Friday, February 22, 2013

40K Friday - Forgeworld

One thing that I hear from time to time on 40K podcasts or see discussed in forums is Forgeworld. In particular I see and hear griping that Forgeworld isn't allowed in some tournaments.I don't get the complaining. The dress-up pieces like icons and symbols, alternate bolter patterns, and alternate figures for existing units (from old marks of marine armor to things like the ork biker boss) are always allowed and generally make things look better with no rules impact - those are great. It's only really a problem when we get into new units, new tanks, and new types of things that need special rules.

We don't really use any FW stuff here and we rarely play in tournaments so I don't care much whether it's allowed in tournaments or not. It used to be expensive and unbalanced, now it's expensive and ... less unbalanced. I've seen some pieces I have liked but helping the Apprentices get their armies up and running eats up most of my extra 40k budget. Of course, some people have a bunch of it and I'm sure they'd like it to be included in everything. So why shouldn't it be?

  • I open up the marine codex and I don't see contemptor dreadnoughts. The codex is the complete list of allowed units for that army in 40K. If it's not in the codex it should be optional. The only area of weirdness we're dealing with right now is flyers and that's mainly because we're still in an edition changeover that went and made flyers official, and even then the  flyers are listed in the back of the rulebook under the unit classifications. Other than this unusual case, if it's not in the book it's not part of the army. I'm totally comfortable with this especially in a tournament context. A competitive environment is the last place to introduce experimental/optional units. As much complaining as there has been over the years about everything from scenario balance to comp scoring in tournaments this seems like a no-brainer.
  • I can't walk into a store and buy a forgeworld model, even a GW store. The only way to acquire a FW model is to order it online. Until anyone can walk into a store and pick up an Ork mega-dread then it should be optional.  
  • Many tournaments or campaigns are promotional vehicles for a local store. What incentive do they have to allow in models and units that they can't carry, even if they wanted to? I'm betting they would like to see people mainly playing with models that could be purchased in that same store. Yes this could be extended to limit the use of conversions and alternative models as well as FW stuff, but it's not like that's new - in the past quite a few tournaments have been "GW models only". I don't think rewording that to exclude FW is a big deal.
So there are rules, access, and business reasons to not allow Forgeworld models into every event. This lack of universal acceptance should not be a surprise - FW stuff has never been an automatic "in". If someone orders a nice big expensive FW model with plans on using it in a tournament prior to asking if FW is allowed, well, I'd say that's a bad idea. If someone buys it because it's a cool model that works well and fits in with their army then excellent - that's what they're for! Enjoy them! Play with your friends and have a blast! Not every model you build is going to be allowed in every tournament. I've had one guy complain about my old minis - he didn't know they were old GW mini's, probably because they were older than he was -sigh. Heck my Ork Bomma was built for some optional scenario thing years ago and it's never been tournament legal - but we're using it now at home. My Battlewagons aren't GW either. My Kans are built out of spare parts so they might be - technically they are 90% GW parts - but I don't really count on them being allowed. My drop pods are old, built for a time before GW made drop pod models - allowable? Probably not! 

As mentioned above we play almost exclusively at home with friends and family so that's what I build for and where I expect to use stuff. Given that, I never have to worry about what's legal or not. Tournaments are always going to be more picky and restrictive about these kinds of things. As long as you understand that and stay on top of the latest rules for that event, then it should be less disappointing when it happens.

So, enjoy your cool models! Enough with the complaining! The tournaments aren't everything - don't let them define the game for you!

Next Friday: More Dark Angels!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Swords of Eveningstar

So I took a look at the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar adventure a while back and found it somewhat lacking. I've been digging in to the older parts of the Realms recently and I knew that was where one of Ed Greenwood's more famous and active groups started out. The adventure is roughly comparable to T1 but not as good when it comes to the dungeon part of things. Disappointed, I moved on but I eventually remembered that there was a trilogy about that same group and the first book had Eveningstar in the title. I picked it up thinking it might fill in some of what I was looking for. Well, not exactly.

The setting: It's Cormyr in the Forgotten Realms, presumably pre-Spellplague and pre-Time of Troubles as Azoun IV is the king. The odd thing is that the characters are from and begin in and around Espar, a town in western Cormyr, not Eveningstar.

The characters: We have remarkably attractive yet also remarkably noble ranger Florin Falconhand as our lead. We have some other members of the adventuring party whose names will be familiar to those who read a lot about the Realms' early days including Doust Sulwood, future lord of Shadowdale, Dove Silverhand (who I believe ends up some time later as Dove Falconhand) and some NPC's like the whiny princess who is a major character, the king of Cormyr who shows up several times, the royal mage of Cormyr who keeps showing up as well, and numerous others.

Doust knows Elminster! 
The story: 

Part 1 (Chapters 1-9): Our heroes live in Espar doing not a whole lot and chafing at the lack of adventure. Their goal is to get a royal charter so they can go adventuring legally but they seem to be unable to make this happen. Florin runs into an old friend and fakes a kidnapping to teach whiny princess a lesson and ends up saving the king's life from an ambush. Afterwards, Azoun grants him the charter and he and his friends are off, now known as the Knights of Eveningstar and charged with investigating the haunted halls!

This part is a little hard to swallow plot-wise. The faked kidnapping seems like a questionable thing for a "good" character to do considering there is real danger in the area. The ambush intervention is strictly a lucky coincidence and not attributable to any special ability on the part of the character. I also thought it was odd to name the adventuring group after a completely different town that they are not connected to in any way! It would be like naming your Dallas-based adventuring band the Knights of Shreveport - it's not terribly far away but if you're not from there and have never been there why would you do it? It's just clumsy and I have to wonder how much of that really came from the original adventures and how much was just added in for the book. Most of this first section focuses solely on Florin Falconhand so it seems unlikely to have come about in that early actual play.

Part 2 (Chapters 10-18): The newly-official adventuring band travels to Eveningstar, gets introduced and officially announced by the king and a bunch of important NPC's. We see a bit of the town here but not a ton of time is spent on it. Finally in Chapter 13 we finally have a party of adventurers entering the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar! It only took 180+ pages to get them there - now we're going to see some serious stuff! What do they encounter? A spider and some Zhentarim and some traps - and that's about it! For three whole chapters! Then they pull out, rest and talk, head back in, and get teleported to Arabel!

This part seems pretty thin on the dungeon action to me. They encounter pretty mundane stuff and a lot of empty rooms. If it was part of an actual play story on a blog or a forum post there is nothing about it that would stand out. It's fairly accurate as far as old school D&D goes - large party, some arguing over approach, and several characters live only because of healing potions - so it's not that it doesn't read like D&D. It's that it doesn't read as anything special when it comes to D&D.

Part 3 (Chapters 19-27): The group stays in Arabel getting into some trouble with the local lord and some Zhentarim agents and some traitor war wizards. There's a whole secondary plot about a Zhent agent running around in disguise that becomes a much bigger part of the story here, and some stuff about the Queen of Cormyr and some other nobles plotting against the king but most of it has nothing to do with the main characters. Eventually they teleport back to the Haunted Halls (not because they wanted to go there - once again it's largely by accident)  and they end up fighting a different shadowy Zhentarim agent who has had no real direct contact with them up til now. Eventually the bad guys seem to be dead, the good guys win, a few characters die, and things are set up for the next story

This part is just a mess - we have royal intrigue, we have Zhentarim intrigue, we have no less than three different Zhent agents running around causing trouble, plus traitorous nobles, plus a traitorous war wizard, multiple Cormyrian lords and ladies, multiple Cormyrian non-traitor war wizards, party members going bad, and just way too much going on to make a coherent, focused storyline. Sometimes less is more, and this would have been much better focusing on the adventuring band and  making all the Cormyrian intrigue a separate book entirely. Some of the intra-party stuff makes little to no sense and I can't tell how it would have gone down in actual play and I am open to the possibility that a lot of it did not, unless half the party were NPC's anyway.

Florin Falconhand - he has a mini!

Game Stuff:
 The main Zhent badguy uses some creature to disguise himself repeatedly throughout the story. A creature that in 30+ years of D&D, a considerable part of that spent in the Realms, I have never heard of before this novel. Oh, and this creature craps out something called a "mindworm" that lets the villain take control of anyone who ingests one, apparently with no saving throw as it works every single time. It bothers me that in a game full of magic spells and magic items that can change one's appearance and charm or control other people we have to make up an entirely new means of doing this in the form of a magical beastie. It just reeks of heavy-handedness and I seriously question whether any of that was going on in the background of that original campaign all those years ago.

 Cormyr in this novel is swarming with war wizards who are constantly scrying people and reading minds all in the name of protecting the kingdom, aided by purple dragons who apparently exist only to arrest or slay anyone who the wizards deem a threat. Cormyr comes across as a police state that seems about as pleasant a place to live as Thay! I've read a fair amount of stories set in  Cormyr and I've never seen it like this.

Wrapping Up:
 I went into this hoping for a look at some of the original adventures in the Realms, particularly the party that would later be the Knights of Myth Drannor that I've heard so much about over the years. I was also hoping to learn something new about Eveningstar and the Haunted Halls. I was very disappointed. The plot is a convoluted mess, the story jumps all over Cormyr to a far larger cast of characters than it needs to, and despite the name it does not spend all that much time on Eveningstar or the Halls. The main characters, the adventuring band, are just not that memorable. There's the earnest male ranger, the competent female thief, the buff female fighter, the annoyingly lecherous male cleric (if a player was this annoying in my game I'd have to talk to him about it), the dull cleric (Doust!), the dull wizard, and some spares they pick up partway through the story that don't stand out at all. If the intrigue stuff was pared away maybe more time spent on the characters would have made them more memorable. Considering I just spent over 400 pages reading about them, that's not good.

Florin in 16-bit glory!
I will probably read the next book in the series just to see where it goes, but I'm not all that excited about it. Maybe it will up the average.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rough Ground: A Look at Two Troubled RPG Projects

There are a lot of interesting discussions around the net about handling the business side of the hobby and it's a topic that interests me quite a bit. My job involves running projects - budgets, schedules, meeting deadlines, that kind of thing - so I'm always interested in seeing how game companies manage that process. Today I thought I would look at two projects I was interested in that have run into some difficulty.

Sometimes things go well and sometimes they do not. Game companies experiencing delays is nothing new but sometimes an extreme case pops up and makes for an interesting case study. Sometimes two cases pop up in a similar time frame and make it even more interesting.


This was the subject of a fairly well known kickstarter. The Kickstarter funded in April 2012. The original schedule was to have a PDF of the dungeon out in June and hardcopy books in August.

  • The writer claimed "Family Health Issues" and the timing was revised to PDF in the fall, Books in the winter. 
  • Communication with the writer seems to have slowly decreased and stopped completely in November of 2012 with the final versions still not delivered and further progress impeded due to IP rights issues. 
Now the company that ran the kickstarter has been making efforts to keep backers informed and to show more transparency, but the principal creator and writer has been almost absent from the business communications, online discussions, and even his blog for months, leading to some backlash. There have been some indirect updates indicating that another family health issue has come up, but this newer episode seems to have only come up in the last few months, when the project was already 6 months behind.

There was also an impression that the material was already written and just needed to be cleaned up and laid out for printing because the dungeon was featured prominently on his blog. The amount of writing and the time it has taken has led some to conclude that it was not anywhere near "complete" or at the "just needs some polish" stage, and of course the author has not been online defending or correcting this impression, making it worse.

The latest stroke against the project was that negative reviews of the playtest material came out in multiple places, even places that might have been expected to take a fairly favorable view of the thing. I was a little surprised to see that, but I probably shouldn't have been, on the internet anyway.

There are long educational threads here and here and more in other places, some of which get pretty ugly.

So the biggest issues associated with this project have been the lack of communication, the lengthy delays in completion, and some disappointment at the quality of the content. A lot of the comments on various forums have been "if only he would communicate with us then people would not be so upset". This would certainly address the lack of communication, but I'm not sure it clears up the other two issues. Right now there is no projected release date for Dwimmermount.

In complete contrast communications-wise I give you:


The Team-Up pre-order was announced in July 2011 with a release date of October 2011 for the PDF and November 2011 for the printed copy.

  • The rpgnet thread asking if we would ever see it started in January of 2011. Adamant joined in and stated that there were printer issues but they hoped to release it by the end of the month. 
  • In March it was announced that it would be released at the end of March.
  •  Later pre-orders were extended to April of 2012 with the promise of the PDF later that month and the print copies to follow shortly after. The art was mentioned as being locked in April as well.
  • In late April Adamant announced that it would be two more weeks, placing the release sometime in May.
  • In May Adamant announced it would be out in June. 
  • During June this was revised to end of June.
  • In July the release was announced as "before August".
  • In August this was revised to "end of August".
  • In September the designer said he was sick.
  • In September the original creator of the game reclaimed it but due to the contractual situation cannot publish Team-Up directly himself
  • Subsequently the designer stated the PDF and print copies would be out in "the coming week"
  • A week after that it was going for approval "this week" and then the PDF would be going after that (this is all still in September 2012)
  • The next update is that it's going for approval in November. This is reiterated several times during the month and the designer claims depression as well
  • In December the designer promised next week again.
  • On December 30th the designer promised that it would go out this week and claimed family stuff as the reason for the delay. He also brought up that files had been deleted from dropbox which would appear to have happened some time prior to this announcement and there is some finger-pointing at this unnamed other person who deleted the files
  • In February it was announced that it would be by 2/13 at the latest
So far Team-Up has not been released. Announced release dates have been October 2011, January 2012, March 2012, April 2012, May 2012, June 2012, July 2012, August 2012, September 2012, November 2012, December 2012, January 2013, and February 2013.

So having spent time looking through the information on these two troubled projects, what did I learn?

First,  I'm not sure that over-communication (ITU) is any better than under-communication (Dwimmermount) when a project is really really behind. At some point a line is crossed and the only good answer is "here's the product" and even then I suspect people will be far more critical of the content than they would have been and this will only add to the damaged reputation of the project. Maybe a slightly more refined lesson might be that over-communication is better but it absolutely must consist of more than yet-another-iffy release-date.

Second, gamers online seem to be extremely forgiving of missed release dates, especially when caused by health issues, family issues, or depression. I was kind of surprised at this. I'm onboard with it too when we're talking hobby but I'm a lot less forgiving once someone has taken money for a product - that's not just a hobby any more, that's business. But a lot of gamers don't seem to care when the force field of "sick" is raised, not even when the health issue happens when the project is already way behind. The commitments made on these and other projects don't seem to carry much weight with some of the people who made them and that's not a good place to be if you're trying to make a business out of this.

Third,  I don't think Kickstarter is the source of all problems as some detractors cry - clearly people can blow it with good old-fashioned pre-orders as well. At least KS has the built-in safeguard of having to meet a goal before any money is taken, which is more protection than a pre-order has. The downside is that it seems to have opened up funding options that exceed some people's ability to deliver and that's a shame. Again, reputation is a big deal in smaller industries and I expect this will become a bigger deal in the future, especially Kickstarter-specific track records as Dwimmermount's creator seemed pretty solid on the surface.

Fourth, if you're going to have delays, make sure the project is good. Well, really it should be good regardless, but if it's delayed AND it's not that great, well, no one benefits from that. People say on forums that they're willing to wait to make sure a book is really good but I don't think most of the delays in these projects were related to making the project better - I think they were mostly long periods where the project was not being worked on at all. Extra time does not automatically equal extra goodness.

One note: Tavis Allison has been the communication focal point for Dwimmermount even though he is not writing it and is just trying to manage it out of a hole as best he can and he has been a stand-up guy during some pretty heated discussions. The contrast in approaches has been amazing, and he has shown serious professionalism throughout this episode. Also, on Team-Up, Steve Kenson has been a model of professionalism as well, being the creator and now publisher of ICONS but dealing with a situation he can't directly resolve. Both of these guys have shown a remarkable restraint when it comes to bus-tossing and finger-pointing, probably more than I would have. As in some other tough situations, fire can reveal strength as well as weakness.

What would I have done different? I'm not sure I should even venture into armchair-quarterbacking since I don't run a game company but having run other types of projects I will say this: At some point you have to step back and look at the project and assess where things are. Sometimes, the right call is to end it now, uncompleted, to stop any further waste of time and money. I think once a project is six months past due, there have been health issues, there have been other delays, and the writer is flat-out stating they are having trouble focusing on getting it done, well, I think you call it right there. Return the money, apologize for the problems, and try to wipe the slate clean. If this had happened with Dwimmermount last year I think that given the forgiving nature of gamers that things would be better for everyone involved and there's no reason a  version of it couldn't be published at some point in the future when the author recovers some enthusiasm for the project again. Same with Team-Up - refund the pre-orders, return the work to its various authors, and let it go. Now of course these have gone on for so long that there are tax issues, Kickstarter's fee for KS projects, card expirations, and the simple fact that a lot of the money may already be gone. Those are big obstacles and the only way out now may be to forge ahead on some kind of game-writing death march - I'm sure that's going to lead to a quality product.

I guess my final conclusion is that as forgiving as gamers are, no one likes broken promises and that's what we're seeing here: a release date is a promise, taking payment for a product is a promise, and a company or writer's prior work is a sort of promise regarding the quality of what's coming. There were a lot of comments on those forum discussions about not taking money on something before the manuscript is done - that's good advice! Whether it's a Kickstarter or a pre-order I think that's a solid approach.  Hopefully enough people learn enough lessons from troubled projects like these that things get better next time. I'm sure some will and I'm sure others won't, but the lessons are there all the same.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Extremely Expert DM Advice #4 - Running D&D

Well I'm about out of advice but I thought since I mostly run D&D and it's a fairly popular game that I would do one game-specific post. As always, take this with reservations as I'm not in your band. I can hit the high points here though:

First: Which Edition? - You may have heard something about this on the internet, and it's true - people care about edition differences! There are really two approaches:

    • Pick the edition you want to run, be up front about it, stick to it, and only accept players who want to play that version. The upside here is unity, the downside is that you may not find enough players to make a game of it.
    • See what most potential players want to play and run that. The upside is that you should have a big enough group to get the game going but the complication is that you have to be willing to run that set of rules.
 I've tried it both ways and either one can work.

Second: Published Setting or Homebrew? Even if you get the edition right some people hate some of the published settings and some people hate homebrew campaigns. Again, be up front so no one gets surprised. Maybe you have a series of adventures in mind that could be set in several different settings - if it pulls in a couple of players consider using one of them. Maybe it only makes sense in your homebrew world - in that case stick to your guns and make your case. Once you have a campaign going, some of the die-hards may change their minds.

Third: Maps and Mini's or "Theatre of the Mind" - I don't find this to be a make or break for most players but it's good to know before they go and buy mini's for their character, a sidekick, an animal companion, and their summoned creatures. Heck, maybe you're going to use legos - that's cool, just let people know up front. This also impacts the playing area, and if you're not hosting you might want to get that worked out ahead of time.

Fourth: Campaign Style - Published Adventure Path? Sandbox? Modules? Megadungeon? Conversions? Different editions may cater to one style of play over another, and people may make certain assumptions, so it's best to give your players some idea of the plan here, especially with a new group. It doesn't have to be a novel:

  • "I want to run a 3rd edition game using the Age of Worms adventure path set in Greyhawk" pretty much sums it up. 
  • "I'm going to run a homebrew sandbox using Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Companion starting at 1st level, details to follow" works too. 
  • "This will be a limited campaign of 4E D&D starting at 11th level to play through Against the Giants set in Eberron" is another perfectly acceptable setup.
Again, once you have an established group you may not need to be that specific, this is assuming you have a new campaign with a new group. I didn't spill the plans for my current 4E game to the players other than "we're going all he way to 30" and that was fine for us.

Other Stuff: Starting level (not every game has to start at 1st), usage of electronic play aids at the table (I like my players to use real dice when we're sitting at the table together), character restrictions (race, class, multiclassing, etc), do you prefer characters to be ready to go for session 1 or do you want to make them together - all the little details that may not be universal to every group. Some of these may not need a declaration up front, but it's good to at least consider them as everyone comes together for the first time.

Once you get all of this nailed down and get your game going then the other stuff applies, particularly the keeping it going advice. Set a schedule, stick to the same game, etc. Some D&D-specific pitfalls:

The TPK: Sometimes they happen - I try to take it as an opportunity to assess the game as far as what we're doing and what the players want to do now. I usually ask my players if they want to continue, if they want to change something, or if they want to start a completely new campaign. This is an opportunity to better align the game with what your players want if there is a gap there. Maybe this AP is boring them, maybe this megadungeon is not what they want to do anymore - find out and see if you can fix it.

Sometimes feelings get hurt so it's important to air that out before continuing like nothing happened. Maybe there is some intra-party friction, maybe some of the players feel like you're being unfair in some way - get all that out in the open and resolve it before you pick up the dice again. I have found this to work better in person than over email if possible.

If you have some intricate plot going then a TPK can wreck the entire campaign in one session. If things are more open then it may not even slow the party down - everyone makes up another character (or pulls out their backup), meets up in some plausible fashion, and then heads back out into the wilderness/dungeon. If the plot is tied to a particular family, cult, or region then at least some of the replacement party should share some of those ties. It's another reason not to build the entire campaign around a particular character - because sometimes they die! 

The Edition Change: You wouldn't think this would come up often enough to be a real problem but, well, it has for me. Here's how I have dealt with it in the past:
  • Basic to AD&D: we kind of just ignored it, mixing and matching parts some of the time, playing exclusively B/X in some campaigns, exclusively AD&D in others. We took Basic characters thru Saltmarsh and AD&D characters thru the Isle of Dread so it wasn't a huge deal back then.
  • AD&D to AD&D 2E: At the time our AD&D campaigns had petered out and we were playing a lot of other stuff, mainly GURPS and Hero. We took the new edition as a time to start up a brand new campaign at 1st level and it was a lot of fun. We added some new players and got on a new regular scheduled for the 2E game and kept it going for a long time with the same party.
  • 2E to 3E: The 2E Greyhawk game I was running had largely run out of gas so this wasn't a conflict - I started up a  brand new campaign in Greyhawk using 3E and kept it running for years. The 2E game I was playing in had reached some higher levels and our characters had settled down into one region, so for 3E we fired up the next generation, mainly playing heirs and associates of those 2E characters in the new rules, setting out from our home base to look for new adventure. It worked quite well and gave that whole campaign a fresh start.
  • 3.0 to 3.5 - We ignored it. I told the group if anyone wanted to bring in a 3.5 character that was fine we would just work through it as it came up and that's exactly what we did.
  • 3E to 4E: Well I mostly ignored it. We had started up a 3E Adventure Path with the intention of playing through the whole thing and no one was terribly interested in switching systems, so we just kept right on trucking with 3.5 until the group ran out of gas. Then we took some time off and I started up a 4E game with a new group (some of the same players, some new) that had nothing to do with our 3E runs.

With Next on the horizon I'd say it's going to be very difficult to switch an existing 4E character over to Next and keep anything like the same feel. I would recommend finishing out your 4E campaign and then deciding whether to switch. Also, with next still being in "test" mode it's going to be tricky to run a campaign using rules that are in pretty significant flux too. There's a point in favor of older editions: You don't have to deal with this problem. In general I don't like switching rulesets in the middle of an ongoing campaign. If we started it in 3E or 4E then I'd like to finish it in 3E or 4E, assuming it's a campaign that can be "finished". A sandbox or megadungeon could be a a little trickier but even then you might pick a level to call it "done" and let it go when the party hits that. 

There's also the question of players' willingness to buy new rulebooks. For 3.5 and 4E my group was not interested in rushing out to spend more money on new books. This makes it easy. Other players have a fixation on only playing the latest and greatest - if you don't switch you may lose them and there's not much you can do to compromise there. Let them go and invite them back when you do make the switch.

What edition would I use if starting a game with a new group today? I'd probably see what my pool of players preferred and run that, with the understanding that as next starts to crystallize I would want to give it a try down the road. If everyone likes 4E do 4E. I don't know that I would promise a 1-30 climb if you're interested in what's coming Next but you could start at Paragon tier and work through that.  If everyone likes Pathfinder go ahead and run it - it's not going away anytime soon. If there's no clear best choice then pick up a retro-clone and a megadungeon and try some old school operation for a few months. I'd probably call it a "limited campaign" and put a time limit on it and then plan on checking out Next when the time came.