Tag Archives: rpg

5E Adventures – A few thoughts

I picked up my copy of Curse of Strahd today and while I’m looking forward to it (a friend intends to run it soon) I have to say that I’m hoping it is better than the other 5E adventures released so far.

Not to put to fine a point on it, but the adventures released so far – the two Dragon Queen adventures, Princes of the Apocalypse, and Out of the Abyss – are… Not great. The Dragon Queen adventures had their moments but those moments were bogged down by some interesting editing choices and poor organization.

Princes of the Apocalypse – which our group recently ended our game with – was a mess. The adventure was a decent homage to its inspirational material but playing through it felt disjointed, slow, and awkward in its execution. There is this wide open map to play in but really, only a few areas actually mattered and the ‘side plots’ were worse than distractions. The adventures were designed with the appearance of a sandbox but really aren’t. The DM has to work hard to make sure that the players don’t wander into the wrong area and effectively end the campaign with a TPK. And no matter what else happens, the players are basically left wandering around with no ability to put the pieces together. It was infuriating.

Out of the Abyss is another adventure built on fancy rails that wants to pretend it’s an Underdark sandbox. When I first started reading this one I was stunned. The adventure directs the group to a village of crazy fish people that are worshiping demons and basically set the party up by having Demogorgon rise out of a lake and destroy a town like a tentacled Godzilla and saying, “hey, that’s enough to get the party interested, right?”

Yep, a party of characters that have only recently wandered into this town after being slaves to the drow and then wandering around the Underdark lost and potentially starving for what might be days or weeks. But yep, we’ll get right on that fighting Demogorgon thing… Or, we’ll run like hell and get to the surface as fast as possible and forget we ever saw Demogorgon. That seems like a better plan.

I’m still hopeful that Curse of Strahd will be better. I’m not reading it until after we’ve had a chance to try to play it but so far, D&D 5e adventures haven’t impressed me, which is too bad because I really like the game.

The Not-So-Scary Carnival

Carnivals are terrifying, right? Something Wicked This Way Comes, is all about the dark things that carnivals bring to our towns… There are many adventures and sourcebooks for RPGs centered around the dark traveling carnival. Heck, the mighty Inquisitor Eisenhorn even faces one in a story set in the Warhammer 40K universe.

But what if the Carnival wasn’t so scary? Well, that is to say, what if, when you pull back the curtain, instead of being an even more twisted representation – it was something else? What if, when the layers of illusion are stripped away, you find a bunch of seemingly normal folk dealing with all the troubles of being itinerant entertainers in a dangerous world?

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A Quick Review of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

I am not the biggest fan of the Forgotten Realms and effectively ignored whatever was happening in the setting throughout 3rd edition and 4th edition. This book also snuck up on me because it was out before I’d even really read much about it or realized it was on the way. I didn’t even know that Green Ronin had a hand in developing it. But I’m a big fan of 5th Edition D&D and I gladly picked this book up despite the mixed reviews I’d been seeing for it. So here’ my attempt to add a positive review, with a few minor gripes.

Setting Material
As someone who hasn’t read FR fluff since the 1990’s, this was actually pretty fun to read. It was just enough information about the area and its changes to make me feel comfortable in the Princes of the Apocalypse game I’m currently playing in by introducing me to the Realms, 2015-style. I can’t say much more than that as I am not a Forgotten Realms expert. I found the writing to be decent, enjoyable, and concise enough that I didn’t get bored.

One gripe. The maps are terrible. My biggest pet peeve, something that drives me crazy in many fantasy supplements… why would you ever take the time to produce attractive and professional maps of your setting and then not add a distance scale? There is no excuse for this. How far is it from adventure site A to town B? I have no idea! Useful.

Mechanical Material
I am a big fan of the design and layout of the 5th edition rule books. The hardcover adventures are not well organized at all but the rule books are nicely done. This book does not continue that layout tradition quite as well as the core rulebooks, but it’s alright. I struggled with identifying different headers and the breaks in sections sometimes in a meaningful way, but not so much as to make the book a struggle to read.

Overall, I found the class material offered (and the fact that they didn’t feel compelled to offer new shinies to every class just because) to be well balanced and interesting. There are quite a few new class options – mainly centered around the idea of the Archetypes classes separate into at early levels. The new Arcana domain for clerics is just plain neat. The new monk options are cool, and the FR-specific content is handled very well because it is written with the idea in mind that players and DMs may want to use this mechanical material in their own home games, not just the Forgotten Realms. This is much appreciated and doesn’t really cost much word count.

The section of new backgrounds was very fun reading, I’ve wanted a few more options over what the PHB has to offer and these are all interesting and adaptable. The new spells on offer are welcome, though the lack of new cleric spells of any sort continues to be frustrating.

Nothing in this book seems likely to break a game, requiring using any options you aren’t comfortable with (feats, for example), and provides new PC options while not changing any fundamental tenants of 5E design.

I know this is a mighty short review, but overall, I’d give the SCAG a solid B+. This would have been an A if the maps had distances on them… at all.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 26

August 26th.

Favorite Inspiration for Your Games

First, it is hard to believe this is almost over. I’m going to have to find things to blog about on my own again! Well, I have a few saved up from my experiences lately with ACKS, D&D Attack Wing, and just some general thoughts I’m kicking around.

But hey, favorite inspirations? Well, this is actually going to be a pretty boring answer, but my primary inspiration over the years has been the books I read. Particularly fantasy books, but it can be anything.

I find that I’m not really a visual thinker/person so movies do less for me and I’m not much into art on the whole. Spectacle is lost on me. But books stay with me, influence my thinking for a long time after I’ve finished them.

Who do I go back to for inspiration? I’ve mentioned many names before but Peter S. Beagle, David Eddings, and Guy Gavriel Kay are big sources of inspiration for me. As is Tamora Pierce. The last three pretty much shaped how the gods behave in all my games. Amber, both the novels and the game book have been intensely inspiring over the years. James Blaylock’s Elfin Ship and Disappearing Dwarf are two of my all-time favorite “go back to” reads and may do more to refresh me than they do to inspire me but it’s a thin line. Tolkien, for the always surprising deftness of his touch and to remind me that small details matter.

I also tend to draw quite a bit of inspiration just from reviewing the “GM Guides” from different games. I find that reading the thoughts of designers on how they expect or hope that GMs will approach their games is fascinating and will often trigger an idea or shake loose something that has been bugging me. The Book of Mirrors: Mage Storytellers Handbook (for the original Mage game) is still a source of inspiration to me today and I love revisiting it like an old friend.

So, not sure if I have a favorite source of inspiration (okay, I do, it’s The Last Unicorn) but I hope this list was interesting to someone out there.

Thanks for reading. Seeing the end of the tunnel now.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 25

August 25th.

Favorite Revolutionary RPG Mechanic

What is revolutionary? I’m not asking to be difficult. It’s more a reaction to the idea that RPGs were “one thing” because D&D was the first and that somehow the creations of other RPGs in the early design space were innovations. It’s also a question about whether modern design is innovation/revolution as opposed to a continued tinkering with the form which suits certain niches of the larger hobby community. Most new games don’t “change gaming forever” they simply offer another choice in a very large field of choices.

Was AD&D revolutionary for all the changes it made to D&D? Was class/level revolutionary or Class as a separate characteristic from Race on the character sheet? I could find myself making the argument that class and level are one of the single most revolutionary aspects of gaming mechanics as they are fundamental to the some of the most popularly played games today just as they were originally.

How then to compare the innovation of a point-buy system for creating characters over the random rolling of dice to generate attributes? This certainly opened up whole new avenues of gaming and was exactly what a portion of the population was looking for in their experience of the hobby.

Even more interesting to me is the transition from systems built around the d20 and 3d6 dice rolls to systems using Dice Pools (check out Casting Shadows for a take on the dice pool as a favorite revolutionary RPG mechanic). Dice pools using d6s or d10s certainly changed things for a lot of gamers. Then, of course, you have the oddly self-congratulatory d20 system, which effectively refines the original D&D blueprint by emphasizing the d20’s role even more, and somehow ushered in an entire era of gaming in the early 2000s. (I recognize that the mechanic of the d20 was less important than the OGL but many games are still building on this d20 system foundation laid by 3rd edition D&D such as Mutants and Masterminds and Pathfinder).

Hit Points – much maligned, still used – are a heck of an innovation. They effectively deal with a means for tracking the ability of your character to keep pushing forward and emulate the heroic aspect of many mythical heroes in that they rarely suffer debilitating injuries (except when it serves the purposes of the narrative, something the emergent, player/DM controlled D&D steers away from). And even games which do not use hit points often use “hit points in disguise” and simply change the names and ranges of injury or split them into two (or more) pools of points for varying attempts to simulate other things. In the d20 arena, you can look at the Wounds/Vitality split of Star Wars d20, but it’s just as instructive to look at the Health Levels of the World of Darkness (along with Willpower), and the Health/Fatigue split of a game like GURPS. Sanity in Call of Cthulhu is just a special kind of hit points to emulate a special kind of damage your character takes. And Hit Points are a staple of the video game RPG industry even if the way they are tracked is “hidden” from the player in some games. Heck, the fighting game industry puts a health bar above your head, so it’s not just RPGs.

Compare this to the consequence-laden systems of some more modern games (such as FATE) which provide a much narrower window of functional character play and then broaden it by virtue of stacking modifiers on your character. This is certainly an innovative and clever answer to the problem of wanting a very different experience from Hit Points. I’m certainly a fan of the concept if not a fan of the execution… every time I try FATE I just end up disappointed. Obviously, this is not the typical fan experience as it is a very successful and well-loved game. I really want to try Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) to see if my experience is any different.

This, of course, leads me to the “Story Game” revolution. So far, my experience with Story Games has been surprisingly flat. I read some of them and think they are brilliant (I have a serious unrequited love of Polaris. I need to play this game. I don’t want to run this game, I want to play it. It’s so beautiful). Unfortunately, I often find the end result of Story Games to feel more like they are trying to legislate game play to protect players from “naughty GMs” than to provide a better method for sitting at a table with your friends and playing a game that just so happens to also involve creating a cooperative story. Is this a fair review of story games? Probably not in all cases but it certainly is the impression I glean from many of the more popular ones I have encountered. My attitude about this has been evolving though, as some clever games have interpreted the GM-space in interesting ways (e.g., Lead Narrator in Cosmic Patrol) and I do love the shared power of narrative at the game table. I just find many attempts to legislate it to be bureaucratic and cold.

It occurs to me that I have strayed from my first endeavors point without talking about the dice. I have limited experience with early wargaming outside of playing a few Avalon Hill WWII games with my father (still a big fan of Afrika Korps) but the jump from wargaming to adding fantasy elements to “let’s use all these funky dice” seems to be a pretty revolutionary change. More than anything, I think that these wacky dice (see Dungeon Crawl Classics for a modern day revival of the funky dice debate) really could argue for being the most important revolution of the RPG hobby. It’s a hard one to argue with in my mind, especially considering how companies now are attempting to merge story gaming and heavy dice-pooling with games using “Narrative Dice” like Fantasy Flight’s Warhammer Fantasy and Star Wars lines, where the dice don’t even have numbers. Instead they bear icons which trigger specific outcomes in combination with a pile of charts. As an aside, I like the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games but I find the option paralysis and game churning slowness of interpreting dice pools, especially as characters gain more abilities to be a big drawback and it makes it difficult for me to get excited about the game.

There have been numerous attempts to get away from the tyranny of randomness in gaming from the beginning. Re-rolls, modifier points, using playing cards, etc. And as far as the eye can see, people are still coming up with new ways to play around with dice or with an alternative to dice. It’s pretty cool.

But as anyone who knows me will tell you, my favorite revolutionary game mechanic is one that is so rarely implemented well but so brilliant, so exciting, that I keep seeking the holy grail of capturing that magic… and that would be diceless play. I love reading diceless game systems. I love examining how they attempt to maneuver around the randomness space and the GM whim space. I love seeing how they handle combat. Diceless games are still rare beasts, and the pool that I consider “playable” rarer still. Diceless games, specifically those without a randomizing element at all, are like the Questing Beast for me. Playing without dice, without randomization, with only imagination, shared storytelling, and a thin veneer of well-written rules, is still my favorite way to play and the revolutionary idea that most captures my imagination.

Thanks for reading. This one was really fun to write.

Adventurer Conqueror King System is a Domain of Madness

So, first, a few disclaimers:

  1. I love ACKS. I’ve played every edition of D&D, AD&D, and D&D again along with Pathfinder, Castles and Crusades, and Dungeon Crawl Classics and nothing comes close to how much I enjoy ACKS. I’ve written about this before when I started my first ACKS campaign and I have to say that the Autarch team has built one heck of a game on the old school base.
  2. I’m not a math-oriented person. I mean, I’m not one of those people who can’t make change in my head or needs a calculator to do division… but I don’t “think in numbers” the way some people can.

Those two disclaimers were important because I want to follow them up by saying that for me, I find the domain creation system in ACKS (touted by many as its greatest strength/innovation) to be a nearly unworkable mess as written. It is clearly working for some players, so I’m happy to admit it might just be me, but as I embark on my second ACKS campaign, I am once again confronted by the fact that I can’t make heads or tails of how the domain system is supposed to work. The fundamental math is very confusing to me and the book provides scant and contradictory examples of the different parts leading to even more confusion.

I’m going to try and outline my issues and then we’ll see if anyone out there can help me tumble my way through them…

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The Known and the Unknown in RPG Conflict

First post of the new year. I’m focused right now on building this new game I’ve been working on. Some initial feedback has led me to believe that it’s too complicated in exactly the wrong places. Needs more work. As I contemplate this and try to sort it out, I’m going back to my roots and looking at my inspirations – specifically Amber Diceless – as my standard for “getting it right.” Well, getting it right in the ways that matter to me and what I’m hoping to create.

The focus is on the interplay in Amber of the known and the unknown when facing challenges. In a system where this is very little in the way of chance, it becomes incumbent upon other avenues to create that tension normally generated by a roll of the dice. One of the reasons I gravitate toward diceless (or low randomization) play is that dice rolls don’t generate much in the way of tension for me – they generate more in the way of frustration. But that is a topic for another time.

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Ruminations on Amber, Gaming, and other Stuff.

The Amber Diceless Roleplaying game is the greatest diceless RPG of all time. That is a statement of opinion but one that I will joyously discuss with anyone to explain the virtues of this most excellent system. To say that Amber DRPG changed my life would be a bit melodramatic. To say that it changed me as a gamer and a game master, not so much.

I had not even read the Amber novels when I was drawn into the game by the spectacular Phage Press ad which ran in Dragon Magazine. I was sold without even knowing the setting. I wanted to play this game with a “mature and demanding” character creation system and its weird auction rules that forced character creation to be both collaborative and competitive. As someone whose gaming life up until that point was dominated by D&D and GURPS, I couldn’t even imagine how profoundly I would be shaped by the ideas presented in that book and then explored through years of campaigns.

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Coming to Theory: A few thoughts

I am often skeptical of “theory” when it comes to gaming. While I agree that there is an art and a science to running a good game, the variety of what constitutes a good game and the ways to achieve that seem to be far more rooted in individual preference and group-based communication principles than game design…

That said, I am also fascinated by the variety of games in existence and the attempts to parse out the endless variety of “what happens at the table” into thoughtful mechanics. While I sometimes struggle with some of the more radical approaches to “story game,” I also find many of these creations to be overwhelmingly awesome in terms of what they are trying to accomplish.

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Character Class as Goal Setting

I’ve been writing long posts recently and I thought I’d take a breather and explore a small idea I had today.

Character classes are a strange thing. Some people absolutely hate class-based systems, some people love them. I fall into a bit of a middle ground. I find class-based characters to be interesting but I also enjoy the ability to make a completely freeform character.

At the heart of a lot of complaints about class-based systems (at least that I hear) seems to be the unnatural manner of “leveling up” which involves just spontaneously having new abilities when you hit the appropriate level and the oddity of being locked into a class progression for a whole game/campaign/whatever.

When I was playing Adventurer Conqueror King a while ago, I was really enamored of the classes and as I’ve been thinking a lot about domains for my current campaign (I’m back to messing with Birthright again) I find that there is another small angle that old school puts on character class which I’d never considered before.

What would happen if we viewed character class selection through the lens of goal-setting?

That is to say; what if we looked at a player’s choice of class as a series of goals which are accomplished as the character levels?

Suppose, for example, that I choose to play a fighter in ACKS. I’m saying something immediately with this choice. I want to be tough, fight on the front lines. strength is probably my best stat and I intend to use it.

But I’m saying more. I’m also saying that I want to develop certain abilities across my career. I’m saying that my gold is going to get saved up to buy a certain kind of stronghold and that I might have dreams of conquest. I’m saying that I want to grow my character into one of the best warriors in the world.

These things happen as a natural part of leveling. I get better with weapons, I gain certain abilities, and eventually, I attract the followers I need to staff my stronghold. But instead of seeing these things as part of a rigid progression which forces my character down this path, what happens if I start down this path with the thought that the end is actually where I want to be? It’s a very small perspective shift really. I imagine that some players always make their characters this way.

Try it out the next time you are considering what class to play and see if it changes your thinking about your character. Let me know if it does.

Thanks for reading.