Friday, March 17, 2017

40K Friday - Mayhem Pack Complete

I finally finished up the trio of helbrutes that forms the Mayhem pack for my Iron Warriors. Each is painted somewhat differently, but I think they look they still belong to the same force. They have some custom bases (to help them stand out), with snow (to help them blend in with the rest of the snow-themed army) and while I don;t think these pictures quite do them justice it'll have to do.

Nothing like deep-striking multiple crazed chaos dreadnoughts into the enemy backfield to stir up some trouble. I may get to field them in their final state as soon as this Sunday.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Unplayable" RPG's

I've been listening to a podcast that talks about old RPG's and it's been pretty entertaining both with games I know well and games I passed by. I'll talk more about them later but one thing that comes up in some of the conversations is "unplayable". I'm not going to pick on them specifically because I hear it all over the place. The recent listening just brought it to top of mind and I decided to discuss it in a post.

A strong "get off my lawn rant" advisory is now in effect. 

First, let's talk about what people mean when they describe a game this way. To me it really breaks down into two categories:

  • Literally, mechanically unplayable - I mostly hear this from younger gamers describing older games. I suspect it's more "I looked at it and looked too complicated for me to enjoy so I went no further with it" or "I've heard stories about it". I personally have yet to find a game that is literally "unplayable".
  • Complicated to the point that it's not worth playing, especially when there are alternative games available that cover a similar niche - this is far more common and it's how I feel about quite a few games out there. Really, it's more "not as enjoyable" rather than "unplayable". 
I make this distinction because every so often I hear a game dispatched as "unplayable", sometimes with a bonus of sneering attitude to go with it, which happens to be a game I've played or run for an extended period of time. This of course immediately puts the lie to the "unplayable" description. 

Somewhere along the internet's lifespan theoryhammer/theorycrafting became in some people's minds as valid a set of thoughts about a game as actual experience. Someone looks at the math of the game and declares it unworkable. Someone finds a rule with some kind of logic flaw in it and declares the entire game invalid as a result. 

It's bullshit.

RPG's have never been "here's a book - do everything exactly as it is written here." Never. Different people have interpreted things differently, modified rules into something they liked better, and added new rules to cover something they felt was missing or underrepresented. 

A typical response to this from the non-players is something like "well sure if you start changing the rules it works" - no! It probably "worked" just fine before! I'm changing the rules because I think it works better!

Another common cry: "Why should I pay for it if I have to modify the rules to make them work". If that's your attitude you probably shouldn't! In fact if that's your attitude I'm not sure you should be playing RPG's at all! I don't say that to be some kind of snob - I say it because it's a just part of what people do with  these kinds of games!

Let's get into some specifics:

  • Rifts - I regularly hear when the game comes up about how it's "unplayable". I ran a game for over a year, pretty much by the book. Core book plus whatever add-ons struck our fancy. yes, the rules are clunky and sometimes inconsistent. Yes I think the new Savage Worlds version is going to be a much better experience for most people. By no means though is it "unplayable".
  • Shadowrun: one of the things 4th edition SR touted was the new "better" task resolution system that made it much easier to figure the odds of success compared to the older editions where it was "almost unplayable". Seriously? One of the most popular RPG's of the 90's was "almost unplayable". I played in and ran multiple campaigns through 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions and we typically thought the system was damned innovative at the time. 
  • Twilight 2000: I was surprised when I ran across "unplayable" applied to this game online last year. When games like Aftermath exist? T2K 1st and 2nd are fairly simple games really. 1E is a percentile skills system not unlike BRP games and 2E simplifies it down from ratings of 1-100 to 1-10. Sure, you'd better like playing with military hardware as that's one of the attractions of the game, but there's nothing particularly complex about either one. Again I have played and run multiple campaigns in both versions so it's completely playable if you're interested.
  • Champions: "Combat takes so long, characters are so complicated, it's just unplayable" - one of the pillars of superhero gaming, something we played a bunch when we were 13 years old and  somehow figured out even though we didn't have the internet to explain things to us is now described by people at times as "unplayable". Please. 
  • GURPS: I actually saw GURPS described as "unplayable" online in the last month. It's not my favorite game anymore but "unplayable"? Sure you have a lot of choices when making a character but once your character is finished the game mechanics are pretty simple. It's 3d6 roll low! For almost everything! I assume this is mostly because it has a bunch of thick hardbacks for rules, despite the fact that you won't be using more than a few of them in most campaigns. 
  • Aftermath: Exhibit A for the classic over-complicated games of the 80's. I own it  - it's playable, it just not much fun IMO. Heck, it has a flowchart to show you how the mechanics work! Actually it has several of them. "Not something I want to play" is not "unplayable.
Even AD&D gets this nowdays - "This game is a mess, how did anyone play this?" - well, we read it, used our brains, and figured it out. 

"Weapon speeds?" - not in first edition.

"Grappling?" - not usually. We used some replacement system form an issue of Dragon.

"Level limits" - sure. Multiclassing was cool.

"AH-HA! So you just ignored the parts of the game that didn't work!" - Pretty much. We still do. There are parts of ICONS that I mostly ignore, and that's a pretty simple very modern system. That doesn't make it a bad game or, god forbid, "unplayable". It means we modify something we already like to make it better in our eyes. Like people do with clothes. Like people do with cars.  Why is this so shocking to some people? Are they under the impression there's a trophy for following the book as written? Have you seen the errata documents for most big RPG books?

Does this really look all that complicated?
Boring, sure, but complicated?

This usually happens though after we have played the game as written a few times.  Not before we ever play a game. Not after we play it once. After 3 or 4 sessions though you have a fair idea of how your group works with a game and what might be better for your group. The games I discuss on this blog are almost always a game I am running, a game I have run in the past, or a game I am about to run - there's a reason for that. I'm not terribly interested in opinions about a game from someone that's never played or run it so I try not to do that. I'm much more interested in practical experiences. 

As one example Savage Worlds suffers from the "let's change stuff after reading the rules once" problem quite a bit.  It mainly seems to happen with people whose only other experience is with some form of D&D, but that's not a strict rule. Someone comes into a forum or a Facebook group and announces how much they like the game and they have a couple of genius changes that they're going to use. Inevitably they've played once and something fluky happened or they haven't actually played at all yet. SW players tend to be a friendly lot but the usual response is "OK, but you may want to try it by the book rule a little longer before you change it." You want to know why? because the game has been around with only minor changes for 15 years now and it works. It works very well for fast playing pulpy RPG campaigns. There may  be a genre-specific thing someone is trying to do and that's cool but there isn't much that needs to be tweaked in the core rules. A more common problem is people not understanding the rules and trying to make changes based on a misunderstanding but there are parts that are tricky to explain purely on a page so that's not always the reader's fault.  Someday Pinnacle will find the perfect way to explain the Shaken rule and we will enter a new golden age I am sure, but until then a little conversation helps explain it much easier. 

Maybe it's the guns that make all of these "unplayable"?

My closing take: no game is "unplayable". Some are harder, some are easier, some will be less fun for your group than others, and that's how it's all supposed to work! I don't have any interest in playing or running Rolemaster but I know groups that have played it for years - clearly it's not unplayable. There was a Kickstarter last year for an updated rulebook for original Deadlands and it blew my mind - why would anyone play that when Reloaded is available? Apparently quite a few people because it funded quickly and went way over the goal. 

Oops! - Nope, that's not it!

I suppose I could re-title this "a word I don't like" because that's what it boils down to. I think we can do better. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

British Runequest

Runequest 3rd Edition is mainly known as booklets in a box from Avalon Hill, at least in the US. It's also known for not being over-illustrated to be kind. It's the version I played the most back in the 80's, but there was another version released by Games Workshop in the UK.

The Avalon Hill version:

It's not terrible but it's all sparse black and white line art.

The GW version:

Also, they are hardcover books. They do have the infamous 80's GW binding which means they will come apart on you, but it's still cooler than a pink paper pamphlet.

The internal art is very different:

I'm pretty sure that's a chaos warrior from Warhammer. In fact, Warhammer's 3rd edition (where they went to hardbacks with some color inside) came out the same year as this book (1987).

 More warhammer style art.

Even the black and white art is from warhammer. This gives the book a very different look and feel than the restrained presentation of the AH version. Not all of the art is repurposed from the miniatures game but even the other pieces use a lot of the same artists and so have a similar style.

Some stay that art in an RPG doesn't really matter. I will use this as a prime exhibit that it does, The art in here appeals to the 16-year-old in me way more than the AH version. Pictures of people picking fruit or preparing food or guys in weirdly ornate armor in weird landscapes or surging in the middle of a mass battle? That's an easy choice.

I'm sure a lot of this was dictated by the decisions to separate the rules from Glorantha in this edition. once you lose a setting like that you need something strong to replace it. "Fantasy Europe" as presented was not all that compelling in the AH version. GW's unstated but definitely illustrated option of Warhammer is much much stronger. It's not as culturally developed as Glorantha, but it's a visceral world full of conflict, magic, and enough history to get a party going.

I was a little surprised at the timing on this one when I went back and checked. GW had released the Warhammer Fantasy RPG in 1986. This came out a year later. There are enough similarities that I would guess RQ was one of the games the WFRP designers had played previously, probably more so than D&D or AD&D. I'm guessing RQ was popular enough to make it worth printing a new version - especially if you could save money by re-using Warhammer art - but it had to be separate from the WFRP line due to licensing  restrictions. It's an interesting situation where one company had two fantasy RPG's in print at the same time.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting enough to share. If you're a Runequest fan they're worth checking out.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Something New for Monday: D&D Beyond

Well over the weekend some news broke about a D&D digital toolset that stirred up some excitement. The article and discussion at EN World has some interesting questions and answers. What jumped out at me:

  • It's not a virtual tabletop, it's designed to enhance play at a table. OK, cool. Since we play face to face I'm more interested than if it was another VTT.
  • Character builder - ok that's expected. Are 5E characters really complicated enough to need one though?
  • Digital character sheet - ah, so presumably you'd be able to run your character from a tablet or a laptop, maybe even a phone. If you're going to have one of these. might as well include character creation too. Makes more sense now.
  • Rules Compendium - hyperlinked rules is a handy thing to have. This is already covered to some degree by the SRD. The official one is here (and downloadable) with others here and here and here. I suppose if you're going to have a D&D application then including a rules reference makes sense too.
  • "D&D news, articles, forums, and more" - I suppose it's handy to have these built into an app too but we've already had these for decades accessed through an app called an Internet Browser. I'm not sure this is really something you can tout as a special feature of an app. 

So sitting at a table with this new app on all of our devices, what do we get? We get hyperlinked rules (OK, but I already have those), a character builder, digital sheets, and a way to distract all of my players with news and forums built right in - great!

Oh yeah, Call of Cthulu - there's a game that just screams "I need a character builder" - sigh

As far as the character builder, I just don't see a huge need for one. Sure, it's D&D so someone will make one (we've been doing that since the 80's at least) but I don't think it really solves a problem - it's more of a nice to have. Compared to 3E, 4E, Pathfinder, and other games like Hero System, GURPS, and Shadowrun 5E creation is just so simple that this seems like making something because it's expected rather than a real challenge. Also considering 5E's relatively glacial pace in adding new character options it really seems like a stretch. This is not a question I have with just this app - HeroLab offers a Savage Worlds set too. I can make a SW character in 5 minutes, because they just are not that complicated. I suppose it's worth it to someone or it wouldn't exist but it does surprise me sometimes.  For D&D maybe it will be an easier way to get the Unearthed Arcana stuff out to people for playtesting and feedback for eventual inclusion in some official material, but that's the biggest benefit I can see. 

Digital character sheets are alright but I have had players using HeroLab for iPad in my Pathfinder game and they lock up at least once per session - I don't know why, they just do. My paper sheets never do, and they never run low on battery power either. I'm a fan of technology in general but I've noticed gamers in particular tend to think that adding tech to something can only make it better and sometimes that is not the case. The digital sheet is handy in games that use a lot of conditions, like D&D 4E and M&M and I can see some benefits there. Most D&D types games though ... I just don't see it. Sure, you can get an app on your tablet and use it to build and manage your character for $ every month - or you can do it on paper for about zero additional cost. Oh, you're hasted? you can use that app etc or here's a sticky note or an index card with the relevant modifiers you can hang onto.  Plus, you lose so much character with the lack of doodles in the margins, cheeto fingerprints, Dr. Pepper splashes, and pizza grease stains! 

Advanced 2050's interface by way of the 90's

I suppose I'm in a weird place for this as I'm trying to reduce the amount of device involvement at the table these days. With the M&M campaign I'm fine building a character in HeroLab but I'm back to running the game without it as much as I can. I use it as a rules reference for powers sometimes but that's about it. For Deadlands it's all about the cards and chips and miniatures on the table - I just don't need a  PC or a tablet to run it. I find physical stuff like sheets or cards that can be handed over to a player as needed- whether it's a condition, an item, or an NPC - is just more fun than one of us reading a screen to each other. 

One big exception - I'm running a lot of adventures from PDF's. I like to have physical copies of rulebooks and things the players might use but adventures are something that is really only used by the DM. I'll print out maps and any player handouts but I don't really need to print the whole adventure. It works pretty well so far for DCC, RQ, and ICONS and I figure it will expand into other games too. 

In the end, I'm not playing 5E so there's no immediate impact to me specifically, but I am interested in seeing where this goes. We will play it sooner or later and you can bet I'll be checking on the status and the business model for this tool.