Monday, September 28, 2015

Dragon Age Inquisition Playthrough: Game Over

Okay, we finished Dragon Age Inquisition last night. It was a cool ending, and here are my thoughts on the game's ending.

I feel if we would have finished the story using the Dragon Age pen-and-paper game we would have had a better time and wrapped this up on a more personal and satisfying note. We didn't, so I am hoping we can run the entire game as a pen-and-paper campaign sometime in the near future, using the hint book as my guide I would love to do this, and I feel it would be an epic tribute to the game and the experience.

We would need to play the DLC or go read what happened to know the entire story though, because one of the characters is pivotal to the plot and the ending.

I am 50-50 on using the powers from the game or using the powers from the pen-and-paper game. The game's powers are remarkably compatible with the pen-and-paper game; if something says it does 150% of normal weapon damage that is a pretty easy thing to convert to the pen-and-paper game. Most of the powers are like this, and it would be a fun experience to run the game using the videogame's power and talent trees. The pen-and-paper game's powers are a more realistic world (and they are balanced) so this is kind of a toss-up for me.

I would definitely use the hint-book as our bestiary, there are so many cool monsters in there that is a no-brainer. The hint-book also serves as a place and world guide, it would be fun seeing these places again in a pen-and-paper game, closing rifts, and meeting the people of the world. Having these places already created is a huge boon, and with a couple artistic changes more could be added to keep things different and fresh.

Using the events in the game would also be a blast, and I wonder if the battle in the original group's base would come out the same. Yes, that is a pivotal moment, and sets up the next base and the story's transformation as an all-is-lost moment, but something makes me think a group of pen-and-paper players would somehow find a way. Similarly, I am betting many of the game's X or Y choices would come out quite differently with a referee that could make changes to the story and plot.

As for the game itself, it was a fun ride. I wanted a more epic story, along the lines of Final Fantasy VI experience, which to me is the bar set for "save the world" plots in console RPGs. There is nothing like saving the world after it has been destroyed, and this game floored us then, and it still does now. There are many similarities between the games including a "destroyed world" part, but in FF VI, you actually get to adventure there and fight back, which is the ultimate world-saving power trip for hero-types.

Dragon Age Inquisition's combat and character systems left us flat. We wanted more strategy in the fights, and playing as an archer, the entire game felt far away and spammy. I do not recommend playing as any sort of mage or archer in this game, as you miss out on seeing the battles and enemies up close. Fighter up-close or nothing, or else it is just "shoot the small blob of flashing action in the center of the screen." For 80-90% of the game, that's how it was for us. We wanted more of that "character building" and "choices matter" stuff, and more customization. Also, the game felt like it had too many MMO style cool-down spammy powers that felt the same. I would love to see less powers that mean more.

Overall, a fun game for the looks and story, but with some drawbacks and points that missed the mark for us with rules and that satisfying console RPG tactical experience. The high production values and music made this fun, along with the amazing art and world. That same world, while large, felt empty and a bit repetitive with the endless harvests and lack of monster spawns.

The war-room mechanics felt flat as well, more like a text-based level selector than an actual table where forces moved and fought. We never felt there was a war going on here, and the illusion of this reflecting the actual world fell flat for us, and thus the "war room" became more of a "mission unlock" screen and activity for us.

Fun? Yes. Worthy of a pen-and-paper play-through and campaign? Yes, by far. Overall, a worthy game not without some rough spots, but as a source of inspiration and a game world all unto itself, it is a rare gem and worthy of attention, especially as a Pathfinder or D&D alternative to Golarion or Faerun. Would I love to see a game of this production value and detail covering either of those two worlds? Yes, but I doubt it will ever happen because of the OGL's silliness and limitations, or Wizard's history with videogames.

For that reason, I see Dragon Age as a stronger and more compelling world to play in, because we got a glimpse into this world through a game that we will never get with the D&D style games. We heard the music, traveled across the lands, met the people, and suffered alongside them during a time of great tragedy. That creates a personal connection that a "Tomb of Horrors" or an adventure path can't compete with. We've been here. It is familiar and compelling. When we hear the music, we are instantly brought back there to that place. We would love to meet Varric or Bull. We would love to be back in this place. The game, despite its flaws, takes us to another place, and that is the mark of a great game.

Would I love D&D or Pathfinder to do this type of AAA game? Yes.

But I don't feel it will ever happen. These D&D style games feel like they are too focused on fiddly mathematical rules, and not the living, breathing worlds and the people that live within them. There was a point for us post D&D 4th Edition that we said "we care less about the math and we want something more", and it just feels like D&D 5 is a patch for D&D 4 and Pathfinder is still trying to fix D&D 3.

We don't want rules, we want a world.

So then, we set our destination as one more familiar and compelling, and we travel there. Right now, that is Dragon Age with its excellent pen-and-paper game, and the soundtracks and images three incredible games have given our play experience. It is a living, breathing experience, not unlike Star Wars, where if you hear the music and see the pictures you are taken to that place in a galaxy far, far away in a world a long, long time ago.

For us, that sense of place is irreplaceable, and thus, Dragon Age feels like home for our fantasy gaming experience.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Dragon Age Inquisition Playthrough: Jaws of Hakkon DLC Monty Haul

Oh, DLC, how I adore your pay-to-win nature.

So we took a detour into the Jaws of Hakkon DLC around level 18, and we had a super tough time breaking in. Most of the monsters were above level 20, and we finally got a great fight out of some of the encounters. If you are fighting, dying, and running away to regroup, you finally got my attention.

We had to change up party members, take tanks, and re-equip in order to compete. We had to pour on DPS to finish fights. We lost some fights and had to come back to try again.

Finally, after sixty hours, the game is getting interesting.

But the loot! Oh, the loot. Treasure troves full of level 21 purple gear we can't use yet because the party is severely under-leveled at level 19. Big, long, juicy lists of loot. Skins and ores that net 5-10 items in each harvest! The bounty is mouth-watering, and we are taking in this almost-cheater zone with glee and gluttony. Compared to the crappy gray-item loot and paltry harvests of other zones, this DLC area is stunning in its bounty and generosity.

Get to this zone as soon as possible at 17-18 and live here until level 23-24, it is that good. I fear going back to the regular game's zones will be something of an anticlimactic let-down. To suffer through major fights and be rewarded by a normal quality item is going to kill us the next time it happens in a regular-game zone.

I have always understood pay-to-win, and we see this in regular roleplaying games. The later books in a game are always filled with power creep, better items, and game-breaking power builds. If you pay for an extra book, you are rewarded by the company in raw power and that feeling of greatness. If you ever go back to the original book's classes and builds you feel weak, and the expansion classes call to you.

More than just your ego suffers. The game's first adventures suffer as well, as they don't feel like challenges anymore. I am sure once we load our Dragon Age party up with all this level 21 loot, once we go back to the regular game's zones our party will be overpowered and blow through every fight. We will probably lament the fact we will never find stuff as good as the DLC gear, and all of our treasure finds will feel weak and paltry. We may grow bored at the lack of challenge and the lack of gear, and we will want to head back to DLC areas just to find challenge again.

And if we ever harvest in an regular-game zone and pick up a single skin or ore we will wince and know there are better, paid places to harvest that will net us a better haul for our effort.

And so it goes. Nothing changes in the world of videogames and pen-and-paper games. If you pay for expansions, you are rewarded. On the other hand, you also ruin the balance of the original game and you lose more than you gain. How so?

Let's say your DLC is $15 and your original game is $60. By paying $15 for a small subset of better items you made the rest of that $60 game out-of-date and worthless.

Now, for a videogame you pay $15 to play a little longer, so there is a benefit to the purchase. Without that DLC, you cannot continue playing. There is a value here, you keep playing.

For a pen-and-paper game, you pay money to have new options to start which invalidate your original book, and you lose the value of the original book. So when you pay for expansion content, you lose value in your original game. With videogame, you do lose value as well in the original zones not being a challenge anymore. This hits pen-and-paper games harder, and you saw this in D&D 4th Edition game, where to play you needed to keep up with the latest book's insane power curve. You see this also in Pathfinder's later books as well.

To play with others, you need to pay up and get the latest. The 'power curve DLC' a lousy business model for players, but great for pen-and-paper publishers.

But Dragon Age? Still surviving with our playthrough, and more updates and reflections on this soon as we approach the end of the game.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Basic Fantasy: There's No Alignment System

A fantasy roleplaying game without an alignment system?

Now, I know there are many fantasy games lacking alignment systems, but to see an old-school fantasy game like this without one is a very interesting thing indeed. Basic Fantasy lacks an alignment system, the monsters have no alignment data, and the referee is free to run NPCs and monsters as he or she sees fit.

In D&D, everything is guaranteed to have an alignment. Chromatic dragons are not only chaotic, they are inherently evil. All orcs are likewise. All dark elves are lawful and evil, because they follow an evil spider god or goddess.

Got it? Good.

Really? Did I need to be told this?

I like Basic Fantasy ditching the alignment system, and the referee is free to decide how monsters and races fit into the game world without a stereotype or label automatically attached to an entire species or race.

Maybe there is a tribe of goblins that mines iron a couple of miles from the party's village that everyone gets along with. Sure, those goblins are different, but they live in the dangerous woods, and everybody gets along and the town gets the iron it needs. Maybe some of the village's traders speak goblin, or goblins live inside the town and come out at night to barter and raucously drink and break things. Maybe the town puts up with it because the business is good for everyone.

What if that red dragon up on the mountain above the village keeps to himself, and is known to only take a cow if he is hungry? He isn't evil or chaotic per-se, and the town has this legend of the dragon living there that they grow accustomed to? Maybe the dragon's presence scares off other monsters from the valley, and the townspeople kind of like having him up there. You can imagine the fun if a party of 'adventures' would have if they showed up in town saying 'we're here to kill the dragon!'

Run out of town or offered for sacrifice to the dragon?

Your call.

Question Everything

It is an interesting world more like the Brother's Grimm fairy-tales I feel, where you can't assume the motivations of something just based on its shape. Everyone is capable of good or evil, and just because something looks evil doesn't mean it is. You have to take into account motivations, situation, and personality. You have to talk, to understand, and to investigate. You have to judge a monster based on its actions instead of its race, and it becomes self-interested.

The word 'monster' is used to describe actions and intent, not color or shape.

Take the inverse role as well. Even supposedly 'good' creatures can be twisted into interesting roles once the alignment system is ditched, and the referee can apply common sense and imagination to their place in the world. A unicorn that is so fiercely protective of its grove it attacks anyone who comes near, even merchants and villagers? A cult of dark fae that worship a god of nightmares? A gold dragon that has become so greedy that it hires mercenaries and bandits to bring it more treasure, taxes roads and towns, and runs a protection racket to fill its cave higher and higher with gold.

Yes, in D&D you can ditch alignment just like this and do all of the above. But I guarantee you are going to get called on it by some players who will argue 'goblins aren't like that' or 'a unicorn would never attack innocents!' All because of an admittedly abstract and all-encompassing label called alignment. At times alignment really only feels like it exists to cause arguments.
Really, it is the referee's world, and what the referee says is how things go. That's how I play things, but really, what use is an alignment system if all it does is elicit strange looks from my players if I try to make dark elves reasonable or good monsters hostile?

Back to Basic Fantasy. Having a game that recognizes that is very interesting. Even if you use the argument that 'alignment is a guide for new players' it really doesn't have that much usefulness, because players will come into the game having watched Lord of the Rings and played other videogames that will set their expectations on what an orc is or how goblins should act, and having alignment take away a referee and group's choices on how these will act is a negative thing and not a positive one.

But, alignment is used by a referee to judge NPC reactions!

If a referee wants Sir Galahad to be a paragon of good, just play him like that. You don't need a nine-axis system for every NPC in the world telling the referee what type of person someone is, you just need a descriptive word that is often more useful that a limiting alignment choice. If this merchant is "greedy" he is greedy, and he may do things that are good or evil, depending on if it helps him earn money. In an alignment system, greed is evil, so you would probably rate him "lawful evil" if he played by the rules but cheated people for money, and that would put the merchant in an odd ideological alliance with the dark elves.

Does he go to the spider goddess' church on Sunday?

Trust me, I know how to play a greedy merchant. I don't need to know alignment. It is not useful to me. Lawful evil could mean a million things compared to the simple and expressive word of "greedy" in this situation. Even if you throw it in there, "lawful evil; greedy" it still doesn't mean much to me and it is just extra words because somebody wants to justify tagging everything with extra words to support the alignment system.

Good Always Fights Evil!

You can't really ditch alignment in D&D, because the game needs this automatic sorting bucket in which to toss the souls of the world into. The universe's cosmology is based on alignment. Deities are based on alignment. The histories of the official game worlds and kingdoms therein are based on alignments. Everything is tagged, even some pieces of equipment are more evil than others (edged weapons and poisons). If a referee goes outside that tagging the referee will get questioned, or it will be seen as a strange 'one off.'

There is another reason for alignment in D&D, and this has to do with preset motivations and a videogame-like design philosophy. It is easier to put all the bad guys into buckets. Orcs are evil. Goblins are evil. Chromatic dragons are evil. It is okay to beat them over the head and take their loot, because they are evil - the game says so.

That's what good does, right?

Yes, in a simplistic world, that is what good does. It is the same as a videogame where everything else that is moving that isn't you is a bad guy. But I don't like simplistic worlds, and I like the freedom and creativity to do what I want with a game - and not have second guessing my decisions built into the rules. More importantly, I don't want what this does to players affecting their actions in the game - I want them to think and to judge actions and intent.
If the players encounter that village full of town-friendly iron-mining goblins in my Basic Fantasy game, I want them to ask questions, think, and judge the situation based on what they see and experience. I don't want players programmed to 'see goblin, kill goblin' because 'the rules say they are evil!' They aren't so easily labeled. Pay attention to my descriptions. Stop and think. Don't let an alignment label think for you. Make your own choices based on how you want to play your character in this situation, not your alignment tag.

A paint-by-labels game is not the sort of game I run, and frankly, alignment-buckets are not the sort of help I want in a roleplaying game. The classic D&D alignment system feels like it is meant to 'grease the skids' for a hack and slash game, making the experience a simple 'us versus them' affair, and simplifying motivations so the game can be more about combat. When you eliminate the need to question motivations and actions, you can get into the next battle faster.

The Freedom to Decide

As a player, I like to have the freedom to roleplay and deal with the goblins based on how they act, not what the Monster Manual says they are. Yes, a referee in games with alignment can just do this, ignore alignment, and run the goblins this way. But the question will always be there. A new player coming in needs to be explained why the goblins aren't 'kill on sight.' Your creativity could be seen as a variant game. The game tells you 'it's your world' and then takes that back some by setting expectations on how monsters act - and players notice.

Maybe the goblins in the iron-mining village have a problem with giant burrowing beetles down in the mine the players could deal with. If they ask questions first and parlay, maybe they will be able to help. In my world, there are things that are evil, like a village-burning tribe of marauding orcs under a demon-worshiping war-chief. But I don't want them to assume all orcs are like that. That tribe could easily be evil humans burning orc villages for the same reason.

It is, in the end, a motivation thing. It is how simple you want player motivations to be. Do you just enjoy the fights and don't want entire sessions being consumed by figuring out who the bad guys are? Then yes, alignment is a useful 'us versus them' tool. Do you want a more thoughtful game where you want to focus on story, unique motivations, and have players question the world they live in? Throw alignment out and embrace freedom and creative world-building and play.

It is a personal decision, ultimately. But it is one that if you are better informed, you can make better decisions on the games you want to play, and also the parts of them that you choose to use. More importantly, you understand the motivations behind why an alignment system is used and what it does to both players and referees. What do they offer, and what limits do they impose on you?

You need to question why rules do what they do, and not blindly accept them 'because they are' or 'because they are popular.' Alignment is one of those big 'invisible systems' that are meant to control player and referee behavior, and it deserves to be examined, questioned, and understood.

The way Basic Fantasy tossed out alignment is an interesting and fascinating design choice that has more implications than saying 'it is a fantasy game without alignment.'

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Dragon Age Inquisition Playthrough: Castle Seige

Wow, we almost quit before the cool part. We are continuing our Dragon Age Inquisition playthrough, and we hit the part with the castle siege. We had previously quit playing through this after a long period of grinding quests and zones, and we decided to do another last throwdown with this game.

Glad we did.

We began the castle siege part of the game, and we were pleasantly entertained by this large set-piece adventure. It was an exciting climax to the story, and we wish there could have been more of these action segments in the game, rather than the long and boring sandbox searching and questing parts in the game.

It is almost as if the sandbox parts of the game just can't compare to the story parts, and frankly while I love sandboxes, these weren't done as well as other sandbox games. It dragged the great parts of the game down, and I was wishing there was more story and less roaming. It is a hard thing to say, because I like my sandbox games and there frankly aren't enough of them, but I feel there is some truth here.

The sandboxes in this game feel large and empty, with not much going on. There aren't wars happening between mages and templars, or the good guys and the demons, and everything feels static and less alive. The zones themselves are masterpieces of world creation, pretty with weather effects and organic terrain, but they feel like they can't compare with the great story missions in this game. As a result, the entire game feels dragged down by weaker sandbox zones.

The castle siege represents some of the best work by the team, and that moment shines as one of  the great RPG action sequences in this and the last generation of console and computer RPGs. It is epic, dramatic, has lasting consequences, and it shines as a great climax to an engrossing story. I wish this part could have came earlier in the game, or the game would have even started with something like this event. We also wished the castle siege was longer, with a build up and more interactive battler parts.

We wanted to finish the story by playing this through with the pen-and-paper game, but we may just delay that for a little bit. We toughed out the boring parts and are now focusing on the story missions, and the game is rewarding us for doing so.

I still want to play a modded version of the roleplaying game, perhaps using the RPG's leveling and rules, and the videogame's powers and spells. I want to make this an epic campaign and tell our own story in this world and with this cast of characters. I will need to come up with conversions and some rules to do this, but I feel it will be a great game for everyone who wishes to join in our group's fun.

But the console game? It has been redeemed, at least a little bit, and we learned some important lessons on sandboxing and what makes for a great story adventure. There is a balance here that I feel needs to be addressed in this game, but for now, we are sticking through playing this until the end, and putting aside the optional parts for the main story line. I hope in future games they address the empty-feeling sandboxes, and find ways to insert story missions into these open and sparse spaces. As for the story missions? They are top notch and fun, and we are savoring the likely few we have left in this game.

And then, we will get to telling our own.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Star Wars Adversary Decks

Fantasy Flight came out with three sets of adversary desk for its Star Wars RPG, and they are a great tabletop resource for playing the game. They are quick NPC cards that cover minions, rivals, and PC-like opponents and allies in the roleplaying game.

As an in-game resource, I can't see how I would play without these, as they give me a quick NPC stat and skill block to quickly create a character from. With a little modification, you can swap skills and boost abilities for a customized NPC if you so desire, the baselines are solid enough that you could mod these cards for talented individuals or elite storm-trooper squads with little effort, and it sure beats flipping through the book for NPC stats.

There are three decks and they are pretty inexpensive, so they are must-buys for me. Each deck gives you twenty cards, which feels like enough value for a deck, and there are three decks focusing on imperials and rebels, citizens, and a rogue's gallery of villainy.

I would like to see new decks covering the galaxy's monsters, Jedi and Sith, pirates and spacers, and even notable NPCs from the movies. I could see these cards going off in many useful directions, and I would also love to see cards covering starship, vehicle, or equipment stats, complete with pictures and the rules for each. I would go to the dark side just to get decent starfighter stat cards, those would be a cool and useful addition and help me greatly when players hop in their X-Wings and start blasting TIEs.

Will I use these during play? Most certainly. I love little in-game referee tools like this, and I wish D&D and Pathfinder were simple and organized enough they could do useful referee's aids like this for their games. I know Pathfinder has equipment and other card add-ons, but that game feels so voluminous and large the cards don't feel like they do the game justice.

Right now there are only three decks, and after reading and sorting through these, I went to the store looking for more in the series. There aren't any more packs beyond the original three, so I am hoping these decks take off and we have a greater selection in the future. I want more of these, and I would love to see these expanded upon.

Like a second set of Star Wars RPG Dice, these are must-haves for running the game, and they are a great tool to prevent a referee from 'winging NPC stats' and playing fast-and-loose with the rules. While I can wing it in a pinch, I prefer to play by the rules in order to get the full game experience, and this includes NPC stats. A great resource, fun, imaginative, and with pictures of citizens of the galaxy that inspire and give you ideas for adventures in this universe. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Playtest Report: Star Wars Age of Rebellion

Let's play Star Wars RPG: Age of Rebellion Beginner Game!

So we sat down to play this, put on the Star Wars music, and started to fulfill our fantasies about Rebels and Imperials blasting each other in the far reaches of space. Yes, this is the last of the intro sets we are playing for the Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight, and we had a great experience with the smuggler one, so we wanted to check this one out.

It also came with an extra set of dice, so we needed those too.

These are tutorial adventures meant to teach you the game and get you started, so you have to take that into consideration. The second beginner's set we tried had some major issues with the story line, but it ended better than it started, so we had our doubts about the rebel-themed boxed set.
Right off the transport shuttle we hit several major issues. Nobody plans an attack like that. The players just walked in! The first scenario assumed a plan for the characters and didn't let them really have a say in how things worked out. We felt railroaded, and the players wanted a little more freedom in how they attacked the problem of capturing the base.

Okay, referee intervention time.

I took the adventure off the rails at that point, ditched the rest of the encounters, and let the players run with the rest of the module. We lost the cool AT-ST and speeder bike fight at the end, and DarkgarX expressed some remorse at losing that fight, but overall things went well. Our diplomat did a fun disguise thing and talked with the base commander, posing as an Imperial spy. Our technicians wrecked havoc with the computer and security systems while sneaking around the base. Our soldier and pilot worked on capturing that shuttle. It was a cool Mission Impossible style take down and switcheroo, and the group had fun playing through the mission.
Did it come out better than the module? I feel it did, though we lament missing the vehicle battle. I don't think in any of these starter sets we ever got to a real vehicle or starship battle, so our knowledge of that system is probably lacking. Still, we had more fun than I feel the module would have let us have, and I don't regret calling for an intervention and taking the beginner's set off the rails and running it as a sandbox.

It struck us as an odd ending to put players in a lousy situation such as this, and force them to hold a base that is known to the Empire. The entire epilogue felt really weak for us, and given a choice, my players felt abandoning the base was the best bet. Even if the Empire itself can't acknowledge the base, someone in the Empire knows about it, and we expected retribution and the hammer of the Empire to be rapidly dropped on this place with just a handful of rebels to protect it.
It didn't feel like a great start to a long running game, so our group abandoned the base, silly rebel orders be damned. Once the main rulebook gets here we want to restart our game with a fresh situation and planet, and run these groups through a classic set of situations that we are cooking up.

Some of the characters also had little to do, most notably the pilot, and other characters felt like they didn't have a great role or clear skills to contribute (the commander web supplement character, and the tech and spy also being medics). The soldier also felt one-dimensional with the kill choices, and of all the beginner sets, this one felt like it had the most issues with the character designs not living up to the things our group wanted to try.
A high point in the game came when one of the players infiltrated the comm room, slayed one of the techs, and the base's robot walked in. The player tried to reason with the robot, and rolled a despair die on the social interaction. I sat there and had the robot give the player a speech about how humans are always like this, how they love war, and how they think violence solves every problem. The damn robot went on and on moralizing like a ham-filled actor in a Shakespeare play, and the players laughed and groaned with delight as the robot went on and on moralizing and giving a speech about how droids are so reasoned and superior.
"You. You. Humans. How typical. You think violence solves anything? You think these the actions of a civilized member of the galactic community? I think not." 
See that dwarf meeple in the picture above? That is the robot, and the group adopted the droid as a reluctant but hilarious mascot after that masterpiece performance dramatae. Yeah, expect more of his moralizing guys, you bought him.

Sometimes the dice just take you places in this game, and you have to go along for the ride. That is what I enjoy about the dice, sometimes they make something so cool or hilarious happen that the game takes a life of its own.
Overall, we enjoyed this one more than the Jedi boxed set, and till the smuggler set holds the top spot on all three of these for us. The decision to go off-rails helped a great deal, but still the setup for this campaign felt wrong, and the character designs lacked polish and utility.

We like the characters in these sets, but we wanted more. We will probably be redesigning them when the full books come, and making them our own. I also want to come up with my own 'tutorial' adventures based on our new campaign, and restart these heroes in an entirely new situation. I also would love to see some cross over between the groups, have them meet each other, and thrust them into the grand campaign of a classic game.

More on this soon. It is kinda fun to be excited about a game and planning adventures in one again. Also, this RPG has lived up to the hype, and we great about getting excited for the game and playing it. This is a rare treat for us, and one we want to savor and enjoy for quite a while.

Monday, September 14, 2015

New Traveller PDF Beta

So over at DriveThru RPG, Mongoose is putting up a new Traveller beta-test buy in ($20 witha $20 voucher off POD or PDF). The most-famous misspelling of pen-and-paper sci-fi returns yet again to grace our gaming tables, and I have a couple thoughts on this.

Now, this is an interesting development. This is supposedly like the current black-book editions of Traveller Mongoose prints, but a cleaned-up, streamlined, and bug-fixed edition of the rules. I like this approach, printing the game as PDF-only during the beta while continuing to improve the rules, and also supporting the game via an early buy-in. It admits the faults of the RPG development model while minimizing the 'dead book' syndrome most all v1.0 pen-and-paper games have.

It feel so easy to put out a pen-and-paper game today that a lot of what we get are untested and beta versions of the game, and the next edition is really the one you want to play. I am not really a fan of fixing rules in later expansion books (Pathfinder's Unchained and D&D 5's Unearthed Arcana), as this just forces me to buy another book and support that at my table as well. It has gotten to the point where the pedigree of the company has to be really stellar or I will just buy the PDF and skip the printed book. Or we will play older games or community-supported retro-clones that just work.

So, new Traveller? I have so many editions of this game that we don't play I am hesitant to jump in, honestly. This feels like a Shadowrun situation for me where I bought into an older version (4.0) and don't play it enough to warrant going out and getting a whole new edition to learn and play.

There is also Fantasy Flight's Star Wars looming over my group's play time like a small moon. And that's no small moon.

Still, I feel Traveller is worthy of our support. Mongoose supports open gaming (I don't know on the OGL status of this game, but it would surprise me if they pulled back), and open gaming with build-your own licensing is pro-community and  pro-indie, and that is a good thing worthy of praise and buying in. Perhaps this version will be built with a more mod-able and open rules structure that more games can be built from. I will probably eventually pick this up, but I don't want to buy-in just yet, let my group blast through Star Wars first, then this game looks like a fun change-of-pace to run next year when things shake out and settle down.

So I am cautiously positive about this one and looking forward to seeing how this comes out.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

D&D 5: Ranger Revamp

It's time to fire 150,000 play-testers, or at least just the group that played rangers (so roughly about 12,500 playtesters by my math). So D&D 5's ranger class is getting a Pathfinder Unchained rogue style class revamp in the upcoming Unearthed Arcana book, according to this article over on the main D&D site. Part of me sits here and wonders how something this basic was missed, I mean, this playtest group was three times as large as Pathfinder's, right? Does nobody play rangers? How did this happen?

I hear the voice of one of my old bosses echoing through my head. If we let something like this slip and ship there would be hell to pay.

But really, when you are in the realm of quality testing, the larger you get the worse your feedback gets. You cannot throw three times the people at a problem and think you are getting a three times better test; it is actually quite the opposite, as smaller groups tend to produce better-thought out designs. There is a point in quality assurance where you have so many voices nothing gets heard, and you spend most of your time sorting through feedback instead of designing and improving. Too many cooks is a real problem in quality assurance and playtesting.

But a D&D 5 ranger revamp? Part of me feels, "and so it begins." Because you know once the UA ranger revamp is done, it will be another class that is seen as the 'problem.' This will continue until my shelf is filled with more D&D 5 books (or web supplement fixes) than Pathfinder, with book after book introducing 'fixes' and then creating more problems with power creep or relative power changes. Until, that is, calls for a simplified and streamlined D&D 6 start being heard.

What about fighters? What about rogues? There are complaints about those as well. We need a new Martial Guide to fix those!

MMOs as Tabletop Games

Stop it. No. Bad game designers. I hate the MMO-ification of pen and paper games, because frankly, MMOs do this better. I log in, all the changes (hate them or not) are auto-downloaded in a patch, and the world goes on. My shelf isn't littered with the mistakes of a version 1.0 game. I bought into Shadowrun 4.0 heavily, and I am hesitant about buying 5.0 because it's fixed now. Get it right the first time, especially if you print a book.

I can sympathize with the game designers, because you can never get things right on the first version. It makes me think that all games should be a PDF exclusive for the first year or two, and then print a book later after all the bugs have been worked out. This may be the answer I would like the best. I could support a model like that, because it feels honest to how game development works nowadays.

Admittedly, Pathfinder has a lot of books, but the base classes went through a couple versions of D&D 3 before they ended up how they are today. Where Pathfinder stumbles is typically in the new classes, those are version 1.0 designs that need fixes, but the basic book's set (except for the rogue, but I know players who like the non-Unchained rogue better) were tested across 15 years of design and feedback and are pretty solid. If I am going to play a game where the D&D power curve has been balanced and perfected, I will play the foil-covered D&D 3.5 books or the basic book of Pathfinder.

Paid Beta Tests

I don't need or want to buy in to another beta test, because my old games work and I own them. There is a point where I stop admiring 'new and shiny' and put more value in 'what works.' You see this 'flight to quality' in cars, computers, tablets, and many other things. Some big new thing will drop on the market. It is cool and all the rage. But, it has problems. They promise in version two they will work those out! If you are an Apple fan you know what I am talking about. So you either live with something that has issues, or go back to a slightly older model that 'just works' the way it was designed. Or you are an 'early adopter' and suffer through a paid beta.

We Can Do Better

But this whole MMO-style class re-balancing is a part of where I think the entire pen-and-paper industry has just went so wrong. We are better than MMOs. We do everything they don't and can't do. We don't need to sit here and worry about class roles, power curves, class balancing, and DPS. It feels asinine, like we could do better than this, and the entire 'story based' and 'shared roleplaying' experience part of our hobby is enslaved to the power gamers and the number crunchers.

I just get this feeling, as game designers we can do better than this. If your game design model is MMO, then don't ship printed books. Make your game subscription based, design characters electronically, and store character sheets in the cloud. Auto-update and fix my designs if you patch. D&D 4 went this way, but they made the mistake of printing books. It is kind of ironic that the printed books will outlive the electronic errata and character designer, but that is how they designed that game. If you are going to follow the MMO model, then you can do better than shipping books that are full of errors and you will errata out of existence later.

Let Storytelling Rule?

Or better yet, don't chase the MMO model at all. Let pen-and-paper games be pen-and-paper games, and stop trying to live up to the fantasy that pen-and-paper roleplaying is just an MMO played on the tabletop. Design games where story comes first, and de-emphasize the entire 'character build' culture. Put the story first, and take the power curve out of the game. Basic Fantasy provides a fantasy gaming experience without a steep power curve, mind you, the curve still exists, but it isn't as dramatic where a dragon has hundreds or thousands of hit points.

It feels like a viscous circle where D&D started the roleplaying ball rolling, videogames copied D&D, and now D&D is copying videogames. It feels like an invisible power curve controls everything behind the scenes and it is constantly being tweaked and refined, with our books being left by the wayside.

It is frustrating. Part of me wishes they would have fixed D&D 4. Another part of me just wishes they would have settled on a cleaned-up but unchanged AD&D 2nd Edition and said "this is the game we love." Why we need to keep reinventing the wheel in terms of fantasy gaming is beyond me.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Dragon Age Inquisition Playthrough: Endless Collection Hubs

We are continuing our Dragon Age Inquisition playthrough, and at 60 hours (and level 17) we are ready to put the game aside for a while. We just completed the 'protect the Empress' party quest, and we have exhausted our attention span for the game.

The characters are interesting and the graphics are phenomenal, but we are facing a couple problems that drain the want to come back out of the game for us:
  • The story moves at a snail's pace
  • The quest zones are too sparsely populated and boring
  • The war doesn't feel like a war
I think the third one is critical for us. I would have loved to see a war on my battle map with lines and castles to capture, and the ebb and flow of the world as we begin to make changes and contribute. In the first part (mages versus templars) the war felt like is was just some 'off map' thing, and now with the big bad supposedly running the show, he is nowhere on the map to be seen. I want to take the fight to the bad guy, siege his castles, and push him back until the final battle.

Instead, the big bad guy is just mentioned as an invisible force that we must rally against, or just some off-stage actor speaking lines and supposedly being the cause of all that ills the world.

In Skyrim, if one side or the other pissed you off, you could take the fight to them, and you did this by yourself. You could walk between the three, join one side or the other, and in some mods the range of factions you could join and get in trouble with was amazing.

In Shining Force, it was a one-true-way game, but you felt every battle was important and critical drove the story on.

In Dragon Age Inquisition, the zones are more "collection hubs" and less "sandboxes". In a sandbox, the NPCs would fight, live, and go about things as they would in a normal world. If templars and mages were in the same zone, they would seek each other out and you could jump in on one side or the other. The townspeople would go about their normal lives, run for cover when the war or monsters showed up, and the world would feel alive. Instead, the world feels like a traditional 8-bit RPG, with people just standing around waiting to deliver their lines.

Compare this to Grand Theft Auto 5, with a world full of people and cars, living their lives, and the world feels like it is alive. It is a veneer of programmed responses, but it feels real and authentic, which I don't get from Inquisition. With the latter game, I get this grindy feeling that the maps exist to be striped bare of collectibles and discoveries, and nothing really of any importance or meaning happens on them.

They are beautiful, no doubt, just empty in every way. You get this feeling that nobody lives in this world.

So we are parking the game and getting back to it when we want to see how the game ends. At 60 hours, that is going to be a tough one because I am not willing to put in another 60 just to see how it ends. It does not feel like that compelling and driving of a narrative to justify giving up time in other games just to see how the story comes out, at least for us.

It got to the point where we would rather put the videogame away and use the pen-and-paper game to finish the story the way we want it to. Ultimately, I think that would be the wiser and more satisfying ending for us.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Star Wars RPG Resources: The Essential Atlas

The Star Wars: The Essential Atlas is a book I cannot recommend highly enough, especially if your group is serious about playing in Fantasy Flight's Star Wars RPG universe.

First off, there is a lot of Legacy/Expanded Universe universe content in this book, but you can look at this three ways:
  1. The EU is cool and pull from it what you want.
  2. We play in a specific EU period.
  3. We play in the current Star Wars cannon and timeline and this book lets you identify cannon versus EU lore.
The third one I find interesting, because of the state of Star Wars, there are things in the RPG and also the general community that may have more of a place in EU than the current timeline. This book gives you enough timeline to decide if something fits, and gives it a place in the universe. Me? I am part of the crowd that enjoys some of the EU content, and I will pull from it freely to develop my own timeline for the universe going forward. I would like to start with the movies, but have familiar faces drop by and make the universe my own combination of the best of Star Wars - Legacy and current movie timeline.

Hey, it's the "my universe" (MU), and it's all Star Wars. It's cool.

What I love about this book is the sense of place and time. You get maps of the movies, where people were, how they got there, and a chronological order of what happened. Each movie and the flow of how things happened gives you a broad perspective on how to run the game, especially with planet hopping and action that can take place light years apart. The maps of the movies are perfect 'sample adventure models' for the game, and they provide a model for how your game should flow.

Of course, you get pictures and descriptions of the major planets, and detailed star maps for everything else, so you can use this as a master atlas to run your own campaign, and drop in iconic planets and places as you see fit. The roleplaying books give you a couple planets and a starmap, but this jut goes to town, gives you maps and history, and drills down on specific events and tears them apart in detail.

You could create a campaign that parallels the movies and play in that, like a squadron of X-Wings that is running a diversionary operation for the attack on the first Death Star, or rebels protecting supply lines for the battle of Endor. If you love one-off historical roleplaying adventures, this is a great source book to base your own creations from. Those sorts of 'what if' scenarios can also be inspiring for your own adventures should you stick with the official timeline, have your own battles of Endor, or kick off the threat of a third Death Star upon the galaxy.

It is the "your universe" (YU) after all, so do what you want.

This book is useful for all three game books, no matter if you play Jedi, smugglers, or rebels (or Imperials) - you will find something to pull inspiration from and use. It is also a great player's guide, especially for smugglers plotting routes and avoiding the long arm of the Empire, rebel plotting their next move, or Jedi seeking artifacts from long-lost civilizations. Give this to players and watch them dig in and create their own adventures, it is that cool and inspirational.

So a must-buy for this today, and a highly useful and cool book to flip through when developing your own Star Wars adventures. May the force be with you, and oh yeah, remember to bring a map.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Playtest Report: Star Wars Force and Destiny, part 2

What is it about beginner modules and us lately?

First off, this is a fun game. I like what Fantasy Flight has done with Star Wars and their entire RPG line. I liked the dice, and I like the system. We had a great time with the Edge of the Empire Beginner Game too and loved that adventure. That boxed set was great stuff, and you even got to dogfight with TIE fighters at the end.
But we had no luck with the Star Wars Force and Destiny RPG Beginner Game boxed set. The module fell flat for us, and we found ourselves rubbing our eyes with disbelief at some of the situations. As a "introduction to the post Order 66 Jedi life" it felt like it didn't deliver, and I probably need to go over what happened during our game. Warning, spoilers ahead.
It all started out good enough, as we left off last time, our group of Jedi students holed up in a shelter on their way to the mountain temple. We left off feeling pretty good, and then we proceeded to the next part of the adventure, the ancient holocron with the Jedi master. Let's just say things didn't go so well there, and the players didn't like to have a hologram threatening them when they were there to help. There is a line in the holocron's dialog that is an outright threat to pit them against the locals, and that set my group and the omnipotent computer on a collision course. DarkgarX told the holocron, "We find you, we're pulling your plug."

Yes, like a line out of the Expendables movies. And that was it with the holocron, until...

Let's move on to the next encounter, where "dark side infused" primitive villagers were directed to attack the party by the "I am really a Jedi not a Sith" holocron. Now, the entire "dark side infused" rationale for both the wolves and the villagers in this module is pretty silly, my players were playing this like true Jedi, and they did not feel it was right for good Jedi following the code to wipe out a group of primitives. They ended up scaring them off with blaster shots and disengaging. Yes, this encounter was just supposed to be a simple run-through to teach the combat rules, but two things:
  1. Good Jedi do not wipe out villagers (given deception caused this)
  2. "Dark side infused" felt like a cheap rationale to make the villagers more like D&D monsters
Nobody liked the "dark side infused" thing in either encounter and my players didn't buy it (probably because there feels like little in the movies that supports this). Good Jedi do not pull out the longswords and kill the orcs, they act a step above. I give my players credit for taking the high road here, and the whole encounter would have been better served had the primitives been disposable combat droids or something.

The stupid holocron being there and sending the villagers off to attack the party did not go over very well at all. DarkgarX had this look on his face that said, "When I find you, I am erasing your memory circuits." Even if you are a good Jedi holocron, sending primitives off to their doom is a pretty Sith move. Especially since, um, when the dark side taint from this valley is going to be removed at the end of the adventure later, and it will be supposedly removed from the villagers as well.

Yes, don't put the players in a position where they are having to explain why they wiped out the village to the survivors. Not Jedi, and not cool, dude.

I mean, really, droids here would have been the better choice, and I could have imagined my players jumping at the chance to swing lightsabers at combat robots and whoop it up having a good time. Instead, the group elected to take the high ground, and the combat tutorial turned into a moral choice, which is probably not what the module designer had in mind, but my players are true hardcore Jedi fanatics who believe in the code.
Now, I don't like railroads as much as anyone else, but the whole "everyone falls into a separate hole and can't get out" encounter that WIN or LOSE the previous fight felt really, really silly after that fight. Yes, this is just another tutorial encounter, but it did not go over well, especially for six players falling into six separate holes. One of the players ended up getting out and helping the others out one by one, though by the end, some of them at least tried to use the force as the tutorial directed as a face-saving move.

You know that scene in Return of the Jedi where the whole gang gets caught in the Ewok net? Yeah. Painful like that. Times six.

From there, the adventure got better since the tutorials were over. The bridge encounter with the guard mercs went well (non combat resolution), the wolf encounter ended up being another moral choice but it ended up with another novel non-combat solution, and the temple fight was a pushover. My players wanted a lightsaber duel, but the big-bad had a longsword, and lightsaber versus longword fights usually don't end well for the "I am a D&D fighter in Star Wars" side. Plus we wanted this guy to have some cool force lightning or telekinesis powers, and he had some lame ones, so minus fun points there as well.
And in the end, that stupid holocron got pulled out of its socket.

"Adventurers! Thank you for rescuing the temp-"


But seriously, we came up with  better structure for this entire module, and it goes like this:
  1. Players are students at this Jedi temple
  2. A strange ship lands
  3. Combat robots seize the temple, school, and village
  4. Escape and get your stuff from the school
  5. Save the village!
  6. Rescue the master at the temple!
It is simple, and you could have even mixed in the tutorial parts with the "students at the temple" part before the attack, or mixed them in with steps one through five. You could have even left the holocron in as a helpful mentor directing players along the way. It is a much better setup, avoids the problem of "how do they know each other" issue, and gives the players a heroic motivation and robotic bad guys that are fun to beat up without sticky Jedi code moral decisions.

Yes, I expect later when stormtroopers show up, the grim reality of being a Jedi and doing bad to do good will come up, but my players didn't feel that decision should have came here, and not for the reasons given.
In the end? The big-bad was captured, the mentor saved, and the players wanted to turn the Sith over to the Rebel Alliance for judgment. Did we have fun? Yes, when the silliness of the first encounters ended, and the real fight began at the temple, but it took too much absurdity to get there, and the last fight was a kind of a letdown. It was a tough time for this group and for this adventure, but the promise of hooking up with the Rebels is looming out there.

I guess this will lead us into the next beginner's set, next time....

Friday, September 4, 2015

Playtest Report: Star Wars Force and Destiny

So we picked up Fantasy Flight's Star Wars Force and Destiny RPG Beginner Game the other day and sat down for a playtest. They have a boxed beginner's set for each of the main rulebooks, and it is a pretty good deal if you are picking up sets of dice. You can pick up one of these sets (with dice) for around $20 on Amazon, and a set of dice is about $15, so you get some maps, an adventure, some pogs, and a set of intro rule books for just a little more than a set of dice by itself, so these boxes are a good deal.

If I played this game with others on a regular basis? BYOD, because, really. And if you get into high level play you will need two sets ideally, so this game can get expensive. A couple thoughts on that:

  • It is a licensed game, so it is expected.
  • It is too bad, because sometimes we play with groups with limited financial ability to buy in.

To be fair, there are official Fantasy Flight supported dice rolling apps for smartphones off the Google Play and iTunes stores for only five bucks, and you can roll as many dice as you like with these programs. While I normally don't like smartphones and tablets at the tabletop, this is an answer for those players who can't spend $30 on a complete double set of dice.

The books are expensive as well, and there are no PDF versions of the game. This is another sticking point for us, since character creation and options are 'book heavy' activities, and this means lengthy pass around sessions at the table. With expensive books, this feels like a problem since I like having hardcopy print outs for character creation and leveling up ready and available for player use without passing a book around.

I am one of those 'character sheet only' referees, and I dislike distractions such as books or phones at the table. If someone is reading (even the rules) or playing on a phone, it is a distraction. We have limited time when we get together, and I like to keep things moving because it is fair to everyone spending free time to be at my table. If a game requires constant book reference by players (like 4th Edition D&D), it is a less optimal design for groups I run.

The Force and Destiny game itself is fun though, and we like the dice. They are a unique narrative control device that handle story elements and what happens next in one skill roll. If you haven't read our older article on the dice, please do so since it is a good primer and hilarious as well. Some groups have reported the dice got in the way of the fun of the game for them, as players had trouble deciphering the symbols, but we haven't had that experience. The dice work for us, and I think that is because we figured out the game's narrative control structure.

Read our previous article on macro-style play for Edge of the Empire. I went and re-read this before we played, and we had a great time since we understood not only how to roll the dice, but when. Fantasy Flight's Star Wars games are by default, macro style games more like Arkham Horror than they are micro-style games, such as D&D or Pathfinder. In a micro-style game, you are rolling dice for every single blow in combat and splitting tasks into sub-tasks so you can roll for those individually. You do not aggregate tasks into larger sweeps of the brush as you do in this game, and understanding that will keep you from endlessly having to throw the dice and interpret results.

Do more with less rolls.

These Star Wars games can do micro-style play for critical rolls, but that is the exception, not the rule. If you are trying to do micro-style play and roll for every shot or subtask, you will tire quickly and the narrative control of the dice will be lessened since so much crazy stuff will happen. The sheer number of results and consequences will overwhelm you, so it is best to treat the dice as a larger tool that determines the results of a task with one roll for the entire "scene" of the movie instead of splitting the scene into smaller parts and rolling for those.

For example, we had a situation come up last night during our play session on the first encounter of theStar Wars Force and Destiny game. Some players wanted to not cross over into the hidden valley, and build a shelter to recover from the trip. Yes, players are how players are, and if they wanted to stop and hang out for a couple days in the first "make a skill roll and just get moving" encounter, I say let them play. This brought up two questions that made us stumble a bit with this adventure:
  • We needed survival rules for food and water.
  • How did this group of players find each other?
The second question we hand-waved away, but it would have been nice to know how this group of people met each other and decided to trudge up a mountain together in the middle of nowhere. This brought up the second question of survival on the face of a snow-covered mountain. I let them build a shelter with a mechanical roll, and the other half of the party went out looking for food and water.

The game doesn't have food and water type survival rules, although we worked out a system using the game's resilience skill after an Internet search and some forum post reading that seemed like it would work well. The game does have survival rations as an equipment item, but none of the starting characters came with rations or survival gear, so everybody was kind of stuck on the face of K2 without preparation.

Since it is entirely unfair to do this to players in an in media res start, I let them roll back time for a moment and buy any gear they thought they would need for the trip (up to 5 ration packs). We then picked up where we left off, and the group at least had some food and water to chow down on while they sat around in their improvised shelter.

But back to the macro-style play example. The players, even though they had rations, still wanted to scrounge around for supplies. They had a survival expert along, so it seemed like a good exercise to get used to handling a survival-style situation. So as a referee, I could have split this up into several rolls:
  • Roll to find a good place to scavenge in nearby
  • Roll to scavenge food
  • Roll to scavenge water
  • Roll to find animals to hunt
  • Roll to find out anything else about the terrain and paths forward
In a micro-style game, this feels like a good way to break up rolls for the survival task. It may feel a bit excessive, but in games where the narrative control of 'what happens next' depends on die rolls, you need this level of granularity to determine the results of differing actions and if something is discovered or happens as a result of the dice. You have no other way of determining sub-task or related results, so you end up rolling the dice more, often for every little thing or question you need an answer on. How I decided to do this in Force and Destiny is this:
  • Roll once to determine the scavenging result
Why only roll for all that? Successes will determine the success of the result, and if the primary thing sought after will be found (food and water). Advantages will determine the extra benefits of the roll, things not sought after but would be nice to know (paths forward). I wanted to do all of the above in one roll, with a primary focus on scrounging supplies, but a secondary focus on information helpful to their current situation. Plus, I didn't want too many rolls since this would generate so many good and bad story results the task would blow up and create a mess of consequences to resolve.

The roll came out that the group failed to find supplies, but they generated enough advantages on the roll for me to rule the group found a great place to cross the icy ridge, and using that path would give each party member a boost die on the skill roll they used to traverse the ridge the next day. This was one roll, it provided the task result and extra information or result we wanted, and we rolled the dice less for more actions covered. Handle more with less rolls? Exactly.

The next day, everyone got moving and made their individual skill rolls, covering each person's actions in the micro sense as required by the module. Knowing when to aggregate and play in a macro style will be the key to your success in enjoying this game. Knowing when to switch to micro will also keep that feeling of individual achievement and contribution going with each player, and this will also contribute to your success when running the game.

Is this an enjoyable game? Yes, and it is competing for time at our table with the other big games. It pulls in a lot of the Star Wars myths and lore, and it is a fun and enjoyable experience. Is this a game that could hold a group's attention? I feel so, yes, because it fills that Star Wars fantasy experience quite nicely, and the character level-up options are deep and allow a high-level of customization.

Does this compete with D&D 5 and Pathfinder? For attention yes, most certainly. I could play this instead of those games, and being a referee of a Star Wars style game would give my game a drawing power that would definitely attract attention, especially if I setup a weekly game at a hobby store. People like to play Star Wars, there is no doubt, and even when we played the d20 version this had a great wow-factor as well.

There is a side-effect of Disney's de-canonizing of the old Expanded Universe that is drawing in players as well, since the barrier to entry to the universe is basically knowing what happened in the six main movies (plus Clone Wars if you are a purist, but you could get away with just Star Wars thru Jedi and be just fine as a player or referee).

So, licensed games? When I bring in Dragon Age, I begin to see a new pattern emerging with tabletop roleplaying, where licensed games feel like they have a larger pull than the more generic offerings. Admittedly, D&D is more popular than Dragon Age in general, but I am sure if I ran it the Dragon Age game would attract attention from those not only into D&D, but also people who have played the videogame as well.

For Star Wars, the dice could be an issue for some (especially those used to micro style games), but we have mastered them quite quickly using our techniques and theories on how the game should be played. They aren't difficult to use, and they do add a lot to the game. We are huge fans of macro-style games such as Arkham Horror, so having a Star Wars version of that experience is a huge plus for us.

Will we be buying in further? Most likely. For a game that is pricey and lacks PDF options, that is quite a huge feat, and it says a lot for the design and production quality of this game. It is one of the great games of tabletop roleplaying at the moment, and one we are getting a lot of enjoyment out of. More playtest reports soon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mail Room: Blue Rose PDFs (Original True20 Game)

Today the Blue Rose Kickstarter PDFs came as a part of the backer rewards. Now, these are the original game's PDF files, the new game is going to use the system created for Green Ronin's Fantasy Age game.

Now, the original game is powered by Green Ronin's True20 Adventure Roleplaying, and it feels like an odd match to me. I had this instant reaction where a d20-based game is a poor choice for a narrative and storytelling style game focused on romance. The d20 nowadays is synonymous with D&D and Pathfinder style dungeon crawls, and even having a system remotely related to that play style just feels wrong for me with a game based on drama, soap opera style conflicts, and romance.

I pick up the d20 and I am thinking THAC0, CMB, DC, and armor class. For anything else but dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash, I can't do it. The d20 feels like a poisoned die for anything else, and when you use it in a game the question at the table feels like, "Why aren't we playing D&D with that?"

It is pop culture, and it is roleplaying dogma. The only game I saw that came close to breaking the D&D death-grip on the d20 was FGU's Aftermath, and that was a roll-under system.

So my gut reaction is d20 is a bad choice for dramatic roleplaying, just because of its stigma of being a dungeon crawling game. Add to this the d20-ish repertoire of skills and feats in the game, and you get a romantic roleplaying exchange like this:
Prince Charming: I pick the lock to Cinderella's room!
Referee: Okay, what is the level of your Disable Device skill?
Charming: 10, what is the DC on that?
Referee: 20, before you do that, give me a DC 15 Notice check.
Charming: Passed!
Referee: Okay, a tower guard is sneaking up behind you, and you notice his shadow creep across the wall.
Charming: Okay, remember I have Improved Uncanny Dodge, and I can't be flanked....
My desire to be romantic has just left the room, along with the target market for a game like this. Yes, there are gamer geek girls out there and I love their geeky pride, but really? And don't get me wrong, there are a good many male players out there too that enjoy the roleplaying and dramatic side of things too, so there is equal sides to this market. If you are going to go into this much d20 voodoo and rules fiddly-ness, you have lost me as someone who cares more about story and drama than character builds. If I want this type of game, honestly, I will play Pathfinder.

But the Fantasy Age system feels like a better fit. Characters are simple and self-contained and level up with focused choices. There isn't much in the way of rules-lingo to learn. You are not sitting at the table chanting arcane abbreviations, reciting rules like tax form instructions, and the sound of playing the game isn't something that would scare off a casual observer.

The dice rolls are simple. For the most part, they are add your ability score and a +2 for a focus, referee sets the target number, and that's it. You could sit someone at the table, hand them a character sheet, and have them roll the dice without having to understand attacks of opportunity, flanking, advantage, or any other concept. Sit there and roll the dice plus that number, and tell me if you beat this number. Let me know if you roll doubles, because that is when something good happens.

Conceptually, it is simple, and simple is great if you are trying to focus the game on something else but the rules. That line is so important, "something else but the rules." If you want your game to be focused on drama or horror or any other concept, you cannot create rules so complicated that playing the game and understanding the rules takes away all of the time from what you wanted to focus on in the first place. People only have so much "CPU power" to pay attention to a live event, and if you are requiring them to recite rules and modifiers and feat lists, you are taking the game's focus and putting it squarely on the rules.

Simple Fits Nicely

Fantasy Age gets it, and I feel it would be a great fit. The core rules for Fantasy Age and its sister game Dragon Age are only something like 12 pages long. The rest of the game is under a hundred pages, and you don't need to understand all of it to play. Yes, it is a great game for new players, but it is also a game that gets out of the way and lets you focus on the feeling and situation, rather than the rules.

Complexity is one of the huge problems we have in roleplaying today. Many games create gigantic temples to themselves out of rules complexity, and they become these monolithic and all-encompassing juggernauts that are designed to consume 100% of your mental acuity to play them. You don't have time to think about anything else or play anything else, because this one super-sized rules system is all you can handle. This was the game design and business model introduced with D&D 3, and it is a legacy of system design and support to this day with its descendants and other games as well.

Compare that to a simple game such as Fantasy Age, and I will throw in Basic Fantasy on the simple side of things as well. These are simple games. You can play them without needing to own a library, and memorize a shelf full of books in your head to understand them. You can use a simple set of rules to simulate a great many things, because you have the mental free time at the table to relax and focus on the story, not the rules. You can focus the game on a single activity, romance or reacting-to-the-referee dungeoning, and you can still have enough "me time" and mental freedom to have fun and be yourself.

I am looking forward to the finished Blue Rose game next year, and I hope the designers stick with the spirit I see in Fantasy Age, and keep the game simple and focused on the theme. It has been an interesting day in the mail room, and I am looking forward to some interesting gaming next August.

Is it really a whole other year away? Wow. We may just have to play this version and let you know how things go, The world and lore look fun, so there is a lot of other stuff in these PDFs to enjoy and soak in until the game is released, so I am still happy with the Kickstarter project and my support. More on this soon.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Dragon Age Inquisition Playthrough: A Whole Lot Not About Nothing

Yes, I know that is a contradiction, and it feels like the game is a whole lot "not about nothing" in our view. It would feel better if the game were a lot about what you were supposed to be doing, which is, at this point, something we are uncertain about. There is something going on, it just doesn't feel like any of it is relevant to the main story. It is "not about nothing" and it is also "something about something" all the same.

Yes, we are stuck in the middle of MMO questing, clearing zones, solving the world's problems, and helping out the ineffectual locals to correct every little problem with their lives. It is the one thing that bothers me about the MMO design model, the world must be inhabited by incompetents all the way from villagers who can't solve their wolf problem to the king who can't solve his dragon problem. Enter the hero and their band of miscreants to save the day every time.

It feels like a lazy world design model. In reality, the king's dragon hunters would be already fighting the creature (and likely ineffective), and you would be hearing news about the dragon when you started your career back in the village fighting wolves. I love a world where you are thrust into the middle of everything, where groups are trying to solve the world's problems (and either succeeding or failing), and the entire world is this fluid and ever-changing mess that you (as a hero) must be wading through and constantly judging the best path forward based on your personal goals - whatever those may be.

I hate wading into a "zone" with static "quests" waiting for me. I want games that let me set my own goals and chase them however I see fit. I want games that let me side with a faction of my choosing, or build my own, and support my slow rise to power (if that is what I want to do). I don't want the traditional "sandbox" experience as it has been defined in recent years by games such as Watchdogs or Grand Theft Auto V, where the world is a fun sandbox, but there are still static missions and activities waiting for me - I want a more dynamic world that lets me choose sides.

To be fair, there is a sense of achievement in Dragon Age: Inquisition when you clear a zone. It is a tedious task, filled with a whole lot of worthless treasure, endless harvest after harvest, and long XP grinding, but it does feel good. The grind in this game is brutal, and often the maps are empty and devoid of enemies, so there is a lot of boring running around in empty maps as you head towards the next objective. It reminds me of an un-modded Skyrim where you have the game set on too easy and you cleared the area, and you are criss-crossing an empty area and praying for the spawns to re-pop.

Give me a hacked-up Skyrim with the respawns turned up any day. I love fighting for my life across a dangerous landscape. I love judging if that next group of travelers has my best interests at heart, are they merchants or bandits? Are they neutral or a faction who doesn't like me? I love dangerous worlds filled with danger. Or at least, give me a way to turn up the monster spawns in Dragon Age to give me some constant and ever-present challenge.

Dragon Age: The Novel: The Videogame

Another point, we dislike the ever-present "notes as narrative devices" used in Dragon Age: Inquisition. We constantly come across these notes and journals that make no sense, and feel like they are written towards the next player character who happens by:
Dear diary, I harvested potatoes in the field today. I dug up a strange amulet and wondered what it was. All of a sudden, a giant spider attacked me and AIEEE!
Who writes this stuff? We have a joke that the mayor of the next town we find will be a book. It feels like there are way too many notes and books in this game that just send you to the next note or book so the quest can advance.

It would also help if the books you found weren't written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS like some sort of Internet rant. Seriously, next time, a little larger text, a much larger text box, decent smooth scrolling, and use a readable typeface next time so these long homework assignments will be a little easier on the eyes. Even some of the 'war room' reports are written on such stained parchment that you struggle to read them at times.

Problem is, I love the lore and I am interested in the story. The game fights the reader and goes out of its way to present the information in the worst ways possible, and even the loading screens time out on you as you are in the middle of reading some long piece of interesting historical-

Yeah, maybe I will catch that next time. Seriously, let me have the option to press X to continue.

Tough Going, but DLC is Keeping Us Going

To be honest, we are still playing so we can hit level 18 and go buy those sweet level purple weapons in that 'black market' DLC shop up north. Having DLC gear has hurt the game I feel, we had some good stuff to start with, had no desire to craft better, and mid-game, we are waiting for the really cool stuff at the late to end-of-game. There are some cool schematics in the shop, but most of our endless harvests are going towards requisitions, so crafting would mean more collecting (and we are at our limit for scavenging tolerance right now). We are finding just enough stuff to get by, so we don't feel a need to spend time crafting and farming up materials.

I would love a Diablo-style drop and item modification system in this game, where you can break items down for materials, and find cool gear with interesting mods and stats. But yeah, we are putting a lot of hope in the DLC gear at end-game, and can't wait to get a hold of a couple of those later.

Of course, it is DLC gear, and probably not the best in the game, so we may be setting ourselves up for a bad experience. Still, I would have loved a system where you could crunch old gear for materials, salvage items, and build up your stocks of stuff to craft new gear (or enhance what you have). It could be the game has this type of crafting system, but it is presented so obscurely and hidden off in a room or system somewhere we are missing it entirely. Don't laugh, it happens.

More on our playthrough soon, and it is always interesting to share thoughts on this game from a game-design perspective.