Monday, October 31, 2016

Multi Color d20s!

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

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

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

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

Keep gaming and rolling those dice.

Monday, October 24, 2016

System Complexity and Winging It


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

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

Winging It Kinda Sucks

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

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

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

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

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

Rules Matter, At Least For Me

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

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

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

Some Groups Don't Care

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

You Play What Your Friends are Playing

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

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

It's What's Hot

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

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

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

It's What You See People Playing

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

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

But It Isn't Always So

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

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

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

Know Your Group

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2016

Planned Systems vs. DIY Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 3, 2016

Mail Room: Cosmic Encounter

Look what came in the mail yesterday!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy to Design, Hard to Balance

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

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

Combat Conditions

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

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

Old School Games

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

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

"Play How You Want?"

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

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

Modern and Old-School Designs

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

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

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

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