Saturday, April 21, 2018

Character Design and Balance

Going back to Labyrinth Lord and it's simpler characters made me think about the supposed advancements in character design from D&D 3.0 and forward. This also includes  non D&D systems with detailed character design systems where the variance in character power (the min-max factor) varies widely based on design choices. Let's do some charts!
The above reflects B/X systems, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, and most other pre D&D 3.0 designs. As your character goes up in levels, their power goes up on a predictable, fixed rate. A 5th level fighter is pretty similar in powers and fighting ability as most every other 5th level fighter in a B/X style system, given average hit point rolls (that and gear determine character power). As a result, the balance curve is tighter.

Note that this chart only compares characters of the same class, the differences in balance between classes, such as mage and fighter, is still wildly different and follows D&D's asymmetrical system of balancing the glass cannon spellcasters versus the front-line meat shield martial classes. So we are comparing fighters to fighters, and mages to mages here. Let's turn the clock forward to newer games and look at systems with a wider variety of character design choices:

The next chart is character design as we expect systems with a lot of character customization. You can pick feats to enhance your combat power, you can make all sorts of other tweaks and design decisions to favor a weapon or power, and there is a wide latitude in choices of character design. This chart also reflects games with a wide difference in choices where a great character design can blow out the game's difficulty curve. This is also what we by default expect as well - since we want our choices to matter, and we expect good choices to be rewarded well.

The yellow area reflects abilities, feats, class powers, and other abilities outside of the normal hit points, to-hit, and spells from B/X. Pathfinder and the D&D games 3.0 and up have this "extra added" group of abilities normally found in character creation and  bonus class abilities (like a Pathfinder mage's force missiles or D&D 5's infinite-use cantrips). In short, the yellow area covers all the possible customization and extra powers that differ from B/X characters.

Above the red line are optimal designs, while below it are less-optimal - and this definition can vary depending on the referee and how the group plays. If you play all combat, then good designs will focus on combat. If you play mostly social, then good designs will be social-focused. Balanced social/combat games will see balanced social/combat character designs push above the line.

There is also a baseline difficulty adjustment that should be mentioned as well, since a B/X level one character is the weakest, a D&D 3.5 level one is a little stronger, and so on up to Pathfinder - at least among the fantasy game versions I am used to. D&D 4 and D&D 5 are a little more difficult to compare since hit-points and damages are scaled up.

But this covers these games well and a high-level view of character design expectations. I say expect here because this is often how a game looks when you first play it. You see hundreds of options and your first assumption is they are all good. As you play, you naturally discover the good from the bad, the feats and characters design choices that make your character excel, and the chart shifts a little to the actual chart below:

Character designs have a tendency to min-max towards the greatest effectiveness. As a result, the game's balance trends towards that area in green, because everyone wants the game to be exciting and fun, with encounters that challenge well-designed characters. As a designer, you want to narrow the range for balancing content, because there will be less variance in monster strength and encounter design.

Balancing All This

If I am a game designer, I want that green area to be as tight as possible (while still feeling good). You don't want too much difference between an average character and an optimized one, because you don't want min-max'ed "best" character designs blowing out average encounters. You want them doing well and feeling good about their choices, but you don't want them pushing everything over with ease.

Less than optimized characters? I don't really care about them and they can fall off the balance curve if they are terribly designed. You want some of this "lots of terrible designs" thing going on so you can create that 'system mastery' feeling in your game where you try repeated designs and discover what works best and what gets you towards that red line of average expected competence and character power. I remember somewhere where the designers of D&D 3.0 said they included less-than optimal choices in character design just to fill out a range of good choices and bad choices, just like deck building in Magic the Gathering. The silly non-historical double-ended greatswords and warhammers come to mind...

Now, if every character design choice is equal? You are back to the B/X chart and none of this matters. I am sort of reminded of D&D 5's system, where if you want to be a certain type of fighter you pick the ability you are expected to take, such as the Fighting Styles and Class Archetypes in that system. The entire character design system in D&D 5 is a lot tighter than games like Pathfinder, with less choices but more focused in both balance and the abilities you are expected to take given how you want your character to perform. The envelope is tighter in D&D 5, but there are still bad choices given what you want to do (taking an archery fighting style as a fighter and never using a bow, for example).

Why This Matters

As a player? I want to design and min-max, and that is a big part of the fun for me. I also want the game to be balanced and have the fights not be too easy or too hard.

As a referee? I want to be able to predict player power to balance encounters and not have the game either be too easy or result in a total party wipe. I also do not want "design as distraction" where players experience choice paralysis or the entire design system takes over the game.

Both players and referees want balance and to avoid the extremes of too easy or too hard. I like the encounter balancing systems of the newer rules, but for me as a referee, I never really had a problem balancing a B/X experience either - although I know that opinion is outside the current view of things.

To me, in a B/X experience, balance was more of a player-focused concern - they knew what they could fight (based on experience), and they were the ones who had to judge if they should open that next door. My secret "good DM" promise to players was not to put any monsters on the current level that would wipe them all out in the blink of an eye (something again, I learned through experience and the simple and mostly predictable nature of B/X combats plus limited monster lists). No ancient red dragons above dungeon level 7, please. Keep hit dice equal to dungeon level and player level, and use quantity and encounter composition to match party strength. Got it.

If I screwed up encounter balance and things started to go very badly? GM fiat time. Make some monsters weaker, have some run away, give the players an out, or make the monsters hold back a little out of caution. Fudging rolls was usually a last resort for me, and if I did, it was usually on monster to-hits while the players made a hasty retreat to lick their wounds and regroup.


Player Skill versus Design Skill

There are times when I want to take character design skill out of a game and just have a system that rewards creative play and player ingenuity. If your level 5 fighter is just like every other, then how you play them will make a big difference in your success or failure. Of course, there is the factor of random chance, but part of playing an old-school B/X game also involves a bit of risk mitigation and understanding random chances and trying to control odds.

I have had games where the character designs felt like they took over the game, and the players were focused on getting a numerical advantage through character design. I have seen games where a character's design and numerical advantage acted as a disincentive to attempting actions outside of their area of expertise. It is like am archery-focused fighter way above the range-combat power curve hesitating to get into melee combat because their character is only average at melee fighting.

A good referee will force characters outside of their comfort zones, but I found game systems with heavily min-max'ed character design systems make doing that a lot harder. I have had players disengage rather than be forced to fight outside of their numerical comfort zones. I don't blame the players though, I blame the game for putting them in that mindset. Some games tend to punish you hard for that risk-taking and out-of-the-box play, such as D&D 4 and the amount of optimizing needed to keep up with the content's ever-increasing challenge level (at least when we played, it changed several times as new monster manuals and revisions came out).

System Forgiveness and Flexibility

D&D 5 for us tends to be a very forgiving system. There is a lot of healing, character death is more difficult, there are many options and infinite-use spells for casters, and the game feels more like D&D 4's sort of MMO-inspired experience that is more player-friendly and focused. Characters are also mechanically complex with a lot of design options given the type of character you want to play. The game is also more story-focused like a modern narrative game, and as a result tends to reward "story based play" rather than the old-school "slay and loot" style.

B/X systems, for us, are a lot simpler, the characters are fast to design and die often, and the entire system is a lot less forgiving of bad luck or mistakes. They can approach the difficulty level of today's "rage games" in some insta-death adventures, and I find my players are a lot more crafty when they have less options and character advantages to fall back on. With less mechanical abilities, my great players are always trying to come up with creative ways to manipulate the situation to their advantage despite not having the "rules tools" to do so.

I have also seen less experienced players in old-school games "freeze up" because they don't think they can do much outside of "cast the spell" or "roll an attack." This is one of the hardest skills to pick up in systems that ;eave a lot up to interpretation, knowing that you as a player are free to come up with anything you can imagine you could do, and also that you are the referee should encourage and support those crazy plans and actions through fair judgments using the dice and/or ability scores to determine the chances to succeed or fail.

D&D 5 moved back from the "cover everything" sort of rules design where there are detailed rules for every action and leaves a lot up to players and referees. B/X systems are already there and I feel as a whole that moving back to more interpretive systems where less is more is a good thing. I don't need rules for everything, just guidelines on general things and me and my group  can take it from there.

My Current Feelings

I like what they did in D&D 5 to tighten up that character design curve. I don't like the double-scale hit-points and complexity of characters, though I can see why they did that in regards to player-friendliness. As a player, I like the character design choices because they let me specialize (at the cost of complexity though).

I like B/X a lot, because the numerical and design model is simple and the choices stark and unforgiving. It is like a pure form of chess to me, where the danger level is high and the rules unforgiving and completely straightforward without a high degree of complexity. I like the glass-cannon and simple nature of B/X casters, and even their power level compared to martial characters. That asymmetrical balance, especially if you severely limit 15-minute adventuring days through good refereeing, and this really appeals to me.

I like B/X resource management a lot, with casters worrying about an ever-dwindling supply of magic, the party's resources being drained, and that whole elevation of risk as the dungeon crawl goes on. B/X does this for me, as a player I love the discussions among the players about "should we tackle the next room?" There is a very strong risk and reward cycle going on here for me, and there are no distractions with factoring in numerical superiority through character designs into that calculus of character life and death.

It is a strange sort of realization. When I play a game with less character design options, and less story options, what I find interests me comes out better. There are times when I crave a good story and a great mathematical min-max'ed character, but I don't need them all the time and actually enjoy the lower-level risk-based play B/X excels at - at least for me and my group. I enjoy all of these games for different reasons, and no one is better than the other, and some do things better than others.

My Ideal Dungeon Game

I really like B/X games like Labyrinth Lord though. There is something to that 7 hp level one fighter and his longsword in some spooky abandoned keep fighting spiders and rats that appeals to me - even without all of the character design options of newer games. I can almost play that game in my head. I could play a game like this solo with just a character sheet and an encounter table.

It is that simple yet focused feeling, almost like a dungeon-game version of solitaire. I can't wait for my fighter to get to level two, get a slightly better to-hit, some treasure in his backpack, and maybe he now has 13 hp now. With every level he can go deeper and deeper, and my character really doesn't get all that more complex as he levels up. When he is hurt, he drinks a healing potion (if he has one), or heads back to town. The dungeon may restock when he comes back, and random encounters are always present in the halls, so getting back to where he was will be tricky.

He is still that guy, with a sword, using the wits as me (the player) to keep him alive down there. I don't have any other character design choices to fall back on. That character's story is completely determined by my choices in that dungeon, not by the rules, not by character design, but by my risk-management skills and dealing with runs of good and bad luck.

With simple characters I could run a whole 4 character party myself one one sheet of  paper for record-keeping - no computer programs needed to design characters and level them up. My fighter has chainmail and a sword, my rogue a dagger and leather armor, my mage a magic missile spell and a staff, my cleric chainmail, a shield, a mace, and cure light wounds. Some ability scores and hit points, some saves and to-hit numbers - and we are done. I don't have to reference the class areas of a player's handbook to know what special powers and feats each one can use - it is all here on the sheet.

This is B/X - I know this.

As I have less time for reading through 1,000 of pages of rules and options spanning a library of books and character options, that B/X style simplicity of both play and design is a feature of pen-and-paper games that I feel has real value. Playing old-school simpler games means the difference between playing and not playing, at least to me.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Mail Room: Starships and Spacemen 2e

If there is one thing I love about the old-school revolution it is projects like this. A B/X style throwback game covering a "classic Federation inspired" sort of roleplaying game using the well-known "old school dungeon" style rules? Yep, we got it in Starships and Spacemen.

This is something I honestly would expect to find in some small-town hobby shop in the 1970's where a group of local game writers get together and print something "inspired by" but ultimately totally different and cool. In fact, I do have a game like that lying around here just like this, a Trek inspired Basic D&D clone from the 70's much like this printed and distributed from what I know from somewhere from a group of fans in Texas.

This one comes from Goblinoid Games, the creators of Labyrinth Lord, and the S&S system is fully compatible with the LL rules and monsters. There is a larger Goblinoid Universe lurking here between Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Starships and Spacemen, and other games in the series and if you collect them all you get this "more is better" thing going on in terms of content and system support.

But it Ain't Trek!

Well, D&D isn't the Lord of the Rings either. Nor does it have to be, because different is cool. Honestly, I don't really care, and as D&D proves the best games in the genre aren't the official ones either, they are inspired by, create new ideas from, and combine a bunch of influences together to create something entirely new. Space Opera, Star Frontiers, and a bunch of other classic sci-fi games come to mind.

S&S does a bunch of new things, it uses a typical Asimov-style star-federation as its base, introduces a bunch of crazy aliens to the mix like talking frogs and others, re-thinks gear and abilities in terms of adventures, and focuses the action on a sort of lower-level mission structure that I find really quite cool. The ships are just UFO-shaped without the extra flange and structure, and I find that a cool divergence. There is also a greater focus on classic psionics in characters, which I find is a cool new thing the game brings to "space navy sci-fi" sorts of games.

S&S is Trek as Firefly is Star Wars, in a way. A lot of this is really older-school sci-fi in my feeling, sort of a hearkening back to the original sources where Trek drew inspiration from as well, the HG Wells or Asimov-style Foundation series of "space navy" generic sci-fi. There are some items from other sci-fi stories in the mix, such as laser swords, AI controlled tanks, flame guns, force fields, androids, and robotic animals, so it is not trying to be a carbon copy. I wish it had more of these classic sci-fi items but the door has been opened for my imagination to include whatever I want - especially if I include other books from the Goblinoid Universe.

There is enough here to make me comfortable playing this as something new and not a carbon copy, and in my feelings this is really more of a 1970's sci-fi TV Show retro throwback game than it is anything else. I could include tips of the hat and inspired by things like Buck Rogers, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Dune, Foundation, Federation, Logan's Run, Alien, The Thing, Six-Million Dollar Man, Body Snatchers, Planet of the Apes, and feel right at home as the giant UFO-like space navy ship sets down and characters go on all sorts of zany and semi-serious 70's sci-fi adventures.

Actually, the Better Traveller Setup

A part of my brain tell me this is the Traveller I always wanted. Small ships with limited-size crews going out on blank hex-maps, mapping star systems, meeting the crazy-alien locals, getting into all sorts of trouble, having spaceship combats, landing on planets and exploring dangerous "dungeons" of lost civilizations, and really giving the player characters a lot of agency to set star-federation policy in the sector without having to worry about "command" back home dictating what they should do and say.

The players are free to setup alliances with whoever they find, to establish star-federation bases on the planets of races they meet, figure out dangerous space anomalies, shoot up space pirates, embark on mysteries that span multiple star systems, and have that sort of free-roaming plus "settling the wild west' sort of campaign that I always dreamed about with Traveller. But I never got to run.

If the players need backup? Head on back to the star-federation base on the edge of the map and get some other star-federation ships to come along for an epic fleet battle. After the evil space mongol fleet is pushed back from that corner of the map, it is back to the single ship adventures we love without escalating the entire campaign into a World War II naval simulator.

There is an enthusiasm here and an innocence that I feel just makes it work. You get serious games and serious properties, like Lord of the Rings, and all of a sudden doing the small and random things in that universe doesn't seem to fit. You just can't go out in LotR or Star Wars and say, "let's find a dungeon!" and be taken seriously. In D&D and "inspired by" B/X games like S&S? You can do that stuff because these games are in-fact derivative and inspired-by and there is a playful level of fun there that invites exploration and pushing the boundaries of what came before.

Simple Old-School Rules

The game works really well with the simple OSR dungeon-game style rules, like in some alternate universe gaming decided to stick with the Basic D&D paradigm and everything was developed for and compatible with that style of gameplay. You get more hit points and become a tougher hero, but so what? Only really that last shot that takes you down matters anyways, so everything else is a graze or a minor wound - and failing a saving throw versus a terrible effect is always the big threat.

Another note, the pre D&D 3 lower-scale damage and hit-point range is wonderful here. Newer editions of D&D always seem to ramp up the hit points and damage past level one, and this scaling I feel ruins the higher level game in most D&D games past 3rd edition. With a ramp-up in hit points comes multi-attacks or scaled damage that you see in modern games, and they never seem to get that original feeling right.

Yes, if my 5th level fighter or space adventurer has 30 hit points he will be able to take quite a few blows and crossbow hits - he is a hero after all! Early OSR games still get this right, and they don't need to scale damage or introduce multiple attacks just to balance things, and inevitably newer games introduce more difficult death and more abundant healing and I feel what was special about tabletop gaming is lost.

Choices matter. Character death isn't a video game respawn. You don't have 'healing surges' to get your MMO character back to 100% health for the next fight. You don't need a level 10 laser pistol that does 8d8 damage just to balance the out of control hit points. You don't need three 1d8 sword attacks per turn to keep your DPS rating on keel with the mages. High-level monsters don't need 300 to 1200 hit points to be terrifying. What's terrifying is all that math and repetitive multi-attack dice rolls over a four-hour combat with pages of rules reference to whittle that tangled-yarn junk-drawer rules mass of hit-points down to zero.

What's worse, if your hit point scaling past level one is out of control, the original polyhedral dice don't really matter that much any more. A 1d8 versus a 1d6 weapon against a 12 hit point monster? That means something. The same two weapons versus a 120 hit point monster? Not that much of a difference anymore since in scaled systems damage modifiers over multi-attacks primarily determine DPS. Getting a +5 damage and four attacks a turn? My DPS is about the same with a 1d8 sword as it is a 1d4 dagger, since the average roll difference is only 2 points per attack (30 vs. 38 per turn, with most of the damage coming from the fixed portion).

I feel OSR and B/X systems with one attack per turn, limited spells, limited healing, harsh death, risky saving throws, and the original hit-point scale do away with more of the problems of modern high-level games being unfun and taking forever to play, because the original hit-point range and balance is left intact. The original designers of D&D found a balance there that I feel we have forgotten with today's games, especially post D&D 3 games that have been going back and forth with new revisions to make high level "scaled" play fun again ever since the concept was introduced. In my feeling, there is no beating the B/X style originals that Gary G and company designed that way on purpose.

Innocence

If there was one thing I can say attracts me to this game is the feeling of simplistic innocence to it all. It is like if a bunch of kids got together in a basement and home-brewed their own Trek-plus whatever style adventures using the basic dungeon game rules they knew and loved, and had adventures all across the galaxy with something they came up with all by themselves. Maybe they had an android from Blade Runner join the crew at one point, or met a Wookie like creature in another adventure. Maybe they fought a race of space-orcs on another planet, or dealt with a a creature from The Blob movie attacking a space colony on another. What holds them together is a common feeling that this is "space navy adventures" but everything else is make it up as you go along, borrow it from other games and movies, and just have fun.

It Needs a No-Art PDF

The only flaw here is there is no no-art PDF for free download. There is a $7 PDF with artwork on the RPGNow/DrivethruRPG stores, so that is an option, but I would like a no-art PDF option as well.

The Goblinoid Universe

What gives this game value is the larger Goblinoid Universe, and then also the large scope of compatible pre D&D 3 products out there in the wild. I can pull in characters, gear, and monsters from Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Realms of Crawling Chaos, and even Apes Victorious and have everything work together. I could take a party of Starships and Spacemen characters and run them through the old module B1 Keep on the Borderlands if I wished and have then have the players use their universal translator to work up a deal with the goblins to fight the orcs on level two. Everything will work with very little to no conversion.

Does that sound fun? You bet it does. And I don't have to learn a new rules set to do any of this, nor do I have to work out painful conversions or scale difficulty to a new rules system and number scale.

What I had works. What I have works. What I know is what I need to know. B/X compatible all the way.

Is it flashy or video game cool? No, and it doesn't need to be. It just needs to work, and then get out of the way for roleplaying and problem solving to take over. I want players to be focused on world and story challenges, not rules and character-build challenges. That to me is B/X OSR and why I love it.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Open Platform Model and Labyrinth Lord

Another fun article today, check this out:

https://www.blackgate.com/2012/04/21/why-i-created-labyrinth-lord/

Especially this point:
The second goal was to create a brand and free license to allow publishers (and self publishers) to create and publish their own books that are compatible with the old rules.
This is what I love. Brand altruism towards other publishers and individuals looking to create, sell, and share freely if they so choose is what I like about some games, especially the OSR and OGL publishers. It is what attracts me to Pathfinder and what attracts me to Labyrinth Lord as well. You can make adventures, compatible games, settings, characters, and whatever else you desire and you are free to share or sell, publish on a blog or print in a book, whatever you want to do.

I don't like it when D&D locks up some monsters, classes, numbers, character creation options, and content behind product identity. I feel a little bad when Pathfinder's campaign setting is locked up in the same way. Some games do better than others, but the ambiguity is what bothers me.

As a game and a creator of things which I love to share, I hate having to double-check or second-guess myself to see if something is okay to share or publish. I really dislike that feeling. It feels too 'gimme' for me, too locked in the old, bad days of the hobby where publishers acted as gatekeepers and dictated what we could create and share.

Freedom to Create = Real Value

To me, if a book is 100% sharable and OGL and I can use it as a base to create and share from, it is a super-high value to me. I feel even putting 10% of a game's content behind a product identity clause reduces its 'creator's value' drastically for me to half or less, because now everything comes under scrutiny and question. It may still be a fun and well put-together game, but I don't want the well poisoned and I want to be able to create, speak of, and share anything I wish without that voice in the back of my head saying, "maybe you can't do that."

I don't have the time to pick through what I can and cannot do anymore, and games that took the time to work all that out and give me a solid and open base? Priceless. Saves me a lot of time. Frees my mind for creativity instead of picking through reference documents, websites, and guesses on what can and cannot be done.

Fun Games are Still Fun

Creator's value is different than play value, obviously. I still enjoy games that are locked up behind product identity, and even others that have no OGL or sharing options. It is like playing an exclusive console game to one platform, they are often well done and are showcases of fun and gameplay. But a locked-up RPG or tabletop game as something I would put time into creating for? I don't have the time to invest in creations that would be just for me these days. If I can share everything? That has real value, because I feel we live in a different world these days.

The value of a game in an online world is the amount of content in it free to be shared and built upon by a community of fans and third-party publishers.

You Mean, I Can Create Too...?

I read articles like this and it makes me want to write games to support this model. That is the power here of an open system, everyone can participate and everyone can play. Add to that supporting the game with free no-art rules downloads and options to support the creators (and artists) through buying the hardcover? That is the fan altruism that keeps these games on my shelf and makes me pull them out every so often to play and consider the possibilities. It is also the power that keeps these games relevant in a day and age when new editions come along, other editions grow in popularity, and new games come along and take away attention.

There is a value here in still having this option, and because the retro-clones are based in the feeling of a set place and time, they don't really need to be changed every few years to freshen them up or attract players. People may play the new stuff, but eventually when they mature and start looking for options to give back, create, and share, the old-school games (and the community looking modern games, to be fair) will still be here and waiting with open arms.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Genesys: The Toolkit Layer

I read the entire Genesys book last night and the above image I feel best summarizes my feelings about the game. I love the system, I love the macro-situation creating dice, and I like the idea of this being a generic system...

...but? The game, by itself, is missing what I like to call "the toolkit layer." This is all the setting-specific information that makes character builds matter - weapons, armor, equipment, gear, powers, magic items, foes, monsters, creatures, vehicles, mounts, and all that other fun setting-specific stuff that makes character builds matter.

How can I build a Wild West gunfighter and specialize in a certain...um, where is the six-gun, scattergun, lever-action, horse, throwing hatchet, knife, buffalo rifle, TNT stick...? You get my point, without all these cool "rules-ed out" items and things to build characters around, what is there to do?

As a game master, it puts me in a really bad situation without having setting-specific information because I have to wing it. And when I wing it, nothing really has a cool defined list of attributes and features that the players can look at and sort through as they build their characters. As a game master, it is easier for me to create adventures with a full toolkit, because I can better design opponents and encounters when I have a huge box of toys to play with, all fully-statted out and working with the rules so both me and my players understand how they work with the game's systems.

I could wing it and make up stats on the fly for all my Wild West items, but I feel it does the players a disservice because they need to know about all this cool stuff before I make it up, because they are the ones who have to create characters to take advantage of all this stuff before I throw them into a situation where I say "oh yeah, that guy has a buffalo rifle" and they sit they feeling, "I wish I would have known about that cool piece of gear because I might have wanted to create a character who could use one and take advantage of the item with my character build."

You get into a situation where the player's first characters built for the game feel generic and not built for the world they live in, and only after playing a couple times do you build enough background data that the next set of characters will be able to take advantage of all of the stuff you house-ruled in, and you still risk not knowing about that next cool thing or situation characters may encounter (Gatling guns, derringers, poker games, quick draws, Calvary officers, Marshals, etc).

Six Sample Settings Included

To be fair, the game does come with six really basic sample settings with sample equipment and foe lists. They are by no means complete and I feel just serve as a starting point for you to create your own. They feel more like "sample adventure" seeders than "these are the official gear and stuff lists" for the game to me, because the fantasy section feels like it lacks enough for a long-term game for me. This will be solved one the fantasy book comes out later this year, so we shall see. I could wing fantasy better by pulling in tropes and creatures from other games, but again, these things mater when players build characters, so my default feeling is I want a complete "toolkit layer" before I start palying becuase it gives players more to work with than just a sample list plus "make the rest up."

The other sections for steampunk, modern, sci-fi, space opera, and other settings feel like similar "taster sections" for the genres than full-fledged support, and this is understandable because of their length and brevity. But again, I can't play with them as-is, because for the game to work at its best, I feel players need a full list of stuff, foes, gear, powers, and options to play with and design characters around.

I feel you get the best with this game when you can find an official toolkit (like the fantasy one coming with Terrinoth), or a fan-created one for a particular setting (which there are on the Genesys forums, and more are being shared there as time goes on). I feel the more detailed and more fully fleshed out the toolkit, the more fun you and your players will have with the game.

Contrast With FATE

FATE is a strange game, as it does away with the toolkit layer almost entirely. Weapons are weapons, gear is gear, and if you want a character build that takes advantage of something specific, you just take it as a character aspect or devise a stunt for a skill and you are good. If your character is a "Wild West big game hunter with a coon-skin cap" well then of course your character is going to be good with that buffalo rifle, you get your bonus then and there, and the world is good. Yee-haw, make it up, write something down, and keep playing.

I enjoy a more structured, mechanical game like Genesys where you can build a character to take advantage of a certain weapon or play style through stats, skills, talents, and gear - but you need that gear fully fleshed out in order to be able to build a character like that in the first place. With FATE, yes, things are less structured and therefore you get less of that "character build addiction and obsession" feeling you do with Genesys.

If I were doing pick-up-and-play games, I would use FATE because I do not need a lot to simulate anything. Everything is made up on the fly. I do not need a toolkit, just the English language and an understanding of "this would cover that." The game works well without toolkits and settings, and it is designed more to play off our assumptions and understandings of things through natural language constructs and "X to Y means Z" relationships.

If I want a longer-term game where players could get more deeply involved, I would more likely use Genesys with a fully-fleshed out toolkit and setting for the game, because that is where the players play and the referee derives inspiration from to create the challenges of the world. This is not to say Genesys is weak in any way, as if I had a Star Trek style toolkit I would jump on that and play Star Trek with "Genesys plus toolkit" a lot faster than "FATE plus nothing." I feel the support, and the quality level of that support, makes a huge difference.

But having that support I feels really matters, if it is my work, a fan work, or an official work.

Structured Builds vs. Do What You Want

To me, FATE is like a box of crayons plus some paper.

Genesys is like a video game console with controllers. The toolbox is like the video game cartridge you stick in the machine. Without a cartridge and a game to play, you have that excitement of having a cool game console, but nothing to play with it yet. The console is open enough you could write your own game or find something on the Internet to play, so there is still that DIY freedom.

For character builders, Genesys has that Lego style appeal as well of building things and putting together character builds. But you need all those special pieces in the toolkit to be able to build anything really cool, and all those special parts like doors, hinges, windows, wheels, mini-figures, and plastic trees matter - more so than just the sample settings in the main book and their collection of straight blocks.

With FATE, I will just come up with and draw all those pieces myself when I draw my picture of my fire-station or whatever I want to "build."

Both are fun and have different strengths for what type of mood I am in and my current group of players, but they are different enough to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each. I would not give up FATE because I now have Genesys, and I would not shelve Genesys because I prefer playing with fully fleshed out toolkits. Both are cool and have their places at our table.

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.