Thursday, March 15, 2018

Mail Room: Genesys

Revised narrative system that powers Fantasy Flight's Star Wars role-playing games? Check.

Expensive dice? Check.

Dice app on my phone that does a faster, cheaper, and better job than the dice? Check.

But I still like the physical dice.

Generic system with a name that sounds like something Hollywood would slap on a movie franchise? Check.

Do we need another narrative storytelling system? Well, Fantasy Flight's game system that powers the Star Wars line was one we liked, and we could see using it for more than just the venerable and slightly culturally over-saturated franchise that we love.

Then again, I am still a fan of the old Expanded Universe, a work of so many different artists and creators that throwing it all away feels like trashing a shared creation that I grew up with and that defined my ideas of the franchise more than today's interpretations of a place that defined so many dreams and set the stage for so many role-playing adventures. It can be said the EU was defined by role-players and I feel was a more inclusive place for speculative fiction creators and game players alike.

So the game system we like gets a revision and a clean break from the licensed world. Was this something we always wanted to see?

Dedicated Fantasy World? Check.

This feels like a good break and evolution for the strong underlying system, and my initial reservations about "what do I do with this" were washed away when I heard that a companion volume, a fantasy world book covering the worlds created in Fantasy Flight's fantasy board games was being published this year called Realms of Terrinoth (covering Descent, Legacy of Dragonholt, Runebound, and Runewars).

Okay, we have a dedicated fantasy world with an admittedly strong and pedigreed line-up of source materials and games that were just begging to be explored and used as a base for storytelling. For me, it always feels better for a generic system to have some sort of 'official' setting for the game as it gives my investment a fall-back position in case the generic appeal wears off. And this feels like a good one since we were a fan of the Descent system and all the miniatures and games we played over the years. Color us interested and excited by this one, and to us, this at least has the same appeal of playing in a Warcraft style universe or even Warmachine.

The only problem is that I don't have this book in my hands yet, so I can't start diving in and planning some adventures. I do have some of the Descent boardgames, so that is a start, but I want to see what they do with a full-sized, dedicated rules-plus-world book with the production quality level that we saw with the Star Wars line.

Strong Fan Support? Check.

The second, and very surprising thing that attracts us to this game is the amount of fan-support this is getting from the Fantasy Flight forums themselves. There is a fifty-page free PDF of talents for character creation, fan-created worldbooks, conversion guides,  character sheets, and other resources. This is a really great sign of community support, and it raises my excitement level for using this system (which we already like and are used to after our Star Wars sessions).

The level of excitement and fan support really is a cool thing to see. I like this because it gives me confidence that there will be enough of a fan base to support this as a dedicated product line going forward, and I hope we will see a lot of nice, high-quality supplements released in the future.

Book Quality? Looks Good.

I have heard some complaints about the art-style in the Genesys book, that the art in some way seemed unfinished and it has this sketchy, sort of drafting-table industrial arts look. I actually like this style for the book, as the line-art plus unfinished nature of the art tells me "you finish the story." You color this in, you tell your adventures, you make it happen, and you craft your world. the book itself feels high-quality, at least equal to the Star Wars hardcovers we have in this line, and I just get that intangible feeling of crafts-work and attention to detail when flipping through this that I like.

Narrative Dice

And this seems like a revised game built on the lessons of the Star Wars line as well, with a lot simplified, streamlined, and cleaned up. Yes, this is a generic game, but it has this "do anything" feel like a "DIY movie game toolkit" that appeals to me for certain genres that doesn't seem like it needs a lot of work to get started.

Yes, the dice are relatively expensive. And yes, you likely need two sets if you are serious here. I can see that as a problem for some players as we played with groups in the past who can't afford to spend that much on dice for a weekly game. The 5-dollar app-store app for both Android and iOS works well, and better than physical dice in some cases (when a lot of dice are being rolled and the app auto-tallies and sorts the result), so that is an option. If I had to play this with strangers or semi-regular groups I would take an old tablet, install the app, and leave that on the table for players to use if they didn't have dice. And no playing games or surfing the web on it either!
Part of why we like the system lies with the dice and how we liked they had this "macro" element to them in regards to storytelling. As a player, you could lay out a big course of action, such as, "I go to the red light district and start asking around if anyone saw the strange man in town with the scar on his eye and red cape." You make a Streetwise roll, and the dice not only determine success, they also direct the game master if anything else - good or bad - happened. Not only that, the possible good or bad related events also have their magnitude of goodness or badness all determined on the same roll.

Do the bad guys show up and try and stop you? Do you get a lucky break and find someone who knows something? Do you find the bad guy himself and get the jump on him? Do you wander into an ambush? Do you find another piece of information relating to something else you are looking into? Are you hot on the trail or following a dead end? Do you attract attention from other bad guys in the area? Does a street thief try to pickpocket you? Do you have a chance to assist a fellow citizen in need from a snatched purse? Does nothing happen and you get no where?

One roll - that first Streetwise roll - determines all that. You have to be able to 'read' the dice, but this is a skill that we found we picked up quickly for all the fun this interpretation delivers. You also have to be able to accept atomic success, where you do not let repeated Streetwise rolls force the issue, as letting players try and try again reduces the impact of each narrative result and practically guarantees success with that sort of 'take a 20' thinking.

You get your roll, this happens, and if you fail try something else. A good referee should be able to keep things from dead-ending, but I feel you have to make macro rolls like this mean something, good or bad, and not let players buffalo their way through a situation by letting them roll and re-roll the same skill until they get the result they desire, all while trying to ignore or minimize negative consequences.

We felt the game works better if you really celebrate the results and make them mean something. The minute you roll the dice repeatedly to get the result you want while ignoring negative consequences or minimizing positive results the game loses its charm. It pays here to aggregate, keep tries to one per skill, and really describe the result as best you can without picking up the dice to 'try again' or 'roll the dice to interpret or clear up the first roll'.

Let the dice stand. Let that course of action matter. If you fail, try something else.

The dice also scale pretty well into the micro, turn-by-turn combat style of roll, although we feel there is still a little bit of a macro feel to combat where you are not going blow-by-blow but more action-scene by action-scene and determining the winners and losers of each scene rather than 'this blow penetrated my right flank, hitting my plate torso guard and puncturing my spleen' sort of combat result.

To be fair, I need to read the game to see if there are any further clarifications to what we found worked well when we were playing Star Wars with this system, as I am sure there are some suggestions and directions in the game that they found and shared in this revision of the rules. But really, when you ask yourself, 'why play this game?' the dice and the wide variety of narrative results they produce should be considered. It is a vastly different experience than a d20 system when done right, and it is a huge part of the appeal of this system for us, more so than a simpler narrative system such as FATE or other generic games.

Though FATE has some cool dice too, especially the metal ones we collected.

More Soon...

This looks like a fun game, and I am looking forward to diving in and reading this from cover to cover. I like the system, my players have bought into this with Star Wars, and the idea of using the same narrative dice system for other games and worlds with that same action-movie vibe really has me excited. I was surprised by this, and my expectations were this was another game I would read for fun and eventually shelve, but my mind now is racing with possibilities and all of the adventures we could have and stories we could tell with this one.

That keeps this one on my table and the cover calling us to crack it open and find a world to explore. When the dedicated fantasy world comes out this year, hopefully soon, that will be a whole new world to explore that we are sort-of familiar with but entirely unprepared for - and that is an exciting thing as well. Overall, I am impressed with this one and very pleasantly surprised by both the quality and possibilities of this, along with how well the fans of this game stepped up to support it. Nicely done, and a game I am looking forward to play.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pulp Cthulhu

First off, I wish this was a standalone book with all the rules you need to play a 1930's pulp adventure game. You need the main rulebook Keeper's Guide to play. If that was so, this would be my standalone book go-to game for 1930's action and adventure. You could get alone with the quick-start rules and this book, but the full rulebook is really needed here. That is my only issue with the book.

Otherwise, this is darn-near close to a perfect game covering the era: radio-show dramas, gangster action, and all sorts of cool retro 1930's crime-fighting adventure. This is the only game that I feel comes close to me for replacing the classic and now out-of-print TSR Gangbusters game, just because of the wealth here of flavor, two-fisted action, and period specific information. The strength of supporting material here makes this a lot easier to play than the latter game.

As Time Passes...

I find historical games get harder to play, as interest wanes and the source era becomes less familiar to the world. There will always be fans of the genre and old-time movies, but I get this feeling these games are a harder sell to players these days. The Cthulhu appeal is strong and drives player interest, but I find gangsters and crime fighters are less so, and without Cthulhu you really need a group of fans of the era to maintain interest in a longer-running game.

So part of the strength of the game is the supporting material, especially on what it was like to live in this world. No cell phones, no computers, no jets, no Internet - so how do things work? What do people wear? What cars do they drive? With Gangbusters, it felt like the players of that time were more familiar with the era with late-night movies and that whole 1930's gangster vibe still a part of popular culture. that game didn't need as much supporting information and you could get by with a loose rule set and a lot of help from players who bring information and excitement to the table.

Nearly 40 years later from that game's release (and approaching 100 years from the original era), we are a lot further from that point in time and familiarity with this time. I feel for a game to work in this point in history, you need a lot of help, articles, pictures, drawings, and getting people started on becoming a fan of the era. The game should serve as an entry point for players who want to explore the era through movies, music, and radio shows and this book does an incredible job of doing that. This is more than just player training, this is seeding the interest for future fans in this time and genre.

A Longer Life Expectancy!

Compared to characters in the basic 7th Edition rules, Pulp Cthulhu heroes can take a lot more punishment, have much better skills, and can dish out a lot more damage. Part of me likes the less experienced and less capable heroes, but I can see the 'superhero' appeal of a two-fisted masked crime-fighter than can out punch a Shoggoth. Remember, the first issue of the original Batman comic came out in 1939, so this sort of period-style costume crime fighting came from The Shadow, Green Hornet, and all sorts of other cool radio shows, serial films, and other entertainment from the day. Not to say you need to be a masked crime fighter, you could be a Sam Spade style PI equally bad-ass and pulpy.

This is, in a way, a superhero game at heart with all the special rules in character design, using luck, and other game systems that give a player greater agency over the game world and events that happen during the game. That word agency is important, since a lot of hard-core games have this 'you fail, you die' sort of feeling with no way for players to spend resources to better the odds or change outcomes after the fact. This "mod" of the base game does that very nicely here, and for players frustrated their base game characters "go insane and die" all the time this feels like a breath of fresh air. Players can now twist fate and design characters with special talents and game-changing abilities not present in the base game, and this gives players more control over the game world and their player's fates.

Overall, while making things slightly more complex, it makes the game more accessible for an audience expecting more two-fisted heroism and less soul-crushing horror. A 7th Edition compatible Hero Lab module for this book is sorely needed and I hope they come out with a module or update soon. This is something I would pay for to have support for this expansion.

The Futuristic World of the 1930s!

Where I felt the 1920's was closer to fantasy, the 1930's feels a lot closer to the modern day for me in both attitude and technology. You get police car two way radios, car radios, talkie films, electric shavers, frozen food, stereo records, and a lot more of the early versions of the familiar things that make life easy today. With mad science inventions you could get away with modern inventions, such as Dick Tracy's wristwatch radio as a cell phone, primitive television as an 'electric eye machine', the Internet as the 'analog electric brain network' which transmits data via punchcards, disintegration rays, or any other fun and crazy conversion of a modern device to 1930's tech. A lot of what we have today can be recreated through mad science (and there is much fun to be had with making it not work the way we are used to).

If I ran this campaign, you can be sure Moon Men, Flash Gordon, or any sorts of other 'from beyond the world' space aliens from Mars or beyond would show up to mix it up with gangsters, gun molls, two-fisted archaeologists, mad scientists, and masked crime fighters of the day. I know space aliens are closer to a 1950's game, but I love the old sci-fi serials of the 1930's so much that while the 1950's thin-man 'gray aliens' are out, green-skinned long-mustached Mars Men human-like actors hamming it up as 'Mentok the Powerful' may be in. Ditto for the 1950's 'matinee monsters' like the Blob, Create from the Black Lagoon, giant ants, killer bats, and other Cold War craziness - those are out and strictly the realm of a 1950's game. Anything from the 1930's radio serials or pulp books of the era is fair game.

It sounds fun and crazy to have Chtulhu monsters on Mars, The Shadow, Sam Spade, Al Capone, mad science, and that would be the type of game I would love to run with this expansion.

Adventures and More!

The book ends with a generous collection of adventures with maps, locations, art, and characters. The characters are richly detailed and pulpy and would make a great collection of NPCs for any game set in this era. Overall, I liked this book a lot and it adds a really fresh and cool new era to play in, and most importantly an entirely new feeling and power level to the game. the game is strong, and even strong enough to support non-Cthulhu play, and one I know we will be having fun with for quite a while. the game pays for the extra complexity in rules mods and character design with the 7th Edition's simplifications, and it hits the right balance of crunchiness yet retaining simple core mechanics with us. I will put this one in our 'happy purchases' column and a book that I know will be out on a shelf within easy reach for years to come.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Pathfinder and Character Design

We played a small one-off adventure with Pathfinder last weekend, and we used Hero Lab to generate a quick party of 13th level adventurers. It felt good, the system ran well, and what struck us the most about the experience was how well building characters worked and the wide variety of options you have in the system (when you have most of the books plus third-party materials).

The number one rule was - do not min max for one ability or raw damage. We said, have fun and design characters with a path through life and a story to go along with that, maybe starting out a fighter, then dipping into bard, whatever. Intentionally design characters who are not optimized but feel like they are real, with maybe not the best choices in life but we will see how this all comes out in the adventure.

It worked beautifully. One of the best tools about Pathfinder, especially compared to other fantasy systems, is how tight and functional the CR system is for building encounters. Most of the time (in my experience), it creates an encounter that works and plays well, and it allows me to adjust difficulty for a party of non-optimized characters like the ones we played with and everything worked fine. The challenge level was perfect, fights were exciting, and once we threw out the concept of playing for "max damage" we all relaxed a little and had a lot of fun.

Another thing about playing with non-optimized characters was the party as a whole was more capable with skills and different abilities. We had one player take four levels of the NPC class "expert" and say his character started out a blacksmith for half his life and then started adventuring later. It worked, the skills worked out in his favor, and he had a good time. Yes, a lot of modules for 13th level heroes are optimized for average to perfect characters, but the CR system let me adjust things on the fly and modify encounters so our strange and quirky band of kit-bashed heroes could shine and save the day.

With one look at his sheet I could say, "Your character may be level 13, but he is really closer to level 9 in power, but don't worry because you have a lot of cool skills and other abilities that will come in handy. I will adjust the module accordingly."

If I was wrong and the encounter was too easy or hard, no problem, I adjust the next encounter up or down a little and we keep playing. Once you understand and can work the CR system on the fly it is a powerful tool not only for balance, but also for adjusting encounters for remaining playing time. If we are running low on time I may want to lighten up the last few encounters to speed things up and get to where I want to leave off, that sort of thing.

Everyone had a useful skill for many of the situations, which shifted the play from more combat oriented goals to role-playing ones, which was fun. When players have a deeper and better equipped toolbox of skills and abilities they tend to get very creative when solving problems. We saw a lot more trickery, role-playing, social interaction, and even crafting during play than we normally do raw combats and it was refreshing.

Another benefit about owning a lot of the third-party books and modules for Hero Lab are the flexibility it gives you in designing characters. Some of the base choices for many of the classes leave a lot to be desired, and stick to the same old-spells and powers we have grown accustomed to. With a lot of third-party content, you can design a paladin who feels like they walked straight out of World of Warcraft or any other MMO, and a player can have that instant familiarity and excitement that they will have their smite evil spells, consecrate-like abilities, and blessings ready to go. They may not be able to use them every fight and have to save them for critical moments, but that level of customization and creativity in character design is there and it really was a crowd pleaser for our group.

Overall, a cool experience and one I wanted to share.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fantasy RPGs and Loot

Our group had a discussion about itemization in fantasy RPGs, you know, your +2 magic sword, +1 chain mail, and +3 ring of protection sort of discussion. What game does the traditional "quest for loot" style of game the best? For this discussion we considered four games:
  • D&D 5
  • Pathfinder
  • 13th Age
  • D&D 4

Why is it Important?

Because...loot! There were some aspects of 13th Age and loot that started this discussion off, but it turned out to be a very interesting comparison between the games that we hadn't thought of. We do have some players with characters in our groups where loot and the acquisition of treasure is a very important thing, so much that systems with great loot rules and selections are a deciding factor in playing the game. Yes, I know, story matters, but I don't feel that it matters so much that it means the loot system needs to be radically changed or thrown out.

That said, this is admittedly a one-sided comparison of the games, and there are a lot more factors to take into account when determining what game is right for your group. Ease of play, ease of refereeing, story support, available adventures, published content, world support and a lot factors should go into that decision. But to just look at loot alone reveals some of the design goals behind the game, and this in turn gets at some of the inner workings of these games that is fun to study.

D&D 4 - MMO Loot

When we played D&D 4 the books were filled with page after page of the same item but with different stats. There were these pages-long loot sections with 'cards' of magic items with +1 to +6 versions of them going all the way from 1st level to 30th level. You had to get the 'best' version for your level, since the system felt like it was designed around everyone having level-appropriate gear.

We had encounters with a party that had low-level gear versus high-level monsters, and you could tell people missed a lot more often resistances rolls were tough to make, the monsters made their saves, and the entire encounter drug on forever and nobody had a good time. It felt like one of those 5 minute fights in an MMO where you spend forever killing a monster, only this was a fight 5 hours long and played on a tabletop.

Yes, D&D 4 had a lot of fun loot, but it was all 'you need to have it' and so evenly striated that none of it felt special to us. the game's loot system tired us out as much as sorting through 55 pages of green magic items in World of Warcraft's auction house tired us out. You had to have it to keep up, so we were left with this mess of a campaign where no magic item felt special and the party sorted through dozens of similar items looking for that next '+1 higher' item to get their character on par with the monsters again.

By he end of the game's life, the loot suggestions for the DM started to get kinda strange for us. Like having the players come up with a 'wishlist' of gear for the referee to hand out during the next few adventures. Sort of like an wishlist, but this one was for the gods (we guessed) and it felt like it was intended to end-run around random generation and avoiding the 'but his item breaks my character build' sort of random magic item handout policy.

And that was the last straw for us with that game. When character power depends that much on specific items for specific, this MMO feels broken and I am back to playing World of Warcraft.

13th Age - Story Loot

13th Age is almost an anti-loot game compared to 4th Edition D&D. The magic items are like D&D 4's, with a +1 to +3 range this time, and with specific functions based on slot, bracers do one thing while necklaces do another. They do have a cool system where magic item abilities activate on specific die rolls, even or odd results, and lots of cool mechanical interlocking rules - so there is some cool roll playing mechanics in here.

You can't buy magic items, which is a plus, but I find the lack of treasure types, monster treasures, suggestions, or tables of random loot to feel a bit lacking in my expectations for a fantasy game. The adventures I read seem also to be lacking in loot rewards so I come away with the impression that this game is more about story than it is grabbing a satisfying handful of gold coins and shoving it in your pocket. Adding to that is how magic items are handed out, as story rewards or as gifts from higher powers based on the system of faction relations built into the game.

I like loot as incentive in fantasy games, and this feels more story-like than loot driven.

If I had a group completely sick of the loot systems in D&D type games I would definitely go with 13th Age with them, since this game pushes loot to the sideline and focuses more on story and character instead of shiny objects and item power.

To be honest, 13th Age feels like a next-generation D&D 4 loot system with the wishlist feature removed but that referee-supplied loot mechanic still in place with the icon system and rewards. It doesn't feel MMO-ish anymore, but it does feel more like FATE for us, at least in story supplied loot as incentive or reward for story completion.

D&D 5 - Balanced Loot

D&D 5 is a highly balanced game with a lot of consideration to 'bounded accuracy' and other game design concepts. Magic items go from +1 to +3 and there are limits, such as limiting the number of magic items that can provide a benefit to three, as per the attunement rules.

It feels closer to the old-school versions of D&D in regards to magic items, and the game has a nice default selection which reminds me of the old AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

If ever there were a baseline game for magic item diversity and population, D&D 5 would be it. They worked hard to get rid of balance issues while still making magic items feel special, and the game has full support for monster treasure, hoards, upgrading equipment, and giving suggestions on what monster typically has what treasure. Most everything is balanced, so as a referee you can hand out a +1 whatever and still be reasonably sure the next game things won't be thrown out of whack too much.

I hear from forum posts that D&D 5's end game balance feels more single-character power oriented, where a one-on-one fight between a high-level character and a single high-level monster tends to go more the character's way. They say the end-game encounters in the game feel like they need to be groups of high-level monsters working together versus a single party and not a single-party against one creature. I need to do more study here (and some playtime to decide for myself) but from what I read, character power at the high-end of D&D 5 is very high on a one-on-one fight between a comparably leveled character and creature.

Pathfinder - Anything Goes Loot

Let's throw balance out the window (given a monty haul referee) and play Pathfinder. You can equip yourself into something like a minor god with some of this loot, and there are no rules on how much you can wear and equip - other than the highest bonus in a category is the one that applies, a +2 bow firing +1 arrows is still a +2 to-hit and damage bonus. Wearing a belt that gives +1 STR and a ring that give +3 STR is still only +3 STR. There are some rules in regards to effective caster level and item size that are worth following as well, which makes rings and wands less powerful than giant tomes or staves.

But if you are into stacking layers of loot and blowing balance out of the water, then Pathfinder is your game. A good game master is needed to keep things from getting out of control, but that insanely high level of crazy character power is there and attainable. Which makes gathering lot all that much more fun. Yes, part of the fun of the game in 3.5 D&D to Pathfinder is breaking it.

It is worth repeating, the referee is the one to blame if things get out of control, and I found they can go more crazy in Pathfinder than in other fantasy games. "But it was in the module," is not an excuse if a high-powered item ruins your campaign. I have had this happen, and the player in question becomes so attached to that item of power it gets tough to take it away. But rule #1 in all my games is easy come, easy go - all this stuff is paid for and you can lose anything at any time.

In other regards, Pathfinder is a lot like D&D 5 in selection, monster guidance, item tables, and loot rules. Pathfinder has been out a lot longer, so the selection with all of the books in the library is immense, so there is that to consider as well. There is almost too much loot at times, and I find myself yearning for the old-school games with the pared-down magic item lists.

In Pathfinder, there are high-level single-monsters that are designed to take on a party, so instead of D&D 5's more typical many-on-may fights you get Pathfinder many-on-one fights. Character power in Pathfinder trends to be more party and CR based, and at least I found as a referee fights are easier to balance and manage in Pathfinder than D&D 5. The traditional CR system carried over from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder really helps and is still a strong system today compared to other games.

Another article is needed to explore Pathfinder vs. D&D 5 balancing, but it does play into magic items in regards to ultimate character power, so it is worth mentioning end-game balance.

In Summary

Play what you love. They are all different, but again there is this expectations thing with what the game supports versus a view of the game that may be off a little. Every game does something different, and they do it very well, so knowing what you like and what each game provides is a key to finding one that you and your group enjoy.

I admit, my views of Pathfinder before I did this thinking were down in the dumps a little bit, and I had my doubts on if we would play another long-running campaign with the game. Now I realize the power gaming potential here, I can better run this game with players who like a lot of loot and hand our rewards to match their expectations. this is not to say you can't have a high-powered loot game in any of the others, just that both the danger to unbalance the game and to meet player's expectations works for me a little better in Pathfinder than some of the other games on my shelf.

But if I can get a D&D 5 game running as well I would jump at the chance, truth be told. It comes down to excitement level with me and my groups, and what they would like to play. Getting myself excited and ready is the other half, and I suppose I am lucky to have a lot of games to choose from and players who like a diverse group of games. I could do a loot-based game just as well in D&D 5, and really the trade offs are personal preference and expected power level. If players are expecting to break the game (and have it broken over their heads in return with monster magic use), I will go with Pathfinder. For a more traditional experience I suspect I would go with D&D 5.

Again, play what you love and be happy. But knowing how these games works helps you understand them a little better, and also helps you find the right one to match your group's expectations. And it bears saying your experiences with these games may be different than ours, because these games can be played many many ways.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Getting 13th Age Started

13th Age.

We loved the level 1-10 play of D&D 4th Edition, but this is another one of those games for us that I just can't get off the ground with my group. To be fair, we have had some interest in D&D 5 but that is waning since some of my central players didn't find what they wanted in some of the classes and options. I still have a chance for a D&D 5 game if I can muster some excitement for the rules, but finding something beyond the classic Faerun, Greyhawk, etc, settings revamped just does not feel like it is happening for me.

So 13th Age for me is in a "sit on the bookshelf and read" sort of place, and I would love to dive in. Why this and not an old standby like Pathfinder or even the mildly warm (to my group, not speaking for the game overall because I know a lot of people are super into it) D&D 5?

I would like a game that does a more heroic and story based fantasy experience, honestly, and I would love to revamp our old D&D 4 campaign to come back from the dead and live again in a rules system where the classes and the powers are closer to what our group loved about the old 4th Edition D&D rules, rather than retcon and retool for a more traditional D&D 5 type of experience.

I know, if you have some interest in D&D 5, why not push it and start something? Well, really, honestly, D&D 5 is more of a traditional game, and the premise of our D&D 4 game was that the old ways (3.5 and earlier) were dead and that "equal power" sort of hero championed in D&D 4 was "how things worked" in this new plane of existence. It was a unique, special, and cool sort of place that was more larger than life and epic battled than older versions of the game felt, at least to us. That is, before the imbalances of D&D 4 soured us to the whole game in the later levels and the "turn denial" mechanic reared its ugly head as the path to victory.

So rolling back to a more traditional version of a fantasy game - be it Pathfinder or D&D 5 - is a non starter for that campaign.

13th Age, but the same set of designers and designed along those same heroic story lineages, seems like a great fit for another go-around in that world - at least just for me. It is simple, story based, the classes are similar, the world is one that would fit in that campaign, and the mechanics seem like an evolution of 4th Edition into a strange and exciting direction I have not seen in other fantasy games.

But without player interest there shall be no return to this world. It sucks because there are stories I know I can tell with this better than other games in the genre.

It is one of those things unique to out hobby, you can have a game sit on the shelf for ages until someone finds a spark and it ignites in your group. I am thankful we have the Call of Cthulhu game going as that is getting players around the table these days - if not for just the holidays where people are willing to try new things and hang out in a festive spirit. People expect to have fun this time of year, and it is cool this has taken off and I can referee it in that spirit.

We shall see, I guess. I expect either 5th Edition D&D or 13th Age will take our fantasy game crown at our gaming table in the near future, and that is a big "if" the stars align and that spark of inspiration can be found.

Until then, the Elder horrors lurk in the shadows and we are all in with Chaosium's horror game.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

Meet our new favorite horror game. So our group was playing the older 5th edition of this game just as a one-off and we rediscovered the magic to the Call of Cthulhu "BRP" system and decided to check out the newest, 7th edition of the rules system.

If you are a fan of D&D 5 and how they simplified the game's numerical complexity, I feel you will appreciate this system immensely. Chaosium took a elder weed-whacker to the tangle of interlocked d100 rules and charts of previous editions and presented a version that is really pick-up-and-play and streamlined. While part of me misses some of the older complexities, I can say my group appreciated how straightforward everything is in the 7th edition of the game.

A note, we skipped 6th Edition, so our experience is going from 5th to 7th Edition. I know little about about the 6th Edition, except that they did a lot of great work for it and it has a lot of fans as well. Anything Chaosium puts out is great so you can't really go wrong no matter what version you play.

d100 with No Charts?

And they stuck with d100 in this game, which sticks with that easy to understand "what is my chance to do this" sort of ease of play a d100 roll-under system gives us. 80% is good, 40% is not so, and 20% kinda sucks. Easy. They also introduced a bonus-die and penalty-die system that eliminates huge tables of percentile modifiers in one fell swoop and was really appreciated by my group. It works a lot like the D&D 5 advantage/disadvantage die system but instead of rolling 2d20, you roll two of the "tens" d00 dice on your skill roll and use the lower of the two if "advantage" or the higher of the two if "disadvantage." It is simple and it works and my players love it.

For example, you take an easy shot. Roll two tens dice and one ones die. The results are 20, 50, and 6. The roll is a 26 since you are taking the lower tens dice for a "bonus die" roll.

The system expands to actually using more than one bonus or penalty die as well, so you could get a situation where you are rolling two penalty dice and taking the highest. Bonus and penalty dice also cancel each other our one for one, so there is some play with this system where you can make things harder or negate difficulty with referee rulings or situational modifiers. So in a way, the system advances the advantage and disadvantage mechanic and tosses away the long lists of modifier charts we disliked about d100 games. Well done.

Simplified Character Design

While I love my odd, quirky 3d6 low IQ accountant characters that the older systems created, the score allocation design system for the 7th edition won us over quickly. I am a real fan of character design systems where I can give everyone a character sheet and then do an "all at once" design session by announcing the "next thing to do." We made this a "group participation game" and it went wonderfully. For us, it went like this:

"Look at your ability scores and put an 80% in your character's best score."

"Now, put a 70% in your character's second best...."

And so on down to the worst ability scores. And this was the same way for skills. Pick an "in name only" occupation, and then pick eight skills that define that job. Put an 80% in your character's best skill and so on down the line. Same for the four +20% hobby skills you get. Finally, we all calculated secondary statistics together as a group. I go through each person and ask them, as a member of occupation X, what equipment would you have on hand? Write that down. Now everyone come up with a backstory for your character and then share that with the group.

And eight characters were done in about 15 minutes, as a group, as a part of the game, and we were ready to go on the first night of play. I can't say how beautiful this type of character generation is for us, having wasted one group's entire first 4-hour session on character creation back in D&D 4. In that game we got to start playing the next week, and that is a huge waste of time and energy for a group that large. The game also plays very well from off the character sheet alone, which is a huge plus for us.

When you lose your investigator to the gaping maw of some elder god, a botched skill roll jumping over a pit of spikes, or the padded rooms of the Arkham Asylum, you will appreciate simplified character design greatly. This is a horror game and characters should drop like flies, and the horror shouldn't come from the time spent wading through the character design system.

Get the Quick Start Rules!

Yes, this is another book to buy (for eight bucks), or you could download this (for free) and print it out, but make sure you have a copy of this on hand! You can play the entire game (for the most part) with this book alone, and the game's rules are condensed down into the first 14 pages of this book - including character creation, skill checks, sanity, combat, dicing, and most every rules question a new player would have. I would print these first 14 pages out to hand out as a rules-primer to every new player, and they are that useful.

I reference the quick start rules and the handy reference booklet included with the referee's screen (or the screen itself), and I rarely have to open the main rulebook. Yes, I know, this is another purchase, but one I felt was well worth it in that I could run the game like a professional keeper and not have to be constantly flipping through the rulebook like a noob while my players waited. It saved me a lot of time and made me look smart and well-versed in the rules on my first night refereeing, so I am calling this purchase as a good call for me.

With eight players you get a lot of questions! Each one of those eats up time, either in me or them checking the rule book, me looking up a rule or a chart, or them wanting to know something about the rules. If everyone has a copy of the free quick start rules that answers half of their questions. If I can not open the book and either check my copy of quick start rules or the charts or booklet that came with the referee's screen that covers most of the other questions.

Do you have players in any game that use magic and spells? That is a time and cost investment, but more on the referee's side because the spells are supposed to be more on the "secrets of the game" side rather than a D&D style laundry list of character options. No spells are included in the Investigator's Handbook either, so that is another difference between this and more traditional style fantasy games.

Optional: The Investigator's Handbook

There is an optional player-focused book you can buy that contains all of the player-focused information from the main rulebook. You do not need this to play, and the quick start rules are really all you need here for player reference.

If you have players who wonder where their cell phones are in a 1920's universe, or their eyes are somehow allergic to old black and white films, this may be a good book to get to explain things. There's no Internet and there is no Google, all phones are landlines, maps are large folded pieces of paper, and even things like radios are not in cars until after the period in 1930.

Two-way radios in police cars? Not until 1933. Walkie talkies? About 1937. Telephones, telegraphs, and teletypes (telephone connected typewriters) were about it, and the latter were really only in use with larger businesses, railroads, and telegraph companies. You didn't really have one of these in your corner office. Even direct dial long distance wasn't a thing until the 1950's, so you had to go through a living, breathing operator to make a connection.

No Internet. No Interstate highways. No television. No recorded radio programs (other than playing a record to a microphone and broadcasting that), and most all radio programs were done "live" in a studio. Talking films weren't until the end of the 1920's with the Jazz Singer, and before that it was mostly playing a silent film while a phonograph record (or live music) was played alongside. Vinyl records weren't until the 1930's, so the older (and more fragile) shellac style records were about all that were in use.

Oh, and be prepared to hit the library, newspaper archives, and public (and private) records a lot. A lot a lot. If one of the characters plays a researcher or secretary type all the better, and this person will be seen as the 'star' of the group. Kind of like a healer in an MMO, and someone who makes the group a whole lot more efficient and fun. Just handle a lot of the boring library work as off-board activities and get that player back into the action quickly and you will be great.

Or better yet, break everyone in the group up into smaller task-based groups while the researchers do their thing and get a lot done in a little time. Mr. Fix It, fix the car. Sneaky gal, follow the stranger in town around. Doctor guy, heal up Mr. Muscles. You two go to town hall and check real estate records and me and her will hit the library and check birth and death notices. Now...break!

Part of being a great referee in this game is keeping everybody busy with important tasks...before the terror of the horrible creature ruins everyone's well-laid plans. Then, while they are questioning their sanity? Give them more things to do. Trust me, they will be coming up with their own 'things to do' pretty quickly to figure out the mystery (or just figure out how to survive), and they will be happily coming up with all sots of crazy plans and ideas.

The 1920's is a Fantasy World

The 1920's is more closer to a "fantasy world" than it is the modern day in many regards, which is what makes it so fun. Once you know a couple ground rules like this, and get some of the style of movies during the time, you are all set. Although, the 1920's still had trains, cars, guns, ships, and early planes - so a lot of what makes modern games fun is still here. A lot of what makes modern life convenient is not here, and this adds an element of fun that puts us closer to fantasy games. Although some fantasy games take the easy way out and replicate cell-phones and long-distance travel with common magic spells and we are back to square one.

You will get a special thrill when you figure out how to do something without a computer or cell phone and just crafty and smart use of your character's skills and the limited resources available. This makes skills important, and puts a lot of heroic emphasis on figuring out how to do (and know) the impossible.

That said, the Investigator's Handbook is a great summary of what it was to live in these times and recommended for those who may only be casually knowledgeable of the times. Bet yes, treat this as a fantasy world more than a modern one and you will start to discover the charm of these times.

Face to face interactions matter. Trust matters. Getting physical access to places you shouldn't be is a challenge. Being sneaky matters. Being smart matters. Following the clues is a key to success. Sometimes you have to lie to people or rough a few up. Figuring things out early is the path to victory. Being strong in mind and body helps mitigate threats. Taking risks can lead to big rewards. You can't rely on magic or technology all the time. Great threats to the world exist and are out there.

These are all classic almost Tolkien-esque fantasy ideals, and they apply to the world of the 1920's in a strong sense as well.

You Can Play Modern Too!

Yes, this version out of the book supports playing in the modern era, and all you need are different character sheets. We prefer the 1920's setting though, just because the Elder Gods don't have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. I kid, but you know...that gives me an idea.

On that note, if we did play in the modern era? Give supernatural creatures the ability to disrupt technology, mess with video feeds, make electronic devices go haywire, stop cars, turn off a building's power (or flicker all the lights at once), cut off Internet access, crash cell phones, put images on digital cameras, play strange chanting and screeching noises on the radio, put evil and disturbing images on television, and generally take away all the wonders of the modern world when the big nasty gets close.

I'd be extra mean and let the big bad ones 'see' though web and cell phone cameras and listen in through microphones. We really don't know how that 'other world' works, now do we? They don't play by our rules, and they can 'get at' us through the things we trust. If maybe only, they can access technology through our minds without us knowing how they do it....

That? That is true fear in today's world. That in which you rely and trust can be messed with, used against you, and easily taken away. Now, you can go insane, but you will have to rely on your raw survival skills to live through the night. Go nuts.

Cons? Division by Two and Five

I think the only downside to this edition is there is a lot of work filling in half and fifth boxes on the character sheet. You need these for success levels, but they are a bit of a fun-tax on character creation needed to get the d100 system working smoothly and avoiding the dreaded math during play. If you do all the "division by two" ones first and then the "divide by five" ones all together, you will speed this up, but still it left some players with a sense of heavy math-ness after the end of character generation.

The half and fifth numbers were used though during play, frequently, so this is a little bit of early pain for a lot of later speed of play gains, so we all felt it was worth the effort at the beginning to do early.

Some of us did cheat a little and fill half and fifth values in skills as we used them. It didn't break anything, and once you fill them out that is the end of calculations. This is a small price to get a d100 system working with varying success levels, but it is worth noting.

Earlier Editions? Still Great.

You don't need the 7th Edition to play, and we could have happily played with the 5th Edition - no problems. Though I feel the newest edition has simplifications that a lot of players coming from D&D will like, and some mechanics that are a bit more familiar. That 'ease of use' and familiarity goes a long way from making a game something interesting to something I am really excited to play. It is like using an older cell-phone, you can still get things done, but the newer models are so simple and familiar they create that instant desire to pick them up and play. Simplification is the ease of access, and it also gets a lot of cruft and chart work out of the way so players can look at their sheets, listen to the referee, and figure out what they want to do next.

As D&D 5 has proved, you can create a lot of interest in simplifying things down to their core and essential elements. That is the Seventh Edition to us, still the core rules and play of the original game, with a lot of the older baggage removed and the great and classic experience preserved.


A great edition, just like all the others, but targeted towards simplification and streamlining for today's players and expectations. This still sticks with the classic d100 system, and eliminates cumbersome modifier charts so common to d100 games. A very approachable, modern, and easy to use horror game with a classic and iconic setting.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Gnomish Copper Dice By Norse Foundry

So I spent a little money and got myself the Official Fate & Fudge Systems Gnomish Copper Dice By Norse Foundry – Pack of 4 Officially Licensed Dice Set. Normally, I am a little hesitant on spending $20 on a set of dice, and at $5 per die they are expensive. Then again, FATE dice in general are a tad pricey. But I am glad I did.

Wow. These are seriously cool. The weight in my hand is very satisfying, and just rolling these is a cool and momentous event. My kitchen table will disagree, and I am using a pad or plastic tray to roll these on because they may leave tiny dents in most types of soft wood.

My Best Four Dice

Considering you only need four dice to play the game, ever, why not make these your best? This is not like polyhedral dice, where games eventually force you to roll 6d8 for some damage roll and all of a sudden you (and your players) are toting around buckets of dice. I am a fan of games with 'dice conservation' and the designers are aware of how many dice are being rolled and what types, and try to reduce and simplify dicing to manageable levels.

I still will use my plastic dice for players, and also myself when I don't have a padded surface to roll these on. They roll well on a cushion because of their weight, and I find myself rolling them on my couch or even a blanket and having them lie flat on something that soft.

Heavy Heavy

Really, what is the point of owning dice so heavy they could be used as metal sling pellets and possibly survive a nuclear war? I think that answers your questions.

But seriously, don't use these as weapons - and you are buying these for two reasons: novelty and bragging rights. Novelty, yes, you don't really need these but you want them - like you want an expensive smartphone. These still are much cheaper than a smartphone, and you are getting something that will last for probably a couple hundred years of use. I don't know yet, so I will let you know.

Bragging rights are important. At a gaming table, as a referee, you sometimes need to establish dominance over a group of players, and having these goes a long way to setting the 'referee means business' tone. Cheap dice I feel cheapen the game, in a way (especially if they are worn out and falling apart). This is way subjective and doesn't apply to everyone, but in social setting such as conventions it is super cool to show off.

And don't feel that if you can't afford these you can't have fun with FATE. They are silly, cool, and fun novelty items that add to the experience in a social context rather than a gaming one. You talk about them. Other players like to look at them. They add a fun weight to roll and heighten the drama. You talk about why you like them and their drawbacks. They still just are "dice" but they invite a lot of discussion (pro and con) and they are a bit of a status symbol (positive or negative) in the game's universe of thought.

It is not a "I am better than you" sort of status symbol, to me it is a "I love the game and the community, so let's laugh at them or think they are cool" thing for me. I still love and use my plastic dice, they are very cool (and more useful in many situations). Everything has its place.

Fidget Dice? Yes! And No! But Yes!

I find the metal dice get me thinking about the game more, and they are an investment in my enjoyment of the game as a mental exercise. They are almost like those metal stress balls you roll around in your hand to meditate and relax. Here, they are the same thing - for me at least - but with the added benefit of being able to make rolls and think about the game while I chill out.

I think that is why I like them so much. They are both a fidget type item, and then also useful for my hobby and mental free time. What better relaxation device than one that you could use to think about one of your favorite games?


My bother instantly wanted a set for himself, so there is a hidden cost here in jealousy. Yours is coming, dude. Lucky they come a a couple different colors and styles so you can take your pick when buying them for someone else. If everybody used these at the table? Wow. I would consider going back to plastic dice.

Just for my table's sake.

Metal Dice

I like metal dice as novelty items. They are not as practical to play with as plastic dice, but I find they are this sort of thing I use for relaxation time, reflection, and an investment into a game I like. Because I bought them, I will play the game more, because I made the investment. It is like that with any game I play, I have my dice I play one game with and don't use them for any other game.

And you only need to buy four.


You only need to buy four, and then everyone else who sees them does.