Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pulp Cthulhu

First off, I wish this was a standalone book with all the rules you need to play a 1930's pulp adventure game. You need the main rulebook Keeper's Guide to play. If that was so, this would be my standalone book go-to game for 1930's action and adventure. You could get alone with the quick-start rules and this book, but the full rulebook is really needed here. That is my only issue with the book.

Otherwise, this is darn-near close to a perfect game covering the era: radio-show dramas, gangster action, and all sorts of cool retro 1930's crime-fighting adventure. This is the only game that I feel comes close to me for replacing the classic and now out-of-print TSR Gangbusters game, just because of the wealth here of flavor, two-fisted action, and period specific information. The strength of supporting material here makes this a lot easier to play than the latter game.

As Time Passes...

I find historical games get harder to play, as interest wanes and the source era becomes less familiar to the world. There will always be fans of the genre and old-time movies, but I get this feeling these games are a harder sell to players these days. The Cthulhu appeal is strong and drives player interest, but I find gangsters and crime fighters are less so, and without Cthulhu you really need a group of fans of the era to maintain interest in a longer-running game.

So part of the strength of the game is the supporting material, especially on what it was like to live in this world. No cell phones, no computers, no jets, no Internet - so how do things work? What do people wear? What cars do they drive? With Gangbusters, it felt like the players of that time were more familiar with the era with late-night movies and that whole 1930's gangster vibe still a part of popular culture. that game didn't need as much supporting information and you could get by with a loose rule set and a lot of help from players who bring information and excitement to the table.

Nearly 40 years later from that game's release (and approaching 100 years from the original era), we are a lot further from that point in time and familiarity with this time. I feel for a game to work in this point in history, you need a lot of help, articles, pictures, drawings, and getting people started on becoming a fan of the era. The game should serve as an entry point for players who want to explore the era through movies, music, and radio shows and this book does an incredible job of doing that. This is more than just player training, this is seeding the interest for future fans in this time and genre.

A Longer Life Expectancy!

Compared to characters in the basic 7th Edition rules, Pulp Cthulhu heroes can take a lot more punishment, have much better skills, and can dish out a lot more damage. Part of me likes the less experienced and less capable heroes, but I can see the 'superhero' appeal of a two-fisted masked crime-fighter than can out punch a Shoggoth. Remember, the first issue of the original Batman comic came out in 1939, so this sort of period-style costume crime fighting came from The Shadow, Green Hornet, and all sorts of other cool radio shows, serial films, and other entertainment from the day. Not to say you need to be a masked crime fighter, you could be a Sam Spade style PI equally bad-ass and pulpy.

This is, in a way, a superhero game at heart with all the special rules in character design, using luck, and other game systems that give a player greater agency over the game world and events that happen during the game. That word agency is important, since a lot of hard-core games have this 'you fail, you die' sort of feeling with no way for players to spend resources to better the odds or change outcomes after the fact. This "mod" of the base game does that very nicely here, and for players frustrated their base game characters "go insane and die" all the time this feels like a breath of fresh air. Players can now twist fate and design characters with special talents and game-changing abilities not present in the base game, and this gives players more control over the game world and their player's fates.

Overall, while making things slightly more complex, it makes the game more accessible for an audience expecting more two-fisted heroism and less soul-crushing horror. A 7th Edition compatible Hero Lab module for this book is sorely needed and I hope they come out with a module or update soon. This is something I would pay for to have support for this expansion.

The Futuristic World of the 1930s!

Where I felt the 1920's was closer to fantasy, the 1930's feels a lot closer to the modern day for me in both attitude and technology. You get police car two way radios, car radios, talkie films, electric shavers, frozen food, stereo records, and a lot more of the early versions of the familiar things that make life easy today. With mad science inventions you could get away with modern inventions, such as Dick Tracy's wristwatch radio as a cell phone, primitive television as an 'electric eye machine', the Internet as the 'analog electric brain network' which transmits data via punchcards, disintegration rays, or any other fun and crazy conversion of a modern device to 1930's tech. A lot of what we have today can be recreated through mad science (and there is much fun to be had with making it not work the way we are used to).

If I ran this campaign, you can be sure Moon Men, Flash Gordon, or any sorts of other 'from beyond the world' space aliens from Mars or beyond would show up to mix it up with gangsters, gun molls, two-fisted archaeologists, mad scientists, and masked crime fighters of the day. I know space aliens are closer to a 1950's game, but I love the old sci-fi serials of the 1930's so much that while the 1950's thin-man 'gray aliens' are out, green-skinned long-mustached Mars Men human-like actors hamming it up as 'Mentok the Powerful' may be in. Ditto for the 1950's 'matinee monsters' like the Blob, Create from the Black Lagoon, giant ants, killer bats, and other Cold War craziness - those are out and strictly the realm of a 1950's game. Anything from the 1930's radio serials or pulp books of the era is fair game.

It sounds fun and crazy to have Chtulhu monsters on Mars, The Shadow, Sam Spade, Al Capone, mad science, and that would be the type of game I would love to run with this expansion.

Adventures and More!

The book ends with a generous collection of adventures with maps, locations, art, and characters. The characters are richly detailed and pulpy and would make a great collection of NPCs for any game set in this era. Overall, I liked this book a lot and it adds a really fresh and cool new era to play in, and most importantly an entirely new feeling and power level to the game. the game is strong, and even strong enough to support non-Cthulhu play, and one I know we will be having fun with for quite a while. the game pays for the extra complexity in rules mods and character design with the 7th Edition's simplifications, and it hits the right balance of crunchiness yet retaining simple core mechanics with us. I will put this one in our 'happy purchases' column and a book that I know will be out on a shelf within easy reach for years to come.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Pathfinder and Character Design

We played a small one-off adventure with Pathfinder last weekend, and we used Hero Lab to generate a quick party of 13th level adventurers. It felt good, the system ran well, and what struck us the most about the experience was how well building characters worked and the wide variety of options you have in the system (when you have most of the books plus third-party materials).

The number one rule was - do not min max for one ability or raw damage. We said, have fun and design characters with a path through life and a story to go along with that, maybe starting out a fighter, then dipping into bard, whatever. Intentionally design characters who are not optimized but feel like they are real, with maybe not the best choices in life but we will see how this all comes out in the adventure.

It worked beautifully. One of the best tools about Pathfinder, especially compared to other fantasy systems, is how tight and functional the CR system is for building encounters. Most of the time (in my experience), it creates an encounter that works and plays well, and it allows me to adjust difficulty for a party of non-optimized characters like the ones we played with and everything worked fine. The challenge level was perfect, fights were exciting, and once we threw out the concept of playing for "max damage" we all relaxed a little and had a lot of fun.

Another thing about playing with non-optimized characters was the party as a whole was more capable with skills and different abilities. We had one player take four levels of the NPC class "expert" and say his character started out a blacksmith for half his life and then started adventuring later. It worked, the skills worked out in his favor, and he had a good time. Yes, a lot of modules for 13th level heroes are optimized for average to perfect characters, but the CR system let me adjust things on the fly and modify encounters so our strange and quirky band of kit-bashed heroes could shine and save the day.

With one look at his sheet I could say, "Your character may be level 13, but he is really closer to level 9 in power, but don't worry because you have a lot of cool skills and other abilities that will come in handy. I will adjust the module accordingly."

If I was wrong and the encounter was too easy or hard, no problem, I adjust the next encounter up or down a little and we keep playing. Once you understand and can work the CR system on the fly it is a powerful tool not only for balance, but also for adjusting encounters for remaining playing time. If we are running low on time I may want to lighten up the last few encounters to speed things up and get to where I want to leave off, that sort of thing.

Everyone had a useful skill for many of the situations, which shifted the play from more combat oriented goals to role-playing ones, which was fun. When players have a deeper and better equipped toolbox of skills and abilities they tend to get very creative when solving problems. We saw a lot more trickery, role-playing, social interaction, and even crafting during play than we normally do raw combats and it was refreshing.

Another benefit about owning a lot of the third-party books and modules for Hero Lab are the flexibility it gives you in designing characters. Some of the base choices for many of the classes leave a lot to be desired, and stick to the same old-spells and powers we have grown accustomed to. With a lot of third-party content, you can design a paladin who feels like they walked straight out of World of Warcraft or any other MMO, and a player can have that instant familiarity and excitement that they will have their smite evil spells, consecrate-like abilities, and blessings ready to go. They may not be able to use them every fight and have to save them for critical moments, but that level of customization and creativity in character design is there and it really was a crowd pleaser for our group.

Overall, a cool experience and one I wanted to share.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fantasy RPGs and Loot

Our group had a discussion about itemization in fantasy RPGs, you know, your +2 magic sword, +1 chain mail, and +3 ring of protection sort of discussion. What game does the traditional "quest for loot" style of game the best? For this discussion we considered four games:
  • D&D 5
  • Pathfinder
  • 13th Age
  • D&D 4

Why is it Important?

Because...loot! There were some aspects of 13th Age and loot that started this discussion off, but it turned out to be a very interesting comparison between the games that we hadn't thought of. We do have some players with characters in our groups where loot and the acquisition of treasure is a very important thing, so much that systems with great loot rules and selections are a deciding factor in playing the game. Yes, I know, story matters, but I don't feel that it matters so much that it means the loot system needs to be radically changed or thrown out.

That said, this is admittedly a one-sided comparison of the games, and there are a lot more factors to take into account when determining what game is right for your group. Ease of play, ease of refereeing, story support, available adventures, published content, world support and a lot factors should go into that decision. But to just look at loot alone reveals some of the design goals behind the game, and this in turn gets at some of the inner workings of these games that is fun to study.

D&D 4 - MMO Loot

When we played D&D 4 the books were filled with page after page of the same item but with different stats. There were these pages-long loot sections with 'cards' of magic items with +1 to +6 versions of them going all the way from 1st level to 30th level. You had to get the 'best' version for your level, since the system felt like it was designed around everyone having level-appropriate gear.

We had encounters with a party that had low-level gear versus high-level monsters, and you could tell people missed a lot more often resistances rolls were tough to make, the monsters made their saves, and the entire encounter drug on forever and nobody had a good time. It felt like one of those 5 minute fights in an MMO where you spend forever killing a monster, only this was a fight 5 hours long and played on a tabletop.

Yes, D&D 4 had a lot of fun loot, but it was all 'you need to have it' and so evenly striated that none of it felt special to us. the game's loot system tired us out as much as sorting through 55 pages of green magic items in World of Warcraft's auction house tired us out. You had to have it to keep up, so we were left with this mess of a campaign where no magic item felt special and the party sorted through dozens of similar items looking for that next '+1 higher' item to get their character on par with the monsters again.

By he end of the game's life, the loot suggestions for the DM started to get kinda strange for us. Like having the players come up with a 'wishlist' of gear for the referee to hand out during the next few adventures. Sort of like an wishlist, but this one was for the gods (we guessed) and it felt like it was intended to end-run around random generation and avoiding the 'but his item breaks my character build' sort of random magic item handout policy.

And that was the last straw for us with that game. When character power depends that much on specific items for specific, this MMO feels broken and I am back to playing World of Warcraft.

13th Age - Story Loot

13th Age is almost an anti-loot game compared to 4th Edition D&D. The magic items are like D&D 4's, with a +1 to +3 range this time, and with specific functions based on slot, bracers do one thing while necklaces do another. They do have a cool system where magic item abilities activate on specific die rolls, even or odd results, and lots of cool mechanical interlocking rules - so there is some cool roll playing mechanics in here.

You can't buy magic items, which is a plus, but I find the lack of treasure types, monster treasures, suggestions, or tables of random loot to feel a bit lacking in my expectations for a fantasy game. The adventures I read seem also to be lacking in loot rewards so I come away with the impression that this game is more about story than it is grabbing a satisfying handful of gold coins and shoving it in your pocket. Adding to that is how magic items are handed out, as story rewards or as gifts from higher powers based on the system of faction relations built into the game.

I like loot as incentive in fantasy games, and this feels more story-like than loot driven.

If I had a group completely sick of the loot systems in D&D type games I would definitely go with 13th Age with them, since this game pushes loot to the sideline and focuses more on story and character instead of shiny objects and item power.

To be honest, 13th Age feels like a next-generation D&D 4 loot system with the wishlist feature removed but that referee-supplied loot mechanic still in place with the icon system and rewards. It doesn't feel MMO-ish anymore, but it does feel more like FATE for us, at least in story supplied loot as incentive or reward for story completion.

D&D 5 - Balanced Loot

D&D 5 is a highly balanced game with a lot of consideration to 'bounded accuracy' and other game design concepts. Magic items go from +1 to +3 and there are limits, such as limiting the number of magic items that can provide a benefit to three, as per the attunement rules.

It feels closer to the old-school versions of D&D in regards to magic items, and the game has a nice default selection which reminds me of the old AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

If ever there were a baseline game for magic item diversity and population, D&D 5 would be it. They worked hard to get rid of balance issues while still making magic items feel special, and the game has full support for monster treasure, hoards, upgrading equipment, and giving suggestions on what monster typically has what treasure. Most everything is balanced, so as a referee you can hand out a +1 whatever and still be reasonably sure the next game things won't be thrown out of whack too much.

I hear from forum posts that D&D 5's end game balance feels more single-character power oriented, where a one-on-one fight between a high-level character and a single high-level monster tends to go more the character's way. They say the end-game encounters in the game feel like they need to be groups of high-level monsters working together versus a single party and not a single-party against one creature. I need to do more study here (and some playtime to decide for myself) but from what I read, character power at the high-end of D&D 5 is very high on a one-on-one fight between a comparably leveled character and creature.

Pathfinder - Anything Goes Loot

Let's throw balance out the window (given a monty haul referee) and play Pathfinder. You can equip yourself into something like a minor god with some of this loot, and there are no rules on how much you can wear and equip - other than the highest bonus in a category is the one that applies, a +2 bow firing +1 arrows is still a +2 to-hit and damage bonus. Wearing a belt that gives +1 STR and a ring that give +3 STR is still only +3 STR. There are some rules in regards to effective caster level and item size that are worth following as well, which makes rings and wands less powerful than giant tomes or staves.

But if you are into stacking layers of loot and blowing balance out of the water, then Pathfinder is your game. A good game master is needed to keep things from getting out of control, but that insanely high level of crazy character power is there and attainable. Which makes gathering lot all that much more fun. Yes, part of the fun of the game in 3.5 D&D to Pathfinder is breaking it.

It is worth repeating, the referee is the one to blame if things get out of control, and I found they can go more crazy in Pathfinder than in other fantasy games. "But it was in the module," is not an excuse if a high-powered item ruins your campaign. I have had this happen, and the player in question becomes so attached to that item of power it gets tough to take it away. But rule #1 in all my games is easy come, easy go - all this stuff is paid for and you can lose anything at any time.

In other regards, Pathfinder is a lot like D&D 5 in selection, monster guidance, item tables, and loot rules. Pathfinder has been out a lot longer, so the selection with all of the books in the library is immense, so there is that to consider as well. There is almost too much loot at times, and I find myself yearning for the old-school games with the pared-down magic item lists.

In Pathfinder, there are high-level single-monsters that are designed to take on a party, so instead of D&D 5's more typical many-on-may fights you get Pathfinder many-on-one fights. Character power in Pathfinder trends to be more party and CR based, and at least I found as a referee fights are easier to balance and manage in Pathfinder than D&D 5. The traditional CR system carried over from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder really helps and is still a strong system today compared to other games.

Another article is needed to explore Pathfinder vs. D&D 5 balancing, but it does play into magic items in regards to ultimate character power, so it is worth mentioning end-game balance.

In Summary

Play what you love. They are all different, but again there is this expectations thing with what the game supports versus a view of the game that may be off a little. Every game does something different, and they do it very well, so knowing what you like and what each game provides is a key to finding one that you and your group enjoy.

I admit, my views of Pathfinder before I did this thinking were down in the dumps a little bit, and I had my doubts on if we would play another long-running campaign with the game. Now I realize the power gaming potential here, I can better run this game with players who like a lot of loot and hand our rewards to match their expectations. this is not to say you can't have a high-powered loot game in any of the others, just that both the danger to unbalance the game and to meet player's expectations works for me a little better in Pathfinder than some of the other games on my shelf.

But if I can get a D&D 5 game running as well I would jump at the chance, truth be told. It comes down to excitement level with me and my groups, and what they would like to play. Getting myself excited and ready is the other half, and I suppose I am lucky to have a lot of games to choose from and players who like a diverse group of games. I could do a loot-based game just as well in D&D 5, and really the trade offs are personal preference and expected power level. If players are expecting to break the game (and have it broken over their heads in return with monster magic use), I will go with Pathfinder. For a more traditional experience I suspect I would go with D&D 5.

Again, play what you love and be happy. But knowing how these games works helps you understand them a little better, and also helps you find the right one to match your group's expectations. And it bears saying your experiences with these games may be different than ours, because these games can be played many many ways.