Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Personal Gaming Epiphany for 2010

While putting yesterday's post together I realized I needed to share one of my realizations that  really only came about this year. 
I realized a while back that different games had the "fun" in them distributed differently. When I was running 3rd edition D&D most of my fun as the DM came in the prep work while the actual playing of the game was kind of a chore a lot of the time. Call it 75-25 in favor of prep.

When I ran D20 Star Wars it was about 50-50 as the players really broke out of their box and had fun with it.

With most Super Hero RPG's it's been about 50-50 as it's fun to design villains and plots and it's fun to see what the PC's do with those. It's a strong 50-50

Then I finally got to run a Savage Worlds campaign and it went to 25-75 and it was a revelation - prep was very light and was mainly the "good parts" - characters and plots - without a lot of mechanical grind. Even combat, usually the most complicated part of a typical RPG, plays very quickly and is not the time sink that it is in almost every other game.

Then I went to D&D 4 and I found the same thing. I had heard that prep was easier with with 4E but I didn't see how until I had actually run a few sessions and designed a campaign. Lessening both the prep time and complication for the DM combined with smoothing out combat and task resolution makes the game much more fun to play and much more rewarding. This has been a huge revelation for me in 2010 and has revitalized my interest in maintaining multiple campaigns in a big way. It's the main reason 4E has become the main game for me when it comes to actual playing time.

The funny thing is that I then discovered the same thing with the Basic D&D campaign. It's easy to prep for and easy to run as combat is simple and it leaves a fair amount up to the DM by leaving out a skill system. I know this feature is a part of the old-school manifesto but it's worth testifying - it does exist and it is real. It encourages a more fast and loose playstyle that fits well with the uncomplicated combat system. Which is the other "feature" of old-school D&D - combat is over in a hurry, at least at low levels.

I have discovered that having fast-playing combat rounds makes a big difference. With Basic D&D you really only have a few options and no multiple attacks, so each player's turn goes quickly which means each round goes quickly. Savage Worlds has a similar speed because the action system is simple and clear and also because most opponents are mooks - one wound puts them down and out of combat, leaving the climactic parts of the fight to a few "wild cards" who can take multiple wounds. D&D 4E took a page from this with the minion rules where one hit point puts them out of the fight. Another part of this is systems that use opposed rolls  where a combatant is either in or out of the fight which eliminates the potential grind of chewing through a mass of hit points. Mutants and Masterminds and even d6 Star Wars use a similar kind of system.

Now there is one important difference. with 4E; It does not feature opposed rolls - it embraces a massive hit point system for PC's and for many opponents. Normally that should lead to longer combats and often it does but 4E offsets this with minions and by giving each PC a nice clean action system (similar to Savage Worlds) while also giving them more choices within those rounds. Character-specific At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers combined with a list of maneuvers anyone can do means that each class has many choices during combat but the organization of the power cards means that those choices are easily referenced during play. Combat does take longer than a fight in Basic D&D or Savage Worlds but it's typically more interesting per-round than those games and each player's turn still typically takes less time than in say D&D 3E. Eliminating multiple attacks per round made a huge difference there.

Now I'm a crunch guy going way back. I mapped out many a dungeon on graph paper way back when. I built vehicles for GURPS. I built ships and tanks and guns using Fire, Fusion, and Steel for both Traveller New Era and Traveller 4. I still have hundreds of variant mech designs for Mechwarrior and Battletech campaigns. I still have Champions Heros and Villains from 25 years ago (complete with magic-marker costume designs) because I might need them again some day. I've been playing rules-heavy simulationist tactical RPG's for 30 years where facing, cover, armor values, penetrations values, and fractional accounting all mattered and I've had a ton of fun with them. But it has gotten harder over the years to work in those games as jobs and kids and girlfriends or wives have soaked up a larger fraction of my time. Software tools have made some of that easier to do, from mapping software to spreadsheets but it's still an issue of prep time vs. play time. Plus, when a fair chunk of your game prep requires a spreadsheet, then it's starting to look suspiciously like work instead of fun.
A slight digression: I've owned and played SFB and ASL for many years. They are massive, heavily detailed boardgames intended to simulate reality in exhausting detail. It can take an hour or more to resolve one turn. I spent many years playing them and I still have a pile of stuff for them in my garage but I haven't played either one in 10 years. It takes a lot of time to learn the rules, a lot of time to set up a scenario, and a lot of time to play the game even after you get past the learning stage. I have also found that a lot of times winning the game comes down to who can find a situation where they know the rules better than the opponent and can take advantage of it - it turns into a game of "gotcha" won when a player discovers he can pull obscure rule A212.51 where Russian conscripts in a wooden building hex in december of 1941 or 42 will refuse to fire at an opponent more than 2 hexes away as they are busy setting up a still rather than watching for enemy troops. It's not really tied to player skill, it's tied to player memorization capability.

As boardgames got more and more complicated a "light game" movement started in the 90's and has led to the Euro Games revolution and the popularity they enjoy now. Wargames finally saw some of this especially in the last 5 years with Command and Colors and Combat Commander and similar games that cover traditional wargame subjects but use things like block pieces and cards for combat resolution and to handle details rather than 500 pages of rules and a bunch of tables. The level of historical results tends to be similar to the older way of doing things but a turn takes 5 minutes instead of an hour. There are also usually only 5-10 pages of rules to learn, lowering the barrier to entry for teaching the game. Both of these are huge wins and make for a much better game overall. There is a place for a game with 5,000 1/2 inch counters on an 8' X 6' map of the Eastern Front but it's not something you can set up and finish in an evening. With the newer boardgame designs I can and isn't that why we buy games? To play them and have fun? Preferably with friends and not alone in a basement trying to refight D-Day solo because no one else wants to learn the rules or put up with kids and cats knocking over stacks of counters? It's a design revolution and it's a good one in just about every way.

RPG's are undergoing a similar change as what board wargames have been doing for the last 5 years. Sure, there will still be some old-school rules-heavy unique subsystem games - I wouldn't have it any other way. But more and more I think you will see one of two approaches:

1) The rules light fast to play and fun to play systems like Savage Worlds where speed of play trumps realism. There is room here for debate over how much detail to include vs. how much to skip to streamline play. The main advantage here is that you can get a lot more done in an evening of play than you can with an older more detailed ruleset. Comparing original flavor Deadlands to SW Deadlands Reloaded there is much less detail in the newer version and fewer unique mechanics for different characters which is a loss, but combat and task resolution is so much quicker in play now that a group can move through a lot more adventure in a set period of time than they could  in the old one. Combat is still interesting and exciting but it takes a tenth of the time it used to. Plus with less focus on details it encourages players to come up with interesting actions rather than looking up the rules for doing everything and encourages DM's to do the same - less book-flipping at the table is a good thing IMO and it makes a huge difference in how time is spent. Mongoose Traveller is this type of game as are Castles and Crusades and maybe the Cinematic Unisystem. Heck, D&D Basic from 1981 follows much of this philosophy and we didn't really even realize it at the time.

2) The still rules heavy game that still plays more cleanly while retaining interesting options in-game approach that is 4th edition D&D. It's not a "lite" game by any means but there is clearly a "system" here and it's easy to figure out how something should work even if there's not specifically a rule for it. It's a "system" and not "a list of stuff you can do" which is what some previous versions of D&D (and other games) felt like. Presentation is a big thing here too as "powers" and "power cards" are much easier to manage in play than 10 pages of 1st level M-U spells and their descriptions, especially when the insidious character builder automatically sticks the modifiers in right there on the card. I believe Shadowrun 4 moved in this design direction, Hackmaster Basic moves in this direction, and DC Adventures/MnM 3E move in this direction. There is detail in the game but it's applied specifically where it will do the most good and not all over where it will bog down the whole game.

These "new design philosophy" games have made prep quicker and easier than some of the more complicated games of the recent past. They also make it easier and quicker to play without losing much detail and without giving up meaningful choices during play. They are effectively more bang for your limited playing time buck and for those of us who still have dreams of playing like we did back in those summers between school years it's a huge win and a very welcome change in design philosophy. It lets me get more done and have more fun than I have in a long time and to me that's really the point of the whole thing anyway.

I noticed this shift after my first session of Savage Worlds. I saw it again when I broke out Basic D&D and then was pleasantly surprised when going through the 320 page 4E Player's Handbook that "hey, this is really pretty simple". I realized that I was getting a lot more out of each session than I had been when running my 3E games. I'm not trying to run down 3E -I had a lot of fun running it for 9 years - but it's just a different feel. Between the design goals, the mechanics of these newer-style games, and the presentation of them, I feel like there is a real improvement in the way they play vs many games of the past or ones with different design philosophies. I used to come out of game sessions drained, worn-out, ready to go to bed and not wanting to look at the game for a day or two. Now I am energized before, during, and after and kind of sorry when the time comes to stop - there's so much more we can do! My players seem happier too. It makes it a lot easier to run multiple games over a weekend - kind of like when we were 13 and that was normal for us. It's a good thing and I hope it continues for a long time to come.

Friday, October 29, 2010

It's the End-of-October Gaming Update

Well I thought I would take a break from the usual updates and reviews to collect my thoughts about where my gaming situation stands. These are the kind of working DM posts I like to see on messageboards so hopefully someone else likes them too.

D&D 4E is the hot interest for me right now. It's taken over the majority of my actual playing time plus most of my planning time as well. Something just clicked for me when re-reading it in the spring and now I have 2 active campaigns and binders of ideas and outlines for about 4 more piling up on a bookshelf nearby. I have a few issues with how a few things changed and a few issues with why things changed but the main feature is that it just works. It has my creative juices flowing again and it has my players trying different approaches to things far more than they have in the last 5 years. Heck, least session they actually avoided a frontal assault on a defended position by using skills and succeeding at a skill challenge! That has not happened for a long time in a D&D campaign (and has ended a campaign or two as a result) and was pretty amazing to watch. I expect 4E to be the main game for our group for quite some time to come - maybe even long enough to run all of those campaigns I'm thinking up.

The Phlan campaign is up to Session 11 and Session 12 will happen tonight so I have some writeups to post.  It's going well and the middle of the heroic tier has really crystallized over the last few weeks as far as what I want to include. I had a vision of the beginning and the end points since before we started but the middle had a fair amount of blank space and that's really coming together now. We've been playing almost weekly recently so it's humming along nicely. The party is at 3rd now and will soon hit 4th.

The Gray Vale campaign had session 3 a week or so back and may work in session 4 this weekend but Halloween may cut it short too. It's on an every other weekend schedule at best so progress is a little slower but they are at 2nd level and headed to 3rd.

D&D Basic is still on the radar. The recent flurry of excitement and disappointment over the new red box has kept this spark alive, plus I like the little campaign area I came up with for it. We at least need to finish up B1 or B2 before I let the dust gather on it again, though I would like to work in Isle of Dread too. We'll see what time allows. It's definitely second priority behind the apprentices 4E campaign but it will progress again soon. The party here is at 2nd or 3rd except for the Elf who is still at 1st though he is very close.

AD&D is still in my head too, but is probably on the back burner for now. I still want to do the Temple-Giants-Drow-Demonweb campaign but I'm having a tough time finding a consistent place to fit it in on the schedule. There isn't a lot of rules overhead with this as I have acquired PHB's for everyone it's just a matter of finding a good regular time that people can make. I was thinking Sundays but with football season in full swing I don't necessarily want to give that up and Sunday afternoons are also when I sometimes fit in the apprentice campaigns. now the plan is to let them play in this one too, but it would come at the expense of the Basic game and maybe some of the 4E campaign too. With busy kids Sunday afternoons are about the only time we don't have some kind of commitment to something. Plus some of my other players just aren't available Sunday afternoons. I will figure it out eventually but for now it's hanging out there in space waiting to begin.

Star Wars d6 - a really fun game that can be run quite well with just a rulebook and one adventure - though of course I do have a shelf full of supplements for it. We haven't played in a while because I have all 3 apprentices playing in it and that means I have 4 schedules to sync up - tricky. It may get worked in this weekend, we'll just have to see.

Necessary Evil has been squeezed out to a degree because 4E is the cool new kid and because I only have my 4 original players in it. With the D&D group expanded to 6, the idea was that we would play NE on those nights when only part of the group was available. The problem is that almost everyone has been available almost every time, so we aren't having to fall back on it. This is not a terrible problem to have but it does mean that NE has been quiet for a while. I do love the system -it's the opposite of D&D in many ways - and it will be played more in the future.

Potential additions:

I've been thinking about working in one more RPG to accommodate one last combination of available apprentices and I'm leaning towards superheroes. I thought about more D&D but one of them is younger and might not quite be ready for all of it yet. I thought about Star Wars Saga edition but I don't want to run two different versions of Star Wars at the same time. I'm really leaning towards Marvel Superheroes because the characters are familiar, the color chart thing makes it pretty easy to adjudicate, and I have lots of stuff for it including maps and counters and heroclix figures. I want it to be low-maintenance and high-fun in actual play and I think that system might just do the trick. I'm not 100% just yet but I'm looking at material and figuring out what we might do. Savage Worlds is another option but I'm not sure what to run for them with it. Deadlands might be a little much but Pirates could be fun. My other thought is to pull out Heroquest or Warhamer Quest and let them fight their way through a truly boardgame version of D&D.

All of these Apprentice games might seem like they are competing for space but they really aren't - at any given time I typically only have 3 of them at home with only 2 of them interested in playing a game, so one challenge is to have a sort of standing option ready to play with whichever combination of kids is available. Progress may be slow but as long as they're having a good time then it's time well-spent.

Other Random Thoughts:

I really like Hero System but it usually takes a while for a new player to learn it well and it can look intimidating too. I do like it though. Maybe down the road a bit.

The new 4E-based Gamma World is out now and it looks interesting. I have every version of GW published to date and it's a game I really have become attached too over the decades but I'm not sure when I would work it in. I will probably pick it up soon but I wouldn't mind firing up a 2nd edition game of it right now and the only reason I can't is time and Apprentice availability.

I've though about switching over whole-hog to d20 games for all of my campaigns and shelving everything else for now to build on that whole similar-system-synergy and make it easier for new players. D&D 4E, Star Wars Saga, and Mutants and Masterminds (2E -I haven't gotten in to 3E yet) would cover enough cool things that I could run for years and be just fine and the players would have some serious system knowledge after just a short time. There are some differences (powers vs. talents vs...powers?) but I don;t think that would be a huge issue. The problem is I really like some of my other systems.

Traveller is a great classic game that is in a real renaissance now with the Mongoose edition but I think that with kids at least it will always lose out to Star Wars when it comes down to "we have 2 hours - which game do you want to play" so it will be awhile before it gets used again.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is another great game and is really not for kids so it will have to wait until the grown-up group comes up with serious extra time or decides that D&D sucks - so it will be awhile here too.

Rifts - ah Rifts. The kids would probably be all over it if I showed them all the books.The system is a cluster-f nightmare of 80's heartbreaker design but it does work to a point. It's just ugly and largely makes no sense. I think after the clean design of 4e and the elegant simplicity of Savage Worlds and Star Wars d6 that I may lack the ability to fight through this anymore.  A Hero conversion is a possibility but it would take some work and I'm not sure it's worth it when I have a half-dozen other games I can run and have a bunch of fun with a tenth of the preparation.

Anyway I have one more "thought" post in me and then the session summaries will resume next week so stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Guardians of the Vale - Session 3 - Raid on Loudwater!

Returning to Loudwater the party brings in the kobold heads as proof of their deed and a the dragon head as well. Gratified, the head of the town watch rewarded them well and included a bonus for slaying the dragon.

Now before they departed the dungeon the team had also cut out some of the dragon's major organs and they soon found a buyer for those and a dragonhide discovered in the lair AND the dragon's head, which was soon mounted over the town's gate. All in all it was quite a profitable expedition for the group.

The team's relaxation and money-counting in the town square was rudely interrupted when a section of the town's defensive wall blew apart and a force of goblins scampered in. Townspeople -and our heroes- stood in place open mouthed then began to run screaming from the scene. The party recovered and moved to engage.

The paladin and the druid moved to engage one cluster of goblins while the dwarf and the elf moved to stop another. A well in the center of the town square along with numerous trade wagons made moving and fighting somewhat more complicated but the goblins were not going to get by without a fight.

The paladin took down a couple of goblins then moved to block a few more. The druid took down one then was wounded and then wounded again and had to drop back out of the fight to recover. The paladin thought the fight was going his way until he was bull-rushed by one of the goblins, pushed back, and went plummeting into the well, crashing into the water 20' down. Wounded, soaked, and generally bedraggled he was very unhappy with this new situation. With the paladin stuck and the druid wounded this side of the fight was not looking good.

Meanwhile the elf ranger was dropping goblins quickly, firing away into the mob swarming through the square from atop a trader's wagon. The dwarf warlord was holding his own in hand to hand, letting the elf's powerful bow do it's work. This worked well until a goblin dressed in robes pointed a rod at the elf and blinded him with some kind of magic while the dwarf faced off with a bigger and meaner goblin who was clearly not afraid of one dwarf.

The combat swirled around the eastern half of the square as the goblins moved towards the curiosity shop. The elf shook off the blindness and jumped into hand to hand combat alongside the dwarf. The druid recovered and moved to join them, shifting into beast form and slashing up some goblins along the way. The three remaining heroes formed a rough line and attempted to block the goblins off but had a rough time of it as the goblin wizard blasted and blinded them, opening a path for his minions to kick down the door to the shop. The fighting raged until only the wizard and one bodyguard were left. The bodyguard toppled over at the hands of the dwarf. Then the goblin wizard tried to escape but was slain, ending the raid.

The Paladin had been trying to climb out for some time and finally he gave up and called for help. Two villagers hiding under a nearby wagon heard him and pulled him up out of the well but the fighting was over before he could rejoin.

In the aftermath of the raid the team talked to Garwain, owner of the shop that had been targeted by the goblins. He identified the item that the Goblins had picked up, a magic item brought in for trade by a wizard who picked it up in a nearby dungeon. Lady Moonfire  showed up as well to survey the damage and find out what had happened. She identified the dungeon as the Barrow of the Ogre King and offered the PC's 100 gold apiece to seek out the barrow and stop the goblins from any further raids. They accepted and prepared to move out.

DM Notes: This is the adventure in the FR Campaign Guide. I thought it would be a good companion to the starter adventure in the DMG and fighting outside would be a nice change to fighting in the tunnels and rooms of Kobold Hall. The incident with the Paladin being shoved into the well nicely illustrated what all those push, pull, and slide powers are for and then it turns out he isn't trained in athletics nor does he have a great STR bonus. He eventually quit trying to climb and used diplomacy which worked better for him although it was a little slower than climbing out directly would have been.

I let the apprentices rebuild their characters when they levelled up to 2 as they now have a better grasp of how the game works and what certain powers do and what is good and what they like. They are much happier now.

So the party has moved up a level, earned some gold, and picked up a few magic items and they are ready for their next big quest. Stay tuned for Session 4 - Into the Barrow of the Ogre King!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Guardians of the Vale - Session 2

Last time an impetuous dwarf charged down a secret tunnel and found himself face to face with a white dragon. This time...the fight!

The rest of the party moved in and an epic combat followed. The heroes opened with movement and ranged attacks while the dragon closed in and unleashed it's freezing breath on them. Staggering, the team spread out and began trying to carve up the beast. The Elf Ranger stayed back firing arrow after arrow into the thing. The Shifter Druid blasted it with lightning (Storm Spike!) several times as the Dragonborn Paladin and the Dwarf Warlord moved to surround it and engage it in melee from opposite sides. This was working alright until the paladin took a terrific beating in a flurry of claws and teeth and fell to the ground. The dwarf redoubled his effort and the druid shifted into beast form and charged in to attack. The druid did manage to pour a healing potion down the paladin's throat and he revived in short order, rejoining the fight. As the beast staggered under the renewed assault it lashed out in a fury with tooth, claw, and breath. One by one the heroes fell out of the fight until the bloodied and battered dragon was facing only the Elf Ranger. Realizing the fight was coming down to a one-on-one duel the wounded ranger dropped his bow, drew both swords, and charged the mighty beast. As it struck at him, he plunged both swords deep into the dragon, driving past white scales and into the heart of the beast. With a final groan it leaned over and collapsed, slain at last. The bloodied elf moved to each of his companions, reviving them one by one (though not before finding a treasure chest and some loot and picking out his own favorite piece) and soon a battered and weakened party of heroes could be seen leaving the small complex known as Kobold Hall, headed for Loudwater.

DM Notes: This was an epic fight that lasted 15 rounds, the longest 4E combat we have had in any campaign. Part of this was because there are only 4 characters in the party (not 5), part of it is because they are still relatively new to the game, and part of it is because they had already used their dailies and some action points against the kobold chief and did not take a long rest before facing the dragon. It was looking a little grim during some of the fight as the paladin dropped and at one point the druid dropped and in the end the paladin, druid and warlord were all down leaving a not-undamaged ranger to face off with the dragon alone. Fortunately the damage had already piled up and the dragon didn't have much left but the players didn't know that and I'm glad he took the right approach - charge!

Overall I was happy with the way the fight went and especially with how it ended but it did drag on a bit. Having only recently learned about action points themselves they were surprised to find out that some monsters get them too - that was fun. Maybe next time they will be better prepared and will tear through things a little faster. A solo fight at 1st level can clearly be a little tough but they survived while feeling like they overcame a real challenge and that's how it's supposed to be.

After this the party returned to Loudwater and advanced to 2nd level, ready to embark on a new quest.