Monday, July 21, 2014

The New D&D Starter Set - Pros and Cons

Reviews for the new starter set for D&D have been popping up over the last week and they are almost universally positive, which is good, but surprising. I keep thinking back to the reviews of the 4th edition starter and they were mixed at best for what is a very similar approach.

  • The new set contains pregen characters, a small rulebook, and an adventure that will take a party to 5th level (and dice).
  • The 4E Red Box contained a limited character generation system through a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style short adventure, a small rulebook, and adventure material to get characters to 2nd or 3rd level (and dice).

The main criticism of the 4E set was the limited long term value of the material. You could make a few characters, run through the adventure (and a downloadable adventure) and then other than future use of the poster maps and the tokens there was not much left to do with the contents.

I see the same issue with the new set, but it seems to be less of an issue for people this time. Pregenerated characters are an issue I will address below but this set has the same limited-use issue: once you finish the adventure there is not much utility left in the box. Sure, it has a longer adventure, but it doesn't have the poster maps, tokens, miniatures, or pawns that some of the other recent starter sets had that might be useful components for games down the road, so there is a tradeoff.

Later 4E starter

Finally - pregens. Including only pregenerated characters in this set is a real negative in my opinion. The 4E set had limited character creation so that at least the player got to pick a race and class and some details - like a name - to make it their own. Making players take a character they didn't create lessens the connection and the feeling of having a personal stake at risk in the game. This isn't Conan, Gandalf, Sinbad, and Lancelot teaming up for some epic quest - this is a party of beginning heroes so give the players an option to create them right there in the box!

Pathfinder Beginner Box

Bonus comparison: The Pathfinder Beginner Box had pregenerated characters (the iconic characters for the 4 main classes) but also included basic character generation rules so that it had the best of both worlds - the speed of play of pregens plus the more personal touch of player-created characters. It was more expensive, but I suspect that was more due to the 80-plus pawns included in the game rather than a few extra pages of rules.

Original 4E starter

The earlier 3rd and 4th edition starter sets included miniatures and poster maps or dungeon tiles but did not have character generation rules so there has been a general trend over the last 14 years towards making these kinds of products a very limited introductory item and less of a true gateway like the old Holmes/Moldvay/Mentzer Basic sets. I thought the Pathfinder set might change this trend but apparently not.

3.5 starter

Now the ray of sunshine with the new box is that the new D&D "Basic" rules are available as a free PDF download. That's good. I was thinking the decision not to put character creation rules in the game was still driven by the idea that people might not buy the Players Handbook when it comes out if they had basic rules but clearly that's not the reasoning anymore. Could they really not include some of that in the box? A printed version of the basic rules for character creation for the 4 core classes and a few of the races, through level 5, would have made this a much stronger product for actually exploring the game. I expect the $20 price point forced a ruthless paring down of material though.

3.0 Starter

For me, a huge part of the fun of the game is making up your own character, not playing someone else's. Thinking that it's not essential to me is missing the whole point of why people play the game. Including them as a quick start option, sure - including them as the only option, well, that's just bad. It's saying that individual characters aren't that important and I think that's a bad way to get started. Sure, those of us who have been at it for awhile know that you can have fun playing almost any kind of character if the other players and the DM are good and into the game, but for new players "my character" moments are one of the first things that distinguish RPG's from boardgames.

Also, practically speaking, with the modern emphasis on selling books full of character options, I don't see how de-emphasizing character creation in your first product is a smart move. I'd think the plan would be to emphasize that instead but maybe this is part of the new approach to the game they're supposed to be taking.

In the end this isn't aimed at me and it's probably not even aimed at the apprentices anymore considering they have a fair amount of RPG experience now. I may give them a copy to try out but there's not really a burning urge for a new edition here since they're happy with 4E/Pathfinder/Savage Worlds/M&M/Shadowrun. I do have some interest in running at least a few sessions so I can talk about it with some experience but I am not sure when that will happen. If I do, I'll post about it here.

Motivational Monday

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Good Old Star Fleet Universe - The Future

The Future
The game had been on a downward spiral as far as my level of interest was concerned. A year or two back I introduced Apprentice Blaster by playing a game of Fed Commander with him and he was interested but it got swallowed up in 40K/Pathfinder/D&D time. Recently I was going through my box of SFB miniatures and decided to get them out and see what I could do with them and we both got interested again. We've played a short game now and he mentioned wanting to play more just this week (without being prompted by me) so that's a good sign.

There is a dark cloud though. He had really only seen the SSD's and some of the reference sheets. I picked up the reference rulebook when it looked like we were going to be playing some more. He looked at the cover and said "How old is this game?" - that's the cover up above. To me, it looks like a Star Fleet Universe cover, and that's the problem - it looks old. Most of their art looks pretty old or amateurish. It doesn't bother me that much, but it has to have an impact when people see it on the shelf next to other stuff.

When it comes to other Trek games, look at the packaging for Attack Wing up above.  If I didn't introduce the teenager to Fed Commander myself (to both actually) then I can tell you which one he would have picked up. Also, for the price of the Klingon Border starter set - which is rules, ship displays, counters, and mounted hex maps - you can get the AW starter plus another ship and have a couple of bucks left over. If you aren't already interested in FC for its own sake, the pre-painted mini's will win that one every time.

This makes me think there are really two issues here. 

1) The whole presentation looks dated. I know ADB is a small outfit and I know they made a lot of updates to the look with Federation Commander, but it still looks dated next to other current games.

Illustrations in the Fed Com big rulebook

2) They are stuck with a game line where their most recognizable iconic figures are from the 60's TV show, and there's no easy way to fix that. Sure, I think the original Constitution is a great-looking ship but there have been multiple Enterprises since then and a whole lot of Star Trek since then too, in addition to 50 years of changes in design in general. ADB's original creations (like the Lyrans or Hydrans) could be updated and revised and given a whole new look if they wanted to do so but no one outside the game knows anything about them. The "bring 'em in" shots are going to have the TOS Enterprise CA, the TOS Klingon D7, and the TOS Warbird and the TOS Tholians because legally that's all they can use from canon. How many teenagers today are going to a)recognize those and b) get excited about those like we did in the 80's?

I don;t know what the long-term outlook for the game is, but it feels like it's aimed at a shrinking group of people who think TOS is the main thing for Trek, and people who want a really detailed hex and counters board wargame  built around that. I don't know how you expand that group but one thing that might help would be a starter set for the game that included miniatures. Take another look at that Attack Wing set up there and picture it with a Fed CA, a D7, and a Kzinti Strike Cruiser, with red and white old school lettering and a Constitution-class CA as the main illustration. No, I can't see them going pre-painted, but it still might help aim people at the miniatures aspect of the game right from the start. Also, a rulebook built around gridless miniature play, in full-color, with some illustrations/diagrams would also help.

Again, I don't know for sure what the answer is - Federation Commander was definitely a step in the right direction. Miniatures are popular and cards are popular. Find a way to use those and I could see things expanding. Maybe a simplified game that uses cards for the ship information, something between Battleforce and the STAW cards (above) but still rolling on a chart for damage and manuvering over 8 "impulses" could work as an introduction.

Going beyond just Star Trek starship combat games there is a whole universe of competition out there, from Warhammer 40,000 type games to Fantasy Flight's big boxes to other niche board wargames like Command and Colors. Note that none of those are really pushing hex and counter games with complex rules that take six hours to play. There is a huge emphasis on simple rules, faster play, and tactile components of some kind, from wooden blocks to full-on miniatures.

Beyond even those, if I just want to "fly an Enterprise and shoot some Klingons", there is Star Trek Online, where I don't need to buy anything, I can be playing in minutes, and it looks amazing.

So there's a ton of competition for people's time and money and there are other ways to scratch the itch for Trek space combat there did not exist in the 80's when this all started. If I ask "why should my kid and I spend time playing this instead of one of those other options", the only answers I have are "familiarity" and "the universe". Let's leave familiarity/nostalgia aside as "my thing". The setting is tremendously well-developed - cultures, planets, ships, empires, technology - all have been explored in various sub-games of the SFU and it makes for a very interesting alternate universe for Star Trek. Anything you can do to promote that as a strength is a good move I think. There is the large-scale game of Federation and Empire, the tactical games of FC and SFB, the card game of SFBF, and the RPG of Prime Directive - which has some problems. Get the RPG and a ground combat miniatures game going, and you have an awesome array of options to explore this universe. Expanding .. .

RPG: The original Prime Directive was mechanically terrible though interesting in concept, and it's a great name for a game. There was a d20 version also which did not last long and looked pretty bad to me. A GURPS version was developed as well but GURPS has almost gone dormant in the last ten years, which is not helping things. They have been talking about a Traveller version for a few years now, and supposedly it's now a priority with ADB, and that could be a really good game. With no other Trek RPG on the shelves right now, coming out with a Trek game tied to the Traveller name could be a real win. A good RPG will help people discover your setting and fall in love with it, people that have no interest in SFB. Write it, support it, and aim it at people who don't know the universe and there's a venue for some real growth.

Again with the cartoon art but I think there is potential here for something

Ground Combat: ADB talks about Star Fleet Marines as a game on it's own but I don't think they see it as a miniatures game necessarily. A 40K-style man-to-man scifi combat game with miniatures would open up some new options and draw in some new people as well, bringing even more life to the setting. Keep the rules on the simple/fast-play side, support it, talk to  40K/warmahordes players and you could have a real winner out there. I think an emphasis on ship boarding actions would help differentiate from the other games too, and that would keep it tied to the core of the setting as well.

So despite my pessimism on some areas of the setting, I see some real future potential for the Star Fleet Universe. I've been rediscovering it myself over the past month and have worked my way through things to this point. I am cautiously optimistic, and will be trying to restore my own little pocket of SFU-awareness with the Apprentices and maybe some friends as well.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Good Old Star Fleet Universe - The Present

The Present
During this long mid-90's onward lull part of the reason I stopped playing SFB was the "hassle factor" - there are a ton of ships, a ton of rules, and a ton of ways to play. Setting up a game can be like a treaty negotiation to clarify what era and types of ships are involved, then once that's all settled it takes a fair amount of time to play out a battle. Filling out energy allocation forms seems really old-school after playing everything from 40K to Full Thrust. A bunch of small flat counters on a flat black hexgrid are not as attractive as they used to be either. Sometimes it's worth all of that hassle, but increasingly it was not. There were two bright spots here though:

The Star Fleet Battle Force card game came out in 2001 and is a fun little combat game. It should be, as it's a shameless clone of Naval War (from Avalon Hill), a WW2 battleship card game that was one of my main casual/in-between game games in the 80's. If you have fond memories of Naval War you should SFBF up as it's probably easier to find now and has much higher production values.

Star Fleet Command was a series of 4 computer games that was effectively SFB on the PC. The ships looked different, some of the names were changed (the Kzinti became the Mirak, presumably due to legal concerns), but it was very faithful to the original game and added an exploration/upgrade element that made for a really fun solo game. This was probably the last time I really dug back in to my SFB stuff looking at lore and details.

About 2005-2006 word came of a new game coming out - Federation Commander. This was to be a simplified version of Star Fleet Battles, which I had some concerns about at first - how much simplification could you do and still have it resemble SFB? The answer is "a lot" and after buying the first boxed set I knew this was probably the future of the SFB universe for me.

The simplification is in cutting out a lot of the extra options and complications that have built up over 3 decades of SFB. Things like 20 pages of drone options, smaller stuff like transporter bombs and scatter-pack shuttles, big things like fighters and PF's for every race. In Fed Commander drones are speed 24 and do 12 points when they hit - period. There are some mentions of optional speeds for different eras, but they are "options" and not a core part of the game. Not having fighters and PFs (and the associated drones) all over the map makes a huge difference in speed of play.

The single biggest change though is the elimination of the energy allocation form. No longer is paperwork for every ship - a fairly big stack in the kinds of battles we used to play -  a part of the work for every single turn! Instead, each ship starts with a pool of power points generated from the warp engines, impulse engines, and reactor power on the SSD just like SFB. Instead of having to allocate those up front every turn, instead, Fed Commander is a pay-as-you-go system. The beginning of the turn means choosing a base speed of 0, 8, 16, or 24. Everything else is spent during the turn - want to fire that disruptor? Pay your 2 points, 4 to overload!

The sequence of play is simplified too - instead of the old 32 impulse chart with 32 separate opportunities to move and make firing decisions, it's broken into 8 "impulses" with 4 movement phases each. So, plasma torpedoes are still speed 32, but there are only 8 chances to agonize over firing/turning/speed changes each turn which makes a tremendous difference to the speed of play.

Beyond these changes the game still uses ship displays and if you ever played a Fed CA or a Klingon D7 in SFB the SSD's for them for Fed Commander are immediately recognizable. They do use color now which is a nice upgrade, and they come on laminated cards in the box to help eliminate the need for photocopies. I think it's a little funny that they've come around on this now that many of us have scanners and printers in our homes but I appreciate the effort.

So, energized by this new interpretation of an old familiar game I dove into it whole-hog, picking up the first two big sets and some "booster packs" with more ships in them. With a local wargame con coming up in the near future I thought I would take the new game up and run some demos. I came up with a scenario that would accommodate 6 people, I made up a new planet miniature, a new doomsday machine/planet crusher miniature, and I even picked up micromachines of Next Generation ships to use to give it some visual distinction and show that it was a new game. I was set to run a session on Friday evening and two more on Saturday, and I was pretty pumped.

I took my big box of stuff up that afternoon, set up at my table and was pretty pleased with the look of the whole thing. I poked around the rest of the hall for a while and found that 4 people had signed up for my game - awesome! The time came to start and found that 2 of them had crossed their names off the list and the other two never showed up. Sessions 2 and 3 had zero takers. I still did my duty and sat by my table when the game was supposed to go but I ran nothing that weekend. I had some good talks with passers-by about the new game, and I played some stuff myself in other timeslots, but as far as actually getting Fed Commander out there it was a total bust. I thought my "pitch" in the con guide was good but maybe not. I'm pretty sure it wasn't me personally because no one ever made it to the table for me to run off! I took it as a sign that getting people interested in an SFB type game was probably going to be an uphill fight.

My interest dropped after this, not solely because of the con but also because none of my old SFB-playing friends seemed all that enthused either. We played a few times, but I was the only one bringing it up and no one else was interested in picking up their own copy - a telltale sign. I couldn't get strangers to play, I couldn't get friends to play, and the kids weren't old enough yet to play.  I started to wonder if maybe the time for the game, and the setting, had just passed. I still followed the game online, but I stopped pushing it and stopped adding new material. There's a ton of it as it is covering all of the same ground as SFB, but even I eventually stop spending money on a game when I'm not playing it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Good Old Star Fleet Universe - The Past

Designer's Edition Cover

The Past
I got started in the Star Fleet Universe in 1982 when a friend brought over a copy of "Federation Space" and we spent an afternoon playing Tholians against Klingons. It was interesting and fun and he mentioned that Michael's (yes the craft store - they used to sell games too!) had another game like it but he bought this one because it was $2 cheaper. Within the next week or so I talked mom into taking me over to said store and picked up the "other" game on the same subject and spent a good chunk of the next 20 years playing Star Fleet Battles.

Commander's Edition starter set
It's a complicated game and it takes a fair amount of time to play. Back then we had plenty of time and with birthdays or Christmas or just allowances to pick up the occasional expansion we had plenty of material to work with too. I started with the Designer's Edition when Expansion #2 was the new hotness and Expansion #3 was out pretty quickly after that, When the Commander's Edition came out we jumped in and kept up with it in Nexus and Captain's Log. We even picked up a few miniatures along the way though that was never our primary way of playing - we liked ridiculously huge fleet battles too much to ever have enough mini's to fight our kind of fights. It was 90% counters on a hex grid for us.

Along the way the universe expanded considerably too. Keep in mind that in the early 80's the only canon material we had was the original series, the animated series, and two movies. There was a novel line that had some interesting books but Trek was pretty quiet as far as developing the setting compared to what it would become later. The only two ongoing "universes" that had regular releases were Task Force's Star Fleet Universe and Fasa's Star Trek RPG universe. We had both, played in both, and liked both. The SFU added new races, new ships, a detailed future history, and just a ton of material all based around the original Trek series. There was no overt movie material, although some nods were there if you looked.

With the arrival of the 90's we had yet another edition of the game and bought all of the material for a third time. It seemed like it was worth it because this was the "doomsday rulebook" that promised to clean up all of the errata and errors and glitches that had cropped up during the rapid expansion of the Commander's Edition and was only going to clarify and fix, not add new material via errata. I wasn't as enthused about this repurchase, but I did it, and true to their word, this edition of the game is still the current edition, twenty years later. There's a bunch of it, but to have kept the game to the same edition for that long may be unique in the gamin industry, whether RPG, miniature game, or boardgame. That's a great way to treat your customers and keep a huge game sane on at least one level.

Where it all started for me

Despite that my playing time dropped precipitously in the 90's. It was a combination of things from finishing school and getting a real job (and later a family too) to other games like Warhammer, 40K, and Epic moving into the spotlight. So oddly, even though it's been out the longest of any edition, Captain's Edition is the one I have played the least. I have most of the stuff for it, I just haven't played it much in the last 15 years.

They have redone the counters a few times over the years, but that SSD looks the same as it did in 1990
More to come!

Motivational Monday

I just like the picture ...

Monday, June 30, 2014

Summer 2014 - Miniature Mania

It's been a miniatures-intensive month here so I may have a few posts this week about some of what we've been doing. We've been getting to know 7th edition 40K, reviving Epic, trying out Bolt Action on the cheap, getting together some ancients armies (DBA to start with), some fantasy armies (for Hordes of the Things), and dusting off Federation Commander too. That's a pretty wide range of stuff but it's amazing how much we can get done with some time off and some focus. I've even managed to put together some new terrain.

We've worked in a session of our Pathfinder game too so it hasn't been totally RPG-free but they've definitely been a secondary concern. With that game rolling along and my general lack of interest in the new D&D, I haven't been pushing this as hard with the Apprentices lately. I may pick up the starter set to give the new rules a look, but other than that the only new things likely to come up are a possible supers game, a Trek game, or some kind of WW2 game as a one-off.

Anyway, that's where things stand right now. More details later in the week.

Motivational Monday - Vacation Edition

Taking a little time off so here's a triple shot of vacation-themed posters...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Black Sails - Season 1

Well season #1 had 8 episodes and I've managed to see all of them now. I don't see a lot of sailing ship/pirate era type shows on TV so if you're even slightly interested it's worth tracking down. That said it is Starz attempt to open their own HBO-style series so there's lots of nudity, sex, violence, and bad language. Keep in mind, it is a show about pirates. I will keep this largely spoiler-free in case some of you want to go check it out.

Captain Noblebeard and crew

Notable point: 8 episodes: Sometimes less is more. This is a good way to introduce a show and gauge the interest level. It'e already been renewed for season two so we will be seeing more of this story. A determined couch commander could burn through it in a day.

Captain Abs and crew

Characters: It's a fairly tight cast of characters. Each main character has 2-3 associated companion characters. There are interactions within these smaller groups and interactions between the larger groups that drive the show.
    • The woman in charge of the island/pirate port and her "crew", mainly her right hand man and girlfriend
    • Captain Noblebeard and his crew, mainly his first mate and bosun
    • Captain Abs and his crew, mainly the Bad Girl and Not-Jack-Sparrow
    • The individuals - the "cook", the land-based captain, the mystery woman, and others all making their way and developing relationships between the main characters
There is heavy pressure on each of the leads, both from within their own "team" and without. Good and bad decisions are made during the season - sometimes you see them coming, sometimes you don't. Quite a few minor and several major characters are lost over the course of the season as well - so far the "reset button" has not been a big issue. There is an overall plot that develops right from Episode 1 all the way through the finale. I can't really go into more detail there without spoilers but I'll probably talk more about that when season 2 comes along.

Also note: There's nothing blatantly supernatural in the show so far, so it's a step closer to "real" than Pirates of the Caribbean. 
Island Girl and her right hand man

From a "guy who has considered running a pirate campaign" it has some things to offer too:
  • The PC's don't all have to be the crew of a single ship. Putting them on different ships opens up opportunities for both competition and cooperation. It's an especially effective way to handle players with differing schedules. If player A can't make it this week he must be out hunting merchant ships (if the campaign focus is in port that week) or he must have had to return to port (if the focus is out on the sea). The characters could end up going after each other but they are playing pirates, right? Seems pretty true to the genre.
  • It could be run as a sandbox but a pirate town is not typically a "safe" town so that particular convention doesn't fit well. If the port is under a truce and is only a place where deals get made and loot is sold then it might work but it might miss some opportunities too. 
  • Rival NPC's are an important element of a pirate game, both other pirates and authority figures. Players need something to push against, and as a pirate you're already operating outside of conventional civilization. Having that civilization barge in occasionally reminds them of their status and puts some pressure on them to act or react in some way. Rival pirates give them a measuring stick for those who want to rank themselves. Even a rival port town (Nassau vs. Tortuga) could make for some fun options and reasons to make and break alliances within the game.
...and Island Girl's girlfriend