Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Great Article: ‘D&D BEYOND’...

Check this out:


This is an article about the new digital tools suite for D&D 5 and it looks pretty slick. I have HeroLab for Pathfinder, and that program has become the only way to play for us. I want to check this software suite out and see what it can do for my group - so, nicely done and written - thank you!

Now, my thoughts and feelings. The problem I have with both Pathfinder and D&D is the character generation time, even in the article, they mention it took a GM and seven players three hours to create a party of characters. Even the author says it takes him 30 to 45 minutes to create a character by himself, and that is with proficient rules knowledge.

And here I was thinking Pathfinder was the one that took a lot of time, and that D&D 5 was actually faster. I guess as time goes on, those 'critical path' choices become clear and the game's balance and mechanics push players more towards 'good choices' for combat and critical game activities. It is like hard drive space in a way, you always find a way to use it all up no matter how much you have. In pen-and-paper games, character generation time seems to go up to an hour no matter how hard the designers try to streamline.

I have been through those 'where did the three hours go' character generation sessions way too many times, and it is hard to get players to go through that and come back the next week. In my feeling, it throws a huge wet blanket over that first, magical 'getting started' session that should be about adventure and having fun, not filling out a character sheet the length of a tax form and then having to come back the next week to see if you made the right choices.

Yes, pre-generated characters help - but they take the critical 'player creative input' out of the game. We are in an age of 64-bit smartphones that do amazing things and connect the world, how hard could it be to design a rules system that gets you started in 5 minutes?

In a perfect world, I would never use a computer program to wrangle complex character creation systems, and it could all be done as we did it when the game started. Throw 3d6 in six scores, pick a race, pick a class, grab some gear, and go.

The simplicity of the retro-clones calls to me, I know.

But the new games allow so much customization!

True, but unlimited choice is not always a good thing in games nor in life. It can paralyze and cause people to not choose anything rather than make a choice and go with it. I would rather have my complexity creep in after level one (in character advancement) than force it on players before they get started with the game.

Just my feelings of course, and I still appreciate robust character design systems - but there is a point where I feel complexity starts hurting the 'new player experience' and also play-ability.

It is why my shelf still holds a nice collection of retro-clones and they continue to inspire me to this day. Sometimes the original ways we did things need some respect and study, and that those simple times had a merit of their own.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Mail Room: Blue Rose RPG

Look what came in the mail today, the Kickstarter version of the Blue Rose RPG. The book is too beautiful to open, so I am using the PDF to learn the rules. I know, it sucks when a game comes and the darn thing is too pretty to open up and use. I am a fan of the old three-ring bound D&D books that were meant to be snapped into a Trapper Keeper in middle school and smuggled into lunch room dungeon sessions. To further accentuate the point:

The sides of the pages are gold-leaf color. Nope, damn it, too pretty to use as a gaming book and I will more likely print out the first hundred or so pages of rules of the PDF so I can learn them and have something I can fold, bend, scribble on, and hand to grubby players. Or she better be wearing white lace gloves with this for me to hand it over.

The book even has a little cloth bookmark built into the book, so that is a cool extra touch.

It looks to be a fun game with rules that won't scare off people, and it also has some fun mechanics where the corruption of the world directly is responsible for some of the monsters there. Does the mayor have a dark secret? If so, watch out, as the inherent corruption of the world may overcome the poor soul and turn him into an evil NPC, or worse into a lich. It is admittedly cool stuff, and I like to see world-specific mechanics integrated into the rules like this.

The only downside to this game is that it isn't D&D or Pathfinder. That is also an upside as well, given the group. It uses the AGE system as seen in the Dragon Age RPG, so it shall be familiar to some, which helps get a group interested. Some may see the 'romantic' theme of this game as possibly a bit silly, but I really don't care - we could stand to see some fun and interesting themed RPGs on our shelf these days. There should be something for everybody, and I am happy tabletop gaming is getting a bit diverse in the experiences we can share with groups.

More soon as we check things out.

Monday, May 1, 2017

200 Multi Color d6

I don't know what it is about multi-color dice and me, but here I am loving this set of 200 (that is a lot) dice I picked up recently. Two-hundred dice is a lot, well, maybe it is not a lot if you are considering playing the new Tunnels and Trolls RPG, but there is something to having a big bucket of these and digging in to grab some for a roll. I don't need this many dice, but they are fun to play with, stack, stick your hand in, and pick a set of fresh ones out for each roll.

I like the colors too, when I am refereeing there is something very quick about having that color recognition going on in addition to the pattern recognition. Do our eyes recognize colors or patterns first? I would think colors, since maybe there is less brain activity needed to see a color than a pattern, though there are studies saying babies take several weeks to see their first color - but they can see light and dark before that (which would suggest patterns). But I like the color recognition, and it helps me sort the dice quickly.

I am trying to find some sort of standard for pip coloring, but there doesn't seem to be one - maybe. I have at least three sets here with different standards, so pick a brand and stick with it if you go colored pips. I do prefer the hotter, green yellows and reds to be the low numbers, while the cooler blues, purples and blacks are up at the high numbers.

These are also standard board-game sized dice, but they also sell the smaller 16mm type dice, with this set below (which I also like a lot):
You can see on this set the 4's are green while the 2's are yellow, when in the above the 4's are blue and the 2's are green. This set actually sticks to my color preferences better, but that is a minor point - once you get used to a set the color matching takes over in your head and it matters less. The edges of these are rounded, so they tend to roll a bit more versus board-game dice. These I can't "place" a roll on a table as well as I can dice with squarer sides. If I am playing a complex game where stray dice can knock pieces over, I will use dice that do not roll around as much.

Overall though, I love these dice and love using them at the table to speed up play. With either set you can't go wrong.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Elitism and Hardcore Play


I stumbled across this article about Overwatch team balance and how there has developed an entire roster of 'less desirable' characters. And them "meta" which is the current play-style intended to maximize the chances of winning. An example of that? this is a good one:


And then I got to thinking of Pathfinder and character builds. I run a game where "you play what you want" and if you pick some non-optimized, my-favorite, sort of 'free love' build where you are a fan of a non-optimal class - you can play that. I will adjust the adventure so you have a chance to shine, like if you want to play a shape-shifting druid and have a chance to make your animal form matter in the adventure. Things will be cool. Build what you want. I can adjust.

It is the power-gamers that I have more of a problem with, to be honest. Especially in a group comprised of new and experienced players. You know, the ones who come in expecting to do MAX DPS and build a character off a forum post, and then have their character swagger in with the PWN-age confidence of that same forum post into my world.

I can do 250 hit points of damage per turn with this build!

My first reaction, as a dungeon master, to that sort of attitude is to knock them down a little. I am sorry, I just can't stand it, and I am probably a worse DM for feeling and saying that. In a pen-and-paper game, I can find a million ways to kill off a single-trick pony build, because the character build is typically only good at one thing.

Sure, your mage or archer or whatever can do sick amounts of damage, and then the evil gnome living in the back of my dungeon master's mind is going to say, "hit them with a poison trap behind an illusion, and then drop in a monster into the party's rear rank where LoS is going to be blocked."

And a part of me hates that feeling of playing against some of the players. I really do because it is ultimately unfair and targets someone for their rules knowledge or design skills (versus the rest of the group). But if I present everything as a straight up fight to a group of mew-players and min-max'ers, you know what is going to happen. The min-max'ers are going to absolutely own the encounter, that archer is going to finish off the encounter in two or three turns, and the rest of the party will be sitting there feeling the following:
  • My character sucks
  • I could not contribute
I love min-max'ing too myself in games, especially in video games where there isn't other people to upset - just the computer and me, But when there is other people involved, I get this feeling that min-max'ing is just being selfish and hurts the group more than it does the monsters. As a player in a group, I would rather design a well-rounded character when I play with others, especailly in a group of new players. I don't want to show off or outshine them, because all that does is make them feel bad and make me look good. I feel selfish when my character blows through the encounter and the other players are all sitting there wondering why their characters couldn't contribute.

Hardcore Play

There is a special case when you get a group of players that are entirely min-maxers, and you get into this death-match mentality with them that (as a DM) I find as a different level of enjoyment. If they are all min-max-ing - then all bets are off. I am going to find a weakness in your defenses and exploit it, because that is what you are trying to do to my adventure. And that is what, frankly, is what a player rolling a min-max'ed character is going to expect.

As a min-max'er myself, at times, I want to be challenged. I want my build's weaknesses exposed and take advantage of. I want my 'perfect build' to fail spectacularly against the evil dungeon master. I want it tough, and I am betting my character can survive your worst. As a player, I love that feeling, and it is a thrill to me.

There is, and I am not ashamed to say this, a fun in that style of play. Using the rules to your advantage. Knowing a rule better than the DM, and then as a DM, admitting defeat and saying "I have learned something," letting the player have that victory, and getting on with the next encounter. You know, really hardcore, competitive play that absolutely uses 100% of the rules to their limit, deadly traps, unfair encounters, the rules matter, and seat-of-your pants play.

And then smiling and thanking the players for dropping by today, and realizing we all love this hobby so much that we appreciate every chance we get to play together. Even in the "hardcore" style of play I like sometimes where players and the DM are in this hyper-competitive state, I like the thrill and the competition of the game. I want new players, if they so choose, to be able to join us in that elite club.

But not an elitist club.

If you played Warhammer Fantasy Battle or 40K competitively you know what I mean. There is this expectation, "When you come to the table, bring it." A good opponent with a great army is hard to find, and it is a joy playing against them. Someone who knows the rules well is a treat to fight, and especially one who takes the time to explain things to a newer player - despite the match taking longer than it should. I respect those players and love fighting them, since they bring out the best in me. My best build, my best sportsmanship, and the best fights on the table no matter who wins or loses.

But I feel there is a time to tone it down.

With new players at the table just looking to experience an adventure, I can shift gears and adjust to casual play. A good min-max player can sense this too and relax, build a whatever never-tried before fantasy character, and have fun as well in that setting. It is the players who continue to min-max in a mixed casual-hardcore group like that, who have no sense of toning it down, who tend to get on my nerves. Sometimes we are all here to have fun and not try to outwit each other, because we have some people playing that don't know the game as well. Chill. Tone it down. Have fun and play something you never would.

Maybe some of those new players will start to get the itch, and want to play in a hardcore game. We can move them up to that level later, and foster another elite player out of them. Welcome to the club, and I will do my best to challenge you.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Some Games are Just More Fun, For Us, Part #1

I was sorting through the boxes of games we put away because of the shelf disaster here, and I came across this:
And left it out on the shelf. This was our first Star Wars game with the Fantasy Flight rules, and this one has stood the test of time with our group. In fact, we had more fun with this book than we did the other two big-book games in the series:

It is an interesting question, and part of me loves the smuggler in us all, but the question felt like it had an answer. Why did the first book work for our group so well, while the other two books kinda fell flat? I mean, there is nothing wrong with the second two books, it is the same rules system, things work well, but something just felt off about the sequels compared to the original. The other two books sit by it on the shelf, but they really don't compare - for us.

It is one of those things you say, "If all I had were dice and this book, we could have some fun." For some pen-and-paper role-playing games, that isn't the case for us, and movies and video-games would be a more attractive proposition than playing a game that doesn't have that instant appeal. I put away a lot of games that didn't "sing" to us and just filled shelves for storage. But, what makes this fun for us? What criteria did I use to sort through the games we have out now versus what got put in the box?

Settings Matter

I have a shelf specifically for world-books and gazetteers, front and center. I love reading about peoples, places, and things and I feel these fantastic places matter. Part of what we didn't like about D&D 5 was the lack of a new setting, or a fun world-book introducing us to a new world that fits the rules and says "you got to play this because..." And this is part of why D&D 5's books are in storage now, along with a bunch of other generic systems we collected over the years. It is still a fun game, it just didn't catch on for us, so I don't feel too bad about putting it away (and I may still rediscover this years from now, who knows).

I just feel Wizards needs to reboot its classic settings and get over with the war on high-level NPCs. Give us all the characters from the books again. Give us Eberron again. Give me classic AD&D era Forgotten Realms. Either that, or come up with something new. Don't make me find campaign source material on EBay (though the D&D Classics PDF store is still nice and appreciated). It is tough for us to "buy in" to a new rules system without a setting to support it.
Pathfinder? All the books are still out on our remaining shelves, just because of the strength of the campaign setting. We don't play it all that much, but damn that game is fun to read about all the cool places and people in the world. The campaign setting matters, and it kept Paizo's creation out of storage, at least for us.

For Star Wars, especially the Edge of the Empire book focused on the seedy underworld and smugglers, the setting is probably one of the best known and engaging universes in fiction. The Empire makes for great bad guys. The music rocks. Everything about the game is iconic and inspires great feelings. But, the other two books in the series cover the same stuff, so while the setting matters, there is something else here.

Alignment Sucks

"Oh, he's a paladin, he has to be lawful good, he isn't going to betray us."

We just, no, okay, alignment systems suck the life out of the game for us. Forget it. We loathe them. I don't care if they are in the rules. They suck. You get a game like Edge of the Empire and you are dealing with 1001 different personalities and who knows what in terms of motivation, no alignment system, and all of a sudden - role-playing matters again.

Who is that guy? What does he want? Where are we? Can we trust them? Has he shafted anyone in the past? Would he? What's in it for him to keep his word? What can we do to make sure? Do we have insurance? What is the worst thing that can happen?

In D&D? Someone cast know alignment. Okay, we kinda know what he is going to do. It is an extreme example, but in games without alignment and systems to detect it we have more fun because nobody can take anything for granted. Someone's word matters. Motivation matters. Trust is a valuable thing. Legwork and social role-playing is needed to know someone.

I think the Jedi-focused book fell flat for us because Jedi have that "must do good" thing where they continually walk the path of light. Sure, they can fall, but if you meet a Jedi you know they are by default a do-gooder and they just have this "lawful/neutral good" feeling to them.

Not so with the characters and motivations of the Star Wars types found in Edge of the Empire. I could have an Imperial officer more interested in lining his own pockets than serving the empire. I could have a Hutt who doesn't want to cause too much trouble and attract attention. I could have a Rebel on the take from Imperial Intelligence just selling out enough information to keep himself rich while trying to keep himself out of the battle.

Greed is a big equalizer.

And most people in this world are in it for themselves.

For Rebels and Jedi, you have these preset sides. We just felt both of these factions were better background organizations than something a player would want to play inside. When you have no clue of who you can trust, the roleplaying gets really good for our group, and we eat that stuff up. I feel alignment puts a "code of conduct" on everybody, and we feel people use that as a crutch. It replaces role-playing and interaction. It replaces having to find out about a character's motivations, judge if you can trust him or her, and then take a chance either way.

Yes, you can play both the Jedi book and Rebel book with "shifting allegiances" but that doesn't feel right for us. Being a smuggler and playing off both sides is really fun, and it takes a lot of great roleplaying to pull stunts like that off. While flying an X-Wing and blasting TIEs is fun, I feel that can be done better by videogames and GeForce cards. Where pen-and-paper games shine are in the human interactions, and for us, the setting needs to support that crazy, shifting alliances, who is this, let's find out more, don't land there, I know someone, trust me, and classic succeeding through the strength of your performance at the table role-playing style of play.

You may like alignment, and I know there are groups that have fun with the concept, but for us, we like playing without the safety net. Sure you can say they are just guidelines, but really, I don't need them and we like the extra fun of having to role-play and make careful mental notes about who people can trust.

Next Time...

More games like this and more about why they stayed out instead of getting put away. There are a number of things about the games that survived the great shelf collapse and storage purge that they all share in common - what we see as fun - and it is just fun to discuss these subjects with you.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Forward Looking versus Retro Arcanum

In my post one-of-four shelf collapse Armageddon culling of pen-and-paper RPG books, I carved out a shelf for retro-clone old-school games, and now proudly display Basic Fantasy, Mutant Future, Labyrinth Lord, Starships and Spacemen, Stars Without Number, and a number of other new-school old-school classics. I am omitting other classics such as Castles and Crusades and Swords and Wizardry because I have not had the time to invest in them as I would have liked, and I want to focus on fewer games rather than spreading myself too thin.
And then I began reading about Basic Fantasy and the community ever since I last checked in with them, and I am impressed. They are like a large-community open-source project and way different than a role-playing game made for profit. They are trying to be the Linux of pen-and-paper gaming, and while the rules are more simple and retro-focused, the entire creation is surprisingly modern and forward-looking. Support and the community over there has grown, and it looks like a great, accepting, and creative place to participate - and that is a huge strength.
Compare this with Labyrinth Lord, which aims for backwards compatibility (with one style of mixed system play) and purposefully adopts some of the more difficult aspects of old-school games (descending AC and to-hit charts). In this respect, Labyrinth Lord is backwards looking, like an operating system that focuses on maintaining compatibility with DOS, older CRTs, tape drives, floppy disks, and dot-matrix printers because that is the experience fans are looking for in this game. When you go all-in with Labyrinth Lord, you want to experience the strange and arcane pain points of the older games because those are a part of the package.

It is like those kids sitting around the table in Netflix's Stranger Things playing and wanting to have to decipher the concepts of descending AC and some of those fiddly bits in order to be a part of the 'cool kids club.' The strange and backwards parts of the game are a part of the game's arcane and strange way the world works - and they are a part of the initiation process of knowing how this world works. Of course you roll to-hit off a chart! If it were too easy anyone could play this.

Basic Fantasy adopts the 3.5-style roll-high ascending AC system, and then goes towards a backwards feel from there. it is like an OS that recognizes modern developments, like USB drives and high resolution monitors, and then presents those advancements with a retro-feeling and style. It discards parts that don't make sense and goes for the simple, intuitive way things should work. Discard the strange arcane hand-gestures and let's just play something that is easy to grasp for everyone.

It is an interesting thought and comparison and I feel there are good reasons for each. Sometimes you want that complete retro-feeling and experience, complete with the strange jumps in logic and "latch key" portals of understanding that you must get through in order to enter this strange world. There are other times when you want to be more forward-looking, and you care more for simplicity of experience and the unification of methodology to appeal to players used to the more modern concepts.

In the case of Basic Fantasy, the system is not compatible with older modules, nor is it important. New adventures inspired by the old materials are out there and ready to be played. To be fair, there is a lot of new content out there for Labyrinth Lord as well, but all the old content works as well. Both are great games, but I find understanding the "why" of each helps me play them better and discuss them with others.

Myself? Leaning towards the simplicity and unified base of Basic Fantasy while still appreciating the strange and flavorful mix and arcane craftsmanship of Labyrinth Lord. If I were refereeing? Basic Fantasy wins, just because I have to explain less and the concepts are more straightforward. The game I would love to explore all the dark nooks and crannies of? Labyrinth Lord, of course, given the right group that appreciates the somewhat arcane nature of the rules and appreciates the backwards elements as a part of the retro-themed experience.
And then there there is this amazing pile of Basic Fantasy goodness (sans dice) I picked up for less than $30 on Amazon that is just waiting to be explored, and this collection is now sitting on that coveted spot on one of my three remaining book shelves.

Either way you go, there is a lot of adventure to be found, and both are great choices.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Design Room: Mutant Future

You can't really talk about Mutant Future without being familiar the early 1980's post-apocalyptic games such as Gamma World and Aftermath. Even TV shows such as Thundarr the Barbarian and movies such as Planet of the Apes or The Road Warrior apply here, and one could throw in the original WestworldThe Omega ManTHX 1138 and even Rollerball or Sleeper in this category.

And then there is the Fallout universe, a lot of which applies here, but I am careful about saying "this is like Fallout" because Fallout is almost too familiar to everybody. Fallout is also a lot less gonzo and wacky as the Mutant Future game, so there is a bit of superhero gaming mixed in with this genre, along with concepts familiar to readers of comic books like the old X-Men comics of the 1970's.

The premise is, "Let us think about that the future could be like, and then let's destroy it and create a new world out of that." We are two steps removed from "today" in these games, one in that we have little idea of the alternate future that was destroyed, and we have even less of an idea of the world that comes after that.

I love this genre because it is totally mind twisting, and you are constantly asking yourself if a place you are encountering is part of the unknown future-past or the maniacally twisted now. I get the "now" part a little better, since survival and the medieval-like state most of the world has devolved into you know from traditional fantasy gaming. A sword is a sword and a village is a village, people ride horses and the blacksmith bangs out horseshoes and other metal objects.

Then things get different. Bits of old technology are passed around, books, magazines, and small household items re-purposed in novel and different ways. You see a mix of the familiar in the everyday use, a record turntable used as a potting wheel, forks and knives, a necklace made of bottle caps, an old wind-up watch, horse carts with automotive tires, and bits of today and a possible tomorrow in everyday medieval life.

And instead of elves and dwarves; we have mutants, talking animals and plants, and even androids and robots living in these places. They live simply off the land, and the society is your typical fantasy medieval world - but the inhabitants are all over the place. A talking lion with bat wings and telepathy. A half-human cyborg. A six-foot dandelion man. And while there are normal humans to ground things, the weird and wacky live here, but yet the "high fantasy" world model mostly applies. Different kingdoms rules the land. Savage tribes live like primitives in forgotten places. Wars and conflicts between feudal kingdoms go on when resources are scarce. Bandits raid settlements. Treaties are made and primitive life, colored a little by strange changes, goes on.

The fun twist is the magic isn't magic, it is the remains of super-technology we do not understand. Also, the forces which destroyed the world mutate and change creatures and even the fabric of reality itself in strange and deadly ways. Swarms of man-eating ladybugs can plague the land. A giant mutated potato plant can lurk under the ground and feast on unwary travelers. A bat with radioactive eyes that eats metal can terrorize travelers. A psychic badger can sit by the side of the road and force people to leave their food on the ground and walk away. A crazed building-sized farming robot could treat all life as pests to be eradicated. Anti-gravity warbots, still fighting the war that destroyed the world, could be flying around out there, somewhere.

And the ruins of civilization are dangerous places that should not be traveled to. The weathered, radiation-blasted, overgrown, nature-reclaimed wastes of giant cities stretch on for hundreds of miles of destroyed land, with mountains of rubble overgrown by forests, giant fissures and canyons blasted through the earth, and changes so drastic they turn the familiar into something that was once organized and civil into a hellish and broken wasteland of civilization tossed in a garbage dump, turned over on itself by terra-forming bulldozers, and turned into a deadly jungle of the broken remains of civilization where deadly creatures live, radiation storms blast, and machines wander the wastes in varying states of disrepair. You should not be wandering around on a map of New York City with a couple spacy looking buildings, this place underwent a tectonic upheaval a couple thousand years into an alternate future from today - you wouldn't recognize the place before it got destroyed, and afterwards you should be worrying about the tectonic plate that created a mountain range, jungle, and ocean through the heart of the city.

Welcome to Mutant Future

This is Mutant Future, and this is also the same gaming genre as (to an extent) Gamma World. The one thing I like about Mutant Future is that it keeps the original WTF feeling of crazy science fantasy, where the later editions of Gamma World were more high-fantasy influenced with mutant replacements for dragons, fairies, elves, gnolls, and other fantasy tropes. If I want fantasy elements in Mutant Future I can always put them in, but if I want to keep things less D&D I can without having to say "kodo dragons and the fairy-like lils do not exist." Even for players familiar with Gamma World, Mutant Future is a lot more unfamiliar and unpredictable, and I feel that is actually a strength when playing in the genre.

Though this game is 100% compatible with Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion, so if you want extra fantasy based creatures - there they are. Roll some mutations on them and you are good to go. Or just take a normal animal or plant, give it an AC and hit dice, and roll some mutations and you are good to go.

Need an example? Let's take a giant green jellyfish, give it 5 HD and an AC of 7, make it float through the air, and let's roll some mutations - density alteration (self), psionic flight, poison susceptibility, and temperature control (freezing). So these things float through the air in large forms, freeze their food with psionic powers, and they can shrink down and become dense rocks when threatened - and they are also susceptible to different toxins. There, a new monster nobody has ever encountered before, and something completely unique and original.

The same thing goes for robots, technology, hazards, monsters, and everything else in the world. Remember this point, since this will come up later.

Sometimes I feel the unique and iconic D&D monsters (mind flayers, beholders, drow, etc) have gotten so tired and overused the appeal of having them wears off (sometimes, I still think they are classics, but there are other times I want something new). The familiarity may attract players since it is always preferable to play a game you are familiar with, and against monsters you know how to deal with. But those strange floating jellyfish that freeze-dry their food? If I saw those as a character I would have no idea what they can do until the temperature started dropping around my character and they started shrinking down into dense, tiny rocks that sat on the ground like a psionic refrigerator turret. And I wouldn't know what else they could do, or even what their weaknesses were.

I love these moments at the gaming table, where the group of players is sitting there slack-jawed and wondering if a floating green jellyfish is something completely innocent or the beginning of a total party kill. The smart players will find a way far away, while the not so smart ones will start poking and prodding the floating abnormality.

Anything is Right

The fantasy-game compatibility is a huge strength here, since it gives you more to pull from. Mix fantasy and magic in there and enjoy a strange Rifts like mix of everything. Maybe a sci-fi world collided with a fantasy world and all hell broke loose. Replace magic with technology and mutations, or re-color the existing fantasy creatures with mutations and technology. A medusa with robotic, laser-eyed and stunner-eyed snake tentacles for hair? Fine, do it. It is your game.

The only way I feel you can go wrong is by basing this more on grim and gritty realism, and move more towards The Road Warrior and The Walking Dead sort of realistic worlds. I feel when you de-emphasize the strange and fantastical, you lose a lot of the wonder and charm of the game. When you take out the "whatever goes" feeling, it becomes something any modern rules system can do, and you lose that wonder and danger of the unknown. You don't want to make this predictable. You want the ruined world to come alive through that "anything can happen" feeling.

I would avoid traditional high-fantasy magic though when mixing (unless this is a collision of worlds type game), and keep the fantastical powers more mutation and technology based. You want one source of power, and I feel you don't want to all of a sudden throw "magic powers" into the mix as an extra power source that makes everything easy. You want the source to "fantastic power" to be the same for everyone (mutant powers and tech), and avoid giving players the traditional "high fantasy easy out" where fireball, teleport, and magic missile take over the game.

Two Worlds in One

Save the "normal" feeling for the settlements though, since you still want that fantasy medieval model to apply to the character's home bases and the feudal civilization around them. I find this game's focus on medieval construction, travel, and commerce a perfect fit for this genre, since I can create a miniature "feudal world" that coexists alongside the "places of ancient ruin" and have those two worlds collide and compete. I love having little "kingdoms" and "tribes" fight for scarce resources and farming land while the dangerous ruins of ancient cities loom over them. I love having players worry about "that is the red eye kingdom's soldiers, stay away from them" sorts of things. I love having the drama of the survivors play out and influence the adventures of the players - and even have these dramas become adventures themselves.

For example, if you have a blue kingdom run by a benevolent robot king, you could make his battery running out and the kingdom going to hell a constant worry for them. You could have a totalitarian red kingdom run by a mutated houseplant who thinks he is Napoleon that is well-run but brutal and confiscates any form of technology from subjects or travelers. The conflicts between these kingdoms becomes the backstory and focus of the game, and the "strange world around it" becomes the source of power for the characters (and also unexpected new sources of conflict).

I like the "two world" setup for these games, and I have had many post-apocalyptic games break down because the entire focus of the game was on "go into the city and get loot." There was no other story there, and when the characters found the ultimate weapon and armor upgrade and could beat all the enemies, the game was over. With another story happening that players can invest in, there is a reason to gain character power to influence the outcome of the world's stories and factions.

Keep the cities dangerous though, so dangerous the kingdoms have given up on these places as hellish, forbidden, ancient places where no one should go. I feel you don't really want organized bands of scavengers in these areas, since you want the focus of the conflicts between the factions to center on the scarce resources outside of the cities and the competition for them. Those areas should be so dangerous if a large group moved in to strip it clean, the monsters, hazards, and robots that are there should wipe them all out. You want to keep that "forbidden place" myth strong in both the character's minds and also the inhabitants of the world.

The Shadow of Gamma World

One thing that keeps this game difficult for me is we were big Gamma World fans, so the shadow of that game always looms large over our thoughts. One of the easiest ways to deal with this, I feel, is to say, "Gamma World is dead." If you want to pull in elements from that world into your games that cross the dimensional barrier, do so, and keep it strictly to mystery and lore of 'another world that may have been.' Maybe survivors from that world crossed the dimensional barrier. Maybe their spirits float in the nether and all of a sudden, some of the familiar pops up in the new world.

But celebrate the new like this was a new game. Everything you loved about that world, sans some of the pieces of gear and monsters, is here in one form or another - plus more. In fact, I think this game is better because it is more "anything goes" than Gamma World, which was moving towards a D&D like "iconic monsters and items" sort of marketed and pre-made high fantasy experience.

But in another way, I feel it is a bit unfair to just compare this to Gamma World, since this game is more than that. Where Gamma World was more of a set experience with a defined list of iconic monsters and technology, this is more of an old-school science fantasy post-apocalyptic toolbox where your ideas are more important and celebrated than what the game's designers give you. I feel that is the difference here. Gamma World was more of a World of Warcraft type experience where you played for the lore and iconic features - and I say was because the game has spanned multiple incompatible versions and it is out of print (to the best of my knowledge). It is tough for us to let the game go, but let it go we must.

Your games need to be more than what's in the old books. You need to take what you loved about the old game, and expand and improve on those elements. Love the old Gamma World death machines? Make a better one in the new game. Make two. Call it something else. Don't copy - improve. Make something new. Do something different. Put your creativity into the game. Into this game.

This is more of a game where your creations should shine, your creativity is the reason to play, and your imagination is more important than all the pre-made stuff. This game is in print. This game has a free no-art version available for download. If we support this game, it supports a game in print plus all the future players who may discover it. I feel it is more socially responsible plus forward thinking to support the new and in-print games.

It is tough letting a piece of your gaming history go, but I feel it is ultimately for the better. The original spirit of our first gonzo post-apoc adventures can live on in our games (along with some of the things we love, pick and choose), but this just feels like a better place to be.

A Brand New End of the World

I like Mutant Future. I feel this is one of those new-era old-school forgotten classics. It is an open sandbox you can drop infinite ideas into. It pulls in the fantasy elements directly from Labyrinth Lord, and is 100% compatible with that game. Also, this game starts with a more based and low-level fantasy world than does other games - this game starts in medieval fantasy and then goes into science fantasy. The rules here start with that 'medieval world' assumption with castles, horses, carts, rafts, primitive commerce, and men-at-arms fighting battles. The default world and how it works (in my mind) is the same as Labyrinth Lord, with a couple differences. A feudal society living in the ruins of a more advanced ancient world - and be it magic or technology, this is the same story told by fantasy authors a million times before.

That is the strength of this game, but with the added bonus of being able to put your own imagination in the game through the strange and wonderful creatures, robots, technology, hazards, and places you create. It starts in a familiar place, and then it goes anywhere your imagination can take you.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Polotics of Boxing Up Games

Well, with our broken shelf, we are down to just three shelves to store gaming books instead of four. Instead of buying a new shelf, we took the easy route and got a set of cardboard 'bankers' boxes to store games we rarely use, and those are going into storage. We are cutting down on the number of gaming books we have out at one time and just sticking to what we like to play.

It is a strange exercise, because in gaming culture your 'display' feels like your 'street cred' - and who doesn't want a large collection on display at one time? Now, each book is being judged on it's 'fun value' and 'usefulness' and either staying out or going in the closet (or sold if it really is of no use).

You have a pile of books on the floor and you are asking yourself that question about each one of them. It really does get your gaming priorities straight, and I am finding it to be a refreshing exercise in dealing with my tendency to hoard and collect books.

D&D 4? We still use some of this material from time to time, but not all of it - so I will probably keep the basic three books plus some of the planar guides out just for reference. The rest of the pointless, already errata'ed and now useless power card collection books are going in the closet. It is funny, after the game's online systems and errata downloads go away someday, all we will be left with are the books, so what was printed will outlast the errata.

D&D 5? We sadly don't play it enough to justify keeping it out. There is nothing really different about for us, these are the same monsters and the same worlds we have in D&D 3.5 and other versions of the game, just MMO-ized (in my feeling with those infinite-use cantrips) and with the rules streamlined. Now note I said "for us" and this doesn't mean others are having a lot of fun with the game, and they should. We kind of missed the boat on this game, and we had long-standing campaigns based on the D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, and D&D 4 material still going strong, so there was no need to switch mid-stream (and it would have been disruptive, a lot of change just for the set of rules, and we went through that in the D&D 2 to D&D 3 shift).

Pathfinder? Here is where it gets interesting. Do I keep out just the basic three books? The world guide is staying out, just for reference. I am not seeing a great value to some of the class add-on books, and I have this sneaking suspicion we may have more fun with the game the less we have out for it. I can still pull an oddball book out if I need it, like a monster book, but if the world were just 'the basic three' would we play it more? There is an argument that the books past the first three are what makes the world unique and special, but it will be interesting to see if the first three books can sustain the game (for us) or will those just sit there like orphans wanting the rest of their shelf-mates.

This will be the test, I suppose, for Pathfinder for our group. If not, I am feeling the basic three books will go in the box and we will just keep the world guide out. At that point, we will be looking for a new set of rules to play in that world. There mechanically is some fun to the rules, the question is for us, are we that interested in all that fiddly mechanical character build stuff to sustain interest? With less books, there are less build and less reasons, so there may be a benefit to identifying the core supporting books and keeping those out. We shall see.

The retro-clones such as Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy? Of course those are staying out, even if we don't use them all the time. There is very little cost to keeping a single 'all in one' book out on the shelf, and these books are actually inspiring and fun packages of gaming goodness. For us, 'big system games' are a tough sell, even if it is just the 'traditional three' books of the player's guide, monster book, and referee's guide. For us, something that is just a hundred or so pages and contains everything needed to play will beat out three-volume sets that clock in at around a thousand total pages.

There is a value with less is more, and would I play a D&D 5 type game that was more of a one-book solution of around 100-200 pages? Yes. I doubt they could do that since the game really feels like it evolved into a big box affair where more is more, more spells, more monsters, more magic items, and more of everything is more - even referee's advice and art. More is more is fun and gives value, but there is a point when my shelf collapses and the game becomes too big to play. Even at three books with near a thousand pages, I am feeling a smaller one-book game still has more play value.

But then again Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy fill that niche of the single-book, compact and fun game - but I would like to see the big publishers try. They would probably have to fundamentally change the structure of the game and not do a 'cut down levels 1-5 only with 20% content' sort of thing, but make a complete game within that limitation. They tried with D&D 4's Essentials line, but I feel that fell short since those were not self-contained books - and you still needed the original books for a lot of stuff.

It is the "tablet versus PC" thing I feel, and the big-box games (at least for us) feel bloated and heavy - especially when you start adding books. Something small, single-book, less than 200 pages, and all-in-one feels more playable than a three volume collection of 800-1000 pages where everything is handled and everything is given in maximum detail. At least for us - and for some groups that love the complexity do better with the big-box games (since there is more to enjoy). Again "tablet versus PC" comes up, for hardcore gamers - PC all the way with upgrades and swappable parts. For casual users, less is more, and a tablet will do the job for most computing tasks. Right now I am feeling less is more for our group, and we would actually play more if we focused on lighter-weight games.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Retro Clones: They Keep Coming Back (For Me)

Something keeps me coming back to the simple retro-clones like Labyrinth Lord or Basic Fantasy. They have an incredibly low barrier to entry, cover what you need for old-school, and have that Monopoly-like appeal of being a gamer's game rather than a large computer operating system-like set of rules with rules and options for everything. I can get a group started with them for free or little cost.

What kills me about Pathfinder is I have this feeling I bought the system into un-playability. Too many books. My gaming bookcase just collapsed, literally, under the weight of the system. One night we were playing a game of 7 Days to Die and we heard in the other room, bang, bang, bang.

The shelf holding Pathfinder had collapsed. The books are completely fine and no one got hurt, but now my books are on the floor and I am sitting here wondering why I need so many rules and books to have fun. I wonder if I haven't falling into the trap of hoarding and collecting books, and buying something because more is better. Then I end up loving it to death and smothering the system with so many options and books it becomes un-fun.

I am seriously considering boxing up everything I have except for the base gazetteer for Golarion, just for reading and inspiration, and calling my open shelf in my gaming room for the game done. I don't have the play time for something this complex, and the books just sit there on the shelf like some sort of gamer-cred display case. I end up looking at them and feeling bad I don't have the time, so why have them out?

Kudos to the D&D 5 people for keeping their system to the base three books, but I don't play enough D&D 5 to warrant buying the add-on modules for that either, and I fear the end result would be the same if I were into the game as much as I would have liked.

But again, the simple calls to me. The retro-clones feel like what I started with so long ago. They don't require learning curves or hundreds of pages of spells or character options. You are not chasing the next book or rules addition. I know I love the art and direction of both Paizo and Wizards, and yes I know sales of new stuff keep great and creative people employed at both companies, but I feel a system can only get so big before, well, my shelf collapses.

I know this sounds like, "Well, not everybody's shelves are so cheap, dude. Buy a better shelf." I would agree with that if it were someone else saying this and I loved the game and played it all the time. This is not a system wars thing, just a reflection that I have a shelf full of books for a game I infrequently play.

The bigger question is, what do I need? You know, it is like going out and buying a pickup truck and all you use a car for is going to the store and work and back. You literally never put anything in the back bed of the truck, and it just collects dust and leaves. And now that you have a truck, the payments and upkeep cost prevents you from having the car that you may want and need. You may be a hybrid person in a city and find one of those fits your life perfectly. You may love the thrill of a sportscar. You may be better suited with an off-road 4x4.

I have this suspicion owning two or three dozen Pathfinder hardcovers is actually keeping me from playing the game. You know the feeling? And I also get the feeling this mass of books is keeping me from playing fantasy medieval RPGs at all because using all that material seems intimidating. What is your hang up, right? Dive in and play! Well, maybe I am not a fan of all those options and what I want is something simple. And having a shelf full of books out means it is better than a single-book game, right?

So the retro-clones get ignored. You have Pathfinder and D&D 5, play those. Yes, I can drive the pickup and it takes me where I need to go. But there is that always hard to express question, "Is this what I want?" You have a massive 17" gaming laptop, what use would you have with a ultra-thin 13" lightweight notebook? The gaming laptop can do it all! But I can't take it anywhere. I need a backpack to take it out. It doesn't go to the coffee shop or library, and I feel tied to the behemoth. That sort of feeling.

You can love a game for what it is not, and because it fits into your gaming lifestyle better. There is something to be said for games that do a lot with a little.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Great Article: A new recipe for the roleplaying game formula

Check this out:


...wow, this is literally worth days of thought and discussion around here. Some great points about CRPG design that also apply to pen-and-paper games, check out his thoughts on skill trees.

I love it when the old-school designers, either computer or pen-and-paper, pop up and share science with us.

Good stuff.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Dice Review: Ultra Pro D6 White Dice (Black Large Numbering)

Here is an interesting dice set, the Ultra Pro D6 set. I ordered these looking for a standard-sized numeric set of dice and by the look of them I was expecting a set with some heft and weight. What I got was different, but still an interesting and somewhat humorous set of dice.

They are slightly smaller than your normal 'board game' d6 dice, and they are also considerably lighter. They are also very, very rounded and combined with their light weight, they roll all over the place, spin on a corner, bounce off decks of cards, roll in large circles across the board, and generally never stop rolling around during a throw. If I ever wanted to annoy a gaming group with dice that just do not stop puttering around and taking forever to settle down, I would use these dice.

One took a near-perfect two-foot diameter circle path around our Eldritch Horror game board before bouncing off a deck of cards before stopping. Another spun on its corner for a whole second before flopping around to come to a rest. One had to be caught before it rolled off the table - after it bounced off a deck of stacked cards and rolled right back at me in the opposite direction in which I threw it.

Their light weight means they are less likely to knock over game pieces and push things around, but their silly antics in a way endears me to these dice. Rolling them and seeing how they can annoy or entertain you on the next throw makes them worth the price of admission. They are my my go-to "crazy dice" set.
I wished they were a bit heavier and a bit less rounded, I was looking for a larger, heftier set of non-pipped dice. I wanted a set with some mass and gravitas for a tabletop game we are working on, almost like a numeric version of the standard board-game dice.
Am I happy with the set? Well, that depends. As serious dice I would stake my character's fate on? Probably not, because I don't want a set of dice causing a distraction for me or other players at the table. As an entertaining diversion for a lighter-hearted game, or to use as a set of replacement dice for a traditional game, such as Monopoly? Then yes, because these dice and their antics would definitely add to the fun of the game.

If I am in a situation where the 'party atmosphere' is more important than the rules and a set of dice could enliven an already dry game, then yes, I would say go for it and use these. Seeing what the 'crazy dice' will do would become a part of the fun and add an element of unpredictable chaos to the next roll, and make the drama of both good and bad rolls more entertaining.

If you absolutely do not want to roll a seven and one die comes up a six and the other one sits there spinning like a top for two seconds before falling on a one, I would say that would be a pretty entertaining failure and one the group is going to remember. Normal dice just do not do that often enough, but these...at times...can.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Mail Room: Blue Rose PDF

The Kickstarter books have finally started shipping for the Blue Rose (AGE System) RPG and I just got my PDF copy - and the book is on the way. Needless to say, I am impressed by the PDF, and it meets and exceeds the art direction and quality for many modern releases - Pathfinder and D&D 5 included. More on this soon as I flip through the PDF and wait for my copy in the mail.

Would I play this over Pathfinder or D&D 5, especially for dramatic adventures? That is a good question, and from what I have seen this does a good job at being different. I get this feeling in both Pathfinder and D&D 5 of playing those games to "be in a D&D type world" and I feel at times that familiarity can become a burden at times - what is known is known. You got the drow, the mind flayers, the beholders, Golarion's goblins, the planes, demons, dragons, and so on - what has came before is new again in a JJ Abrams style of reboot and going over the same old for nostalgia reasons and good feelings.

I don't mind nostalgia, but there are times when I want to be thrown out of that box and dive into something new. Something where I have no clue on who is who and what is what, and have a completely unknown and new world to explore.

Blue Rose does a good job at presenting a dramatic-experience themed game. But from what I have seen, the world is vastly more interesting and compelling with all sorts of social relations and interactions, great evils, and dark forces at work looking to destroy the world. This is not just "romance fantasy gaming" per-se, but a real Game of Thrones style fantasy world worthy of consideration and exploration by serious fans of fantasy.

This is not just a narrative game. There is plenty of room in here to go gamist, simulationist, and go dark in story and content, and as someone looking for that dramatic "something more than dungeons" in my shared storytelling experiences I am very interested.

More soon, and this looks to be an underappreciated, but compelling and wonderfully readable and approachable classic.