Monday, November 28, 2016

Great Article: Starfinder

Check this out:

Wow, this article makes me generally excited for Starfinder. Magic plus sci-fi sort of is a tricky thing to do, since you get too much mojo going on at one time and people can't make sense of things - but this article generally hits the right notes for me and piques my interest in the setting.

A big plus is eliminating the original Golarion world entirely and forcing the setting to deal with "the everything else" out there. The original setting is so large and so well-established in the minds of players it would be easy to see how the game would bog down into "...with lasers" versions of everything on the original world, such as, "It is Cheliax...with lasers!" That? I'm not interested in that.

Forcing everyone to get out there in the stars and explore a post-Golarion universe? That sounds fun. It is like those anime stories where "original kingdom" is destroyed, and the plucky band of heroes needs to find a way to survive outside of the established safety net of "what came before." I swear my home campaigns are suffering from this and it is time to clean house, and it would be an exciting thing to shove the whole lot of "safe spaces" in my campaign to the back burner (or destroy them) and put players out on the hunt for fame, power, and a new sort-of-safe place in the universe.

Once campaigns go stale it becomes this messy political infighting that just feels stagnant to me. You know the moment happens when a player character goes into a government job. I like universes and settings in flux, where nothing is really, really safe, and players need to be heroes in order to make the world a better place. There needs to be cultures and races that demand to be dealt with, negotiated with, and got along with even though everything isn't super perfect and tensions exist.

Players hustle and fight the best when they are standing on thin ice. They are threatened. Choices matter. They can choose to be a hero...or not. Gaining power means a slightly larger margin of safety, but nothing is guaranteed. Safe spaces suck.

Starfinder doesn't sound so safe and settled, and that intrigues me. Even compared to the original Golarion world, which feels like a theme park full of separate and unconnected rides, this feels like a melting pot and universe in a constant state of change. Once can imagine different factions and groups fighting for control of resources and far-flung populations, with different factions splintered across a universe trying to find solid ground.

That sounds very intriguing to me. Especially compared with a bipolar Star Wars (that I still love) concerned with an us-against-them war, this feels more chaotic and in flux, with hundreds of factions in hundreds of conflicts for hundreds of reasons all seeking to grab a little more power for themselves and not get stabbed in the back by the next guy.

It that type of a universe, where empires are built on sand and crumble every day, the small guy matters. The hero matters. Choices matter.

And you can't make an assumption without digging into who this next group of people are, and what type of planet this is. You need to do your legwork and get invovled to know who is who and what is what.

Player engagement? Avoiding source-books that bog down the campaign into "kingdom X is this way and that's it?" That sounds interesting to me.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Great Article: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Strategy #3

Check this out:

This is a part three of a strategy guide for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, and it has some interesting discussion of card game mechanics. Part of me sees this and wonders if this isn't a better way of implementing D&D 4's "card based" powers with a deck, hand, and draws for powers during an adventure - mixed in with d20 rolls and other bonuses that change and flow through the game.

With D&D 4, you build your character with a collection of 'card like' powers and those either can be used from turn-to-turn, once per encounter, or once per adventure. With Paizo's game, you build a deck with all sorts of allies, equipment, powers, and other cards that can be used in the situations that come up in the adventure. With D&D 4, your hand is your character, and you have no draws or shuffle mechanic. Paizo's manages to create a deck and shuffle mechanic, with your character's power being the cards they have in their hand.

I will have to admit there is a fun and interesting element of hand strategy and chance with Paizo's handling of card-based powers over the D&D 4 model, and this looks like a next generation of the 'cards as character' mechanic introduced in D&D 4, and advances the idea of 'deck building as character' that I feel D&D 4 never quite achieved.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Great Article: The Deadliest Page

Check this one out:

This one is great fun, and it reflects the tendency of old-school RPGs being more a collection of 'cool ideas' often pulled from places like the old Dragon Magazine than things actually designed to work well within the game. AD&D was like this, along with other TSR games such as Top Secret and others, where deadly parrots and laser-armed security cameras could stand guard over a megalomaniac's dungeon-like lair.

There were a lot of cool ideas in those games, random pieces of this and that thrown in, and if you played them by the 100% by the rules you would sit there and say, "WTF is going on?"

It is the curse of unintended consequences, and this sort of stuff is common in sandbox RPGs all the time, especially if you mod games like Skyrim with all sorts of random encounter mods, road patrols, story events, and bandit camps - all of a sudden you stumble out of a dungeon and there is a full-on war going on between bandits and vampires and you never knew that could happen, but you love it and go with the flow as you run for your life and spells are flying around you.

Some games are less sandbox and more story focused, such as Pathfinder's adventure paths or to a different extent, D&D 5's adventure hardcovers. I like to play both of these games as sandbox games honestly, and just use the pieces they give me by the rules and create an interconnected, compelling world out of them, warts, strange rules, and unintended consequences be damned. If mages can do this or gunslingers that, players should not be surprised to see NPCs in the world doing the same thing. If monsters are X% likely to appear, then they will appear at that rate around the players or not, and the kingdoms of the world will just have to deal.

The gods made these rules and I believe the world should abide by them, otherwise, how can you say you are truly playing the game? I know, some like to sculpt a masterful narrative and novel-like experience using the rules, and that is totally cool, but I love my sandbox games so much I tend to run them even if they trash my story and ruin a module writer's carefully crafted plot-line and scenes.

Check the article out, it is a funny one that highlights some of the strange and quirky things I love about old-school gaming.

Monday, November 7, 2016

RNG is a Dirty Word, part #1

RNG has become a dirty word in gaming, and I feel this is partially because of the glut of mobile and online games with RNG elements. For those of you outside the game-design lingo world, RNG stands for Random Number Generator, and the mechanic is often used for "% chance to complete a mission" or "% chance to get a purple gun in CS-Go" sort of thing.

In essence, something happens, you roll the dice, and your success is purely determined by the roll of the dice. There is no skill involved, no player input of chances, no ability to affect the outcome of the event, and whether you win or lose is purely resting on the roll of dice.

If the roll is good, great, no hard feelings towards RNG. If you fail, it is RNG's fault.

Now the above is a review of the Pathfinder Adventures mobile game, and to be honest, I think the review is fair and a pretty interesting take on the game. But what strikes me as interesting in this review is the view of the RNG elements in a typical D&D style experience, and in this case a card game with d20 style "to hit" and other elements. The reviewer states that:
In order to successfully finish a scenario, you will probably need to pass all combat checks, otherwise your characters will die before killing the final boss.
So you play the game and if the RNG starts making you miss more than hit, it is probably better to restart the entire scenario for a perfect string of random numbers than it is to tough it out. Maybe your phone is having a bad day. Maybe the OS or developer API the game is using has a bug in the RNG generation software that will ruin the game. Maybe the universal laws of chance are against you today and that electronic d20 is going to roll a "1" for the next seventeen times and if you think that is impossible, you don't know statistics because however remote the chance, it is possible.

And maybe, and I would tend to agree with this feeling, you feel games with no player skill or input are less interesting to me.

Roleplaying games tend to be heavily RNG-based, and how you deal with the hated RNG is in character design. A d20 is a very harsh mistress, and you could roll low all night and have a horrible time. How you deal with that is character design. If you can find the 'magic build' that makes your character perform three or four levels in power ahead of the average character at this level, you are setting yourself up to have a better time at the RNG.

You are still subject to the RNG, it is just you are setting your character up (at this level) to do a little better than everyone else with the RNG. This is where "player input" comes into play with pen-and-paper games, and why we tend to feel games like D&D are not entirely RNG based. We have control over our chances, and even our characters' actions from turn-to-turn, so RNG is less of a factor. RNG can still be a factor, but it isn't a "roll the die every turn to see if you win" sort of thing.

But RNG is still a very strong force in pen-and-paper games, and it is easy to see why people sour on the influence of RNG, as compared to something like competitive card games. In a card game, the RNG element is the shuffle of the deck and what card you draw, but dice are not typically involved, and since everyone shuffles and draws, the deck order and randomization is equally good and bad for every player - given a certain deck composition. Card games typically have 'attack cards' or other fixed options that one side uses against another's defense card or other opposition, the numbers are compared, and the higher wins.

Player skill in this case is hand management. The way you deal with the shuffle of your deck is in how you choose to play your cards, how you read other players, and your strategies for dealing with dry runs of cards. There is a chance your shuffle put all your best cards on the bottom of the deck, and the game designer needs to account for this a little, but a lot of how a player deals with this is in player skill. This is where bluffing, reading others, and delaying tactics come into play. In short, the social element of player skill in card games.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Multi Color d20s!

These are really cool d20's. I got them off Amazon when I was looking for multicolored d6 dice, and saw these and immediately had to have them. Why? Well, just because they aren't slick and polished, and look exactly like something that would come with an old TSR boxed game in the 1980's.

I love my slick, marbled, fancy d20s, like the Gemini sets or the speckled ones, but these...these make me want to play something. It is rare a die does that for me, so I wanted to share that feeling. I don't know, maybe it is because these look so cartoony and cheap that I can imagine playing an old-school game with them and looking forward to rolling the die for some critical moment.

To be fair, the plastic is of very good quality, but the painting of the numbers at places is a bit rough. It sort of adds to their appeal, in my feeling, since that rough-cut feeling gets me in the mood for a less-polished game with quirks and inconsistencies, like the original Gamma World, old-school D&D, or perhaps a modern version of the classics such as Labyrinth Lord or Mutant Future.

I am sure you know the feeling, how certain dice can bring back a feeling. These do it for me, and I look forward to using them in something decidedly retro and old-school enough to do them justice.

Keep gaming and rolling those dice.

Monday, October 24, 2016

System Complexity and Winging It


One of the key differences in a player's enjoyment of D&D 5 versus Pathfinder is the expectation of how low-level rules mechanics interact with characters. If you enjoy the lowest-level, fiddly, make this choice for the best result I would say Pathfinder is your game. If you enjoy the story more than you do the rules, then I would say D&D 5 is more your game.

I enjoy both. The groups I play with tend to enjoy story more than complicated rules, but they still haven't bought on to D&D 5 yet (and I fear the time they do I will be buying and selling them D&D 6 - I know I am missing out, spare me the grief).

Winging It Kinda Sucks

You know those times when you are either developing a rules system, you have a story-lite system, or you are playing without one and you have to wing something? You know, what would be handled in a more rules-heavy system, like fighting a balor demon or other specific creature, and you find yourself in a system where:
  • You don't have stats for the creature or its powers
  • Your rules can't really do the fight justice
  • You end up making everything up and handling a lot off the cuff
Those, for me, are the times things kinda suck. Now, both Pathfinder and D&D 5 each handle what they do well, and I rarely get those feelings of rules inadequacy. With lighter systems like Savage Worlds or FATE, I feel I am making more of these 'jumps' and the original creature being fought isn't really the original creature. It is an interpretation, a translation, and the fight doesn't feel 'real' to me at all.

Now I also get this feeling if the entire situation and scenario is within the Pathfinder or D&D 5 rules and I don't have the time to handle it correctly and 'by the rules.' Granted, in Pathfinder I get this feeling more because of the complexity of the system, but also in Pathfinder I find there is a greater feeling of success in handling an encounter like this 'rules perfect' as a referee while maximizing the creature's offensive and defensive capabilities and tactics within the rules the best I can.

In D&D 5 I can handle larger and higher-level encounters easily, since the system went through a round of simplification and streamlining. I can also handle a larger number of players without my mind melting and turning into a gooey pile of special cases. But again, in Pathfinder I feel that greater sense of mastery with a more complex system in handling a complex situation, even if at times I question the need for all the complexity.

But in both cases, at the end of the fight, I feel I have done my job, made the creature fight to the best of its ability and worked within the rules to make the fight challenging, memorable, and exciting. The players can say they beat the encounter "by the book" and with the characters they designed with the tactics they came up with. Everything "worked" within the rules, and the players have this experience they can share with others who know the system.

When you wing it, players don't get that satisfaction, and that feels like my problem. Now, for you, you may not care. The story may be the more important thing here, and translating a monster from one system to another and not have it be "perfect" may not even matter to you. The story mattered more. The fiddly nature of the rules matters less. People are here to have fun.

Rules Matter, At Least For Me

I like the satisfaction of playing something by the rules and winning or losing based on my choices. That is how I would feel if I were a player (the few times I do play). I mostly referee, and I feel the same way there. Even in a story-based game, I like my choices to matter.

Sometimes, I translate systems and settings, such as Pathfinder's Golarion setting or World of Warcraft to Savage Worlds. With video-games you have much more leeway, because there is rarely an up-to-date pen-and-paper system to cover all the material (or any at all). With established settings, you start to feel "conversion dissonance" when you start meeting some of the iconic monsters of the setting, and begin to use a number of the big name spells. You get players who may have tried to hurl a fireball against a fire elemental, and while it may not have worked using the official rules, the conversion handles it differently and things seem out of whack.

With a lower level goblin everything works well, since there isn't much of a difference between a one-hit creature in this system versus that system. When you start to encounter monsters with special defenses or ones that rely on certain rules or in-game conditions, things start to fall apart and you need to start patching on the fly.

Some Groups Don't Care

I have been with groups that don't care for all the detail, and just play for the story. While I can do that, I feel something is missing from the action in the more story-based and rules-light games because the rules and fiddly parts should play a role in the story as well. My weekly group cares less, and I play along, knowing how I feel but keeping the party going with a great time.

Then again, some groups don't care. You kind of have to be a fan of the rules system to really get into the complicated and rules-heavy side of the hobby, and if you are just here to play and have fun that may not matter. Having fun matters. Making choices and having 'just enough' rules to handle a situation is what is important to you.

Monday, October 17, 2016

You Play What Your Friends are Playing

One of the terms popularized during the D&D 3 heyday was "the network effect" - or, you play what your friends are playing. This is one of those "no duh" theories, but there is a lot of truth to this congealing force between players, groups, and what's hot.

There are groups that follow along with similar games, such as Savage Worlds or FATE, and finding a group for those two games is typically more difficult than Pathfinder or D&D 5. The Internet, of course, makes everything easier, and you can find a pick-up group for almost any game and any past version of it somewhere online. But that "walking into the hobby store" moment where you look around on a Saturday and see what people are playing? This is the Network Effect.

It's What's Hot

In a way, it's like having a smartphone that can run the game everyone's talking about versus having a flip phone. You are in, you can talk about the game, and you are a part of that 'water cooler' crowd that can talk about the game. Older versions of the game, or lesser played games? There's less of a discussion, and you may find yourself talking to a smaller and less-interested group.

You buy the game, and that gives you a 'golden ticket' to participate in the social interactions surrounding that game. In a way, it is why you pick up the new version, to be a part of the fun.

There are a couple things to consider, for example, with Tunnels and Trolls the version 5.5 of the game is the one most all of the solo adventures (over the last 20 years) were written to support, and the newer version 8.0 changes things. A lot of people online see 5.5 as the version they still want to play, since the solo adventures are still a huge attraction in playing the game. This may change if 8.0 takes off, but that many years of solo adventures is hard to walk away from in just a rules-compatibility standpoint. There are still holdout crowds like this with other games, such as Shadowrun 4th vs. 5th, and possibly about every version of Traveller ever published.

It's What You See People Playing

We walk into hobby stores, and people are playing D&D 5 and Pathfinder. A lot of people play Magic the Gathering and Warhammer as well, along with games like Warmachine. You see those games, and you want to join in the fun. It is harder to get people interested in a niche or smaller-fanbase game. You have to work harder at it, and there may be some cross-interest (such as old-school D&D groups forming around the current edition players).

I play with some stubborn players with strong opinions about games, and that is cool, but sometimes this limits your options. I have some players that refuse to play Pathfinder because of the complexity, and others that feel D&D 5 isn't for them. Some don't have the money to play some of the games I would like to play with them becuase of the cost to buy books. I think this is about the trickiest part of our hobby, we have a lot of players with strong opinions and it isn't always easy to get people together.

But It Isn't Always So

I ran a group once where it was tough to have the rules keep us together. We 'thought' the rules were the driving force behind keeping the group interested, but in the end, it turns out some of our home-brew ruled games were more compelling than the latest version of the D&D. For some players 'new and shiny' doesn't matter at all, and they are there for the interaction and the fun.

This was a D&D 4 game, and the rules here I feel let everyone down. When a computer program is needed to do things right you take away a lot of player interest and investment in learning the rules. It's part of our struggle with Pathfinder and HeroLab, part of me wants to go back to basics with that game and ignore a shelf worth of expansions, but another part of me says 'investment made' and use everything. Granted, sticking with a smaller set of Pathfinder books probably means a larger player-base as well, so there is that.

When a set of rules goes bust for a group, adjust quickly. This can even happen with the 'newest and latest' so the current version isn't always a sure thing. The latest version gets your foot in the door, but always when you deal with a group of people individual tastes change. Some players care, some champion their favorite version, and others will go along with everybody else thinks. You may have some players more involved with a totally separate genre than what is being played, we had a subset of that group that loved superhero gaming a lot and that resonated with them.

Know Your Group

The hobby is diverse, and the people who play tabletop games are even more so. The best advice is to know your group, and also to play games that you love and your group loves as well. In the best of all worlds, everyone could come together based on our common interests regardless of time and distance. In the real world, there are times when we have to make due with groups that may not play the things we like to play, and we have to make due - because playing something face-to-face is better than sitting at home in front of a computer or television.

You have to put yourself out there to find those people though, so sometimes a couple dull weeks playing at the hobby store is worth finding that group which brings magic to the table and your gaming life. Be a fan of everything, open to new things, and join groups which you may not think you would like, and things may eventually come your way.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Planned Systems vs. DIY Systems

Some pen-and-paper games lay out everything for you and make your choices for your character as you level. You get a level, and the system says you get X and Y powers, ability scores, and hits. These are planned systems, and some good examples of them are:
  • d20, Pathfinder, and D&D
  • Basic Fantasy and Labyrinth Lord
  • Fantasy Age and Dragon Age
  • Most class-based systems
  • Most MMOs
Some pen-and-paper games are DIY (do it yourself) games, and often these give you a number of "character development points" to use anyway you would like to improve your character. Some examples of this type of game include:
  • Savage Worlds
  • Legend and Runequest
  • GURPS and Champions
  • Mongoose's Traveller
  • Star Frontiers and many of the TSR Boxed Games
  • Most classless systems
And some fall in the middle:
  • Fantasy Flight's Star Wars System
Planned systems are great for newcomers, because it is a lot easier to say "you get this and that" when you level instead of spending time sorting through the rules and the book asking the question "is this a good choice" over and over again. Believe us, we have been there, and you practically have to teach every new player the complete set of rules when they first level up with a DIY system. Otherwise, how would they know what is good?

Planned games protect new players from making bad choices, and balance the game based on prebuilt and predictable "endgame" builds.

We prefer DIY systems, because we like making our own choices when we progress characters, and we are more experienced players who know what we want when we build characters. Some planned systems have elements of choice (skill points and multiclassing), but a true DIY system foregoes classes and balances the game around skills and task resolution. Personally, when I level a character, I don't like feeling limited to the choices the game makes for me, especially if that wasn't the direction my character was going in during the last adventure.

If my warlock spent most of the last session socializing and roleplaying, why should he advance in "warlock power" at the end of the night? Shouldn't something reflect his learned ability in socializing and people skills due to this experience?

With a planned system, it is difficult to reflect those experiences and often you end up a better warlock and just as bad as a talker as you started. Warlocks aren't talkers, are they? That's a bard! So do I have to take a bard level now? Great, hand me a lute and paint it black.

With a DIY system, I put some skill points in a social skill reflecting what I did that night, and I am done. How did I get those XPs? Shouldn't those reflect my experiences? My warlock powers don't increase because I didn't use them, but who cares? If this campaign is all about talking, I am all setup for the next game with a little better oratory skills under my belt for next time, and I am happy. If next time we have a swashbuckling adventure I may pick up a sword skill or two.

Does it matter I am not progressing along a game designer's pre-planned class advancement track? Something the company spends countless hours balancing and tweaking to get "one" advancement experience perfect? No, it doesn't. My "advancement track" is the adventures I go on, and if I end up more of a glib, sword swinging practitioner of dark magic than a pure 100% power-level don-nothing-else factory-stamped-out warlock I don't care. My guy is my guy, and the adventures he went on made up the skills and powers he collected along the way.

DIY systems focus on organic advancement and balance the game on skill rolls and task difficulty.

DIY systems don't really have predicable "endgame" character builds, you just become very good at doing the things you do the most. You may end up the world's best talker, but if that is what you enjoy having your character do at the table, that is a good thing since your character advancement reflects what you are doing when you play.

Planned systems also tend to have these "pre-balanced" endgames, where the fighter will always have X attacks at Y to-hit, and be able to do Z damage a turn. Since the game designer "planned" this out, relative character power between classes is easy to calculate, and the "end game" monsters are easier to balance, Well, they should be, but a lot of planned systems typically don't take a lot of factors and exploits into consideration at the higher end (conditions, initiative, and turn denial powers) and things fall out of balance easily.

This is why a lot of competitive multiplayer online games are (or end up being) planned systems. You saw this in World of Warcraft's evolution, a lot of DIY systems were dropped to put characters in predictable, damage-and-healing-output-known envelopes. PVP and PVE balance in these games equals challenge and fun - at the cost of letting you level up your character how you choose to play.

D&D 4 was like this for us, at the high end the game fell apart for us because of the amount of stuns and other powers that rendered foes unable to act during a turn, and also our characters felt like they were getting competitively weaker versus the monsters they faced. The end-game tactics broke down into: go first, deny the enemy his turn, load it up with conditions, and beat on it with "whatever power you have" until it succumbs. The game wanted to be battle chess (which it was for us at low levels), but the high-end game did not work - at least for us.

With a DIY system, the endgame can be calculated if you do a little math, but the end-result is typically a flatter power level. The numbers usually don't get way out of balance, as the system is usually balanced around task resolution. Better skills can lead to a higher DPS and damage output in a DIY system, since you are hitting more and you may have access to special combat moves and abilities you purchased with your points. The Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight does a good job with talents and making those unlock higher levels of combat power, so there can be a calculated "end game build" with a DIY system - it just takes a little more design and forethought.

What character advancement system you like is of course, up to you. There are times when "I don't want to think" and I appreciate the simplicity of a planned system. I still like Fantasy AGE a lot, and I feel it is a great, stepped and balanced design that does a better job at planned advancement than most d20 based games. It is a more modern design with a hybrid "choice plus planned advancement" that I like, and it is a fun and simple model and great for new players. One problem with this model is that if the game designer doesn't think of a role, it is not viable - such as Dragon Age vs. Fantasy Age and the rogue archer issue.

We still like DIY advancement systems for our games, since it fits our play style better. We run wide and diverse games, and they don't always fit into the box of a planned class box that easily. For us, what happens at the table that night is how the characters advance, and if the players want to go sword swinging and combat one night, they can reward themselves with those skills at the end of the night and get a little better. If all we do is roleplay and socialize with NPCs, that is what is rewarded at the end of the night. It fits how we play and gives us a better sense of satisfaction when players figure out rewards, and it also reflects how we play and what happens around our table a little better than a planned system could ever account for.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Mail Room: Cosmic Encounter

Look what came in the mail yesterday!

And yes, we did play a game and had a blast. This is one of those where you wonder aloud, "How did we miss playing this?" It really is that fun, especially if you like games that twist your mind, force you to negotiate with other players, tempt you to take risks, manage an ever-changing hand of cards, and get you out of your comfort zone.

This is not a Civilisation type game of empire management, it is more like a death-match version of Magic the Gathering mixed with some old-school Paranoia RPG madness when interpreting rules and putting the screw-job to an opposing player. And then the next turn you need their help and you are the best of friends. And back to screwing with that player again the turn after that.

It's madness and we love it. It has think-you-have won moments suddenly reversed in the next turn by a jaw dropping combination of luck, skilled play, poker-player like bluffing, alien powers, and smart card management. It is a blast if you don't take yourself too seriously, love to play out of your comfort zone, and have a Machiavellian streak in you a mile wide.

It also makes you think twice about traditional stat-based RPGs and board-games and how dry those can get at times. There is a lot of design genius in this one, rally simple rules, a dynamic hand, and rule that encourage you to twist your strategy around in ways you would never expect.

We played head-to-head with two players, which isn't really optimal, but we still managed to have a lot of fun and the game still held up and worked. We were constantly in each other's face all night as the losses piled up and the back-and-forth was epic and silly at times, but it still played well and we had a blast.

Check this one out, it is a fun one and a classic.

Easy to Design, Hard to Balance

I am reminded of some of the games that came out around the original AD&D game's creation, most notably Squad Leader and its successor, Advanced Squad Leader. Games back then existed in the age before personal computers, where the game's rules were written out almost like computer code:
  • Run the game turn in phases
  • Every rule is laid out in detail
  • Structure of the rules was paramount to understanding them
They played like pen-and-paper versions of computer games, because, that is what they were. From Car Wars to Battletech, we had a whole generation of games which required players to run through turn phases, long lists of rules, and players acted more like human computers than players.

We haven't gotten away from this design philosophy much with today's games, especially with the d20-based games like D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, D&D 4, and D&D 5. To be fair, there are plenty of older games that fall into this mentality, such as Aftermath, Rolemaster, Runequest, Space Opera and many others. These are games which draw heavily on the "pen and paper computer game" design mentality, where players are more "computer code interpreters" than "game players."

Combat Conditions

Games need rules, but I feel I am getting to a point where enough is enough. Take, for instance, conditions in d20-based games:
  • D&D 5 has about 15 conditions
  • D&D 4 has about 16 conditions
  • D&D 3.5 has about 24 conditions
  • Pathfinder has about 36 conditions
  • Basic Fantasy and Labyrinth Lord have 0 conditions
These are all "specially defined rules conditions" which can potentially apply during combat, have special durations, effects, removal conditions, and special rules - in addition to special conditions applied by spells (charm, hold person, etc) or things like death. This is just one area of the game, as there are vast numbers of feats, powers, combat rules, movement rules, and other fiddly and complicated interlocking rules that control how players act and what they can do during a turn.

The more rules a game gives you, the slower it will run. In general, the thicker the book, the slower the game will play. These "big book" games are easy to design since you just keep adding rules and options, but in practice very difficult to balance, and very easy to break.

Old School Games

It is interesting to note there are no "special conditions" in the old-school games, beyond what spells did to you. They are, in general, simpler games where you do not have to worry about special effects being applied to you during a turn. There was a point in d20's history where the Magic the Gathering design philosophy took hold and numerous special conditions were added to the game.

It's like the AC and hit point system felt too abstract and realism needed to be added though the use of conditions to flavor combat, when the old-school games embraced the abstract nature of d20 combat and left things how they were. In an old-school game, if a goblin bonked you on the head, the referee could rule you were "stunned" and lost a turn - if that was important. Otherwise, AC, to-hit, damage, and hit-points were all that were needed to simulate everything that went on during combat - including the millions of possible conditions that could happen during a turn of battle.
Roll a "1" on damage during a turn in an old-school game? Maybe you were stunned, staggered, or weakened during that blow, who cares? Miss the to-hit entirely? Maybe you got knocked down that turn and got back up, who knows, make it up and go with the flow. It doesn't matter what happened during the turn, just the outcome of the roll.
AC and hit-points are intentionally abstract systems, like "money" or "property" in Monopoly. There is a simplicity and beauty in leaving them the way they are, and not over-designing "reality" systems on top of them. Really, once you add "realism layers" on top of abstract systems, all you do is show the weakness of the original underlying systems instead of making them work better.

"Play How You Want?"

Note that this discussion only applies if you want to play the game by the rules as written, any one of these games can be played "fast and loose" by omitting rules, but then again, you are not really playing the game at that point and taking advantage of rules that were written to give you the full experience of the game. A complicated game will always have the line "play however you want" in there because this is the only way the designers of these games have to control complexity, they need to tell players it is okay to omit rules to speed play.

Writing complicated games is easy, since all you have to do is keep piling rules, feats, conditions, special rules, new class structures, new powers, and more options onto the book. Writing a simple game is very hard, because you need to write rules that can handle a lot with a little.

Modern and Old-School Designs

Contrast these games with more modern designs, such as FATE or Savage Worlds. These two alone are very impressive designs, and make the d20-based games feel like flip-phones to play versus a smartphone - at least for our group. To be fair, D&D 5 did try to follow the more modern design philosophy and simplify, but for our group, we felt too much baggage (with specific and single-purpose feats and powers) was held over from the older rules to really place the game into the more modern design style.

Modern designs do a lot with a little. Old school games also did the same, but intentionally abstract away parts of the game which could slow things down. Balance exists in the simplicity of the design, and in universal rules. Special cases are handled through the referee. Are you tied up? You can't act but could struggle out of your bonds, maybe...referee's call. We don't need a restrained condition and a page of rules for escaping bonds, plus feats to support "escape artists," and spells that free people from ropes.

Big book games over-design everything and add every feature and whistle, like Homer Simpson designing a car. Modern designs simplify, and handle many things with a single mechanic, leaving the referee to handle special circumstances. A "gunfighter" in a big-book game needs a special class, powers for that class, feats for that class, and special rules for that class. A "gunfighter" in a modern design or old-school game is likely a skill at using guns and that's it, it is handled the same way as any other attack.

Modern games tend to be more streamlined and handle everything with unified mechanics. Old-school games typically handle one type of action under an abstracted mechanic. It is not uncommon for an old-school design to use parallel but different diced mechanics for different actions (d20 to-hits and d100 thief skills). A modern design would put those all in the same dicing mechanic and unify action resolution.

Monday, September 26, 2016

9,999 hp

Games that do "big numbers" have really fallen on hard times. You know, the games where numbers are big, low level creatures have no chance of hitting higher-level characters, and hit points rise into the thousands.
D&D 4 was the last game that went big on numbers, adopting a hit point scale about five times old D&D and a to-hit system that all but made hitting something four levels higher than you futile. D&D 5 went back down to a double hit point scale factor and adopted "bounded accuracy" which is really saying "we made sure the to-hits didn't get too out of whack this time." Even D&D 3 and Pathfinder, while keeping the old D&D 1X hit point range (where an orc can have 4hp), puts a premium on to-hits, and AC is king. If they can't hit you, they can't damage you.
D&D 5 shifted defenses to hit-points and evened the AC and to-hit game to a flatter system where everyone can hit you - so hit points primarily determines defense. Pathfinder keeps the original game's lower hit point range but keeps the steeper AC and to-hit game - so AC primarily determines defense. Note this is in a broader sense of "primarily" as the greatest contributing factor of defense. In D&D 5 you are taking damage frequently (your AC works less and your hit points more); where in Pathfinder if you get hit it matters more (you have half the hit points but your AC works harder). Lots of things play into offense and defense, but in a general sense this is how I feel things work in both games as a design goal. This is not to say one is better - this is how things work under the hood of the car, since they both get you down the road.
A lot of today's games live on a flatter power curve, and Pathfinder and D&D 4 are the last two holdouts of the "big numbers" generation of gaming. In both these games the difference between low level power and high level is great, and if you are a low level scrub forget about taking on a high-level foe. In D&D 5, you can get away with being a low level PC versus a foe 4-6 levels higher than you, it is not easy, but it is very possible. D&D 5 shares a lot of power curve similarities to games like Savage Worlds, where the play is all tightly contained within one power envelope.
One of the original "big number" games from the 1970's was Tunnels and Trolls. This is a really harsh "I roll a 10d6+14 total against your 8d6+16 total" type of game, and the difference between the attack totals is the damage the loser takes. It is simple stuff and works well. At low levels it is a fun and tight battle, but at high levels, watch out, you are this freakish Conan type who can slay everything just by shining your sword's reflection onto enemies. T&T to me feels the most like Japanese console RPGs, where a level 12 hero can laugh off level 1 critters with ease, and only the most epic of high-level bad guys are a threat.
It is odd because Tunnels and Trolls is not anime at all and feels so retro and old-school, but it hits the higher-level "godlike" feeling of Japanese console RPGs so well. What is strange about the game is how it embraces that god-like power level and doesn't apologize for it or attempt to balance it out in any way. It is almost strangely refreshing in a way, and it puts the difference between the low level and high level into an abundantly clear focus. In a way it is like a superhero game, but not really since simulating balance between heroes and parity is not an issue. This is a game about raw power and what you lay that hurt down upon, and how things bigger than you can crush you under an even more massive force.

But this power level difference describes console RPGs so well. Walk into the next patch of woods and meet some palette-shifted "forest trolls" that smash your face in just by sneezing on you? No problem, just grind some levels, upgrade your weapons, buy some spells, and get powerful enough that a flick of your pinkie will send them packing. Go into the next area and get your face smashed in again by a red-shifted zombie. T&T can get wildly out of balance, but the overall experience (and yes, even the imbalance of it all at times) is fun.

A lot of game-oriented games try for play-balance. Simulation games try to simulate reality (and make every action hard). Some out there do not care about one-on-one combat balance, and try to emulate a heroic and wildly dangerous experience.

But understanding power level helps you pick the games you like to play, so it is worth talking about. Some people like flatter games, where things feel more realistic and the difference between a dragon and the common man isn't that great. Some people like that dragon to be an epic and powerful force and able to crush the average peasant mercilessly. What happens next is players forge heroes who are more powerful than that dragon by a hundred times. And then face the next terrible force which is unleashed upon the world, and the heroes rise again. Some like it somewhere in the middle.

Monday, September 19, 2016

No Clerics? No Problem?

What do the above two games have in common?

No divine magical power sources or cleric classes. They keep to a holy-less trinity of fighter-rogue-mage where the only source of otherworldly power is the mage. No clerics, no gods, no paladins, no praying for power, and no second column of magical power exists in these worlds - it is just the mage.

The duality of mage vs. cleric seems like a staple in fantasy, right? Well, Tolkien's well-known world of Middle Earth just had wizards as the "magic users" as well, and the beings that could be considered "gods" weren't your typical D&D high-fantasy style gods who gave everyone who prayed to them cure light wounds. The holy-less trinity defines these stories as well, as magic was practiced by mages.

And speaking of no-clerics, then there is Game of Thrones as well...

D&D has always had this injection of spiritualism, even in the original 1974 edition of the game had fighter, mage, and cleric as the trinity classes (thieves/rogues being added later in the first Greyhawk supplement). MMOs are rife with divine power sources, like World of Warcraft and other games. There is always this "occult versus the divine" conflict going on in the more D&D style of fantasy, feeling like Westernized religious values being placed on top of Tolkien-style fantasy to create a conflict of power sources.

And D&D's history with divine beings has been notoriously messy, at least in our experience. The old Deities and Demigods book made gods monsters out of the Monster Manual. They were superheroes and super-characters in D&D 3.5, and finally MMO horrendously under-powered end-game raid bosses in D&D 4. Thankfully Pathfinder and D&D 5 (and games like Basic Fantasy or Labyrinth Lord) leave the monster stat blocks for gods at home and makes the gods stat-less beings, making them something like "Q" in the old Star Trek: The Next Generation lore - there to affect outcomes and make snarky remarks, but as monsters or characters on the tabletop? No way, and no thank you.

Seriously, the injection of "gods as monsters" thing has messed up so many of our campaigns that it leaves a bad taste in our mouths when we play these versions of the game. Whenever the "gods got involved" in our past games the players rolled their eyes, wondered when it was going to end, and wished for the times of searching a dresser drawer full of silver pieces and a giant spider guarding the horde. When a game goes "big divine" it becomes "all about the gods" and the focus shifts away from the heroes and onto a divine soap opera worthy of Greek tragedy. For us, at least, and we prefer the heroes to be the focus of the game, and leave the divine super-characters to the background.

If the Forgotten Realms had that supposed problem of high-level NPCs "messing up" adventures, in our experience and our games it was "super-character gods." Give us a high-level NPC any day, because at least those can be ignored, walked away from, or made enemies of and smacked upside the head every once and a while to keep them in line. Making Elminster a recurring enemy to insult and mess with is fun, while having various gods show up again to stop the party in the real world is not.

But removing the cleric and divine power source entirely? It feels like heresy in high fantasy RPGs nowadays, but there is a simplicity and elegance in the world structure once you remove the "power for worship" access to magic. Power is not gained through faith, but in the three historical forces of humankind: might, deception, or knowledge. Removing faith from that mix creates a darker world, where access to magic is controlled by the mage, and there is no "faith versus knowledge" conflict.

"Faith versus knowledge" can also be summarized as "religion versus science" and you can see why this conflict feels natural to us, but in high fantasy this conflict is typically hand-waved off because we need the magic user to be able to adventure with the cleric and the band of merry men. In many high fantasy game worlds and MMOs you will see the "holy church of X" sitting right beside the "mage college of Y" and no problems whatsoever between them. Does it bother the church that those faithless mages have power equal to their followers? Does the mage college feel threatened by the mass of worshipers who only need to pray for power and not need knowledge?

You take that conflict out and the world feels a little strange, but then again we can't have the cleric and the mage fighting in the dungeon because it would slow up play and start real-world fights when the mage doesn't get a heal, right? Ah, dungeon crawling and the sacrifices we make for party-based play.

Take out clerics and divine power sources, and the problem is removed. Hand-wave the divine-arcane conflict off and it is gone as well, but something feels interesting when mages are the only ones who hold the keys to power. It does feel more Tolkien, and magic feels more arcane and special.

What is the lesson here? I guess it is "know your game" and understand the basic assumptions a game makes changes the world. Don't always be so beholden to the typical tropes of high-fantasy and MMO gaming, and games where divine magic is removed create interesting world models of power and how people acquire the same. What you play is your preference, but be open to games which may take you out of your comfort zone and experience "the power of magic" in a new light.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Throw More People at It!

Pen-and-paper games have breaking points, and these usually involve the "throw more people at it" strategy. A lot of games are very sensitive to the amount of people in an "adventuring party." We found when dungeon-ing, five people is a good practical limit and it gives everyone a chance to shine. We have run eight-person groups, and it feels inevitable that a queue starts forming behind the front rank members, as in most dungeons eight is a lot of people to run a game for, and more importantly - balance.

Area-of-effect attacks multiply party strength, and going from five to eight party members typically allows one or two extra AoE attacks on the board during a battle per turn. In strategy-type games this is a huge deal, at least in our experience, as those extra, well-placed area attacks can cause havoc with even an enemy force that is scaled to equal the party's ability to fight.

Let's say you design an encounter for five adventurers, two orc tanks, a controller, and two ranged attackers. Five-on-five seems pretty balanced. When you go to eight, you may throw in an extra tank and two more ranged DPS to bring this up to an eight-on-eight.

Well, this is where the problem lies. When you start to scale up encounters, you get into the problem of "more is better" and you get these strange "force multiplier" issues when you keep adding more of the same type of enemy.

Tanking in Confined Spaces

Tanks tend to lose power in large groups, because in many tactical dungeon battles, space is limited. When you scale up a dungeon designed for five players to ten players, you often don't think about increasing the size of rooms and halls, and you get these theme-park style lines of people waiting to fight while the actual space for the "front lines" is typically a 10-wide hallway with room enough for two fighters, side-by-side. Even though both the party and the orcs can field three or four tanks each, the dungeon often does not have the space to let everyone fight one-on-one.

So some of the tanks sit there unused, and their power is reduced. This does happen to ranged units as well, since line-of-sight is often blocked by other characters and simply being forced to the back of the group.

Limited Space? AoE Rules the Battle

One of the rules of wart is if your enemy has limited room to maneuver, hit them with artillery. If you scale up a dungeon encounter and don't scale up the terrain, you are naturally forcing more combatants into a smaller space, and multiplying the effect of area-of-effect spells, powers, and attacks. A sleep spell that would have hit two or three in the original encounter is now hitting six. A swipe feat that would have only come into play once or twice during the battle is now used almost every turn as monsters jam the front lines to get an attack in.

Area-of-effect attackers love scaled encounters, and you typically see their effectiveness go through the roof. Single target attackers either have to mass attacks or focus on picking off stragglers, and therefore see their contributions reduced. Single-target controllers of de-buff experts suffer the worst, since in a smaller encounter putting a -2 to-hit on the other side's tank or ranged attacker would have been a huge deal, but now that -2 is just one in a crowd, and that damage that would have been severely affected by a de-buff is still getting through with other attackers.

When you scale an encounter you are giving AoE powers a huge buff.

Ranged Attackers

With four ranged attackers, the orcs can single out and really put the hurt on one of the party members. With two ranged attackers, everyone is taking some damage, and things feel balanced. With four, you are taking out one party member a turn (and it feels unfair). If your ranged attackers can all see one target and attack, you typically "alpha attack" one target at a time with your ranged assets instead of spreading damage. This works on both sides, and ranged power is affected by the terrain.

In open terrain such as large caverns, outdoor maps, and huge chambers; increasing the amount of ranged attackers increases your combat power greatly - even more so than on a one-to-one ratio. You double one side's archers and all let them attack during a turn? You can bet they will coordinate and fire at one target, and this really is the thing to do. Those squishy mages in the back ranks better watch out.

In closed terrain the ranged attackers lose a lot of their effectiveness, such as a 10' wide hall that only allows two tanks to fight side-by-side. Your archers will be sitting in the back of the line taking a smoke break and browsing on their smartphones.

The same goes with monsters, if you are scaling up an encounter in a small room don't go for ranged attackers. You are better off making the individual monsters tougher by a couple levels and leaving them the same number.

The Problem With Tougher

There is a problem with making monsters tougher and leaving their numbers the same. Let's say you decide with your encounter to leave their numbers the same, but double up their strength. You are going to be creating a meat-grinder situation where in close quarters the tanks of the party will take a lot of damage and the encounter will be tougher than it should have been. In open-field battle it may work a little better, because you are letting everyone contribute, but the number of attacks on each side may push the battle in favor of the larger side. The terrain starts to matter a lot when you "toughen up" an encounter instead of scale, because the number of attacks matters, and not forcing one or two players to take the brunt of everything also matters.

The Problem With More

Some games just do not scale well. If a party size doubles from four to eight, you would think that encounter size or CR should be doubled, right? We have run into this many times and felt some game's balancing systems started to fall apart when larger groups were thrown at the system. What about a party size of twenty or thirty? We have played games this large, and while the system theoretically 'works' there is a point where the game starts to break down. The multiplicative power of twenty individual players making decisions far outweighs the game's balancing systems (or even a GM making one-to-one fights) because of a number of design factors unique to each game and the power set.

It's like a superhero game, and you go from a nicely-balanced group of four or five Justice League or Avengers caliber player characters and you double that to eight or ten - a situation that is not that uncommon in comic books and comic book lore, as big fights are popular. You will notice two trends, some characters will become very weak and inconsequential, while others will massively over-contribute. The ones that over-contribute will fight at two or three times their strength because of the over abundance of healing, protective powers, buffs, and coordination from the rest of the group. These over-performers will either be tanks, direct damage, or AoE experts, or a combination of these types.

In a more balanced game with less players, you have more equal contributions and players being forced to fill roles they may not be 100% proficient at, just because someone need to cover this hall or hold the sudden attack off. The AoE, DD, or tank may not get a chance to do what they do best, because there is no one else to capture an objective or perform a story-goal, so they have to step in. With less players, everyone has to share responsibilities in the group, and you have less of the "single purpose" over-performing characters purely focused on pouring out one attack type every turn for maximum damage.

Special Units

It isn't hopeless. If you know the game well enough, special units may make the difference and allow you to balance a larger party without resorting to scaling or toughening up. Let's say the goblins have a pet fire beetle that can spit fire and take a lot of damage. That instantly become a tough nut to crack, and it has some interesting fight dynamics and utility for the goblins. Adding the beetle does "toughen up" the goblin side by one unit, but you aren't doubling up or raising their level to make up for the difference. You may need to add another special unit in there if there are more, but be careful that you aren't just increasing numbers to match.

Special Tactics and Gear

Or, give the goblins a falling rock trap they can trigger when several of the party members are underneath a part of the chamber, flaming arrows, heavy armor, or other combat enhancements in order to compensate for the larger party. Let one stay hidden up near the roof in a small cave with a crossbow, or add a small force that rushes in from a secret trapdoor or "spider hole" in the floor when the party fights their way past it. If you make one side fight smarter, that can add challenge without scaling or toughening up, and it also makes the fight more memorable.

Or Just Say No to Scaling or Splitting

Or just focus on smaller groups where the game was naturally designed to play. There is a point where every game breaks and you have added too many players. More isn't always more fun, imagine a Monopoly game with fifty players. Everybody would be waiting for their turn to come up, and the board would be crowded so badly that only the small group of "first movers" would do well. You will find this pattern in tabletop RPGs as well ,and even in non-tactical story type games, the "first movers" and the most vocal of the group will have the most fun, and determine the direction of the game.

If you break them into groups, you can get some of that original balance back (but not in resource management games, two parties will not be challenged if the adventure was designed around the resource management of one party) - but you are also telling half of the players to wait while the other half has fun. You see this in "story games" where the group of investigators creaks apart to investigate a mystery - the more active and forceful personalities will dominate the play time if the party splits apart.

"Pilot player, sit in the starship, guard it, and be ready to go! We are going to go out and take all the session time in the starport now getting into all sorts of fun and interesting trouble."

It is something you have to think of when planning games, and also use creativity to resolve. You don't want to tell someone who wants to join your group "no" and have them sit out, but you also don't want too many people to join where the game is too easy, too slow, or you end up scaling things up that the game breaks and the adventure falls apart. There is that point where the game breaks, and you need to be conscious of that point - especially when it comes to party size, the type of game you are playing, and adventure design.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Pathfinder: SORD PF

This is an oldie, but a goodie. If you find yourself missing the good-old (or even not so good old by some people's opinions) days of Pathfinder, this PDF is a life saver. If you play by the basic book and even use Trapdoor's Playbook on the iPad to run a basic-book only game, this is the PDF to get.

Imagine a PDF that eliminates the need to flip through the book to reference rules. This PDF was created to help you play the game more accurately, faster, and with a deeper depth of complexity than you are normally used to. The goal was to save at least 15 minutes per encounter, and having used this in play, I can attest it is a huge time-saver and it clears up not only how something should be handled, but sets forth easily-followed procedures to handle complex rules.

Pathfinder's strength is its complexity, so any product that helps you cut through that complexity and lets you enjoy it more helps you enjoy more of the game.

So what is this? It is a 40-page booklet of charts and rules summaries for Pathfinder, covering combat, actions, maneuvers, movement, modifiers, spells, and skills. It is useful for both players knowing what they can do and referees figuring out how to handle things. If you are a new player, it clears up how the fiddly parts of the rules work and how your character's stats are used by the game. If you are a referee, this is your cheat-sheet of notes and helps you run the game 'by the book' across a wide variety of situations.

This Means I Provoked an AoO!

Part of why our group doesn't like the Pathfinder or D&D 3.5 combat systems (for most light gaming sessions) are the fiddly Attack of Opportunity systems in these games, but this PDF makes that easy, and in fact explains AoO so well it becomes clear when it should be used. To be fair, AoO is one of those 'simulationist' sort of combat systems that you can't really remove from Pathfinder because so much of the game's intricacies are wrapped up in triggering, not triggering, buying feats to enhance, and giving melee characters rules to pay attention to (and exploit for effectiveness).

If you are complaining about magic being too powerful in Pathfinder, you are probably ignoring some of the melee combat rules meant to throw some sand in the gears of spell-casting in combat. You threaten any square you can make a melee attack into - even when it is not your action. Using a spell-like ability? Provokes an AoO. Casting a spell? Provokes an AoO unless defensively casting. Quickened spell casing does not provoke an AoO, nor does channel energy. And this PDF summarizes them all.

See? You start applying the rules and spell casting in melee gets a lot more complicated. Your magic-wielding character needs to play by the rules, take a couple hits, and make those concentration checks to keep casting. The rules exist here for a reason, and this lower-level combat sim is one of the huge differences between Pathfinder and D&D 5. You can build a character to take advantage of the low-level combat sim in Pathfinder, and if you enjoy that rules complexity, you should be playing Pathfinder. If you find yourself ignoring the low-level combat sim rules in Pathfinder because of a need for simplicity, you should be playing D&D 5. It is not a question of which game is better, it is a question of what type of game you enjoy better.

I Did Not Know You Could Do That...

The skill reference sheets are invaluable. Did you know a bard with Intimidate and Comedy Performance skills could demoralize all enemies within earshot for 1 round plus 1 more for every 5 points they beat the target DC - just by telling a joke? By the way the shaken condition gives the enemy a -2 to attack rolls, weapon damage rolls, saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks.

"You guys suck so bad you can't even swing a sword half straight."

And bam, the other side sucks at what they do to the tune of a -2 for everything they do just because you walk around making quips like Steve Buscemi. Oh, and that comedy-combo applies to Bluff checks as well, so have fun. You don't need a spell that does this, GM Fiat, or any other special rules - the game handles it. These charts make it easy to come up with fun uses of skills like this for all types of interesting uses, and lays things out in a simple way so when a referee or other player stares at you slack-jawed in disbelief "you can do this" you can show them.

They will inevitably open the book and check, but you will still be right.

And you will be right without having to look in the book.

The Warhammer Method and Appeal

We have played in a lot of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K games at hobby shops, and there is a certain population of players who like to be "good at the rules." If you know your stuff, you can lay your army down, play fast, use the rules to your advantage, and sail through many battles with ease. When you meet another player who can play as well as you, it becomes the battle of two chess masters and an epic confrontation.

But to get to this point - you have to know the rules. You have to be able to recite them from memory, or have a quick reference chart handy that can lay out the rules in an easy-to-understand format and be accessible quickly. Moreover, you have to be right and correct in the application of the rules to an event or situation that happens at the game table.

You seek out players with a high system mastery to play with because this gives you a greater enjoyment of the game. It is the same with Warhammer as it is with Pathfinder. The SORD PF charts can help you get to this high level of play. If you enjoy that 'rules heavy' play, that is, and some people prefer a more simple experience, such as a Savage Worlds or even a D&D 5 style game.

Also, there is a certain magic when you play with a referee with a high system mastery of the game, when the referee can rifle through a list of modifiers and ways to handle something without having to flip through the book. You get a more complete enjoyment of the game, you start to see why the rules were written the way they were, and all of a sudden the way you built your character matters. Or the way you didn't build him or her matters, given the types of things you want to do. This matters in an option-heavy system like Pathfinder, and a great referee will sit down with you and explain why the choices you made on your now dead (and thoroughly sucky) first character were the wrong ones (given the way you wanted to play), and explain to you how you should build your new character the next time to make them work better within the rules.

In a game that protects you from bad choices, none of this matters. I don't usually like games where there are 'bad choices' built in, but the way D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder were designed these bad parts are essential because games with system mastery need both optimal and less optimal paths. To be fair, a lot of the choices in Pathfinder (and even the bad ones) are useful in some situations, but when you are trying to build a specific character, 80-90% of the choices you are presented with are bad choices. You need to know how the system works to build the character you want to play, and the system does not protect you from making bad choices.

We Always Play With This...Always

If we are playing Pathfinder, you can bet a copy of SORD PF is sitting right by my side. DarkgarX also has his copy open and ready near him (as a player) should he want to reference a rule or attempt something which could force a check of the rules. It just makes playing easier, keeps us from flipping through the book, and it saves us time during play - which is exactly what this PDF was advertised to do. Granted, this PDF only covers the basic rules, so if you are a "complete system" multi-book player there may be some holes - but 90% of this information is still highly useful and the other books you play with should just be exceptions rather than the rule.

With the newer Pocket Editions of Pathfinder coming out (and the basic book only Playbook experience), there are more players just sticking to the basics - and that experience is still a great and fun game. For these players, this PDF is the resource to get and stick by, since it saves you time and increases your enjoyment of the game. It is also a 'cheat sheet' towards system mastery, and that is always a noble goal. Being a great player or referee who 'knows their stuff' makes you a more desirable player for groups and play experiences.

Check it out, highly recommended.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Great Video: "Low Budget" Review of Tunnels and Trolls

Check this cool video out if you are interested in Tunnels and Trolls, and there is a free rulebook available over on Drive Thru RPG here:

And also the current version of the deluxe rulebook (at this time on sale for $20):

And you can get a hard or soft cover here:
This version came about as a Kickstarted project (here), and this is essentially the best and most complete version on the shelf today.

The one thing I love about this video is how he points out Tunnels and Trolls has been developed by the same creative team for over 41 years, and it is the second roleplaying game ever developed. He knows his history, and even though the video is a bit 'low budget' the love and appreciation for the game shows through - and he has great information to share in this review. It is not a slick production, but it is from the heart, and that is what matters more.

More on this game soon, and this has been one we have been playing for a long time - and it is great to see it back.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Great Article: The Death of 'The Sleeper'

Check the above out, it is a great article about the old Everquest game, and what happens when you pull the rug out from under your players - and then put it back, saying 'sorry.' Or not saying sorry, but blaming it on a software bug. Maybe there was a bug.

We will never know, but the story is a gaming legend.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Savage Worlds: World of Warcraft: Part 4

Non-cannon time, so break your lore sticks and let's talk.

The old World of Warcraft d20 game listed Stormwind's population at an incredible 200,000 people. This was later revised to somewhere down to 20,000 people, which for a medieval city is still huge. Medieval London from 1100 to 1300 grew from 15,000 to 80,000 people, so there is a nice real-world reference. Here is a map of 1300s London so you can get an idea of how big of a city you would need to fit 80,000 people:
Map of London, 1300.svg
Source: Wikipedia
I can tell you now that even fitting 20,000 people into the in-game city of Stormwind is going to be a stretch. The place can't even handle a couple hundred players as it is on a weekend night. But seriously, there is something to be said for the original 200,000 number.

Because 200,000 would work.

If you said that "Stormwind was it" and the rest of the lands around it were mostly wild and unsettled (save for a couple dozen miles of surrounding farms thinning out as you go), such a high population would work. The city would be massive and the central castle would likely look something like a spaceship towering above that mass of people, but as the sole population of the world for most of humankind, that number would work.

Take that map of 1300s London and multiply it by three to get an idea of scale. Check the scale of 2,000 feet. I could see a Stormwind of triple London 1300, being that size, with 200,000 people, and the majority of humans on the planet. If the world is dangerous, people would flock together for safety, and we could have a huge scale world of 100 or 200 times and still have the iconic cities spread far apart. Fill the rest in with "wild, dangerous, and unexplored land" and we are back on track.

No new lore needed, just a scale change. A scale change with lots of "unexplored land" is a whole lot easier for lore-obsessed players to swallow than is all these new imaginary places and locations. They only need to agree that the capitals are massive in scale compared to the game, and that is also an easier sell because who doesn't like massive and huge?

So that is the answer. I will go back to the non-cannon mega-population hundreds-of-thousands "race capitals" sort of design, scale up the lands to be epic in size, and fill in the rest with dangerous and wild places. Also, take note of this comparison from the Warcraft movie and the game - these look like cities that could support the 200,000 number, especially Stormwind (compared with ancient London):

Another added bonus is this sort of design creates high drama. Because Stormwind is the capital for all of humanity, if it gets destroyed, that's it, game over for the humans. Same goes for the elves, the orcs, and every other capital. We can still have smaller versions of the non-important places, as I can't see scaling up Booty Bay to be gigantic, but I could probably add a couple rows of buildings behind the docks just for fun and to maintain that sense of scaling.

With one or two easy pills of lore-breaking to swallow, most of the world's the lore is intact, a sense of scale is created, and the design has a built-in high drama.


My Savage Worlds conversion of World of Warcraft is back on track. Next time, powers and classes.

Great Article: Twilight Imperium Review

I love this article, especially the content of the "meet the players" section, and around this quote:
Once upon a time, after our first few games, Jim discovered the hard way that a player’s reputation, once lost, is not easily regained. After reneging on a few treaties and making dodgy promises not to invade planets, he soon realized that no one would trust him in subsequent games and ended up as a miserable pariah, a victim of the metagame.
Do you find a player's reputation and play-style in one game extends to later games? This is a fascinating subject, how a player's psyche not only determines strategy (in all play-thoughs), but also how other players treat him in future play-throughs. There are great descriptions of player types in here, the careful, the min-maxer, the long thinker, the dynamic player, the one-true-way player, and others. It is great stuff, and worth reading the article for.

Check it out, another great article today to ponder and sink your teeth into, especially if you are into game design.

Great Article: D&D 5 vs. Pathfinder

Check this one out, a comparison between D&D 5E and Pathfinder. What I like about this article is it plays to the strengths of each system and doesn't fall into the 'system wars' mentality by picking a winner before the article is written. It is a fair comparison which highlights the strengths of each, and hits upon the great 'why should I play' points of each system.

Good stuff. Worth a read for those looking to get an overview of the differences between the systems.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Tunnels and Trolls: Magic Weapons

Magic weapons in Tunnels and Trolls Deluxe don't typically add more than a couple adds to the weapon, you could have a longsword forged by a master swordsmith and get +2 adds to 5d6. High quality steel would add another +1. Balancing it would add another +1, and forging it in a volcano would add another +1.

5d6 + 5 is what you would end up with should you make a 'great' weapon such as that, about 16% more powerful than a normal longsword, or in D&D terms, on the same power level of a +1 sword. It doesn't go much higher than that, really, you could probably get this up to +10 with a heavier weapon, elven steel, a super-master smith, and all sorts of other incredibly rare materials and forging, which comes out to a +2 weapon in D&D terms of power level.

Consider warriors add +1d6 per level to their combat adds (+4 per level by our own house-rule), and you will quickly find levels are vastly more important than weapon quality.

The 10d6 Longsword? Doesn't Exist

There are no rules (I have found) for artificially amping-up a weapon's dice with extra damage, like a longsword that does 10d6 damage. I am sure possibly weapons like this may exist in modules as one-offs or house-ruled weapons, possibly, but by the base rules the "+damage dice" magic weapons aren't in there.

So let's say "this is cannon" and go with the idea there are no MMO-style 300dps damage artificially elevated to that of a tank gun weapons in this world. You know them, they are the ones you find in MMOs like World of Warcraft where a paper cut  from the epic Thunderfury sword would blow a level one peasant's arm off.


No, you may not clean my sword, and I will be more careful next time I brush by someone with my magic quarterstaff. I will pay to clean up the inn, and I didn't realize there was a crowd there tonight.

But seriously, let's say there are no "juiced" magic weapons in this world, and the great weapons are only a couple adds here and there. Where does that leave us?

The Innate Power of the Warrior

Here's where we go all Conan on everybody. With warriors, it doesn't really matter what weapon they use, you could pick up a spoon and maul a crowd of evil snake cultists with the utensil. A two-handed sword would help, but the spoon will do until I defeat someone with a better weapon.

Or maybe I will stay "metal" and keep using the spoon in spite.

You kick butt with ordinary weapons. You don't really need to be dolled-up with a load of specialized gear, like pretty magic armor, entitlement weapons, and all sorts of gear meant to keep you grinding away for something incrementally better. There is no gear game, and your warrior's power is not directly gear dependent. You need some armor and some weapon, but putting your gear on some progression track that has you going from level 1 gray items to level 105 orange items doesn't happen.

Your warrior's innate power is what makes them kick butt. It is a situation much like the wizard, with a wizard, you may want a wand, but a whole lot of magic gear, mana storing robes, and other magical trinketry and paper-doll items are not needed to make your wizard a butt kicker. Your wizard's innate power makes them who they are.

Rejecting the MMO Item Game

So then, what incentive is there to go out and get treasure? There aren't a plethora of magic items scattered out there in the world, but there is always the lure of wealth and a better life. There isn't a "gear game" so adventuring life in T&T is a bit different. You adventure to increase your own personal power. You get money to live better and maybe fix your gear and sleep in a better bed tonight. It makes me want to play the cash-finding game in T&T a little tighter, since naturally if money is the biggest 'loot game' in town, then referees will want to be careful about handing out piles of coins.

You aren't going out to find green bracers that give you +1 STA and +1 STR, or a ring that increases your fire resistance by 2%. While those are very cool things to find in an MMO, and finding them gives you a certain sort of fun, that's not this game.

In this game, money should be a little tighter and harder to come by. The world should be a little darker. Power is gained from increasing your stats and growing in personal power. You are not going to buy your way to success, or "doll up" with magic items to make up for personal power you don't have. Who you are and how you build yourself up matters more than trinkets and gear.

Itemization: Videogames vs. Pen-and-Paper

I still like the videogame-style item games, like Diablo and other games where finding loot and upgrading is a part of the game. I feel videogames do this better though, as we haven't really found a pen-and-paper game that does itemization as well as MMOs or rogue-like games. In D&D, there are a lot of cool items, but wizards outrank fighters in fun and character power by a long-shot, so the fighter gear game (at least for us) is moot. It's tough to say (because we love D&D), but for us, video games (with balanced classes and gear choices) do itemization better for fantasy gaming.

You a Better Hero Because of You

But having a game without the 'gear game' is interesting, and focusing purely on your stats and having the world limited to normal weapons and armor only is a fascinating take on fantasy gaming. T&T is different in this way, and it keeps to the 'savage barbarian' model of play where the difference between the defeated and the victors comes down to how much of a bad ass you are. There is no magic sword that can make up for a personal power deficit or trinkets to collect because you need the stat bonuses, it is just all you.

Nothing else is between you and being a hero, and you can't buy your way to greater power. What everyone else uses is what you use, and the big difference is you are the hero.