mixed with a fluid open world experience filled with interesting things to discover.

Babylon's Fall

One of two Square-Enix games released recently, this title reminds me most of the old PSP era dungeon crawlers with a focus on party and gear management, but now with way too much games as a service content, including an entirely unnecessary season pass and storefront model. In playing so far after several hours I noticed the following, to contrast with reviewers who have trashed the titled for various reasons:

The graphics are not exemplary of next-gen consoles. The "artistic painting style" some people mention exists and is interesting, but is not the reason people are annoyed with the graphical look; I find it fine, but I am perplexed as to why the developers thought this style would go over well with a crowd looking for a next-gen appearance. 

The play mechanics are solid, but you need to get a bit in to the game to realize this. Once you start leveling, swapping up for better gear, the dungeons (well, cooridor/crosswalk crawls) start getting a lot more interesting. But this game has done something I haven't seen in a long time: at one point I realized I was pushing down five buttons on the controller almost all at once, I needed essentially my entire hand engaged with the button scheme to get it to work right. I pulled it off, but let me tell ya', if I leave this one alone for a few weeks before picking it up again I'll probably forget all the nuanced commands and their relationships again. BF would be better suited to have a simpler control scheme.

Finally, while I'm enjoying the story (what story there is), it's a weird mish-mash of medieval, Roman and victorian era thematics, smashed together and stuck in front of a cypher for the legendary Tower of Babel. Or something. Um, don't play this for the story, is what I am saying. 

I like playing it, but I suggest for everyone else to wait for it to go on sale if a weird dungeon crawler style experience with tacked on games as service elements sounds intriguing to you.

Final Fantasy Origins: Strangers of Paradise 

Okay, I've only spent two hours with this one, but it's definitely got a Final Fantasy vibe with it. The game is pure ARPG action and combat, with story moments jammed in via CGI, at least so far. This is also, curiously, a dungeon crawler so two for two with Square-Enix here. Unlike Babylon's Fall, this one has you working as a team in the single player mode (rather than solo), and maybe you can do multiplayer, I haven't tested that out yet.

The dudes on your team at the start grunt a lot. There's a story but they are just here to chew gum and kick chaos's ass, and they will trade up for the silliest looking loot as long as they get better gear stats to do it. The play mechanic feels solid, and has some of its own nuance, in a manner which I felt was both less predictable (so more frustrating) but also a bit more fun than the way Babylon's Fall does it.

Beyond that....jury is still out, here. But I definitely want to keep playing and see where it all goes, but honestly I haven't got as good a feel for this as Babylon's Fall yet. I do wonder why Square-Enix chose to release two games in the same genre/style so close to one another. It forces comparisons, and neither game seems to come out looking as good as if Square-Enix had consolidated resources and made a single, better example of this genre instead. 

So, if its not obvious, I am suggesting Horizon: Forbidden West is the best new release on PS5, and well worth it so long as you finished the first one (and if you haven't go do that first then pick this one up). Elden Ring is fascinating, and I wonder how long I can play it before the souls elements get to me. Both FF Origins and Babylon's Fall are weird ducks and you should get into them if you like weird, experimental Japanese dungeon crawl games, but if you had to pick back later, I am still undecided on which one I actually think is more satisfying (or less irritating).

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Performative and Familiar versus the Demanding and Atypical in Games

I was thinking about the idea that maybe I really am burned out on D&D style games right now. I am not sure I am burned out on fantasy....arguably its all fantasy, right? But the core conceits of D&D may just be so well played out for me now that I find it laborious, procedural is the term I keep thinking of, also performative. 

Running a game in which my son attended and played through with the earnestness of youth and a new experience really hammered home for me just how different the hobby can look when you're new to it, and how very, very different it can get when you are an old veteran. That new blood element helps reinvigorate the game, a lot. If I could run a game for a gaggle of 10 year olds who each had the understanding and enthusiasm of my son I think it would be incredibly entertaining for me just to watch it all unfold. 

Older gamers, by contrast, are often creatures of ruddy habit and traditions which can mean that the experience often does not vary. Sure, we can speak different words, roll different dice, and use different terms, but its all very performative...its going through motions, and borders on ritualistic. We're almost more about playing the game as an excuse to hang out than we are to tell a story and enjoy some shared game/story telling experiences. Indeed, its still safe to say that gaming has that much over the static nature of television (or streaming), in that it is meant to engage....but sometimes you've engaged the same thing in the same way too long, and maybe that causes issues in and of itself?

For me, I think it's very easy to write down a scenario, campaign, or entire world and set to exploring it, but the actual process desperately needs more from my players for me to feel engaged that I am used to. Conversely, I think my players need something more complex and dynamic to hang on to help them expand their enjoyment as well, and games such as Call of Cthulhu or Mothership are so much fun because they, by design, frame both rules and subject in a manner which is more prone to demand and beg for engagement that something like D&D which can, in and of itself, be steeped heavily in traditions and tropes which are incredibly well trodden.

This is all to say that what I should really be doing a lot more of is not merely Mothership and Call of Cthulhu, but more of games that, like those two, break the cycle of familiarity and force both myself and my players into new zones of interaction, far away from tropes and the familiar. In other words: I should give D&D and its like a lengthy break, and let them sit a bit, come back in a while maybe, but not until they start to blossom with new ideas.

Some game systems I wish to explore on this include things like Mork Borg (as close to a shattering of the core conceits of fantasy gaming as you can imagine) or Mutant Crawl Classics (which takes a familiar genre formulae and layers it on the deliberate unpredictability of Dungeon Crawl Classics). Others include things like the new Hunter: The Vigil 2nd Edition (a way to go do some monster hunting without leaning on the Cthulhu mythos), or maybe some scifi in Sar Trek Adventures, Traveller or even Alien RPG. I would love to try some Cyberpunk Red, with the right group. I would love to try Stafinder again....with the right group (you know who you are, I wish y'all weren't scattered to the four winds!)

There are even some older games that could do this just fine: True20 is back in POD, and a fine system. GURPS, once my go-to system from 1990s to early 2000's. I think even Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes (which was recently kickstarted back in to existence) would be a fine system to mess around with again.

I think this is what I actually, really need to do this year: think way the hell outside the D&D fantasy box this year, break some very old, engrained and unsatisfying habits. Now I just need to narrow down the choices to the ones I can feel appropriately invested in.

Monday, March 14, 2022

GM Style vs. Campaign Styles - show vs. tell and how it changes in RPGs

 Saturday we tried out an initial session of Old-School Essentials. This was due to the Call of Cthulhu campaign hitting a dramatic climax, reaching a point where plenty of PCs needed to go into psych wards, some players needed to roll replacement characters, and the rest of the Delta Green team needed to do some new recruiting. While the GM concocts the next story arc I suggested OSE as a filler between sessions until I was ready for whatever I come up with next.

To get this out of the way: Roll20 has a nice Necrotic Gnome branded character sheet which made playing OSE in VTT easy, and it was a fun session. My son has joined the Saturday group and his presence was critical, I feel, to helping me better understand both the baseline appreciation for the game in general, and also helped me to realize why I often have a sort of "GM crisis" where I find myself feeling extremely dissatisfied with the games I have been running. 

Part of the issue, I now realize, is that the VTT format really leans heavily on the "show, don't tell" methodology, and by virtue of the tools at hand that means its easy and almost feels necessary to throw out battlemaps of everything, along with minis. If you have a dungeon map, after all, why wouldn't you use it? But this is actually rather contrary to the way dungeon delving actually worked back in the Old Days. In 1981 when I ran the Caves of Chaos I actually did put down the dungeon map, and we actually used push-pins on the map which I put a foam backing behind to track movement of the group (the horror!) It was a glorious mess, but quickly afterwards I realized several things:

1. Don't do something to the map which makes it non-reusable/messes it up.

2. Describing things to the players and letting them map it out is both what the game expects you to do and also kind of more fun (but not these days; I think around 1990ish is when I believe players stopped wanting to do their own mapping, I noticed).

3. Tell don't show was the norm back then because describing something gave it much more detail than you could get unless you were a proficient illustrator. Today, google searches make it trivial to find some artwork to do the same, but in truth it's also a placebo effect, a prop might lock you in to something not quite in alignment with your vision for the module.

From pretty much 1981 until around 2002-2003 I was a "describe the thing" kind of GM, telling players what was going on, where they were, and so forth with occasional illustrations in play. I had dungeon, city and overland maps but their purpose was for me to keep track of things, and the players needed to assess where they were from my descriptions. When we had complex battles a sheet of scratch paper was usually deployed to provide a rough sketch of what was going on. That was it.

2002 was notable because I got in to a group where I rotated GM duties and gamed at a house with a friend with an enormously complete collection of maps and minis, and even props. This scenario would repeat again with another friend who had even more maps, minis and props in 2008ish. By then, I had acquired lots of maps and minis myself....D&D 3rd edition, particularly 3.5, leaned heavily on the implied expectation that these were advisable to have, and it was a norm that I had to get used to. In truth, I never did; the only reason I can enjoy D&D 3.5 today is because its no longer played much, and I can set the game table expectations back to my own preferences, leaning less on maps and minis. 

In film, there is a general notion that showing the audience something is better than telling them. If you have to convey information that cannot be shown, it may be necessary to rethink your approach a bit. I can think of no better illustration of how this works in cinema than the 1980's era director's cut of Dune vs. the 2021 Dune chapter I. Both films are telling the same story from the same book, but one does a borderline maddening level of "telling" to get the audience up to speed and the other leans 100% into the "show the audience" side of the process. 

Likewise, a concept like this can apply (and often does) to novel writing. In writing, it is often (not always, but often) better to have someone within the story convey information in a meaningful manner. If you have to exposition dump in a novel to get the reader informed, and that exposition is not conveyed in the course of the plot or through the voices/sight of a protagonist or other character, you risk losing some audience when they feel like the author is maybe just sharing their notes to get everyone on the same page.

But in GMing, the concept of show vs. tell is different. There are elements of the two concepts from above which do apply: a GM who can show an illustration of a trap room might find it evades confusion in explaining what things look like, for example. Old modules did this, a lot. Look at Tomb of Horrors, for example! The idea of providing illustrations of complex or interesting rooms from the perspective of the players is a great idea.

Likewise, it is much better to have a character within the game (or a good skill roll) tell players some useful information or backstory....and to write the module to include said backstory as a findable easter egg, if you will. Often many modules include pages of explanation for what brought the situation or location to its current state, enveloping the GM reading it in lore, then fail to provide any mechanism by which that lore can be meaningfully imparted to the players. Some GMs just infodump, but that is a terrible idea. There is such a thing as too much information (for some players) and a GM should know where that threshold lies with their players.

But when it comes to the show vs. tell concept in VTT and specifically the use of maps and minis, this concept least for me. The difference for me between RPGs as a strength and RPGs as combat miniatures games boils down to whether the use of maps and minis hinders or enhances the flow of the narrative. If you like the combat, if you enjoy the tactical elements, the maps and minis are useful tools, obviously. But if you are like me, and you never even considered maps and minis to be necessary or even helpful for the first 21 years of playing the hobby, they are a bit of an anathema to the tale-telling you are actually aiming for.

In the old days, I called this the "swing from the chandelier" scenario, with the implication that players might try to do something like that if the location of a fight is fluid and descriptive, with the players asking questions about the environment to see if there's something they can exploit. This means you could have possibilities to consider in battle that simply don't exist until you bring them up....but once asked, make sense, and so become available. To contrast, a map lays it all out clearly, and also cannot adequately convey three dimensions....and 3D scenery can do that, but at the expense of a heavy cost in cash and time, plus of course being actually good at making 3D scenery and props is a skill unto itself, and if that were the initial barrier to entry for this hobby then I simply would not be in the hobby.

All of this is a long way toward me realizing that one of the reasons I have been less satisified at times when running games in VTT recently, while at other times I have been having a blast, is because I have fallen in to the trap of what I call the VTT Hammer. When your tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, of course. In VTT, when your tool is designed from the ground up for you to use virtual maps and minis, then everything revolves around that. But it doesn't need to be so; I never use maps/minis as such when running Call of Cthulhu, for example. And in my Mothership games the maps as such are point-locational, by design, which means that you are using them merely to keep general track of where people are at, not as battle maps. Either Mothership and Call of Cthulhu games have been amazing, whereas my recent D&D, Pathfinder and OSE games have been utterly m'eh.

I'm looking at how to handle this for Pathfinder 2E tomorrow. Thankfully it really is possible to run PF2E, D&D 5E and OSE without the conventional maps and minis....go back to the descriptive theater of the mind approach, as the appellation eventually came to be. One huge advantage to this approach is that it tends to force the GM to think more about what you want to present in a scenario, rather than doing it procedurally. As an example: there are four interesting encounters I want to get to in the dungeon crawl in OSE, but the rest of the dungeon is just obstructive and boring why am I slogging everyone (and myself) through the procedural of dungeon crawling when the old players in the group are, as veterans, going through the motions just because, and the new player in the group, who is having fun with all of it, will also happen to find the actual fun stuff just as fun, if not more so, and never know the difference? 

For me, it is reconciling the notion that "just because VTT expects me to stick a map and minis out doesn't mean its a good idea." Of course, that doesn't mean it isn't always a bad idea, but a friend of mine read an article on this, and I wish I knew the source of this rough paraphrased quote, that boils down to, "never hide your good ideas." And in truth, I think a lot of scenarios in gaming do exactly that: hide the good ideas.

Okay, enough rambling! More on OSE later.....I have a lot of thoughts about the game now that I've run it a bit, more about the general nature of classic retro gaming in and of itself. Likewise, more on the conundrum of being an old veteran player and the idea that young, new players are actually a great way to invigorate your own interest once more. 


Friday, March 4, 2022

Review: The Batman

We saw The Batman yesterday, the new Robert Pattinson Batman, and I have to say I really liked it. It's got a bit of the same vibe to me that last year's Suicide Squad did, though, in the sense that this movie very accurately captured the elements of the current Batman comics in a way which will be very exciting for DC/Batman fans, but for which I have no idea if general audiences will care. If your image of Batman is rooted in 1989, this version might or might not work for you. It has some funny moments, a couple anyway, but its really more of  serious crime drama in which one of the detectives dresses up like a bat before kicking the crap out of thugs who, of course, are really asking for it.

Also, the movie was PG-13, mainly for the violence, and as a result there was nothing in this film my kid was going to have to hide his eyes from or result in awkward family conversations. It was nice to see a DC movie that didn't go gratuitously over the top with R rated content.   

If I have to summarize this movie in a nutshell, it boils down to this:

--Pattinson made a great Batman, a young take on the character which draws heavily on the Batman Year Zero and Year One storylines to craft a surprisingly faithful vision of Gotham

--The actor who played the Riddler gave me some initial strong "Batman meets the movie Seven" vibes but by the end of the movie this was very much the modern comic iteration of the Riddler in cinematic form, and in my opinion a much better take on the character than the older campy version from Batman Forever.

--Catwoman was also surprisingly well done though it would have been nice to see her engaging in a heist or two to earn the rep more; as it stands her integration in to the story was intriguing, and without spoiling anything I sincerely hope she makes a return if this movie turns in to a series.

--The Penguin not only more closely resembled the character from the comics (and is almost spot on how the Penguin appears in the comics recently) but the actor (Colin Farrell!) was amazing. 

--Jeffrey Wright as Detective Jim Gordon (remember, this is a Year Zero/Year One timeline in the movie) was spot on, and the fact that the film had no problem leaning in to a close look at how he and Batman work together was nothing short of amazing; he's very much the #2 character in this film, even ahead of Catwoman.

The film is a gritty crime procedural, and it has lots of "slow" spots that a comic book audience won't be used to, but which fans of crime dramas will be quite comfortable with. This film's dedication to reflecting the "Detective" element of Batman as much as his more heroic aspects was laudable and I think they pulled it off. Solid A+ for me, and I plan to see it again. I suspect it will be a bit of a hit and a miss for some film goers who have a reverence for prior versions of the Batman (nostalgia for 1989's "serious but still campy" version of Batman will likely have mixed feelings about this movie) but if you're very much in to Batman both from the comics, graphic novels and films this is a version you will very much likely enjoy.