Saturday, December 15, 2018

Greatest Hits #15 - Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?

Another art-related post ...

I think this question has come up before and my answer is always the same: Shadowrun. That single scene covers almost everything you do in Shadowrun and shows what makes it different: guy plugging in to computer, girl with a gun and some kind of magic effect, and then indian-painted guy with dual sub-machine guns, all in a dirty part fo town with a backdrop of skyscrapers and opposition - Yeah, that covers a lot of ground.

It's so perfect for the game that second edition kept the same cover - how often do you see that?

Later edition still have nice art but 3rd kind of lost it's purpose and became "generic action scene", 4th goes back to something similar to these covers (a step in the right direction), then 5th is so busy I can't tell what's going on.

My runner-up hasn't changed in a long time either:

Gamma World has had some incredibly evocative covers and this one really pushed my buttons as a kid when it was current - armed men going into a ruined, overgrown city - please tell me more! That is a whole bunch of what the game is about. Plus the whole style is pure 60's-70's sci-fi art and it really sets the tone.

Then with second edition we get this:

This is another winner with Giant Deadly Robot acting out against a human with a stone axe and some kind of mutant with an energy weapon - yep, that's pretty much Gamma World. The cover of the rulebook inside the box was pretty solid too:

Mutant with pistol and shield and another with a fusion gun against blaster guy on a horse? Yep, that's the game!

Honorable Mention:

It's not a rulebook but it is the origin of the legendary Stop Sign Shield! This picture, again, is totally in line with what a Gamma World adventure looks like.

In contrast ...

There are lots of good covers out there, and even more bad ones - static posed hero, static posed monster, symbol of something relevant to game + title of game = boring and non-evocative. They may be pretty at times but they are often just too plain. The covers for 5th edition D&D and for FFG Star Wars are usually pretty and well done technically but they don't tell me much about the game itself. Most Pathfinder rulebook covers have some kind of action happening and so in my mind are a step above. Look at Numenera or The Strange too - what do they tell you, visually, about the game or the setting? Even the new Trek game, for example, on the collector's edition has a cover picture that is a close up shot of a starship hull.

WHY? It's incredibly boring and tell you nothing about the game! At least the standard version has some characters doing something! It's a great example of "pretty but uninformative". People get excited about Star Trek ships, sure - but not hull textures. Not really.

It's an interesting question today and I ended up writing quite a bit more about it than I expected.

More tomorrow!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Greatest Hits #14 - Which RPG has the most inspiring art?

A companion to the prior post, a little bit apart in time...

This is a little tougher because I don't usually distinguish between cover art and interior art - I tend to think a game looks good or it doesn't.

That said, my initial thought was the FFG Star Wars line because it is really well done, consistent across books and lines, and makes for some very pretty game books. I don't know that it's really "inspiring" though. The Star Wars movies and shows and books and comic books and video games are already pretty inspiring and so it's more reinforcing an existing thing than starting a fire on its own. Also, while the illustrations are both numerous and well done they do not generally show you things that your characters might be doing during a game - they're Star Wars pictures for sure, but they are not really Star Wars RPG-specific pictures:

  • Here's a star destroyer flying near a planet
  • Here's Han Solo sitting at a bar
  • Here's a droid peering through some binoculars
  • Here's a scout walker
  • Here's a couple of characters standing still and looking "at the camera". 
So while they look good they are not really "inspiring" me to get a group together and roll some dice. They confirm the setting but do not really enhance it, in an RPG sense. 

So now that I've talked about what doesn't do it for me, here's one that does: Dungeon Crawl Classics. Why?
  • It's all strong black and white art.
  • It tends towards a "weird" vibe. You don't always know what you're looking at.
  • It shows things that could easily (and maybe should, easily) happen during the game.

It does, for me anyway, build an interest in playing the game as I read through the rulebook or an adventure. Heck, even the maps are more evocative of some lost document than in most other games and yet they remain as usable if not moreso than most others. 

Yes, some of it is the old-school thing which does have a certain appeal to those of us who started in that earlier era. 

But the very unexplored/unexplainable/rough around the edges tone of much of the art enhances the atmosphere of the game. We don't know everything about the setting. We can;t instantly identify every monster that is shown. We don't know why that character looks that way and this other character looks completely different as far as dress, gear, and attitude, and in the game you aren't going to know everything either!

When it comes to art-matching-expected/designed-tone-of-game I can't think of a better example than this game.

One more for the road:

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Greatest Hits #13 - Favorite RPG Illustration

It's nice to be able to say that art in everything from 5th Edition D&D to the latest M&M books to 40K is still strong.

There have been many illustrations over the years that have had an impact on my interest, and that's probably my primary interest when looking at an illustration for a game: does it tell me something about the game and more importantly, does it make me want to play?

There have been a ton of them over the years - spectacular covers, amazing interior pieces, small character/monster portraits ... how to choose?

Old School: A Paladin in Hell

I could have said "cover of the AD&D Player's handbook" but that's almost too easy. Once you get inside that cover this one always made me stop and look again. It's one signature element of D&D showcased in a full page drawing. There's bound to be a story here - how did he get here? Is he alone? Who is he, and does it matter or is it enough to know he's a Paladin?

Bonus Old School: Emirkol the Chaotic

This one, near the back of the original DMG, was always another stopper too. Trampier's work was a lot more elaborate than Dave Sutherland's but I like both for different reasons. There's even more of an implied story here too - what started this? What happens next?

Additional Bonus Illustration for the Special Edition: Cover of Dragon magazine #62

I loved this picture the first day I saw it and I still love it today.  Who is that guy? Why is he here? Where is he going? What happens next?

Different Flavor of Old School: Gamma World 3rd Edition - the cover of "Delta Fragment"

 Some kind of power armor putting the hurt on a dinosaur while another beast closes in - yeah! This is an image that some of my players and I bring up from time to time. It could equally be a part of Rifts or some supers game but it has stuck with us for close to 30 years so it's worth a mention.

Newer School: Pathfinder Mythic Adventures "the one with the monk and the barbarian and the dinosaurs"

I never get tired of this picture as it too effectively conveys just what "mythic" means in Pathfinder. The weaponless monk making a flying leap on a T-Rex while the barbarian throws a dinosaur at a dinosaur is exactly the kind of ridiculousness that generates table stories that last for decades. Pathfinder has a lot of great illustrations - they are right up there with old school FASA when it comes to art quantities -  I just like this one a bunch.

As far as "image that best conveys what the game is about" I think nothing compares to this:

The illustration so strong they used it for two editions of the game! I think it perfectly shows what a typical Shadowrun campaign is all about. Again, there's a story here - who are those people? Who are they shooting at? Where is this? When is this? It's a great piece for a game book.  It's only rival is this ...

...I mean, that is pretty much AD&D right there on the front. More implied story here - I mean, we all know in general what's going on here but where is this? Who are these guys? What happens next?

I could do a post on this every week and never run out of material...and that's not a bad idea ...

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Greatest Hits #12 - Missing Players in an Ongoing Campaign

Still a good discussion - it's not like the problem has gone away!

I've been running two ongoing campaigns the last few years, both more narrative than sandbox. What happens when a player can't make it? We deal with it and the game goes on. But how do you deal with it? OK let's discuss some details. Here are three rules I go by:

  1. Never end a session in the middle of a fight
  2. Set a minimum number of players who need to show to run your game
  3. There's always a plausible explanation why Character X isn't here right now

Another wave?

Reasoning for Rule 1:
(This is really more about avoiding the awkwardness of having a missing player next time)

Say you have a 5-person party in the middle of a huge fight = "alright, it's two in the morning, we're going to have to call it til next time." Sounds reasonable, except that someone won't be able to make it next time - better hope it's not the cleric! Maybe two someones won't. Then another week goes by and someone else has a conflict. Odds are you're going to end up finishing the fight either a man down (or more) or so much time will pass that no one can remember the details from the first part of the fight and spell or power usage, hit points, and maybe even consciousness state are all very fuzzy. It dilutes whatever dramatic impact your fight might have and for me anyway is just an unsatisfying way to handle things.

Most people who give this advice don't do it because its's a nice theory - we do so because we've tried it and found how many ways it can go wrong. After a few years go by you might be tempted to try it again - nope, it still sucks.


  • Never start a combat 5 minutes before "quitting time". My weekend night games generally run til midnight, but we've called it as early as 11:35 when it felt right.
  • If you know they're starting a good-sized fight and you could freeze-frame before it starts but are tempted to push on, tell your players the situation and let them have some input. They might be cool running over a bit or they may already be running on fumes. 
  • If you find yourself in the nightmare of fight-started-with-plenty-of-time-but-now-taking-way-longer-than-expected-and-it-needs-to-stop here are some emergency ideas:
    • Bad Guys all beam/teleport/vanish out
    • Bad Guys retreat through a hidden secret door to some new room you may need to map before next time. Darkness spells and smoke grenades can help here.
    • Bad Guys heads explode and all fall dead - could be real, could be an illusion
    • Bad Guys surrender - players never really expect this in the middle of a fight. If you can tie it to the death of a particular bad guy leader or a nasty move by one of the characters, so much the better.

These are much more satisfying without built-in excuses like "but the cleric wasn't here"

Reasoning for Rule 2:

Maybe your sessions are "game night" and you play something regardless of who and how many show up. That's cool and I envy you. Here it's "Campaign X Night" and we either play that or we don't play at all. The concept of the "backup game" has never really taken root with us. That said we very rarely cancel at the last minute, so setting that minimum number lets us figure out in advance whether we're going to run next week or not.


  • I was running Red Hand of Doom in 4E with a party that varied from 5-6 players. If at least 4 can make it we play, if 3 or fewer we don't. It does mean you miss some sessions but it also means you don't have a TPK destroy your campaign because the groups was a man or two short the night they ran into a really nasty dragon. 
  • In Wrath of the Righteous I knew I was going to run it mainly for two of my players, so they each made two characters (it's Pathfinder, so it's easy enough). Adventure Paths are written for 4 characters - presto, we're solid. If both of my two can't make it, we don't play that weekend. If someone else can make it on a day we do play, they can make up a new character or continue with the one they had created last time. If someone else starts showing consistently they might get to make a second character if they so desire. It's easier to adjust upwards on the fly than downwards, at least for me. 
  • The Exception To This Rule: Superhero games - I've run sessions with only a single player running a single hero and still had plenty of fun. 
Spock's player couldn't make it that night - look at how that worked out

Reasoning for Rule 3:

If you've seen The Gamers then you've seen "Mark". Mark just appears in the background of the scenes, motionless and doing nothing. Then his player shows up and the character goes into action for one fight.  The player then has to go and his character pretty much disappears from the rest of the story. It's dumb but very true to life. 

Speaking from my personal view as a DM, I'm not here to run your character - that's your job and I have enough to manage. So I'm not going to run your character, Spock's Brain-style, in the background just because you're not here. My rule is pretty much "if you're not here then your character's not here". That pretty much eliminates the issue of characters dying in a session the player didn't attend, treasure shenanigans, and "I wouldn't do that!" conversations. 

Practical Considerations for Rule 3
  • It's incredibly easy to explain character comings and goings in superhero games - they were "called away" or Lois is in trouble again or they had to go take some pictures for their day job. it's trivial and should never be a real problem. Unless you're running Time of Crisis, then it's a little tricky. 
  • Wilderness adventures are great for this kind of thing - communing with nature, following some interesting tracks, leading a hostile monster away from the party, gathering some rare herbs, celebrating a high holy day in private, heading back to watch the road, spending quality time with his new dryad friend, acquiring a new familiar - these are all pretty easy to do. 
  • Cities make this even easier - it's not hard to figure something out. Shopping, stealing, or carousing are all popular options.
  • In contrast dungeons can make this really painful, especially the big ones. When the party is six levels deep, the DM still checks for encounters even on "cleared" levels, and there's no shortcut back out (Hello Town Portal!) then it can really strain belief to come up with a plausible reason why the fighter suddenly isn't going to fight for awhile. My advice is to think about this beforehand and try to come up with some possible explanations. Some ideas:
    • Fell through a trap door into another room or another level - hey megadungeons are supposed to be "living" right?
    • Taken prisoner by some group on this level or the next one
    • Ran into a rival adventuring party and didn't want to lead them back to the group until he checked them out
    • Wizards are studying in that last library/laboratory/summoning room the group discovered
    • Clerics are purifying a defiled temple, defiling an enemy temple, or communing with their god in some other room
    • Thieves are off sneaking around looking for more loot - you know how they are. A good candidate for "taken prisoner" above. 
Sure, let the DM run your character while you're gone ...
Final Thought: If you're really stuck for ideas ask the player what their character is doing while they are out. Their third or fourth idea is probably good enough to use.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Greatest Hits #11 - PHB's I Have Known

Of course there's another one to put in the picture now ...

Yep, that's all of them. Bottom right comes in about 1980-81 for me (and yes that's the same book I bought with my allowance back then) and that upper left showed up on my doorstep yesterday.

I've had a lot of fun with these over the years and I can tell stories that came from games played with all of the previous versions. Even though I am still running Pathfinder and 4th edition games I am sure we will get around to giving the new one a try and then I'll have some stories to go with it too.

There are memories around the time each of these came out too. The joy of discovery, when all of this was so new with the first; the college days playing in dorms and at night at the IHoP of second; the fun of putting a new group together with old and new faces and new versions of classic adventures with third; the annoyance and disappointment of fourth gradually turning into a rediscovery of the fun and putting together another mix of old and new - including a new wife and some new kids; with 5th, well, right now it's all kid milestones for the last month - a 12th birthday, a lot of summer band practice, driving to and from the first job, and moving into a college dorm. If 5th has a good enough run, they may ALL be in college by the time 6th comes out.

PDF's may be the future of a lot of smaller RPG's, but I hope the biggest games, or the kickstarters for smaller games, give us a chance to acquire them as books. I'm pretty comfortable using an iPad at the table but there's something about being able to pick up the same book I held way back when that helps refresh those memories too - it's more than visual, it's texture, smell, weight, and all of the little nicks and dings they pick up in use. I'd say the largest ingredient in some of my AD&D materials after paper, ink, and glue is probably Domino's Pizza and Dr. Pepper. I took pretty good care of my stuff but hey, accidents happen, and Domino's was new here back then. We spent a lot of summer time scraping up our dollars so we could order pizza and keep on playing, especially before we could drive.

Anyway, I suppose I've "completed the set" for the time being - now to read the thing, and start the next chapter of a 30+ year story.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Greatest Hits #10 - New Games, Old Games, New Gamers, and Old Gamers

I think this is still completely relevant, even if we have another layer of editions for some games on top of what's discussed here. 

Barking Alien had a post yesterday inspired by a post from Monsters and Manuals last week that started some wheels turning for me. Rather than restrict it to a comment on those worthy blogs I decided to make it a post here as it goes to the heart of what I do with the hobby. So go read those really quick if you haven't then come back here for the next chapter.

Noisms uses the phrase "the tiresomeness of new systems". I sort of get that, but for me the "tiresomeness" usually comes in with new editions of games I already have that don't really change anything. Especially when they come out far too quickly. Truly "new" systems are interesting to me. For example:
  • Third edition D&D was amazing at the time - such a radical revamp of the game that still felt like the game!
  • I thought D&D 3.5 at only 3 years into the new system was an annoying money grab on many levels, even if there were some areas that could stand to be tuned up. 
  • Pathfinder, 6+ years after that, with a stated goal of re-balancing and reexamining the whole system without completely changing it made sense to me, even if it wasn't completely new. 
  • Fourth edition was so much change I hated it at first but I eventually came around and got to like it for its strengths and it definitely felt like a completely new game. 
  • Fifth edition I am not settled on. There are innovations there, but there is a lot of change that I am not sure is an improvement. I need more time with it, but I enjoyed reading through it to see what had changed.
Did you miss this one?
There are other examples:
  • After 20+ years of picking up Champions books I skipped the latest edition because I just didn't need another slightly tweaked set of Hero rules. 
  • M&M 3E was a fairly significant revamp to M&M 2E - recognizable, but not instantly compatible.  
  • ICONS was a very different approach to supers and I loved it. Mixing elements of Fate (which I did not have at the time) and Marvel Super Heroes (which I love) with an emphasis on simplicity and speed made a very entertaining mix and introduced me to some new ways of doing things.
  • Marvel Heroic then came along and turned everything upside down with a radical new approach to Supers that I still think is one of the bigger innovations of the last ten years. It's completely different mechanically than the others I mention, but still feels at least as much like a superhero game as they do. 

There are many older games I like just fine. I prefer older versions of Gamma World, for example. If I wanted to play a "pure" cyberpunk game then CP2020 is what I would reach for on the shelf. For Star Wars I'm doing d6 or Saga Edition, not FFG's new stuff. One of the primary reasons may be that I almost never feel like I have exhausted the possibilities of any system that I like. Run a game for a year and I probably have a dozen new ideas for campaigns that I will never get to run. About the only reason I would skip an old game is if there's a version I think is truly better mechanically, to the point it's not worth the hassle of that older version.  

There are many newer games I prefer - Marvel is one example. I like Mongoose's edition of Traveller probably best of all. Newer is not always better, but it's almost always worth a look. Icons is better to me than Heroes Unlimited. 

Sure, there is some attraction to running a game that I already have, that's not being expanded every month by a publisher in the form of $35 hardbacks, and that I know like the back of my hand. I'd happily run that game, and I have.

However, I also like to see what's new, what someone is doing with an old setting that has new mechanics, or someone tweaking old mechanics to use with a new setting. Just, show me something innovative or interesting, don't just sell me the same old thing with a couple of tweaks (40K, I'm looking at you). Push me to the point I dislike it at first and that it takes a second or third reading to truly grasp it. Take a good setting and system and streamline it like Deadlands Classic vs. Deadlands Reloaded. Take an old setting and give it a new mechanical overlay like DC Heroes to DC Adventures. Do something completely different like Numenera. In short give me a reason to care, something new to chew on besides replacing d20 rolls with 2d10 rolls or changing up the skill list. 

As BA mentions in his post, it's an ongoing experience, a learning experience. I don't ever expect to find that one perfect game - I pretty much reject the concept - but I do think some games can just be flat out better than others and I acknowledge that someone may have a way  of looking at things game-wise that is awesome that I would never have come up with myself. That's part of what makes it fun.

Coda: The preference for existing systems is not restricted to the older generation:
  • When FFG's Star Wars games came out I talked with them about getting a copy of the Beginner Set to try it out. "Why?" was the response. "We have Saga and it works just fine" - and this is coming from the then 14-year old. He didn't want to be bothered with learning the new system, he just wanted to play the one we already had. In contrast he hated d6 when we tried it because for him and his generation the prequel movies carry a lot of weight and the d6 system just is not good for that. Of course, neither is "Edge of the Empire" and that's probably at the heart of it. Saga best fits his vision of Star Wars and that's that.
  • He likes pretty much every edition of D&D (and Pathfinder) but he's cautious about 5th and would just as soon play one of the older editions as spend time figuring out yet another version. 
  • He will play pretty much any superhero game if he has the chance and recognizes that Marvel Super Heroes, Marvel Heroic, M&M 3, and Icons all have a different feel and likes that he has so many options. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Greatest Hits #9 - 5E and Pathfinder Back to Back

An account of my first experience playing 5th and comparing it to Pathfinder and 4th which were also in play at that time. 

I played D&D 5E for the first time on Saturday, then had another session of an ongoing Pathfinder game (Kingmaker) on Sunday, and I thought I'd share some notes from the combined experience.

Like any first run with a new set of rules, there was some clunkiness at first. We had a DM and three of us playing so we had time to focus in on each character. I ran a wizard (necromancer), and there was also a monk (elemental) and a fighter (eldritch knight). We started at 3rd level. This was a homebrew adventure, not a published one, so we spent time getting acquainted and figuring out how we wanted to proceed as we picked up new information about the area we were in. We ended up sneaking in to a ruined city that was mostly populated by goblins and undead. There was plenty left to explore so hopefully we get to go back to it at some point and play some more. Afterwards we talked about the game and the high points were:
  • Making a character is pretty easy and does not really feel like it needs a generator tool like HeroLab. 
  • Backgrounds added more in the flavor department than I expected, given their limited mechanical impact
  • Characters feel a lot less detailed/special mechanically than in Pathfinder and 4E. Sure, an Eldritch Knight feels at least a little different than a Champion, but I suspect two Eldritch Knights in the same party would play very much the same. Pathfinder and 4E have enough mechanical options that this is far less of a problem. Of course they also have so many classes that it's less likely to happen in the first place. I suspect time and expansion books will mitigate this for 5th as well but right now it feels smaller.
  • There is a lot less to keep track of as there are not a bunch of conditions and modifiers flying around. The universe is pretty much the proficiency bonus, a stat bonus, and advantage/disadvantage and that's the biggest part of nearly any roll.
  • It certainly felt like D&D, probably 2E D&D the most. 
Biggest insight: I suspect the battle-cry for 5th edition games will be "don't I get advantage on that?"

Character-wise Pathfinder also still feels like D&D : ) Sure, the modifiers are composed of more elements but once they're on your sheet it's not that different from 5E - d20 + your normal mods (found on your sheet) and possible situational mods like cover and concealment. Interestingly enough we just hit 3rd level in the PF game too so this was a pretty direct comparison. The PF characters just felt like they could do more when it came to game mechanics. Not in power level, but in being able to do something that would affect a situation in some mechanical way, not just handwaving or adding color. It's tricky to pin down but that's how it felt.

The other big note on 5E was from the DM who has run/played a lot of 3E/4E, mainly 4E for the last 5 years or so, and he said "The monsters are boring" - and I can't help but agree. I've been running Pathfinder and 4E the last few years and the 5E monster statblocks seem so ... mundane. Compare the stats for the manticore from all 3 games:

So the 5E manticore can fly but other than that it really just has melee and ranged attacks.

Pathfinder's manticore has flyby attack which is a normal part of the rules in 5E but not in PF. It also has the ability to track fairly well which could be interesting.

The 4E manticore has similar ranged and melee options but has a built-in shift on each of its attacks increasing its mobility beyond normal movement and it also has a reactive attack where it can throw spikes when hit. That action-reaction option does make fighting one a little more dangerous.

All of them fulfill a similar role in their editions of flying spike-flinger, no radical differences there.

  • The 4E version does "more" as written and there are options to add templates and similar changes within those rules. 
  • The Pathfinder version has a universe of options from advancement to templates to class levels to gear. 
  • The 5E version is pretty plain but I'm hoping that changes with the release of the Monster Manual and the DMG and possibly down the road even more options will come to light.  

It holds true with goblins, too:

5E is pretty simple, but they do get the nifty extra move which was pretty frustrating to our fighter over the weekend.

4E actually had six different types of goblins in the first Monster Manual so there are a lot of options when populating a goblin lair. I do see some carryover of theme with the better-than-average mobility of these things. The minion is probably the closest to the new version. The other 4E versions though add some sneak-attack type options and even more interesting movement abilities. I'd really like to see some options to liven up the monsters of 5th edition in a similar way.

In the end I'd call our first run "successful" but I don't know that it's going to bump our ongoing fantasy games. In the long run it has potential but right now it's just not quite there.