Sunday, December 30, 2012

Player's Pit: Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginners Box, part 2

Part II: Playing the First Session


Dicey Dice

I hope the extra dice sets go in sale soon, you need at least two sets per player. As expected, I'm getting used to the set theory needed to compile dice rolls, actually it works pretty nice. I for one, can't wait for the full game and dice sets to hit the stores, we plan on ordering two more full sets of dice.

We got the Dice App on iTunes, but I like to roll the physical dice better, since setting up a pool isn't as fun or quick in the app. The app is cool for the sound effects, and the ability to setup any dice pool you want, but grabbing dice and making the rolls is a lot more fun to me.

Initiative Issues 

Initiative though is clunky because you have to roll a bunch of dice and count up you successes, unless the initiative dice get a benefit from rolling the star symbol it would be easier just to roll a d10 and add an appropriate ability score.

Combat "Pew Pew Pew" vs "PEW"

The game likes to group up bad guys for simplicity, they call it Minion Groups. A Minion Group shares a bulk amount of hits and attacks as one unit. This I like as it allows the game to move quickly instead of micro moving and handling each monster one at a time. Lets say you had six troopers with 5 hits each, you could cut them up into two sets of three troopers each with 15 hits per group. They move, roll initiative, and attack as one unit. So you would make one combined combat die roll for the group of three.

Something thing odd that happened is that our Twi'lek girl shot her bast carbine so well she cleared out a group of Stormtroopers in one shot. Now I have a question, is an attack in this game considered a flurry of attacks over the turn or just one shot?

This attack she did would make sense if one attack roll represented your random baster firings over the turn so a good roll mean you suppressed the whole group. Otherwise one bad guy stepping on a land mine taking 100 hits damage takes out his whole platoon of ten guys which is odd.

One other thing they do is have range bands for determining attack range. its a generalization of range instead of a different operating range for each weapon. They use point blank, short, medium, and long range bands. My pistol had a medium range and a group of troopers at long range was too far away to shoot. This wasn't too bad as it led to faster play, I dislike have to having to tape measure my shots so this is good.

Hak got miffed at me when I started to interpret the dice on him (*evil grin*), and decided when I received a boost dice to enhance my attacks. But it is fun to do as a player if you get into things, but I do see when the 'Ref' has to make the call.

Those Adorable Minions

One bad side about minion-izing groups of monsters is they tended to go down quick and their attacks were weaker. So a bunch of Storm Troopers billed as fearsome elites in the book went down faster than a group of single Gramorean Guards with clubs who got a bunch of nasty hits in on my party in the first encounter.

I think if the referee wants to keep challenge high he needs to split things up into smaller groups or singles, or use the minions for background combatants only. They do not work as well as the only opponent in the encounter, so I expect Hak to mix them up with strong singles and use them as the bulk troops in future sessions.

The Ruthless Smuggler and The Bounty Hunter

I stumbled through the beginner adventure, more because of my interrupting the referee text speeches when he was reading the intros to the section of the adventure. I dislike when those pre-canned sections advance the situation beyond the point of getting a chance to role play the situation differently. It's like when the referee reads:

"You enter the room and flip the switch the doors slam shut and the room fills with gas. The bad guy is on a video monitor telling you 'goodbye sucker see you in landing bay 12'. ...What do you do!"

ME(player): "Hold on cowpoke, how about I get a look around the room before I enter?"

Referee: "...but if you don't let me read this, how would you learn about landing bay 12?"

ME(player): "Umm..ya. Don't worry about it. I'll probably trip the trap out of curiosity."

So players like me have a tendency to have a low tolerance for being railroaded into making a decision. This lead to me missing a couple things. One was brow beating the bartender in the Catina, who I thought, justifiably so after the Gramoreans attacked us, was a Hutt allied baddie. I ended up missing the info where the ship he was talking about was located. So we had to guess between the two star ports in town. Hak the Ref thought it was an issue because I interrupted his spiel, but to me this was fine since we got involved with the Imperials because of the oversight.

This led to some referee migraine inducing activities. We could have split into two groups, we could have farmed guards for clubs, we could have bee-lined it to the correct star port and blew off the town altogether, missing out on the content in the beginner set.

What I would have done in the starter module is to get some simple fetch quests and mini adventures before advancing the bigger plot. Several smaller plot-safe mini missions, such as killing womp rats to rescue a robot, repairing stuff under the town, or taking a posted bounty on a group of bad guys would have been a good appetizer before ending my stay on Tatooine. even making us escape the slave pens and fighting to get to the starter town would be better; give us chance to play around a bit.

So far so good though, I managed to have a combat with a bunch of guards, got better guns, run off and heal in the slums, and then tackle the star port control and take a prisoner (the starport tech). Then I proceeded to do some cloak and dagger spying on the visiting imperials and get my ship destroyed on a revenge kick.

Plus side, we stole a bunch of trooper comlinks, scavenged some guns, and avoided patrols in the town. The games more RP-style dice rolling makes this fun. We would move around the city and avoid trooper groups searching for us, we make one skill roll and we can avoid them finding us and calling in the Calvary.

Mayhem? You got it.
Now my group is trapped on Tatooine and plotting some mayhem. Besides...I'd much rather get me a nice new Imperial ship than a Copper Falcon.

Revenge? Yup, just like the TV show, I plan on getting a little on the Hut before I leave the planet. Funny thing is I have been playing Dash like a ruthless smuggler, less a budding goodie-guy so its been fun. If the main game supports a journey to the dark side this guy would be an awesome candidate. Amanda Clark eat your heart out...
SPOILER ALERT: I let the Trandoshan take off with the ship and made a quick exit of the landing bay through the tunnel. So as the two Tie-Fighters made mince meat of his ship, thanks to my ruthless buffing of the Tie die rolls with my fate token-thingys, the pursuing Imperials now think I am dead.
*twirls evil mustache whilst plotting next evil deed*

Things I would have liked to see.

  • In-box Twinkies! Us gamers need gamer fuel as this is at least 6 Twinkies worth of game (2 per session per player) kidding.
  • More enemy counters, at least double the amount, even as an add-on product.
  • A add-on map set containing: a shop building map, a plot of desert map, a desert camp map, a desert cave map. A generic desert street map section for city encounters and a generic edge of city map with one of those rope bridges that connect the bluffs.
  • A character plus counters add-on product.
  • A dice pack add-on product!

Grand Theft Star Wars

This game is fun and light compared to the multi-class-heavy d20 version by a wide margin. The rules are fresh feeling and provide a clean, focused, and unique experience. I like the less Jedi-centricness and enjoy the open feeling of carving my own way through the universe. So I'll probably have Tatooine in ruin before I roll a new set of adventurers. Heck, I might even continue my smuggler and his band of not-so-merry men across the galaxy. So props to Fantasy Flight Games for hitting a home run on this one.

Bright Future

The hardest part is the waiting for the release, and I am very very interested in the expansions they will do. We will most likely do more reports on this game as we game on with it as well!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Referee's Screen: Star Wars Edge of the Empire

Part I, Attack of the Clone

As a companion to George's "Players" section, I will write my impressions of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game (SWEoE:BG) from a referee's perspective. I will call this series "Referee's Screen" since this is mainly my feelings and impressions as a referee for this game. I will limit my thoughts to pre-play observations, as we will get into playtest reports later.

The box is filled with all sorts of goodies, and is really a complete mini-game covering the basics, including combat, starships, skills, advancement, and even a collection of creatures. Character creation does not seem to be included, so you are stuck with the 4 basic characters. Kudos to Fantasy Flight for getting this much of a game done in just 48 pages (!), and their skill at keeping the system to-the-point in this age of 300+ page rulebooks is astounding.

A self-contained 32-page adventure is included, which teaches you the system as you play through it. This works in tandem with the character folios, which give you four pre-gen characters, and everything you need to play them with. This is a key selling point, and mirrors what Paizo did with their Beginner Box. The beginning adventure here is in my opinion better than the one in the Beginner Box, and gives you a structured part to play in, and then an open world mini-sandbox in the city.

You also get a map covering the first adventure, and also a sheet of tokens. Pretty cool stuff, and appreciated. They had better sell add-on tokens in future products, or something like Paizo's cardboard pawns. These are useful things to have, and I hope they keep this up in the future.

I will ding Fantasy Flight on the dice! You get a good selection of these funny dice to start, but some skill checks in the game require more dice than what they give you (ex. 4 green dice and 1 purple). Of course, this is a minor point, but one worth mentioning. I will probably be picking up a couple sets to make a pool for play, so in the long run, the dice won't be an issue.

I like the dice, they are cool and from what I saw work very well. They provide a large variety or results, along with roleplaying situations built into the rolls as results. They are very clever, and worth looking at purely from a game-design perspective. They remind me a little of Fantasy Flight's Warhammer FRP dice, and they are different and cool. +1 to FF for making use of these, and making them work. They are a cool, Star-Warsy addition to the experience, and shape the action in the game.

Full Game Coming Soon
Remember, this is just an intro game, and the full 400+ page behemoth main game rules is scheduled for release early next year. Something will always keep me coming back to this set, since the beauty here is keeping the game focused and simple. It is fully playable, and will keep a group of players busy for a while. All in all, I get a good feeling after unboxing this, and it doesn't feel short or missing anything terribly significant.

I didn't expect rules for star destroyers to be in here or a lot of equipment, but what they do give you covers enough of what you'd want to play with when you are starting out. You get an ad for the full book in the box, and it looks like a fun game. Bonus XP to FF for putting Han and Chewie on the cover, two guys who typically get limited cover space on Star Wars RPGs. Han has this cool WTF look on his face, which rocks. Party on Han & Chewie, you guys are the original gangsters of Star Wars.

Also of note is the X-Wing minis game (see the catalog in the picture), which is a totally different game from this one, but still cool. More on this in a later post.

Part of me wonders if they are going to do an all-in-one book focusing on the criminal element first, and then dedicated sourcebooks for Jedi's, KoTOR, etc. We shall see how this happens, or if the game focuses on 'Edge of the Empire' stuff primarily, and includes those subjects as also-thoughts. The focus of the game is important. The d6 system game was focused on the shooty-movie action, the d20 version had an equal focus on everything (though Force powers tended to be dominant), and we shall see the 'take' of this game. There are a lot of fans to please in the Star Wars universe, and there is a risk pushing the smuggler angle over the Sith/Jedi angle, Imperial/Rebel, and so on. I hope they can achieve that balance, without making the game all about the Force, big battles, or any other area that can 'take over' the game.

"Chewie, WTF are we doing on the cover of a Star Wars RPG?"
Star Wars: Off the Rails
The game has a smuggler, criminal, and fringe system vibe to it - which is cool. You are not meant to be playing mainline rebels in giant CG battles, Sith, or Imperial agents in the center of the galaxy. You are assumed to be playing on the outer rim of the Empire, shortly after the destruction of the first Death Star.

This is a cool direction to take the game in, and makes it different than the d6 and d20 versions of Star Wars RPGs. You know, I am sure there will be support for all that stuff in the main rulebook, but keeping the game 'down to Earth' as a game of smugglers and criminals is kinda a cool direction to take, and reminds me of the Star Wars Scoundrels novel that's coming out (Star Wars meets Ocean's 11).

The Yoda Rule: "Impossible to see the future is."
If I started a new Star Wars campaign with this system, I would probably make a grand pronouncement to the players when we started:

"The Fate of the Universe is up to You"

In short, I would call this the "Yoda Rule" summarized by Master Yoda's own quotes, "Impossible to see the future is," and "Always in motion is the future." I would pull those two out whenever someone brought up cannon, and how the game is straying from it. When it comes to conventional wisdom, Yoda always wins, bitch.

This would mean there would be no script for anything past the first Death Star destruction, the events in Empire and Jedi will not happen, and the side the players are rooting for will probably lose the war. To make a change in the universe, it will be 100% up to the players. Of course, if they play both sides, all the better, and the war will probably never end. Everything will be paid for, and major characters will never have immunity to anything bad that happens.

Anything outside the main rulebook won't exist, just to keep spam from the Expanded Universe from a minimum. Events and books in the EU past the first Death Star will be similarly de-scripted, eliminated, or changed outright. As a thought, since they had the freedom to create all that stuff for the EU in the first place, so it gives me the license to go to town and create my own stuff. A race of giant green rabbit men? Sure! Jedi Don Quixote? Go to town! Anything can happen, and the universe is open and free again. This shall be known as the optional "I am Timothy Zhan" rule, which may come into play. To start, I will feel better keeping the game simple and to the stuff in the book at first, then we shall see if the IaTZ rule needs to be used.

The important point is to make the Star Wars universe the players' - they will own the outcome, if they want an outcome. Nobody can come along and say 'such and such happens at this time' or 'no, this person was a good guy' - everything is on the table. If my girlfriend's Sith assassin wants to seduce Han Solo into working for the Empire and she pulls it off - so be it. It won't be easy and will probably take a long time and lots of RP, but hey; this is not the approved script anymore, nor will it ever be. The players will write the script, as Yoda would have it.

Overall Like it. Will be buying the main game. A winner.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Players Pit: Star Wars Edge of the Empire Beginner Game

Part I: Un-Boxing and First Impressions

Who Am I?

This is my first official post here for the SBRPG blog! I am a dedicated player and have been for over 25 years, also I am a co-designer of our current project and also SBRPG. I decided to call this series the Players Pit, because I want to give a review of this neat new game from my perspective as a player of the game. This is a bit different from a more referee-centric point of view because what interests me more as a player is different from Hak's (the referee's) point of view. I tend to care more about simplicity/cleanliness of the core rules, support for creating and developing interesting characters, and the playing smoothness.

Star War's Golden Era!

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game is very intriguing to me because this is one of the few that has custom dice that incorporate the storytelling interpretations right in the die roll. Plus I am a fan of the Star Wars era the game takes place, about six weeks after the destruction of the first Death Star. I feel this period of the Star Wars universe is greatest time to be a player. It was pre-Jedi-centric time where playing a normal "Uncle Owen" or "Han Solo" character was a viable choice and the Rebellion provided clear good guys and bad guys.

I think this is pre/non-expanded universe as well so you can start playing with a fresh storyline leading into the greater war. The plus of this era is if you like military, mission-based gameplay you could have that or if you prefer more role-playing style spy missions, you could do that too all against the backdrop of a galaxy-wide political power play. Add to this Fantasy Flight Games has been putting out some very well-polished games recently, so in short, this game has me hooked.

I eventually plan, when we graduate onto the full game, to play a bad guy (I have an idea of a Sith or imperial officer type character) and a good guy (I am going to run with Pash and company for this one) campaign. I am hoping the game meshes with the X-Wing Miniatures game as well, but we'll see.

Baby Steps...

Our first gaming session was just an un-boxing of the game and reading through the rules. I managed to absorb the sample characters and read their intro stories. the dice were confusing at first but one you reread the dicing help section you could pick it up in short time. I found it interesting that characters gad "talent tree" style progression as well, which reminded me of the the last Star Wars games d20 based feat stacking. This one however sees much more organized and simpler.

The artwork and presentation is outstanding and the character samples are very nicely organized and pretty. Much in the way the Pazio Pathfinder Beginner Set. The sheets have the sample sheet down the middle with side bar descriptions for everything on them. This I liked immensely and I hope they publish more preset iconic characters and game maps of ships, terrain and such in the future.

Overall the game gets me excited to play. I like the more RP-centric storytelling approach, and simple game play so I cant wait to dive into the included starter adventure. I am playing two characters, the smuggler Pash and the Twi'lek bounty hunter.

Overall Grade So Far: A+ (Great first impressions and exciting universe!)

The game rules are the way I like it, very rules light and fast playing. The basic mechanic is roll a base set of dice plus some difficulty dice added in and interpret the results. They have some symbols on the dice to shift the outcome slightly good or bad depending on the roll.This allows the referee to interpret the results in a more soft-RP way and adds to the fun of the play.

When were were done we were set up to dive into the included sample adventure for next time.

Stay tuned!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Arkham Horror, 32 Players

This Christmas, we are playing Arkham Horror with a full set of 32 players. It is Christmas in Arkham, and the crowds are in full swing. Shoppers are reporting monster surges of 32 monsters, and gates are opening every turn and flooding out 8 monsters each. It seems even the ancient ones are getting into that holiday mood.

Merry Christmas to all, and I hope all of you are opening up some gaming goodness tomorrow morning. Never stop playing, never stop experimenting, and everyone can be a game designer. Have a great gaming year, and may you always find happiness around your table.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Design Room: Basic Fantasy RPG

Basic Fantasy RPG has about the plainest name you could ask for in a RPG, and is another free alternative for playing old-school dungeon gaming. We will compare BFRPG to Labyrinth Lord in this design room, and also the two heavyweights of fantasy roleplaying, D&D4 and Pathfinder. I may also mention the Pathfinder Beginner Box in this review, but we will see.

Remember, this is a design room discussion, not a traditional review. You can find those elsewhere, and we will strictly be talking about game design decisions, thoughts, and topics that BFRPG brings to the table. You may think that BFRPG is just another old school game, and we've already covered this with our Labyrinth Lord design room discussion, but there is surprisingly a lot more to discuss here when this game is added to the mix.

The Basics
What we have here is a pretty standard old-school dungeon game, based on the D&D 3.5 Open Gaming License. The game follows Basic D&D inspiration more than it does anything else, with simplified spells, equipment, and character options. Everything else follows a basic style game nicely, with a nice selection of magic items, monsters, and loot.

Race and Class
Race and class are kept separate, which is an interesting choice based on their design philosophy. Races have class limits, but no level limits - this is an important point. Labyrinth Lord enforces level limits on races in both the basic game, and the Advanced Edition Companion. So if you played Basic D&D and thought racial level limits were silly, Basic Fantasy RPG is a better fit for you. It is a nice design decision, and highlights the advantage of playing Old School games - there is something for everyone out there, and if you have your own idea on what a dungeon game should be, you can write one yourself and share it with the world.

...a D&D 3.5 Like Experience
Basic Fantasy RPG also keeps ascending AC and attack rolls, you do not need to keep an attack chart handy. You roll 1d20, add your attack bonus, and beat the monster's AC rating. This is a nice holdover from the original D&D 3.5 OGL ruleset, and makes the game more accessible to players who may have played D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder. It is a break from tradition, but a good one in my feeling. The entire game has little holdovers like this, and it is more compatible with D&D 3.5 material as a result. Some work will be needed, of course, but these little details matter when converting.

None of the complicated parts of D&D 3.5 are included, so you won't find skills, attacks of opportunity, or any of the other complicated parts of 3.5 in the game. This is a net plus, and keeps the game simple and to the point. They keep the old-school feel to combat and encounters, while keeping D&D 3.5's dicing.

Open Source Community
The Basic Fantasy RPG is more of an 'open source' community project, and encourages fans to write modules, rules expansions, and a bunch of other material available for free over on the website. If you are looking for a simple dungeon game you can mod and build upon, or even alter to make an entirely different game, Basic Fantasy RPG is a good choice. The community more supports free additions than comapnies coming in and selling official support, so it is a more Linux-like experience where everything is shared and put up for free than other games.

An open and sharing community is a nice thing to see, and there is a lot to sort through and add to your game, should you decide to do that. The creators are fans of old-school roleplaying, and do all this out of love for the game. That love extends to selling the books on Lulu at-cost, and making the entire game (with art) available for free. You can even get the gamin in a hardcover, paperback, or a nifty spiral binding that lies flat on the table when opened. This shows a true love for the community and players, and it is appreciated in this day of game books that cost more than most videogames.

vs. Labyrinth Lord
This is a close comparison. I would play LL for the mixed D&D/AD&D feel, and the greater support of content, modules, and stuff in the books. LL is a large game, and also well supported with modules to buy, and other books compatible with the license. LL can also be downloaded for free from their site, so everyone in the group can have a copy of the rules (unlike some of our PF or D&D4 groups). LL also holds truer to the original material and feel, with none of the newer D&D3.5 style optimizations that BFRPG includes.

I would play BFRPG for the openness, mod-ability, and D&D 3.5 style feel to the game. Most every adventure, expansion, and module is free and available to download, so there is no reason for someone not to have a book. The books are even inexpensive to get your hands on, and there is only one book needed, so the game is simple and easy to play with. The D&D 3.5 feel with ascending AC may make this a better sell to some groups wanting the old-school feel without the old-school chart baggage.

vs. Pathfinder
If you are looking for a simple version of a D&D 3.5 style experience that is a lot like Pathfinder, BFRPG is a good place to go. It doesn't have the look or feel of Pathfinder, and is definitely more old school, but it is still close enough that the games feel similar and related. If I were teaching kids how to play a roleplaying game, I would be inclined to teach them with BFRPG first, as the rules and concepts are simpler, and you don't need a 600-page book to sift through. Since there are no skills, and classes have limited powers and options; the game play is simple, and getting things wrong and making stuff up as you go is okay.

Pathfinder wins on quality, artwork, support, and being the cool thing to play at the moment. I love the game, and it is the best option for playing D&D 3.5 right now. BFRPG wins on simplicity, and keeping close enough to D&D 3.5 that the rules and concepts and similar and greatly simplified.

vs. D&D4
D&D4 is a bit of a mess right now, with multiple starting points and a character generation system that requires you to have access to a D&D Insider subscription. You can start with the basic three books, or Essentials, or just Insider and be fine - but there are a lot of rules updates and differences between the books to make starting as a new player troublesome. If you are invested in D&D4 and have players that love the game, you are set. If you are looking for a 3.5-like basic dungeon game that 'gets there from here', then give BFRPG a try.

BFRPG and D&D 4 are worlds apart in feel and game play, but BFRPG wins on simplicity and speed of play. D&D 4 of course, is a 800-pound behemoth of books, worlds, and support. D&D 4 loses on character generation complexity, rules updates, and of course, D&D 5 being right around the corner.

Another Old School Original
I like BFRPG, and I also like its closest "competitor", Labyrinth Lord. They are great games, open and free to download, with books to buy and worlds to explore. They both keep the old school flame alive, and give people options to play both or either. This is the beauty of an open source system, multiple distributions of the game can exist at the same time without really competing, with each serving as an option and flavor of play.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Seven Deadly Skills

In refining our thoughts on old-school games, George and I talked about activities that should always be handled between the player and referee without the interference from rules, stats, or scores. This is a pretty extreme view of what should be statted and what shouldn't, but this is a good refinement of the old-school idea, and brings some of the charm back to roleplaying. The following represents the 'seven deadly skills' and how they interfere with the interpersonal nature of roleplaying.

"You see a 15' square room. The floor is covered by a red twill rug, a bed sits in the northwest corner, with a night table and a lit lamp lighting the room. To the east is a desk with drawers, with a book and candle on top. To your immediate right is a shelf covered with books. What do you do?"
 "I make a search skill roll, what do I find?"

The physical act of searching should be an iterative process between the referee and the players. The players should ask for a description of the scene, and figure things out by saying what they search and how they search it. If they are clever enough, they should find the object they need 100% of the time. If they are hasty, ignore descriptions, or don't check the object completely, they should miss the object 100% of the time. Recommendation: eliminate search skills from the game, and make the process completely roleplaying based.

"After searching the hall, you spot a copper plate embedded into the floor. It looks like some sort of pressure-activated plate, possibly a trap. A small copper panel is on the right wall, at about waist height, with a round hole in the panel. What do you do?"
"I make a Disable Device skill roll, did I defeat the trap?"

Similar to searching, traps should be taken apart with roleplaying descriptions, mixed in with skill and ability rolls. In the above case, we could break the trap down like this:
  • Remove the panel with an insulated tool [fail, 3d6 electrical damage, save for half]
  • INT check to figure out the three gears and lock [fail and -4 to all further trap disarm rolls]
  • Cut the wire between the sphere and coil [fail and panel electrical trap is active]
  • DEX check to jam the lever [fail and hall trap goes off, etc...]
Some of these are ability or skill checks, and others are based off the descriptions the referee gives, and the actions the player takes. Everything is intimate and roleplaying based, and the player disarming the trap has to figure things out and pay attention. Recommendation: remove disable device skills from the game, and vector out traps to be interactive puzzles using skills, manipulation, and ability checks. This will enhance the use of ability scores and player logic in their application.

"You see a wood panel with nine shifting squares inlaid into it. One square is missing so the others can slide around. The remaining pieces seem to make a picture (the referee lays out nine paper squares, meant to be slid around and solved). What do you do?"
"I make an INT check, do I figure it out?"

Puzzles are mental exercises meant for the players to figure out - not their dice. In old-school gaming, adventures were full of these challenges, and they were a part of the fun. No matter what the INT of your character, if you could figure out the puzzle, you were given the prize. These sort of things did break the 'fourth wall' of roleplaying, but hey - they were fun, and intended to challenge the players wits, not their characters. Removing puzzles from the game takes all of the 'parlor game' fun out of the shared experience, and lessens the old-school feel. Recommendation: disallow INT or skill checks from solving puzzles, and make all puzzle solving live and roleplayed at the table using the wits of the players.

"You find an ancient tablet detailing a lost magic empire, destroyed thousands of years ago. On this tablet is a map of the lost mage towers of this civilization, and you see several landmarks on the map as well - some of which seem familiar. You need to find these towers, what do you do?"
"I make a lore skill check, modified by INT. Do I know where the towers are?"

Lore is going to be a controversial addition to the deadly skills list, but this type of 'do I know that?' skill robs some of the magic from the game. If a princess is kidnapped, and the players immediately start making lore checks to figure out where the princess could be, something is wrong here. Based on what their players could know, and the information they have gathered up until this point, the players should figure things out for themselves. In the above example, the referee should provide them with a map with landmarks that sort of line up with what the players already know, and the players should take it from there. If there is a question about 'does my character know that?' use common sense and rule it at the table, a wizard would generally know about spells, the location of magic schools, and other information important to their class. Recommendation: remove lore checks from the game, let players figure things out, and use common sense for everything else.

"The last surviving Orc shaman drops his staff and surrenders, backing into the corner. What do you do?"
"I make an intimidate roll, and get him to tell us where the princess is."

The success or failure of intimidation attempts should be ruled between the effectiveness of the player's roleplaying, and the NPC being intimidated. These sorts of checks always vary wildly with the participants, situation, threat, and information desired - so it should be 100% determined by the referee, with the deciding factor being how the player roleplays the intimidation attempt. Recommendation: eliminate intimidate skill, and make the success or failure dependent on the player's roleplaying and the referee's judgment of the situation.

"The guard steadfastly refuses to let you into the town, the gates are closed on the god's holiday. What do you do?"
"I make a charm skill roll to get him to let us in."

Charming is another of those situations that should be roleplayed between the referee and the players. If the player doing the charming is charming enough - let the player have it. Bad roleplaying should yield worse results, and there is an argument for the role of charisma here. My ruling would be to let charisma affect the magnitude of the result, but not the chance of success. A high charisma character could be granted a greater result or better outcome, but they should rely on what the player said at the time to determine if the charm attempt succeeds or fails. Do not take away from the roleplaying with the dice or a modifier - let the players play. Recommendation: remove the charm skill from the game, and let the players natural charisma determine the base chance of success.

"The guard holds his sword on you, pointing to the stolen purse on the ground. What do you do?"
"I tell him someone else did it, I make a CHR check."

This is another of those purely social activities that should depend on roleplaying alone to determine the success chance. Charisma can affect what happens as a degree of success or failure in the game; but the player needs to think, be crafty, and put on a good show for the group. Why remove some of the most memorable shenanigans of the thief player by letting the dice play the game for them? Recommendation: remove deception and trickery skills from the game, and let the players roleplay the attempt in-character.

"This is my last set of platemail, the shopowner says, the price is 800 gold!"
"I make a barter skill roll to get the price down."

Bartering and negotiation should be done between the player and the referee, with no skills involved. Charisma can affect the final outcome, such as the magnitude of the discount, but it should never replace the one-on-one roleplaying during the negotiating process. The player could try all sorts of thing, like making an offer to sell their salave at that shop alone, for a good deal, trade in a valuable item, or do some other favor to get the price of the platemail down. Recommendation: eliminate all negotiation and barter skills from the game, let player-referee interaction determine success chance, and let the players wheel and deal on their own.

This feels like a pretty comprehensive list of skills negatively impacting roleplaying, and furthers my thoughts on what should be moved to the roleplaying side, and the rest can be played with the normal game rules. This isn't a 'don't do that' type list, but more of an open thought into how we can return the entertaining parts of the game to the table, enhance roleplaying, and let the players play.

Too many modern games put everything on skills, attributes, and success chances - and they leave the game cold with no player input. At that point, you are just rolling dice against a spreadsheet, and the player has minimal involvement with what is happening. Older games never had that luxury, and encouraged players to be wild, make things up, and play creatively. The innocence of the times mandated the players could play, and that creativity affected the outcome of the game. It is important to step back, and look for parts of the game that are 'over ruled.'

The goal is to return roleplaying to its roots, and capture the original feel of the game. I do feel that some rules systems go to far, and simulate everything - to the point of removing the fun from the game. We have to recapture the original feel of our games, let the rules part cover mechanical actions only, and return the spontaneity and player input to the game. Roleplaying is not mathematical simulation, it is a simulation guided by player input - with a strong emphasis on ad-lib and improvisation.

You want people to walk away from the game saying, "That was fun and my input mattered."

You don't want people to walk away from the game saying, "I didn't know the rules, so I didn't do well."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Design Room: Labyrinth Lord

Labyrinth Lord is an old-school retro-clone which seeks to emulate Basic D&D in a rules set covered by the Open Gaming License. Today we will be doing a Design Room tear down of the game, and examining some of the game design issues and topics with the LL game. This is not a traditional review, since there are many places to find those. We are focusing on game design, along with the game's place in the fantasy gaming world. Since the big guns of fantasy gaming at this time are Pathfinder and D&D4, we will be bringing up some of the design differences between them. I know is not a flame-proof activity, but I will do my best to stick to design and keep things objective. If I share my personal preference, I will make that clear. We will go over the general items first, and then delve into the differences with other games at the end.

Labyrinth Lord simulates the Basic D&D game as best it can. Since the Basic D&D game is NOT covered by the OGL, this is more a "If we started at D&D 3.5, how close can we get to a Basic D&D feel." It is a challenging design goal, since you can't replicate Basic D&D to the number and letter, but you are looking to emulate the feel of the earlier game. It is possible, and LL succeeds at its design goal very well. The game, while founded in D&D 3.5, looks and feels like an older edition, and plays very well.

Labyrinth Lord utilizes the classic "race as class" convention, which I find very fun and nostalgic. The spells feel like classic spells, with a couple differences, which is also nice. Combat works off a chart, the monsters feel like the classics, and even the world design and treasure feel authentically nostalgic. The hard numbers are not the same, but there is enough here to make everything feel like it should. A sample dungeon is given, and all the examples and flavor text read like they were written by someone who understands the original material very thoroughly.

Advanced Edition Companion
If you want to simulate some of the material from AD&D, the game has you covered. The separate book, the Advanced Edition Companion does what many of us did back in the day, is use the AD&D books as source material for our D&D games. The AEC book features a replacement for character generation, that allows separate race and class combos, and also replaces the original game's spell system with a more 'advanced' one. There is a section of monsters inspired from the hardcovers, and everything is made to work together. This is a pretty bold undertaking design-wise, and it succeeds very nicely. With this book plugged into the original system, the game plays like a basic D&D game with an AD&D mod to it. It is a clever idea, and it works quite well.

Overall Feel
Labyrinth Lord is an important game, because it gets back to the roots of roleplaying. The game is deadly, characters do not have a lot of powers, and there are little rules to help survival. To play the game, you need to interact with the referee - you can't hide behind a list of powers or a rulebook. Clever strategies like taking cover behind a table versus archers aren't handled in the rules, players need to think of them on the spot, and the referee needs to reward creativity (and punish foolishness) directly during play as an interpretation. The referee has the power to declare a tactic gets a bonus or penalty on the roll, worsen or improve the situation, or anything else based upon what is happening live at the table.

Because of this, LL is a tougher game to referee for some people. It is a more social game than one that puts the referee in the position of a rules book enforcer. The game demands improvisation, and most situations are handled live between the players and referee. In some games, finding a trap requires a search skill roll. In LL, the players need to declare where they are searching, how they search, and any measures they take to keep themselves safe. Puzzles are figured out by the players, not die rolls. Because of this, a referee's descriptions and skill at coming up with fair, interesting, and fun results is key. You need a vivid imagination, and a knack for description that puts players in another place.

There is a good deal of trust involved between the players and referee, more so than modern games. The referee has the ability to say, 'everyone dies.' In modern games, there is a tactical element, figure play, and a whole series of rules that need to be accounted for before the referee says, 'everyone dies.' A LL referee needs to be mature, fair, and impartial - all the while running the monsters to their deadliest. This is the same as modern games, but in LL, there is strong interpersonal element. Your interaction with the referee matters, what you say means something, and the player's wits are directly tested. In other games, the player's character design skills are often the thing that is tested.

This is also a problem for some people with LL, characters are extremely simple, and there's not much too them. Some people love character design, and I am one of them, but there is also a certain appeal in the basic and simple. It is not an easy game to sell to hardcore players used to designing characters and min-maxing for maximum power. A LL player needs to be more interested in the social, puzzle, and world aspects to the game - and also the challenge of surviving an impossible mission.

vs. Pathfinder
Pathfinder is really close to the feel of LL, although Pathfinder characters have more powers, and much better survivability. When you have a 600-page rulebook backing you up, players can find a rule to survive with, a character build to be confident in, or a favorite tactic to use in battle. The games share the same deadliness at lower levels, with LL being the harsher of the two. LL is the simpler game, by far, and has a far simpler combat system than the figure-ready Pathfinder combat system. LL requires a chart for determining to-hit, which is a minus to some, along with more restrictive rules for thief skills, saves, and other systems. Players used to buffing an ability score to get a save bonus will be disappointed.

Resource management is the same in both games, although it is easier in Pathfinder for everyone to have a pocket wand of cure light wounds to top off hit points during an adventure. Magic items in Pathfinder are really good, and can actually fill missing class roles in a party. In LL, your mage typically has one or two magic missile spells available for an entire dungeon. In Pathfinder, you can buy a wand with 50 magic missile shots stored in it, and use it throughout the adventure. That wand in LL typically has less utility, and most characters can't use one. Pathfinder is clearly the 'high magic item' game, and this is a byproduct of its D&D3 roots.

Simplicity is its own beauty. The world of Pathfinder is huge, with dozens of lands, thousands of monsters, varied classes, and infinite races (Race Design Guide). The size of Pathfinder can be intimidating, both in the rules and in the world. You have to accept a big commitment in order to play, either in understanding, time, or both. LL's world is simple and defined. The big bad in the basic book is a dragon, and that's it. Add in the AEC book, and you get demons and planar creatures, but not thousands of options. There is a beauty in that simplicity, having a limited number of working parts to build with, and having a world defined along a known set of options. Do not underestimate the allure of simplicity when designing a game, it is just as powerful as a wealth of options, if not more so.

Pathfinder clearly wins of style, support, the world, variety, and quality. LL wins on simplicity, interaction, and original feel. I love both games, and would play either in a heartbeat.

vs. D&D 4
LL is a bit farther from D&D4. D&D4 is not a deadly game, as characters have healing surges to keep them alive through a long dungeon run. D&D4 characters had a wide variety of powers at first level to use repeatedly in a combat to vanquish monsters, and there are built-in character roles to fill with party members. D&D4 is designed to be a fun figure combat game first, and a dungeon survival game last. D&D4 is clearly designed to be closer to a superhero game than LL.

Resource management in D&D4 is somewhere in between Pathfinder and LL. While there are powerful magic items in D&D4, there are significant use limitations applied to them by the rules, limiting the times per day they can be used by character level (not by item charge). It is a really game-y solution, and one that is not as satisfying and free as the other two games. D&D4 characters also need to track powers that recharge by turn, encounter, and day; along with healing surges. Record keeping in D&D is the highest, with power cards needing to be printed, and many per-character resources needing to be tracked.

D&D4 loses on simplicity, since typically a computer program is needed to generate legal characters - especially at higher levels. Our group needed the program, and disliked not being able to work on a character at home. The errata in the books was also problematic, with the program updated, and huge printouts needing to be carried around and referenced for out book-based players. There is also much more stuff in D&D4, thousands of feats, magic items, powers, and options - the generation program (when we used it) can't display all of these in an easy to understand format, it often dropped down a huge list box of feats or powers, and novice players struggled to make a meaningful choice.

That said, I still like D&D4's focus on the hero, the dangerous-themed world, and some of the choices they made to get rid of sacred cows, and make the game more action oriented. The original three books were still an incredible tabletop game (not like original D&D, but it was fun). D&D4 wins on all those points. LL beats them on simplicity, feeling like D&D, and forcing players to think and be social. It was too easy for players in our D&D4 group to hide behind a power list to solve a problem; in LL, that simply isn't possible, and forces players to think and be engaged.

Getting There from Here
"Can you get there from here?" If all you want to do is quickly get together with friends, roll 3d6 and pick classes, and play a simple dungeon game - LL is the go-to game. Players don't need a lot of books, the rules can be freely downloaded from the Internet, and the action is quick and simple. If you are looking for detailed character designs, or that superior figure game - LL is not it. The question then becomes, how much of what you are looking for in a fantasy game does LL provide? If LL can provide 60, 70, or 80% of that dungeon experience, and do so simple and fast, it fills the bill for me. You can 'get to the experience' from here.

Granted, sometimes you need to play in Pathfinder's Golarion, or D&D4's Nerrath, and there just aren't ways of getting those experiences outside those games. In that case, you go to the game you want to play. The only thing missing from those games is that original D&D interaction between player and referee, where the player's choices and wits mean more than the rules or character build. In that case, for me at least, LL and the more simple games win. I like them all, and really, it is a matter of player choice which one is best for you.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Design Room: Car Wars Compendium

If you don't know Car Wars, you owe it to yourself to check out the original game. This is not the 2000's reboot in the tiny 2-car books, this is the full PDF available over on the Steve Jackson Games e23 Store. You can pick up the full PDF for about $15, or the Mini Car Wars game for $1. Today, we will do a design tear down of the full PDF, which represents the full game at the last printing of the rules. Note that this isn't a traditional review, we are breaking down the game into game design topics, and talking about the good, bad, and everything in-between.

Car Wars is one of those games where it is hard to do a design retrospective, the issues involved are like being handled a report to write an overview of Microsoft - there are many pieces, and a long road to consider before you can even begin to tear apart the design goals and successes of an individual area. I will focus on the road to where this book eventually came to, the rules compendium pictured above.

Car Wars was one of those pre-Internet games during the age of the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, and its heyday ended around the time of the original IBM PC and Nintendo NES. This game was one of the first big tabletop PvP games ever made; it had quick setup, could handle multiple players easily, and had a complete vehicle design system. Players could design a car within a pre-agreed budget, select a scenario or arena map, and have at it. Setup was as easy as having a vehicle record sheet and placing your car counter at the start point. Car Wars was one of those addictive games that derailed many a D&D session, and its eventual spiritual successor was the original Battletech game.

More Is Not Always Better
The original Car Wars game was printed in a tiny pocket box, with a complete rule book no larger and longer than a game manual for a typical XBox game. The game have about a dozen cars and motorcycles, and about as many weapon options. For the most part, the fights happened between lightly armored vehicles with machineguns, rocket launchers, lasers, and the like - with a couple 'dropped weapons' that the cars could drop on the map, such as mines, smoke, caltrops, and other map-changing weapons. Future pocket box games added more rules for pedestrians, and also buses and big rigs. For a while, the base game was good enough for a ton of fun, or 2,400 lbs with an XHv chassis.

The game was supported by the Autoduel Quarterly magazine, and also periodic rules supplements. Boats, trailers, blimps, tanks, trikes, helicopters, hovercraft, race cars, dragsters, planes, jets, and a whole Speed Racer credits reel of other vehicles were added to the game eventually. All the best rules for which were gathered in the Car Wars Compendium (above), and the final version of the rules was released. Note that the tanks and some of the other vehicle types are missing from this book, as they pulled back some of the creations to make the rules clear and presentable.

More was not always better, and the CWC seems unfocused and all over the place if you haven't played the original game. If you don't know the original charm of two cars fighting it out on a desolate road, you may think a hovercraft fighting an off-road motorcycle pulling a travel trailer (chased by a mini helicopter and a gas-powered speedboat) is what the game is all about. There is still too much in this game, and the original charm is buried deep in a mess of vehicle types, weapons, and options.

The Turn Structure
Another sore point with Car Wars was the turn structure. In the original game, you were moving in turn increments of 0.10 seconds, with one action allowed every second. This improved by the time CWC rolled around to 0.20 seconds, which sped the game up by a factor of two. The gameplay was still very slow, with many 4-8 car combats taking 4+ hours to resolve a 30 second span of time (150-300 phases of movement). As kids, George and I ran 200+ car combats over a week during the summer, and it was a detailed, if not interesting wargame to run in that much detail with that many vehicles.

Part of the problem is Car Wars was simulating physics on the tabletop. They needed a microsecond phase to handle car chases correctly, so thing like a slower car rear ending a faster car would not happen. This obsession with accurate physics extended into the crash, ramping, and turn systems. Nowhere else can you gain an appreciation for seat-belts, or the devastating consequences of a head-on collision better than Car Wars. Games with simpler turn structures and a lessening for the understanding of momentum eventually replaced Car Wars as the PvP game of choice, such as Battletech, Wahammer 40K, and several others. Remember, we are still pre-Magic the Gathering, so tabletop wargaming and roleplaying has not totally been decimated by the MtG tsunami of the 1990's.

The Rules
Car Wars used a straight 2d6, N+ system. Weapons were rated on their to-hit number on 2d6, and you needed to roll that or higher on 2d6. There were modifiers, a few at first, and too-many at the end. Damage was marked off in little boxes on the printed record sheets, an average weapon doing 2d6 damage to around 30 points of armor. The armor ablated, so if you rolled 8 points of damage, you lost 8 points of armor. Once the armor was gone, damage continued through to the interior of the car, knocking out weapons, engines, and possibly the crew.

At any time the crew could surrender, and the car would be considered off-limits to further weapon fire. Of course, the car could still burn, explode, or crash after surrender; and also there was the potential for a devastating lucky shot during the fight, so the vehicle's crew wasn't 100% safe. Crew members could get XPs, and get better skills, such as driving, gunnery, and even skills to use with hand weapons.

The rules worked well, and handling things was straightforward. Once the CWC rolled around, the rules absorbed years worth of errata, questions, and clarifications - so things were considerably more complicated. The addition of special weapons and devices also further complicated things, such as rules for wire-guided missiles, jump jets, boat wakes, cars entering water, and a whole phonebook full of special rules appeared. If you grew up with the original game, you could deal with the complexity. If you were new to the game, you had a lot of trouble understanding how everything worked together (hint: if you are new to this, start with Mini Car Wars for a buck).

Compared to other systems, Car Wars was more complicated than Battletech, but less complicated than Squad Leader. It compared well with something like Warhammer 40K, since the number of units was less, and there was less fiddly movement and rules interpretations to worry about and fight over. The turn length and time to play a game killed the game for many, since most every game since has cut the time to play down considerably. The newer two-car Car Wars books seek to address the time requirement, and do so quite well. Of course, when computer games rolled around, and could simulate all this weapons fire and physics in silicon, the days of Car Wars came to an end.

The Scenarios
The scenarios you could create with Car Wars were limitless, and ranged from road battles with convoys, to motorcycle gang attacks on a town, to professional sports arenas with cars battling for big money. It was a true 'gladiator' style game set on wheels to the roar of engines and weapon fire, and it was cool. Most every scenario could be played with multiple players, so the game scaled well for large groups. Everyone got one car and a crew, and you were off and playing.

By the end, most scenarios took place in large tabletop arenas, as this style of play was the easiest to play with a pick-up group. It was a very fun PvP style game, and you could join a game without having to know the other players. If you knew the basic rules and how to move and shoot, you were in most games. It was always cool to have another car on the board, and you never had trouble finding a group to join. This pick-up play was a very nice design element, and you see this carried through to games even today, on tabletops and on computers.

Vehicle Design
Vehicle design was fun, but required a lot of fine tuning and math at the end. It was mostly all addition, and making sure you covered all the special cases, like linking weapons, turret requirements, and other design rules. You could design limitless vehicles for fighting, passengers, cargo, scouting, or any other use. The lighter your car, the less the armor, but the faster you accelerated. A lightly armored small car could achieve victory in a goal-oriented checkpoint scenario, where a heavier armored car could not. Deciding hat you would give up for that speed was a fun part of designing a car.

Weapons and Escalation
The original game shined with a small weapon list - there was a difference between using two linked machineguns versus a single rocket launcher. The weapon choice was small, but it led to a scissor-paper-rock style of attack, design, and defense. The ways someone could attack were limited, and you could get away with a design focusing on one-shot rockets and dropped weapons. Car designs didn't have too much armor, so every weapon was deadly.

By the time CWC rolled around, an entire armor of weapons and defenses were added to the game. You needed HEAT shells for your rocket launcher, along with infrared laser guidance. The tweaks and special equipment got more detailed, and the armor and defenses kept getting better. The designs of the cars became better too, with first-generation classic cars being out-gunned and out-armored by the later designs. What was simple became complicated, and the game suffered on a basic level. It was fun for people that loved design and min-maxing, but it became inaccessible for many others who wanted to try out a design and have fun. Again, if you knew the original game, you knew what to stay away from, and how the original game felt in comparison with CWC.

Car Wars was a big part of our life when we were growing up, and I will always see the game as something fun. Today, I see a lot of its problems, especially the bookkeeping, math, and time requirements. Computers do all this better, but as a designer, it is important to see how a game like this runs on the 'metal' of the tabletop. How do you simulate physics without a college textbook? Where could a real-time simulation system be streamlined and made better? Car Wars is a fascinating problem to solve with game design, and it still remains so.

CWC represents an inevitable and complicated end to a game that was once simple and fun, and it reminds me of how D&D4 ended up with its endless options and expansions, and how other games of today will end up. I appreciate the work that went into CWC, it is a great collection of rules, and a great little game is hidden in there. But do we have to expand games into oblivion? Sometimes, saying no and keeping the game simple is harder than saying yes all the fun new ideas a game creates. One of the most important qualities of a designer is saying 'no.'

Three stars as we drive off into the sunset. One for the memories. One for having a PDF. And one for the incredible concept hidden away in this game.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Long Lists of d100 Combat Modifiers

We were playing a game of the classic Star Frontiers the other day, and George and I noticed what a hassle it was to constantly calculate a character's chance to hit with the combat modifiers chart. Every turn, the modifiers changed due to the situation, movement, range, cover, and a bunch of other factors. Every turn, for each character, it went something like this:
"...range, medium, -20; target is running, -20; firer is stationary, +0; etc."
Granted, the numbers and percentages are such where you can do the math in your head, but the process of adding and subtracting all these numbers dragged the game down. In short, it was quick work, but a lot of rapid-fire math which ended up feeling pretty heavy over time.

This is a common trait of old-school percentile games, the heavy use of percentage based combat modifiers - often in long charts of situational modifiers. Top Secret, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, Space Opera, Rolemaster, and a bunch of other d100 games all have this in common. Even the 2d6 wargame Car Wars eventually spawned a huge combat modifier list, and the RPG GURPS has an even longer list on modifiers for its 3d6 scale. All these games share the <<please wait, calculating modifiers>> step in combat, and they all have that same innate slowness to them.

Compare and contrast this with AC, and the to-hit charts and systems in AD&D through D&D4. In most of the D&Ds, they account for many of the fiddly modifiers in AC, and it usually falls to the referee to apply a final situational modifier based on the circumstances (some versions do not encourage this). Granted, there are some d20 systems (and even D&D variants) that start adding in modifier charts, but for the most part, you are setting one number once, and then rolling from there. The classic d100 games crept closer to real-life simulation, and thus had to account for all sorts of crazy and specific modifiers.

Many of these games included the caveats to 'let the referee decide the final modifiers' and 'use these charts as guidelines', and you did see later games move away from these specific-case modifiers to a more general system (easy = +0%, medium= -20%, hard = -40%, etc). All this evolved into the referee set DC and AC system you see today in D&D; along with a couple other pool and success based systems we see in Shadowrun, World of Darkness, and a couple other games.

The old iterative percentile modifier charts were hard to use, and slowed the game down - even if they were straightforward and to-the-point, like Star Frontier's charts. Repeated use made them familiar, but there was still a lot of addition and subtraction that makes a straightforward d20 + mod vs. DC roll look simple in comparison. There are other nice dice systems that modify dice or target numbers, which also help keep things simple and fast.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Design Room: Pathfinder NPC Codex

Serious games need serious supplements, and today we will be doing a design tear down of Pathfinder's NPC Codex. Note that this is not a normal review, there are plenty of those on Amazon and Paizo's site. What we will be doing today is breaking down a game or rulebook on design terms, and bringing up issues associated with game design and theory.

We are looking at a hefty 320 page book, with over 300 NPCs, the Pathfinder iconics statted out at various levels, animal companions, and a lot more. It's a nice book, lavishly illustrated, with a ton of useful info. I am more happy with this book than the Equipment Guide, but then again, I like character books, since they give me personalities to fill the world with (in the design and theme of the world's creators).

The NPCs have level-appropriate gear, and this is folded into the stats, which is nice, and makes the NPCs 'pull of the shelf' and useable. Only classes from the core rulebook are included, which is good, since if all you play with is core, you don't have things you can't use. This also opens up a Codex 2 and 3, with expansion book classes, which honestly, I wouldn't mind. From a design standpoint, including only core classes and races is fine with me, since it creates no dependencies on other books, and people not interested in ninjas and gunslingers don't have stuff they can't use. My bookshelf and backpack may complain, but hey, that's why they sell PDFs.

The NPCs are designed with a specific race for each, but it not too hard to swap those out with another race, different gear, or new feats and powers. If you play like we like to, and drop PCs into a 1-20 world, this book will be a very valuable addition to your Pathfinder arsenal of referee tools. In most cases, a nice piece of art is given, along with a sample character write-up of a personality in the world. This is a very nice touch, and I love to see the creativity in these designs and backgrounds. This is almost the next best thing to getting 300 new iconic characters, and plenty of drop-in personalities for your campaign words. Top notch, and thank you Paizo.

Another big plus to this book is they give sample tactics for each NPC in combat. Monster tactics started way back in D&D2, when monster complexity started to creep up, and the monster manuals started adding tactics sections in the monster stat blocks. This continued in D&D3, and started to include things like feats, special powers, resistances, and a bunch of other stuff. Monster complexity in both D&D3.5/PF and D&D4 is up there, and referees need to pay attention to these blocks, or the monster (as designed) fizzles out in combat when it should have been special and memorable.

I am mixed about needing tactics blocks in games. In one case, I am happy to have them. In another, I feel it is a symptom of a complex game where someone needs to lay out things that should be readily apparent to those using the monsters. It is almost as if referees need 'monster training' and the tactics block is a way for that to happen. In many games, and most OGL old-school games, they don't need this, and what monsters can do is simple and apparent. Again, Pathfinder is a complex game, and this help is appreciated. Your taste and complexity tolerance may vary, but the goods outweigh the bads here.

I can't review an NPC book without making a comment on character complexity. The sheer number of options, gear, builds, and equipment available in Pathfinder, along with the long list of skills and feats, makes higher-level characters quite complex. This comes with the territory, if you play Pathfinder, you are looking for that complexity, so it isn't a bad thing. Since OGL alternatives exist with simpler characters, you can play those. Pathfinder is a cleaned-up 3.5E, so the characters can grow to be quite large in terms of character sheets and power blocks. This leads to large entries in the book, which can slow down reference during play. Myself, I prefer simple characters and powers without the need to reference secondary books, but the NPC Codex does a good job of trying to make the characters easy to play, which is a plus.

Another design thought. The game ends up needing a book like this just to give referees and idea of power level of all the characters in the game. This is an important point - up until now, it was hard to judge power level without a computer program to generate NPCs or NPCs from modules or supplements. This book is invaluable for designing adventures and doing dry runs of combats, since pretty well designed standard templates exist across many character levels. Some community-created standards existed (if you know where to look), but none to this level of completeness and coverage.

Build Optimization
I should note that some of the more experienced character designers are starting to critique some of the builds. It is understandable, but I am of the feeling that not every build needs to be hyper-optimized. If you wanted to, you could tweak them yourself, swap ability scores, or use your favorite mix-max adjustments. For most people, I feel that the scores given are good enough, and reflect average NPCs, not hyper-optimized ones. In fact, I'd prefer average, and make the tweaks myself.

The NPC Codex is just brimming with ideas. Do not discount this! NPC after NPC, the designers chose to include a wide variety of 'slices of life' throughout the book, giving you infernal champions, cave stalkers, and tons of other fun ideas for opponents, cultures, locations, and parts of the Golarion game world. You can crack the book open, find a NPC, and design an adventure just around the ideas presented there. They give a good overview of many different specific character types, and fit these into the world quite skillfully. Without these, the book would have less value, since page after page of bland character stats has been done before, and frankly any computer can do this. Taking the world and meshing it with character designs, along with a little bit of color and background, makes this a greatly useful book.

Comparisons With D&D4
Ben, "I felt a great disturbance, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in anger. I fear something terrible has happened."
Luke, "What happened, Wizards release another NPC guide for the Realms?"
But seriously, this is a major difference between Pathfinder and D&D4 - how the games treat NPCs. In D&D4, most NPCs are really supposed to be designed as monsters with the standard monster stat-block, 'hero' classes do not exist outside of the PCs and a select few NPCs. In Pathfinder, everyone follows the same rules, and monsters are statted realistically. You can even take a bobcat, make it semi-intelligent, and give it a couple levels of ranger if you want. You just need to do the math (D&D4 wins on simplicity of monster design).

Like Ben and Luke mention, there seems to be an outright hostility to powerful NPCs in D&D4 and all the official D&D campaign worlds (compared to previous editions). We are talking design here, and this is an important point. D&D4 is designed to encourage that the PCs are the only major heroes in the world, and everything else is a monster class. Later modules and adventures may contradict this, but the flavor of the original books is pretty clear. This even extends into D&D4's world sourcebooks, where it is very hard to find stat blocks for powerful friendly NPCs. A decision was likely made that 'powerful friendly NPCs ruin the experience' so they are discouraged and even written away in the guides. In D&D4, the PCs are the heroes - and the game is designed around that.

Is this a good thing, design wise? Possibly, since there was a supposed sentiment that the 'Realms was unfun to play in' because of powerful NPCs. Eliminating all powerful friendly NPCs from your source material is one way to fix this, and put the emphasis back on the PCs. It seems a bit heavy handed to me though, and not really the way I like to play. I like a world full of powerful good, neutral, and hostile NPCs - with no one possessing plot immunity. Powerful NPCs can fall, be replaced, or disappear like anyone else - a giant soap opera of characters interacting, coming, and going as the referee desires.

Pathfinder is different - the world is supposed to be filled with powerful NPCs, since that is how the world works. How many of them are 'friendly' and how active they are are up to you, having the level 20 paladin "Horace the Honorable" ride in and save the day every time for the PCs is really bad refereeing, and not really a design failure. D&D4's elimination of powerful allies in the game world is a design solution to a supposedly common refereeing mistake. Again, the design of Pathfinder is different, and continues the D&D3.5 treatment of NPCs - everyone is equal, and the referee is responsible for balance and smart use of them. I like D&D4's focus on the heroes, but I don't really like it forced in the game material I buy - this is personal preference that crosses over into the design realm.

Paizo is like the pro-sports team that pays big money, and consistently gets the great players who make incredible plays. The quality level in this book puts many games to shame, with full color pages, glorious artwork, interesting writing and flavor, and a sharp attention to detail. This high quality level can take an average release, such as the Equipment Guide, and knock it into the win column, just through presentation and detail alone. The NPC Codex is an example of a great release knocked into the stratosphere by quality and attention to detail.

This is another important design consideration - quality matters. Just one bad piece of art can sink your product (ask us), and maintaining a 100% devotion to quality in art, text, and content really pays off. If you have a choice between releasing your game now, or spending that extra time polishing art, text, rules, and layout - spend the extra time. You will be on the shelf next to these guys, and you literally want to bring your best game.

I like the NPC Codex, and design-wise, it is a solid book that I wish would have came out earlier. The way we play, this is an essential book. Highly recommended if you play Pathfinder, and even worth a look if you don't. You could pull ideas for hundreds of NPCs, enemies, and other characters from this book - and even possibly a new PC or two. This is a solid design, with a number of extra design elements hidden in the mix to make the book a lot more useful and fun. You can buy a PDF too to save you shelf space, and give your iPad or Android tablet a workout, and your shelf a respite. Overall, 5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Design School: Encouraging Failure Behavior

Roleplaying games typically encourage failure behavior. Failure behavior is introvert, inwardly-thinking actions a game forces you to take which pull you out of the current situation. Someone who "turtles up" and thinks about how a situation is solved only through a narrow set of limitations (defined by rules and the character sheet) is inherently anti-heroic. You are now taking action as defined by the situation, you are taking action according to a narrow set of limitations. Failure thinking starts with seeing your abilities and powers as your limitations, and then figuring out the highest probability of success based on those limitations in the environment you are in.

An introvert thinks of their limitations first, and then judges success based on the situation.

History and life reward extrovert-like behavior - taking action, being the hero, and taking chances outside one's own abilities. Heroes are not defined by their abilities, they are defined by their actions. A hero thinks of the situation first, how they can creatively manipulate the odds to their favor, and then use their abilities to win. Heroic thinking starts with the situation and the environment they are in, and then modified by the hero's abilities and powers.

An extrovert considers the situation first, and then applies abilities as needed.

This is so key - too many times around a table I would present players with a situation, and bam, all at once, the players turtled up, faces buried in record sheets and rulebooks, looking for an answer based on their powers and abilities. Even if the answer was as obvious as someone saying "I kick the table over", the players would be looking for a skill that does that, considering a mile-long power list, or judging combat rules in the rulebook. The design of the game directly encourages this failure behavior, even in players who are normally heroic.

Our Sample Game
Let's use a simple situation to illustrate our game, and show you an example of how rules encourage failure behavior. Let's say we are playing D&D4, one of the games we saw a lot of this style of player behavior with. D&D4 gives every player a huge list of powers, most all of which are combat-focused, with a couple non-combat utility powers and rituals thrown in the mix. Our referee describes a situation where the four low-level players peek in a door, and see four goblins sitting around a tale playing cards. What happens next with our D&D4 group?

Character Focused Games
Well, in D&D4, every problem typically is solved by beating it over the head with sticks and magic powers. Instantly, everyone focuses in on their character sheets, judging which powers to use, what their chance to hit is, who goes first, and how this cool figure battle is going to play out. With D&D4, the fights are fun, and typically meant to be beaten, so it's no question players will rush right in to use cool powers. There is little danger, and great impetus to act. This highlights where the focus of the game centers on - the player's record sheets sitting in front of them. Of course, there are likely maps, figures, and a situation happening, but the players typically turtle up and let their powers solve the situation.

Rules Focused Games
Some games are different, where character have less powers, and the rules are the star of the show. This typically happens in more simulation style games, such as Aftermath, D&D3, or GURPS. The character still may have an impressive power and ability list, but the focus of the game is on intricate combat rules, and how those rules can be used to solve the situation at hand. These games can be deadly, such as Pathfinder, but there are often huge sections of rules to take advantage of in order to reduce risk. A player could specialize in tripping opponents, grappling, or any other special combat rule - and thus be protected from bad outcomes more often than not. If the referee states the situation, and the players immediately ask for the rulebook, you have a game with a failure behavior. Players are not solving the situation with creativity or heroic action, they are judging how to best use the rules to beat the encounter.

Situation Focused Games
Let's bring an old-school RPG into the mix. Typically, in a game like original D&D, Labyrinth Lord, or Basic Fantasy RPG, you don't have many powers at all. Most mages have one-shot spells, and character sheets are extremely simple. Players can't turtle up, checking a skill list, pulling over the rule book, or seeking a structural, introvert way out of the situation. Old school games are typically more deadly, and players need to create an advantage for themselves outside the rules. They need to think - the rules books won't help them, and their character sheets are little help beyond a couple powers, and even less hit points. The focus of action needs to be on the current situation, and players need to get creative in order to survive. The fighter has no intimidate skill, and possibly needs to charge in, kicking over the table. The mage could possibly cast darkness on a hall where reinforcements were heard. The thief needs to act within the situation, and not the rules, using a chair to leap over the group and land behind them, preventing escape. The focus of the player's attention is directly on the referee and the situation at hand, and not the rules or a character sheet.

It's important to note that many of the actions above require on-the-spot referee rulings in the old-school game, with the referee applying bonuses based on the creativity of the action the player wants to take. There typically will be no rules for any of these actions, and this is good - you want players to be creative, try anything, and think outside the box (or game box). Having few rules for special actions actually encourages anything to be attempted, and gives the referee great leeway in handing out bonuses and penalties based on those. This is the 'purity of action' that attracts so many players to (well run) old-school games.

A question arises, should the focus of an RPG be mostly on the referee and the situation? It is important, since RPGs are social games, and the players need to think, act, and play. The goal of a role playing game is to play a role, and act out how your 'avatar' would react to different situations. You are supposed to think, react, and play the hero. Too many rules, and you are playing a tactical wargame. Too much character powers, and you are playing a power vs. power wargame. If the rules and characters overshadow the situation, you are not playing a roleplaying game anymore. It is at best, a card game or RPG-like boardgame.

Understand that the rules are important, and having a character with defined roles and abilities is too. Some games go too far on either side, and take away the focus of the action on the situation. This causes the unheroic "turtle up" behind rules or character sheets behavior we have seen with many groups, and limits a player's creativity and eventually their heroic action. Even if you are playing a game which rewards introvert-style play, mix things up, encourage players to think outside the rulebooks and character sheets, and let the players be creative, think, and play.

To summarize, make sure that your rules and character designs don't overshadow that essential player-to-referee interaction that makes RPGs what they are. Don't write so many rules they restrain your creativity. Don't make character so deep and complex they become the only thing players think about. Balance your design. Encourage heroic behavior. Allow for creative play and improvisation. Allow anyone to try anything, be fair in your rulings, and let the players play.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rules as a Fun Tax

It's helpful to think of game rules as a 'fun tax.' That is, a series off hoops that you need to understand and master before you start having fun. You can even break this down to individual rules subsystems, such as the D&D3/Pathfinder skill system, which I consider a pretty heavy rules subsystem for what it is used for, which is mostly for noncombat and background skills. I will sum up my feelings about the D&D3 skill subsystem with this quote:

"What do you mean I need to buy perform? I am a 17th level bard!"

The 'classes versus free skills conflict' aside, every player needs to understand the skill system in order to create characters and start having fun. Of course, you can always fudge it and have a veteran player pick skills for the player, but that is a kludge, and certainly isn't a good 'new player experience' at all. If you were making a Facebook or other social game, and required players to find a veteran player to understand the game and learn it, you wouldn't get many players. That is a crude analogy, but it is appropriate. RPGs are social games.

What to do about the 'fun taxes' of pen-and-paper games? Well, for one, I am a big fan of simplifying rules down to their base components, and reducing complexity. We need 'green' roleplaying games, built with simplicity and new player friendliness in mind. I like my tower computers, but we live in a tablet world now - RPGs need to lighten up and become more useful and relevant. They need to be approachable without roleplaying being a requirement, in order to broaden their appeal. Most all of the European-style boxed games you can buy at game stores like Arkham Horror, Catan, and others do not require RP (but can be played as RP, or modded to do so). This leads to an interesting point:

You don't need rules to roleplay. Players do it all the time in MMOs without rules, all it takes is an active imagination. RP can be encouraged in the rules, but rules are not needed for the act. It is an interesting 'take' on writing an RP rules set - write the game first, and then worry about RP as an optional add-on component later.

A lot of games shift off complexity on the RP subsystem, as in, "Oh, we don't need rules for that, that will be handled through RP." Without the RP subsystem to shift rules to, all of a sudden, the problems in game design become clearer. How is a door forced or a lock picked? Some games leave it to the group to decide, but this is not ideal from a complexity control perspective, and also from a new player perspective. If European boardgame 'Explore the Dungeon' has a 4 in 6 chance to force a stuck door token, and pen-and-paper 'Dungeon RP Mysteries' leaves the entire 'stuck door' procedure up to the group - the new player is going to feel better with the former, and not the latter.

Wow, that rambled a bit. But I hope you have an appreciation of creating heavy rules subsystems in your games, and see these burdensome systems as a 'tax' on the fun of the game. You should never force a player to be a 'rules compiler' - someone who has to sit there and figure out how everything works together. The rules should present themselves naturally, and be clear and apparent from when they are read. Understand, all 'rules taxes' aren't bad - but they do take away time and reduce clarity, and you need rules to have a game. How many rules you need, and the point when these rules overpower the game - these are both things you need to think about as a game designer.