Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Delving 4E: An Interlude

AKA "Delving 4E Part 3.5"

In my last post, I gave my thoughts about the classes and builds of 4th Edition, specifically some of the stuff I liked with regard to conceptualizations (is that a word? spellcheck says yes). The post only addressed classes in 4E PHB, and long-time players of D&D will notice the conspicuous absent of a couple-three loooooong time classes of the D&D game: the druid and the bard.

The druid is the real glaring absence...available as a player character class since the days of OD&D (it first appeared in Supplement 3: Eldritch Wizardry), the druid is a standard class in both AD&D 1 and 2, D&D 3 (and 3.5), and even makes it into BECMI as a "proto-prestige class" of cleric (see the Mentzer Companion set). It provides a natural (as in "nature") counterpoint to the cleric's more organized worship and is a bit of a bridge between the magic-user and cleric archetypes, gaining some of the spells and benefits of each, as well as hybrid selection of weapons and armor.

It is also the favorite class of my buddy +Heron.

The bard's history is a little shorter, only first appearing in an appendix of the original AD&D PHB, and never in any of the "basic" games (the one in my B/X Companion doesn't count). Unlike the druid, the bard has undergone several significant revisions over the years, beginning first with its jump from 1E to 2E (where it went from a more martial class to more "trickster" as rogue subclass) and from there to 3E where it became a hybrid support class with an emphasized arcane (wizardry) flavor, and a favored class of gnomes (by 3.5).

The bard was my favorite class back in my 1E days. But that's a post for another time.

I should probably also mention the assassin, which first appeared in OD&D's Supplement 2 (Blackmoor) before the 1E PHB. While 2nd edition initially axed the class, it later appeared in the Al-Qadim setting book as a religious-zealot reimagining, as well as a "monster class" (the Headsman/Thug) in the BECMI Master set. As of 3E, it still wasn't a core class, though it makes and appearance in the 3E DMG as a prestige class. As it's been MIA for so many years, its absence from 4E isn't nearly as surprising as the lack of druid and bard options.

Welp, the fourth edition's PHB2 does contain both the bard and the druid, along with updated versions of 3E's barbarian and sorcerer class, and something called an assassin rewrite of serious religious overtones (something reminiscent of video games like that bald Hitman guy with the numbers on his scalp or the white-hooded Guild dudes).

[for the record, I draw a very severe distinction between the raging berserker of 3E and the flavor/skill-heavy barbarian that appeared in the 1E Unearthed Arcana]

The PHB2 also adds three completely new (to D&D) classes in the invoker, shaman, and warden, as well as additional race options in the deva, gnome, half-orc, and shifter. As I said in my earlier post, I'm not a fan of 4E's races (especially the new ones), though I have to admit the gnome tickles me a bit with its "fade away" power (would have been a useful ability for my old gnome assassin, Shoon Grinblade).

Even the cover art is bad.
Here's the thing: with one possible exception, all these classes leave me ice-cold. Or worse, they just plain irritate me...both in conception and execution, most of the stuff in the PHB2 is a big bucket of crap. In my opinion, of course...perhaps other people have found these options to be fun, interesting, and exciting. For me? No, sorry.

I mean the druid...the druid, what the f---! The druid is some sort of lycanthrope from the get go (though only a fight-worthy one...the PHB2 suffers A LOT from the basic premise of fourth edition...). The warden appears to simply be "the other druid" for people who don't want some sort of were-priest. Maybe they had too many options for druids and split it up over two or three classes? But then, you've already got this shifter race, and... I don't get it. What's with cranking the animalism up to 11 in this book?

When Heron told me druids were his favorite class and was waxing eloquent on their virtues, never once did he mention the way their dire wolverine attributes matured with level progression.

[ child just saw the PDF images of the gnomes on my computer and asked, "Are those gelflings?" We just watched The Dark Crystal the other night]

[it's funny because they don't really look like gnomes]

Anyway...aside from the gnome and the concept of a shapeshifter race (I'm a fan of Roberson's Cheysuli books, and I think the archetype is pretty good "fantasy;" I've used it to good effect with, for example, DragonQuest in the past), the only thing I really liked in the PHB2 was the bard, and its optional martial build, which reminds me very much of my "glory days" playing 1E AD&D. It would be tempting (for me) to play such a character...but then, I suspect, that even the most martially oriented bard would look pretty tame next to other class-builds (and not just the fighter). Maybe.

So, yeah; that's it for the PHB2. There's nothing else here that I really want to comment on. Not in a positive, constructive fashion anyway.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 3)

My plan is to post my thoughts on the classes and powers in the 4E PHB (I've got a copy of the PHB2 as well but...well, we'll see if I get to it), specifically what I like. As I wrote in my last post, this isn't about lauding 4E as its own game, nor about bashing it for "how it ain't D&D." This is more about what I find interesting, neat, or intriguing as a design choice and possible addition to an actual (D&D) RPG.

Oh, yeah...since this is an attempt to stay positive, I will stay away from the subject of how 4E handles the races in D&D, except to say that I dislike them immensely. Sorry. My distaste is such it might even stop me from playing in a 4E game, knowing I'd probably be adventuring alongside "dragonborn" and "tieflings."

But here's what I like:

With a couple exceptions, I like all classes and "builds" presented in the PHB, at least conceptually, if not their actual execution; this includes the two new classes, warlocks and warlords (more on these in a moment). The ones I don't like (for the curious) are the ranger and paladin, especially the former. In fact, may I just say for the record that I haven't seen a ranger class that I've liked as a whole since (probably) 1st Edition. And let me further add that when I played a ranger character in 1st edition he did wield two weapons (using the rule in the 1E DMG) and you'd think I'd be ecstatic over the class's morphing into a dual-fisted expert over the years. No. Zero (as my four year old would say).

For those who don't know, "builds" are diverging specializations classes are required to take (do you want to be a "battle cleric" or a "devoted cleric," for example). I was actually working with a similar concept in one of my recent (now scratched) heartbreaker designs, so I'm somewhat partial to the idea. However, my motives were different: I provided specializations to help distinguish otherwise simple (B/Xish) classes from their like adventurers and give them a little extra "zing" the fighter who specialized in archery (and thus got an extra bonus with a bow). Builds in 4E seem bent on limiting choices. Well, that's a little harsh...most powers of a class are open to any member of the class, regardless of build. But builds do appear to provide some direction when it comes to choosing one's powers, as well as a clear road to "optimization"...which I hate.

[4E's design choice in this regard seems a direct descendent of World of Warcraft's talent trees, though again it's not nearly as restrictive (which is a good thing)]

However, it doesn't HAVE to be this way. There's a lot of shit 4E gets wrong, as far as role-playing games go, and the main one is its emphasis on combat encounters. Such an emphasis encourages optimization, as good play should (in theory) lead to shorter fights allowing the party to proceed to the next encounter faster in order to fight and continue having "fun." But that's just 4E's game. If you can get past the idea that D&D is just about combat (and structure your power options to be more than just combat options), then builds become a bit less static as characters are concerned with more than just fighting. Maybe.

Anyway, leaving aside (for the moment) the actual powers presented and the gameplay of 4th edition, I find (as said) that I like the majority of these classes and builds as concepts. Let me just run through them quickly:

  • The fighter's builds (two-handed weapon or sword-and-board) are simplistic but, hey, he's a fighter. On second pass, a large part of my objection to the ranger is that its builds...the archer and the dual-wielder...are not just BORING, but they should also, IMO, fall under the purview of the fighter, being combat styles. Can't the ranger have, like, a "woodsy/druid" build and a "scouty/guerilla" build?
  • For me, the cleric's "battle cleric" versus "devotional/saintlike" build represents a perfect duality, as does the rogue's "brawny" versus "trickster." In fact, the brawny rogue is an excellent example of the Conan as thief archetype found in S&S literature (see also Fafhrd). It is really unfortunate that, even for the "brawny" build, all the rogue attack powers require the use of a "light blade" (dagger, rapier, or short sword) in melee. Poor execution and a missed opportunity (let's make all our thugs fight with the same three weapons)...but I'm digressing.
  • The wizard's builds ("war" or "control") are no great shakes, but the concept and direction of the wizard as a whole is pretty cool/interesting...though it needs to sit next to the warlock to really appreciate it.

The warlock is one of the two new classes presented in the 4E PHB, and while initially turned off by the presentation (probably the tiefling illustration) upon reading the entry I was far more impressed. This is the classic sorcerer of fantasy literature (which, BTW, is nothing like 3rd Edition's "sorcerer" class). I suppose they needed a new name because they (WotC) intended to bring back the weak-sauce version in the PHB2 (which they did). A shame. Anyway, the warlock is great and, in addition to its two builds ("deceptive" and "scourge") we get a choice of three pacts (sorcerous bargains with supernatural powers) to color the character: fey, infernal, and star (fairy, hell, and Cthulhu!).

[gosh, I can't believe this was published in 2008 and I never saw it. In retrospect, my books with similar the Summoner in TCBXA...look like complete knock-offs. Hell, that Conan post was from 2009, even...]

Positioned in opposition to the sorcerous warlock, the wizard begins to take on the look of the classic enchanters of legend: Merlin, Vainamoinen...heck, even Gandalf (who's basis is in those old fairy tales). The sorcerer curses and hexes and summons, while the enchanter manipulates the environment with magical effect. Very nice bookends of the arcane spectrum...much cooler than simply "this guy reads books and this dude has 'dragon blood' in his veins."

The warlord, despite its stupid illustration (a dwarf? that's the last guy you want to be a warlord, ESPECIALLY if you're trying to optimize! Jeez) was not one I had to steel myself to read. In fact, it was the first class I read, and definitely my favorite concept in the entire book. This is the class I'd be playing if I sat down at a 4E table. But then, I've always played my characters like warlords (whether they be clerics, fighters, or bards): jumping into battle, barking orders, thinking tactically. I told you people I like war-games...there's more than a bit of the "armchair general" in me. This class alone could get me to play at least a few sessions of 4E.

[though never as a dragonborn; human only, please, and "inspiring," not "tactical" build]

A warlord surveys the battlefield.
It's a shame that the warlord's concept is so much a part of the 4E premise...I'm not sure it would work in an old style D&D game where actual maneuver in combat is profoundly de-emphasized. Might as well just use a fighter (or a heavy-hitter cleric if you want to still use the inspirational "buffs" on your party). You don't really need a "combat brain" when all people are doing is rolling a D20 to hit when it's their turn in initiative.

But that's the problem...D&D (at least in the traditional, pre-4E sense) has so many other elements, aspects, and scenarios that don't involve combat. And the power selection for the 4E classes are almost entirely combat related. Of the 17 powers gained during the course of a 30 level career, only 7 are "utility" powers; the rest are straight up attacks. And the majority of "utility" powers are still designed to be used in combat (conferring bonuses, healing party members, etc.), they're just not direct attacks. Even liking these class/build concepts, they'd need a lot of modification to make them less combat-focused.

Which should be a good time to discuss tiers. If I'm remembering correctly (this is many years ago) I already swiped the idea of tiers from 4E back when the book first came, wait, now that I'm thinking about it, maybe not. Um, let me back up...the last version of D20 Star Wars (Saga) was in some ways a precursor to 4E. It was also a direct inspiration (and impetus) for me starting up a B/X version of Star Wars lo those many years ago. One of the things I came up with was the use of "tiers" as an added measure of character power/effectiveness...but I cannot for the life of me remember if I was influenced by the 4E books (something I browsed? something someone told me?) or if it was just a logical step based on my reinterpreting of Saga. Regardless, my tiers work quite differently from 4E (I use them to help compact the range of "levels," getting more bang for one's buck).

However, my point is that I LIKE the idea of "tiers." Now, do I like their implementation in 4E? Mmmm, maybe. They're a little hit-and-miss for me. The wizard and warlock paragon classes are perhaps the most interesting, having strong color/fluff associated with their choices. Many of the the rogue's...simply reinforce class stereotypes, rather than offer truly interesting choices. Many of them (especially those in the PHB2) simply seem to be re-hashings of the 3rd Edition prestige classes, just shave to fit the round hole of 4E. Which is good for some of them (there were a lot of otherwise weird and "semi-useless" prestige class floated out in the days of D20 splat books, and here they become more pertinent), but I'm just not sure I'm totally down with the idea.

Actually, the concept of high level characters becoming paragons, gaining an exponential boost in power over low level heroes, and being required to further specialize IS a concept I can buy into. Again, it's mainly the execution that leaves me a little cold.

Similarly with the epic destinies tier. Here the constraints of the 4E system really start to show themselves...what, no conquerer/king destiny for the warrior class? No founding a religion for clerics? Fourth edition really is about kicking ass from encounter to encounter, not about role-playing or world immersion or whatnot, and the destinies appear designed to fulfill that goal up to 30th level. It's singular destination (immortality) is very reminiscent of the old BECMI quest for immortality, but with fewer (and less interesting) paths, and no real options besides such a quest.

Then again, maybe that's only logical (from an in-game point of view)...anyone who spent so much time getting to the top has got nowhere else to go but ascension, if they're still driven by ambition. At least 4E provides an endgame scenario of sorts. I can't remember if 3E's Epic Level Handbook provided such an outlet for characters...I think they just continued on ad infinitum. It's not bad, it's a nice option. I'd just like more options here.

Mmmm...this is getting long (again). I told you folks I had a lot of thoughts about 4E. And I still haven't written about the non-Vancian take on magic, spell rituals, and the combat system in general. That's all going to have to come in a follow-up post, I'm afraid.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 2)

Since last Thursday, I've been trying to figure out how I wanted to approach the follow-up to my Part 1 post on 4th Edition D&D. In the end, it's a fairly silly question any way you slice it. Most folks ain't playing 4E these days and it is (currently) an unsupported and unpopular line. In other words, "who cares?" Write however you want as most folks have moved on to something different (5E, Pathfinder, S&W, etc.) anyway.

Mmm. I care, I guess. At least enough to keep me somewhat focused on a particular path of discussion.

I want to first start with an admission or two. I dig on war-games. I've played war games (mostly Warhammer 40K) and I dig on the maneuver of forces and the crushing of enemies. I like (fantasy) combat in general. Many of my old RPG designs get started when I think of some new, interesting, or innovative way to run combats. This is, perhaps, the stupidest way to originate a new RPG, by the way (since RPGs are, or should be, about more than "fighting stuff"), but I know I'm not the only designer that gets the buzzing bonnet from a single element of game mechanic/system. My particular interests tend towards the violent. Don't ask me why...I can only explain it in terms of astrology.

[for the curious: a 5th house Mars in Ares, un-aspected, save for a direct opposition to Uranus. Make what jokes you must]

Well that and my dad used to watch a lot of old John Wayne movies on the TV (back in the non-cable days of three or four channels). The Battle of the Bulge, Davy Crocket, etc. Who knows how that might have warped me in my formative years.

So, in case it's not terribly obvious, any objections I have to 4E ain't necessarily regarding its conceptualization as an encounter-based game of combat on the small (skirmish) scale. It's not D&D (unless, I suppose, you are one of those unfortunate few introduced to the brand with the 4th Edition, and thus have no other frame of reference), but that doesn't mean it ain't an enjoyable, playable tabletop game.

That being said, the point of this post is NOT to laud it "as a game" unrelated to D&D. Neither is the point of this post meant to bash it for all the ways 4E "isn't D&D." No, the point of this post (and maybe the point of this series) is to talk about the elements I find within 4E that I like, appreciate, find interesting, and/or wouldn't mind adapting to the Dungeons & Dragons game. That is to say, to something I consider a "real" (i.e. traditional) edition of D&D...or perhaps another fantasy heartbreaker.

[what's a "real" edition? See this old post where I listed the identifiable common elements of D&D. While my perspective may have evolved in the last five years, that's a good enough place to start]

As the song says, these are a few of my favorite things. Just starting with the 4E Players Handbook [*takes moment to pour wine*]:

Let's start with Chapter 1 (no, I'm not going to discuss the art/look of the thing. The 4E books are pretty to look at, and fairly inclusive gender-wise, if pretty underrepresented of human-like "people" of color). The first seven pages are the best introduction to any edition of D&D ever. It's a bit of a flimflam (having a DM doesn't make the D&D game "unique" in 2008, and there's a lot left unsaid about how much of the D&D experience the game intends to shortcut), but man if it doesn't make one excited to be cracking the book. In fact, it's actually pretty darn inspiring right up until the section in Page 9 marked How to Play, where it all falls apart. Since I'm trying to be positive (i.e. constructive) I'm going to skip most of the rest of this.

The idea of a Core Mechanic is not a terrible one. D&D nearly made the jump to this with 3rd Edition, and it certainly cuts down on the "search and handling" time. While it's fun to have a bunch of different, arcane systems (surprise versus initiative versus reaction versus attacks versus saves versus spells) to represent different elements of Old School play, there's something to be said for tightening things up...especially if its in aid of easier mechanical play to allow more time in imaginative "free play." However, that doesn't appear to be the reason for the streamlining...certainly not the main reason.

NOW, before I get to "Making Characters" I need to have an aside. I LOVE tactics. I'm GOOD AT playing tactically. BUT I'm pretty f'ing terrible at strategy. Or rather, strategy (in war games and RPGs) is definitely a secondary consideration for me (in addition to being a weak suit). My primary priority, especially in games, is playing something I think is "cool" or "interesting" and then making it work to the best of its ability. Optimizing army/character builds isn't what I do: I play themes and fluff. I like creating unique (often "sub-optimal") forces and then trying to win with them. This makes me absolutely hopeless when it comes to being munchkin-y...and yet my "compete level" is a little too high for non-munchkin players.

SO, for example, I like point buy attributes (as long as its quick math) because they allow me to create characters of my own concept, but I hate min-maxing strategies (in both myself and others). I like the amount of customization 4E gives, and the fact that is limited in scope (you get a choice from three or four options every level), but I hate that most often the people to whom this game appeals are going to be taking optimal choices, that the game encourages hardcore gamism so as not to be left out of the loop of shining your own light in the encounters which define the arena for (pretty much) all play in 4E. Yes, I could make the baddest-ass dracoform warlord in the game, but I don't want to. But if I don't (or at least make something comparable) I face potential ridicule (or deprotagonism) unless I'm playing with folks who have the same weird sensibilities as myself. And if we all have those sensibilities 4E is set up to penalize us for not possessing the right mix of abilities. Subject to a lot of DM fiat and adjustment, of course. in theory I like the tact 4E takes. I like the limiting of options and builds. I like the easy core mechanic (half level + adjustments added to D20 roll). For the most part, I like most of the classes and "builds" that are on display (the same cannot be said for the races or handling of the races...for the most part, I really dislike these). But I'm going to have to talk about specific classes in another post, or this will get too long.

I like how 4E takes (what had been) 3E's "saving throws" and simply makes them passive defenses (the same as armor class), though I'd be tempted to alter the exact list. I've written before about chopping saves (all of last September, in fact), and while 4E does it a different trail, it's headed to the same destination (getting rid of an extra random die roll). 4E's actual "saving throw" (a D20 roll made to see if a sustained effect wears off, checked at the end of a turn) isn't a bad idea, and I find its implementation "realistic" (i.e. level does nothing to improve the chance, but something like "dwarves resistance to poison" does). Oh Just By The Way...just regarding defenses, I really like how the applicable ability modifier is your choice of two (higher of INT or DEX for reflex defense, for example)...all the ability scores have their usefulness, and this either/or mechanic both makes sense AND stops penalizing players for a particular choice (and cuts down on min-maxing benefits).

I actually dig 4E's five-fold alignment quite well. Thank you, thank you for getting rid of "Chaotic Good" and "Lawful Evil" and all the various "neutrals." Unaligned makes so much more sense as does having only two extremes (Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil). Not that it yet provides any mechanical benefit, but if you're going to have the arbitrary ethical description, this isn't a bad way to present it, IMO.

I really like the way 4E handles multiple languages (everyone starts with 2 or 3, depending on race, and then more can be added through a Linguist feat). Besides Ugly Americans like myself, it's fairly common for people to speak two languages, and has been throughout human history, regardless of "intelligence." On the flip side, having a high intelligence is no guarantee of speaking multiple languages, as such is really a matter of training (emphasis) and practice. Too bad 4E's not really about communication...

[yeah, all that stuff about social interaction, mannerisms, and backgrounds seems out-o-place for this game]

"Retraining" is a nice mechanic, but only necessary given the extreme customization that occurs over the course of a character's career. [Hmm, running low on wine here...]

We're skipping classes for the moment...SKILLS. I'm not a fan of skill systems for D&D (sorry), but if you really want one, this is the best I've seen. A limited selection with some "blanket skills" (like Athletics and Thievery), and a simple one-time bonus of +5 for being trained in a particular skill (the equivalent of adding 10 levels of adventuring experience). I have some quibbles: opposed checks seem silly given that you could use the same core mechanic for skills against a "defense value," for example, and I dislike things like Perception and Insight being learned "skills" (this isn't Sherlock they're kind of the same thing, no? Just make them a defense called Perception with an either/or of INT/WIS!). But I certainly like these better than both 3E's version and the "non-weapon proficiencies" of earlier editions.

Oh, yeah...and can Intimidate be used on bloodied PCs to force them to surrender?! From everything I read, the answer would seem to be "yes" which is both awesome and de-protagonizing at the same time. It's the first time I've seen an edition of D&D apply capitulation mechanics to player characters (outside of a failed save versus fear magic or the equivalent). While most people probably ignore this kind of thing, intimidation/morale mechanics is something I love working with (in my own designs)...fights just shouldn't be "to the death" all that often (intelligent beings surrender and unintelligent ones flee).

[by the way, I would love to run 4E in an uber-antagonistic way that aims for TPKs in the "fairest" way possible. More on that if I get around to discussing the DMG]

Feats are a nice, short list, limited further in that many feats are class or race specific. Considering 4E's reputation for super heroic action, I found these surprisingly restrained (compared to 3E). Limits and restraints are "good things" when it comes to skills. I also think I prefer this version of multi-classing; I'd have to see how it works in-play. While it appears a little clunky, I suspect that's more based on unfamiliarity (compared to 3E's mechanics, with which I am very familiar but which I dislike). But it looks to bring some sanity back to the concept of the adventuring archetype that "picks up a little bit of X" for their repertoire.

Not much to say in an equipment section surprisingly light on 10' poles and hemp rope (there ain't none), except perhaps that a lot of creativity is on display in this book with all these different enchantment types (though to me, much of the magic rings as hollow as a game of Diablo).

I'll have to deal with combat in a later post (if at all), but with regard to the chapter on Adventuring, I've got a couple thoughts. Action points are kind of interesting, but being tied to milestones (which for 4E is dependent on the whole encounter structure of the system) makes for a bit of a "no go" for me...trying to play 4E in a true D&D style would necessitate creating a different system for awarding action points, probably along the lines of X number per session dependent on PC's level of experience, or the anticipated number of encounters in a session (however, their emphasis on increased combat effectiveness might mean they should get the axe entirely).

I actually like the whole idea of "short rests" and "long rests," though I don't see why short rests have been cut down to five minutes in length (in B/X and other old editions, characters are presumed to spend time resting after an encounter, though always for a minimum of one turn, i.e. ten minutes...failure results in characters becoming fatigued). Actually, counting the time spent resting can lead to old school-type resource management, regarding food and light sources and whatnot...though it's pretty clear that no self-respecting 4E party should hit the Underdark without a wizard and his/her unlimited Light cantrip. "Keeping Watch" is another example of where a simple Perception defense would be appropriate.

Rituals also add an element of time/resource management that I like...but I'll talk about those in a later post, as this is already waaaay loooong.

Film Stuff's a holiday in Paraguay today and, well, I've been a little busier than I thought I would be. Currently doing a tad more research before I write up the new 4E post. Hopefully, this afternoon. However, while you're waiting for that (those who are), here's a couple film things to chew on.

Had a chance to watch a couple superhero movies over the weekend, including Kick-Ass 2 and Super, both of which provide some (if not ample) fodder for one of my game designs. You may not have heard of Super (I hadn't)'s a Rainn Wilson vehicle and quite dark in its comedy. It's good (left an impression...I was thinking about it for a while after), if a little derivative. And not just derivative in the standard "vigilante film" way. A lot of people might draw comparisons between Super and, say, Kick-Ass or (more appropriately) Taxi Driver. However, I think the main inspiration for the film comes from Tarantino's violent "fairy tale" feature, True Romance. Nearly every element of the film, along with the whimsical fairy tale tone/plot has a direct correlation with the earlier film, though characters and plot elements are mixed in a different fashion (unlike the way, say, White House Down is nearly the exact same film as Die Hard). Despite the derivative elements, it IS it's own movie, and a good entry into the genre...if a bit of a dark and weird one.

The other film thing I wanted to mention is I got an email from Spencer Estabrooks, maker of the (clearly) D&D-inspired web series One Hit Die. Appears they've managed to put together enough scratch to fund a second season of ten episodes (the first season consisted of a four season prologue and a two-part Crushmas Special). Honestly, I'd forgotten all about the OHD folks, I'm afraid...lots on my mind the last two years...and I was very happy to be reminded of their presence. The dramatic arts (acting, writing, directing, costuming, designing, etc.) is, in many ways, its own reward...which is a good thing, because it seldom pays enough to allow folks to use it as their sole income. That the OHD people are able to generate enough support to continue a sustained creative effort like this is a testament to their will, talent, and work ethic.

They're back...and the gaming table's bigger.
And they ARE funny: I again found myself chuckling as I watched the preview for Season 2: Legend of the Lich Lord. The additional "party members" look fun, the new special effects look good, and it was nice to see Phil Burke back after his conspicuous absence from the Crushmas Special. On the other hand, it appears Larissa Thompson ("Gwen the Healer") is not a part of season two, and as her character was a balancing voice of sanity (and naiveté) it will be interesting to see how the show will go without her presence. Asked about her, Estabrooks tells me:
"She's not in this quest, but she's still alive in the realm. :)"
So perhaps she'll be returning in a future show. Oh,'s the link to the Season 2 preview. Perhaps whoever's doing the new D&D movie (now that their legal wranglings are over) would do well to check out the OHD folks and not take the thing so seriously (to its own disadvantage). I'm not saying that such a film needs to be made in the OHD "mockumentary" style. Maybe something along the same tone as Ice Pirates, though. Just a thought.

[um...reminds me I still need to get my hands on a copy of Dark Dungeons]

Okay...children asre crying and screaming so it's nap time for everyone. Later.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Cascade Failure

The wife's in New York over the next few days, which means I'm on single parent duty. That being said, this actually gives me a little more time to myself than usual (some married dudes with children can relate) even if it means, my waking hours with the kids is a little tougher.

SO...I was going to get back to my 4E delving (and I will, I will!), but in the meantime I wanted to talk about a different RPG I had the chance to pick up and read the last couple days: Cascade Failure, a little self-published, space opera game, built on the usual (D&Dish) class-race-level chassis with D20s and saving throws and whatnot. Oh,'s in my favorite price range: free (not even "pay what you want;" you can't give this guy money). PDF only, of course.

You might guess that such an offering was pretty crappy (i.e. amateurish, derivative) offering. If so, you'd be very, very wrong.

Greg Christopher's game is downright beautiful, with amazing production values. The full color artwork ranges from excellent to's on par with some of Fantasy Flight Games more recent offerings, certainly a step up from D&D 4E, maybe around the same level as the last couple Shadowrun books (for me, these are all "high water marks" in RPG art). Even for folks who just dig on good SciFi art (I've written before how I find good art to be incredibly inspiring), you could due worse than taking a look...I did mention it's free, right? Check out this cover:

Really not this blurry.
I mean, that image doesn't really do the book justice. Here's a screen shot from the chargen title page:


That shit is just awesome.

[sorry about the grey borders...I'm terrible at this kind of image manipulation]

But, hey, all prettiness aside, my main interest with all these RPGs is their design and potential for play. Maybe you're wondering if my "downright beautiful" description applied only to the look and layout. No...the game's pretty sweet, too.

Cascade Failure (download here) claims to be a public BETA (version 1.2, in fact), but I've seen other games that had a lot less going for them than what it has going on. The PDF is all of 95 pages (y'all know I like a low page count) and many of those pages are cover, or full page illos, or one of three (different style) character sheets, or a star map, or an OGL, or whatever. Thing is pretty, yet compact. Now what does it do in those pages? Let's put together some bullet points:

  • Uses a streamlined D20 mechanic, where everything is "roll under attribute (plus modifiers)." There are two types of checks (called "responses") in the core mechanic: proactive (using skills, attacks, etc.) and reactive (saving throws). All use attributes as their base, sometimes with a level modifier (depending on class). For folks familiar with it, there are shades of 4E here, but without target numbers. I've toyed with similar designs, so I'm partial to the idea; however, "roll low" isn't the most intuitive thing for folks (outside the BRP/Chaosium crowd) and I've read complaints about this in some reviews of Cascade Failure. That being said, there are ways to fix this...but for me, it's fine as is.
  • A very cool setting: immediate post-apocalypse (28 years after the fall) of an interstellar society. The whole thing is very cool, and provides a lot of different "hooks" for characters. I've spoken before that, for me, I need something more than an interesting "wide open" setting to make a game run. Even without providing a list of "adventure seeds," the setting in Cascade Failure suggests plenty of things to do and concrete directions to take, which is something I rarely encounter in SciFi games. For example, you might have some sort of war as part of a setting whether covert (Star Frontiers) or not (Star Wars), but RPGs really fall short (IMO) when this is the driving campaign arc (I should write about this sometime...look at Dragonlance as an example). The setting of survival and salvage, provides motivation for small scale (i.e. personal) conflicts of the sort that would involve a party of wandering adventurers. And there's enough background fluff (without being overwhelming) to provide objectives for said adventures. Dig it.
  • Really like how humans are used in the setting. They are responsible for the empire, they are responsible for the fall, they have the (stronger) potential for getting shit back together. It's human centric but humans are far from fallible and have a lot to answer for. Nice themes.
  • An interesting and (for me) distinct set of classes, compared to other games. Various non-human races are fine depending on your cup o tea; they're fine but easily discarded or modified (none are "integral" to the setting). The game distinguishes race from class which  (I've noted before) I prefer in the space opera genre: if you're going to posit a number of sentient races with spacefaring capacity, they might as well be able to have different occupations.
  • The empath and kinetic classes are excellent...I'll return to these at the end of this post.
  • Saving throws specific to the setting (all based on attributes): very nicely done. Dig "breath" (to see if you can hold your when your spaceship suddenly holed), "pain" (for taking actions after your totally abstract HPs have been depleted), "snap" (the "reflex" save, but also used as a "full defense" type action in when you need to dodge laser bolts and have nothing with which to shoot back), and "fear" (the PC version of morale). Also love "listen" and "spot" as saving throws: makes perfect sense with the core mechanic to use these as reactive saves.
  • Ambitions. Wow. Remember how much shit I gave White Star for its cop-out experience system? Here's an innovative system that works with the genre, and its got two tracks. Each character has a major ambition, something that (if achieved) they'll retire and give up adventuring; examples include acquiring a space ship, finding one's true love, avenging a wrong, or whatever. It's a built-in end-game and story driver, and (similar to The Riddle of Steel's spiritual attributes) provides bonuses in play when characters are taking actions that directly apply to the ambition (it also acts as a directional "guide" for players). Minor ambitions, on the other hand, are chosen in-play, on the fly, based on the situation at hand (i.e. both the adventure hooks and events that occur). Minor ambitions provide no mechanical bonuses, but (when achieved) award PCs XP based on the ambition. And here's the kicker: the amount of XP awarded for achieving a minor ambition is negotiated up-front between the player and the GM., for example, the players discover there's a band of marauders terrorizing the local village and pose a minor ambition to shut it down for 100xp and the GM says, heck I'll give you 500xp, cluing in the PCs that the opposition is tougher than they think. OR players can "up the ante" saying they have a minor ambition to reconcile with the bandits peacefully and make them productive members of the village or some such for a fat bonus. OR the players can add an extra ambition (for extra XP) that they want to humiliate the bandit leader in the process and steal his high tech gear that he's been using to lord it over the peasants. Very hip mechanic and one I can't ever remember seeing before.
  • Morality. Wow again. This is Cascade Failure's take on "alignment." You assign 7 points to three impulses: adherence (which is kind of like "law & order"), consensus (your conformity to your peer group/friends/family), and efficiency (your impulse to "get things done" in expedient fashion). The values assigned to these impulses act as role-playing guide-posts to the players, and can be used by the GM as a bonus/penalty if applicable and if "it would make the game more enjoyable." Shades of both The Riddle of Steel (again) and Pendragon virtues.
  • Characters are given an age attribute (Young, Adult, or Mature) that influences how cognizant of the pre-apocalypse galaxy. Being younger gives you a bonus to physical attributes (duh) but being older gives you bonuses to figure out old tech. Remember, the setting is post-apoc so shades of Gamma World figuring out gear...however, I'm not really doing a good job of selling the setting: even though the author doesn't give us a highly detailed galaxy with pages and pages of history and planets, what he does give us is an important overview of what tech allowed interstellar colonization in the first place, how it was interrelated, and how it's breakdown (due to the interstellar war) has led to the collapse of the society. He gives you enough of the information you need. It's really spot on and elegant.
  • Gosh, there's a luck score (rolled randomly; humans start with more) that can be spent in-play and never gets "replenished" (except by GM fiat). However, rather than a "get out of jail free card" (as in other RPGs), luck is used to flat modify rolls by your current luck value, decreasing by a point with every use. Man, I love this. At the beginning of a character's career, they can thus expect a lot of lucky breaks ("beginner's luck," right?) but as the game progresses their luck eventually runs out.
  • Hit points are abstract and, once depleted, additional damage is applied directly to attributes (as in Classic Traveller). The attribute affected is determined by random roll and attributes correspond with wound a shot to the hand decreases DEX, while a shot to the head decreases INT. There are some rules for getting maimed and whatnot...all good, though I would have liked some cyborg parts to replace lost limbs (easily added, though).
  • Equipment is nice, a short and streamlined list fine for the setting, the usual weapons/armor are on display. Includes cybernetic enhancements (though no 'borg prosthetics). The barter currency with "Value Units" is cool and setting appropriate. The various spacecraft/vehicles (these aren't available for many chickens are you going to trade for a battle tank?) are good...abstract and they fit the marks needed...but there seems to be a missing chart here, as the text states vehicles are described by four values and we've got no idea what the range of those values are for any of these vehicles. Maybe that's why this is the "Beta" version? Vehicle combat is a mirror of personal combat which is fine, by the way.
  • Factions are neat. The example factions are all very good. You can see where other space opera fiction has inspired some of these ideas (Space Battleship Yamato, for example), but they still feel very original. Especially dig the non-hostile nature of most of these (they have desires, but they aren't pitted to destroy each other). They all make good story seeds.
  • Finally we have "Gifts" which are just lightweight "feats" that PCs acquire every other level (starting at 2nd level). I like these, too, especially the kinetic ones.

Okay, that's a lot of slobbering over the game. Can you tell it's my new favorite space opera RPG? That this is one I'd actually like to run?

Now, long time readers of the blog know that I'm a big fan of Star Wars, but have had issues with (pretty much) every Star Wars game that's ever been offered for consumption...from West End Games to WotC's D20 (and Saga) to FFG's most recent version. A lot of folks have touted White Star as THE  "Star Wars game" least as far as light-ruled, old school (D&D style) chassis are concerned. I wrote myself that it's the closest such game I've seen.

Cascade Failure is closer.

And I say this even given that the setting is NOTHING like "Star Wars." No, what I mean is that is that the system, as is, is VERY EASILY adaptable to the Star Wars setting, should one care to do so. You'll have to cut out aspects like power armor and such...but then again, there are no hard rules for such, and who's to say you can't scale mecha or power armor up to the size of AT-ATs and AT-STs?

The existing CF classes of Empaths and Kinetics can, be easily adapted to Jedi and Sith (respectively) with near zero modification...if one is willing to forgo all the "canon" nonsense found in RPGs and prequel trilogies. Using the original trilogy (solo) as a base...something I've often considered doing but always failed failed failed in ALL my designs...the "Force" users could easily be modeled on these character classes withOUT such a thing as "the Force" (the Force being instead relegated to a religion or mythological belief of the setting as a way of explaining the existing of such sixth sense powers). Personally, I prefer the Cascade Failure version of such powers to anything I've yet seen, including my own designs. These two variations of "people with strange powers" (which, again, can be classed to any species...a failure of White Star when it comes to genre emulation) will also work well for other space opera settings. In fact, they seem almost out of place in the post-apocalyptic setting of Cascade Failure (nothing about the setting material mentions folks with psychic powers, not even as minor players in the events occurring before, during, and after). But for a CF knock-off in a Lucas-style, original trilogy setting, they find a ready home.

In my opinion.

[no there's nothing like the "Dark Side" or psychic corruption in the game...imagine, for a moment, that Yoda and Ben's discussions of such a supernatural force are simply over-blown and rooted in superstition. Call it a "Force-Atheistic" version of Star Wars. Which itself is pretty cool]

Look, it appears to be a good game. It's free. It's pretty to look at. Go ahead and download it, write to the author, tell him to get his act together and put together a chart of vehicle stats and start charging something for it. Inform him that this should be available in hardcopy (it ain't, not even print-on-demand). The fact it has a 2011 copyright and I've never seen/heard of it is a crying shame. I've been looking for a space opera game this cool for a looooong time.
; )

[by the way, thanks to Age of Ravens for hipping me to this thing through his latest post-apocalyptic RPG post. You can read his review here]

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 1)

It's been a long ass day, and I want a drink. In fact...

[*pours wine*]

Okay, that's better.

It's been so long, I haven't even had a chance to listen to my satellite radio and only just found out (from one of the blogs on my blogrole) that Kam Chancellor has ended his holdout. No, I know most of my readers don't care...I'm citing it as an example of how busy the day's been. Sports talk radio is one of my only "links back home," and one I can usually take advantage of when going about the daily grind (I'm sure this was big news today). But...okay, never mind.

4th Edition D&D. I've now read the PHB, DMG, MM, PHB2, and DMG2. I have purchased none of them, simply found them squirreled away on various sites around the internet. Foreign (non-U.S., non-English) sites mostly...perhaps that has something to do with WotC not wanting to translate their products into other languages (either way, the karmic backlash seems to be going both ways).

After reading these core books (and keep in mind that unlike DND 3.5, these #2 books are actual expansions not revisions, so I'd consider them "core"), I find have a lot of thoughts on 4th Edition. Yes, I realize I am years late to this party and that there is something called 5th Edition on the shelves...5E is a post for another time (if and when I ever get around to reading it). 4E is an edition that I've said plenty of poor words about while having never played the game and never doing more than perusing the thing. Now that I've sat down and actually bothered to read the thing I find my feelings have evolved somewhat. I can now articulate with more authority (or, at least, with more knowledge) and there's a lot to say.

Hell, I kind of want to do a "cover-to-cover" series on the game, the way folks like to do for B/X and BECMI and Holmes Basic and AD&D. But that's probably a ridiculous idea.

My first thought is: this looks like a fun little game. Really, that was my first thought. But that was a thought without the bias or color or lens of "this-is-D&D-and-how-does-it-compare-and/or-represent-the-brand-namesake." And as I read, and that little lens/color/bias pushed itself forward (repeatedly) into my consciousness, it carried with it an additional, much stronger thought. And that thought was: where did this come from? Or to put it another way: just what were they thinking?

Now, that's not meant to be the inflammatory, rhetorical question that implies "these guys have flipped their collective gourds!" No, it's a true question of curiosity; a real request for clarification. And the reason it arises is because 4th Edition is soooooooo far afield from any other edition, I am crazy-wondering how they decided to go down this design route!

I mean, were the designers (Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins, and James Wyatt) given the directive to overhaul the whole thing from the ground up? Were they directed to take this direction (and if so, by whom?)? Forget for a moment all the fallout that occurred afterwards; forget for a moment all the rants by bloggers, all the kindling of "edition wars." Hell, forget the history of what the subsequent reaction in the community was to 4E (the pretty important Pathfinder phenomenon). I don't want to look at 4th Edition with 20x20 hindsight and judge it by that. I want to look at it like this:

In an alternate universe, where the year is August 2007 and WotC has announced the development of 4E. They expect to hear some grumblings from folks who've purchased 3.5 (just as they probably anticipated grumblings from 3.0 folks at the announcement of 3.5). I sincerely doubt they expected a mass exodus away from their brand/product (what sane corporation would purposefully set out to alienate a loyal fan base?) Why-O-Why would they take the game in such an extreme direction? Like, crazy-extreme. Like, "this doesn't really resemble anything that has every looked like D&D in the past ever."

It's bizarre. I want to see the Designer's Notes in a sidebar, but no such notes exist (there are plenty of sidebars)...the text traipses blithely along in a "nothing-to-see-here-everything's-cool" way that is just...I don't know...disconnected from reality. Like, how could you write this and NOT realize how people would react to the frigging sea change in design concept? How could you not throw the reader a bone explaining why you decided to take this road? The closest thing I find is the sidebar in the PHB called The History of D&D (page 7) which presents an overview of the various editions, before concluding with this paragraph:

Now we've reached a new milestone. This is the 4th Edition of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game. It's new. It's exciting. It's bright and shiny. It builds on what has gone before, and firmly establishes D&D for the next decade of play. Whether you were with the game from the beginning or just discovered it today, this new edition is your key to a world of fantasy and adventure.

Wow. It's kind of delusional. Or maybe not...I don't know. It sure seems like like 4E tanked, but I guess it got six years of play before 5E got rolled out. The lead designer (Heinsoo) got axed by WotC a year after the first three core books got published. Collins got the axe about a year or so later and Bill Slavicsek ("Director of RPG R&D" and the organizer of the 4E design team) left WotC in 2011...5E was announced in January of 2012, less than four years later.

Not quite the decade promised.

Oh,'s an interesting forum post from November 2011. I suppose that would go some way to explaining what the thought process was. But still, I'd be interested in more information...oh, wait, here's a good interview with the 4E developers (2010) in the Escapist: it's a two-parter, and there's some good insight into what went into the design process. For example, the inclusion of the tiefling race...the justification given by Collins is understandable:
"We wanted the Players Handbook to represent a broad crosssection of races, not only from an in-game cultural standpoint but also from players psychographics. And this is a good lesson you can learn from a lot of online games, MMOs. You don't want all your races to look the same, you don't want them to all act the same. You want different kinds of players to be attracted to different kinds of races. So there is a niche out there for the evil-curious, slightly bad-boy type of character. The tiefling fit that really well for us, better than any of the other races that we felt really comfortable bringing into the core."
It's just that it's such a silly an unimaginative shortcut to take. I mean, I've been the "evil curious" player in the past playing "bad boy" characters, but I never needed a half-demon race to do it...I've run an evil bard (half-elves), evil fighter (humans), and even one evil gnome (an illusionist-assassin). This kind of archetypal shortcut short-changes the players' imagination, if not actively discourages.

However, I say this in the context of the history of the Dungeons & Dragons game. What D&D has done, in its prior editions, has been to encourage its participants' imaginations. In the earliest editions, there was a lot of "empty cup" to fill with one's own imaginings...a lot of blank spaces on the game map to which creative players could add house rules and content. In the 3rd edition, there was less blank space, but there was uncountable (well, I'm not going to take time counting them) options for players (and DMs) to mix-and-match in imaginative ways: all classes could be all races could multi-class with everything and have all sorts of skill-feat-prestige class combos. Both styles (pre-2000 and post-2000) encouraged its participants to think about what they wanted to bring to the game; they encouraged adding one's own imagination.

Which is why 4E is such a departure from those earlier editions. Instead of encouraging input, it encourages participants to use the given rules in an imaginative fashion. Here are your options (as a player): build something (within the framework) and then use it tactically (and in conjunction with your fellow players) on the battlefield. Here are your options (as a DM): use them to build interesting (but winnable) battles that can be overcome in a reasonable amount of time to allow a reasonable amount of progress as players grow (in options and effectiveness) to allow new tactical use of the system features. Game mastery is by far the most important part of 4th Edition.

And I want to emphasize that this isn't a terrible thing if the 4E is viewed in a vacuum: as its own game, its own entity, unconnected to this thing called Dungeons & Dragons. It's something akin to a chess match, or like a small-scale war-game played with multiple players on one-side against a single referee (one who is responsible for assuming the challenge level falls within the scope of what is "fair" for the rules). There's no randomization in chess, and not nearly the variation, of course...but that serves to make the 4E game more exciting. Sure, a chess master would sneer at the injected element of random chance, but the "chance" injected, if the DM has done his/her job correctly, only serves to influence the ebb and flow of the battle...the outcome shouldn't really be in doubt (because it's so hard to lose/die when challenges are scale as directed).

[hmmm...I suppose the chess master would sneer at that aspect of 4E, too. Why play a game where losing is never an option? But then, I suppose, the 4E designers really took to heart the statement that "there are no losers" in a game of D&D]

Okay, this is getting long so I need to continue it later.

[written Wednesday, posted Thursday...told you it was a loooooong day!]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I Hate Prep

I hate to admit I'm lazy, though there's ample evidence that such is the case. Certainly there are times that I can get up the energy to work hard for long stretches (or work very hard for short stretches), but sustained, disciplined effort without noticeable results or pay-off is not really my thing. It's why I've never been able to maintain a workout-at-the-gym exercise program, or why I will probably never right anything approaching vaguely resembling a novel (i.e. a long continuous work of fiction). There's a certain stamina that is required for these activities...even for efforts that might not be judged a "success;" see the failed novelist archetype, for example.

Could I develop such stamina? Perhaps...but the development itself requires a certain amount of stick-to-it've-ness, i.e. stamina. I have, in the past, prided myself in being able to fast for seven days (for most people, getting to three is a real challenge...mentally, you start to freak out about not eating, more that feeling actually hungry), but more than that is...well, I get bored. I like eating. And I miss trying or tasting food (especially food that is terrible for me). A seven day fast is about the limit of my endurance, not because of physical incapacity but due to a lacking of mental will. It's just "not so much fun" after awhile...or not as much fun as a big plate of Mexican food or a martini/steak combo.

Which is why, while I dig on being a game master, I'm not much for prep.

Not that I do NO prep...I can prepare an adventure, a plot, a scenario, etc. for an RPG. I've done it many times before for many games in many different genres. But there's a limit to the amount I want to do. Games that require too much mechanical prep are total bugaboos for me. I hate them, they hate me, and damn if I'll ever run such a game. Mekton Zeta is the first such game that comes to mind. GURPS is another. Champions ("HERO System") a third. For me, the amount of work that goes into the set-up of such a campaign is far too much to get me excited about any system features the game has. For a lot of people, the "toolbox factor" of these games IS the "system feature." For me, it's just more time spent doing something other than playing/running the game.

As said, this is my personal failing. But it explains why I design the types of books/games I do (and part of why I favor certain types of games over others).

Ugh...I started this post Monday morning, and I can't remember what the point of it was. So I'm going to stop now. Oh, wait...I remember! FATE! FATE is another game that I will never run because I hate the prep involved. Ugly, ugly stuff, in my opinion. I know lots of people like it...I've played a couple FATE games at cons (Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files) and I had a great time. But I didn't have to prep those games...I'd play 'em again, as long as I'm not asked to run them. And maybe so long as we're using pre-gen characters or quick-play ones.

The guy should be charging $$.
I was reading Bulldogs, which is a neat take on FATE, and chock full of neat stuff, but sooooo...ugh. It was looking through Bulldogs and comparing it to the fairly magnificent Beat to Quarters that made me sit down and start writing this post Monday morning. BtQ really needs its own post; it's like someone's Napoleonic, alternate-reality version of DMI. But, wow, it cuts prep down to my level of management...assuming one has a grounding/background in Age of Sail adventure fiction/history. Not everyone does.

But that kind of prep (what I'd call "research") is fun, and I can do it all day. In fact, I spent a couple hours on the internet this morning just reading various online articles about nautical battle strategy in the 17th and 18th century.

Okay, this post has really tanked/gone off the rules. Sorry. Let me try writing something different tomorrow.

OH, WAIT...just as an almost completely unrelated aside: I downloaded what (I thought) was supposed to be a Spanish-language copy of D&D off the internet, and what I got instead was a PDF copy of the 4th Edition Players Handbook; a volume I've never owned or read. Well, I spent a few minutes skimming through it today, and there are some things here that look like fun! I mean, there's a LOT of stupid here...dragonborn and astral diamonds and WoW-style bullshit and whatnot. But despite being a far cry from anything I'd call "Dungeons & Dragons," it doesn't look like a terrible game to play. On first pass, I could see myself writing up a character and taking it for a spin on someone's battle mat.

Just so long as I don't have to prep/run this monster.

[hmm...I guess that wasn't a terribly unrelated aside]
; )

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Other Worlds

Yesterday, Alexis mentioned me in one of his posts (just in passing, mind you) and it touched off a nerve. Totally unintentional on his part, I'm just brought up a lot of negative feelings about living here in Paraguay. I wrote a loooooong post about why there's no role-playing in this country, why there will probably NEVER be role-playing in this country, and much of it was super-derogatory regarding the culture and people here. Very, very rant-y.

Fortunately, I didn't have time to post it. My afternoon was fairly busy as we had a birthday party to attend. By "we," I mean the boy and I. He played with his classmates for three hours while I sat around with the other moms, socializing as best I could in my limited Spanish. It was surprisingly fun...or, at least, not as nail-pullingly hellacious as I feared it might be. And it reminded me that I am often too hard on the people here, even in my own mind...negatively judgmental, that is. Maybe there could be a market for gaming here. The limitations of the Paraguayan people are caused in large part by geographic isolation (compared to most participants in our "global economy") and poverty which bleeds into the country's infrastructure. Yes, there's cultural inertia, but it's not an inherent, insurmountable obstacle.

Anyway, I deleted my original post.

West of India, Southeast of Europe
As I said, the point of Alexis's post really had nothing to do with me. His musing on taking D&D to places that don't ape some sort of mythic Europe is not a new idea (though his maps are more concrete follow-through than most folks get to), but it's still a good idea, and one that doesn't get enough play. Or, perhaps more accurately, enough action. My Five Ancient Kingdoms game did not start off as an Arabian Nights version of D&D, but in trying to create a coherent setting, I found myself having to draw in more and more of the Middle Eastern culture I was studying...once you incorporate one part, others need to follow if you want it to make sense, until you get sucked into adopting wholesale swaths of a region and its peoples. The research itself is valuable to the researcher's personal development and growth, but it can be a real shot-in-the-arm to one's game, too. And, hey, maybe alternate settings will have some appeal to folks outside the usual demographic target audience.

Now if only WotC would bother translating their books into non-English languages.

Okay, got to go. Saturday's not a day I usually have time to post.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Don't You Marry It?

Man, I love fantasy football.

I forgot how much fun it is. Or, maybe, it was never this fun before but this time around (it's been six years I think?) and the circumstances have changed. This time, I'm the co-manager of the league (per Steve's request)...however, due to Steve-O's notorious distractibility (not to mention his new baby) I've been pretty much the de facto manager. I got to set up divisions, adjust the scoring, and create the trophies. I get to post bulletin board material and do league-wide emails, build snarky "power rankings," and send trash-talking videos (a new feature on ESPN) if I so choose.

However, even without my "lordly status" I'm still having fun due in no small part to the fact that I know most of the players in my league. In the past, I played in my buddy's existing league featuring dudes he went to college with...people whom I had never met. How can you talk trash with complete strangers?

Because smack talk is a big part of this game. At least, our game...there's no money on the line, so the only "win" here is to show-up your opponents. I don't know why competition brings out "jerk-ness" in people (and our talk is pretty mild-mannered compared to some I've seen or read about) just does. It's not enough to (electronically) shake hands and tell your opponent "good luck," letting the numbers fall where they may. No, there's crowing and chest-beating and outright gloating.

It's not like you're going to "get into the head" of your's not your opponent that's carrying the ball and scoring TDs!

There was outright panic on the message board last night from my opponent...for a Thursday night game! With no money on the line! The guy was writing things like 'Jeez, I need to play catch up!' and 'You killing me!' My only active "player" last night was the Kansas City defense...something I got off waivers the day before. Yeah, they outperformed their projection...but my opponent still has eight players to play on Sunday. There's no reason to start quaking in your boots!

I guess I'm not the only drama queen out there.

It's just a game, but it is a fun game. Dudes my age who feel D&D is too "nerdy" to play are nerding out all over the country (and the world...I'm in South America, after all) playing fantasy football. Fat asses parked in front of their TVs...laptop in one hand, cold beer in the other...combing over match-ups, counting points, reading Athalon sports mags, checking the fantasy line crawl on the ESPN...

Does it get more nerdy than that? I semi-predicted a while back, it's become a bit of a distraction. I have gotten a few pages of the new project written this week, but I find myself getting a little depressed about it. Like, I just can't find a way to justify writing a 200 or 400 page ruleset. How the hell do people DO that, really? If this gets up to 50 pages, I'll be lucky...which then gives me the problem of "what kind of format" should I use make this look nice and professional (and, thus, buyable)? No one wants to pay $10 for something that looks like a soft-cover pamphlet. And the production costs will be more than that if I want to pay for decent art. Ugh.

Putting together a decent fantasy team is a lot easier.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Heat Sanitized

It's starting to get hot again.

Scorching Sky.
It's been a couple months of Paraguayan winter here, which basically means "comfortable." I wear pants, and long sleeve shirts make semi-regular appearances. A couple windy evenings, I even had occasion to use a light jacket. But yesterday it was 38 or 39 degrees celsius (over 100 fahrenheit), and today it's at least that, and as we enter South American springtime it's only going to get hotter. I am sweating like a pig at the moment, and have been for more than 24 hours.

I was planning on doing some posting about my recent spat of gaming with my 4 (and a half) year old, posting some (poor) photos I took with my phone, but I got sidetracked by something else: a different gaming project. This was a direct result of a blog post posted to someone else's blog. I don't want to get into it at the moment. Really. What I DO want to do is try writing it up a bit. I'm going to try doing that today. Right after this post. And lunch. And maybe a beer.

I find myself wondering, just in passing, if maybe I've lost my edge...or any edge that I ever had. I don't know if anything I've done could really be called "edgy." I think I'd like to be sounds cool. But I think I'm more just a loud-mouth who's "on edge" or...maybe...someone who sets other people's teeth on edge. That's not really the same thing.

I don't think one can really set out to be "edgy;" you (or your creative works) either are edgy, or they're not. Trying to be edgy is the surest way of screwing things up in some way, shape, or form. So if I was edgy (and have lost my edge), it really doesn't warrant me pining over what's been lost because...well, because whining doesn't help and trying won't either.

Anyways, I don't feel edgy these days. I feel nice. I feel "cute." I feel sanitized in a lot of ways...scrubbed of anything dark and dirty, with all the sharp edges filed down. And maybe that's a good thing (or, at least, a "not bad" thing). But...well, for whatever silly reason I place some value on a little edginess.

But it's possible that my brain is just in a "melting" phase at the moment. It's hot, as I said.

*Quick NFL Note* The Seahawks' defense looked pretty terrible against 3rd stringers and 2nd-raters last Sunday, giving up 27 points (not counting the special teams TD). Close analysis shows most of this was due to poor play on our linebacker corps. Which causes me to ask the question, just how important was Ken Norton Jr. to our line backers the last few years, and will his loss to Oakland lead this to be an ongoing issue all season? Uh-oh.

Okay, time for lunch.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Different Paradigm

Dungeons & Dragons. Great game, right? One that's made a ton of money for people all over the world: everyone from little ol' indie-publishers like me to companies like OneBookShelf to every RPG company inspired by the game to every video game designer that took its cues from the thing. A game that, by itself, has provided countless hours of enjoyment. I mean that literally...I cannot count how many hours I've spent playing and running and reading and dreaming and scheming (enjoying every minute) over the years all due to D&D. And I'm just one person. There are plenty of others like me.

What if the game had been designed differently? What if core ideas we take for granted now...things like, say, incremental increases of effectiveness due to the acquisition of points (i.e. "leveling" by accumulating "XP") or delving "dungeons" had been less focal points to the game as a whole? What if the "original fantasy adventure game" had been more about focused on the fantasy adventure and less about the looting and cavern crawls?

Just humor me for a moment. I've got several different things roiling and boiling in my brain.

First up, an article from The Dragon, issue #7 (June, 1977), titled Gary Gygax on Dungeons & Dragons: Origins of the Game:
...a few months later when Dave [Arneson] came down to visit me we played a game of his amended CHAINMAIL fantasy campaign. Dave had taken the man-to-man and fantasy rules and modified them for his campaign. Players began as Heroes or Wizards. With sufficient success they could become Superheroes. In similar fashion, Wizards could become more powerful... 
The idea of measured progression (experience points) and the addition of games taking place in a dungeon maze struck me as being very desireable [sic]. However, that did not really fit in the framework of CHAINMAIL. I asked Dave to please send me his rules additions, for I thought a whole new system should be developed. A few weeks after his visit I received 18 or so handwritten pages of rules and notes pertaining to his campaign and I immediately began work on a brand new manuscript... 
...There were then three character classes, with players beginning at first level (rather than as 4th level Hero-types or relatively powerful Wizards), and each level was given a heroic or otherwise descriptive name. The actions that could follow were outlined. Spells were expanded. The list of monsters were broadened again, and a complete listing of magical items and treasures was given. The reaction to the manuscript was instant enthusiasm. DUNGEONS & DRAGONS differed considerably from Dave's "Blackmoor" campaign, just as the latter differed from CHAINMAIL: but, based on the reception given to the game by others testing it, he had to agree that it was acceptable. Although D&D was not Dave's game system by any form or measure, he was given co-billing as author for his valuable idea kernels. He complained bitterly that the game wasn't right, but the other readers/players loved it. In fact, the fellows playing the manuscript version were so enthusiastic that they demanded publication of the rules as soon as possible...
Okay, that's the first thing. Now look at Dave Arneson's introduction to The First Fantasy Campaign; we'll skip the parts about creating the Blackmoor campaign setting and just highlight some of the rules differences Arneson describes in his original "CHAINMAIL variant:"
Character motivation was solved by stating that you did not get Experience Points until the money had been spent on your area of interest. This often led to additional adventures... 
Combat was quite simple at first and then got progressively complicated with the addition of Hit Location, etc. as the players first rolled for characteristics, the number of Hits a body could take ran from 0 - 100. As the player progressed, he did not receive additional Hit Points, but rather became harder to Hit. All normal attacks were carried out in the usual fashion but the player received a "Saving Throw" against any Hit he received. Thus, although he might be "Hit" several times during a melee round, in actuality he might not take any damage at all. Only Fighters gained advantage in these Saving Throws. Clerics and Magicians progressed in their own areas, which might or might not modify their Saving Throws...
The part about experience points is especially intriguing; in the section of FFC that addresses this ("Special Interests;" pages 50-52), Arneson identifies seven areas of potential interest: Wine, Women, Song, Wealth, Fame, Religion & Spiritualism, and Hobby. Each area provides specific guidelines/rules for how wealth must be spent in order to gain XP; only the "Wealth" category gains XP for simple accumulation of treasure (and carries the stipulation that wealth robbed results in a loss of XP and a potential loss of level). "Hobby" is:
"a catch-all category left to the Judge to award details on to the players. Examples of some of the more obvious pursuits would be Spell Research by Magic Users specializing in say Animal Control or the raising and breeding of's hobby could even be the devising of of better Torture machines, making gold, the Building of Flying Machines, all up to the Judge to outline and define within the limits of his campaign."
Thus, while characters were all treasure hunters, they were treasure hunters with specific reasons and motivations, several of which (Fame, Religion, and Hobby) required characters to engage in non-treasure seeking activity (though with potentially interesting adventure implications) as part of their advancement strategy.

Remember, that Blackmoor grew (in part) out of Arneson's experience with Braunstein in which different pieces/characters were given different motivations/missions. The goal of acquiring money, as described in the later Dave Arneson's Blackmoor was provided as an easy goal around which to unite, despite what they planned to use that money for. It wasn't necessarily for the building of castles and armies for additional war-gaming action. However, all of these "motivations" require the expenditure of their money, overcoming the insane economy decried in a game that has moved away from the domain-ruling endgame. It's a different way to get players to voluntarily drain their own income (diffusing it gradually into the campaign setting), rather than send a 0-level tax collector and the town guard to harass a group of hardened adventurers.

DMDave has a lot of good articles deconstructing the design of D&D, especially its latter (3rd-5th) editions; I've spent the last day or two reading much of his blog. Another good post cites the specific reason for and origins of "hit points" in an earlier Ironclads war-game developed by Arneson. While I've discussed and hypothesized about this development previously, this is the first time I've had the additional info provided by this 2004 interview. Yes, I'm late to the party.

But what if Arneson had not chosen to go this route as a patch to players' disgruntlement over being one-shotted? What's interesting is that, per Arneson's own FFC, while HPs were implemented to have incremental injury, hit points were still a static resource, while increasing effectiveness instead increased the character's defensive capability...similar to Saga Star Wars defensive class based on level or (perhaps more accurately) very similar to Mutants & Masterminds saving throws versus damage.

Incremental level increase (via XP) with incremental increases in effectiveness (additional HP, saves, bonuses, etc.) were a Gygaxian invention. Arneson fighters only had a couple "levels" (Hero and Superhero) while Wizards had incremental increases in effectiveness a la CHAINMAIL, which simply results in more spells and better chance to cast spells...the "other areas" of progress mentioned in Dave's introduction to FFC.

What if the game had continued to develop as per Arneson's variant rules, rather than along lines that better "fit in the framework of CHAINMAIL"...CHAINMAIL, a game developed and designed by a war-gamer for war-gamers?

I've reflected before that, as a fantasy adventure game, D&D leaves a lot to be desired, that some of its premises don't jibe with much of the fantasy adventure fiction it would seek to emulate. And yet, it has set standards of concepts in role-playing (especially FAG role-playing) that are largely unchallenged, only tweaked (to taste) or redesigned wholesale for extra "realism" (see RuneQuest, Chivalry & Sorcery, etc.) without really creating an alternate paradigm. Or rather, the alternate paradigm has been attempted (taking the game out of the dungeon), without reconstructing the system in a non-war-game fashion. OR the game has been designed to emulate fiction exclusively (with story driven objectives) but in a much more subjective fashion that has a lesser appeal to non-narrativist agenda players.

As said, these are things roiling and boiling in my brain at the moment. I'm just not sure what I want to do with these ideas. I'll keep y'all posted.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Damn, Kam

Unless you're a Seahawks fan, you're probably not going to care or understand this post: Kam Chancellor has decided to continue his hold-out, even into the regular season of the NFL. He will miss Seattle's first game in St. Louis.

A lot of NFL fans outside Seattle have heard of Marshawn Lynch, AKA "Beastmode," the hard-hitting running back who can make a highlight reel out of a 3 yard gain (usually because it should have been a five yard loss). While the Seahawks did not start having real success (again) until they'd picked up their quarterback (Russell Wilson), Lynch has been called the soul of the offense, sometimes even the soul of the team: it's heartbeat. Lynch's example, his willingness to fight and scrap and give his body to the team down to his last breath, brings a toughness to the offense that makes elevates everyone's game, making them all better.

Chancellor is the Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks' defense. He is the "boom" in the Legion of Boom.

He should have been named the MVP of the Super Bowl in 2014 (against the Broncos); he set the tone for the entire game. He's a monster, an animal, a roaming force of destruction in the backfield, the hardest hitting strong safety in the game. He strikes fear in the hearts of other teams' skill players (receivers, tight ends), the same way Lynch strikes fear in the hearts of linebackers and defensive backfields (who don't want to look foolish trying to tackle him). The same way defenses will let Lynch roam free in the second half of games is the way receivers will "tap out" when faced with the prospect of being tackled by Kam. Vernon Davis used to be a pretty good tight end until he was knocked out of the game by the violence of a (legal) Chancellor tackle a couple years ago. He hasn't been the same (at least in games against the Seahawks) since.

I've been going to Seahawks games since the 70s...I was there (at the Kingdome in 1984) when the Seahawks retired the number 12 in honor of their (loud) fans. I've never worn a jersey except the number 12...I never played football for the team; I'm just a "fan." But last year I actually considered purchasing a #31 jersey. He is my absolute favorite player since Dave Krieg. I didn't buy it (I'm a cranky purist), but I gave it serious consideration. And now, Chancellor may have played his last game as a Seahawk.

Because if being fined a quarter-million dollars for missing training camp, and losing a game check of $267,000 (for game one) isn't enough to get his ass back with a team, with his brothers whom he loves and of whom he has been the defensive captain for years...then he must be dead serious about sitting out the whole season on principle. And the Seahawks organization will not, cannot give in to his contract demands.

So I'm bummed.

Back in 2013, I wrote up Blood Bowl stats for the (then team) including Chancellor, and made him the equivalent of Brandon Browner; the stat line was:

Ork Blitzer (add Mighty Blow, Pass Block)

Since that time, Chancellor has distanced himself quite a bit from his former Legion of Boom-mate. Browner's career stats (things for which I'd award SPPs in BB) look like this:

0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles (1 recovered), 2 TDs, 11 interceptions, 1 Pro Bowl selection, 1 Super Bowl (as an active player)

Chancellor's stats look like this:

2 sacks, 6 forced fumbles (3 recovered), 1 TD, 11 interceptions, 3 Pro Bowl selections, 2 All-Pro selections, 2 NFC Defensive Player of the Week, 1 Steve Largeant Award, 2 Super Bowls (as an active player)

His current Blood Bowl stat line should look like this:

Ork Blitzer (add ST +1, Leader, Mighty Blow, Pass Block, Tackle)

I'm very bummed. Dumb as it is, this has thrown off my whole day, and definitely put a damper on the start of football season.

"Feel that sting? That's pride, f***ing with you."

Star Wars Toys

I'm turning something D&D-ish over in my mind and will (hopefully) have up a post about it later today. Oh, and I've got football on the mind (of course), and have a bunch of "play reports" (with photos) from stuff my boy and I were doing over the weekend. But I just wanted to make a quick mention about the new Star Wars film.

About a week ago, I was in a Paraguayan toy store and got to check out the new Star Wars 7 sets for Lego. This was interesting to me because, A) I periodically check up on the SW7 news and hadn't heard anything about these, and B) the sets themselves and the characters that came with 'em. Oh, and C) the fact that they seemed to be actually be real Lego sets.

I don't know much about the Paraguayan toy industry, except what I've observed in various retail outlets. It's not unusual to find the same toys found on U.S. toy shelves except the boxes are crumpled or open and have substantial pieces missing. Toys with (English) blurbs on the package that say "Push button for lights and sounds!" and the button does nothing. Or toys that are obviously just a bunch of random pieces from different toys thrown in a box with a bunch of Korean trade-branding and a rough Spanish translation, combining things like Thomas the Train with Lego superheroes (sans accessories) plastic set pieces...basically remnants from some factory floor in southeast Asia that have been shipped to South America to make an extra buck.

The high end toy stores are usually free of these strange train wreck toys...but you'll pay four to five times the price of what you'd pay in the U.S. (and the price tags are often in dollars), and you still find some strange stuff. Like this Lego-compatible toy company from Poland that makes WW2 sets including sets based on the German army, including panzer tanks with Nazi SS officers. I mean it's jarring to me (and I'm not one easily taken aback) to find Nazi Lego toys. At least the little guys have "mean" facial's just a little weird (especially considering Paraguay's past relationship with the Axis powers and the stories of the country acting as a safe haven for German war criminals). I mean, can you imagine the American Lego company selling a Lego set for a WW2 concentration camp? With little Lego prisoners? Wasn't Auschwitz in Poland?

Well anyway, toys are different down here. For "Invisible Amigos" (the Paraguayan version of "Secret Santa," though done in the Spring for Children's Day...a day that celebrates the country's war with Brazil-Argentina-Uruguay in which 90% of the adult male population was killed off and children were forced to pick up guns), my son received a "Superman" doll that boasted a not-quite-right color scheme and a giant flaming sword. Obviously non-licensed versions of licensed toys and books (Disney, Marvel, Lego, etc.) are par for the course in this town. But these SW7 lego sets were the real deal. Just released a couple weeks earlier than in the USA.

Different rules.

Granted, it was only the new Millennium Falcon and Kylo Ren's "command shuttle" but the packaging reveals quite a bit: like Rey and Finn being the Falcon's new pilots (thus, apparently, taking over the roles of Han and Chewie in the film), or the existence of a new character named Tasu Leech, an apparent leader of the Kanjiklub Gang, and probably played by Yayan Ruhian or Iko Uwais (two Indonesian actors with unspecified roles, per Wikipedia/IMDB).

Anyway, I find this kind of thing interesting. Okay, back to gaming-related stuff (if only so that I spend less time stressing about Kam Chancellor's hold-out).

Reminds me of the old Burger King posters.

[by the way, I am aware that this isn't really "news" as the Lego sets were released in the USA over the weekend. I suppose I could've mentioned it earlier, but it's not like I'm a journalist or something...]