Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The Pathfinder 2nd Edition Remaster Project

 Well this is a fascinating announcement from Paizo. Details are still to come for the most part, but it looks like Paizo is going to redo the first four books in the Pathfinder 2E lineup, and try rebranding them without (I assume) making them look like an edition 2.5 or 3. This also lets them rebrand and remake some material to fit their new ORC license and move entirely away from the old OGL. 

I'm interested to see what they do here, even though I've written Pathfinder 2E off for my own purposes as a viable system of play. I burned out so hard on Pathfinder 2E that it may have killed some of my love for the "D&D genre" at large due to its excessive obsession with meticulous balance in the numbers, which is a real shame because on the level of GM I really do enjoy running the game, but I have very few players (including myself when I play) who seem to actually enjoy it. The game is obsessed with incremental and marginal bonuses as well as a skew toward lower probabilities of success under the misguided notion that increased risk of failure (and critical failure) induces a sense of tactical tension, but then fails at every level to meaningfully provide players* with a sense of reward in its design. 

Though D&D 5E has its issues, the ability to run a game and craft a story through emergent gameplay and improv in D&D is much easier than in Pathfinder 2E, where the game's structured and balanced approach means you just can't be as relaxed when playing, or the play experience will suffer. For players, Pathfinder 2E simply doesn't seem to want players to have fun, and the original core book was endemic of this problem, so I can tell that they are trying to fix that with this newly announced remastered edition....I bet they've seen a lot of feedback to this effect.

There are lots of other complaints I could make about Pathfinder 2E, and I doubt most of these will be addressed in a remastered edition that is really, by the sounds of it, just an effort to remix and restate the rules in a manner friendlier to new gamers. But who knows! I could be surprised by this remaster. But....I will leave everyone with this one thought: Pathfinder 2E has been compared by some to D&D 4th edition, chiefly for its over emphasis on number balance and the fact that its tight design caters best to specific interpretations of the game. As we all recall, 4E had a very mixed reception, and midway in its lifecycle it, too, got a refresh in the form of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials books, which tried to remaster that edition into something that felt more passable for the broader gaming audience.

So....yeah. Just saying, it seems interesting that Pathfinder 2E is about to get its own Essentials edition. This is quietly adding a lot of weight to the notion that Pathfinder 2E, by design, really did neglect a broader portion of its base in favor of a narrow design than it should have. But...time will tell. We'll see what these remastered rulesets look like when they release. 

Afterthought: There's one way they could shock and impress me with this remaster, and that would be to adopt the "proficiency without level" rules from the Gamemastery Guide. Look it up! It solves literally 95% of my complaints about Pathfinder 2E and moves it from a rigorous, faux-tactical engine with the illusion of choice to a genuinely useful RPG with a window for both tactics and storytelling in a flexible way. It would also remain technically retrocompatible with existing books (in the most technical way possible, sure). Will this happen? Probably not, but I can dream! If they did this I would totally jump back in to Pathfinder.

*Players here being "most of the players I know" as the system seems to cater to a really specific subset; I do have two players who have mastered the level of tactical acumen PF2E demands, but they are two among about 10 people I game with, and even they are quite adamant that the game was written specifically to punish most players rather than make things fun.

Monday, April 24, 2023

The First Vaesen Scenario is Done

 Saturday heralded the end of a three session Vaesen campaign. My group, which vacillated between 5 and 7 players per session with everyone choosing to use the randomized character generator in the back of the book. I think they favored that for two reasons: it made figuring out a PC very easy, and it helped generate a back story, particularly useful for players not overly familiar with what a 19th century Swedish investigator should look like.

Players had few issues by and far; Roll20 has a decent character sheet which includes a D66 button and it seemed to calculate things just fine. The odds of getting a success in the incredibly simple Vaesen edition of the Year Zero Engine are generally pretty good unless you're rolling a suboptimal skill, so much of the system's emphasis on only rolling when really needed is predicated on this notion, I suspect. Unlike other Year Zero Engine games, though, Vaesen doesn't have some sort of willpower or mutation mechanic that is predicated on pushing the rolls to generate useful points.

As a GM, some oddities cropped up during play, as follows:

The Preamble Phase - There is a preparation phase of the game, early on during the initial introduction to the mystery. In actual play I realized this was a bit more convoluted to approach than I expected, in that the book didn't give as much useful advice on how to execute it as I would have liked, and I will need to study the prepublished modules to see if they offer any suggested direction.

Issues of Setting - During play we got into a vigorous discussion on Swedish naming conventions of the era. Apparently surnames beyond "Thorson" type nomenclature were not in common use in the 19th century, but none of the "historical name generators" I used talked about this, nor did any of my research (or the Vaesen campaign section) address this. The intent in Vaesen is for this to be a pseudohistorical Sweden that you make your own, but sometimes players (and GMs) crave that specificity or verisimilitude and this did cause a teensy bit of a hiccup during the initial game session. We got over it, though....and ironically much of the game was set in Turku, Finland anyway.

Initiative and Roll20 - Roll20 does not support the kind of deck that works for initiative in Vaesen, and if you can craft such a deck in Roll20 I do not know how to do so. We made do with a regular deck of cards and winged it.

During the course of game play I got a pretty good feel for the base game mechanics. If we play again we'll be exploring more of how the group can explore and develop their castle in Upsala, the core setting for the investigators in the game. It's reminiscent of the way the Cthulhu by Gaslight sourcebooks for Hudson & Brand handle things, where the campaign revolves around 33 Golden Circle and the legacy of the erstwhile investigators. It proved a useful setup nonetheless, as I relied entirely on the expected starting point of the core book to get the PC introductions and purposes out of the way. 

Very little actual violence happened, with one brief shoot-out in session two. The vaesen encountered, while potentially very threatening, were approached with a level of circumspection by the PCs and as such they were leaning heavily into a problem-solving approach and no violence (beyond some errant NPCs in the mix) was had. The potential for any encounter with the vaesen to turn lethal was pretty obvious, though.

After my first session I was feeling a bit unconvinced I wanted to continue, but by the end of session two I had found a bit of a groove, treating it a bit like the way AD&D 2nd Edition used to let you play in a sort of gothic European setting in the Masque of the Red Death for Ravenloft, except with the PCs being very fragile and the vaesen being in their own ways just as bewildered and conflicted about humans as the humans (who could see or believe in them) were about vaesen. The end result felt a lot more to me like a dark fantasy tale with a sprinkling of gothic horror and some victorian investigative procedurals than anything else; the book itself seems to imply you could (or should) lean hard into the enigmatic horror of the vaesen, but its really hard to do...especially if you were, like me, a kid growing up with stories about tomte (nisse) and other creatures. Making them feel scary or mysterious can be a bit of a task, though I think I pulled it off.

For my group I think it was a nice change of pace; horror that wasn't too horrifying, and an historical setting that was also vaguely mythic, while still being mostly grounded. A lack of overall familiarity with the  Nordic19th century didn't overly impair us, though it as a side effect led me down a rabbit hole learning about the Lapps, better known as Mani, of whom I have family ancestry. That was entirely due to one of the online sourcebooks Free League lets fans publish, but it in turn got me reading extensively elsewhere about the mani and their marginalized existence....interesting stuff.

My group overall had fun. I think I may run it again, down the road, but who knows. The system is incredibly simple, and I am more interested in trying the more complex versions of the Year Zero Engine to be found in Forbidden Lands and Mutant Year Zero now, to see how it holds up when extra layers of complexity are added to the mix. This might sound odd to those who prefer simpler mechanics, but maybe think of what I am referring to less as "complexity" and more as "nuance," and I like nuance in my rule systems. I will say this much: I am now more motivated to get a Kult game together. 

Next up we will at last give Death in Space a shot. I'll write more about that soon.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Gamer Burnout Solutions

 In contemplating the prior post I realize that it actually makes lots of sense I am burned out. Some of the problem, for better or worse, is due to the way the pandemic changed the face of gaming: adding VTTs into the mix created a unique new sort of fatigue in the process, while simultaneously making gaming easier and more accessible. This perspective may not apply to everyone, but it does apply to me. To wit:

Since 2020 going VTT on Roll20 and other platforms meant that there was a reduction in travel time, and reduction in the physicality of gaming; in exchange, the demands of specific VTT platforms would consume some of that time as well as transform how prep work must be handled. For example, in a tabletop game I might content myself to draw some maps and maybe print out an illustration or two. I may carry a lot of books and campaign paperwork with the notion that I will have whatever is needed, potentially, just in case. In a VTT digital access makes it much quicker to look stuff up, but the need to lay out content in the medium of the VTT environment for use means that spontaneous battles (in those games where maps and minis are expected) are going to be more difficult. Not impossible, but difficult.

Running games on the VTT takes on a different kind of fatigue, as you have a reduction in social interaction. Voices, all sharing one channel with equal intensity are now normal, so side conversations require special tools such as text whispering. Some players who may dominate conversationally at a game table will absolutely stomp all over the verbal competition in a VTT. More mellow players used to waiting their turn may find a reduction in interaction, especially if the GM is more accustomed to scanning the room of faces to identify who is invested, who is waiting for their turn, and who appears to be tuned out and does not require engagement. In a VTT its whomever is most efficient at commanding the voice channel.

Returning to live gaming made me realize how much "work" it takes to make a live game happen. There's a need to understand the rules and your character more, and a lot of newer gamers* appear to only know the game through a digital platform like D&D Beyond now, and require more hand holding and cajoling to get them up to speed. These are commitment actions, though: prep game, get up, pack bags, drive to meeting spot, set up stuff, play game. But the reward is a more direct social interaction in the process, and the ability to make our old meat muscle brains remember how to play without using our digital brain substitutes for the task (ymmv). 

In writing this I free-associated to get somewhere and just realized I didn't get close. What I was aiming for (and missed) was that VTTs make it technically easy enough to play that you can end up letting it overwhelm your evening's free time. In doing so, your reservoir of creativity, which we will say for my purposes has room for 1 or 2 games at the most these days, is running dry because I am in various ways engaged with 2 nights as GM and up to 4 nights (many bi-weekly or rotating with my GM time) as a player. That is a lot more gaming time than my creativity cup has juice to cover for.

My ideal solution is to pare it all back down to what I know I can handle. There was a time in the past when I found once a week on Wednesdays and every other week on Saturdays to be a very satisfying schedule. Somehow, at some point, I got very much off the rails on that fine schedule. As a result, my ability to prep for my own games is saturated now, and the time I spend as a player takes away time I could spend prepping as a GM or, honestly, literally doing all the other hobbies I have (despite this blog being mostly about gaming, I am quite keen on enjoying video games, watching movies, reading books and comics, collecting obscure music on Bandcamp, and focusing heavily on reading all Japanese literature I can get my hands on).  It's really hard to find time for anything when 90% of my free time ties in to hours and hours of gaming that I am not feeling overly excited about, chiefly because it is time stretched too thin for me to invest in at any given moment.

So! I need to figure out how to fix this. I haven't yet got an adequate solution because, as mentioned last post, I am keenly aware that these games are all part of a highly specific social fabric that I am tied in to. But I will find a way, somehow. Just need to give it time.

*I'd say "younger gamers" instead but the truth is the phenomenon of a player who doesn't know the rules or their own character is a time-honored tradition that transcends age. The new phenomenon is a person who has never bought a D&D book in their life but has a paid D&D Beyond subscription through which they get all their game content, and who has never actually read any of it beyond the char gen process.

Monday, April 17, 2023

GM Burnout - It's a Thing! (Or maybe I'm just getting really old)

 I've started to admit to myself that I may have a new, special level of generalized burnout that goes way beyond the normal levels. For the record, the normal levels have, in the past, boiled down to the following:

--GM is burned out because the cool campaign has run its course and is now on autopilot;

--GM is burned out because he lacks time and energy to properly prepare a game, but would be happy to run if time was more readily secured;

--GM has played out a genre or game system to the point where it is not motivating him, but cure is to find a different genre or game;

--GM is bored with whatever is currently going on and wants a change of pace, but can't decide what it is.

For the record, all things I have experienced at one time or another. But lately, there's a new layer to this, one which I think has been percolating for months now, but I am only recently beginning to concede may be an entirely new form of GM burnout:

--GM is really burned out on the entire hobby, but realizes his friend group is tied to RPG nights so keeps chugging along despite that fact that picking up a game book and thinking about running not only doesn't elicit a sense of enjoyment but even causes mild stress/pain.

So yeah, I am going through a bout of this right now, which is really frustrating, because a side effect of realizing I am extremely burned out on the hobby in general is the recognition that a lot of my social life is tied in to it in a way which does not allow for easy escape without causing a collapse in the network.

Looking at a lot of what I have run lately only makes me less excited. My D&D burnout is beyond adequate analysis at this point....I am running a live game of D&D 5E but it is by the books and the moment that plot comes to a close I am putting D&D down for a while, I need to give it a break. On Saturday I am running Vaesen, and that has been interesting (but difficult) to accomplish. Not the system; its a very easy game to run, but rather the era the game is set in, getting a sense of what Sweden in the 19th century was like, and wrapping my head around the concept space of the game. It's been successful so far, but not precisely my cup of tea I now realize. The players are enjoying it, though, which is good!

The good news, at least, is that I am enjoying being GM (or a player) "in the moment" which is to say, actually sitting down to play or run a game is fun and enjoyable. It's just that, once its over, I find the "between session" time I need to prepare for a future game or even thinking about it to be entirely unpleasant.

I am eyeing my collection with thoughts on what takes the Least Effort to prepare and read. This is leading to me eyeballing shorter RPGs again, and Mothership is high on the list for obvious reasons. Another RPG of note is "Dancing with Bullets under a Neon Sun," a wildly minimalist Cyberpunk RPG with enough meat to make a good game, but short enough that I can read and run in an hour or less. There is also "Death in Space" which is a fun, existential and metaphysical romp through a universe being slowly devoured by the void, a kind of stylized variation on the scifi horror genre aimed at emphasizing a campaign setting of a specific sort....not quite as much my cup of tea as Mothership's more procedural take on space truckers, but intriguing nonetheless....and right now, intriguing is something I am desperately clinging to in the face of my general burnout.  

For fantasy gaming and other genres I think I can find some satisfaction in Basic Roleplaying, especially now that it has received an actual revision from Chaosium, suggesting at last that the BRP rules are not going to be neglected outside of Call of Cthulhu and Runequest. There is also Magic World, now in POD format, which along with all BRP-powered engines I find capable of penetrating the malaise that permeates this new level of burnout I am dealing with.

So not all is lost....I just need to figure out what will break the unending spell of discontent that has overcome me of late! BRP, Mothership, and unique zinerpgs seem to be in the right general space for what I need right now. 

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Sensitive Content!

 I honestly don't know whether to be horrified or excited at getting a "sensitive warning" notification on one of my posts. The post has been online for over a decade, and is a short bit describing the fable of the Endreti Trolls of the World of Lingusia....a fairytale, if you will, of a D&D campaign world. The original post is here if you're curious, and I believe that same story was previously shared back on rpgnet, so its likely a dead thread over there, too. 

The blogger content moderation guidelines are perfectly clear and make sense to me, but I am utterly uncertain as to what the strike is for. There was, long ago, an illustration I linked to the post but that link has been broken for ages so I removed it. The content does describe a rather unhealthy transmogrification of an elf and deals with another famous fictional entity: Tsthagghua, who is not a creation of mine but gets co-opted in fantasy worlds frequently (and is a veritable mascot for Frog God Games). Nothing in the text struck me as weird in a way that might mark a violation. I am just kind of floored, to be honest. I mean....I've written weirder stuff! 

The key takeaway from this is that after close to 14 years posting here someone, somewhere, apparently took umbrage with the post. I assume they read it and did not understand the context? If so, my bad....many of my posts intrinsically assume the reader is here because they are in to RPGs, but I'd imagine someone arriving without context might be confused, I suppose. But offended? I am genuinely weirded out. 

Either way, I removed the dead link, added a line of clarification that this is related to D&D, and shall await a follow up response on the moderation. Curious if someone is able and willing to clarify what in the post is wrong....I really don't know. Indeed, after reviewing the content guidelines, I am even more confused as frankly just reading the content guidelines was more distressing to me than that post could or ever should be. There's a lot of restrictions that make sense, but those all strike me as relevant to genuinely concerning stuff, not mild fairytales that are at best describing fictional mythology suitable for Lord of the Rings. So....yeah. Weird.

EDIT: the resubmitted post was approved, so either what I did made a difference, or a pair of live eyes reviewed it and realized there was no offensive content. Yay!