Saturday, December 22, 2012

More Dice

A while back I posted pictures of my dice.  My collection has grown a little since then, so I thought I'd post a few more pix.  You know me, any excuse to take pictures. 

First up we have "Festive Dice" by Chessex: 
Festive Dice
Basically I got them because I like tie-dye.  They're currently my favorite set of dice I own.  I come from a family of artists, which probably influenced my love of bright colors and other visual stimuli.  This set of dice has a vibrant mix of colors that really calls to me.  In fact, I hear them speaking right now...  what's that, little dice?  Kill them all?  Okay...   Just kidding, moving on...

Deadlands Dice
These are Deadlands dice. I got them for playing Savage Worlds.  It includes an extra d6 of a different style, since Savage Worlds uses a distinctive "Wild Die" with every roll.

This set's design is more for Western settings than anything I've played, but they're still pretty neat.  It actually makes me wish I liked westerns more, so I'd have an excuse to use them.  But it's just never been a genre that interests me.  Westerns are just too "testosterony" for my tastes, I suppose.

"Zocchi" Dice
I got these odd-shaped dice (sometimes called "Zocchi" dice) for Dungeon Crawl Classics. DCC uses a lot of strange, harder-to-find dice.  Here we see a d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24, and d30. I really like most of them, except for the d7.  The d5 and the d7 have the problem of not being perfectly identical on all sides.  Both dice have two sides that are larger than the rest.  I don't mind it on the d5, because the two largest sides are the 1 and the 5.  So even if there's a greater chance of it landing on the larger sides, I still have just as much chance of getting the maximum as the minimum.

But on the d7, the two large sides are the 6 and the 7.  To me, that's just weird. However, these are made by GameScience, a company that's known for making "perfect" dice, so I have to believe they know what they're doing.  If they say there's an equal chance of it landing on any of the seven sides, I want to believe them.  But even if they're right, I still would have felt better if they'd made the d7's largest sides the max and min.  Also, I don't really like the style of the d7.  It makes me think of casinos more than fantasy gaming.

Sci-Fi Dice
I got these for our short-lived Traveller campaign. The black ones are official Traveller dice, from back when the game was more popular.  The sunburst design with the digital numbers looks cheesy now, but I suppose it looked more futuristic back when it was designed.

The others are from Q-Workshop, and I got them for specific skill rolls.  The circuit ones (Chip and Cyber) are for Computer rolls, and the gears (Mechanical) are for Engineering.

It's unfortunate that our Traveller campaign didn't last longer, but I don't regret buying the dice.  I really like the designs, and I'm sure I'll play other sci-fi games in the future.  I could probably use the mechanical ones right now for my Savage Worlds character (she's a mechanic), but her repair rolls use a d10.  I guess I could use one as her wild die when she makes a mechanical roll, but then I don't get to use my Deadlands wild die.  I know, "first world problems".

(Completely unrelated mini-rant:  One good thing about the Traveller campaign being over, is that I'm sick of the computer's spell-check yelling at me over the British spelling of Traveller.)

Elvish Dice and Forest Dice
I got these when playing a Dryad in our Unlikely Heroes campaign.  The top ones are transparent Elvish Dice from Q-Workshop.  They're very pretty, but hard to read.  Towards the end of the campaign I bought some Forest Dice (lower pic), which are even prettier and even harder to read.  Really, Q-Workshop is legendary for making Awesome but Impractical dice.

Unfortunately the dice arrived right after our final session, so I never got to use them.  But there's always the possibility we'll pick that campaign back up again.  In any event, I like playing tree-hugging characters, so I'm sure they'll get used eventually.

Probability Die
And last but not least, I picked this one up on a whim. "Probability Die" from Koplow Games.  The sides are:  Certain, Likely, Equally Likely, Unlikely, Highly Unlikely, and Impossible.  Really just about sums up all RPG rolls, doesn't it?  You could probably run an entire game using just this die.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Books: The Savage Caves

"The Savage Caves" was the first in a series of D&D books released in 2002-2003, which followed the adventures of some of the more iconic characters in the D&D universe.  This book stars Regdar the fighter, Jozan the cleric, Lidda the rogue, and Naull the wizard. I can't find anywhere that says what universe this is, so I'm assuming it's the generic "Points of Light" setting they use in the Players Handbooks.

I'm generally an optimistic reviewer, so if I don't like something, you know there's a problem.  I didn't exactly dislike this book, but I can't possibly recommend it to anyone else.  It's written with the generic tone of a newspaper article, with no discernible style whatsoever.  Actually, it reminded me of the writing style used in "Choose Your Own Adventure" books (minus the choices and second person POV), so maybe they had a young audience in mind.  Even if so, I've read much more interesting children's books.

That said, it did remind me more of an actual D&D session than most books.  Most real DMs are not professional writers, and the writing style definitely made me think of the way DMs describe things.  Like the players in a D&D game, the characters use a lot of modern slang (especially Lidda).  This kind of thing bothers some people, but I'm okay with it.  This is a fantasy world, not medieval England, so I see no reason they should stick to the Queen's English.  Who's to say this universe didn't evolve slang similar to modern day America?  I already ranted on R.A. Salvatore's use of fortnight in a Forgotten Realms book, so maybe it's safer if writers avoid attempting Shakespearean English in the first place.

I didn't like some of the interactions between the female party members; there was some inappropriate giggling and sophomoric innuendo that reminded me of how boys think girls act.  It was enough to make me want to look up author "T. H. Lain" on Wikipedia to see if they were a male of female.  The answer was interesting - there is no T. H. Lain, it's a pseudonym for nine WOTC employees, in order to keep this series of D&D books shelved together.  This particular book was really written by Philip Athans, then-managing editor at Wizards.

In my "Keep on the Borderlands" review, I gave an example of characters rationalizing in-game mechanics (fighting monsters to get experience points).  But there's a line early on in the Savage Caves that really takes the cake.  While Regdar is looking for someone, it says:  "Regdar had never been trained to hide, but he had been trained to seek."  So I pulled my copy of "Dungeons & Dragons for Dummies" off the shelf, since I knew it had a level one version of Regdar in it.  Sure enough, he has Search and Spot listed as skills (though he's very low in them), and no ranking for Hide.  But wow, that's a silly sentence to put in a novel.

But that's hardly the only mention of such mechanics.  Jozan makes reference to spontaneous casting - specifically he gives Lidda a speech about how if he heals a particular creature, it will use up a potentially more useful spell he might need later that day.  Naull also makes some references to the possibility of spell failure due to trying to concentrate during battle, but these passages are actually pretty well done and make the original game mechanics that much more believable.

I thought it was fun reading about characters I'd already seen so much in the PHBs.  Their personalities were a bit one-dimensional, but that worked in a way.  It almost felt like real players were running them.  Okay, so picture those "examples of play" sections you see in every PHB.  Now imagine an entire book written in that style.  No, it's not actually that bad, but the impression was there.  I could almost see this book being adapted from somebody's session notes.

It's a bit of lost opportunity, because they could have given these characters truly unique, memorable personalities.  Instead they just play them the way any convention-goer would after picking up a pregen.  You've seen all these characters before with different names.  Lidda is basically just Tasslehoff the kender from the Dragonlance novels, and so on.  It's not such a horrible thing, but it does make the book a little bland.

My favorite character was Naull.  She seemed slightly deeper to me than the other three adventurers.  Lidda and Jozan were just too stereotypical (for their classes), and I have something of a personal grudge against the existence of Regdar (See this article).  In a magical world filled with sapient mythological creatures, the last thing D&D needed as an icon was a white, male, human fighter.  But, any time this gets to me I just look at page 297 of 4e's PHB, and then I feel a little better.

NeverWinter Nights spider
There were a few parts where I really felt the book was bad about descriptions.  Sometimes I had trouble visualizing what the author was trying to say, which is sad considering how dumbed-down the book is.  Sometimes this trouble came from missing details.  For example, early on they fight some giant spiders.  The book doesn't say how big they are, just that they're huge.  Over and over, it just describes them as big/large/huge, without saying being more specific.  So, having fought plenty of spiders in NeverWinter Nights, I pictured their size somewhere between a sheep and a cow.  But once that was firmly in my head, the spiders started climbing up someone, or hanging on to their shield, which meant they were actually closer to the size of a small dog.  But to be fair, it's possible I missed a sentence somewhere.

The final lines of dialogue in this book are so trite that... well, back in high school I used to draw (very cheesy) comic books, and I once ended a story with the exact same piece of dialogue.  But remember, "The Savage Caves" was not written by a serious author trying to create literature, so much as a marketer trying to advertise a product.  Maybe I should have gone into marketing.

Overall, I did enjoy reading the book, but that doesn't make it good.  (In fact, I'm starting to wonder just how bad a book has to be for me to give it a bad review.)  I liked this book in more of a "so bad it's good" way, like the movies you see on MST3K.  I also had fun reading it because the anachronisms reminded me of actual D&D sessions, kind of like "Knights of the Dinner Table" but not as funny.  I might still read some of the others in the series, but only if I find them very cheap.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Character: Terri Bolton

This is my character in the "Rifts 2112" campaign.

Full Name: Terri Elizabeth Bolton

Occupation:
Mechanic, Part-Time FEMA Emergency Responder

Age: 23

Edges: 
McGyver - Can improvise tools from common items.

Hindrances:
Overconfident (Major) - Believes she can do anything.
Big Mouth (Minor) - Can't keep secrets.
Quirk (Minor) - Brags and exaggerates her accomplishments.

Background and Personality:
Terri was always closer to her father than her mother.  Her father was an auto mechanic, and Terri was fascinated with watching him work.  By the time she was in junior high, she could put an engine together with her eyes closed.  Her mother never really approved of Terri's masculine hobbies, and tried to encourage her to be more feminine.  Her father died when she was a senior in high school, and Terri and her mother grew even farther apart.  After high school she went into her dad's business, and started working for FEMA in her off-hours.  In her spare time she enjoys restoring classic cars, and target practice at the shooting range.

Terri is egotistical and proud.  Sometimes she can't help but brag about things she's done, and embellishes her stories to get attention.  Her exaggerations, combined with her inability to keep a secret, have cost her more than one friend.  Worse yet, she believes her own hype, causing her to overestimate her skills.  As a result, sometimes she bites off more than she can chew.

Creating this Character:
As explained in this post, I made her a mechanic because the party didn't have one, I drew inspiration from Robin's doppelganger from How I Met Your Mother, and I picked her name because it was unisex.  I hate to admit to being uncreative, but a bit of her background is similar to Dervish, a character I played on NeverWinter Nights.  But it had to be done.

Given her inspiration, I'm being ambiguous about her sexual orientation.  Part of me wants her to be gay or bi, but another part of me is offended by the butch/tomboy lesbian stereotype.  Hopefully it just won't come up in gameplay.  The party is trying to survive an apocalypse, so it's not like people are going to find time to hit on her.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Rifts 2112: "...And One Time... At Refugee Camp..."

Game Date: 12/8/2012
Campaign: Rifts 2112, Session 2
System: Savage Worlds
DM: Rusty   

Characters:
Emma Snow (Star): Medic
Jim Bagg (Cliff): Military Reserves
Sgt. Malcolm Reynolds (Ted): Active Military
Terri Bolton (Matt): Mechanic

The Session:
The session began in Columbia, SC.  We learned that these disasters have been happening all over the world.  Countries have been falling to floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.  We received some radio signals from someone in Branchville, requesting our aid.  The governor of Columbia gave us some vehicles and we were on our way.

We stopped in Orangeburg and picked up some more info.  We learned that Charleston was underwater, and that people were disappearing all over.  We continued on our way.  When we finally reached the small town of Branchville, Mayor Glen Miller (I bet he gets kidded a lot) pointed us to a nearby refugee camp.  The camp was run by a reverend named Bowman, which worried us a bit.  The last thing we need at the end of the world is a potential cult stirring up panic.  We gave out some food and made some small repairs, until it was time to turn in.

In the middle of the night, we saw some purplish lights in the sky, and they were getting closer.  Occasionally they would dip below the treeline and cause explosions.  We ordered anyone who would listen to take cover, then we piled into our ride and headed downtown - towards the lights.  Malcolm got out of the vehicle first, and proceeded further downtown while the rest of us looked for a good place to hide the SUV.  So Mal was the first one to see the horrors that were invading the town.

In the center of downtown was a hovering platform, covered in lights.  Piloting this craft was some sort of reptilian monster, with a crocodile-like head and several tentacles.  There were also some armored ape-men, wielding futuristic glowing axes.  We also encountered some very tall women, wearing metal bands around their eyes.  These amazonic ladies used guns that fired restraining nets.  Some of the creatures were gathering up townspeople and taking them to the reptilian's ship.

These aliens did not come in peace, and we fought a tough battle.  At first it looked hopeless.  The reptilian was protected by a force field, and the apes were too armored for us to damage.  Jim and Terri spent a lot of time tangled up in nets, and could not break free.  But Mal finally managed to take down one of the apes, and the battle was a little easier once he had the ape's ax.  With great effort, we finally took down most of the apes and amazons.  As Jim set off a smoke bomb, the final ape jumped back on the reptilian's craft, and it flew away.

We scavenged everything we could from the aliens we'd killed:  armor, weapons, and bodies for possible study.  We learned that roughly half the town had been abducted.  We're going to regroup for now, lick our wounds, take inventory, and come up with a plan.  Jim and Malcolm both need healing.  I haven't looked at how healing works in Savage Worlds, but I bet it's pretty slow without magic.  So much has happened in such a small amount of (in-game) time, that we probably don't have time to let these guys rest up for too long. 

Afterthoughts:
Someone once asked the internet, "What's the plural of apocalypse?"  The internet answered, "If you're in a situation where you need to know the plural of apocalypse, you've probably got bigger things on your mind than spelling."  What I'm wondering right now is whether the alien invaders were actually responsible for all the natural disasters plaguing the Earth, or if the alien invasion is just one of many coincidental simultaneous cataclysms.  In other words, are the aliens a symptom or the disease?

It also seems highly unlikely that three such very different alien species would form an alliance just to take over the Earth - any one of them could probably take us on their own.  I have little hope in humanity's chances of coming back from this one, with so much of the world's population being exterminated, and us being comically outmatched in technology.  But hey, if Will Smith and Bill Pullman can do it, so can we.  We will not go quietly into the night!  We will not vanish without a fight!  ...or something less cheesy...

Reminder:
There is no game for the next two weekends. Our next game will probably be on 12/29.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Rifts 2112: The Cataclysm Begins

Game Date: 11/24/2012
Campaign: Rifts 2112, Session 1
System: Savage Worlds
DM: Rusty   

Characters:
Emma Snow (Star): Medic
Jim Bagg (Cliff): Military Reserves
Sgt. Malcolm Reynolds (Ted): Active Military
Terri Bolton (Matt): Mechanic

The Session:
This was the first session of a new campaign.  Our characters are members of a FEMA team in Atlanta.  Shortly after Midnight, there was a large thunderstorm and an earthquake.  Each of us was contacted individually and told there was an "All In" alert.  As each of us headed to the FEMA headquarters, we discovered that there was no cell phone reception, and it was raining ash.

We arrived at HQ and were briefed by Melissa Miller, a geologist and FEMA's second-in-command.  They were still trying to piece things together, and weren't able to tell us much. Half of the satellites were down, and it was hard to get any clear information.  There had been an earthquake in the Bahamas, creating a 100 foot tidal wave that left Florida underwater.  Yellowstone had erupted, and there was lava from Oklahoma to Salt Lake City.

FEMA sent out teams in different directions, to find out more.  Our team was ordered to head for Charleston, NC.  We piled into a Humvee, but soon discovered that a lot of the interstates had collapsed.  We made do with back roads.  On the way, we discovered that the our compass no longer pointed North.  Eventually we reached a spot where trees had fallen over the road, and had to clear them to continue.  At this point we had an interlude (a Savage Worlds roleplay mechanic) where Emma told us a tale of woe.

When we could go no further by Humvee, we left the land vehicles behind and hitched a ride with some boats in a nearby river.  They took us through some flooded areas, finally letting us out in a life raft.  We floated through a submerged town, occasionally passing flood victims sitting on their roofs.  Unfortunately we couldn't help them, as our boat was too full.  When the water finally got too shallow, we left it behind and continued on foot.  Finally we reached a checkpoint in Sherman, SC, where some people had congregated to help those who needed it.

The Shermanites gave a car that we used to drive to Columbia.  Over the course of all these stops, we picked up a few bits of information here and there, some of them conflicting.  At one point we heard that the President was safe in Denver, but elsewhere we'd learned that Denver was destroyed.  We saw some shapes floating against the glowing blue sky, which might have been vehicles.  We also learned that Charleston was gone, which put a bit of a damper on our mission.

We slept at Columbia's capitol building.  Someone woke up Jim to point out something in the distance.  There was a mushroom cloud in the direction of Atlanta.  We also checked our compass again, and found that it was off by about 30 degrees.  Also, we learned about the blue lights in the sky:  they are static fields of energy crossing through North Carolina, about three miles high, stretching from horizon to horizon.  Some sort of barrier, maybe?

It was time to think about our next plan.  We were supposed to head for Charleston, but we knew it was gone. We couldn't return to Atlanta, because it appears to be gone as well.  Our current plan is to head East, and find a boat to explore in that direction.  We ended the session there, so Rusty can have time to decide what we find in the East. 

Afterthoughts:
I like the story so far, and look forward to learning what's happening to the world.  Note, just in case there's any confusion: "Rifts 2112" is the name of the campaign, but the system we're using is Savage Worlds.  I'm hoping the campaign's name will make more sense once we find out what is causing this worldwide cataclysm.

This was the second time I've played Savage Worlds, but the first time I've actually created a character for it.  The character creation process wasn't bad at all; it's one of the more intuitive ones I've come across.  Sure it took a while to make my choices, but that's just because I've never looked at the book before.  Once I've played a few Savage Worlds characters and know what all the options are, I bet I could build a character in five minutes.

I wasn't feeling well today, so I pretty much stayed in the background.  That's okay, it just means I have a little more time to flesh out my character's personality before I do anything that cements it in-game.  I think I've got all the attributes and skills where I want them, but I want to pick hindrances that really make sense for my character's personality. 

Creating the character:  Going in, I had no clue what I wanted to play.  Cliff and Ted already had military covered, and Star had a medic, so Rusty suggested a couple of roles that hadn't been filled yet.  I chose mechanic, at the risk of playing a character similar to the one I played in the Traveller campaign.  But other than similar occupations, I don't think they're going to be all that alike.  I'm picturing Terri as being more of a tomboy.  Hopefully she'll be a lot less accident-prone than Malta was, but that's really up to the dice.  In my head I'm seeing "Lesbian Robin" from How I Met Your Mother.  I named her Terri because I wanted a unisex name, and it was the first one to pop into my head.  The surname Bolton came from thinking about mechanical words, which led me to "nuts and bolts", which became Bolton.  Just in case you wanted to know more about my thought process.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Books: Keep on the Borderlands

Wait, just "Keep on the Borderlands"?  Not "THE Keep on the Borderlands"?  Without the "the" there, it sounds more like a command than a location.  Like, "Hey you kids!  Stay on the Borderlands!  No touching the edges!  The edges are lava!"  ...Anyway... 

After reading the high level adventure The Tomb of Horrors, this book felt like starting a new campaign at level 1.  The characters in it are by no means inexperienced, but overall the story felt a lot more mundane than I've become used to.  At first, it also felt like a low magic world.  I was well into the book before I came across anything that couldn't happen in real life.  With a few minor adjustments, Keep on the Borderlands could have been released as historical fiction.  But that works in the book's favor.

Most of the characters didn't really feel like "classed" in a D&D sense.  They would use any weapon available, freely switching from sword to bow, and picking up hammers or clubs if their swords were broken.  I'm so used to characters that are optimized for their favorite weapon, that it felt weird to read about generic fighters.  I liked that - it made me feel nostalgic for editions of D&D I never really played.

Almost exactly halfway through the book, the heroes return from having defeated a bandit camp.  As a "reward", the lord of the Keep offers them a new quest, to explore the Caves of Chaos.  Sounds like a true DM.  When the heroes are discussing whether to accept the new mission, we get this bit:
"C'mon, Eddis, why not?  If we do find caves and monsters and all that - well, we get better at what we do, we probably find a lot of gold and gems they've stolen from travelers, and we come back heroes."
"We get better at what we do" as an excuse to accept a mission?  That's right, a character in the book tries to justify undertaking a quest in order to get experience points.  It's always fun when the novels try to explain game mechanics, but this one's darn near Lampshade Hanging.

This book doesn't really feel like a D&D module, at least not at first.  The way the heroes are given multiple missions, it feels like several sidequests rather than a novel.  It does eventually introduce an actual villain who might be responsible for the presence of all these monsters... but he doesn't show up until the last 30 pages, and I don't think he's ever even given a name.  It's light on plot, even by "disposable paperback based on a D&D module" standards.  But then, from what I've seen, the actual module also seems to be one of the lighter ones. 

As usual, author Ru Emerson does a great job of describing the mundane aspects of adventuring, like making camp.  Some of the combat is less "heroic" than I usually see as well.  Fighters don't just shrug off all but the most direct hits.  Getting hit on the shield actually causes pain, and recovery isn't limited to bandaging open wounds.  Arms go numb, people get winded, and weapons are actually heavy.  I don't know how realistic the book actually is, because like most people, my knowledge of science has been ruined by television.  But it certainly felt more real to me than most D&D books I've read.

I'd like to point something out to anal, by-the-book DMs: After several combat encounters, there's mention of characters retrieving any unbroken arrows they can find.  See?  It can be done!  And in good fiction, no less!  So remember that when you run your campaigns.  I don't care what your PHB says, it's not necessarily unrealistic to allow characters to retrieve ammunition.  Also, sometimes a character would shout "Arrow!" and his companions would drop so the enemies could be hit.  While some rulesets impose a penalty for firing into melee, this novelist understands what teamwork is.

That teamwork was one of my favorite things about the fight scenes.  There often wasn't enough room for everyone to fight at once, so the fighters would form lines.  When the front line got winded, they would switch places with the fighters behind them, so the freshest fighters were always in front.  I wish D&D had a mechanic that let two allies use their movements simultaneously to switch places, to help with fighting in narrow hallways.  Some 4e powers let you do this, but I'd love it if was a standard ability for everyone.

I have a thing for female characters (no, really?), so I was pleased that the book's primary character is a swordswoman.  Eddis is well-developed (for a short novel, anyway), and very competent. By the end of the book I knew a lot about her: childhood, favorite foods, and so on.  That's some good detail for such a thin book.  But then, it's not a very deep module so I guess it had to be padded a bit.

One of my favorite things is when these books make me think about the morality of dungeon crawling.  At one point the party is forced to execute some bandits they had captured.  They don't feel good about it, but all the alternatives would have endangered the mission.  Later, when they clear out the first kobold cave, there's a bit of a discussion about whether to kill the females and their young.  This scene was especially funny to me because I read that chapter right before I ran a friend through the same cave in the D&DNext Playtest.  He chose not to kill the females/young, and if we hadn't had to call the session short, I probably would have made it bite him in the ass.

These are the kind of things some players do to NPCs without even thinking twice about it.  But in a novel, it makes me feel uncomfortable.  When I read the scenes of kobold slaughter, I kept meantally replaying it from the kobolds' point of view.  They're just sitting at home in their caves doing kobold stuff, when this group of humans bursts in and starts killing everyone.  Sure, the kobolds had previously ambushed human caravans, but the the two races had a history of killing each other, so who knows which race originally started it.

The only thing that really bothered me about the plot was the little girl.  At one point the heroes rescue this child from a bandit camp, and they take her back to the Keep.  When they're given the next mission to clear out the caves full of deadly monsters, they take the girl with them.  They had their reasons - the girl had imprinted on two of the main characters and might have regressed to a feral state if they'd left her behind - but I still don't see taking her on such a dangerous quest.

Bottom line - I liked this book.  It was light on plot and felt more like a couple of short stories than a novel, but that didn't bother me.  I wouldn't want to read a lot of books written that way, but the novelty of it was pretty cool.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Fiasco: Breaking Not-So-Bad

Game Date: 11/10/2012

Characters:
Chere -  Lolita McNasty
Cliff -  Bubba Junior
Greg - Shasta McNasty
Matt - Scud
Star - Des
Ted - Gerald McTinkerton


The Session:
Our Traveller campaign is on (probably permanent) hiatus, so we've been trying a lot of different one-shots.  Today we played Fiasco, a fun storytelling game full of twists and turns. 

The game started with us rolling a bunch of dice and matching them to various types of relationships, so we could find out how our characters were connected to each other.  Result: Lolita was the mother of Shasta, who was the manipulative friend of Scud, who dealt drugs with Bubba Jr, who sold drugs to Des, who was the parole officer for Gerald, who was sleeping with Lolita.  Then we used the rest of the dice to assign other plot elements: objects, locations, and needs.

Then we went around the table, each player setting up a scene for specific characters to act out.  After each scene a player with awarded with a white or dark die, based on how well things went for their character.  The Plot (severely abridged):  Scud and Bubba Jr were meth dealers.  Scud lost his meth recipe, which was taken by Shasta, then found by Lolita, who gave it to Gerald.  Scud confronted Shasta, who mistook the conversation to be about a cookie recipe, leading to a comedy-of-errors.  Meanwhile Des was investigated by internal affairs for buying meth, leading to her arrest.  Scud tried to blow up Lolita's trailer with a pipe bomb, but was confronted by Gerald, who offered to return Scud's recipe in exchange for 50% of his future profits.

At halftime, we rolled more dice and assigned them to the "Tilt Table" - some more plot details designed to take the story into new directions.  As a result of the Tilt, when Gerald tried to return the recipe, he found that it had been stolen yet again.  Unable to complete the deal, he drove off, leaving a very angry Scud.  Meanwhile, it turned out Des and Lolita were in cahoots, and some of the story's plot twists were part of their insurance scam.  Shasta and Gerald fought over the meth/cookie recipe, leading to the both getting caught in the pipe bomb explosion.  Bubba Jr and Scud were arrested, but Jr managed to plead insanity.

At the end of the game, we used the dice we'd collected to determine how happy our individual endings were.  Shasta and Gerald wound up alive but with severe injuries.  Des and Lolita left town and retired on their stolen money, while Bubba Jr became an evangelist.  Scud eventually got out of prison and spent the rest of his life trying to make meth out of cookie dough.

Afterthoughts:
I have a love/hate relationship with improv.  I really like watching it, but I truly, truly suck at it.  Still, Fiasco does a good job of making it easier.  It's more structured than the skits you see on Whose Line, so by the time you actually have to act, you should have at least some idea about what your character needs to do in this scene.  I still didn't do very well, but who cares?  I laughed harder than I had in a long time.  The game took a lot of energy, and I even took a nap when I got home.  I could never play this on a regular basis, but it is an absolute blast as a party game.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

AFMBE: Bad Day at the Office

Game Date: 11/3/2012
System: Unisystem / All Flesh Must Be Eaten
Module: Coffee Break of the Dead

GM: Rusty
Cast:
Cliff - Narcissistic Jeweler
Matt - Frustrated Writer
Star - Frantic Intern
Ted - Disgruntled Ex-Employee

The Session:
The story began by following the typical morning of four typical citizens.  Cliff played a jeweler with a smarmy personality, reminiscent of Andrew "Dice" Clay.  Matt's neurotic writer was as cowardly as he was useless in battle.  Star's intern was a highly skilled expert... at getting coffee.  And finally, Ted's ex-employee was a true wildcard, who nearly ended the session before it really began.

As each of us got ready for work in the morning, we heard reports about a bomb going off at GeneTech Labs.  The GeneTech building was near our own office, so we all prepared for a rough day at work.  We each arrived at the office and went through our usual routine, with the exception of the recently-fired Ted, who showed up with the intention of going on a mad shooting spree.  As fate would have it, the four of us were on the elevator at the same time when the power went out.

As the strongest of the four, Ted tried to force open the door.  He was starting to make progress when Cliff tried to help him.  Unfortunately Cliff rolled terribly, causing the doors to slam shut, nearly mashing Ted's fingers.  Already looking for an excuse to go postal, Ted pulled out his gun and shot Cliff in the knee.  But Cliff was also armed, and soon they were having their own little shootout in the tiny elevator.  Matt and Star cowered in the corners.


During this gunfight, something landed on the elevator's roof.   We heard more gunfire from somewhere above us, and the elevator lurched and dropped a bit.   Matt tried using the emergency phone, but there was more chaos on the other end of the line.  The elevator dropped some more, ending with the doors getting jammed open at an odd angle.  We crawled out of the elevator into the dark basement level.  Ted and Cliff agreed to a temporary truce, and we started looking around.  Two of us had flashlights, but otherwise the only illumination came from emergency lights.  The first thing we found was a dead security guard.  His throat had been ripped out, and he'd been shot as well.  We took his gun, leaving only Star unarmed.

At the other end of the room was a set of double doors.  Something on the other side was pushing on the doors, trying to get them open.  We called out but nobody answered, so Ted shot through the doors.  The doors burst open, and we faced several walking corpses.  Ted, Cliff, and Matt started firing at them.  Weaponless, Star hid out of the way.  Matt realized that Star could help us by as a light source, so he tossed her his flashlight.  Unfortunately his throw was way off, and the flashlight broke against the wall.

We kept shooting, and the zombies shambled into brawling range.  Star picked up some scissors and ran up to help Matt with a zombie.  At that moment, Matt fumbled another roll, firing his gun wildly.  His errant shot missed his zombie and grazed Star instead.  I suppose that's what she gets for running with scissors.

Matt got bitten by his zombie, which caused us to wonder - just how Genre Savvy are these characters?   Are there zombie movies in this universe?  Would our characters consider a bitten person to be a future zombie?  Rusty ruled that Ted might think Matt's a risk, so Ted tried to shoot Matt and the zombie in one shot.  Luckily he missed, and Matt finished off the zombie at point blank range. 

Once these zombies were dead, we explored the floor a bit more.  On the next zombie encounter Ted and Star failed their rolls against fear, causing Ted to flee and Star to faint.  Ted eventually fled all the way into another group of zombies, but he'd dropped his weapon, so he had to fight them unarmed.  He proved to be as deadly with his fists as he'd been with a gun.  Meanwhile, Cliff managed to craft some Molotov cocktails from chemicals he'd found in the janitor's closet.

Next we found the building manager's office.  The manager himself was still there, as a very weak zombie.  His office still had power, so we killed the zombie and checked out his computer.  The internet was working, but every site we tried to visit was too busy to load.  There was also a small television.  Cable wasn't working, but we managed to pick up a local news report on the rabbit ears.  Apparently the GeneTech explosion had caused a chemical spill, which was somehow bringing the dead back to life.

Being on the basement level, there were only two ways out of the building - the stairs or the elevator.  The elevator obviously wasn't an option, so we headed for the stairwell.  A bunch of zombies were descending the stairs, and Cliff tried to act like a zombie to sneak past them.  It didn't work, though it's hard to say if it was because of Cliff's bad disguise roll, or if the zombies just had ways of knowing the difference.  Ted rolled badly on his next shot, and ended up shooting Matt.  Fighting to their last breath, Ted and Matt both fell to the swarm of zombies.


While the zombies were busy feasting on Ted and Matt, Cliff and Star sneaked past them and ran up the stairs.  They opened the door to the ground level, and saw a lobby filled with the undead.  From there they could also the building's front doors, which were covered in bullet holes.  They made a run for it.  As they neared the front door, they heard someone outside yell, "Hit the deck!"  Both dropped while a hail of gunfire blasted over their heads, taking out their zombie pursuers.  Cliff and Star crawled out the front door, into the safety of their rescuers.

They were taken to a nearby church that had been converted into a temporary military base.  Star hadn't been bitten, so she was just cleaned up and debriefed.  They had to watch Cliff a bit more closely, but he succeeded on his constitution checks to avoid zombification, so eventually he was cleared as well.  And the two survivors lived happily ever after, or at least as happy as one can be in a zombie apocalypse.

Afterthoughts:
I love trying out new systems.  This was my first time playing "All Flesh Must Be Eaten", and I really enjoyed it.  Admittedly, I don't think I ever really got the system down, but it seemed pretty simple.  I only had to use two dice for the entire session (d10 for attacks, d6 for weapon damage and for crits/fumbles). Some weapons also used d4s or d8s, but that's about it for dice.  Instead of adding numbers to damage rolls, you multiply them, which can lead to some interestingly high numbers.

Like the Savage Worlds session I played a couple of weeks ago, this game uses exploding dice.  So if you roll the maximum or minimum on the d10 roll, you then roll a d6 and add/subtract that to the roll.  If you roll max/min on the d6, you get to roll yet again, and so on.  Maybe it's just the novelty of it, but I really like exploding dice.  It's thrilling when you get several max rolls in a row, and almost feels like you're in a casino.

The game has you making fear checks whenever something scary happens, which is pretty cool for a horror-themed game.  In practice, though, a couple of the interactions felt like continuity errors.  My character was the session's biggest coward, but he managed to hold his bladder throughout the scenario.  Meanwhile, tough guy Ted ran for his life when he saw a zombie, even though he'd already killed a couple of them quite handily.  If I ran a session, I think I'd only have a character make a fear check if he sees a monster he's never seen before.  Or maybe you'd get a bonus to your fear check equal to the number of this monster you've killed in the past.

I'm not hip on the dying rules, but I haven't looked at them too closely.  For such a deadly scenario, it seemed like it took forever for us to die.  Usually I'm the first one to advocate systems that make survival easier, but in a horror game I think I'd rather just die when my life gets below -10.  When I'm already unconscious and having chunks of my flesh bitten off, there's not a lot to be gained in rolling constitution checks every round.

I loved that our characters were somewhat normal people.  I'm so used to playing rangers and clerics, that it's nice to play something involving accountants and secretaries.  Heck, I enjoyed just looking at the character sheets, and seeing how normal people are statted.  I don't think I'd want to play an entire campaign with normals (I play RPGs to escape normality), but for a one-shot it rocked. Overall, I thought the game it was quite fun, and I look forward to playing it again sometime.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

D&DNext Playtest: Kobold Slaughter

Game Date: 10/19/2012
DM: Matt
Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, and Wizard: Bryan

It was just the two of us today, so we tried a bit of the playtest.  I DMed while Bryan played four characters.  In order to test the character creation, we started by building a fighter from scratch.  It wasn't difficult at all, though we did get a little bit confused when we tried to figure up his attack and damage bonuses (more on that later).  We used pregens for the other three characters.

I only ran him through the first cave (A) in the Caves of Chaos module.  Unfortunately it wasn't much of a challenge, and we didn't have time to try any of the more difficult caves.  A lot of the more interesting combat options never got used, simply because most of the enemies didn't take more than one hit to kill.  The Rogue never used his sneak attack, because it wasn't worth wasting a round to hide just to get a damage bonus on monsters who only had three hit points.  The Fighter never got to use his Expertise die, because his one combat maneuver, Glancing Blow, required him to miss after rolling ten or higher... and most of the enemies would get hit if he rolled a 10.

The Wizard did use two of his three prepared spells, once taking out a few kobolds with Burning Hands, and the other time taking out a large number of rats with Sleep.  The rest of the game he just used Magic Missile each round.  The Cleric used all of his healing spells over the course of the adventure, mostly on the Rogue, who went down to 0 twice during the adventure.  Even with the Rogue nearly dying, overall I didn't seem to give Bryan much trouble.  I wish I'd thrown in some orcs or something just to give him a real test.

Afterthoughts:

I've been playing D&D for about 5 years now, but thanks to 4e's Character Builder, I've rarely built a character from scratch.  I've just never cared much for making a character by hand, because it takes too long and I always forget to add some bonuses from somewhere.  But I'd like to think that my aversion makes me that much more apt to recognize a simple creation system, and this one is not too bad.  I hope it stays this easy.

I love that you get a small stat bonus from your race and your class, instead of the old +2 from race only.  It makes sense to me that a trained warrior would pick up a stat boost from his training, regardless of his race.  And since you don't get as big a bonus from your race, maybe players won't worry so much about optimal race/class combinations.

I also really like the selection of backgrounds, especially since it includes roleplay-centric backgrounds like "Commoner" and "Artisan".  Those backgrounds probably won't be used as much by most of the players I know, but I'm very glad they're there.  I could easily see DMs setting up themed campaigns that require certain backgrounds, and since backgrounds are probably the least important part of character creation, the builds won't suffer that much.

Organization Rant
As mentioned up above, we did get a little confused when trying to figure up the Fighter's attack/damage bonus.  The problem is, I've only been playing since 4e.  Veteran players are used to flipping back and forth through a player's handbook to figure out where everything is.  Heck, some old-school gamers had to rummage through multiple books to get all the information they needed.  Meanwhile, the people who write the rules are used to writing for experienced gamers, and don't seem to have a clue how to clarify things for newbies. 

Exhibit A: Nearly every attack power in 4e says something like: "Attack: Strength Vs AC" or "Attack: Wisdom Vs Will".  Your actual attack bonus is more along the lines of, "Strength + weapon proficiency bonus + feat bonus + 1/2 level + magic weapon + etc etc etc VS AC."  So my earliest 4e characters ended up shortchanging themselves on their attack rolls.  I'd remember to add in some of those bonuses, but I'd always miss at least one somewhere (usually the weapon proficiency bonus.)  Until the premiere of the Character Builder, I always wondered why my characters hit so badly.  There is a section on the character sheet that expands on the math, but early on I assumed that was there to compute basic attacks rather than powers.

Anyway, the D&DNext playtest packet wasn't as confusing, but the information still wasn't always where we expected it to be.  We were pretty sure going in that our Fighter would have +6 to attack and +3 to damage, because his stats were very similar to the pregen Fighter.  We knew that you add your Strength to attack and damage, but we missed the chart (in each section of the "Classes" document) that listed the weapon training bonuses, so we couldn't figure out where the extra +3 attack was coming from.  We guessed it was some sort of proficiency bonus, but just couldn't find a way to prove it.

So, idiots that we are, we started at the beginning.  So we tried the "Character Creation" document, and it said (page 2):  Your melee attack modifier is your Strength modifier plus bonuses or penalties from other sources.  Okay, but what are those "other sources"?  The "How to Play" document (page 2) had an "Attacks" section, but it pretty much just defined attack rolls.  Then it promised: Additional rules for attacks and taking damage are provided in the “Combat” section.

So we went to the "Combat" section (page 10) where "Attack" is listed as an action you can take during battle.  Then it says:  See “Attack Basics” below for the rules that govern attacks.  So we headed over to "Attack Basics" (page 11), which went into more detail:  An attack roll looks like this: d20 + ability modifier + weapon or magic training (if any) + situational modifiers.  Yay, now we have mention of training... but what are the specific training bonuses?

Well, I remembered 4e listed proficiency bonuses on its equipment chart, so we tried the "Equipment" document next.  On page 5, each weapon category would say something along the lines of:  (Attack: Strength modifier).  This was even more confusing because elsewhere it told us you add Strength to both attack and damage for melee weapons, but now it was implying it was just for attack rolls.  For a minute we thought this meant we add Strength twice - once because you add it to all melee attacks (and damage), and once because Strength is used instead of a set proficiency bonus.

Eventually we did notice the nice big charts in the "Classes" document, but it felt like we'd been on a wild goose chase.  Here's a tip for the writers: have newbies look through your player's handbook, and put information in the places people look for it.  I realize this was mostly our own stupidity, and I'm not saying the writers weren't clear.  But it would have been nice if when it mentioned "weapon training" in the "How to Play" document, it had gone on to say something like, "A chart of training bonuses appears in the 'Classes' document."  Hopefully the final product will be user-friendly for those of us prone to confusion.

Vancian Rant
Bryan hasn't had much experience with spellcasters, so I had a little trouble explaining the part where Wizards have to prepare their spells in advance.  I compared them to 4e's Daily spells, but the "plan ahead" aspect still threw him for a loop.

Frankly, I despise the concept of Vancian memorization.  Just so we're on the same page, I mean where you memorize a certain number of spells a day, and those spells magically disappear from your memory as you cast them.  (Trivia time:  It's called "Vancian" after author Jack Vance, who used a similar magic system in his "Dying Earth" series.  The creators of D&D were Vance fans, and borrowed several of his ideas.)

I find it especially silly that you can memorize a spell multiple times, and you still forget it after you cast it that number of times.  It's like saying, "I memorized the Gettysburg Address three times, so I can only recite it three times before the next time I rest."  Okay, fine, with magic all things are possible.  But I still find it an odd way for magic to work.  Especially when you get to higher levels and it's like, "I can memorize two third-level spells, three second level spells, and four first level spells."

Now, I don't terribly mind the mechanical aspects of Vancian, I just hate the fluff.  Using the same mechanics, I don't mind it if you call it "preparing" the spell, assuming preparing means combining various ingredients (eye of newt, bat guano, etc) into specific amounts for later use.  I picture a "prepared spell" as a physical object, like a small pouch containing a precise combination of powders, ready to be ignited during combat. 

Of course, with that explanation, players will ask questions like, "Why don't unused spells carry over to the next day?  Why can't I take a week off adventuring and spend it preparing a bunch of spells for the next quest?"  Well, maybe these chemical combinations don't last long.  They have a 24-hour expiration date.  You might even offer to allow players to carry over unused spells for one additional day, but they run the risk of fizzling or backfiring. 

(Actually I really might try that sometime, it sounds fun.  When you cast a day-old prepared spell, roll a d20.  1-7 and the spell backfires dangerously, 8-13 and it just fizzles or does less damage, 14-20 and it behaves normally.  I could draw up something like a fumble chart.  Heck, something like that might be fun for all of 4e's Daily powers - even martial ones - that don't get used before an extended rest.  Hmmm...)

"But what if we're planning on doing a short exploration day?  If I get a few extra hours to prepare spells that morning, why can't I have more spells that day?"  Because, even though you're holding "prepared spells" as objects, they still require mental energy to cast, and you only have so much of that before you need rest.  "But what if I..."  You just can't, okay?  Some mechanics just aren't explainable in a 100% realistic way.  Not all rules are going to make sense.  But personally, I'd rather accept the logical inconsistencies that come with preparing spell components, than dealing with the idea that information is magically erased from your mind when you cast a spell.

...but I digress.  Long story short (too late) I would be very happy if the release version of 5e didn't mention memorization, and instead just referred to it as "preparing a spell".  But I won't hold my breath, as I know they're trying to please veterans as well as newbies.

Bottom Line
While we had fun, this session wasn't a true test of what the system.  Next time we'll probably start at a higher level and face some bigger challenges (and hopefully have more players - it wasn't easy on Bryan controlling a party of four when he didn't even know the rules yet).  Speaking of Bryan, overall he liked it.  He said it felt a lot more like AD&D than 4e, and even though he only played a little AD&D, it still made him feel pleasantly nostalgic.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Savage Worlds: The Wild Hunt

Game Date: 10/13/2012
DM: Rusty

The Players :
Bobby Thompson (Matt) - Runaway Runner
Morgan Stevens (Star) - Psychotic Psychic
R.H. Milsten (Cliff) - Paranoid Paranormalist

The Session:
Today we played a one-shot of Savage Worlds. This was my first time playing the system.

The story began with our characters on a bus, headed for Edinburgh, Wisconsin.  We each had our own reasons for being on this bus, and out of boredom we got to know each other.  This was done in the form of an "Interlude", a Savage Worlds mechanic which rewards roleplay.  In this interlude, Bobby introduced herself to the other two characters and tried to get them talking.  Both Morgan and RH kind of creeped her out for various reasons.

After a while the bus driver started having vehicle troubles.  We arrived at the tiny little town, and the bus pulled up to a mini-mart, where we did a little shopping.  Later, the driver told us that the bus couldn't be repaired tonight, and we would have to sleep on the bus.  Then he left to use the restroom, and never came back.  Soon the store kicked us out so they could close, and we noticed just how dark this town really was. 

Outside the mart, we tried knocking on the bathroom door, but there was no answer.  Luckily Morgan was good at picking locks.  Once she got the door open, we found that the bathroom was empty.  Having no place else to go, we returned to the bus.  Then we saw some shapes moving in the darkness, which turned out to be undead dogs.  One approached the bus door, the other tried to get in through one of the windows.

We spent a round or two fighting the dogs, when three undead humans emerged from the darkness as well.  RH fended them off at the doorway, while Morgan used her psychic abilities to attack from the distance.  Bobby, armed only with a switchblade, didn't contribute quite as much as the others.  Late in the battle, Morgan used an action card to make one of the dogs flee, and eventually we killed the rest of the monsters.  It was a difficult fight, and Bobby was at -3 wounds for the rest of the session.

We decided a building would be safer than the bus, so Morgan picked the mini-mart's lock and got us back inside.  We stocked up on whatever we could, including flashlights, food, guns, and ammo.  Then we hid in the back room for a while.  We rested a bit, which allowed RH and Morgan to recover some power points, but nobody could heal any damage.

After a while we heard something scratching at the back, and a crash as the front door was pushed open.  Two more undead dogs managed to chew a hole in the back door, as three zombies made their way through the store towards the back room.  Morgan blocked the doorway to the back, while RH and Bobby dealt with the dogs who were now sticking their heads through the hole in the back door.

Trapped like rats.
Morgan did a good job of rolling high numbers, often triggering the game's "exploding dice" feature (max die rolls allow for additional die rolls).  Bobby, meanwhile, kept rolling 1's and 2's.  During the fight, RH was bitten in the leg, which made him permanently lame.  Not wanting to waste a round reloading his shotgun, RH finished the dog off with the butt of his gun.

My standard rolls for pretty much the entire session.
We had a brief respite, until another wave of enemies came through the shop's front door.  It was four more undead and the boss, the "Huntsman", who had large antlers on his helmet.  At first it looked impossible to harm the Huntsman.  RH hit him with a powerful shotgun blast that ended up doing no damage.  But Morgan eventually took him out with an impressive series of exploding die rolls.  The Huntsman dissipated, not truly defeated but temporarily unable to maintain his corporal form.  But we still faced a few undead.

The Huntsman approaches.
One of the undead did some brain damage to Morgan, leaving her unconscious.  RH jammed his gun, and rolled double 1's trying to unjam it.  This caused the gun to backfire, taking him out of the fight as well.  It finally came down to Bobby and one undead, and it could have gone either way.  Bobby just barely managed to finish off her foe.  She tried to heal her friends, but without heal training she didn't have much luck.  She rolled double 1's while trying to fix Morgan, which only made things worse.

And that's how we left off:  The three of us injured and bleeding in the back room, alive for now but knowing we might not survive the night.  The Huntsman was still out there, and would probably reform within the next couple of hours.  I suggested that Bobby run out of town to find help (running was her only real specialty), and the DM ruled that she continued to run for a few hours, only to arrive at the same town again.

Afterthoughts:
"Savage" is right.  Although nobody technically died during the session, it was a real bloodbath.  I liked the story a lot - it's the first time I've really played that kind of spooky/horror story in an RPG, and I'd like to do that again sometime.  It was the perfect October one-shot.  But the system itself would not be my first choice.

Things I liked:
The exploding dice was fun.  Even when it was being used on us by a monster, it was oddly fascinating to see just how many additional die rolls we were going to end up taking.

The Interludes were fun, even if I didn't really do well on mine.  Anything you can do to encourage roleplay is all right by me.  It makes the characters more real to me if I can see their personalities in action.

I liked how skills had us rolling different types of dice, instead of rolling a d20 and adding a bonus.  Note, I don't actually like it better than d20, I just like the novelty of doing it different. 

This isn't really about the system, but I thought it was a nice touch how all the pregens had unisex names, so you could play the male or female version of each.

Things I disliked:
When you take damage, you take a penalty to your die rolls.  So if you're wounded, the game gets harder.  I hate games that do that.  It's just like Monopoly, where the person to get an advantage early on often ends up keeping the other players down for the rest of the game.  Yes, it's more realistic, but I think it's pretty obvious by now I don't care for realism.  If you really need an in-game explanation for why your stats don't get worse as you get injured in D&D, I'd just chalk it up to adrenaline. 

The lack of healing was also a big issue.  If I'd known in advance how necessary having a medic is in the game, I definitely would have chosen a different pregen.  My character's one big skill was running, but I never really used it because I didn't want to abandon my teammates.  My fault picking a pregen based on their fluff rather than looking closely at their skills.

Things I'm on the fence about: 
You use standard playing cards for initiative.  It was interesting, and easy to track, but I don't know if I like the idea of mixing dice and cards.  It's just one too many things to bring to the table.

I also thought the wounds system was interesting.  While I didn't like the negative modifiers, I did think it was neat how the final blow would have you roll on an injury table.  I don't care for it in a high combat game, but I think it would be cool in a game that's mostly roleplay.

And that's really the bottom line for me.  I think I might enjoy Savage Worlds if I only had to slay a few monsters a day, rather than having to face a continuous onslaught of zombies.  It's probably unfair to judge it without having played a more combat-ready character, or without playing in a party that has a proper doctor, but from the little bit I've seen it looks like a pretty deadly system.  And that's never been my preference.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

D&DNext Playtest: August 2012 Update

I was going to wait I'd had a chance to run the newest playtest packet before I commented on it, but I just can't seem to get a game together.  Oh well, I can still give my impressions from what I've read in the packet itself.  Here's a rundown on some of the more significant changes in the August 2012 update:

Character Creation
The newest packet includes the ability to create your own character, rather than just using the pregens.  To do this, you roll up stats, then mix-and-match your race, class, background, and specialization.  It reminds me of one of those flip books, where you make different monsters by matching up heads, bodies, and legs.  I really hope they keep it this simple; it looks like it's going to be a lot faster rolling up characters in this edition.

Backgrounds
The packet includes several backgrounds to flesh out your character.  Primarily this is a way of giving your character a set of skills bonuses, but some of them give you a few other random benefits as well.  Optimizers will pick the background that most  closely matches their class - Rogues will often pick the Thief background, Fighters will pick Soldier, etc.  But there's also some cool roleplay-related backgrounds as well, like Artisan or Commoner.  This really sets the tone for the system, in my opinion.  I never agreed with the critics who accused 4e of discouraging roleplay, but even so it looks like 5e is going to be better in that regard.

Specialties
The "Themes" in the last playtest are now called "Specialties".  I really like where they're going with them.  Themed builds you used to put together yourself (such as two-weapon fighter or hard-to-kill damage sponge), you now just pick as a package and get the feats automatically as you level.  Since you no longer cherry-pick your own feats, you won't have powergamers finding magical combinations of feats that do infinite damage.  I'm sure the final product (or at least one of the later splat books) will have optional rules that let you pick your own feats, but for now it looks like you have to stick to an archetype.

While certain specialties are recommended for certain classes, so far it looks like any class can pick any specialty.  However, a couple of the feats did list prerequisites.  I wonder if this means you can still pick the specialty, but just don't gain the benefits of that feat.  I do hope they don't go overboard with the prerequisites, because I like this mix-and-match system.  I want the freedom to build quirky characters who are more interesting than useful.  If I want my Cleric to specialize in two-weapon fighting, don't judge me.  Not all campaigns are about having optimum stats.

They recently announced that 5e's multiclassing would be like it was in 3e, where every time you level you get to pick which class to level in.  This decision did not meet with universal acclaim.  Personally I think it's fine to have that system as an option, but I also think they should look into the specializations as a multiclass option as well. 

For example, they could make a specialization that grants non-magic classes one Wizard spell per level.  A Fighter could use that specialization to be a Fighter/Wizard.  Of course that Fighter would be sacrificing a more fighter-y specialization that could have given him better damage or more hit points, but multiclassing is always a trade-off. This version of multiclassing wouldn't be as 50/50 (or 33/33/33) as 3e's multiclassing; it would be more like "Fighter who dabbles in Wizard" than "Fighter/Wizard".  But that's okay with me.

Hit Points
Last time, people (myself included) complained that there wasn't enough healing.  To "fix" it, they lowered the max hit points of all characters, both PCs and monsters.  But they kept the healing rates the same, so you would end up healing a greater percentage.  Personally, I wasn't complaining about the amount healed so much as the number of times per day you can heal.  At first level you can only heal by resting once per day (using a healing kit, which I still think are an unnecessary complication), and 1st-level Clerics can only cast "Cure Light Wounds" twice a day (using spell slots they could have saved for other spells).  Still, that's just level 1.  It looks like by level 5 it all starts to seem more reasonable.

Last year I played a few sessions of Pathfinder before we switched our campaign to 4e.  One of our biggest gripes was Pathfinder's slow healing, which really slowed the game down.  But to be fair, it all depends on how much combat you're going to have in your campaign.  If your game is mostly fighting, then you're going to need access to a lot of healing just to keep the story moving.  But if your group tends to do things like scout ahead, avoid monsters, set traps, seal doors shut to control enemy movement, parlay, wear disguises, sneak into enemy kitchens and poison the food, or even avoid dungeons altogether in favor of business endeavors... then healing's not as much of an issue for you.

This version of the playtest also has variant rules for long rests.  The basic rules still have you healing to full, but it also has options for DMs who want to make healing a bit slower.   This is a good example of how the final product might treat optional rules, in their effort to please fans of every edition.

Surprise Rounds
Instead of the clunky system from the last playtest, where surprised characters got -20 to their initiative rolls, the new playtest treats surprise a bit more rationally.  Now you just roll initiative normally, and if you're surprised you can't act on your first turn.

Opportunity Attacks
In the last version of the playtest, they had not yet put in Opportunity Attacks.  They're back in this version, but a little bit different.  Instead of triggering when you leave a threatened square, now it triggers when you leave an opponent's reach.  So you can run circles around your enemy without provoking.  The downside is there's still no shift/five-foot-step.  Instead you can disengage, which lets you move 10 feet without provoking.  But that's an Action instead of a Move, so you can't attack and disengage on the same turn.  But you could disengage and still move further away, if all you're trying to do is escape.  (Note that some Fighters have a shift-like ability they can use once per round; see "Combat Expertise Die" below).

I'm not crazy about these OA rules, but I've never been a fan of OAs in the first place.  I like to keep rules as simple as possible, and avoid the ones that restrict your options.  I realize lack of OAs can make certain combat strategies too easy, but whatever rules are in effect for the players are also in effect for the monsters, so it's an even playing field.  In the movies, you often see the hero gliding through the battlefield, taking a swipe here and a slash there, deftly avoiding counterattacks while stabbing random opponents.  It's all very fluid and dynamic.  D&D, however, seems to think combat should be more robotic.  Walk up to target, roll d20s until it dies, walk up to next target, etc.

Yes, I understand the guy in the movie is probably a seasoned veteran, while my level 1 fighter shouldn't be as good at dancing her way through a battlefield.  But that just proves it can be done eventually.  So here's my suggestion:  Keep OAs like they were in 4e, but you get a +1 per level bonus to AC against them.  So a level 1 character might still have trouble jumping from enemy to enemy, but by level 10 you're so good at it that the DM might not even bother attempting the rolls.

Monster Format
This is more a presentation change than a mechanical one, but the bestiary in this version is much easier-to-read than in the last playtest.  This is a good sign; it means they're not just thinking about the crunch.

Fighter Expertise Die
The fighter now has several maneuvers it can use instead of just whacking away with his sword.  Depending on his level and his fighting style, he can spend an expertise die to perform extra actions like cleave, knockdown, shift, and so on.  Some actions require you roll the die, others don't, but either way you spend the die like it was a 4e Action Point.  You get your die back at the start of your next turn, so basically fighters can do one extra thing every turn.  The size and number of the dice goes up as you level.  It reminds me a little bit of the Stunts system in the Dragon Age RPG.

New Classes
The Sorcerer and Warlock were a late edition to the Playtest, and they're a good example of just how different the classes can get.  The Sorcerer uses a "Willpower point" system for casting instead of Vancian, and has more melee presence than the Wizard.  The Warlock's spellcasting is sort of similar to the Sorcerer, except it's INT-based and calls the points "favors".  Like the Wizard, both of these classes have some spells that don't cost anything, similar to 4e's At-Wills. 

Bottom Line
On the various boards I read, people are predicting Next is going to crash and burn.  I guess they just don't have faith in WOTC any more.  They're still catching flak for mistakes they made years ago.  A typical example:
I remember that just within ONE WEEK before the release of 4.0, WOTC announced in VERY terse terms that there was NO plan for a new edition and NO plans for researching a new edition and there was NOT going to be a new edition... and to drive the point home, I recall that they released either two or three new 3.5 supplements to show their "good faith."  Seven days later, there's a new edition.  This time they are giving the public notice.  To heck with them. I'm sticking with Paizo and Pathfinder. (source)
Talk about an Unreleasable Fanbase.  It's damned if you do, damned if you don't.  I see a company that has learned its lesson from past mistakes, but others will never forgive them.  Oh well, they're going to miss a lot of cool gaming sessions.

I'm not psychic or anything, but as a general trend-watcher, so far 5e reminds me of those reboots that ends up being big hits.  5e looks like the "Batman Begins" to 4e's "Batman and Robin".  The "Star Trek 2009" to 4e's "Star Trek Nemesis".  The "Mortal Kombat 9" to... well, you get the idea.  (And this comes from someone who really liked 4e.) 

It really looks like they're taking all the right steps this time.  Rather than surprising people out of the blue with the new edition's mechanics, this time they're having public playtests out the wazoo, and getting feedback after every step.  Heck, they even had us vote on whether Minotaurs have tails.  The end product is going to be something we all had a hand in making  So if you don't like the final version... it's your fault.  Actually, that would be a great new slogan:  "Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition... It's not our fault!"


WOTC thinks it will be two years before 5e is officially released.  Ouch!  So while I really like the direction they're going, there's a lot of time for things to change.  It's quite possible that the final product won't have any of the stuff I liked best about these early playtests.  Heck, there's already been a couple of changes that bothered me between the first playtest and this one.  I have to admit, a small part of me wants to sit out the playtests and wait until the final product is released, so I don't get attached to rules that get changed later.  But if everyone did that, the playtest would be pointless.  Besides, a much larger part of me wants to see and experience every single step of the development process.

Overall, I like what I'm seeing so far, and can't wait to see how it turns out.  It's going to be a long couple of years.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Books: The Tomb of Horrors

This is the third "Greyhawk Classics" novelization I have read, the other two being The Temple of Elemental Evil and Against the Giants.  Like the others, this is what I call "disposable fiction", but that's really not a bad thing.  In fact, I'm really starting to prefer the genre.  I don't have to commit myself to reading an entire series, I don't have to worry about anyone spoiling the ending for me, and I don't have to remember any of the characters' names after I'm done reading it.  Sure it's the literary equivalent of Cool Whip on a Honey Bun, but sometimes that's just what I'm in the mood for.  (Figuratively speaking.)

The writing style is just okay. Like the other Greyhawk Classics, there's nothing really memorable about the prose, but it gets the job done. I didn't see as many typos in this one as in Against the Giants, though I did see some missing punctuation here and there.  Some sentences were repetitive in a way that annoyed me. Such as: "Tears continued to roll down Kaerion's face, and he, powerless to stop it, let them fall unchallenged down his face." See, the problem with that kind of sentence is you never know if it was under-edited, or meant to sound artsy. Personally I would have eliminated the last three words, or maybe broken the whole thing up into two sentences. But then, I'm not a professional writer.

The main character is a former paladin, filled with self-loathing after his fall from grace.  The rest of the party consists of a pompous fighter, a venerable wizard, an elf ranger, a cleric of Heironeous, a multi-talented bard, and a gaggle of generic guards who serve as the book's red shirts.  Wait, you're going into one of the most trapped-filled dungeons ever devised without a rogue?  Luckily the bard has some decent rogue skills, and the wizard also keeps some appropriate spells prepared.

The ex-paladin's name is Kaerion. I'm not sure how the author intended it to be pronounced, though I'm wondering if it's an allusion to "carrion". But whenever I saw the name, I got a song stuck in my head: "Kaerion my wayward son... there'll be peas when you are done..." (True paladins always finish their peas.)  I suppose there's worse earworms; I should be thankful his name wasn't "Kallmemaybe." He was a pretty deep character, at least for this genre, with a tragic backstory gradually revealed over the course of the novel. If his character had been more shallow, the book probably would have been half the length. I've yet to play through the ToH module, but I'm guessing it must be fairly light on plot, since the book's author to felt the need to devote so many pages to characterization. But it works.

My favorite member of the party was the bard, Majandra. She was well-written and I could always relate to her motivations. Or maybe I just have a thing for red-haired, female, half-elf bards. Unfortunately, the rest of the group wasn't as fleshed-out.  Some characters were more developed than others, but few of them were much deeper than the description you'd see on a typical character sheet.  Well, one of my character sheets, anyway.

One thing Against the Giants was lacking was a decent villain. But Tomb of Horrors has an entire party of interesting baddies. We have an evil cleric, a monk (and his young apprentice), a rogue/assassin, a sorceress, a golem, and a small army of cultist minions (a.k.a. evil red shirts). The enemy party is what made this book interesting to me. The ToEE and AtG novels played out like D&D modules - the party learns of an evil, investigates the temple/dungeon/fortress, has a lot of fights, defeats a final boss, and saves the day. But in Tomb of Horrors, we follow two rival parties, both intent on facing the dungeon for different reasons.  This really makes the book more interesting, and I could easily see some readers rooting for the evil team.

It took the story a long time to get to the titular Tomb.  The party spent a large number of pages getting ready and even more time trudging through the swamp. It was an interesting journey, but I found myself wondering if the actual module also includes so much travel time, or if the author just couldn't find enough interesting things in the tomb itself to flesh out a full book.  If I remember correctly I had some similar criticisms about The Temple of Elemental Evil novelization.

But once they actually reached the tomb, I understood pretty quickly why it didn't take up more pages.  This type of dungeon might be fun as a D&D module, but as a book it would get kind of repetitive.  Constantly checking for and disabling traps does not make for an interesting read.  Still, the author managed to throw in just enough trap-wrangling to capture the feel of D&D without bogging down the story.  Fans of the module will appreciate all the gory deaths these traps cause.

I spotted a lot of the tropes you see in a typical D&D campaign.  Sometimes the characters were so genre savvy it almost broke the fourth wall.  For example, they used 10-foot poles to search for pit traps, which is something I've always heard about in classic D&D, but I'd never seen in a novel.  One of my favorite passages involved one character suggesting they all split up, and another explaining to him why you should never split the party.

For the most part, the action scenes are exciting and well done. However, there are times when the sequence of events doesn't seem to fit together right. Like when two things are happening at once, but one of the things should be taking a lot longer than the other. There's one scene in particular that really flaunts the "Talking is a Free Action" trope.  To paraphrase: "The monster is coming right at me! I only have seconds before it gets here! It's only inches away! Quick, throw me my sword! Hurry, it's almost upon me!" I'm exagerrating, but you get the idea. And not long afterwards, there's a death scene that takes the "Final Speech" trope to an almost humorous extreme. Sometimes I think reading tropes has ruined fiction for me.

The climax was predicable, and the falling action almost nonexistent, but I don't care.  The book has its flaws, but it's my favorite Greyhawk novel so far.  It's not real literature, but these books aren't meant to be true art. Let's face it, it's a novelization of a D&D module. Heck, that's probably lower on the totem pole than the comic book adaptations of movies based on video games. So I really appreciate that these authors worked as hard as they did, when they could have just transcribed the original module into a more book-like format and collected their paycheck.

Thumbs up.