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.