Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Grab-Bag - Recent Arrivals

I've had an interesting mix of old stuff (below) and new stuff (mostly Pathfinder and D&D 5E) arriving lately. They've been stacking up though so I'm going to have to pause and spend some time reading them. This round looks like I've subscribed to the Barking Alien Collection for some reason.

First up: More Star Trek!

Now I have written about LUG Trek before and the short version is that I wanted to like it but the mechanics just didn't do it for me then, being a die-hard fan of FASA Trek. The last few years though I have become a lot more interested in simpler mechanics and I've come back around on this game. In light of that I am rebuilding my collection of these books.

  • I owned the Original Trek by the end of the week it came out back about 15 years ago and it suffered even more in comparison to FASA because it was covering the same ground. I sold it too somewhere along the way, but now I have it again and I am reading it with a different attitude than I had then. So far so good, but I think I could run a better game with it using a lot of the material from the FASA system - setting, species, ships, etc. It's on the one-of-these-days list.
  • I never owned the DS9 game but as the third incarnation of the rules I figured I ought to get it, plus it adds some new material for a Next Generation era campaign. I've only flipped through it at the moment but I'll be hitting it eventually. I can;t see running a specific DS9 campaign, but as an extension of a TNG campaign using a new ship and crew I think it should be useful.
  • The Players Guide is another one I have not read previously but I like what I see in side it. More of everything is good, right? It's another resource for the GM when a player wants to play something unusual.

Mekton!I actually owned a pretty solid set of Mekton II and Mekton Zeta books about 10-15 years ago but just never could get anyone interested in playing and so I eventually got rid of them (it happens occasionally). With the Apprentices I might have some interest in a giant robot game so why not grab a copy? I had Roadstriker and Empire as well so those may find their way back onto the shelf sometime soon too. I have a rough idea for a campaign here but it needs some refining before I would try to do anything. I'd probably run something short or a one-shot to see if there's any interest first.  

Ars Magica - Never owned it, read it, played it, or saw it being played, but I've been hearing good things about it from people whose opinions I respect for years. I decided I should pick up a copy and see it for myself. There seem to be about a half-dozen editions and a pretty good pile of supplements for each one. I have no idea what the optimal set of those would look like so I picked a fairly inexpensive copy of the core book for 4th edition as my entry point. 

In a way, all of these are more about filling in the bookshelf with things that interest me than any immediate plans for a campaign, but that's part of the fun. Sometimes it takes time for things to percolate and develop into something that says "run me!" at the right time. It's good to have options. One of these days someone may offer to run one of them online and now I am prepared!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Spirit of 77 - Game & Kickstarter

I had a post last week about some other RPG Kickstarters but for this one I wanted to showcase it solo.

Kickstarter is here.

I really like this one. The overall approach from the style of writing to the look of the game to the kickstarter video - take a look at it - is just really well done. The Atari cover on the extra book just kills me. They mention everything from the Dukes of Hazard to the Six Million Dollar Man to Smokey and the Bandit and Columbo as influences. It looks like a lot of fun.

I downloaded the sample adventure which has quite a bit of rules material as well, enough to run a game, and it's pretty interesting. It's more in the FATE/Marvel Heroic school of design than Hero or Pathfinder, but there are still dice to be rolled, fights to be had, and things to be jumped over in cars. I don't know how quickly we will be trying it out. It's set on a cruise ship where interesting things start to happen. Among the sample characters is the "captain of the Texas Tornados cheerleaders" and I have to say I cannot recall the last time I saw something like that presented as a viable character choice in an RPG. They also note that down the road they will be doing conversion rules for FATE and Savage Worlds too if that floats your boat.

Anyway, I think it's cool and there are still a few days left to jump in if you're interested too.

Motivational Monday

Heck of an animal companion.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fun with Crowdfunding - Four Current Projects

An easy one:

 I have a fair amount of stuff for the original edition though I've run it all of ... once. Ah well, it's still cool though this one is a little pricey if you want an actual book. It's already done and just waiting to be published, apparently. I have no worries about this one getting out the door.

Another easy one:

It looks interesting and it's Savage Worlds so I'm probably there on this one.Pinnacle has delivered on all of its Kickstarters, so no worries there, but the physical book level seems a little pricey here too.

I noticed something else about these:
  • Atlas Games: 1st created, 24 backed
  • Shane Hensley: 4 created, 65 backed
These two are pretty regularly involved in crowdfunding.

This one has been popping up in various RPG Facebook groups: Dragonwars of Trayth

Wow, that home page looks like a 90's website. "2 created, 0 backed" - that's not a good sign. The bio:

"Epic Quest publishing is a group of experienced RPG game designers, artists, and authors who work as a team to bring Epic adventures in many versions of RPG products."

That's pretty generic. Watching the video the whole thing looks tremendously 90's. They have a lot of pledge levels that don't have anything to do with the actual adventures - lanyards, water bottles, and T-Shirts. A character sketch or a painted mini at $200 seems ... optimistic. Ernie Gygax seems to have some involvement, presumably tied to the museum funding stretch goal once it goes over $35k. This one seems all over the place to me. Oh, and this:

"Between all of our employees, we have over 30 years experience in the RPG world..."

So that's a total for the whole team? Of at least 4 people? I'm not sure this is a feature. What else have they done? The bio mentions "experienced RPG game designers" - experienced on what? This is a good way to draw in fans of other material if you can point to something else out there that you had a hand in making.

I'm also curious about the repeated "never been done before" type claims. It seems like a series of 25 adventures taking characters to 30th level is supposed to be unprecedented. Well, Scales of War for D&D 4E was published in Dungeon magazine with 18 adventures taking characters from 1st to 30th level, and this was in a system that actually had rules for going to 30th level, unlike some of the systems they are using. Pathfinder AP's also seem like something that might warrant a comparison. Claims like this make me wonder how in touch they creators are with what's going on in RPG's now.
At the very least it will be interesting to watch.

ANKUR: A gofundme project to publish a setting and system that I'm still trying to figure out. Home page is here, request for money is here. I've never heard of the author but he's put a fair amount of background info out there, just not much in the way of mechanics.

From the home page:

"There are five player character races to choose from in the game world of ANKUR. Choose between standard humans, a race of pigmies, Neanderthals, highly intelligent coneheads, or powerful Yeti"

Not sure what to make of that. 

The world of ANKUR attempts to immerse you in a setting that puts a distinctly sci-fi spin on various ancient world mythologies. The game’s setting is largely based on ancient Sumerian mythology and is further inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Maurice Chatalain, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Zacharia Sitchin. The game’s timeline takes place on Earth (known as Ki) just after the Great Flood, some 25,000 years in the past. A race of Alien beings from the planet Nibir, in the farthest reaches of our own solar system, come to earth to mine gold for the production of Mana. Through genetic manipulation, they create a variety of humanoid slave races to mine the gold. A series of cataclysms and power struggles, set in motion events that will entwine the destinies of these races forever!

That is a whole lot to chew on. Most of the site past the home page is blank so it's not looking too good here.  I'll give it this - it's not a cookie cutter setting.

That's probably enough for now. I'll take another stroll through these down the road and see where they are and what else is out there.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Getting into a Well-Supported RPG

Does anyone run games from just the "Core Rules" for a given game anymore? I will say that I have for some games, usually smaller games like ICONS. It seems like that used to be more of a thing, but now if a game has been out for any length of time it's likely to have a set of supplementary material from the "Advanced" book or "Player's Guide" with some extra crunchy stuff to the inevitable "GM's Guide"to a whole pile of adventures. If you're coming in late, where do you start? I did this recently with Pathfinder, and it probably has more "stuff" available than any other in-print game right now,  so I'll share my plan and experience with that.

First, you need the main rulebook. I knew I was going to be playing with the Apprentices so I picked up the PF Core Rulebook and the Beginner Box at the same time. One for them, one for me. We played through the adventures in the box and I decided we should look at a full campaign.

The heart of the whole Pathfinder system is the Adventure Paths. You know the idea by now - each AP is a full campaign from Level 1 to level 13+ in six installments released once a month. The *fifteenth* of these is being released now and the 16th has been announced for early 2016. That's a lot of options, and that's on top of standalone modules, third-party adventures, and of course doing your own. Your choice here will drive some of how you tackle the rest of the system so I think it's important to make this call fairly early. Example: The "Kingmaker" AP features building and ruling a kingdom - the Ultimate Campaign book is useful here. The "Wrath of the Righteous" AP assumes that the Mythic Adventures book is in use. Then of course every AP is supported by a regional supplement and a player's option type supplement, a map pack, some cards, and maybe more. You don't really need any of that extra material, but if it interests you or the players choosing an AP lets you focus on a smaller set of the options.

Creating your own adventures might mean you need some non-traditional races - there's an Advanced Race Guide with all of the mechanical details for doing that. Want non-traditional classes? There's an Advanced Class Guide with that kind of thing too.

So the idea is to decide what kind of campaign you want to run after reading the basic/core rules, and letting that guide your early acquisitions. If nothing really inspires you, wait. Set it aside. The moment will come.

The other consideration is players. Have a few that like to play wizards and clerics? Plan on getting Ultimate Magic. Lots of focus on combat? The Ultimate Combat book is probably in your future. Rangers or Druids a guarantee? The "Animal Archive" is a good idea.

For me, I wasn't sure where I wanted to go with the game but I knew even more character options would be welcome so I added the Advanced Players Guide as my first book. More classes, feats, spells, etc. - that was an easy choice. I grabbed "Paths of Prestige" too to add even more options as we advanced.

Setting-wise I realized there were a ton of area books out for different parts of Golarion, many tied to a particular AP. I had no idea where to begin so I started with the Inner Sea World Guide, the big book that covers the whole setting. After reading that, I was up to speed and had the big picture.

I still had not decided what kind of campaign to run and then they announced the "paladins and clerics vs. demon invasion" campaign and I knew I had a winner. One of my players is a paladin fan and this one had his name on it as soon as I read about it. So then it was a matter of watching for the specific books that added to this one campaign and that's worked out very nicely. I had a couple of hardbacks, a few softcover player and DM books, and I was ready to roll. I did not need the entire PF product line to run this campaign.

Now I have added more books since I started running this last year. Partly because I like to have options, partly because I started playing in another game, and partly because over the course of the campaign things just naturally come up where supplement X might be handy to have. Playing in a campaign certainly modified my perspective as I became a lot more interested in some of those player companion books. If you're going to invest in a system, might as well get everything out of it that you can.

Pathfinder is a little different in that most of the rules material is covered by the OGL and is available online, meaning you don't need to purchase a lot of the rulebooks to run a particular situation. For myself, I like to have them if I think something will be a regular part of the game, but it's possible to run just about anything from one of the SRD sites.Setting material is not a part of this, so if you're using the campaign world that might make that material a higher priority than the big rule books.

The main area of impact for me with this is with the monster books - I already know what most D&D type monsters look like, and the numbers are freely available, so the "Bestiary" books are not a priority at all for me. I'm sure I'll end up with a few of them sooner or later but I haven't felt the lack thus far.

I have most of the big rulebooks now, I've been both running and playing the game, and I have a fair number of the smaller regional and player books. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the system, I like it, and now I'm just picking up what looks interesting and what might be useful in a future campaign, particularly APs I've acquired along the way. I do check reviews at times, but those are a secondary consideration at best.

Anyway, that's how I did it, for what it's worth. The short version:

  • Get the core rules to the game
  • Figure out a campaign concept or at least an adventure idea
  • Pick up a supplement or two that enrich that particular idea
  • Listen to your players, see if they're interested in something covered by a particular book
  • As the game goes on, add material as it makes sense
Final thought: Never assume that you need "everything" to start your game. Some kind of rules and an adventure idea is all you really "need". Online discussions will often assert that you can't run X without a particular book, or you really need Y to have fun with a certain adventure - ignore that. Get a game going, then worry about the add-ons.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Current Events & Coming Attractions - Pathfinder, D&D, etc.

Felt like summarizing what's going on here game-wise:

  • Just ran the 18th session of the Wrath of the Righteous Pathfinder campaign and having a ton of fun. The Mythic rules add a lot of options that feel a little like 4E powers and add a lot of flexibility for the PC's. There a lot fewer "can't do that" moments where important skill checks are failed, a big melee strike misses, or a caster doesn't have access to the right spell. I'm starting to think I might keep them around for any future PF campaigns for just that reason. The oldest characters just hit 6th level and are still only Tier 1 Mythic so it could get crazy later on but right now it feels more flexible, not so much more powerful numerically.
  • The "catch-up phase" of my Pathfinder experience is wrapping up. Lots of books on the shelf and PDF's on the tablet now. I've been trying to keep a rule of "no ordering the next rulebook til I've read the last one and it's worked fairly well so far. I'll probably have more on this later this week.
  • Reading the new D&D 5E big campaign book and so far ... I'm not all that impressed. Size-wise it's directly comparable to a single adventure path installment. It's nice that it's hardcover, but at $23 vs. $30 I don't think it's all that much better physically - though I have had AP's split their binding. Content-wise, I'm just not that excited about what I'm reading. I'll post something about this later too.
  • Refreshing my knowledge of Freedom City for a Mutants and Masterminds game coming up. It looks like I'm actually going to run some supers in the near future. Definitely more on that coming later. 
  •  Continuing to make notes for a "one of those days" Star Trek game. I don't know when or who will play, but I'm working on it. I've had notes floating around for years but this is an idea for a new run with a set scenario, not just an open-ended campaign. It could turn into one, certainly, but I think the only way I get people to play Trek here is to present set "missions" kind of like I did with Star Wars years ago. I'll probably have more on that once I feel like I have something worth sharing.  System-wise it's going to be LUG Trek as I want to give that system another chance. 
  • I'm also toying around with an idea for a D6 Star Wars game. I like Saga just fine but I'd like to give the older system a spin for the first time in a while and I have an idea that fits it well, I think. We'll see. 
Well, that explains the stack of books on the bedside table ... on to the next post!

Motivational Monday

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wading In: "Builds"

What was memorable about this guy? 
Point-Buy games have had "builds" for a long time - Hero, Gurps, etc. With 3rd Edition D&D all of a sudden D&D had "builds" and one of the plagues of the modern age of gaming fully flowered and has yet to really die down.

I'd say for most players, one of the attractions of RPGs is the opportunity to play a character that does things you do not do in your normal life - sticking swords into monsters, throwing magic, or flying a spaceship. D&D 3E (and later) and Pathfinder are very good at letting us do that with tons of options and per-level multiclassing and point buy attributes - compared to the old "roll up your stats and figure out what to play" days it's a paradise for those who like to craft their character to match their specific vision. That's nothing but a positive. Well, almost...

The coal-filled stocking in this approach is that there are a lot of people who, once exposed to your vision of Abercrombie the Barbarian Prince will quickly point out all of the places it could be improved mechanically and all of the less-than-optimal choices you have made in creating him. "Why does he need a 16 Charisma - dump that to 8!" is among the kinder things you may hear. Communal min/maxing is just as annoying as individual min/maxing  when it overwhelms the original concept. Much like MMO players, groups of players around the internet will quickly determine optimal approaches to specific classes and combinations whenever new rules or options come out and are often regarded as "experts".

If you're playing some kind of arena combat game against other players this may be useful.

If you're playing any other kind of game, it's of limited usefulness at best.

Sure, push your DPS way up there, that's really impressive. Hey, now we need an assist on this diplomacy check - oh, you have a negative? Ok, never mind. How about Stealth? Knowledge? Religion? Most optimized "builds' I have seen sacrifice a lot for increased efficiency in one particular area and that's not always the best answer to the things that go on in a campaign and they can get to be on the boring side when you're not slamming through one combat after another because that's a lot of what they focus on. Also it can warp the rest of the party. If we assume the tornado of steel barbarian can solo any monster in the game, the rest of the party may de-emphasize combat capability to try and shine in other phases of the game. Then the barbarian's player misses a session and suddenly combat goes horribly wrong .

Now you do get the opposite problem sometimes where someone takes a bard or a rogue type character and turns them into the jack of all trades and master of all trades too. That's not great for the rest of the party and rather than one player getting bored you have all but one player bored.

A lot of these overpowered builds rely on stitching together very specific abilities from across different classes and supplement books so one way to keep a lid on it is to limit options. Pathfinder has probably the biggest active universe for this kind of thing right now. Sure, the Technology Guide is awesome for the Iron Gods Adventure Path, but if I'm running Rise of the Runelords I probably don't need android PC's with chainsaws and laser pistols running around so the answer there at character creation is "no".

I've played and run a lot of games over the years but I have to say I've rarely seen the need for maxed out PC's. Right now the published adventures I am reading, mainly Pathfinder APs and the new D&D 5E adventures certainly do not demand apex character designs. So it's not pressure from adventure writers that drives optimized character designs.

I have found that campaigns are more enjoyable when people are playing a character they really like and that is often tied to designing it themselves. "Interesting" and "memorable" do not necessarily equal "efficient". Even when looking for power combos, if you find some combination of abilities that is particularly effective how much more satisfying is that than finding it out from some guy on the internet before the game ever starts? For Delve Night at the FLGS an internet-optimized hurricane of evocation may be fine but in an ongoing campaign it's different. Can you live with that character for a year? How about two?

Seeing it discussed online almost constantly I feel the occasional need to push back against the pressure to optimize everything.  Ideally players find a balance between "fun/interesting to play" and "mechanically effective" that works for them and for the rest of the people in their group. Hopefully they take a little time and consider the non-mechanical aspects of the character to round things out.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wading In: "Realism"

Another old discussion that still seems to come up frequently online - some aspect of a game or the rules for some activity are "unrealistic" in the opinion of someone playing or running a game. Ah well:

  • Rules vs. Physics: Typically this discussion relates to a simulation type game rather than a narrative type game - Pathfinder or Traveller more than Marvel Heroic or Fate. To me, for these kinds of games, the rules define the physics of the game world so when someone states "a normal human can't do that" my thought is "in your world - in this game's world they can" and that's the end of it. Maybe being a reader of the old "Joe Genero" comic opened my eyes to this kind of thing early enough that it doesn't bother me. Honestly, why does it matter how fast the fastest man alive now can run vs. human movement speeds in the game? Who cares how long someone can hold their breath or how long a man can keep his head above water in plate mail? Most of these "benchmark" style arguments can be fixed with one change: the length of a round. If a game chooses to use a 6 second combat round that's done for certain reasons, and human lung capacity was probably not one of them. For a game that is centered upon being realistic, like GURPS, then it might be worth checking, but even GURPS can be fairly cinematic and most other games don't even begin to care about this kind of thing. 
  • The curse of personal experience: It's inevitable - the IT guy hates the hacking rules. The swim instructor hates the swimming rules. The car guy hates the vehicle/driving rules. The closer to the real world a game gets, the more likely someone in the group a) has experience with something similar and b) starts thinking that their personal experience is more important than whatever the game says on the subject. For me this usually ends up with something like "look, I appreciate what you're saying but that's what happens in the real world and this game is not happening there." I suspect if you're playing a real-world type game then this argument isn't all that helpful but fortunately for me we rarely do that. In most of them you have all kinds of physical laws being broken, from massive dragons flying over the landscape and spitting fire to starships breaking the speed of light or time-traveling or all kinds of far less realistic actions going on but this one area is hard for them to let go. Try - for the sake of your fellow players who are likely not experts in this same area, try to let it go. 
  • This is especially annoying when it comes to magic or made-up tech. People get into arguments over how a spell really works. Think about that for a second. I know I have heard someone loudly proclaiming "it seems unrealistic that a wizard could (do X) but a cleric can only (do Y)" - where does realism enter into it? If the rules state how things work, then that's how they work! One person's take on the "realism" of magic can pretty quickly enter the realm of ridiculousness. Advanced technology is at least as bad if not worse because with a veneer of technical justification people start thinking they know how things "should" work even when they bear no relation to current technology. 
Now I would never declare that a GM should never tweak the rules of a game. We've all done it, and it's just part of running RPG's. However, over the years I have seen a lot of bad house rules based on "realism" with no consideration to how it affects the rest of the game. I've seen weapon users (fighter types) nerfed into uselessness through misguided attempts at "realism", while magic zooms along unmolested. Hey, want to know what's most realistic? No magic! "There's no way even the best swordfighter in the world could do X in 6 seconds" - sure, but I bet he comes closer than the worlds best magician is going to get to throwing a fireball! Just go enjoy your fencing hobby or your SCA event or your programming job or your lifeguard job or your SCCA racing and set it aside when the tabletop game starts.

For me, "realism" is a consideration but not a deciding factor in almost any RPG.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wading In: Alignment

Such an old argument, but one I see almost every week somewhere on the internet, so I might as well state my piece. Here is my response to what I consider the three most annoying parts of this discussion:

  • "You can't do that because you're Lawful Indifferent" - this phrase should never, ever, be uttered by a DM and probably not by another player either. Players are in control of their characters, not the ref. Blocking behavior based on the alignment written on a character sheet is like trying to slow down a car by pushing the speedometer needle back! Alignment is the gauge, character behavior is the engine. Much like the red line on a speedometer, the DM is free to warn the player that doing X means an alignment change to Z, but whether the act takes place is still up to the player. 
  • "It's a straitjacket" - why? It's intended to be an aid to roleplaying, a label for you and others to use when looking over your character. Perhaps you picked the wrong alignment if it doesn't mesh with what you want this character to do. Have the character act as you see fit and let the DM shift your alignment to whatever best fits. If you're having some angst over whether a particular act fits with your character's alignment that's not a sign of a flawed system - that's an opportunity to take a deeper look at your character and how they really feel about the world. 
  • "It's not realistic/too simplistic" - the rules of the game (for D&D at least) define how the game world works. I never hear anyone complain about Detect Magic - there is magic in the world and this low-level spell allows one to determine what is or is not magical and often what particular flavor of magic it is associated with and how powerful the effect is. Everyone seems to be cool with that. There is also a "Detect Evil" spell, and it works exactly the same way and does the same thing. Clearly, in D&D settings, Good and Evil and Law and Chaos are just as powerful and defined as "Magic". Every edition of the PHB has a pretty solid breakdown of the kinds of behaviors that are associated with each combination of these elements and their view of the world. It's not intended to model the real world- it's intended to model the D&D world and it works pretty well. In the D&D world good and evil are not relative or dependent on one's point of view - they are objective and measurable!  If you want to reduce alignment to something as simple as "picking your team" that's certainly possible but you can handle it with quite a bit more complexity and still keep the mechanical aspect in place. 

Now sure, we've all heard the stories about the DM that has it in for the players - especially Paladins - and is constantly jerking them around with alignment issues. First, these are typically stories from the old days and yes, there were a lot of jerks back then. Second, why would you play with these people? There are so many people who play, and so many ways to play today (organized play, game store nights, online games) that there's no reason to spend your leisure time with people you do not like - so don't do it!

So yes, I'm sure some people have had bad experiences and reject alignment because of it. I see it as a tool rather than a weapon. It does require some DM involvement to keep players clear on the expectations, assumptions, and consequences, but it's a traditional part of a D&D game just like classes and levels. I've never had a reason to play D&D without it. I don't think it's essential to every RPG, I've played plenty that have nothing like it, from Star Trek to Shadowrun to Superheroes, but I think it's a notable part of D&D (and Pathfinder) and shouldn't be jettisoned without consideration.

Ironic note: 4th Edition de-emphasized alignment to the point where there was no Detect Evil type ability and that did not help its popularity at all as far as I can tell. I'm not sure if that means anything, but I thought it was worth mentioning.