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.

Monday, August 8, 2022

13th Age Escalated Edition is in the Works

 This is brief but exciting news: According to, presumably posting from a Gen Con announcement, 13th Age Escalated will be a new edition of the 13th Age RPG from Pelgrane Press.

I really enjoyed my time with 13th had some specific issues (in fact I posted them on the Enworld site, won't reiterate them here), but the core chassis of the system and its freeform design was pure gold, both fun to play and designed to encourage improv style gaming which is very much in line with how I like to run and play RPGs. It took many of the best elements of 4th edition D&D's design approach that made for fun gaming and gave it a new home with a strong emphasis on smart Theater of the Mind encounter design....also another preferred approach of mine.

Just thinking about it makes me wonder why I get stuck so much running systems like Pathfinder 2E when I could, say, just run 13th Age more. 

The single biggest problem, I feel, is taking the deceptively simple icon mechanics, and retooling them into something that is a smart way of contributing to the dynamic story rather than (as it tended to become over many sessions of play) an unwelcome burden on the GM.