Thursday, July 28, 2016

Things I Don't Need #1 - More Monster Books

There were 5 Monster Manuals for D&D 3E. We're up to 5 Bestiary books for Pathfinder now.  That's not counting various smaller monster books for the Forgotten Realms and the Inner Sea of Golarion. Original AD&D really only had 3 over the course of 10 years and we somehow survived and I don't think the world's monster consumption numbers are up that much over the 80's. I've never sat down to put together something for a game and said "wow, I really need more monsters", even in games where there was only (gasp) a single book of monsters available. This is especially true of games like PF and 3E where you can stick class levels on monsters, give them feats and skills, and give them magic items, resulting in near-infinite possibilities. There are "templates" in those games as well which just open up things even more. I've never understood the idea of someone being "tired" of the monsters available in a game. Tired of what, flipping past them in the book? Because I've run campaigns for years and never used up all of the monsters in any Monster Manual type book.

I suppose it's partially a production problem - a company needs to sell books, monster books are easy to put together, and they seem to sell well enough. Crank one out every year or two and there's a slot on the schedule filled. The thing is I am sure we are well past 1000 different monster entries in Pathfinder alone just in the 4 Bestiaries I own and I will likely never use even half of them - so why do I need the 5th? Or the 6th?

Superhero games do this too. I will make an allowance that super-games tend to feature unique opponents so there is more value to having more completely different enemy entries than you might have in a fantasy game. Even considering that though, supers games tend to accumulate a ridiculous number of villain books in a short period of time. Champions in the 90's had Classic Enemies, Hi-Tech Enemies, European Enemies, Alien Enemies, The Mutant File, and then Allies (or enemies for your enemies) and probably more that  am forgetting because I am not looking at the Champions shelf right now. Icons has multiple enemy books out now and M&M does too. I will never use even half of them in any of these games, so it's a case of diminishing returns.

That's an important thing to keep in mind - the law of diminishing returns is huge here. Let's call it "Diminishing Utility" instead in this case.

  • The first monster book or enemy manual in most games is crucial as it sets the baseline for mechanics and for presentation and implies some things about the setting too. A lot of times this is integrated into the main rulebook (from basic D&D to FASA Star Trek to Dungeon Crawl Classics).
  • The second may be useful for covering any legacy monsters left out of the first book or for expanding beyond the legacy stuff that was included in that first book to show what else can be done.
  • After that I personally find the utility drops off tremendously. At this point themed books can be useful: Bestiary 4 for PF focused on Mythic Monsters, which is very useful when running a campaign that uses the Mythic rules, which I am doing, but another "general book of 300 bad guys" is not that exciting.
Then there are the third party monster books - some are good, some are bad, few are essential 
How does the game keep growing in the monster department in a healthy, hi-quality way? Put the opposition in your adventures! Early D&D did this - the Drow first appeared in the back of a module! The Drow! D&D's "Borg"! (In the sense of being an interesting and terrifying opposing faction added after the basic structure of the universe had already been established). This is pretty standard with superhero adventures - gotta have a villain! - and is one good reason to pick them up! It also means your new enemies have context far beyond a stat block in a huge book of stat blocks and become a far more personal opponent. It's the difference between introducing a one-off alien in a Star Trek episode and introducing the Klingons. If your new enemy/monster/supervillain is actually that interesting then they should be able to support an adventure on their own. If they cannot, they're probably not that interesting and if that's the case why bother adding them to the game? Keep working and come up with something better! once you have a certain quantity of opposition, it's time to work on quality of opposition. The game will be better for it. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Inevitable Pokemon Go Post

No, I don't play it but I have 4 kids and a wife who do so I feel like I have a scientific observer's perspective at this point. It's ridiculously popular among a lot of ages but is especially so in the tweens/teens/twentysomethings crowd.  What I have noticed:

  • It's group play without direct confrontation. My kids and their friends can all go pokemon hunting together or combine forces to battle a gym but you don't see other players and you aren't fighting "that guy standing over there". It's competitive to a degree, but it's an indirect kind of competition, not "PvP" and there is far more cooperation than confrontation.
  • It has my kids wanting to go outside! In the middle of the day! In Texas! In July! Hey look it's only supposed to be about 95 for a high today because we're expecting thunderstorms - the last few days it's been 100. While they are outside they are walking around, looking for pokemon, checking on the gym in our neighborhood, and getting in enough steps to hatch an egg. The egg thing is kind of like a fitbit in that you have to get a certain number of steps in to hatch it and then you get a random new pokemon out of it. We had kids old enough to drive and who have their own cars walk to the grocery store to check out the pokemon stuff along the way!
  • You can't sit at home and play it - you have to move to go get pokemon.  You have to go find pokestops and gyms to advance and resupply for more hunting and you have to be physically near them in reality to utilize their facilities. So it's not that you can get some exercise while playing it it's that you pretty much have to, yet it's not an obvious workout game like Dance Dance Revolution or other "jump around in front of your TV" type games.

The whole thing is genius and is an example of a step towards some of the things I talked about in my RPG Futurist post a while back. Did I say it was a product of genius? I can't say it enough! It's a videogame that kids want to play that requires them to get out of the house and move around the world! It's a holy grail of videogaming!

The other thing I have noticed is how a lot of the news/media sources are desperately trying to make this a dangerous thing, because that's what they do. 
  • "Someone stepped on a a snake while playing Pokemon Go in a park!" I doubt the snake cares - if they had been playing "catch" I suspect it would have bitten them too
  • "Someone found a dead body while playing the game" - fixed it for you
  • "Criminals are using the game to lure people to remote locations and ambushing them" - er, there's no way criminals can "lure" people to do anything in the game. Users have no control over the environment and you can't see other players in the game. The most they could do is sit outside a location designated as a pokestop or a gym and wait for other people to come by but these are usually parks or churches or other relatively well-known spaces. If you're in an unlit park at 2am well, a)that's not new and teenagers have other reasons besides a videogame to be there and b) that's not really the game's fault

For someone old enough to remember it feels a little bit like the beginnings of the Great D&D Bashing of the 1980's, the Great Heavy Metal and Rap bashing of the Late 80's, and the Great Videogame Bashing of the 1990's where there's some initial reporting on this cool and popular new thing (mostly by people who have no clue about it) and then some near-hysterical reporting of possible bad effects of this cool new thing and then a general piling-on of how it's awful and should be banned or regulated or burned in a big gathering outside a church because somehow someway it has something to do with the devil. It's already happening to a degree. I just hope that this one is popular enough among kids who don't care and obviously harmless enough to intelligent parents that it blows over quickly or gets the legs cut out from underneath it by a social media backlash.

Because it's a really cool, fun safe thing that is good for people. It's a work of genius.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

I saw it over the weekend and the short version is that if this had been the second movie instead of the third the series would be in better shape.  It's just a better movie in pretty much every way. I'm keeping the spoilers light so if you've seen the trailers I don't think anything new is revealed here.

Some High Points:

  • It's very respectful of Trek history. Canon matters if you want to call it that.
  • Kirk is less of an impulsive maker of bad decisions here. This Kirk has a little maturity and seems more like TOS Kirk than he has before.
  • There are lots of nice little character moments in the film that feel true to the characters
  • The new character is decent. If she shows up in the next movie then she adds a lot more interesting. If she's a one-off, well, OK.
  • The villain was more interesting than I expected. He's not original Khan, but he's not bad.

Some Nitpicks:
  • That space station is just ridiculously huge. Why would you build a station of that size in the middle of nowhere? Is it a deliberate effort to show how tiny the Enterprise is? If it takes a year or more to build an Enterprise type ship how long did it take to build that thing? It bothered me every time they showed it. 
  • A lot of the movie takes place on one previously unknown planet - a LOT of the movie. You only get so many shots at a movie and I'd like to see a little more of the universe than we did in this one. The station almost made up for it and this isn't a huge deal, more of a wish list kind of thing. 
  • The results of the attack used late in the movie seems like a stretch, even for Trek. I get jamming frequencies to stop enemy coordination - that part I can accept - but the resulting explosions seem difficult to explain. Not critical to the plot but kind of a "how did that work?" moment after the movie ended.

One overarching thing for me: A lot of the impact of the movie depends on us caring about these characters and the ship and the universe. If they had done this as the second movie as I suggested above it wouldn't have worked as well because we would only have had the one prior movie with them. This is the third movie and much like the thrid original cast movie the Enterprise gets blown up and the crew is in trouble. The reason that mattered so much then though is that we had years of TV series to build those characters up. We don't have that with this cast and it does still feel a little "light". It's certainly possible to establish characters and relationships in a movie or three (see Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic universe) but I'm not feeling it as much here. This is probably where being "Star Trek" hurts it for me because I am constantly comparing it on some level with all of the Trek leading up to this and it's never going to reach the depth, the level of experience, that those previous casts had. Comparing 3 movies to roughly 100 hours of movies and TV shows for those other teams is not fair but I can't help it because it's "Star Trek 9th Edition*" not "Space Cruiser Enterprise 1.0".   

So I liked it, a lot more than the last one. It feels like they are finally off and running and doing their own thing. They are moving in the right direction and I'm glad they are making a 4th installment as there is still a lot of interesting and entertaining stuff they could do in this version of Star Trek.

* Rationale:
  1. Original Series
  2. Animated series
  3. Original Cast Movies
  4. Next Generation
  5. Next Gen Movies
  6. Deep Space 9
  7. Voyager
  8. Enterprise
  9. New Trek
  10. (New CBS Series ST Discovery)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The New Star Wars Campaign, Canon, and Making It Yours

I'm in a bind - I'm finally getting to run a game in a system I really like using a campaign concept I came up with years ago but I can't really spill the beans here because my players haven't figured out the big picture just yet. They know it's different, they just don't know why. The odds they would read it here are small but I want to see the look on their faces as they figure it out. Another session or two should do it.

Let me say this: The biggest complaint I hear (and have heard for years) about playing a Star Wars RPG is that "We already know what happens". This is a very narrow point of view - it's a big universe, both space-wise and time-wise and there are a lot of places and eras to play in without being upstaged by the movie characters. I've never felt constrained by knowing who blew up the Death Star and all of that story because I've never felt like that was the only thing to do in that universe.

Some people feel that way though so it can be a factor. Two things that drove my concept for this game:

  • I read somewhere that the best science fiction follows all the laws of physics that we know about now except for one. it might be FTL travel or psychic powers or whatever interests the author but that's a good place to start. These stories typically examine the impact of that one change on a society like the one we know now. It's an interesting way to focus in on a particular idea.
  • The best alternate history novels follow the history we know up to a particular point in time where things happen differently. The story then examines all of the differences that flow from that one change.
One of the attractions of using a known universe like Star Wars is the chance to interact with familiar things, but it loses a lot of the appeal if it turns into a museum trip where you can look and talk and maybe touch but cannot make any real change. Even if the GM tells the players that change is possible, a lot of players are reluctant to do so, to take actions that would send things "off course". 

In my experience the best way to get over that is for the GM to make the first change. This lets the players know that it's OK and they aren't trapped in a movie or expected to stay on the rails. Once that happens, in a big bold way, they know anything can happen - and you're off and running!

I feel like I'm being too general here so fine, I'll get specific: How is this Star Wars campaign different? Well, it follows canon completely up to The Empire Strikes Back. Then, near the end, one thing changes: When Vader says "Join me", Luke, battered and bloodied, says "OK". After that, a lot of things start moving and the rails disappear.

So that's my big reveal for the campaign. it's the same universe we all know and love except that one man, in a moment of crisis, made a different decision - and changed everything. 

Now to see what my players do with it!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Investigations into a Fantasy Campaign

(other than Pathfinder, that is)

Reading some rulebooks and playing some Pillars of Eternity has me thinking about some other options at the table.
  • Re-read RQ2 a while back and got the itch to try it out. I like Glorantha enough to play there but I'm thinking about using Caverns of Thracia for the first run, maybe setting it in a more Roman-type setting than Dragon Pass. For a test run I don't need to overthink the setting.  
  • I re-read the 5th ediion D&D PHB too and I feel like I should give it another chance. I was all fired up about Pathfinder and coming off of 4th Edition when I last tried it. I might be more willing to find it's strengths now as simpler and faster definitely has its own attraction again. Thinking about using Thracia here too. Also considering Ptolus, as I haven't run a big city based campaign in a long time. Or I could pick up Temple of Elemental Evil again ...
  •  I'm all over the Mutant Crawl Classics Kickstarter and that got me thinking I should really re-read the original DCC and of course that has me thinking that we need to try it out too. I'm thinking Stonehell would be a good fit for it after the initial carnage of zero level.
  • Then of course looking over my Stonehell notes, we could have played some Labyrinth Lord at any time the past few years and probably had a blast. 
So many adventures - faster and simpler is huge. All of these games look like a good time waiting to happen. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Halt Evil Doer!

I'm a little late to the party on this one since it came out in 2010 but I read some good things about it and decided to pick up a copy.


  • It's a superhero setting that focuses on "Heroic Earth" but also covers cosmic elements
  • Stats are for Mutants and Masterminds 2nd Edition
  • It's the second edition of the book
  • It's available on DTRPG here.
I can best describe Heroic Earth as a world where DC and Marvel character homages (and others) are freely intermixed along with nods to other related elements. For example, the son of the big American hero (a sort of Captain America/Iron Man combo) ends up in the role of what is effectively Cobra Commander from GI Joe. It feels as though it has been used in actual play and that some of the answers in the book come from questions that arose during games. 

The book covers all the things you would need to run in the universe:
  • There's a detailed history of what happened when that covers about 10 pages
  • Info on the world covers about 20 pages and includes real countries, comic book cities, and things like Atlantis, the hollow world, and Super-Alcatraz.
  • Space and other dimensions is covered in about 10 pages
  • There are about 50 pages divided into chapters covering sources of super power, how supers work in this world (from the point of view of the Batman-analogue), and organizations both good and bad
  • The last 100 pages cover individual heroes and villains
The things I liked: 
  • It's a lived-in world. Heroes and villains have been around for a long time and have impacted the world for good and for ill. 
  • The various ages of comic books and the attitudes associated with them are used in-universe to refer to generations of supers and have ended in violent confrontations at times. I thought it was a nice touch
  • The default assumption is that myth and fiction from history are all true. this means Gilgamesh is the first superhero, the goddess Athena is the Wonder Woman of the setting, Merlin is a part of the magical side of things, Frankenstein's monster and Dracula are part of the world, Captain Nemo was an Atlantean, and Holmes and Moriarty have had a lasting impact through legacy organizations.  

Things I didn't: There are quite a few characters presented with no illustration. Many are shown, the big time characters in particular, and I know art can be expensive, but it really helps with a super hero game to have pictures. I know I've been spoiled by the full-color heavily illustrated books of the last ten years or so from M&M to Icons but it's really become a standard for me. That's really my only complaint.

The level of information here hits that sweet spot for me - enough to inspire and run a game but not so much that the details smothers the life out of the setting. For example - the chapter on space has information on the power groups, agendas, and history of the major players. It's enough to answer questions from earth-bound players and enough to set up a background for a character with an alien origin, but it doesn't drill down into maps of the galaxy and statistics for a Thran space cruiser. It's exactly what I'm looking for in a super-earth setting book.

So how will I use this book?

Well, I probably won't run it as it's own setting for one of my campaigns. This is mainly because they are already rolling in their own settings. BUT - as a superhero GM you never know when one of your players will send the whole team to a parallel earth and this book gives me an easy option if that happens - famous heroes and villains, history, geography - all the things I would need on the fly to make a believable world. 

Quite a few of the organizations look like they would be easy to drop in to an existing world so there's a chance some of them appear in my games. Heroes and villains and new alien races are also always welcome.

If one of the Apprentices wanted to run a supers-game I would probably hand them this one because it is both coherent and concise - one book covers it all! That makes it easier for a new GM to get a handle on. It's a different perspective than Freedom City or Emerald City in that it's not a city-focused book - it's a world-focused book.

I would also recommend it to someone who's not looking for a massively detailed setting and who doesn't want to have to create one on their own, who wants a solid super-setting to refer to without being out-knowledged by the local Marvel-guru, DC-savant, or Freedomverse-nerd. Here's a setting where someone could run some games - in any system, really - and have some names and details ready to go when the heroes run into an agency, or he needs a bad guy network to drop in, or just wants some easy reference material on what happened before the game started.

It's a very useable book, as a whole, or in parts. For more information on the setting there has been a massive ongoing discussion on the Atomic Think Tank for years (now archived) and on the newer Ronin Army Forum.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

July Games

I had some time off last week and with the Apprentices around most of that time we hit the game table pretty hard ...
  • We started a new Star Wars campaign (mentioned here)
  • Sentinels of the Multiverse! Our 4th or 5th game in the last two weeks - definitely a hit here.
  • We worked in two big 40K battles (to be detailed on Friday)
  • We restarted our extremely intermittent Deadlands campaign
  • We managed to dust off the X-Wing Miniatures game with some new ships and had a good time with that too.
The rest of the month should include more of most of these plus some Pathfinder and some superhero stuff too so the summer is going pretty well here.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Meme-tastic Monday

Two themes from the weekend ...