Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Why not play a dungeon?"

We are continuing our playtest of the Warhammer RPG, and an interesting question came up during play, "Why don't we just roll up a dungeon and play that?" Before I get to answering that, let me tell you how we got to that question.

Our Warhammer play through is focused on the traditional Warhammer style of adventure, a roaming, story-based adventure that changes locations, situations, and NPCs rapidly as the characters travel about the local land while trying to solve a big problem. It is definitely not a dungeon, like an OGL game would use, but more of a series of situations the characters are free to solve any way they would like, and the outcome determines what happens next.

Contrast this with an OGL game, where a simple dungeon map is good enough. That is the adventure, and the reason for playing is to gain loot and get XPs. This is a similar motivation of D&D4, it is simple, and that simplicity is its appeal.

Let's look at Pathfinder and also D&D3.5 circa Forgotten Realms. Here the adventure de-jour is a roaming story, much like our Warhammer play through, but with an emphasis on throwing in the occasional dungeon run. A great example of this adventure style is the Pathfinder adventure path. It is different than a pure roaming story adventure in two ways: you still have a strong loot motivation, and dungeon interludes are emphasized strongly.

"Why don't we roll up a dungeon and play that?" Is a valid question when playing anything, and the answers to this question are often more interesting than the question. With Warhammer, there is no strong loot motivation - the game is very character based, and the definition of success and failure is 100% on the story and the world. There are no huge lists of magic loot in the game (with the set we have), and the things to buy in the game are limited. Advancing your character is a goal, and solving the next problem is what lies ahead. Roaming around in a dungeon is pointless in the larger scheme of things.

With OGL or D&D4, the same question is valid, and the answer is, "Why not?" There are strong loot motivations in these games, and the motivation to go out in the world and accumulate 'great power' is often the primary motivation for playing. This is a shift, and we have saw many players more motivated by power than story - to them with power, any story is solvable. D&D4's power cars, item upgrades, and focus on the combat minigame focuses the accumulation of loot like a laser.

Pathfinder has a more story based focus, thanks to the legacy of its adventure path setup. We still have a strong loot motivation, even better loot that D&D4 in many cases, but the players the game attracts typically are balanced between power and story based gamers. It is a fine balance to keep the dungeons in the adventure paths feeling like they belong in a story-based adventure, when the party wants to move the story along and not get bogged down in a dungeon crawl.

"Why not play a dungeon?" Is a great question, and you can learn a lot by answering it. Even the negative responses can teach you a lot about a game, what the game's motivations are, how the game expects to be played, and how the designers focused game play. Understanding what a game rewards and the behaviors it discourages helps you understand a game better, and increases the enjoyment you get from it. Asa  game master, this understanding is critical to how much fun your players will have at the table.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Network Effect: Dungeon Masters Run the Game

As I see it, referees run most every traditional pen-and-paper game. There should be a special website you can go to register to be a dungeon master for DnD, and you should get all of the books and materials needed to run the game for free. Before you laugh, stop and think about it. Would there be weekly pen-and-paper games anywhere without a referee?

It is a unique that most very pen-and-paper game has built in the dependency of having a referee in order for the game to be played at all. Let's take away the "referee as a playing participant" for a moment, and just use the referee as someone that runs the numbers, controls the monsters, and lets the players know what happens next in the module - sort of like a computer (much like DnD4's referees). It's like every computer game needing someone in the home office manually scrolling the Mario level, spawning monsters, and advancing the game to the next world.

Modern Boxed Games

Modern boxed adventure games do without a referee, and even have the players round-robin control of the monsters. There are rules set about how monsters attack, when goals are completed, and how the game works without a referee. Games like Magic the Gathering or Warhammer don't need referees either, although competitive games tend to be easier to run without one. Cooperative games without referees are gaining popularity, and many of the modern boxed games we review are like that.

This brings us to the 'network effect' another one of those terms introduced into the pen-and-paper lexicon back with DnD3's introduction. What the network effect means is this: you will play the game that most of your friends are playing, because it is hard to find a game otherwise. In the 50's this was called peer pressure, and of course you needed to have your officially licensed Davy Crockett musket and coon-skin cap, because all the other kids had one. It is a situation that lives in the dreams of marketers and product managers, for sure.

The Network Effect

What makes the 'network effect' so powerful is the previously discussed 'system lock in' - you can't find another game because people don't want to spend money on them or spend the time learning them. Combine this with the game literally being controlled by a select group of hard-core players, the referees, and you have setup a system that lives and dies by how many referees in the world that are willing to spend the time and money to learn and run your game. Referees should get the game for free, because you are asking so much of them, and one good referee can bring a whole group of players into the hobby.

It is a bit of a cynical view, I admit, but there is a lot of truth to the legacy that is setup around the DnD3 rules set and the descendants of those rules. The worst part about the OGL and the DnD3 ruleset is the lack of support in the license for anything other than tabletop play, so every game that comes from this hierarchy is limited in how it can be played - more on this in a later post. What is interesting is that the 'referee is required' mantra is being repeated in the next edition of the game, when a lot of the modern tabletop games are actually moving away from having a referee to play.

I will admit being a referee is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying parts of playing for me, but we need to think outside the rulebook when we do a true next-generation design. Every player at the table should be able to just pick-up-and-play, and referees should be an optional way of playing, and I dare even say they should not be the preferred way to play. Good game design can overcome this, to take a game to the next level.

Referees in Monopoly

Like roleplaying, a referee can be introduced into any game, even Monopoly. Technically speaking, a referee is someone who introduces story situations and out of the rules elements to the game, decides difficulty and success, and hands out optional rewards for completing those goals. In Monopoly, a referee could rule that everyone goes to Vegas, and the players get to bust out a deck of cards and play blackjack with the game's money for the next 15 minutes. This is incredibly fun, but the core assumption is the game still works when the referee is removed. The referee-less aspect of the game is preserved, and "no referee" is the default mode of play.

Boxed games covering fantasy and all types of adventure are re-discovering the magic in making everyone a player, and moving back to the Monopoly standard of play. The fun happens when you make having the referee optional, and the referee does not have to worry about the manual parts of the game (like moving around the board), and be the creative fae spirit introducing random stories and challenges to the game. Making a game play without a referee actually frees the referee up to work incredible magic.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Update

Over on the Fantasy Flight Games site, we have an update on the new Star Wars game and how it will be split up to cover different aspects of the galactic conflict. The game will be split up into three separate, but compatible games:
  • Edge of the Empire
  • Age of Rebellion
  • Force and Destiny
Edge of the Empire seems to be the "Han and Chewie" game that covers smugglers, rogues, and illicit activities on the fringe. I would love full starship combat rules, and a good assortment of non-Millennium Falcon ships. Bonus points if they include rules for merchant trading, mining, speculation, and other non-combat star trader stuff in the Empire. We need to balance the criminal element with how it is to run cargo in the Empire, how much those cargoes are bought and sold for, and how the Imperial Police work. You can't be a space pirate on combat alone, the whole point is making money and avoiding the Imps, so we need to see the legitimate and enforcement sides fleshed out.

Age of Rebellion seems to be the "Leia and the Droids" game of the rebellion, galactic war, and political intrigue. I hope rules for mass battles, star destroyers, and other large scale warfare are in here. I really hope we balance all that with rules for political intrigue, spies, and assassins. Probably the biggest mistake they could make with this book is to focus mostly on war and cool battles - this has to be balanced with the drama and intrigue of governors, planetary leaders, backstabbing senators, and all sorts of gooey dramatic goodness.

Force and Destiny is the "Luke and Ben" game of being the last surviving Jedi in the galaxy fighting to uphold the old ideals. We have an Order 66 retcon here it seems, with more Jedi surviving than we first thought. This is all well and good, since it gives players a chance to create interesting characters around the Jedi (and hopefully Sith), and continue the conflict into the Act IV-VI age of Star Wars. I do hope Sith are in here to balance the game, and it's not just Jedis vs. non-force Empire.

Overall, I like this division of products, and making each a separate standalone game is interesting. We will get a repetition of rules in each book (unfortunately), but this will allow groups to pick what they want to play with, and exclude the rest. If I want to play my "Oceans 11" smuggler and con man game, this frees me up to say "EoE only for this game", and all of a sudden, all my problems of having players spin up Sith and Rebel commandos are gone. It is a trade off, but a good one that lets groups focus on the aspect of Star Wars they like, and include as much as they would like.

So, it is a fun update in Star Wars land today, and something that makes me look forward to the game a little more. May the force be with you....

Friday, January 18, 2013

System Lock In: Bad for New Players?

Part of what cemented the term 'system lock in' into the pen-and-paper lexicon was D&D3. For those in the know, system-lock-in is a term taken from the world of computer operating systems meaning, "It would be hard to switch to another operating system because all my data and applications are on this operating system." In other words, switching, trying something new, or changing things on the computer would mean a substantial amount of pain involved for the consumer.

In the roleplaying world, system lock in means, "I have so much money invested in this system, and I have spent so much time learning the rules I would never even think about switching to another game system, or even trying one out." To enforce system lock in, pen-and-paper games are typically expensive, complex, and huge. Since all your friends have invested the same in buying books and learning rules, the system lock in is strengthened, and we get a 'network effect' - meaning if all your friends are locked into X, you will play X.

This is all well and good, and companies are free to write games however they want them - I support the free market of ideas. But the question comes up, is system lock in hurting the new player experience? To have system lock in, we need three things: buy-in, size, and complexity. Let's break this down in three short sections.

"Buy-in" is investment, and this typically means the game books are a substantial purchase. For a game like D&D4 this would typically include the player's book, a referee's book, monster book, and maybe one or two others. New players are reluctant to part with that much cash, so asking a new player to invest in that many books is going to be a challenge. Beginner sets are not the answer to this, they are merely an enticement to make the big purchase. System reference documents are not an answer to this either, they are often unwieldy and require hundreds of pages to be printed. Contrast this to a more new-player friendly game, like Labyrinth Lord or Basic Fantasy RPG. These games can be bought for $20 or less, and you get everything you need to play and referee the game. An argument can be made that cost scares away new players.

"Size" is the cost of ownership, and also the amount of space the game takes up on your shelf and in your mind. This is both a physical quality (space the books take up), and also a mental one (how important the game is in your mind). Good art can increase the mental size of a game, and Pathfinder gets this down in spades. Once you have invested, the size of the game controls how often you keep coming back to it and using it. Some people equate size with fun, what is more fun: a 5' long shelf of Pathfinder books, or a quarter-inch thick copy of Labyrinth Lord? Size definitely drives away new players, it is a commitment to store and use the books.

"Complexity" is how much effort it takes to learn the rules. A game that is easily learned is also easily put aside for something new. Granted, I like complex games with a lot of options, but there is something to be said for a game that is easy to learn, but conceptually deep. Forcing new players to learn the rules for flat-footed and attacks of opportunity is cruel, we have had to do it many times, and a player new to roleplaying often gets the wrong idea about the game, "I can't get into this." The skill system in D&D3 and Pathfinder is similarly difficult to use correctly and teach, and all these complex systems intended to create options mostly make the game difficult - without adding real options. If my thief character needs lockpicking X at level Y, why make me go through this complicated skill system to get there?

Again, these are just more random thoughts on the state of the pen-and-paper industry, where things are driving players away, and how things can be made better. It seems the more we go in hobby shops, the more space is devoted towards big-box tabletop games, and less space is devoted to traditional pen-and-paper games. All the innovation in the gaming industry seems to be in the board game area nowadays, and a lot of today's pen-and-paper innovation seems stuck in the past.

It seems like we are long overdue a revolution in pen-and-paper gaming, and we get back to games made to be entertainment. Aping the tactics Microsoft and Apple use to lock in users may lock in some players, but aren't they driving off the majority or new players to just keep a few legacy users?

My feelings are if you make my pen-and-paper game more like a computer, a real computer will beat it any day of the week. New players seem to understand this concept very well, but most roleplaying game companies don't. We have to learn from the successes of companies doing well in the board game market, and innovate like they do. Really, this is the same type of game, and the same type of player. The question needs to be asked, where are all the new players going, and what is keeping them away?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

New Game Coming Today: WHFRP

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

As I speak Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Core Set is arriving tomorrow, I cant wait to see how the game has changed since the last version we played. We will do a writeup on it as soon as we can. Should be fun!

Stay Tuned!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Does the Collector's Market Hurt the Game?

George and I were having a discussion on how some games are read than they are played. I wish I had the link, but I remember one of Paizo's staff commenting that most of their customers just read their Adventure Paths rather than play them. This reminded me of the collector's market in classic videogames or even comic books. A problem arises when people buy a game to collect the books, and not actually use them. You see this in comic books and classic videogame collectors, the books and games are never read, enjoyed, or played - they are there to simply be there.

Some games are notoriously collector friendly, such as D&D4 or 3, Pathfinder, and too many others to count. There is a difference between printing books because they are useful and add to the game, versus books that are there to be collected and complete a set. I look at a shelf full of RP books, like D&D4's complete set of books, and wonder are all these books necessary?

It is a tough question, and I wonder at times has the collector's part of the hobby hurt roleplaying? If the players are more interested in reading and collecting than actually playing, does that hurt the game? My feeling is the less a game is played, the worse off the game becomes. Rules need to be used, games need to be played, and the community needs discussion and feedback bouncing around. Printing books to make money is a given in the business, but when does printing too many books actually have a negative effect on the game?

It is a hard question to answer, but you can see parallels in other industries. Collectors are interested in owing and reading, but are they active players? It's a reason why we prefer simple one-book games nowadays, or games that are out of print and not supported. Sometimes, endless support means you are always integrating new material into your game world, and the mass of books needed to play becomes prohibitive in cost and the ability to reference them.

A game can literally expand itself to the point where it cannot be played by the rules. Some exceptions exist always for referees that declare 'original books only' but the expansions always hang out there, begging to be mixed in and played with. Part of the appeal of OGL games are their limited nature, and their compact designs. These games were designed to be played, and it shows.

All interesting thoughts on the twilight of D&D4, and the maturity of Pathfinder, and as the games that could replace those come to market and a new day dawns.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Preview: 13th Age

13th Age is a d20 based RPG put out by Pelgrane Press, due to be released in March 2013. It has a fascinating linage of designers, primarily Rob Hiensoo and Jonathan Tweet.  For those in the know, these are the lead designers of D&D's 4th and 3rd editions, respectively. This is like Prince and Jimi Hendrix coming together to do an album, so I was surprised to just discover this myself. Why this isn't getting more press, I don't know; since based on the preview PDF (pre order), this is a solid design and take on a d20 game, with a lot of what we liked about 3rd and 4th editions all in one game.

This is a d20 based game, maxing out at 10 levels. This is an interesting choice, but understandable. It seems that one level in TA equals about three in D&D, at least in character power. For those of you coming from D&D4, all the parts that require a computer are gone, which I thank the gods for! It is a simpler game, stripped down to the bare essence of a d20 based game, with the powers, magic, and monsters you would come to expect. The differences lie in character creation (backgrounds), and the way the characters interact with the world (icons and the relationship system).

There are a significant amount of differences here to set it apart form the sea of d20 clones, George doesn't agree, but I see quite a few evolutionary steps, along with a couple revolutionary ones. One of the most interesting is your base damage is equal to your weapon damage per level of character. A fifth level fighter using a longsword does 5d8 + stat mods. Spells can be upgraded with upgrade slots every level, which is another cool thing (a max-ed out magic missile does 10d6 - yowza). There are a bunch of things that scale like that, from spell damage to hit points, so it does definitely feel different. The difference in power between levels is dramatic, which is nice.

If I had to pin it down, I would say it feels like if someone took 3rd Ed D&D and made a scaling MMO system out of it - but retained the 3rd Ed feel. Where 4th Ed went off the rails with it's thousands of powers and computer required system, this is closer to the book, and keeps everything simple, while still allowing for the MMO power scale curve to take place. It does not feel like the MMO-ish 4th Ed, but rather a like a cool version of the Final Fantasy SNES game's power curve applied to a 3rd Ed ruleset.

The world is great, if you likes the whole 'points of light' world crafting of 4th Ed, you are in for a treat. Here we have 'points of light 2.0' with epic (godlike) beings that live on the world, a faction and relationship system, a destiny thing going on, unique backgrounds, and an avoidance of infinite planes of existence. The world is split into three parts, the normal world, an underworld, and a plane-of-air style place up above.  Ad nauseam wheels, parallel worlds, infinite earths, and other tropes are not mentioned here - you can safely assume heaven, hell, the realms of the gods, and everything else can be reached in the normal world by foot, hoof, boat, or wing.

The world also has normal area, champion areas, and 'even the thorns on the rose bush will kill you' epic areas - really cool. I like this feel, where places in the world are catastrophically dangerous - you don't get that in Pathfinder or other games. Even D&D4 reduced that dynamic in later books, so it is fun to see it come back. It allows for interesting world setups, such as, "The entryway to Hell is on the map, over there, knock yourself out." If you are looking for a spiritual successor to D&D4's fascinating world setup, you will find it here. George is pumped about this setup as well, and we both agree, it is one of the best parts about this game.

We will be play testing this more as we read through things, and eagerly await our pre-order book. Until now, the quest for "What comes after 4th Ed?" seemed to be a two-way race between Pathfinder and D&D5. Now, the best of both of those games comes together and throws a hat into the ring. 13th Age is an underdog in this race, but it is an important game - both in design, creativity, and history. Watch for this, it is not just another D&D clone, it is actually exciting and dare I say it (for a d20 game), cool.

Releases March 2013, pre-order on the publisher's site, and receive the preview PDF for free.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Players Pit: Legends of Andor

Simple and Fun Fantasy Gaming

 Todat we will checking out Legends of Andor, a new 'epic quest' game from Fantasy Flight. This is a game where you build a team of heroes, and work to complete story quests on a large double-sided game board.

Very nice quality game!

After opening the box, I saw some very nice punch out counters, cardboard minis, and very nice game cards. Everything had a nice addictive new game smell. Setup was easy and we played the tutorial mission that introduced us to the basics of the game.

One neat thing is that the main game board is double sided - one with an overland game, and the other with a more challenging underworld campaign. Very unexpected and cool!

First Session: Tutorial Adventure

The game has six campaigns in it, a tutorial one, a normal one and an advanced one. We played through the first one and it was very helpful, and fun to boot. It followed a reduced rule set with no player items - just gold coins you could use to up your stats with. The player has two stats: Strength that adds to die rolls, and Vitality that acts like hits points and determines how many attack dice you roll. The advanced game adds gear and consumables to your arsenal and the monsters look to be tougher. There are about 6 multi-part quests to play through in the box, with the 6th quest being a 'create your own' style adventure.

Fun Factor A

The tutorial game actually was quite fun and I would replay the game starting with that scenario again since you get to keep your characters between games, and if you fail a game you start over with them and keep your earnings. We won the first game by a slim victory by having our heroes plow a hole though the monsters and dropping off the final scroll to the elf village. It took a good deal of team work and using 'team attack' combines character attacks to bowl over the baddies to make it work.

Fighter, Mage, Dwarf, Elf

I played the fighter and the dwarf and Hak played the elf ranger and the human mage. They come with male on one side of the card and female versions on the other so girls and guys can have what they want to play. I feel they didn't have to do that, but this detail added to the quality feeling of this product.

I love my dwarf, I made her fight alone for the most part as she was assigned to pick up monsters before they reached the castle so the main team could dive on to the main mission objective. She had a couple of close scrapes, but she preformed with legendary luck and bravery. The game gives you an epic D&D feel as you race around protecting the kingdom.

Turn Phases and Events

The turn has a 7 "hour" turn track; and you use one "hour" to move a square or attack a monster. The event cards you draw at the end of each turn, are much like Arkham Horror's global story events and have a little role-playing spiel to read before your apply the results. Very nice touch.

Super Fun, Stay Tuned

We took about an hour to play and learn the game. I feel the advanced game would probably take two or more, which is perfect for jack-and-coke gaming. I am actually excited for the next session where we cover the advanced rules. I hope this game gets expansions as well, I can see room for new monsters, more events, and gear. The game is good for beginners, and also has that epic quest LotR style feel going on.

Stay tuned!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Design Room: Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide

Hello again! Today we are doing a Design Room breakdown on the Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide. This is not a traditional review, as you can go to the Paizo or Amazon sites and get plenty of those. Instead, we will be breaking this book down from a game design standpoint and discussing related issues with campaign and world design. We will start by covering the basics.

Again, Paizo puts out a beautiful book, a full color 258 page monster of a tome. I will always say, Paizo is the sports team that spends the big bucks, gets the best talent, and they are just a joy to watch deliver. The book is full of new options for existing races, new core races, new alternate races, and a race builder that is the star of the show - more on that later. Art, layout, and content are all playoff quality, as usual.

It is an impressive addition, and very useful in play. I wouldn't say this is an essential book to play with (like the NPC Codex is), as the races in the core rulebook are great and good enough for most every player. If you are a fan of alternate PC races, this book is for you. It really breaks down on you view of fantasy, and how you see the world.

The Creature Cantina

Some people see fantasy as the intersection of the basic D&D races: Humans, Elves, Halflings, and Dwarves. This is your pretty typical Lord of the Rings model for a fantasy world, and it works well no matter what rules system you follow. There could be other races in the world, but there is a distinct deemphasis on their importance in the world. The rule is, if the world can exist without them, they are a minor race.
As an example, compare Dark elves in D&D and Warhammer fantasy. Dark Elves in D&D are a minor race, the world can exist without them. Dark elves in Warhammer are a core part of the world, and they are a major player in everything from battles to Chaos magic. In our D&D world, in most cases, you could do without dark elves a lot easier than you could do without normal elves.
The problem with minor races is that they start to feel like those tack-on latex-mask races that appear weekly in shows like Star Trek, or the mess of races in the Star Wars Creature Cantina. Admittedly, Star Wars is doing a better job nowadays integrating and raising the importance of its core races, with the standardization of the big players in games like the new Star Wars MMO. With a plethora of minor races, they begin to feel like 'guest stars' in the game, and they become a bit more difficult to relate to. It is easy to see the problems a dwarf would have traveling through elven lands, but a kenku or a merman?

The Melting Pot

The Forgotten Realms in D&D3.x was notorious for its subraces, and the Advanced Race Guide gives you subraces in spades. In FR, there were a Baskin Robbins amount of elf flavors, moon elves, star elves, sand elves, sea elves, wood elves, and if I looked hard enough you could probably find stone elves and storm elves. The Advanced Race Guide does not go that far with subtypes, they prefer to differentriate with swappable racial traits, a couple new subtypes, favored class options, and new racial archetypes. It is a good balance of making a race different without creating a new ice cream flavor out of them. Paizo chose to go the 'this is an elf, but with this type of background' style of race design. It is a good choice, and keeps elves as a whole able to relate to each other better.

In a game design sense, you need to be careful of creating too many racial subtypes. You have to balance the fantasy trope of 'oh, there is a cool new race that lives here' with 'oh boy, another derivative flavor of the week race - enough already.' Too many racial subtypes and all of a sudden they are not special, and the original race becomes plain and boring. In the Forgotten Realms, who wanted to play a normal vanilla elf, when there were so many cool subtypes to choose from? Too much of a good thing is a problem.

The Drow in a Human's World

We bring up the specter of Drizzt Do'Urden here, and a PC choosing a race that obviously has problems even walking in the normal LotR style world. Admittedly, D&D4 does a good job with this, with dragonmen, tieflings, and even minotaurs being normal members of society. This is a reason why D&D4 felt so strange to many people, it adopted the Star Wars mixing pot model, and elevated minor races to major players. Nerrath was a fun mixing pot, where a half-giant could be the king, with a tiefling paladin and dragonman court mage working side by side.

With a normal world with the major four races, the drow PC all of a sudden doesn't fit in. This goes the same for aasimars, cat people, goblins, and even half-orcs and the like. I have been in a couple games where choosing a half-orc meant you were ostracized from the group, and you did not get as much play or RP time. It takes a skilled referee to incorporate race choices to a game, or be forward enough to tell players to stick to a subset of races when designing characters. It's okay if you want to do this, and actually helpful - if your vision of the world does not include a player's race choice, you will marginalize that PC subconsciously.

The Far Outs

"But I want to play a gray alien in your 1920's Gangsters game!" Another issue that comes up is the player that wants to play something so far out there it is difficult for them to even relate to the world. Two things can happen: either they become an ignored third wheel in the group, or the entire game centers around them and their wacky misadventures in a world that doesn't accept them. Either way, it's not a good thing. We have had this happen a couple times in our games, and a race guide gives players seeking this sort of attention a lot of ammo to use. I will be frank, I don't like it when race choice becomes a popularity contest. I guess you have to bring it up, since the selection of character race in a carefully crafted world is an important choice, and it can be used to disrupt a game.

There are good sides to 'far out' race selections, otherwise, we wouldn't have the Chewbaccas of the world, and everything would be bog-standard. It depends a lot on the group, theme of the game, and the game world. There is no better answer to talk it out beforehand, before anyone gets set on a particular choice. As a player, you need to feel out what is acceptable, bounce character ideas off the referee, and make sure other players in the group are thinking along the same lines. Selecting a far out choice can work, and not everyone in the group can be one as well.

No LotR Races?

Another fascinating use of the book comes with the Race Builder chapter, and creating campaign worlds. Here is a cool exercise, create a game world using five races. None can be one of the standard four (human, dwarf, elf, or halfling), and one race must play the bad guy. Now try to come up with a story for this world. It is a fun exercise, and it gets you out of Golarion for a while. You could come up with a world full of gnolls, kenku, cat-people, and frog-people - with demonic yeti-men as the enemies. This type of world design forces players out of their comfort zones, and can create a memorable short campaign full of new worlds, savage enemies, and plenty of pulp excitement. It is a favorite game of mine, and a model I used for my interpretation of Golarion's Jade Regent expansion.

My Jade Regent - Races of the Zodiac

To shake up MY Golarion, I reinterpreted the Jade Regent expansion using the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. I used the Advanced Race Guide to design each race, and thrust the players into a savage land where humans are the deposed rulers of the mighty Empire of the Zodiac (the Empress). The land has the following races:
  • Ratmen - evil aligned until the tide turned
  • Minotaurs (Ox)
  • Tigermen - good aligned and used as slaves
  • Rabbitkin - neutral
  • Dragonmen - initially evil, were turned to good
  • Yuan-Ti (snake) - evil
  • Horsemen - neutral leaning good
  • Goatmen - evil
  • Intelligent Monkeys - good, and a fun one to play
  • Kenku (rooster) - evil initially
  • Wolfmen (dog) - neutral, turned to good
  • Pigmen - evil
Granted, that is a lot of races, but not all of them were allied on one side. Some of them were demon-aligned, others persecuted, and others tried to remain neutral. A couple other races made their way in as bad guys, such as demonmen, ravenmen, ghost people (haunts), and a couple other evil-aligned critters. It was a fun game that threw characters out of their element, and forced them to roleplay and think about the nature of the race they dealt with. The goal was to unite the Zodiac's races and put the Empress back on the throne. This game is still going on since it is quite epic and sweeping.

I admit, it also seemed kind of like furry-friendly roleplaying; but hey, it was and still is cool, even if it seems slightly anthropomorphic. This is a great example of using the Advanced Race guide to create a campaign world, or spruce up a part of it you felt was lacking in variety and excitement. I could have done this with less races, but this is the Zodiac, so it was a cool metaphor to use for the conflict.


The Advanced Race Guide is indispensable for the creative GM world builder. It also allows you to get out of Golarion for a while, and create interesting one-shot worlds with an eclectic mix of races that are out of the ordinary. Sometimes, you need to mix things up and shake up perceptions. For players, this is primarily an options book for character creation, with a big 'check with your group' string attached. Where it shines are in building areas of the world or entirely new ones, and it breaks up the standard collection of fantasy races with a bunch of new kids on the block. Highly recommended for referees, a good buy for players looking for something different.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Google+ and You

Just a Note for Google+'ers

Feel free to share our review on Google plus and freind us! We use this as well as facebook to spread the word!

Thanks to you, our readers!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Referee's Screen: Star Wars Edge of the Empire II, part 4

Part IV: A New Hope

Let's continue our unboxing coverage of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire with some thoughts on campaign creation for the new game. There is a significant amount of game design in campaign creation, and the process can make of break the game. Let's look at some traditional pitfalls of Star Wars campaigns first, continue on to theming, and then layout a framework for building a new campaign.

Where Star Wars Games Go Wrong

I have played in a number of Star Wars games, and I have seen a number of areas where Star Wars as a game can fall apart. Usually these are story and campaign reasons, and a lot of them are common to sci-fi games in general. Let's look at the top three that I have seen and discuss them:

Theme Creep: Readers of SBRPG may recognize this one. A game centered around criminals on the edge of space shifts into a Sith versus Jedi war, alien invasion, son of Darth Vader plot, or some other 'do not want' nonsense. The reason that attracted the players to the game in the first place has been sidelined for the new 'big bad plot' and the players are showing up to just see what happens next to their characters. When the players are not driving the story and the GM is, expect things to break apart in a couple games.

The Great War: I have been in a couple Star Wars games that lost focus, and just turned into a big wargame. The Empire versus Rebellion fight gradually escalated, and the next mission had to become bigger and better than the last - with the stakes even higher. It's only a matter of time before super star destroyers and the latest and greatest superweapon (Sun Crusher, Death Star III.V, Plot Smasher, etc) shows up at this point. Players start racking up TIE fighter kills in the hundreds, the players form STAR Team 6, and the intimate feel of the game is lost.

Supervillain Escalation: This is a common one in Jedi and Sith games, and it happens all the time in superhero RPGs. The big bad is defeated, and the power level goes up for the next battle. Pretty soon, both sides raise their power levels, and the game then becomes about who can throw the biggest attack and most dice around. We saw this in our d6 System superhero game, "Well no, I got 18 dice of attack! The big-bad has 24 dice of defense! Pah-shissshhhh, let the dice tsunami roll!" The game degenerates into a power-versus-power battle, and pretty soon, the big-bad is threatening other planes of existence.

What to Do Padawan?

A good bit of general advice to avoid the above is to keep the game focused on characters, not conflicts. Nobody cares about "The Empire hates the Rebels" in an adventure where the PCs are supposed to be interacting with NPCs face-to-face. The galactic conflict should be in the background, with personal conflicts between characters taking center stage.

Let's look at this closer. If a colony manager is short of water because a local trading cartel is jacking up the price with the help of a local Imperial governor, then things start to become interesting. The 'Rebel vs. Imperial' conflict is still in there, but it is a subtext, and the smaller more personal conflict between characters is driving the plot. It is up to the PCs to interact with those characters, and resolve the situation however they want to.

Never let an ideology be the reason for the adventure! It makes as much sense as M calling James Bond into her office and this exchange taking place:
M: "James, your mission this time is the Cold War. Good luck 007."
James Bond: "WTF? omg lol"

Peeling Back the Onion

Ideologies, conflicts, wars, cartels, trade embargoes, and other large ideas should be backdrops and affect characters in the world - giving them motivation to do specific acts. It is better even yet to have these large ideas being the reason 'something else happened' and a character is involved. The more layers you can write into your adventures the better. Let's layer one out and see if we can craft a beautiful situation:
  1. The Empire hates the Rebels, so...
  2. The Empire supports a local Hutt boss, who...
  3. Runs the local Water Cartel, that is...
  4. Run by an Imperial Governor, who is...
  5. Raising prices on a colony world, that is...
    1. Bonus points for going deeper than this!
  6. Causing a shortage of minerals from the asteroid mines, which is...
  7. Causing pirates to raid ore ships, which...
  8. Caused one ship to disappear, that is...
  9. The reason the daughter of the captain contacted the PCs, who wants them to...
  10. Find her father.
Wow. The more layers you add, the more fun you can have. Now that we have this, we can fill out each layer with NPCs the players can interact with, factions who have interests going one way or the other, and locations for all of this fun stuff. You should also keep most of the middle layers secret, and let the PCs discover them for themselves! This gives them the satisfaction of unraveling the mystery themselves, and this 'peeling back the onion' is an important part of letting the players have the satisfaction of solving a problem.

Most of the problem will be finding out the who and what, and shadowy forces will be hunting them and trying to stop them at every turn. You typically start out with generic baddies, like Imperials and monsters; and then as the bad guys figure out someone is on to them, the cartel thugs and adventure-specific bad guys start showing up. The opposition that appears is driven by the PCs actions, events in the galaxy, and what happens next.

Remember, the conflicts are driven by the NPCs, the Water Cartel should never order an attack 'because it is'; the NPC leader of the faction should order the attack in response to a specific incident by one of the groups (or PCs). If you played SBRPG and recognize Factions and Faction Reactions at work here, give yourself bonus points. It is the same system, and it works very well in Star Wars: Edge. You can incorporate "ripples" from the events that happen in the galaxy, and have the factions react to them as well, and all of a sudden you have a cool sandbox model for running your game.

In Closing

Keeping your games focused on situations and a layered adventure model keeps your game on track, and keeps you from having to make it up as you go along. You can't sustain winging adventures from week to week, and that typically causes one of the three failure conditions to happen for your campaign. Layer your situations, keep things secret, and have NPCs drive the conflicts between factions. Doing these three things will help you manage a successful game, and keep the players involved in your galaxy.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Referee's Screen: Star Wars Edge of the Empire II, part 3

Part III: Revenge of the d6

Understanding Star Wars: Edge

It is important to get the feel of play right for the game. Star Wars: Edge is different than other RPGs you may be used to, and it threw us when we began playing. In this Referee's Screen, I want to go over some of the issues we saw with macro versus micro play, and how to run Star Wars: Edge at its best given the dicing system and results. Let's dive today into micro versus macro play.

Micro Play

RPGs that play in the 'micro' are almost totally simulation games. Every blow is vectored out with a to-hit, every wound tracked, and every skill roll broken down into subtasks. Some games have marco elements (hit points, AC), but still play with a micro feel, such as D&D3.5. SBRPG had a very micro play style, with the spending of action points towards making attacks and parries, and a detailed blow-by-blow combat system. Car Wars, Aftermath, Champions, GURPS, and many other old-school games played in the micro style.

Macro Play

Remember the old D&D thru D&D2 combat explanation, which went something like this: "An attack roll covers more than just one blow, it is all the activity of the round, including defending, feints, dodging, attacks, and maneuver"? Macro play is like that, a series of actions or activities is aggregated into one roll, such as an attack roll in Arkham Horror. In these games, you are not rolling blow-by-blow to-hits, tracking bullets, and rolling to parry incoming attacks one at a time. You likely are making a 'combat roll' based on 'combat power' for your turn based on your weapons and abilities. The original D&D and its OSR clones are great examples of macro play, along with Star Wars (d6 System).

Star Wars: Macro Dipping Into Micro

Star Wars: Edge is a macro style game that dips into the micro style of play when needed. Combat is a perfect example, especially with minions. When you make an attack roll against a group of minions, you make one attack roll, and you can eliminate multiple minions with that roll. You assume the attack roll is a series of shots, and you are figuring out the result of that sequence of attacks with one roll. This is a great example of macro-style play, and the game encourages skill checks be made in a similar manner.

For example, Chewie would probably make one skill roll to repair the Falcon's broken comm dish. Busting the repair out into a sequence of events into a series of skill checks is discouraged, such as: weld the O-ring, replace the fuses, rewire the main comm line, install the dish, and test the installation. That 5-skill roll repair process would probably make sense in a game such as Space Opera or Traveller, but not here. In Star Wars: Edge, this is one skill roll with a degree of success and failure, along with the positive or negative consequences.

This is not to say Star Wars: Edge is all macro. The game can dip down into the micro when needed, and the dice can simulate what happens when that one photon torpedo shot into the ventilation shaft is needed. The game should play in the macro for the most part, and even things like star travel should utilize the dicing system to determine what happens when you jump into a star system. Life in Star Wars: Edge is controlled by those dice, and the rolls should cover a good amount of action, with those occasional 'one shot' micro rolls.

How This Plays

Now that we understand the macro vs. micro play styles, how does Star Wars play for us? Coming off Arkham Horror with its extremely macro system of task and combat resolution, we get it. The game should play more like a European-style boardgame, with the referee proposing problems to the group of players, and the players working as a team to solve them with their skills and abilities.

The micro-style play that feels like an episode of '24' doesn't really fit here, something that is typical of games like Pathfinder or GURPS, or games where you worry about penalties for switching targets, attacks of opportunity, or other micro-tropes. The game is not a sim, it is more an adventure game where you are solving a series of larger problems. Do not worry about haggling with a shopkeeper over every stim pack (in an hour long RP session); you are solving big problems with a single roll, moving to the next location, and taking on the next challenge.

Here's a good example of how this plays the best, at least in our experience:
GM: You land at the star port of the ice world, ship heavily damaged by that fight with the pirates. You will need a new reactor core, and you also have that encrypted holo-message to deliver to the contact named Jerak, who is supposed to be here, but you don't know how to contact him. All you know is that he is an alien, an asteroid miner, and is wanted by Imperial Intelligence.
Bob: Okay, Sam, you fix the ship, I'll put your pog here on the starport where our ship is. I will take Jane out to the local watering hole and start asking around for asteroid miners, where are the starport bars?
GM: Here, and a really dangerous looking one over here near the salvage yard.
Bob: Okay, let me put our pogs on the dangerous bar at the salvage yard, and we will take Vex-4 along so he can drop by the yard to shop for a new reactor. Does anything happen on the way?
GM: Make a streetwise roll, are you avoiding trouble, or doing something else along the way?
Bob: Avoiding trouble. [makes roll] 2 successes and 1 threat, what happens?
GM: No one beats you up, but it does look like a rough neighborhood. You bump into an Imperial patrol looking for troublemakers, and they take note of you and move on. You arrive at the bar, which looks like a total hole-in-the-starport-wall. Sam, make a roll for your first repairs on the ship....
The game works best with that conversational style, with a higher-level play using a large map. When something happens, either handle it with RP and skill checks, or bust out a quick tactical map for combat. Most checks should be macro, with the advantages or threats from these macro rolls guiding the action.

Use micro play on the zoomed-in combat and tactical maps, such as a roll to pick a lock, repair a distress beacon, or for one-on-one combats. Zoom back out to the macro play style as soon as possible, and don't get bogged down in the details.

Understanding how to zoom in and out like this, and keeping your game focused on macro play will give you greater enjoyment, and also keep that Star Wars feel in your game sessions. Star Wars is about the big picture, and you need to be able to aggregate action into dice rolls, keep players moving, and avoid everyone being bogged down in a dungeon hall.

Games that focus on dungeon halls are rightfully more micro and work better that way, but for dramatic sweeping sci-fi action, you need to play with a larger focus and picture. The Star Wars: Edge dice are designed to help you do this, and you need to understand how they will work for you to get the most out of the game.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Referee's Screen: Star Wars Edge of the Empire II, part 2

Part II: The Polyhedral Menace

Meet the Dice

Today, let us meet the symbols on the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game. They are an interesting collection of mahjong-like symbols used in every roll to determine a four-axis result: success vs.failure, good outcome vs. bad outcome. I say mahjong-like and I mean it, the symbols on the dice cancel each other out like in mahjong. It is an interesting Eastern influence on the game, and one that harkens back to Star Wars' "Seven Samurai" inspiration.

We came up with our own fun names for the dice, to help us remember what they are for and what they do, and I will share those below. They are intended to be a fun way to understand how the dice work, and how we use them in the game.

Bang: This symbol is the success symbol, which we call a bang. Bang means explosion, and in Star Wars, the side causing the most explosions is usually the more successful one. Bangs are probably the most important result in the game. Bang is also one syllable, so George will announce, "4 bangs on this roll!"

If you roll positive bangs, the roll is a success. Many bangs indicate greater success, and if you get over four, we houserule you can say something crazy and stupid at the table to celebrate, "Don't get cocky kid!"

Sith: Countering the bang is the Sith, which the game calls a failure result. Siths oppose bangs, and remove them from the roll, one to one. We liken this to Siths being emo, negative, and generally opposed to the action movie trope of 'explosions are good.' Sith usually live on the darker dice, which is typical, and they are a bad result.

If you roll more Siths than bangs, the roll is a failure. Roll enough, and you have really failed big time. It's time to start thinking about career choices when you roll four or more, Leia is wounded, and you have a whole battalion of stormtroopers asking what you are trying to do by getting through that blast door.

Fuzzballs: Before you say this picture is upside down, I will tell you that this looks exactly like Luke's haircut in Star Wars. In fact, it looks like any good hairstyle in the 1970's, and it brings it's good-looking karma with it, what we affectionately call the fuzzball. In the game, this is called an advantage, but we liken fuzzball to that 70's magic of Farah Fawcett, blow dryers, and hairspray. Roll a lot of them, and you can laugh it up, fuzzball.

Each fuzzball increases the magnitude of something good happening because of the roll, independent of the success or failure of the roll. Roll a lot of them, and you are guaranteed something good happening; because in Star Wars, if your hair looks good while doing it, it doesn't matter if you are winning or losing. Just ask Billy Dee Williams or Chewie about Hair Club for Men.

Death Stars: The only thing awesome enough to counter Luke's hair is the Death Star. The game calls these threat, and each one cancels a fuzzball. Advantage and threat work exactly like success and failure, one cancels another on a one-to-one ratio. Rolling lots of them puts you in the cross hairs of fate, or the Death Star, your choice.

If you roll more Death Stars than fuzzballs, you have a roll that produces a negative consequence. If you managed to disarm the starship's engines but accidentally set the self-destruct sequence, you've probably rolled a ton of these small moons, and you are about to have a very bad day. Sometimes, you don't even know how bad it is until later. If you are rolling to find a safe landing spot in an asteroid, and the landing spot that has teeth, you've rolled a bunch of these suckers.

Palm Trees: Play the Star Wars music now, you've just rolled a palm tree. Oh yeah, we are looking at another upside down die, this time, the game's triumph symbol. This is technically treated as a success, but is a very good roll to make. They look like palm trees in Hollywood, complete with a little sun behind them. Getting one of these on the roll guarantees your adventure blockbuster status. This is Hollywood, after all.

One of these could send that photon torpedo down the air shaft. They act like successes, but they are that extra special "play the music and swing across the chasm with the princess" results that make your character oh so cool. Roll two of these, and you are probably eligible for bullet-time and a cool soundtrack to back you up. I hear Mace Windu has gold plated dice that are covered with these symbols, for when he needs to bust out his 'd12 ass kickers.'

Bikini Bottoms: The only symbol fierce enough to counter a palm tree is the dreaded bikini bottom. Ask Leia, if you end up in one of these, you have hit absolute rock bottom. Yes, it's upside down. Yes, it's a silly name, but it has a Star Wars pedigree in the inspiration, and bikini bottoms and palm trees go together like nothing else we know. And yes, we know it's a Sith symbol.

The game calls this the despair symbol, and they cancel triumphs. When you roll one of these, the 'Star Wars despair' music comes on, someone dies, something terrible happens, and the 'bad feeling about this' happens at the worst time. You know you've rolled a bikini bottom when you blow your charm roll at a party, and walk into the next room, where Vader and Boba Fett are just finishing up their appetizers.

May the Dice Roll with You

Well, that does it for our twisted little view on the dice, and hopefully this helps you remember what symbol cancels what, and how they are used in the game. Yes, we do use our crazy names for them around the table, and we have fun with the results. That's what the game is about, fun, and coming up with silly names for the rolls and their results adds to the party atmosphere around the table. They days of laughing at a RPG, quoting your favorite Star Wars character, and having fun are back.

Happy New Year!

I wanted to wish all our readers a very happy new year!